Wednesday, September 19, 2018

Restless Lightning - Richard Baker

Restless Lightning is the sequel to last year’s ‘Valiant Dust’, a military sci-fi story which took the time to explore some socio-cultural issues in between blowing stuff up. The sequel takes us to whole new worlds, but keeps that attachment to broader themes which made Valiant Dust so interesting. It’s happy to talk to you about life and love in a space navy, but it also wants to talk about cultural homogeneity, stasis, and the struggle to retain identity in the face of a cultural conquest. The story also, to be fair, wants to blow some stuff up.

Sikander North is still the protagonist – the scion of a rich and powerful family, but one whose world was recently appropriated into a cross-system federation relatively recently. Egalitarian as the Aquilan Federation claims to be, its members tend to come off as confident in their own superiority, and Sikander left to prove himself as not being a second-class citizen. This exploration of the idea that even the ‘good’ guys have their blind spots – so assured of their own truths that they don’t often question them – is welcome. It also lets us see Sikander, a son of privilege in the extreme, in a more positive light. As an outsider, he struggles against social and cultural expectations even from his own position, highlighting the woes of those below.

From a character standpoint, Sikander makes for an interesting protagonist. Alongside his difficulties integrating with an imposed culture lives a man who  wants to do the right thing. A hero in the classic mould. If his relationship with his superiors is a complex, often tumultuous thing, his sense of right and wrong is not, or his sense of duty. Doing What’s Right has defined Sikander up to now, and it’s nice to see that extended here, even if there are consequences to be had, or indeed, different definitions of what’s right.

Which brings us to antagonists. I shan’t spoil it, but was immensely pleased to see time given to Sikander’s antagonist as a viewpoint. As an individual, they appear to be making difficult, painful choices, and even when some of them were awful, and others disagreeable, you could see the path taken to get there. In a different story, perhaps, the villain would become the hero. It’s a wonderfully nuanced portrayal of an individual acting within their own bounds to serve what they thing of as a necessary goal – as, after all, no-one is a villain in their own story. It’s here the text excels, giving us an antagonist wo is themselves thoughtful, idealistic and determined to do the right thing – by their own lights. The complexity is appreciated, and gives some added depth in between the compelling action sequences.

This is a story which asks questions of its readers. When is social and cultural capital a weapon? How far can you stretch soft-power? What are the ramifications of economic warfare, and can you push people far enough that they’re willing to act in their own worst interests just to make it stop? These are big questions, woven seamlessly into the narrative tapestry. There’s some answers floating around in there too, though I think as a whole the text embraces the show, not tell, philosophy.

That said, this isn’t entirely (or even mostly) a book of meetings about trade. There’s enough hull metal and big guns floating around to satisfy anybody. The space combat is there, and some of the ground action that kept the heart pumping in the previous novel. The blend of the stately dance of space warfare is tactically convincing and well realised; the infantry battles are visceral moments of violence entwined with adrenaline and blood.

It keeps you turning pages, that’s a fact. The characters definitely have the depth and complexity of real people, and they’re working against a well-drawn background to provide a masterful blend of politics, personal drama and hard-hitting military action which kept me looking at the next page, and the next, and the next. So yeah, if you need some more sci-fi military action, this continues to be a breakout series that is absolutely worthy of your attention.

Wednesday, September 12, 2018

War Cry - Brian McClellan

So, War Cry. It’s a new novella from Brian McClellan, whose flintlock fantasy  ‘Powder Mage’ series has taken the world by storm.

War Cry is an introduction to a new series, a new world. It has new characters, and new secrets to discover. Is it any good though? Well, yes, actually. It really is. The short version is, this is a tautly plotted war story with enough steady characterisation to keep you reading, and enough cool bits that you’ll want to.

The long version starts here. It starts in a world devastated by war, and tired of conflict. It’s a small world, granted. Just a few kilometres across. But that’s enough for a team of military scouts, lurking in a camp in barren, rough terrain, keeping an eye on an enemy they’ve never found a reason not to hate. This is a world which lives in a war that, for its inhabitants, has no end. They’ve grown up with war, they’ve lived with war, they’re fighting a war, and they fully expect to either die in combat or later, with the conflict rumbling on in the background. The mood evoked is one of exhaustion, seeping off the page in draughts of crappy coffee and all-nighters. There’s a sense in there, too, that this is a war old enough that no-one can remember why it happened, or how to stop it. Everyone seems tiredly resigned to the conflict grinding on, and their resignation seeps through the text. This is a place where everyone is performing their duties by rote, where blood and death are a matter of procedure, rather than ideology.

The environment is interesting as well. There’s something in the biplanes, in the geography of quiet plains and mountains which recalls the Spanish civil war, and the sense of wide open spaces backed by plunging heights is one which will stick with me for a while.

Into this space march the strange and unknowable; the Changers are monsters, killers, able to turn into something more and less than human. The Shining Tom’s, a last survivor of a different, less conflict-driven world, wield illusion like a knife, hiding aircraft, supplies, armies on the march. This is a world tired of war, to be sure, but it’s also rather good at it – and that professionalism wars with a sense of fatigue, to give us something which feels real – not the ra-ra patriotism of a TV advert, but the feeling of people dragging themselves out of an uncomfortable bed every day to do what they feel they must. It’s a job, a job backed by a long tarnished ideal, and by necessity.

Into that job walks Teado. He’s a Changer. A monster. A killer. A man trying to figure out what the point of it all is, bemoaning the crappy coffee and debating whether its worth springting over the border and seeking asylum with the enemy. Teado has a sense of singular purpose about him, but that purpose is now riven with doubt, in the face of a long, grinding war where ideals have long ago given way to mud and blood. Still, he has a refreshing honesty behind the fatigue – loyal to his squad, to the friends they’ve now become. Acerbically cynical about the war and its causes, but fatalistically accepting of a rle within it. Teado carries the sense of a veteran about him, as do his team – and if he’s special for is powers, they think no less of him for that.

