Wednesday, November 14, 2018

Terms Of Enlistment - Marko Kloos

I came late to Marko Kloos’ ‘Frontlines’ military sci-fi series. I have to admit, I picked up the first book on a whim, because it was on sale, and I’m a sucker for the sub-genre, when done well. With that in mind, I didn’t have much in the way of expectations when I started, but it turns out this is actually a really well done military sci-fi novel!

Andrew Grayson is our viewpoint character, living on the margins in an earth already crammed to bursting. His subsistence existence in a tower block, where one doesn’t dare go out of doors without a firearm, evoked the earlier works of Pournelle. This is a young man uncertain of what he wants to do in life, constrained by a system with low expectations, which also helps to maintain those expectations. Those in the towers, living on pablum and broken hoe, aren’t expected to do better. I’ll give Kloos this: the dreary welfare towers he builds sound like awful places, rest-homes for the terminally unwilling and the criminally able. I’m not sure they work in the entirety as presented – the welfare recipients not having the same complexity as Andrew, who lives among them – but they give off an emotional mood that it’s hard to deny. Two parts hopelessness, which the reader can pic up alongside Andrew, living a meaningless drudgery of an existence, and one part burning rage, as tower-dwellers remember that they’re people, and react against government efforts to remove them.
As an aside, points to the writer for managing to make both sides of this struggle sympathetic. The internal military sent in to control riots are dedicated, thoughtful and conflicted in their mission, to prevent the rioters of a city from overflowing into the wider wold, but the rioters they’re indlicted on aren’t presented as any less than  humanity pushed to the edge, and looking for a  handle on control, even if that control is split amongst a roaring mob.

Anyway, Grayson. He’s an odd duck. Shown as the recipient of government largess, he’s easily wry, with a bite that made me chuckle, albeit one that doesn’t quite fit his background. He sounds cynical and smart, and that makes him readable in a world where genuine effacing of the self to authority is a given, but doesn’t necessarily make him likable. The kid makes a lot of bad decisions. On the other hand, he’s a kid. Smart, capable, driven, and the emotional heft of his poor background and efforts to escape it are convincing.

It helps that the military the author gives us is equally convincing. I won’t bore with armour ratings and ammo calibre, but suffice to say that its all well researched and, as far as it can be, spot on. Dropship pilots, infantry, its all there, the logistics given the incidental room between the larger background and the character pieces. They glow. You can feel the research poured into every line, even as a dropship powers off of an interstellar carrier to inconvenience some poor fool with high velocity munitions. This is a world which cares, which seeks authenticity. It has a military which has leapt in amongst the stars, but doesn’t quite know what to do with it yet. That said, its immersive and convincing. Lacking a military background, I still breathed this in and felt convinced that it could be real. There’s the same levels of ferocious affection and abysmal non-performance as in our actual government branches – extending this to the space-navy was no hardship.

In this world, where marine detachments suppress earthbound riots and soar between the stars, Kloos combines a detailed, convincing military and galactically political backdrop with a heartfelt personal story – as Andrew attempts to get his crap together between bouts of serious gunfire. There’s some brilliant, well-crafted moments of action, where my heart was in my mouth turning the pages wondering what would happen next, and some where I was reading about the government(s) of Earth and how they deal with threats – and both the immediate and the longer range worked well, and kept me on the page.

Is this for you? Well, if you’re looking for a new military sci-fi series, yes. Certain elements will be familiar – the young recruit, moving through the ranks – but well executed. Others will be fresh (much of the world) or prepared to subvert expectations. If mil-sci-fi is new to you, it’s a great story anyway, but if you’re a fan of the genre in search of a new entry, this one is definitely for you.

Wednesday, November 7, 2018

City of Kings - Rob J. Hayes

City of Kings is a fantasy novel set in Rob Hayes’ ‘First Earth’ sequence. It shares the setting with several duologies, and may be read as a sequel to one of those. However, City of kings sets out to be a standalone novel, and it mostly succeeds. I found having the extra context from some of the other books in the sequence was useful, and added a bit of narrative flavour, but the story rumbles along perfectly well  without any further knowledge.

