Wednesday, July 18, 2018

The Brass God - K.M. McKinley

The Brass God is the third in K.M. McKinley’s ‘The Gates of the World’ fantasy series.  It’s a lavish production, one which spills over a vast geography which manages to contain both a sprawling cast and some complex, intriguing ideas.

We’ve seen aspects of McKinley’s world before, but are breaking new ground here. Specifically, we enter the land of the Modalmen. These individuals appear monstrosities – huge, four armed and also heavily armed, they’re terrors to strike fear in the hearts of any man, spectres that appear out of the dark of night, burn, pillage, and disappear. But they do, it seems, live somewhere – on the edges of civilisation. McKinley shows us these desolate barrens, stark winds hurrying through a land whose sterility hints at past atrocities. It evokes a sense of being a small part of a greater whole, a loneliness that lies beneath the camaraderie and tribalism of the Modalmen. Though they can be monstrous, they are not monsters – and looking at their world, at the trappings of technology and magic which bind them to their lives, that feeling of loneliness seeps off the page and gets under the skin.  The soaring, broken towers of the Modalmen, the pride and anguish of artifice gone awry, is by no means the only piece of the world on display, but it’s certainly the most startling, the bleakest, and the one which carries such a grandiose sense of wonder and ruin wrapped around it like a once-fine tattered shawl. As with the previous books though, there’s a lot more to see. There’s delightful sections centred on arctic exploration and survival, skating away from a larger threat. It’s a start contrast to the stony plains of the Modalmen, a sweeping vista of ice, where the real antagonist is cold and desolation. But there’s also thriving cityscapes, horrifying institutions, and much more.

It’s difficult to overstate the scope and scale of this work. It’s densely packed with different points of view, each bringing a unique perspective to their situations. But those characters are embedded in a sprawling, vividly imagined world. It is a world, as well. Towering citadels and urban slums exist alongside the wilderness, but you can feel the pull of geography between them. There’s a sense that the story is taking place across vast distances – and not always physically.

The same is true of the cast of characters. This is the third book in the series, so they’re all fairly familiar by now, but gosh, there are a lot of them. It’s to the author’s credit that, focusing on a large group of siblings from one family, each seems to have their own voice and agency, and be distinctive from the others. It helps, of course, that they’re embedded in their own plotlines of course – an arctic explorer carrying a different mindset to a social reformer. You can see the passions and fears which drive these people, and they do feel like people. Individual, distinct and in some cases not overly pleasant people, but still. That the focus is there doesn’t mean there aren’t others worthy of mention; I particularly enjoyed the forceful aristocratic lady who was also an unapologetic scientist and rake. If I have any complaint it’s that the mosaic of these characters and their stories on the quilt of the world are a lot to take in at once. Still, once you’re caught up on who’s doing what and why, the story absolutely powers along, with the sheer amount of characters and locales building an elaborate and fantastically plausible world.

The story – well, it’s the third part of a series, so no spoilers. But it begins with a slow burn, drawing the reader back into the mysteries and histories which sit at the core of the narrative. There’s a lot of the unrevealed and arcane about it, and that mystery and the slowly dawning sense of revelation kept me turning pages. That wasn’t all of course – there are gods, some seriously impressive and pyrotechnic magic, as well as some startling character revelations and kinetically explosive fight scenes. It is, in short, a book which will make you want to keep reading, to know what happens next, to delve into the detail and tease out the mysteries hidden behind the text. This is an impressively layered, thoughtful work, and one which is likely to reward more than one reading – but it does also reward that first reading, laying out high stakes for our protagonists, and giving them the sort of emotional depth which makes you care whether they win or lose.

I’d say if you’re coming to this fresh, go back and start at the beginning of the series; there’s some assumed knowledge here, and it would be easy to miss things if you’ve not read the rest of the series. That said, once you’re caught up, this is a worthy successor to previous volumes, and a genuinely epic work of fantasy.

Wednesday, July 11, 2018

Spinning Silver - Naomi Novik

Spinning Silver is a new standalone work of fantasy from Naomi Novik. It has something of the fairytale about it, in the rhythmic language, and in some of the narrative structural underpinnings – but, much like 2015’s ‘Uprooted’, there’s a lot more going on. In a sense, this is a fairy-tale for grown ups, but it’s not just that. It’s a story about power and the exercise thereof, and about agency – denying it, fighting for it, holding onto it. It’s a story about women and how they define themselves alongside or against social expectations. It’s a story about faith, and how that faith can hinder or help you. It is, in short, a book filled with interesting ideas, which it explores at the same time as being an absolutely cracking story of magic, strange creatures, and normal families doing their best to get by in extraordinary circumstances.

The heart of the book is a triad of different women. Miryem, the daughter of a less than successful moneylender, is a force to be reckoned with. She has a firm eye on what needs to be done to make success out of adversity. Miryem is not received well in a village which is used to borrowing money and then not having to pay it back – her stubborn refusal to take no for an answer is backed by a cool ferocity and determination which lets her come straight off the page, sharp edges, strong will and all.

In Miryem’s efforts to make a profit and lift her family out of penury, she’s ably assisted by Wanda, who acts as her collections agent. Wanda has her own problems, though – a family on the edge of starvation, an abusive alcoholic father, and an unusual mother. Wanda’s efforts to make ends meet, and to make a life for herself not defined by the expectations of those around her are incredibly impressive and also terribly poignant. That Wanda and Miryem work side by side is one thing – but alternate points of view show us how each thinks of the other and how they see each other, a reminder that perspective is everything.

The third leg of that perspective is Irinushka. A duke’s daughter, she carries the material comforts that the other two decidedly do not. But while Miryem’s family is supportive and perhaps too kind, Irinushka’s father is cool, distant, calculating. To him she is nothing more than a bargaining chip – a perspective he shares with Wanda’s father, though the levels at which they operate are rather different. Like the other two women, Irinushka is desperate for something of her own, to escpae the straitjacket of conformity placed on her by family, politics and social convention. If her father doesn’t beat her, as Wanda’s does, still she has little in the way of support network –her only confidant being her aged childhood carer.

If there’s a thread tying these three together, its that they’re absolutely fierce. Miryem is an implacable iceberg, who is always prepared to break against a problem until she can resolve it. Wanda is quieter, perhaps more subtle, evading issues she can’t resolve, and trying to struggle out of a family history which prevents her from thinking of fighting back. Irinushka has the most material freedom, but is further locked into a cage of expectations. Each of them has their own voice, their own needs, their own differences. They share a desire to do things, to break the paradigms that lock them in place, to empower their own decision making – and a willingness to face the consequences. Seeing these three, from very different backgrounds, face their fears and the rage of others, to demand that they be allowed to be themselves, is at once heartbreaking and incredibly powerful; this is a story which carries an emotional kick like a mule, and it uses that kick often. And it hurts, but in a good way.

But anyway. These are women in a fairly tale, though not one where happy endings are guaranteed. There’s magic about, and creatures abroad which might not even loosely be described as friendly. Novik gives us a world almost recognisable in childhood memory, one where the stark white of the world is everywhere, and where the Tsar holds sway over his country, but doesn’t ask questions about what happens at its borders, seen or unseen. I’ve already mentioned the prose, but was delighted on a re-read to notice that the cadence is right for having the book read aloud; it may not be entirely child safe, but that linguistic effort gives the story some of its fairytale charm; there’s other familiar faces in here, too – elfin strangers, handsome princes, bad (and good) bargains –b ut here there’s a story under the story, a complexity which suggests that this, the book you’re reading, is the narrative that happens after the one you tell the children, or happens beside it, out of their sight.

This is a multi-layered text, one which is going to reward several readings. It has characters which have been built in such a complex, nuanced way that you may half expect them to come off the page and start talking to you. The world it inhabits will have you looking for the crisp crunch of snow underfoot, even in high summer – I found myself reading parts of the story during a recent heatwave in an effort to cool down! And the characters – I mean I’ve touched on the core trio, but they’re surrounded by an ensemble all with the same sense of inner life – from  Irinushka’s old nurse, remembering terrors long gone by, to Wanda’s supportive brothers, to her appalling, broken father, to the terrors out of the night who are both more and less terrible than they seem – they all feel alive, present, real.

Should you be reading this? Yes. It’s a true tour-de-force of fantasy, one which kept me turning pages to find out what happened next, but also challenged my expectations of the story and the characters within it. This is a book which will sit in your head for days afterwards, even as its one which you can’t put down late into the night.

So, once again, should you be reading this? Yes. It’s fantastic, in all sense of the word. Give it a try.