Make no mistake, this is a war story, an introduction to a world steeped in a long running national grudge match. But it’s not a story where force of arms and glorious charges win the day, but one where individuals are doing their very best to survive, and perhaps incidentally, to win. Teados squad are a delightful pack of individuals – a superior broken by tragedy, a hardened colleague, a flyer obsessed with his machine, an illusionist trying to work out who they could be in another, quieter life.  In their mundane concerns and their passionate responses, they help carry and convince Teado as human.

The plot – well, it rattles along at a good pace. There’s excitement, adventure and high stakes derring-do. There’s battles, for sure. There’s blood and guts and the sort of emotional punch that leaves you wanting to have a quiet drink and a think about what it means to be people. There’s thoughtful subtext about the shapes of conflict and they way it resolves. And also there’s magical war-lizards, illusionists and bombing raids.
This is a fearless, imaginative, scintillating work of fantasy, with some intriguing ideas, expressed with a sense of wonder. I’d say it’s more than recommended as a stand-alone, and also worth keeping an eye on as the start of a larger world. I’m really looking forward to seeing what happens next

Monday, September 10, 2018

Rob Boffard - Becoming a character competition!

So, Rob Boffard, whose books I have said very nice things about in the past, is having a competition.

The prize is becoming a character in one of their books.

They're really rather good books, and this is a chance for literary immortality.

With that in mind, I encourage you to pop over to their site before the 15th of October and get your entry in.

Reading about characters in Rob's work is always a joy, but reading about yourself has to be one notch up.

Anyway, get in there, enter, (maybe) become immortal! What have you got to lose?

Wednesday, September 5, 2018

Tempests And Slaughter - Tamora Pierce

Tempests And Slaughter is the start of a new series from Tamora Pierce. If you’ve not read any of her other work before (and I hadn’t!), it works as a standalone series. I’m told, though, that it also ties into the prequel history of some of her other, existing series – so if you’re an existing fan, it sounds like there’s a rich vein of history and lore for you to delve into here.

On its own merits, though, this remains a book worth picking up and giving a read.
The centre of the book is Arram Draper, a child growing into adulthood. Arram is a thoughtful boy with an absence of social graces. Left in the care of a magical school by his family, Arram begins the story alone and friendless. This isn’t really too problematic a state of affairs, as Arram doesn’t come off as a natural, charismatic leader. Though he has a well defined moral sense, he seems often happy enough in his own world, trying to discover how things work. That retiring nature, however, is backed up by extremely high magical potential, which makes keeping out of the spotlight more difficult than it might otherwise be.

The portrayal of Arram is a sympathetic and detailed one, which lets us behind the eyes of a young person growing toward adulthood within an isolated, institutional framework. The text doesn’t flinch away from the consequences of his social awkwardness mixed with potential; in fact it wants to look at the resentment that this can generate, and the way Arram faces up to that. But at heart, it’s letting the reader into the head and heart of a boy who hasn’t yet worked out who he is, trying to shape himself against the vicissitudes of a system which takes a particularly strong interest in shaping him, possibly not for his own benefit.

I’ve  got a lot of time for Arram; that story of social confusion and awkward intelligence gives him a heartfelt humanity. This is a protagonist who may not (yet) be shaking cities or throwing lightning, but between being a magical prodigy, he’s afraid, looking for approval, looking to define himself as much as anyone at that age. A reasonable amount of the book is walking alongside Arram as he tries to figure out who he is and what he wants – through classes in history, through magical experimentation, through talking to tutors and making friends. In some ways, this is a comfortable tale about self-realisation, with bonus thunderbolts.

Arram isn’t entirely on his own of course – he makes a couple of friends, the effusive Varice, a young woman whose charm is already dazzling, and the more taciturn, conflicted Ozorne, a prince so far down the line of succession that it seems like everyone’s forgotten he was there. Varice carries an effervescent energy and weight of emotional maturity which make a nice contrast to Arram’s bafflement – she’s just as likely as the other two to get into trouble, but more likely to have a backup plan or an eye on the consequences. Ozorne is by turns a social butterfly and morose, seeking solitude; there’s a sense there of a sword waiting to be drawn, a penchant for temper and some deep rooted anxieties and prejudices which, along with his own sense that he lacks worth, may make up an interesting emotional cocktail in later books. For now, though, this tripod of friends feels fiercely loyal, each accepting the honesty and capacity for emotional truth given up by the other two. If they are on occasion beset by bullies, or have to deal with teachers with a less than stellar health-and-safety record, still they bear each other up; even as the stakes grow higher, they do, still, bear each other up. It’s a complex relationship, a deep friendship with emotional undercurrents running through each member of the group – and if it’s possible to see potential cracks in the foundation, still it’s a heartwarming thing to see so tight-knit a crew of friends.

In their day to day conflicts with each other, their discussions between themselves and with teachers, which shame them even as they looking at the world around them, in their affections and rare enmities, you can see a group of real, complicated young adults; their trials and tribulations mean they come off the page as people, even when they’re using magic for healing, or dealing with otherworldy entities – because they’re also crying over breakups, and losing their socks. This precision-crafted mixture of the fantastic and the prosaic makes for compelling reading.

They live in a fully realised, fleshed out world as well, these complicated people. Indeed, their struggles with that world are part of what makes them tick. The land in which Arram finds himself feels like it’s the centre of the known world – with great armies, advances in medicine and arcane theory, and elaborate civic buildings. But behind the façade there’s something darker:  one can see the blood and oppression of slavery, and a sense of superiority, even racism to members of certain geographical groups, born from an implied history of conflict and conquest. We (and Arram) see a lot of the glittering spires of the cognoscenti, but the underpinnings of the society are rather less pleasant. For all that, Arram’s new school, his new home, is a sprawling metropolis within an empire and his perspective lets us see that city at its best and worst, from the courts to the gutters. Pierce has crafted a rich and detailed world here, one with fearsome and imaginative depth, in which it was a pleasure to be immersed.