This is a book about sieges, personal and, well, slightly more physical. The latter is clear enough. Crucible is a city of kings. Well, nobles. They’re a shifty lot, with not much to recommend them, other than a sense of implied privilege, and rather a lot of armaments. Crucible is under siege from an army led by our protagonists. It sits in the Wilds, an area apparently mostly lawless and akward, where the nobility has been thoroughly impressed with the notion of private law. They are, in sum, not used to getting their own way, and the countryside has risen up against them, arranged to brutally murder their friends, and now sits outside their door. The city of the title is a fortress. Murder holes. Walls for miles. Traps. Arrows everywhere. It’s not the sort fo place you want to storm. Hayes’ description is sparse but precise; it shapes the idea of a walled, impregnable city in the mind of the reader, and leaves you to fill in the rest.

The author does shape a believable world; the towering walls of Crucible feel as blank and imposing as they might ti any infantry on the wrong side, and the larger social system, where the ‘Blooded; sit over the top of the citizenry and soldiers is, of course, fairly familiar. Indeed, the revolt the reader is asked to step into, led by the Black Thorn (see below) has echoes of the peasant’s revolt about it. As the city falls under siege, it also aches with burn scars, with catapults, with assassination squads sent under the cover of darkness, with explosions, with the sense of necessity. This is a word which is nasty, brutish and short, but also has the hum and crackle of a space which is absolutely alive.

The Black Thorn is our clearest entry point into this space; he’s a thief, a murderer, an unashamed killer. He’s also a man in love, and a man who has made, and recognises, mistakes. Stolid, thoughtful, and increasingly aware of his own mortality, the Black Thorn is someone continually attempting to divest themselves of their own reputation. Still, he has a dry, cynical, world-weary delivery which matches the continual barrage of the story, and makes you wake up and care. The Thorn also has his own connections – relationships and old friendships, rendering his actions fraught with interpersonal complexity and peril. You may be asking, is the Thorn convincing, compelling enough to keep you turning pages.  Yes, I think so. He’s an archetype to be sure, a villain turned hero, exhausted by his own existence – but convincing enough, and the humanity is there in every page, the emotional depth and resonance keeping you looking forward.

There’s a diverse cast of course, from the ruthless outlaw queen-in-waiting, whose motives may not be as dark as they seem, to the struggling, fighting, dying squaddies desperate to get into the city, or at least not to be shot full of arrows. The villains of the piece are certainly the Blooded, the enemy, sat on their walls, throwing insults from an insulated position where privilege protects from consequence. They’re an awkward lot, and repulsively entertaining to read; that dealing with them requires moral compromise seems obvious, but also causing issues for those on the ground.

And what ground it is. This is the war story you’re looking for. Ladders on walls. Boiling oil. Sappers. Trolls. There’s blood absolutely everywhere. In a sense this is more a character piece, about how people deal with stress, anxiety, the potential and reality of disaster. It’s also a war story, and a comedy, and, as the drama rachets up, a heist in the making. There’s a lot going on between the flights of arrows and the swing of swords – and you should definitely be paying attention.

I’d recommend this book as a stand-alone; having the context of other books in the same world adds something, but even without those, it’s a page-turning adventure.

Wednesday, October 31, 2018

The Way of the Shield - Marshall Ryan Maresca

The Way of the Shield is the start of a new fantasy series from Marshall Ryan Maresca. It shares a setting with his other series – the sprawling metropolis of Maradaine, populated by mages, vigilantes, police investigators, criminals, cults, politicians – and now, knights.

The centre of the narrative is Dayne. Dayne is a member of the Tarian order, a group of heavily armed individuals with a code. There used to be more of these orders, but they’ve been slowly subsumed into the army and other government initiatives over the years, and now only the Tarians and one of the others are left. Dayne is an exemplar of Tarian values – keen to help those who can’t help themselves, and to protect lives. He has a degree of guilt for his inability to stop the deaths of those tht he’s protected in the past – but the Tarians demand he gets up in the morning, picks up his shield, and goes on to see what’s text.

Dayne is almost worryingly wholesome. He’s perpetually self-deprecating and self-punishing, at the same time as he lvies up to all the higher ideals of his order. A nice guy, but stern – a paladin in the making. Fortunately, perhaps, he’s backed up by a posse of other characters with their own flaws, I particularly enjoyed his friendship with a group of newspaper-folk, which provided the opportunity for exposition, some charmingly sharp witty banter, and a chance to explore the subtext of the role of the press in a less-than-free society.