Wednesday, July 4, 2018

Death Of A Clone - Alex Thomson

Death Of A Clone is the debut from Alex Thomson; it’s a rarity – a nuanced science-fiction story, with a weather eye fixed on the traditions of the ‘cozy’ mystery genre. It blends the patterns of Poirot and Marple with thoughtful questions about humanity and its future.

The location for all of this is Hell. Well, not literally, but close enough. Hell is the name of an asteroid plummeting through the edges of the outer solar system. It’s cold, dark, and lacks an atmosphere. It is not, to put it mildly, a fun place. It does, however, have one thing going for it – it’s rich in metals. A mining crew is settled on the asteroid, their lives defined by a rota, which tells them who should be where and when in order to meet their quota. They’re isolated in the tumbling black…and they’re all clones.

Well, almost all, anyway.

The clones exist in ‘families’, each with a defined role. Some do the heavy lifting. Others the sorting and classification of ore. Others do more agile work. Each family carries traits – be they stolidity and a certain refusal to rock the boat, or a wry cynicism – Within the families, they’re aware of each other, but telling each identical member from the others is something of a task. The clone families are also not the only people on Hell. They’re supervised by three men, who are not clones themselves. These Overseer’s are responsible for production, for maintaining the velocity of their work crews. This is a closed system, and its also an emotional hothouse. The authority of an Overseer is backed by weaponry, and by the promise that after enough time has passed, everyone on the rock will get to go back to Earth – a home that none of the clones have ever seen.

There’s issues here around identity and power, of course. The Overseers carry nominal authority, but are significantly outmanned by the clones which they oversee. The clones, in turn, fight to meet their mining quota in the pursuit of a dream – as the alternative is an eternity on a desolate rock. In this instance, Hell is both a desolate rock and other people. Because the interpersonal dynamics of the clone families are always shifting; certain families are engineered to be attacted to the others, and there’s a question here of volition, of the amount that genetics make up reasoning, and on how far outside the bounds people are willing to push themselves.

On which note: whilst Hell is a wonderfully realised backdrop, a stark wasteland which carries horror in its very prosaic drudgery, it’s the characters which steal the show. Well, one, anyway. Leila is our protagonist, one of a pair remaining from a clone family cut short by accident. What she knows is life on Hell, but what she dreams of is Earth – an Earth spoken of in stories from an Overseer’s books – of village greens, red post-boxes, and murders which get solved in time for tea. Leila is sympathetic; she’s prone to self-examination, and in looking at herself and others, we see the collective power structure which persists – the clones working under their overseers, the overseers constrained by the number of clones and the necessity of meeting a quota. But we also see the relationships binding Hell together, and Leila’s eyes let us see the simmering feuds and resentments which are quietly frothing under longstanding social norms. How one group doesn’t trust another not to cause trouble. How one group keeps to themselves, with accusations of a hidden agenda. How the Overseers are flawed individuals – not authority figures as much as men given authority and let loose.  Hell is a pressure cooker, and the story draws out these pressures, throws them under a light, and lets us explore them – but with the awareness that more are hidden away, still, that there are currents which have yet to be fully explored. 

Given that the clones are meant to be identical, it’ delightful that each we see in detail has such a unique voice; Leila in particular is incisive, introspective, and prepared to make hard decisions in pursuit of truth. Her contrast to the bullish members of one ‘family’ and the manipulations of another is stark, but clean – these are people, the text declaims. Even if they’re stamped out of a die, their individuality, their struggle, is unique and to be appreciated. This is true from the simplest – those who try and break up their similarities with props or facial hair – to the more complex, those who keep their individuality locked within their emotional core.

In any event, each of the clones and their three overseers lives, truly; and in plumbing the depths of mystery, we get to know a great deal more about many of them. I was delighted by the delicate, complex power dynamics of the story, something which works because each of the characters we’re shown has something different about them, an individuality at conflict with the bald faced dehumanisation of cloning. In any event, these are well-drawn, complex, humanised characters – and ones for whom I felt, by the end, a full measure of empathy and sympathy.

The plot – well, more than usual, that would be telling. It is, not to give anything away, a murder mystery. That said, it both appropriates and subverts the tropes one might expect from that, gleefully playing into the comparisons with Christie whilst keeping a stream of fresh ideas running through. 

The clues are there. The body is there. Thecriminal? Also there. Hell is a very, very large locked room, which challenges us to think in terms of means, motive and opportunity. It has enough red herrings to keep you guessing, and enough complexity and truth within it to make revelations a delight. But it’s not just a whodunit – though it is a good one. This is also a sci-fi story, and if it explores a murder, it does so through a lens of power, of agency, and of a future where individuality may be suppressed, but not denied. There’s enough mystery here to keep you turning pages, and enough pathos and other emotional weight to make you feel each revelation like a kick in the gut.

This is a story which has power, I say. One which will explore the best and worst of what we have within us, and wrings out its reader emotionally whilst showing that to them. It’s clever, both in the stories it hides, and the story it tells – a multi-faceted jewel in the literary ore. If you’re looking for something new, something which will challenge you to think, and also challenge the way in which you think, this one’s for you. I’s a page turner, one which will keep you up into the night – but also a story which wants to ask the big questions, then waits to see what your answers are. Give it a try.

Wednesday, June 27, 2018

Master Assassins - Robert V.S. Redick

Master Assassins is the start of a fantasy series by Robert V.S. Redick. There’s a lot of heart in it – bloody, raw, messy story, one which rewards in depth investigation, but also provides the visceral impact of fire, blood and high-stakes terror.

The centre of the story are a pair of half-siblings, Kandri and Mektu. Kandri acts as the narrator, and our eye into the world. He is thoughtful, conflicted, and a romantic. As a man struggling with the results of his first great love, and with an ongoing rivalry with Mektu, the fault lines in his character are clear. Those lined are blurred by Kandris’ clear affection for his sibling, the shared experience, the shared pain which brings them together. Kandri is analytical, often afraid, but still someone to act opportunistically when required. Mektu, his half-brother, is something else. There is an individual who can talk. An extrovert without limits. Willing to chat the hind legs off of a donkey, or the sword out of someone’s hand before he cracks them over the head. But that gab is balanced by an impulsiveness, a desire to say the funny thing, rather than the smart thing. Mektu carries a one which rocks the boat, which accepts the restrains of authority only reluctantly. Mektu is the imp of the perverse, a man designed to outrage, who doesn’t always think far enough ahead to see the consequences of his choices. It's a complex pairing, a head-and-heart duo, whose relationship is often more than a little fraught. They’re tied together by a complex bond of blood and loyalty, and of past shared experiences which are slowly unfurled over the course of the text.

In this they’re assisted by an ensemble cast – ranging from their distant, mysterious father, through the quietly menacing and clearly barking mad Prophet who has led their people out of slavery, through a young soldier struggling with her experiences of violence, to the fanatical warriors of the Prohet’s religion, and the cold-hearted pragmatists fighting against them. As in reality, no-one here is just one thing, just vile, just a saint. No, they’re a swirling mass of contradictions, large and small, each a nuanced portrayal of an individual.

That’s helped by the world, of course. Redick shows us a continent wrapped in dysfunction  and conflict after being quarantined by the rest of the world. It’s inward looking by necessity, a seething cauldron of political relationships, warfare and blood. We gain a sense of history too, of the old wrongs that shaped this world into its current, rather terrible state. And while religious wars play out, there’s a great many wonders on display around them. There’s a shattered salt pan of a desert, made when the sea which used to inhabit it was ‘stolen’. The winds ripping through the dunes, and the towering, twisted spires which once were islands are sights to inspire and awe. Then there’s the city on the edge of the sea, a broken-down metropolis run by an autocrat. This is a world whose sights feel real, where military camps and small farming communities and sweeping deserts are all realised with the same vivid intensity, in a world which manages to feel viscerally alive.

The story – well, that would be telling. But watching the dynamic duo as they scrabble to escape the many, many people who want them dead is a delight. The story begins as a bit of a slow burn, but catches fire by the halfway mark, leaving me rapidly turning pages trying to work out what happened next. There’s some great stuff in here; the exploration of the brother’s relationship is thoughtful, nuanced and sometimes raw and painful, but feels genuine. The splashes of magic and the supernatural scattered throughout add some sparkle, and their rarity increases their impact. There’s a not-small order of battles and some seriously well-crafted and kinetic fight scenes as well.

Overall, this is a work of intelligent, layered fantasy which will likely reward multiple reads; definitely worth a look.