The plot – well, I won’t spoil it. But it’s centred on Arram finding himself, learning to deal with his powers at the same time that he tries to deal with people. There’s some other stuff happening here too, though – the gentle swell of politics occurring just out of view, and a sense of stormclouds gathering over the horizon. The title promised tempests and slaughter, and here they can be found, both metaphorically and...otherwise. But really, this is Arram’s story, a personal story about friendship and growth, and that was more than enough to keep me turning the pages.

This is top notch fantasy, even if it’s not full of elves, dragons and epic battles. It’s about young people growing toward adulthood, in a world which is so different from ours, but also much the same. If it lacks in talking swords and buried treasure, it more than makes up for that with prose packed with honesty and heart. As a first time reader, this absolutely did not disappoint, and I’ll be coming back for more.

Wednesday, August 29, 2018

Darksoul - Anna Stephens

Darksoul is the second in Anna Stephen’s ‘Godblind’ series, the first of which was very well received last year.  Darksoul, though, is something else. It’s a tightly plotted , bloody, emotionally convincing, massively affecting work of fantasy. This is a book which wants to make you feel. It mostly doesn’t want to make you feel good, but that’s how this goes. It’s got prose carrying an emotional payload which is a kick in the groin and a stab in the heart at once. It’s going to make you feel atrocities at work, feel betrayal, feel the liquid stain of blood on the floor – and then give you a contrast of hope, of people acting better than they have any right to be, of heroism and selflessness against a dark background.
This is a book which is prepared to embrace the bleak. It looks full in the face of the horror of war, and doesn’t flinch. But if that horror carries mitigation, that’s also here.

I guess what I’m saying is, know what you’re walking into. Godblind wasn’t all sunshine and daffodils, but Darksoul takes it up a notch. Conflict is damaging, to ideals, to cities, to people. This is a book that is, in some ways, about that damage, and it won’t let you look away.

Darksoul’s world is one of conflict. The central focus for this book is the siege of the city of Rilporin. The defenders are outnumbered, unable to call for reinforcements, but holding out hope for rescue anyway. The city is battered, for sure. There’s a sense that the military command is hamstrung by a civilian aristocracy whose main concern is their own necks. That said, the reader can see heroes here, people standing up for their home and their beliefs, in the face of appalling odds and the likelihood of a horrifying fate if the city falls. There’s a sense that Rilpor is the idea of its citizens, of the civilians prepared to put themselves in the line of fire for ideals of a nation. On the other side of the siege, though, the same attraction to ideals is what powers their enemies. 

Say what you will about the  Mireces and their penchant for brutal torture and blood sacrifice, (and it’s presented here in a graphic and repellent fashion) they have an iron-clad conviction that they’re performing the will of their deities. The text can use that conviction to explore interesting ideas; for example how far do you go to defend an idea, and do the words of a god define the morality of their followers. There’s  a thoughtful intellectual framework here underpinning the story. As a side effect, the reader is unable to say that the Mireces are just slavering villains; we’re forced to see them as people. People doing awful things, yes, but the idea that they’re just monsters is challenged in their ideological loyalties. They don’t feel like what they’re doing is wrong, even as the Rilporians look at their actions with horror.

There’s certainly plenty of time to examine those actions – this is, after all, a siege. The high-wire tension and pressure that comes with that is wonderfully evoked as we study the besieged. They live at a perpetual slow boil, wondering when the next attack will come, or the next, or the next. That tension runs through every interaction, as officers try to motivate soldiers slipping on the edges of despair, and commanders try to convince their officers to take troops back onto the wall one more time (and the time after that). This tension cranks up throughout the book – each page is one more turn of the screw, for the reader as well as the characters trapped behind city walls. Darksoul  a beautifully appalling and thoroughly convincing portrayal of a city under siege, and it gets there by vibrantly portraying the characters that make up that siege, on both sides of the wall. Rilporin, with its towers and tall gates, Rilporin is alive – and the Mireces camp, with its fanatics and bloodsplashed on the earth, is equally so.

Speaking of characters – there’s quite a few familiar faces here, though not always in their familiar roles. Dom, the calestar, is a study in horror.  As his connection to the liminal, to the divine, has increased, his sanity has lessened. Unable to act other than at the will of the gods, he’s washed away in submission to wills not his own. With a mind broken, and  adapting to that break, Dom is a person capable of anything. That typically doesn’t mean anything good, though. Seeing the changes wrought on his flesh  is repellent, and given his role in Godblind, downright horrifying. A good man, of sorts, trying his best, has become something other, something which sits outside our framework of meaning, and acts as  it feels it must. Dom’s madness reeks on the page, pervades every line he speaks and every action he takes – and the wreckage of the man that he was rips through the reader even as it devastates those around him.

We get some more time with Crys as well; he’s still as rambunctious as ever, bonhomie hiding a cmplex character whose emotional responses are socially circumscribed, and all the more believable for that. As Crys tries to work out what he wants, and how he feels, , the raw emotion comes ofdf the page alongside a complex, believable persona. Crys is friendly, charming, and ever-so-slightly detached – but his personal struggles behind the façade of a career officer ring true, and give him a depth which made me care about what would happen to him next.

They’re not alone of course. Stephens gives us an ensemble piece this time around. Each of the characters, from the master mason determined to hold the city together, to the Rilpor captain determined to do her duty in the face of the end of everything she knows, to the Mireces themselves – they all have a heart, a breadth and emotional depth which gives them a feeling of being people, which makes you care about them, and feel with them. A word for the Mireces in particular, who manage to be vile people doing utterly unspeakable things, but don’t feel like mustachio-twirling villains. Theirs is a culture of blood, conflict and horror, and what they know is what they propagate, with the backing of their divinities. They’re unflinchingly appalling, but have a complexity and resonance which means they’re far more than caricatures.