Because that’s what Maradaine is, to be sure. It’s a metropolis, a city whose economy is thriving, whose people are surging through the streets. But it’s a city whose body politic is moribund. There’s a king who seems absent, and a parliament populated by the rich, the venal, the power hungry, or some combination of all three. Parliament represents the people, as long as the people are people like themselves – and that leaves those outside their circle fuming and aware of the injustice. If you can vote, but your vote will bring in one of two identical candidates – then where’s the choice? The Maradaine electorate is on the boil; the air of the city thick with tension.

Into thishotpot of havoc slides a conspiracy – I won’t get into details here, but they plan to change Maradaine’s politics, they would claim for the better. If the detailed, in-depth world-building is one of this book’s strengths, another is its antagonists; their goals are, if not laudable, at least understandable in a world of realpolitik. If their means are unpleasant, involving riots, deaths, assassinations, they’re backed by the pragmatic service of an achievable goal. These are not villains in their own minds, and we get some exposure to their point of view.

In another book, they might even serve as the heroes; here though, they are reflected in Dayne’s moral certitude, and found wanting. That said, Dayne’s not on his own; he’s backed by a Tarian trainee, and her attitude can mostly be described a stubborn and fierce. In between debates with the press-gang, seeing her work with Dayne is a joy. The fights are gloriously choreographed and kinetically hefty; you’ll taste the iron in the back of your throat, and slip on the blood on the floor from the drawn blades.

This is an adventure story. Dayne throws himself into righting wrongs, almost by accident. If he carries his own guilt, that just makes him more genuine. Despite his competence, his relative youth seems to leave him emotionally vulnerable in a city filled with movers and shakers with less moral rectitude and more emotional armour. But Dayne does right wrongs, and does so with a force of personality which you can feel pervading every word on the page. This is a story of heroes. Dayne, for sure, the moral beacon. But his friends bear him up, and keep hom facing in the right direction. His trainee – well, she’s amazing. Stubborn, forceful, confident in her own capability, refusing to take any crap from anyone. If Dayne is the centre, the spine of the story, she and his other friends are the muscles.

It's a poitical story, one which both demands and rewards your attention. It’s a personal story, dealing with pain, loss, heartbreak and forgiveness. It’s a story about morality, about sacrifice, about what people want from life. It’s a fun story – there’s quips, swordfights, chases through the streets. It’s a compelling, convincing work of fantasy, and a worthy addition to the rich tapestry that is the works of Maradaine. Pick it up, give it a try – you won’t be disappointed.

Wednesday, October 24, 2018

Skyward - Brandon Sanderson

Skyward is a book which is about several things at once. On the one hand, it’s a story about humanity, hiding out in bunkers beneath the surface of a battered world to avoid the attentions of a mysterious enemy. That world is only recently united, and now ina perpetual state of war, it inches along the unknowing precipice of totalitarianism, or militaristic deification. On another, it’s the story of a young girl trying to live up to the stories she’s told herself about her father, or live down the stories others tell about him. On the third hand, it wants to explore friendships, dig into the relationships that help carry us through the day – and whether we’re willing to bear their costs.

Before we get too far though, I want to share my initial review of Skyward, which I sketched out in the first twenty minutes after I finished it, having spent a day reading:

Is this good? Yes. I read it in a day. I stayed up far too late to see where it went, how it ended, and what might happen next.

I finished it 20 minutes ago, and I’m still buzzing with the energy of the story.

In short summary: Not a doorstop, narratively tight, hits some emotional beats that I felt in my gut. Some really solid worldbuilding and emotive, precise characterisation.

And also space fighter combat and explosions. Lots of that.

Heart-in-mouth, tensely paced battles, bookending questions about a young woman finding herself and examining a society that seems to be in a...not great place. Looks at some deep moral dilemmas and gives you some people to care about, to feel for and with. Triumphs, defeats, hope and pain.

Yeah, you’ll want to read this one. It crackles with potential, and delivers a story with a raw, genuine kick you can feel in your bones.