Wednesday, June 20, 2018

City Of Lies - Sam Hawke

City Of Lies is about a great many things: Poison, politics, the moral and ethical obligations a society ha to those working within it, the quality of friendships and, er, more poison. The slow-burn narrative captured by attention and didn’t let it go, and the world drawn showed a marvellous depth of imagination; given this is Sam Hawke’s debut, the series it begins is off to a very strong start.

The story explores themes of the dichotomy and conflict between the urban and country as well; much of the text takes place within a sprawling city regarded (at least by its rulers) as a centre of socio-cultural enlightenment. A council of well-heeled nobles rules, and dispenses justice and economic largesse to their populace. The people have access to education, and guilds exist to allow the talented to make something of themselves. Or so the story goes. Things are, as ever, not that simple. The governance, the beneficence, the economy, the  social inclusivity of a ruling elite from a different background to the remainder of their population – all are, at the very least, on tenuous ground. Perhaps the largest fib in City Of Lies is the city itself – or at least the ideals it’s founded upon. The story isn’t afraid to use its characters to explore flawed assumptions, to question the sacred cows which this society has built, and to deconstruct them, block by block. The occasional murder is thrown in, too.

The city is glorious, in its way, in the evocation of the ideals it tries to match, even where it falls short. And in being a thriving metropolis of broken walls and soaring bridges, a living proof that co-operation and harmony can have positive results. That this is, if not a lie, at least contemporaneously somewhat wishful thinking, doesn’t give this world any less of a heart. There’s so much social complexity at work here – agricultural workers struggling with urban rentiers, representatives trying to create new guilds to allow people to earn a living in different ways, armies on the march – it’s breathtaking. It’s a lot to take in, but it sneaks up on you. Over the course of the book, the city will get under your skin – much like the poisons described at the start of a chapter.

If the world is fascinating, the characters are equally compelling. The heart of the book is friendships, and family ties – between a young aristocrat with an important role in government, his equally aristocratic friend, whose duty it is to ‘proof’ substances as a protection from poison, and the proofer’s sister, who, chronically ill, carries affection for them both. They’re an odd lot, these three, but their unbending faith in each other is the pole star of the narrative, and once which makes it an absolute joy to read. While we’re looking at the deeper themes of the text, while we’re looking at social inequalities writ small and large, or the minutiae of politics, or actual poisonings, or duels, or battles, the emotional resonance of this triad glues the text together.

The relationship of the three protagonists carries the warmth and depth of genuine friendship, of duty embraced with mutual affection. It’s a delight to see such friendships celebrated, and the positive nature of the emotions in no way decries their honesty and the truthful heft that they lend to the story.  It’s what gives the book heart. This is helped, in some ways, by the villains – such as they are.  For the antagonist here is a mystery – sowing disruption and lethal toxins from the shadows. Each character is thus a challenge; each pampered aristocrat could be wearing a mask, each Order-Keeper patrolling the streets a potential quisling. 

To the author’s credit, each of the ensemble around our central group feels like an individual. Petty, spiteful individuals, sure. Duty-driven and socially suspect, absolutely. Acidic and unforgiving of the pride of the City? No question. But each has a distinct voice, and each carries a personal opacity which makes them more or less of a threat. Each smile may mask a villain – but of course, a scowl can too. If the City is founded on principles which may be undermined where they intersect with reality, the people withi the city are also cloaked in smaller, pettier lies – and in this, and in their efforts to be more or less than themselves, they’re thoroughly believable, and very human.

The plot is a complex web of mystery, focused, perhaps unsurprisingly, on lies, subterfuge, and poison. Each paragraph is a test of nerve, waiting to see if a silent murder has occurred. Each sentence carries a slow burning tension, perhaps akin to waiting for an antidote. I won’t get into it here, but suffice to say that City Of Lies has a lot going on. There’s enough byzantine factional politics for anyone, and if that’s not your jam, there’s more than a little swordplay and siegecraft as well. 

There is some magic floating around in the background, quietly understated, but it doesn’t feel like a focus for much of the book – that focus is on the characters, on our trio and on their efforts to investigate a mystery and thus hopefully not die trying. The gently bubbling, seeping tension left me turning pages late into the night, and the tightly woven relationship between the central characters kept me turning them until morning. With that in mind, I’d recommend City Of Lies. It’s a vividly imagined, cunningly crafted debut, and an excellent read.

Wednesday, June 13, 2018

Ravencry - Ed McDonald

Ravencry is the sequel to Ed McDonald’s absolutely storming debut, Blackwing. Ravencry takes place in the same bleak, hard-edged world as its predecessor, full of uncaring titans, mad magicians and a few people trying to do the right thing. Or at least not do the wrong thing. Most of the time. If the money’s good enough. If you’re here, chances are good you want to know if Ravencry lives up to its legacy – and the short version is yes. It’s brilliant - a tightly written, tautly plotted story of monsters, magic, betrayal and murder, with action that kept me turning pages, and schemes that left me wondering which of the unreliable characters I could trust.

A lot of Ravencry occurs in an urban environment, in Valengrad, bastion of all that is morally grey , standing at the border against the creeping horror of the Deep Kings. Valengrad is a pretty terrible place, one with rot sitting at its heart. The city thrums with life like maggots through a corpsecivilians moving between buildings in what seems like constant rain, ruled over by an oligarchy which seems to regard the seething mass of the populace as a mild inconvenience at best, and is outright repulsed by them at worst. It’s a city living in a noir nightmare, where the shadows seem long and constant, and are likely to hide a member of the state security apparatus. It’s a place desperately in need of hope, and fertile ground for something new – a semi-religious cult of the “Bright Lady”, which preaches egalitarianism and social reform, a ray of searing light in a world inclined more toward the darkness. It’s a change, but in a world where everything has a seedy underbelly, onr I forced to wonder whether a city as vibrantly, horrifyingly alive as Valengracan generate something as clean as hope.

We also get to see some more of the Misery, the blasted no-mans land between the Deep Kings an our less than polished heroes. It’s a Lovecraftian nightmare of shifting geography and altered perception, a space where the dead walk and talk, where the phantoms of your past are likely to pick up a rock and bash your head in. It’s a twisted, psychedelic place whose haunts are both revelatory and deadly. It has the capacity to break people, and if it doesn’t destroy them, is at least as likely to change them, to move a person closer to themselves, and closer to a monster.

Several of the characters sliding between city and Misery will be familiar as well. Galharrow, the gruff, pragmatic and brutal instrument of higher powers is still here. He’s got a shinier belt buckle, after the events of the last book, but is still the same man. That said, he’s now haunted by the spirit of lost love, a man stalking the half-world in search of truth.The man is now more driven, searching for something he feels has been lost. That loss has also informed the character - perhaps because a lost truth is worse than none at allGalharrow is still bitter, though with some of the edge filed off, but instead feels like a man on a quest – a tarnished knight seeking a grail of remembered affection, or at least emotional truth. This is a man being emotionally torn apart before our eyes. The raw passion at the heart of his dysfunction is terrifying in its honesty, and also in its effects. That said, Galharrow is still a man willing to kick arse and take names, or, preferably, shoot someone in the back whilst they’re asleep to solve his problems.

Galharrow is backed by an amazing supporting cast. The fabulous Nenn is his lieutenant, a hard-faced killer whose edges are softened a little by the possibilities of romance, now that the Blackwing are a more well-funded arm of the law. She’s still abrasive, delightfully sharp-tongued, and unwilling to take any crap – but there’s also a suggestion of emotional fragility under the armour which really 
gives the character some heart. Then there’s the rest of this found-family; the hyper-organised secretary, whose competence keeps the entire enterprise afloat, and the teenage refugee determined to follow her role model into the Blackwing service. Watching Galharrow struggle with his feelings and approaches for both of these women, both independent, prideful and willing to make their own decisions in spite of him, is a delight. That their ‘family’ is filled out by a semi-psychotic mage trapped in the undying body of a child – well, that’s just par for the course.

These are complicated, often broken characters, whose emotional responses are crippled or channelled by traumatic past experience, but also feel genuine, and feel human. They contrast interestingly with the villains, whose competence is matched by an effort at inhumanity which is too malevolent to be uncaring. Those who stand against the Blackwing are skin-crawlingly vile, and I shivered in visceral disgust more than once.