This gives the conflict between Mireces and Rilporian more weight, and if I always knew what side I was on, the Mireces were believably consistent in their desire for blood, skulls and revenge.
Which, I have to say, there’s plenty of. The siege, as I said earlier, is the focus. If the slow burn of tension between attacks lets us into the characters world, the struggles of the conflict are brutally kinetic – hard, fast, and bloody conflicts. This is a world where wounds kill, where captivity isn’t going to end well, and where anyone can die. Arrows wing down out of the sky and pick off a friend, someone you’ve shared a chapter or two with. Or someone pushes a ladder off a wall, and the bloke you thought sounded interesting a few pages back falls screaming to their death. This is unflinching, unrelenting in its description of the horrors of war, its justifications and necessities.
It’s not all blood and fire and tears, for which I’m grateful; it contrasts those darker moments with opportunities for hope, for forgiveness, even for love – but it’s not afraid to show what people will do for those things, and what the costs are. Those costs are wonderfully portrayed, from the glint in a fire as it tears through a building, to the hot stink of blood when an arrow punches out someones eye. There’s always a price, and Darksoul wants us to accept what it is.

In the final analysis, people will want to know if this is the sequel they wanted after Godblind. That’s a wholehearted yes. It has taut, compelling plotting, and the characters will make you feel for them, for their struggles, their lives, their deaths. The story is an emotional rollercoaster, which will put your heart in your mouth and keep it there, page after page after page. I won’t tell you how the journey ends, but I promise you this – you won’t regret taking the risk, taking the ride. Godblind is powerful, evocative fantasy, and if you came out of the first book in the series wanting more, then you owe it to yourself to pick this one up.

Thursday, August 23, 2018

Foundryside - Robert Jackson Bennett

Foundryside is, and I want to get this out of the way now, a great book. It’s by Robert Jackson Bennett, whose “Divine Cities” trilogy has been one of the highlights of fantasy narrative for the last few years. Foundryside is something new. It’s a heist story, yes. A tense race of exquisite planning against the clock, one which kept me turning the pages to see if, or how, anyone was going to walk away from the job. But it’s also a nuanced character piece, looking at the ways we limit ourselves, and at how we have the ability to recognise and exceed our potential. It’s a social parable, with interesting things to say about the concentration of economic power into the hands of oligarchs, and the effects this has on social cohesion. Foundryside has a lot going on. It wants to tell a good story, and it succeeds at that, in part because it wants you to care about its characters (and it succeeds at that too). But behind the fast-paced narrative, the emotional depth and the snappy one-liners are the edges of themes, surfacing implicitly in the text, inviting the reader to embrace them, or at least argue with them. This is a book which will give you a rip-roaring story, no doubt. But there’s a lot to think about, too.

The pivot of the novel is Sancia. A pragmatic young woman who lives in one of the less salubrious parts of town, Sancia has made a career out of extracting hard-to-reach property from difficult locations. That the property belongs to someone other than her client, or that the location is a vault or fortified home is incidental. Sancia is smart, and Sancia is driven. She’s determined to get out of the poverty which surrounds her, and that energy is paired with a steely resolve which gives her real bite. That said, Sancia carries her youth not in her naivety, but perhaps in her willingness to take risks. Some of that is because Sancia is also rather trauamatised. This is a convincing, detailed portrayal of a young woman who has been through a lot, who has the grit and determination to bounce back and make something of herself. Quite what that something is, that’s a different question. Still, Sancia’s pain is paired well with her fire and energy; she’s a sympathetic protagonist, with deep roots, conflicting issues, and a rich emotional life. Sancia also kicks serious arse, moving from meticulously planning a heist to being the driving force in carrying it out, to making gut decisions in milliseconds when it all goes wrong. Smart, funny, driven, with the emotional scars that help make us all human, and with so much potential – she’s an absolute force, and a delight on the page, and I always wanted to see where she would take us next.  

Though the wolrd turns on Sancia, she’s not the only person in the book. There’s down-at-hells magic engineers trying to make enough to get by. There’s the captain of a new watch force, back from a war, more than a little traumatised himself, and trying to do some good. There’s bevvies of thugs, swindlers and assorted troublemakers. There’s heads of merchant houses, as close as you can get to rulers with a vault full of money, shark-like ruthlessness and more than a little insanity. There’s old loves and hidden histories waiting to unfurl in the substrata of the story. What there is, then, is a vibrant, colourful world, with all its delights and horrors, which Sancia walks through with us.

Speaking of the world – it’s really rather interesting. There are notes of the Renaissance here, in the concentration of political power to those with money, rather than a hereditary aristocracy. The merchant houses of this world are the true powers in their city, and their city is one of the great powers in the world. Those who rule the houses live in light, with clean water and elaborate labour saving devices. Those who serve the houses live comfortably. Everyone else, those without the skills required, or too broken to be useful any longer, live in the mud and squalor between the fortified compounds of the houses. This is a society dominated by oligarchs, one where anyone can succeed, but those who start out holding all the cards have rather a lot of advantages. It’s enchantment which makes the houses so powerful – their craftsmen can convince inanimate objects to act differently. 

Carts can have their wheels run forever. Lights can burn in perpetuity. Items can be crafted to do almost anything. Of course there are risks; craftsmanship comes with the exciting opportunity to blow off a limb, or have your face melt off when a sigil you’ve carved does something you weren’t expecting. But these enchantments sit at the heart of the power of the establishment, and if much of their knowledge is pulled from the remains of an older, vanished civilisation, people are too busy getting rich or starving to death to care. This is laissez-faire capitalism with magic, and it has an eye on inequalities and injustices. The book approaches these unflinchingly, examines the reasons they exist, the systems which allow inequality to survive and thrive – and does so while giving you an absolutely storming story to go with it, as you explore the city alongside Sancia.