More later. But this? It’s different to say, Mistborn or Stormlight. But it has the same capacity to intrigue, devastate and enchant by turns. In its capacity to make you live, to feel, it’s Sanderson at his best.

If that’s enough for you – get out there and pick up a copy now. If not, there’s some more details below….

It’s a mark of Sanderson’s talent that though this is a sci-fi story, and though the soaring fighters and tired instructors feel as exotic as they do familiar, it holds a personal tale close to heart. Yes, there’s dogfights, and rivalries and heroism, and defeats and victories, and all of those things will get your adrenaline going and have you turning page after page after page, heart in mouth as you wonder if anyone will survive – but it’s the quieter moments, of a girl finding herself, refusing to give up, refusing to accept who she’s told she is, that seem to live at the heart of the text.

Spensa is our guide in this world, a young woman whose goal in life is to fly. The flyers are the rock stars of her world – and everyone else’s. Humanity lurks in caverns, out of sight of an enemy which persistently attacks any surface gatherings. Only one surface facility exists, and that only for decades. It’s here that humanity is making a stand – manufacturing fighters which are allowing them to take the fight to an enemy which has been ever-present for generations. The pilots are the public face of the war, a war which demands victory and total devotion to the cause of survival. Becoming a pilot is terrifyingly competitive – only the best of the best of recruits are allowed to fly the limited stock of fighters. It can also be lethal, with live fire exercises likely to involve enemy incursions, and with ejection informally discouraged as cowardice or as a moral failing – the pilot surviving rather than working until the last moment to save their fighter.

It’s a society teetering on the edge of something, to be sure. Pilots are worshipped, and the military idolised by a civilian population with no other way to hit back.

And that’s where Spensa comes in.

Smart, driven, and clearly unwilling to take any crap from anyone, she suffers from social ostracism; she and her mother eking out a living on the fringes of a society which has no place for her. With a palpable frustration that her social situation might prevent her from flying, and something of a grudge against the descendants of celebrated pilots, who get to enter flight school without undergoing the gruelling tests Spensa herself struggles to be allowed to undergo, she’s got a roiling emotional heat which steams off the page. It’s counterbalanced somewhat by Spensa also being rather likable. She has a deep sense of loyalty and friendship, and a highly developed sense of justice. That combines with her anger and leaves a passionate, fiery young woman, who wants to succeed, wants to do something – and won’t take no for an answer.

There’s something of a younger Top Gun vibe, as the pilots of Spensa’s training squadron bond and banter amongst themselves. All are aware that only a few of them will make the cut, though most are naïve enough not to be entirely sure what that means. The story portrays that dichotomy well; these are people desperate to fill a role, the best of the best – but also as personally conflicted as anyone else. There are petty rivalries, friendships, and internal squabbles. Above that is th the sheer certainty that what they do is necessary, and their energy and pride in doing what they feel is the right thing is obvious, and their hope resonates as you turn the page.

Interspersed with this story, of young people finding themselves and fighting the good fight, are the views of some adults, sympathetically or otherwise. They give the reader a different view of the conflict – perhaps not questioning its necessity, but more jaded, exhausted by the attrition of groups like Spensa’s. That divergent view lends another perspective, one which makes the passion and enthusiasm of their squadron, our squadron, more valuable than ever – they’re in a moment before the hammer drops, living a dream they have yet to realise in blood.

But anyway.

This is a fantastic book. It’s tightly plotted, and the prose is quick to read through and utterly gripping. There’s space battles – fast-paced, snappy, deadly, explosive space battles, with dog fights that carry high stakes for characters you’re invested in. It’s smart – we’re talking about government authoritarianism, about social class, about the sacrifices demanded in war, in between seeing how Spensa gets on with her new squadron and older attachments. It’s a book which had my heart ifting in my chest, the raw emotion of Spensa’s battles – physical and emotional – lifting and crashing like a tidal wave. In short, it’s an excellent sci-fi adventure story, one I literally couldn’t put down until I was done, one which invites and rewards being invested in its characters, and gives you a plot to sink your teeth into, with the promise of more to come.