The plot pulls from noir -  a twisted, byzantine string of plots, counterplots, misdirected truth and outright lies. The central mystery is tightly plotted and compelling, and kept me turning pages far too late into the night. It’s got everything: bizarre magic. Treachery. Misunderstandings. Impressive displays of magic. Brutal murders. Stabbings. This is the bleeding edge of fantasy, one which you’ll feel leave a mark on you as you read it. It’s smart, and it will get under your skin, so that you want to know what happens next, then spend pages with heart in your mouth torn between trying to reach the end and not wanting it to end.

I guess that’s a quick way of saying, Ravencry is worth your money. It’s a sterling sequel to Blackwing, one I’ll be thinking about for a long time to come, and one I whole-heartedly recommend.

Wednesday, June 6, 2018

The Traitor God - Cameron Johnston

The Traitor God is a debut fantasy from Cameron Johnston. It’s a cynical, dark, bloody tale, with flashes of hope, and some terrifying and spectacular magic, in a vivid, well realised world.

Speaking of the world: it’s a wonderfully strange, terrifying place.  Magic courses through the blood of a social elite, one which struggles to empathise with or indeed even think about the majority of the populace. The magicians have lifespans extended by their magic, and their powers extend from incinerating everything in a wide radius to control of water, or even superhuman strength and endurance. Those who can control magic are rulers, whose length of life leads them to slough off emotional attachment over time. As a consequence, they tend to be ruthless, pragmatic, and, broadly speaking, not overly nice people. It doesn’t help that using magic is addictive and comes with side-effects, driving practitioners further away from their humanity every time they exercise it.

These are the oligarchs of a failing empire, ensconced in power and privilege, and either unaffected by or unwilling to embrace a changing world. Still, their personal power is considerable, and if their empire no longer shapes the world, its capital is a thriving metropolis, seething with commerce and vice. The book isn’t shy about exploring the themes of power and accountability, examining the kind of decisions which can be made when absolute power is assured, and the compromises of judgment necessary to reach that level – and whether or not those compromises are justified. Anyway, this is a world of demons and creeping, corrosive magic, which is willing to provide great power in return for a slow and inevitable cost. There’s a lot being unpacked here – a city in decay, an empire indecline, an oligarchy in thrall to their own legend. There’s external factors too – murderous others, and hints of a geopolitical situation which is very far from under control.
This is a tightly written, believable world, one which will make you sit up and take notice. It’s not pretty, by any means, but it’ll seep off the page and into your pores.

Into this rather turbulent space steps Edrin Walker. Walker is a man with demons, both figuratively and rather more physically. Walker isn’t what one would generally think of as a hero. He’s quick witted, sure, but also bitter. This tends to manifest as scathing sarcasm and a penchant for running his mouth when he shouldn’t. The words are razors, and you can feel an edge lurking in everything Edrin says. That said, it’s hard not to feel for a man who speaks the unpalatable truth to power. It helps that despite (or perhaps because of) this tendency to talk big, Walker is also ruthless and pragmatic – willing to leave acquaintances behind if need be, or to threaten, to maim, to kill. That said, this bubbling spring of violence is channelled in service to his goals. Walker also realises his own flaws. Understanding his lack of compassion, knowing that magic has broken something inside of him, he struggles to hold on to his humanity, while being appalled at the actions and careless disdain of greater monsters than he. Walker is complicated. Walker is more than a little broken. Walker is scarred, emotionally  and physically, by his past – and  despite that, if he’s not trying to do the right thing, exactly, he’s at least not actively trying to do the wrong thing.

In this effort Walker is assisted by friends who are at least as strange as he is. From all walks of life, they seem to share a certain no-nonsense attitude to problem solving, and a more positive view of the protagonist than he has of himself. In his friendships we see facets of Walker less evident in the man we have before us – a more compassionate, friendlier individual (albeit one with a penchant for acerbic remarks), perhaps one with less to lose. This is Walker’s book, but the ensemble around him is built of well-rounded, believable characters, acting on their own agenda’s. I would have liked to see more of some of them, to be sure; for example, Walker’s oldest friend and her daughter make great foils for our lead, but seem to be straining at the seams of their scenes, trying to take over the stage. That said, they have a surfeit of competence and agency, and tightly written, believable and complex characterisation – so if I want to see more, it’s only a good thing.

The plot? Well, it’s a story of blood, betrayal and despair. It’s also a mystery, as Walker tries to piece together exactly why so many people are trying to kill him. I mean, some of it is because he has a habit of smarting off to authority, but not all of it. There’s a strong strand of noir running through the narrative, and thematically some strong beats on love, friendship and loss which hit like a punch in the gut. It’s emotionally riveting, complex work, a story that ties its character’s reconstruction to the slow revelation of the mysteries at the heart of the plot. It’s…also got a lot of demons, mad wizards, thoroughly explosive magic, and smart-arse remarks. There’s banter, the occasional stabbing, chases, dramatic betrayals…really, something for everyone. It snappy, tautly written prose kept me turning pages until far too late in the night.

 It’s a cracking debut, and if you want a well done dose of fantasy-noir, this one’s for you.

Wednesday, May 30, 2018

Adrift - Rob Boffard

Adrift is the latest sci-fi novel from Rob Boffard, also known for his rather good ‘Outer Earth’ series.

The premise is an intriguing on. Following an attack by an unknown force, a small personnel shuttle is cast loose with a group of passengers inside. Damaged and alone, the passengers have no obvious way home, no way to signal for help, and only each other to rely on. That tension, the sense of being in a fragile bubble when the environment is actively hostile, is masterfully evoked. Survival has always been an interesting genre in narrative  - from The Thing to Cast Away, as humanity struggles against their world and themselves. Adrift takes that basic concept and dials it up to eleven. Space is big. Really big. Space is also cold, uncaring, and willing to punish the slightest lapse in judgment with fatal consequences. This is a book which wants the reader to know that space is dangerous, a stark, lonely, beautiful and deadly place.

Alongside the environment, there are more active threats. The shuttle is the main setting of Adrift, a broken-down tourist hauler.  Old, battered, poorly supplied, this is not where anyone would want to spend their last hours. It flies, sure, but there are deft touches in the story to let us know that this isn’t a luxury craft – rations are short, safety equipment neglected, and food supplies worryingly uniform. It’s described with the sort of nuanced and evocative prose that left me with a firm picture of a ship which has seen better days, plugging along despite institutionalised neglect. As the majority of the story happens here, the grit, the grime and the stark realism of the environment really help sell the text – and as this unstable raft is floating in a vacuum sea, its deficiencies bring tension to bear even further. Each misplaced can of soda or leaking hydraulic line is one inch closer to disaster, and one more opportunity for every-day heroism.

There’s more to the world – the edges of a post-war, higher-level political settlement are there to be examined; this is a universe which has known conflict, victories and defeats – but the heart of the story is this one ship, floating alone in the void, and the people inside it.

Speaking of the characters, they’re a motley ensemble. There’s a pensioned-off mining engineer, and a tour guide working her first job. Holidaymakers, broken-down journalists, and a pragmatic but distant pilot. There’s a mixture there of old and young, a melange of humanity. They don’t seem like a group that is going to save the world. Honestly, they don’t really feel like a group which can be trusted to go to the cinema together without coming to blows. But they do feel like people, staggering under the weight of extraordinary events, thrown  into a high pressure situation not of their making, then left to sink or swim. The inter-personal dynamics are delightful. The rage, the pettiness, the moments of startling compassion and of self-justification. The whole gamut of human experience is being sweated out in the closed environment of a tourist-shuttle.

It's this pressure cooker environment which kept me turning the pages. Knowing that this group of strangers would have to pull together to survive, seeing their internecine squabbles and bickering was painful, but wonderfully human. Similarly, the moments when one was able to rise above themselves, to act for the whole, to do the right thing, even if they weren’t sure what that was – well, that felt human too. The characters are each unique, with flaws and secrets from themselves and each other, and if some react well or badly, if they leap into action, or consensus, or despair, then it felt right, for them. And in the background of this maelstrom of emotion, the air supply is ticking down, and the outside is patiently waiting.

This is a story about people, about how they interact – how they bounce off each other, how other people’s actions shape us, and how our actions shape the world. It’s about surviving in high pressure situations, how that changes you, and how you remain the same. It’s a story about people, and those people are living, breathing, lovingly crafted and awfully flawed – which makes them a pleasure to read about.

Overall, this is a taut survival thriller and a top-notch character piece. If you enjoyed Boffard’s other work, this one’s worth a look. If you’re new to him, then Adrift would be a great place to start.