Speaking of the plot – well, no spoilers. But it starts out with a heist, with tension ratcheting up page-by-page-by-page. With a massive risk counterbalanced by the opportunity for a great reward. That’s not where it ends though. As the story drives forward, the stakes get higher. It’s always on the boil, and I was always waiting, on each turn of the page, for the other paradigm-shattering shoe to drop. The colloquial style makes for a compelling read, and the emotional heart of the text means that you feel each victory and defeat as your own. It’s a story whose tensions are manifold and manifest, and they’re played against each other masterfully to provide an action-packed yarn which also has the emotional resonance of a kick in the gut. I laughed, often (Sancia has rather a line in banter). I gasped, more than once. As often, I fought back tears. The prose wants to get into your head, and make you feel, and think about the way you feel – and think about why you don’t.

Is this a good book? No. It’s a great book. It delves into complex issues with eyes wide-open and no apologies, but gives you a cracking story and a kick-arse heroine to go with it. It’s not just the Divine Cities over again – this is something new, but it has the quality, the impact of those books, even as it builds something new. Pick it up. Read it. It’s worth your time.

Monday, August 20, 2018

Foundryside Blog Tour

Hi everyone!

I know we usually put a new review up on Wednesday, but this week, it'll be coming out on Thursday instead.

I'm excited to say that's because we've been asked to participate in the Foundryside blog tour!

See below for the dates of reviews which will be going out from some other brilliant bloggers this week - and we'll see you back here on Thursday for our own take on it.

Wednesday, August 15, 2018

The Tower of Living and Dying - Anna Smith Spark

The Tower of Living and Dying. Lets start with this: It is not kidding around. It. Is. Not. Kidding. Around. 

This is a story which delves into the darkness which sits at the heart of humanity. It explores the way human nature intermingles atrocities and violence with the capacity for love and joy, even in (perhaps especially within) those who might be seen elsewhere as monsters. In fact the existence of monsters feels a little outside the strokes the story is painting in. I’ll see about unpacking that later. For now, know this. There’s outright slaughter here, the obliteration of towns and cities, wrapped aroundan exploration of a corrosive and nihilistic philosophy. There’s scads of political expediency. 

There’s some genuinely epic magic, the sort that makes you go back over a page to understand the consequences. There’s a knowledge of and a need to investigate the love of destruction and violence, and the struggle for creation to survive in the face of the destruction of entropy. This is a book which wants to tell you about people – and people are, broadly speaking, pretty messed up. They’re happy to slash and burn and torture and kill, given a cause and a figurehead and permission. They’ll wrap themselves in the cloak of ideals to bring themselves to power on a tower of skulls. And if they don’t, if they won’t, then they’ll be eliminated by those who do.

This is a bleak view. It’s one which deserves a soundtrack filled with a lashing guitar riff and some serious bass, whilst the lights dim and something, let’s not ask what, flies its mammoth carcass over the audience.

This is a story, absolutely. It’s about a rise to power, about a couple deciding who and what they are. It’s about a decaying empire, and the measures necessary to protect and preserve it. It’s about an imagined past, about constructing a truth which justifies your actions. It’s about starting a campaign of world-wide conquest in blood and fire. About bathing in the blood of your enemies and enjoying it. It’s about relationships, and the compromises you’re willing to make to be with the ones you love, and to build a life you can feel is your own. There’s a lot going on here. A world-changing, world-spanning plot, shaking the status quo to its foundations. Some absolutely fantastic characterisation, giving us complicated, broken, confused people, who are simultaneously trying their best and also absolutely awful. And a tapestry behind them, a world shaped by a deeply embedded past, current events wrought in the spilled blood of their ancestors terrible mistakes.

This is a book with a Big Mood, is what I’m saying.

It’s unabashedly complex. There’s a story here, of conquest and betrayal, and that would’ve been enough to keep me turning the pages, that’s a fact. But sliding underneath the lyrical, wine-dark prose, the language which is so smooth and so sharp that it’s in and out like a stiletto, is everything else.

The characters that started shaping the world are still with us. Marith…ah, poor, broken Marith. A young man who always knew what he was capable of, if he allowed it, has now run off the leash. Anchored by his affections, and by necessity, he’s reaching out to protect himself and those close to him. In doing that, he’s also trying to become a king. There’s a sense of escalation here – as every step he takes binds him tighter to a path of conquest. Marith wants to be seen, to be recognised and loved, and feels the need for that love keenly, and often selfishly. That feeling lives on the edge of more complex turmoil – about his relationship with his father, with a stepmother he’s reduced to an archetype of betrayal, about the unreliable narratives of which he’s constructed his life. Marith needs and wants and reaches out and takes – but he’s self-aware enough to recognise the needs which drive home, and which also drive him toward self-destruction. That doesn’t mean he pushes them away. Not always, maybe even not often. There’s a part of Marith which glorifies in destruction, his death-urge sublimated into laying waste to those around him. That part is twisted around the other, which wants to keep those around him safe, wants their love and their need for him to be as great as his for them. Inevitably he’s disappointed, and the undercurrents of emotional betrayal lace their way through his non-delusions of adequacy. Marith is emotionally warped, and struggling to be true, to be himself – or, perhaps, not to be himself. Whatever he is though, it has potential – for wonder, horror, or more typically, wondrous horror. Marith isn’t a nice man, but he’s incredibly emotionally affecting, and a genuinely compelling protagonist.

In his circle of desperate attempts to feel alive, to feel life and love and humanity, and to destroy everything which gives him those feelings before he’s betrayed, he’s ably assisted, if that’s the word, by Thalia. Thalia was the high priestes of a decaying empire once, a woman who made a living of sorts living in a compound, never able to leave, sacrificing men, women and children daily for the glory of her god. Thalia isn’t an especially nice person either. That said, she carries her scars differently than Marith. With more dignity, perhaps. Though her vulnerability is just as clear, seething under the surfaces as she finds herself tied to a man she loves but is often horrified by. Still, she’s nobody’s fool or pet, Thalia. Kindness in the immediate sense she has, but her own past an own her as much as Marith’s – perhaps more so, as she seems to have a firmer idea o what it is.
They’re the power-couple of tyranny. Broken, tortured souls, doing some good and a lot of terrible, terrible things in service to their own goals – and they’re grand goals, to be sure. Rebuilding the past. Living a secure, bountiful live of love and harmony. But somehow they seem to involve rather a lot of blood.