I’ve always enjoyed Sanderson’s work, but this feels head and shoulders over the rest. If you’re looking for a new sci-fi story, pick this up. If you like a story with a fierce, no nonsense heroine, pick this up. If dogfights and banter are for you, pick this up. If you’re ready to look at the way a society constantly at war shapes itself to the demands of that conflict, pick this up. If you want to know about friendships, about joy and sorrow and loss – pick this up. It’s a good one.

Wednesday, October 17, 2018

Empress Of All Seasons - Emiko Jean

Empress Of All Seasons is a book about monsters, and people, and the way that the line between the two is quite a lot blurrier than you might think.

Mari is, at least in theory, a monster. A yokai, she can grow claws on demand, and use them to cause more than a little difficulty to people who might want to take advantage of her. Socially, she’s circumscribed by the customs of her village, filled with other yokai. They send daughters out into the world to find husbands, abandon them and then return with their treasure. Sons…well, it’s best not to think about what they do with sons. Mari, though, is different. In a village of beautiful monsters, she thinks herself ugly. So in order to find a husband, she trains to kill as well as to deceive. Because what she’s looking to steal isn’t just plates and rings, but an empire.

Mari’s world is encircled by the empire. The emperor is a man who hates the monsters in his realm; not just the yokai, but other creatures, greater and lesser threats to a dominion which relies on uniformity. But when the son of an emperor weds, their bride is chosen by competition. The competition is, of course, filled with elaborate death-traps – and if they aren’t enough, the competitors all have the desire to become an empress.

This is a book about monsters.

Mari is an outcast among monsters, to be sure. A young woman whose community see her as less than themselves, a disappointment and an oddity. She bears up under it, and that resilience is one of the threads tying together her story. If she carries the marks of a monster, it’s the capacity of her people to accept, or to hurt, that defines who they are. The same is true of the emperor – an old man whose broken heart manifests in oppression and a detached, spiteful rage. As those who are different in his empire are oppressed or enslaved, even as they’re decried as monsters, one has to wonder whether he protests his own role too much. The story seems to want to throw a mirror up to our monsters – to spider queens and ice-killers – and use their treatment as a way to show that the way minorities are treated is really the marker of a monster. Mari is fast, physically co-ordinated, with a keen intellect, but she carries the weight of unreasoning prejudice from others wherever she goes. She’s easy to empathise with, and if she’s sometimes making bad decisions, it’s easy to see why. If she has anything, it’s a strength she things is derived from being alone – though over the course of the text, that strength is challenged by interactions with family and new friends. It’s a thoughtful presentation of complex relationship dynamics, one which doesn’t promise easy answers, but whose realism gives the prose a real emotional kick.

And what prose it is. There’s a delicate, mythopoeic quality to it; the rhythms are those of a fairy tale, best spoken aloud. But this story is at the darker end of that spectrum, with enough blood and thunder for anyone. What it really draws though are hard choices, those moments when characters sit on the knife edge of a difficult decision, when the tension is keeping you prowling down the page, turning pages, looking to see what they do, and what the effects are.

This is a story of monsters.

It’s a story of a young woman finding herself and deciding what she wants to be. It’s a story of how she sets out with her own agency, and makes her own choices. It’s a story of defiance, and of friendship. It’s a story which makes you ask questions, about the way people are talked about, and the way they’re treated. It’s a challenging book, in the sense that it wants the reader to think, not to accept what’s on the page, but to follow the story, follow the fairytale down a rabbit-hole and realise something about themselves in the lens of these characters.

This is a story about monsters. And it’s a damn good one. Give it a try.

Wednesday, October 10, 2018

Soulbinder - Sebastien De Castell

Soulbinder is the fourth in Sebastien De Castell’s ‘Spellbringer’ series. These books follow a fast-talking, fast-thinking scion of a magic-using family. Except that he has no magic of his own, and is, by the time of Soulbinder, on the run from his own people. The Spellslinger books have always fused an engaging protagonist with an interesting world, one with saloons, jailbreaks and bounty hunters; there’s tropes from silver-screen Westerns blended into the fantasy here, and together they make a pretty spicy stew. The previous books in the series established the world, and let us watch the protagonist, Kellen, as he grew from a thoughtful but spoiled youth into a young man in whom idealism blended with pragmatism, a determination to do the right thing backed by a willingness to sacrifice for the friends he’s made along the way. Now Kellen has struck out in an effort to make his own path – though that path may lead into darker places.