Wednesday, May 23, 2018

Redemption’s Blade: After the War - Adrian Tchaikovsky

Redemption’s Blade: After the War is a fantasy novel by Adrian Tchaikovsky. It’s also a novel about consequences. About the stark human costs of conflict, and of choices made by those on all sides of that conflict. It’s a story where the great battle of an age has bee fought and won, the bodies of heroes left discarded in the fields. The great enemy is defeated, but smaller ones remain. It’s a story about how we’re shaped by war, or perhaps let it shape us. Even a victory has costs, and restitution.

Don’t get me wrong. In between the larger themes, there’s a lot of other cool stuff in here. A sword which can cut through anything. Moral dilemma’s. Demi-gods striding the earth. Duels that carry the clash of steel, and a narrative which makes that steel sing. But this is a book about people, about attitude and, yes, about consequences.

Our view into this world is that of Celestaine. Celestaine is a Hero, at least as far as the world is concerned. She killed a dragon. She helped kill the archenemy who would throw the world under his twisted, raging boot. Some time later, Celestaine is asking questions. Not about whether removing the enemy was the right thing to do, but the follow-up. The land is shattered by war; many of the old social cohesions have broken down. The armies of the Dark Lord are broken and contained, but still around, and nobody seems quite sure what to do about them. There’s a tide of populism and intolerance, as religions of the vanished gods try and keep control, struggling to justify their existence in the absence of the objects of their faith. If the war was an epic struggle filled with great martial deeds, this is a land in need of something quieter, a heroism which heals. 

Celestaine is making an effort to be that hero. Ridden by survivor’s guilt, she’s looking for a purpose, a way to help fix a land which she takes some blame for having broken. For all of the lost friends and lost potential, and the dream of a land which once was – for all of those things and more, Celestaine takes the blame. That said, if she’s emotionally damaged, wrung out and exhausted by the reconstruction reality after the glory has passed, she’s still kicking serious arse. With a sword that cuts through anything and a low tolerance for other people’s crap, she’s a force to be reckoned with. Celestaine is a real pleasure to read, because with all of her baggage, she doesn’t consider herself a hero – but striving alongside that baggage, doing the right thing in spite of it, putting in an effort to make things right, to earn her own survival – it gives her the potential to do heroic things, for the right reasons. Suffering from combat fatigue and stress, alongside her emotional trauma, sometimes Celestaine is a tough read – but she feels like a person. One that has seen and done some pretty terrible things, now trying to keep on doing the right thing.

There are others of course – from cowardly godlings to comically scheming collectors of arcane artifacts. From ex-servants of a great enemy, now making their own way in the world, to old companions(and old enemies) gone astray. I hold a special place in my heart for theex-soldiersof the enemy. Discriminated against and eyed with something between hostility and suspicion by the populace, they’re setting out to make their dreams real, and perhaps to integrate further into the larger world. Its in their nature to fight, and they’re determined to build instead. That they’re charming, funny, and can pick up a person and club them with nearby scenery are all added benefits. I guess what I’m saying is, the characterisation is top notch. Each character brings their own unique perspective to the whole, and they also carry emotional weight – of survival, of slavery, of performing atrocities, or being victims of one. Some of the villains, as it were, are sympathetic, their actions driven by what they think of as necessity, heroes in their own story. Others are just out and out nasty, which makes their appearance on the page a shudderingly terrible delight.

The plot? Well, it’s a quest, of sorts. In one way, it’s a simple thing, finding a magical artefact, a Macguffin to right wrongs. But in another, it’s a personal journey – for Celestaine, as well as her friends and enemies. Moving from place to place they see the consequences and costs of conflict, and learn about themselves along with the world. This is an incredibly thoughtful work, beneath the swords, questing and heroism. It looks beneath those things, at the price, at the human cost, at the sleepless nights, at the efforts to re-raise a razed village, or to maintain faith in a world now inimical to it. That said, there’s also a lot of absolutely pitch perfect dialogue, some properly explosive magic, and even the odd sword fight. There’s blades, magic and quips in plenty, and those will keep you turning pages – but the deeper themes, of struggle, loss, survival, rebuilding and, yes, redemption, will mean you can’t put the book down until the very end. It’s hard, it’s emotional. It’s funny and grand and rather human – and all of that makes it a brilliant book, which I recommend without hesitation.

Wednesday, May 16, 2018

The Quantum Magician - Derek Künsken

The Quantum Magician is the debut sci-fi novel from Derek Künsken. It’s a book nominally about a heist and a con, moving some impossibly precious things from one place to another without interacting with the intervening authorities. But it’s also a story about humanity and transhumanism; about the way people are willing to change themselves or others to adapt to an environment, and about the costs that are born out of that decision. It’s about old friendships and new alliances – the trust you can put into those who have never betrayed you, and in those who have hurt you before. It’s a human story – well, mostly. One about people, the way they interact with each other, what they’re willing to do, and what (or who) they’re willing to compromise to reach their goals. But there’s also a sweeping array of space battles, and a sprawling universe out there to explore between warhead splashes.

Belisarius is the centre of the story – part of a new species of human, one able to make astounding leaps of intellectual analysis by stepping away from their individuality. Belisarius is charming, thoughtful, and clearly off the map of standard humanity. He struggles with his own identity, with the sense of being himself. At the same time, he’s willing to disperse his consciousness for focus, to obviate the self for the sake of more mundane goals. There are some allusions to engineered individuals being focused on the broader concepts of the universe, unwilling to engage with the minutiae, with individuals who work within a cash economy and are willing to discourage disagreement through superior firepower. Belisarius isn’t one of these – he ties up to reality, and seems largely willing to accept its existence, despite his priorities being elsewhere. Some od that is just a desire to keep his mind engaged, to escape the cosmic unutterables of the universe and get down and dirty with the human. Bel is an intriguing creature, one struggling against a genetically engrained purpose. They are at once an endorsement of the individuality of consciousness, and a triumph, or warning, of the results of engineering.

Belisarius, delightful as they are, complex as they are, struggling, human as they are, is not the only individual on the page. There are some truly startling post-Sapiens individuals. These include an individual from the deep pressure divers – built to populate a liquid pressure environment far higher than normal, and survive, never comfortable, but unable to return to the world outside – and the Puppets. The puppets are a masterpiece. A populace created to experience awe under pheremonal cues, a subservient species of man, They overthrew their masters, not in revulsion to their genetic goals, but in their service – protecting their living deities by restricting access, by refusing to obey damaging commands, by taking the personal gods thy were given and breaking them on the wheel. The Puppets are breathtaking, a species of man which works within constrains but expands, horrifyingly and understandably, beyond them.

There are other characters of course. Belisarius is smart, funny, and can talk people into anything,  but that’s the con. He needs people. Puppets. Doctors. Monsters. Lunatics. Each makes the heart sing and hurt in equal measure. The individual in a tank, living for speed outside their pressure boundary, fighting and killing and willing to accept a creed of death before acquiescence shares a table with an ex-Marine whose enthusiasm for explosives may be a smidge out of hand. If t hey’re not as much there as Belisarius, still they carry the full freight of humanity on their shoulders, odd as it may be in some cases. This is a story about a con, to be sure, and it has the highly tense emotional weight to prove it, the payoff which rewards you for turning pages. But it’s a story about people, as well, about the larger unions – how a client state struggles against colonialism, how it tries to overthrow its masters – and about the individual, about the self-realisation of our actors.  

Admittedly that realisation if often backed by explosives.

If you’re not here for the imaginatively and evocatively realised universe, or the compellingly flawed characters that make up Belisarius’ flawed team of con artists and criminals, you might be here for the plot, and the wonder. It’s out there, in a larger universe, one of unexplained, ancient alien artefacts, manipulated by segments of humanity close enough to be recognisable, and odd enough to be alien. There’s immediate politics, too, backed by the kind of gunboat diplomacy that gets your attention. Then there are worlds teeming with the broken, the accepted the outcast, the strange and wonderful – and the text gives you environs which bring them to life. It’s a universe tied together by jump points, at least in part sustained by unutterably ancient and unknowable external actors. It’s an intriguing world, one which clearly has several further layers out of view, behind the transhuman cast, the foul-mouthed marines and frantic interstellar battles.

The atmosphere is one of a heist, that thin wire of tension drawing you from page to page, waiting for each other shoe to drop, each cunning stratagem to either unfurl or unravel. It’s handled with a stately precision, revealed to the reader like clockwork, giving us enough room to guess what’s coming, to hope and wonder and despair – and then to be blindsided by the result. Con games and heists are always hard to write – one like this, which comes out pitch perfect, wrapped in a nuanced and striking sci-fi narrative is, to say the least, a rarity.