Then there’s our man in Sorlost, the sclerotic squirt of a city which is all that remains of a once-great Empire. The emotional complexity here actually made me gasp more than once; an arranged political marriage and a preference for other men are the undercurrents to a complicated personal life. But that life, the love for more than one person, in different ways, is nuanced, thoughtful, one which is explored with care. It’s laced through a lot of cutting edge politics (and the appearance of knives in Sorlost’s politics means that this isn’t entirely metaphorical). A lot of people end up dead when someone’s trying to make a better world. If Marith’s nihilism does that through violence, through the adrenaline and semi-sexual surges of destruction and mayhem, this quieter death, building alliances and dynasties through reputation-shredding and assassination is a difference of kind, rather than type. The issue here is that despite the best motives in the world, death follows. Is Martih more honest? Perhaps. Does the goal matter more or less than the result? These aren’t quite questions at the forefront of the mind, between death-squads and marauding armies, but they’re questions the text asks, nonetheless. It’s there to say, who are our protagonists. Are they heroes? When things get messy, when things aren’t simple, when you can’t fix what you’ve broken, what happens next? These aren’t heroes, exactly – they’re people trying to do their best in the world around them, and their lives and loves and thoughts and feelings are as vital as that of the reader, in their complexity, in their emphasis on shades of grey, even in their embrace of occasional absolutes.
Reading through, these are complicated, awkward people, and if they’re not people you’d want to spend any time with, they’re still delightfully, appallingly human.

The plot? Look, I’m not going to spoil that for you. But there’s a lot going on in between the pages. Armies on the march. Ancient magics revealed. Some charmingly byzantine political maoeuvering. Crosses. Double crosses. Triple-crosses. Basically all the betrayal you can swallow, really. I’m surprised anyone shakes hands in this book without checking to make sure they get more than a stump back. There’s life and love out there too, and exploring of different lands, some damned and broken, others less so. This is the book that throws open the horror and wonder that encapsulated the world, and shows what’s out there to explore. Admittedly, that exploration is often done at the point of a blade. This book is a long, complicated refrain filled with power chords. It wants you to feel, feel the intensity, feel the love, feel the death, feel the anger. It wants to talk about the eroticism of male violence, the way it’s subsumed into a society which ties up killing with release and a social death wish. It wants to talk about life, and the way stability and arrogance lead to calcification, and that breaking out of that sort of stasis may or may not end up being a good thing. It explores systems and the way they work, but it does so through the agency of its characters – thoughtful, appalling people who live and laugh and love and occasionally find joy in torture and massacre.

 In the end, this is a breath-taking. It has amazing scope, and sets out to explore that narrative space with the reader in an intelligent, thoughtful and uncompromising way. It does that, lets you get under the skin of people and society, and ask some large, interesting questions – and also tells an absolutely storming story, filled with magic, mayhem, conquest, politics and romance.

It’s great, is what I’m saying. If you’re wondering if this is the sequel you wanted after The Court of Broken Knives…yes, yes it is. Should you read it? Yes, yes you should.

Wednesday, August 8, 2018

From Unseen Fire - Cass Morris

If From Unseen Fire has an elevator pitch, it’s “The Roman Republic, but with magic.” It feels like an alternate history – one where the broad historical strokes until the start of the book are the same, and some of the names have been changed. Rome is now Aven, but it’s roots are still a constitutional republic after an overthrown monarchy, its ruling class are still patricians, there’s still a Suburra, the city still lies on seven hills, founded by the twins, and its disciplined legions are still the envy and fear of the world.

Most of the story takes place in Aven, and you can feel the warm winds of the middle sea casting themselves across the impressive civic edifices. Aven has a stratified class structure, based on heredity, military service and wealth. The families at its heart are rich and politically active, surrounded by layers of retainers and hangers on – all with a view to serving the man in the street, whose power comes from the occasional well-timed riot. Most of our view on this society comes from the privileged – the en-toga’d candidates for political office, and their circles, but we do get to see something of the grittier side to existence in this greatest metropolis of the age. Aven thrives. It’s full of boundless energy, of people prepared to have stand-up arguments in public, or get together to form an impromptu fire brigade. They’re a people expressing themselves; and one of the themes running through the text is the price of that expression, personally and on a broader level. 

For all Aven is alive, its’ also suffered under the heel of a dictator – a man with a penchant for death squads, proscriptions and exiles. Coming out the other side is a society in shock, which doesn’t quite know what it is any longer. But much of it is innately recognisable, at least on the surface, if you’ve seen a costume drama – the familiar masking the strange. The strangeness comes with the magic, with the different schools – light, fire, shadow, fracture and so on. These seem to be present across society, undeniably effective, and their presence regarded as a positive indication of the existence of gods. As an aside, there’s a really nuanced portrayal of religion occurring in the background here, which I hope will be explored later on. But the magix. Oh it throws society into the air – but also, in the way of humanity, doesn’t. The rich retain their talented scions, despite a law preventing their participation in politics; the poor shift them into roles which serve the state, buying a better life with magical firepower.  It’s a delightfully disruptive influence, ontained by social institutions which have clearly expanded to accept it.