Soulbinder wants to explore Kellen’s ‘Shadowblack’ a bit more. It’s seen as a disease by his people, one which inevitably ends in madness and death. For a people with a penchant for spectacular and catastrophic magic, containing a mage driven mad by the Shadowblack could be difficult or impossible, and the damage they wrought could be appalling. Fortunately for those worried about Shadowblack, the disease manifests physically as well as mentally – as patterns of darkness, like ink, on the body. Unfortunately for Kellen, his Shadowblack was under his eye, immediately marking him as a liability and a potential threat. That disease is his curse, and he knows that it’s eating at him inside, even while he thinks about using any powers it grants.

I’ve got a lot of time for Kellen. He’s a lost and confused teenager, trying to work out what he’s doing and who he is. Previous books wrapped that confusion up in more anger, more petulance, alongside his intellectual curiosity; by Soulbinder, we’re looking at a young man who, if not sure of himself, is at least taking strides in that direction. Asking questions and not backing down in the face of the answers, poking holes in authority and certainty through his existence, that’s definitely Kellen.
Still insecure? That’s part of Kellen too, his questions not always external. Kellen wants to know why he is how he is, and that level of introspection is in careful balance with his growing self-confidence. Certainties are something he’s looking for but also mistrusts. Investigating, seeking truth, is becoming part of his mindset. A lot of Soulbinder is that search for truth, both in the external factors – what is Shadowblack, what will it do? – and the internal. Who is Kellen, and what will they do?

Alongside Kellen’s journey are a posse of a supporting cast. There’s fewer of the characters we’e come to know and love, and  I felt their lack keenly; but the overall ensemble is still strong. There’s a lot of new personalities to get a grip on, but they each carry enough weight, enough complexity, that they feel like real people. Still, as Kellen finds himself out there on a limb, flailing for familiarity, I was right there with him, looking for the characters that had carried me through the series so far. That said, new friends aren’t the worst thing, and the people Kellen meets carry in them the best and worst of humanity – arrogance, acceptance, pride and humility all wrapped up in one bundle.

The plot? Well, I won’t spoil it. But Kellen starts off badly, that’s a fact, and whether things get better or worse from there is definitely a matter of opinion. De Castell continues his streak of building worlds which are one part epic grace, one part used environment, darkened towers soaring over well-worn streets. And into that world steps our protagonist, who is determined to find himself, or build himself, to serve his own ideals, to do what’s right and be prepred to play a little hardball to get a result. There’s some moments where magic finally breaks loose, its effects a startling explosion of beautiful prose, its effects no less effective, but far more bloody. There’s politics at all levels, from the individual simmer of romance to the vicious boil of inter-nation deals. There’s families here too; Kellen struggling to make his association with his people make sense, and struggling with the loyalty he feels to different found-families. Also, stuff blows up real good.

This is a book which approaches its audience with questions – who are you, what do you want, how do you shape your outcomes, what costs are you willing to bear. It doesn’t answer those as much as live them, giving us Kellen as someone who is willing to make choices, to soldier on regardless. To do what’s right. It’s not always a book with answers, and I think that narrative ambiguity is a strength – leaving the reader to fill the negative space with their own truths.

This is a complicated book, and while it has something to say, it also has a lot to draw out of the reader. That it does so under a fast-paced fantasy adventure, with some epic banter, pretty/explosive spells, and a heart of loyalty and friendship – well, that’s really impressive.

If you’re coming in to De Castell fresh, maybe try the first in this series.
If this isn’t your first rodeo, then this is the book you’ve been waiting to read.

Wednesday, October 3, 2018

Thin Air - Richard K. Morgan

Thin Air is a new sci-fi novel from Richard K. Morgan, whose Altered Carbon was recently made into a hit series on Netflix. Much like that work (and indeed, Morgan’s oeuvre as a whole), Thin Air combines some scintillating, imaginative ideas with unapologetic violence and, whisper it, more than a little sex. This is science-fiction as neo-noir thriller, with gunfights, multiple shadowy agenda, and blood on the floor keeping bums on seats. But it also wants to be something bigger, letting the reader see a society teetering on the edge of something, between corrupt officials and broken heads. It shows us a system of the world which is broken, and whose members simply accept that as the way it is – and the consequences of their acceptance are there in the hackers diving into government systems, in the casual divide between a dominant elite and everyone else, in the drops of dark blood staining the fibres of a luxury carpet.