In some ways this is a story about a con game – with segments of meticulous planning, with character analysis, with motivation a primary factor. In other ways it’s a space opera – with carefully analysed science, with high stakes and high yield munitions. In other ways it’s a character study of the ways man can rebuild man, and they way they can react. In all those ways, this is a book you want to read.

Wednesday, May 9, 2018

Dangerous To Know - K.T. Davies

Dangerous To Know is the first in a duo of fantasy novels by K.T. Davies. It follows the misadventures of the titular Breed, a misanthropic, magically engineered killing machine, as he tries to escape the attentions of his sociopathic mage of a mother, the curse of a demon, and a whole host of others that would like to kill him. Usually with cause. It’s got magic, history to go with it, as well as complex, evolving characters with a penchant for vicious banter, and steel-edged, page turning plot. It is, in short, a lot of fun.

As the title may indicate, Breed is the centrepiece of the text, and a rather dangerous one at that. Breed is a Warspawn – or at least, partially. These were monsters, bred for war in long ago battles against demons and hordes of darkness. Now they’re socially and politically suspect. Nobody likes a seven-foot lizard who can eviscerate them on a whim, after all. Especially when they’re a minority, and easy to blame. It does allow the text to quietly explore ideas of social and racial stereotyping, looking at the Warspawn as a group, looked down on and maligned by the majority of the population that they were originally built to help preserve.

Breed is a reaction to that. He’s smart, often sharp enough to cut himself. But he’s also got something of a temper, paired with an absolute refusal to take any crap. From the reader’s point of view, this is an absolute delight – watching Breed meet repression with a mixture of sarcasm and brutality never gets old. It does, however, tend to escalate, leading him into rather a lot of trouble. Breed is also reliably selfish. People haven’t been good to him, and his public face is one which rejects intimacy or even friendship, in favour of sticking knives into people and lifting their wallets from their still cooling corpses. Breed has been shaped by his environs, and it’snot a good look, to put it mildly. On the other hand, though he’s always willing to sacrifices a comrade if necessary, or take ruthless and brutal action when required, there’s still a lot of raw emotion floating round internally. Some of it is rage, lets be fair. Actually, rather a lot of it is rage. But if he doesn’t like the group of people he’s with, still he doesn’t find it in himself to throw them away. At least not often. Unless it’s necessary.

Breed’s journey here is one which isn’t deliberately of self discovery. Still, in achieving his goals, in tearing free from the enforced obligations which keep him inside the social constructs which have shaped and denigrated his people, Breed will get closer to understanding himself, and maybe making something of his own purpose.  In the meantime, however, he has to fend off the geas of a demon, and retrieve the weapon of one of humanity’s greatest heroes. In which quest, he has some help. That help, admittedly, consists of a quiet girl, a semi-senile, drug-addled geriatric, and a priest-magician with what Breed feels are far too many morals. The first two are sadly underutilised; where they’re in the frame, it’s often for last-second assistance, comic effect, or the odd bit of foreshadowing. I liked what I saw of them, but as it was infrequent and from Breed’s perspective, it felt like the surface over deeper seas. Still, when they were there, they were engaging; it would’ve been great if they had a little more to do. The priest, however, gets a little more room. An idealist, he’s striving to both prepare the world for what he foresees as a time of coming darkness, and to stop the population from blaming everything on the already looked-down on non-human population. Thankfully, that idealism is backed up by some serious magical firepower. The clash between this idealism and Breed’s hard-headed pragmatism leads to some excellent, if often unspoken, dialogue, and lets us contrast our protagonist with a person who, in a simpler book, would be the hero.

Together, this merry band of occasionally bloodthirsty lunatics set out to find an artefact and, coincidentally, save the world – or, at least, stop it from getting any worse. In order to do that, there’s quite a lot of flashy magic, combined with some kinetically charged and rather visceral fight scenes, both of which kept me turning the pages. They were helped along by Breed’s pragmatically selfish character, which came with enough raw emotion to make him feel like a person, behind the words. Possibly not a very nice person, but that wasn’t in the brief, after all. There’s also a fair amount of plots and byzantine villainous schemes, backed by some people who are Very Bad Indeed, and whose tearing up the page is an absolute delight.

This is a thoroughly entertaining, unconventional and imaginative fantasy adventure – and one it’s worth your while to read.

Wednesday, May 2, 2018

The Poppy War - R.F. Kuang

The Poppy War is the debut fantasy novel from R.F. Kuang. It’s a thoughtful piece, looking at colonisation, cultural constructions, empire and authority, atrocities, and philosophies of violence. Mind you, it also has  snappy dialogue, explosive (often literally) magic, a world where the strange and the familiar intermingle, and characters which will make you laugh, cry, and scream – possibly all at once. It’s an incredibly impressive debut, one which explores some dark places, but does so with such honesty and imagination that it’s impossible to put down.

As you may be able to tell, I rather enjoyed it.

The world of The Poppy War is one shaped by empires. There’s the one in which we find ourselves, as an example. A sprawling creature, split into provinces governed by separate warlords, it still has a history. That history is one of violence. Originally separate kingdoms, bound together by strongmen into a nominally functional unit, it was broken apart by a colonising force. After years of warfare, it’s been reshaped to the current form, ruled by a survivor of three heroes that led the fight against the occupation. There’s a history here – one of assumed culutral superiority and arrogance, clashing with the reality of pulling out from under the hand of an occupier. That the occupation ended due to the intervention of a third party is the icing on the cake of identity. It’s a land with heroes, yes, and with a recent history of successful resistance through unification – but a far longer one of internecine conflict and division.

So there’s politics. There’s scheming and the need to decide who controls what, and always, hovering on the horizon, is the understanding that the historical occupying forces could be back this time tomorrow. It’s a space which is rich in history, but also rich in gods. Divinities, lore, magic, are all ideas floating at the edge of the cultural consciousness. They’re maligned, to be sure, considered folk stories and traditions, but they help the seamless, sparkling tapestry of the world leap into life.  If the larger world is one of wars, of realpolitik, of tax farmers, of drugs and swords and blood – there is a liminal space here, one in which fire and hope burn together. In a world of formal exams, maintained by and for the elite with a façade of meritocracy, in a world where drugs are forbidden and pervasive – in that world, if and when magic is real, it can shatter lives.

Kuang has constructed a geography which evokes tones from our world – the colonial adventures of the 1800’s, the sociocultural tensions of the Quing dynasty – but gives them a unique spin, one which adds a mixture of blood and sparkle. This is a world of potentially necessary horrors, and the monsters who builds them – but also one of wonders. Sometimes those are built by the same people.

Our protagonist, living in this space is Rin. Rin comes from nothing. Rin is not meant to be anything. 

But Rin is stubborn. Rin persists. Rin has fire and determination, and a bloody-minded desire to stick it to whoever has annoyed her. Rin is smart. Rin is cynical. Rin kicks serious arse. And Rin pays for it. In some ways, this is a hopeful book. Rin doesn’t have a thing. She’s trying to escape her dirt poor town, and its dirt poor prospects, by becoming something else, something , if not better, at least different. Rin, an orphan, struggles to define herself against the expectations of the world around her. 

She claws back every inch. In between confounding others expectations, she also manages to be better, rising from the social constraints of her upbringing to have a fighters control to go with her spirit. In her interactions with magic, Rin learns, to be sure, but she carries a kind of icy pragmatism, a banked rage and determination which binds some of her self-worth to success, however she defines that. But what she’s really looking for is identity – to either become what her unknown past inspires, or to be whatever she can make of herself.

Rin also makes some hard choices. I’m inclined to call them bad choices, but the texture of the book wouldn’t allow it. This isn’t a place with simple decisions. It’s one where using power has bloody, horrific consequences, mostly for others – and where not using power also has bloody, horrific consequences for others. These decisions sit on a razor edge, and Rin’s struggle with her own capacities, with her own choices and their consequences, helps to shape the book. I’m not sure I agreed with them all, but I understood them all – and both Rin and the reader will come to understand the price which she pays for each decision made. This begins as a story of a young woman growing into her power, but then sidles into a narrative about the consequences of using, or refusing to exercise, that power.

The plot – well, no spoilers. There’s a school, and it teaches martial arts. It teaches tactics and strategy. It may or may not teach the mystical. Rin finds herself there, in her journey to discover herself, and to pay the costs of doing so. But it’s not just a school story, Harry Potter with blod on knives. It’s also a story of war. Of battles. Of lives taken and lives broken. Of atrocities. Of hard decisions taken in despair, and bloody decisions taken in hope. There’s magic. There’s a lot of fabulously kinetic single combat fight scenes. There’s politics, there’s military infighting, there’s gods and magic and more than one hidden agenda. There’s a coming of age story with carmine blades and a whiff of the mystical extracting a price no-one should pay.