Aven is, in summary, alive. It has a lot of similarities to Rome, yes. Legionaries, absolutely. Senators, Consuls, a burgeoning territory and a penchant for internecine political warfare, absolutely. It has a religion which lives and breathes and feels alive, and has the sort of concrete results which help describe a world-view as well as explain its strangeness. Other things too, are similar. Women live lives circumscribed by custom and practice, marrying and  raising children, or otherwise cloaking their ambitions inside those of their fathers and husbands. That isn’t to say they lack agency; many of the female characters are searing indictments of the system, even as they accept it – strong, independent women working within the confines of their social mores, and sometimes breaking free of those bonds, whilst the men around them watch with various degrees of wonder, and various degrees of acceptance.

Yes, this is Rome with magic. It’s clearly well researched, and gives us a nuanced view of the post-Republic antique world, backed by the sort of close personality study which makes the world feel alive. I’d like to throw out a mention to the non-Aven locales as well – particularly the tribal societies in not-Hispania. There is something darker and bloodier at work here, a society which takes the rush of carmine and uses it to work the will of its people. But these aren’t faceless barbarians – they’re thoughtful, awkward people. They struggle against a cultural imperialism which Aven defines, and if were sympathetic to the Aven cast, their counterparts are a plucky underdog whom it is possible to sympathise with. If Aven is the light of civilisation as we recognise it, then their opposition aren’t savage monsters, but something far more nuanced – a people struggling to protect their hime against encroaching cultural hegemony, often issued at the point of a sword. That friction between two groups helps direct the conflict. If the inhabitants of Aven are always busy stabbing each other in the back, so too must we consider those in their periphery – for whom even our most sympathetic characters are the enemy.  This is a conflict of cultures, backed with iron and magic.

Speaking of characters. Our narrative focus is Latona, of the aristocratic Vitelliae family. Latona is intelligent and principled. The intelligence has served her well while dealing with a Dictator in the republic, the principles…perhaps less so. She carries a great deal of magical potential in fire and spirit – allowing the influencing of emotions and, helpfully, the ability to set things on fire. But these are powers she tamped down under the Dictator’s eye, and she lives now with the ingrained habits of fear, magic churning more and more noisily in the background of her soul. Latona is, it has to be said, frightfully nice; but she’s allowed herself to be defined by her anxieties and resulting emotional fragility, wrapped up in the fear of action such that she doesn’t take any at all. Latona is an incisive portrayal of a clever, competent woman wrapped in a spiral of shame and disbelief in her on skills. That her marriage is seemingly disintegrating, a convenient fig-leaf for political protection which is now slowly falling apart, is another source of emotional tension. That she bears up under her own fears, and pushes forward despite them, made her a character to cheer for over the course of the story.

The other half of the central core is Sempronius. Another aristocrat, he’s an ambitious man with an eye to the future. Specifically, a future where Aven is secure, well defended, and expansive. Sempronius is political, in a landscape thrown open by the death of the Dictator, which has disrupted the status quo. Like Latona, he’s razor sharp and competent; he is, however, less constrained by his own doubts. Articulate and charming, he genuinely seems to be looking for a way to make things better for the majority of Aven’s citizens; unsurprisingly, in a world where so much power is concentrated into the hands of wealthy families, and where social mobility is somewhat déclassé, this seems to make him more than a few enemies. This is a nuanced portrait of a leader who would like to think he’s a good man, doing what he thinks will be the right thing. That it also serves his ambition is perhaps incidental.

They’re supported by a sprawling cast of political allies, family friends, slaves and family members. Latona’s family are particularly worth a mention. One widowed, one troubled by magic of herown, they act as a lynchpin of Latona’s emotional stability. It’s great to see a warm portrayal of a close-knit family here – the emotional bonds are clear, the affection obvious, even when you’re watching them squabble.

On the other side,of course, are enemies. There’s those who’d rather no tsee their world turned into an Aven hegemony, and others who’d rather that the city on the hill returned to first principles, and sat in splendid isolation. I’ll leave the details of who serves what agenda for the reader to discover, but there are no cackling villains here. Those who act against our heroes do so not out of Iago-like malevolence, but because the think it’s the right thing to do. Admittedly, some questionable choices are made (though these do give us an eye on the darker side of magic, all blood and thunder, and on the non-Aven traditions). But those who make them genuinely believe in their causes. They may be doing some horrible things, but they have moral and ethical logic behind them, which lets them live and breathe as antagonists – multi-faceted people who may happen to be terrible, rather than one-note baddies.

The plot? Well, no spoilers. But the book packs a lot into its pages. There’s the burgeoning friendship between Latona and Sempronius. Latona’s struggles with her own doubts. The Vitelliae’s efforts to live together and find goals worth pursuing. Sempronius’ struggle for political security – including elections, scheming, and a few bloody moments of knives in the dark. Then there are struggles outside Aven, as a province slowly rises in rebellion; this leads to some marvellous military manoeuvring, and battles which carry all the grandeur and horror of war about them. This is the story of Aven, city which may yet rule the world, working out what kind of city it wants to be. It’s also the story of the people within it, shaping the destiny of the city with their words, their blades, their magic and their hearts.
I went into this one not knowing what to expect, and I finished the book hungry for more; and on that basis, I’d say it’s well worth reading.

Wednesday, August 1, 2018

The Wrong Stars - Tim Pratt

The Wrong Stars is a space opera of sorts, centred around the White Raven and its crew, a group of freelance security contractors with a penchant for putting their noses where they don’t belong, then trying to avoid having them shot off.

This is a universe where humanity has exploded outward from Earth, not just across the solar system, but into multiple systems. To do so, it uses tramlines of sorts – heading from one point to another via tunnels in space time, which can be opened via technology obtained by trading with an alien race. Ships travel to a transit point, then pop out at their destination.  This gives the universe a sense of distance, a feeling of scale which keeps everything else in perspective. People are spreading quickly, and there’s an optimism and sense of hope there, as well as an energy and drive which permeates the prose, a background mindset driving decisions. We’re still people, though, so even this diaspora is no utopia. Even within the solar system, there are splits that seem to run along corporate lines – great merchant houses jockeying for power and control in a quiet cold war. This means that the hope is intertwined with a certain tension, with internal conflicts that are quietly simmering, a contrast to the more positive expressions of humanity as it attempts to stretch its wings. This has benefits too, though – an implied increase in the amount of technology available for self-enhancement being just one of the perks.