Is it any good? Absolutely. The book kicks arse, and I couldn’t put it down. It’s a cracking debut, and one I recommend without reservation.

Wednesday, April 25, 2018

The Revenant Gun - Yoon Ha Lee

The Revenant Gun is the third and final entry in Yoon Ha Lee’s “Machineries of Empire” series. The first two books were imaginative work with cunningly crafted characters, desperately eldritch technologies, high stakes plot and some top-notch world building; to get it out of the way, this finale does not, in any of those categories, disappoint.

The world…well, the world has changed. The Hexarchate, that sprawling empire, ruled by elite castes, with exotic technologies that persist based on calendrical observances, is over. Politically, what was once the Hexarchate is split – between those holding to the old calendar, their technologies powered by pain and torture of dissidents and heretics, and those who say that observance is now a matter of choice. The external factors are still there – other political entities which are either alien, or have different enough views to be considered so – creeping around the edges of the Hexarchate borders, looking for an excuse to pull chunks off it. This is what keeps the factions from all out war – but space is an imbroglio of barely suppressed tensions, one swift trigger pull away from devastation.

There’s a lot of really clever social structures work here; the different castes – the militaristic Kel, constrained by their ingrained need to follow the orders of those above them, the fey Shuos, artists and intelligencers limited by their own need to scheme against each other…and all the others – feel distinct, and ever so slightly strange. They’re human enough to be sympathetic, with edges which feel strange and unfamiliar. That strangeness is backed by the exotic technologies which tie the galaxy together.  There’s weapons which work in non-Euclidean space, with descriptions which hint that detail might drive the reader mad, the servitors – near human creatures whose society and  culture is limited by the perception of those who see them and there’s the Moths, ships with internals which rearrange themselves dependent on who is inside,  the ability to leap distances and some seriously terrifying firepower.

It’s a strange, sharp edged, bloody world, once ensconced in systems which are often uncaring or broken. But it’s a fascinating universe, filled with the odd and the unknowable, a place where the liminal becomes the real, often painfully. It’s an often disturbing space, with a razor edge. But that’s counterbalanced by hope, in the form of its meticulously crafted characters.

Jedao, who we’ve seen a lot of in one way or another, is probably the most obvious of these. Jedao is whip smart, ready with a swift analysis and a smart mouth, letting his intelligence run the game for him. But here he’s also damaged, unsure of himself, trying to anchor to a sense of identity in a swirling morass of contradictions, some of which might end lethally. The mind behind the eyes is always three steps ahead, but always struggling against a lack of understanding. In contrast to the older, more focused Jedao, this is an individual with a sense of optimism. Often thwarted, often backed by a sarcastic remark or the odd bout of gunfire, but this Jedao isn’t ground down. That said, he carries a certain amount of baggage, both clear and subtextual. There are meditations on authority and consent here, as in previous novels, as Jedao struggles with to square his personal feelings with duty, and both with larger concerns of ethics. His is a love story, of a sort – just one which delves into the more occluded corners of the soul, and is unflinching in its exploration of those.

If those aren’t big enough issues, framed in personal relationships, there’s others. Brezan, for example, the Kel staffer-turned-general-turned-reluctant-revolutionary, shows his face again, trying to construct a political entity which will weather the storms of battle and time. I’ve always loved Brezan, for their combination of exhausted running-out-of-craps-to-give, and barely visible idealism. They’re determined to both look at the big picture and try to understand at least some of the minutiae, and are also smart enough to know that this may be impossible. Fortunately, they have Mikodez to help out; once a Hexarch one of the great powers in the universe, Mikodez now helps guide this universe toward a hopefully better future – but is rather fey about it. Clearly horrifiyingly intelligent, and a giver of small gifts to others, Mikodez’s backchat with other key players always makes me smile, and his emotional  undercurrents in discussions with Brezan are enough to make one weep.

There’s also a lot more time spent with Kujen, the arch-mastermind of the Hexarchate. Kujen is, to put it mildly, odd. They seem to have an affection for Jedao, but it slithers gently around the borders of the acceptable. They also seem capable of all sorts of atrocities to achieve their goals. But there are hints of a different person there, one not yet dragged through the hedges of life, one who made the wrong choices for the right reasons. In my reading – and it’s a mark of how impressive the prose is that yours may differ – Kujen is an old, old monster. But also an indicator that any of the characters could become such a thing, given time and motivations. The abyss has looked back into Kujen, and it’s possible that all that separates them from the other characters is time, and appalling decisions.
It's a subtle book, one which approaches complex questions. There’s the politics of empire, to be sure. 

There’s an examination of authority, of love, and of trust and what that means. There’s love, and the different forms it takes. There’s duty, and what it drives us to do. There’s more time with the servitors, that minority group whose agenda is debatable, but whose segregation and marginalisation is not. All of this is wrapped in a story filled with laser fire, with pistols, ticking timers and bloodbaths. There’s some wonderfully esoteric space battles which also have all the immediacy of a punch in the face, and some emotionally fraught scenes which felt like I was being torn apart.

It’s thoughtful, character driven sci-fi in a highly original, terrifying universe, with a plot that kept me turning pages until far too early in the morning. If you’re not reading the series yet, go and give Ninefox Gambit a try. If you’re all caught up, then yes, this is  storming conclusion to an excellent sci-fi series.

Wednesday, April 18, 2018

Apocalypse Nyx - Kameron Hurley

Apocalypse Nyx is a selection of short stories starring the titular Nyx. Once a member of the Bel Dames, a brutally effective group of government assassins. Nyx is now a bounty hunter – though she’s lost none of her skillset. Or her attitude, as she guides her team of bounty hunters through the vicissitudes of life on a world wracked by war and magic.

Lets talk about that world for a minute. It’s one defined, at both the personal and macro levels, by conflict. Nyx’s nation has been waging war with one of its neighbours for what feels like generations. In pursuit of victory, they’ve used guns. Bombs. Espionage. Tailored viruses. Genetically engineered bugs. As have the enemy. All this has led to large portions of the country being uninhabitable. It’s also led to almost the entirety of the male population doing mandatory military service in fantastically lethal war zones, with a very low life expectancy. Socially, this is a world run by women, because all of the men are either fighting, or dead.

Of course, the world is broken, which makes everything a bit more difficult. It’s a world of faith – one where the call to prayer goes out on schedule, and where mullah’s are in competition for the attentions of the faithful. But also one which encourages a loss of that faith, in tragedy, in pain, in loss.

Then there’s the insects, and the magicians. The insects – well, they’re all over the place. This is a world which has embraced bio-mechanical and genetic engineering. Where the world as a whole is a tapestry of the waste of human potential, the sheer inventiveness here – of killer wasps, of spy-bugs which are actually, er…bugs, of ichor which can be used to build an arm – lets in a little creativity, a little humanity. Of course, that creativity is being used to create wasps big enough to be used as a swarm of guard dogs, but that’s Nyx’s home for you. There are these little sparks of ingenuity, of hope, of purpose, wrapped within an occluding sense that they’ve all been misused; that things are broken or decaying, systems and artefacts both, but only due to the hubris or neglect of people.

It's a vividly drawn world, to be sure. In its hopes for and expectations of humanity, it carries a raw emotional punch. Watching Nyx drive past an abandoned homestead, shattered by bio-bombs, or see a family struggling to survive in a desolate, dangerous landscape, caring for a war veteran now catatonic from the experience – it’s a punch in the gut. It may make you feel pain, sadness, or a bubbling frustrated rage, but it will definitely make you feel something.

What Nyx seems to feel, mostly, is a kind of quiet self-loathing, mixed with frustrated anger and pride. One of the ways this presents, both to her colleagues and to the reader, is by not taking any crap from anyone. Nyx is damaged, sure, but I don’t read her as broken. She’s aware – perhaps far too aware -of her flaws, digging into them, making a nest in her own refusal to engage, in a world which encourages that disengagement by, well, being terrible. Much of what we might see as emotional growth is in the subtext – as she cares for her team, whilst also being prepared, or indeed encouraging herself to abandon them. They, or she, are liabilities, failures and monsters with whom emotional connection can only end in disaster. Nyx constructs a wall around an emotional core, maybe out of fear, maybe out of awareness of her own lethal nature, maybe because she thinks she’s poison, or maybe because emotional vulnerability is so often met with cruelty. In between the drinks (and there are a lot of drinks), Nyx is smart, mad, bad, and dangerous to know. But she’s a complex character as well, not only an arse-kicking heroine, awesome as that is, but a complex individual, masking their thought and their hurt under something else.