That stretching, of course, has been brought about by the intervention of aliens. There’s one species floating around the galaxy, whose interactions with humanity aren’t violent. They seem happy to trade with humanity, speak with them, and largely stay out of the way. At this point, humans are more concerned with getting their feet under the table in a few more colonisable star systems than looking their benefactors gift horse in the mouth. As the story goes on, we get more context and background on this species; it’s excellent background, a thoughtful and nuanced portrayal of something with a perspective different to that of humanity.

Which matters less to the crew of the White Raven, who start the day chasing down pirates and troublemakers for one of the big corporations, on a nominally freelance basis. They’re a delightful found family filled transhuman cyborgs, hardass privateers, divertingly religious medics and a sarcastic AI. As an ensemble, the focus is clearly on Callie, the captain, but the others all have contributions to make, and f they don’t always get enough time on the page, what they do have is enough to make you care about what happens to them next.

I’ve got a lot of time for Callie, mind you. A woman determined to do her best for ship and crew, and even to do the right thing – albeit within certain pragmatic constraints of ‘right’. Callie learly carries old emotional injuries, but keeps much of that internalised – instead using her emotional energy to drive her crew forward. At the open, she feels like an iceberg, roiling the emotional waters internally, but presenting a largely convincing façade to the outside world. That she cares for her crew is never in doubt. That she’s also willing to kick arse and take names is also, veryqquickly, not in doubt either. Not a paragon, but a good-hearted contractor, trying to make ends meet and do the best they can, Callie’s mix of weariness and determination kept me turning pages, especially when that determination was backed up by terrifying technology and serious munitions.

On which note – this is an adventure story. There’s action, the kind that comes with expertly built tension, released in bursts of adrenaline and gunfire, for sure. But there’s an emotional heart here as well, which makes you care about that action – the characters clearly care about each other, and as they care, so do we, as they try and keep each other out of trouble, and stay alive. But there’s a lot going on. Archaeology, of sorts, and revelations about the nature of the universe, are backed by some brilliant fight scenes, which kept me on the edge of my seat while turning pages rather quickly. 

There’s big and small stakes in play here – from the fate of the universe to the fate of one woman’s heart. It’s smart, punchy sci-fi which has all the mixings of a cracking space adventure, blended to make something more than the sum of its parts. Most of all, it’s fun, and I’d encourage reading it on that basis; I’m certainly looking forward to seeing what the next book in the series brings!

Wednesday, July 25, 2018

The Secret Barrister: Stories of the Law and How It’s Broken - Anonymous

This isn't our usual fare over here on SF&F Reviews, but it was such a powerful, interesting read that I thought we'd talk about it.

The Secret Barrister: Stories of the Law and How It’s Broken is a book based on the blog by the eponymous (and anonymous) Secret Barrister. It explores every aspect of the system of law in Britain, from arrest through trial and sentencing, and  explores the roles of key actors in that system, such as solicitors, judges, magistrates, barristers, police officers et al., as well as organisations like the CPS. If you’ve ever wanted to know key differences between US and UK law when switching between Law & Order reruns and episodes of Broadchurch, this is the book for you. If you’ve ever wanted to know how the British justice system works – or if it works at all – this is also the book for you.

Full disclosure: This book made me very, very angry, which I suspect is one of its goals. It’s difficult to read about the system of justice failing and being failed as comprehensively as the text presents it and not get angry. The text forensically dissects every aspect of British justice, and while it’s willing to say where things are done well, it’s also incredibly scathing where things are not. And it turns out that there are quite a few cases where that’s the case.

But why does this work? Why do the stories here have such an impact? I think part of it is the style. 
This isn’t an impenetrable legal textbook, filled with scattered Latin phrases and a load of assumed knowledge. It’s in a chatty vernacular breezy and accessible to anyone, even – or perhaps especially – those of us with no legal training. That accessibility is a triumph; I imagine making the state of law and justice to the layman is a difficult thing to achieve. But it’s backed up by a passion in the words, an enthusiasm and sense of care which is evident in the prose even as it erupts off of the page. The author wants the reader to understand the system, to be sure – but that’s only part of the goal. Another part is that they understand why that system is important, and what the issues with it are.

In that, the text is a magnificent success. Its explorations of the system are erudite, the slings and arrows it hurls at that system precise as well as heavily barbed. There’s a sense here passing from author to reader that the British have one of the greatest justice systems in the world, if only we’d look after it properly. The personal stories – of cases abandoned or perversely decided due to spending cuts, of triumphs of law over common-sense, of everyday chaos wrought by those trying their best in an overloaded, underfunded world – give a sense of the immediate, and wrap the larger legal perspective up in something unafraid to show the consequences of that perspective on actual people.

This is an elegant, eloquent book, which serves as both a primer for understanding a system which sits in the background for the entirety of most people’s lives, but also carries a fiery passion and indignation at the way in which that system is being slowly dismembered, or failed by lack of funding, and a similar enthusiasm for its successes in spite of those flaws.  There’s an energy thrumming through the pages, an inherent decency and sense of urgency which makes each page at once a refreshingly intelligent exploration of complex problems, and a hard shot of cunning crafted sizzling rhetoric about how those problems are being ignored.

Should you read it? If you’ve ever wanted to know how the justice system works, in theory and in harder, grimier reality, yes. If you want to see the sparkle of an institution with potential, and the stark anger at the way in which that potential is wasted, yes. If you want to see how we can and should change things for the better, then yes. It’s an absolute barn-stormer of a book, one which will benefit multiple reasons, and inspire anger and hope in equal measure. Find a copy, buy a copy, read a copy. If nothing else, it’s likely to make you think, and that is some high praise indeed.

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.