You may be here to watch Nxy shoot some fool in the face with a shotgun, before disarming his two mates, breaking their necks, wiring a building to explode and stealing a priceless artefact under covering sniper fire. And you will not be disappointed. But you may be here for the quieter, sadder Nyx, who sees a relationship with one of her team as dangerous, who isn’t able to reach out, who matches affection and connection with abuse and frustration. Both are equally real, equally true.

I won’t get into the details of the stories in this collection, to avoid spoilers. But there’s a lot of great stuff here. There’s tense heists, to be sure. Then there’s comedy of errors, as Nyx’s team of badasses runs their own sense of competence up against reality. There’s moments that hint toward a larger agenda, and a lot of great background. If you’ve ever wondered how Nyx’s team got together, how they stayed together, then there are stories here to answer your questions. If you wanted to see more of the world, the bug bombs, the endless, society-breaking war, the glimpses of high technology wrapped in an enigma – there’s some of that, too. If you want to see Nyx and the gang kicking arse and taking names, painting the walls with blood, then drowning the memories in alcohol – this is one for you.

It’s fast paced sci-fi action, absolutely. It’s got enough blood and guts to satiate and satisfy, yes. But it’s also a thoughtful collection, one which gets us further into the characters heads, one which isn’t afraid to get the reader thinking about the way pain and hurt can make us act, and isn’t afraid to explore larger issues.

If you’re new to Nyx, this may be a good place to start, taking place before the current series of which she’s the star. If you’re already a fan, this adds some wonderfully bloody, emotionally sharp texture to an already intriguing world and characters – get on it.

Wednesday, April 11, 2018

Grey Sister - Mark Lawrence

Grey Sister’ is the sequel to Mark Lawrence’s acclaimed ‘Red Sister’, a book which I, for one, absolutely fell in love with. When I picked up Grey Sister, I did so with high expectations, and more than a little trepidation. Would it have the same precision and vivid worldbuilding of the original? Would the plot once again leave me turning pages late into the night (or early into the morning)? Would the characters be as weird, wonderful, and thoroughly human, with an emotional resonance that could equally crack a smile or wring out tears? The short answer, to save you some time, is yes. Grey Sister is a gem. Admittedly, it may be a gem found soaked in the blood of your enemies, but still.

** Warning - Potential minor spoilers below **

Part of the sparkle in that gem is Nona. After the events of Red Sister, Nona was inducted into the next class up – learning intrigue, perception, disguise and murder-by-stealth. It’s an opportunity to make new friends, but also, of course, to create a whole new set of exciting enemies. Nona still carries the same traits she had previously – she’s ferociously loyal to her friends, utterly heartbroken by betrayal, courageous, stubborn, and, at least initially, feels almost terminally straightforward. She’s never met a problem which she couldn’t punch in the face. Externally, Nona is absolutely fierce. She doesn’t have a shadow. Or irises. And she can probably break you in half with one hand behind her back. There’s an atmosphere of seething rage around her, and a sense that it’s held at bay entirely by willpower. Nona is emphatically not someone you want to mess around with. On the other hand, she carries a certain fragility – having almost built herself a personality by first principles, after childhood trauma, she looks for connection and warmth, for affection and loyalty, and mirrors those back in her friends.  She can break an attacker into teeny tiny pieces, but the betrayal of a friend would be a cruel wound, and the emotional damage is far more problematic than the physical.

This fragility, now masked somewhat, is backed by her relationships with friends and teachers. In this book, we do get to spend more time with Abbess Glass, the voice of the nunnery, and a woman who always seems to be twenty moves ahead of everyone else. Between cryptic plans, she appears invested in her nunnery, with pastoral care and tautly focused political advice running side-by-side with delightfully byzantine plots. Glass also serves as an occasional point-of-view character in the text, letting us have a broader socio-political understanding of events to run alongside Nona’s more limited (if more intense) perspective. There’s also the return of Nona’s gang of novices from the previous book. They’re a charming lot, and their banter and easy camaraderie really helps to ease the otherwise rather grim atmosphere.  

Then there’s Keot. Keot is – well, they say he’s a devil, but I’m not entirely sure what Keot is, and that’s alright. Practically, he’s a voice that lives in Nona’s head, a voice that urges her to rend, to kill, to strike back against an uncaring world with a boiling rage. Keot is not, it has to be said, very nice. Living inside Nona though, he has an interest in her safety – and so, somewhat begrudgingly, he helps her out from time to time, in between trying to get her to murder everyone.

What struck me about this relationship, and why I mention it specifically, is that both Keot and Nona are broken, in different ways. Nona struggles with her rage, but Keot embodies his own. Nona has built a life, with friends and enemies – Keot seems to lack a past, being more of a superheated id, tuned for aggression. Still, his relationship with Nona is fascinating, two beings with a certain remoteness about them, thrown together, for better or worse. I wanted to know more about Keot – what he was, where he came from, how he fits into a world of magic alongside the Path – and seeing his jagged edges grind up against Nona’s fragile control was a marvel; their dynamic may not be healthy, but it’s  close, taut and emotionally real – as well as absolutely riveting.

Against this are, of course, some absolutely delightful villains. These range in scale from schoolyard bullies with a penchant for control and verbal cruelty, through to deadly assassins. In between their nefarious efforts, there’s a sense that a few are working on the same level as the Abbess, looking at the bigger picture and trying to arrange it so that they come out on top. Those with a more limited focus also tend to be those whom we see more intimately – their pride, their smug verbal poison, their knives hidden between social smiles. It’s marvellous, seeing the rotten heart behind a golden visage, the raw and repugnant humanity on display.
All of this, of course, happens in a larger world. It’s a world enclosed in ice, where a thin strip of land encircling the globe keeps a population alive. It’s also a world where the ice creeps closer every year. This was alluded to in the previous book, but it’s more pronounced here. As the ice grinds unstoppably forward, cities are crushed beneath it. Farmland is lost. Resources decline.  War comes ever closer, and it seems we’re at a tipping point.

Alongside the murmurs of conflict, of encroaching ice, there are quieter facets of the world being explored. There’s the devils, like Keot – though who they are and what they want, even they may not be entirely sure of. There’s the Path, access to which seems to provide powers from the merely impressive to the downright superhuman – though always at a cost. There are mysterious devices, which flit between the mystical and the technological. There are hints of what came before, how the people on this world came to be there, and the price they paid to do so. It’s often in subtext, or in throwaway remarks, but there’s hints of so much history here, giving a sense not just of a world which is lived in, but one which has been lived in, broken, fixed and broken again, for a very long time. This is a world of legions, of duels and hard-faced politics. But it’s also one of magic, of twisting the strands of fate, of moving faster than the knives coming to gut you. Mostly though, it’s one where people live, a rich tapestry of joy and sorrow which, frankly, I can’t get enough of. As a setting, it’s vividly vital, and full of secrets to unearth.

The plot…well, as ever, no spoilers. Part of it is about Nona’s efforts to work through Grey class, and there are some marvellous magic-assassin-school shenanigans. Some beautifully constructed prose keeps the whole thing rolling along, school antics gaining the same kind of tension and gravitas usually reserved for a high-stakes heist. The internal ructions of the nunnery were a cracking read in Red Sister, and that quality persists here, as Nona drives herself forward, a stubbornly thrown rock in the tide of everyone else’s expectations. The wider world intrudes as well, and leave hard choices being made. There are betrayals, there’s blood and fire. There’s a young woman trying to work out who she is, and what she wants, while also kicking arse. There’s high politics, and some marvellously taut scheming. There’s secrets revealed, and struggles against repugnant villainy. Most of all, there’s a deep emotional resonance to Nona’s journey; as she struggles, so do we- there were moments where the prose seemed to reach out and tear holes in my heart, and parts where I was left shouting “Yes! Brilliant!” in an empty room. This book has sharp edges, and it will cut you if it can; and that emotional depth is what kept me turning the pages deep into the night (or early morning!), and it’s what makes me recommend it without reserve.

Grey Sister has real heart; its prose is compelling, the plot gripping. The characters are real, in all their bloody, broken glory. My expectations were high, and they were surpassed; it’s an absolutely storming sequel. Once you’ve finished Red Sister, this should be the very next book on your list.