But is it any good, though? If you’re a returning reader of Morgan’s sci-fi work, I’ll make than an immediate yes. You can slip into the Martian domes like a pair of comfortable shoes, following along with a worn out antihero who has Done Some Things, and hit the ground running. The writing’s still like you remember – taut, razor sharp, unflinching. If you’re coming to Morgan through this book, I think it’s still a fast-paced, compelling read.

This is Mars. It’s no longer a pioneer world. There are cities under the domes, and geological engineering continues. If there aren’t the thriving urban areas of earth, there’s still two cities under distinct political banners, with their own satellite towns. Still dependent on the veiled might of earth, the regime that manages one of these cities is laissez faire, prepared to do a lot to keep the eyes and ears of businesses big and small, and also astonishingly corrupt. A Mars that believes anyone can pull themselves up by their bootstraps is our stage, even if – perhaps especially if – that isn’t true. The action slides between the opulent mansions of the ultra-wealthy and the holding cells provided for those who disagree, staffed by cops who take their money and, if they’re still willing to ask questions, are also prepared to forget the answers. 

This is Mars. A world living the slogan that what they make is better, driving a revolution of small startup businesses, the system crushing those who fail, those who succeed drawn into the web of favours and extortion. This is Mars. A world -  a *world* -  of barren plains separated by these areas of human habitation, of hope in the face of hostility. Where everyone knows everyone else is on the take, and is looking to make their cut as well. This is Mars. It’s beautiful, and riven with social, political, even geographical issues. It’s a place where hope and a dream can carry you to the heights of existence, and where one misstep will throw you over the edge into madness and despair.  This is Mars.

Our guide to Mars is Hakan Veil. Veil was a monster come to life, a corporate killer. Now he lives on Mars, washed up, dreaming of returning to Earth. Veil makes for an interesting read. He’s obviously a smart person, and his internal monologue backs that up – filled with plans, counter plots, and moves within moves. That he can back that intelligence and tactical sense up with an urge toward violence is a bonus. If Veil is out of his depth, it’s because he’s fallen into some very deep waters. Still, this is the voice of Mars – cynical, invested in a system which he doesn’t believe in, knowing everyone has an angle. Veil is fast and deadly, but carries some undertones of vulnerability. He’s not a killer with a heart of gold, but still someone who, given the choice, would do the right thing. Quite what the right thing is may depend. Veil is loyal to his friends, and prepared to go to extremes in service to a goal; not a zealot, but a potential monster, shaped by circumstance, holding back the tide with good-will and epithets.

If you’re here for the action, Veil can work as a power fantasy. Almost inhuman in speed, precision, ferocity, he’s the black-ops killer that everyone wants and no-one needs. Like the man himself, the prose in Veil’s fights is almost too fast to see, as you’re turning the pages to follow each weave, each dive, each crack of the gun. Veil could be too much, too far, but he carries the truth of his humanity too. People who owe favours, yes. Enemies, absolutely. Friends – a few. There’s an introspection here, a fatalistic streak too. This is someone willing to pay the cost of their actions, with an exhausted line of melancholia which weaves right through the neo-noir environs of the Martian city. Veil is a hardass, and that’s a fact. But he’s old, tired, a veteran of other people’s wars. Morgan succeeds in bringing Veil to life for us, in showing that what happens after you make a stand is just as important as what came before. Veil lives and breathes, as much as Marlowe or Gittes ever did.
Though this is Veil’s story, there are others of course – government functionaries. Peacekeeper’s ,straddling the line between pragmatism in the face of power, and open corruption.  Criminals – hackers, sneak thieves, con-artists, outright idiots. Religious maniacs, and those who give populism, nationalism and identity a voice.

As an aside, I've argued before that women don't always get the greatest space in Morgan's work, and that's nicely averted here. There's women at all levels, assisting or causing trouble for Veil as their needs permit. Police captains, black-bag agents, misguided gangers, politicians. It's nice to see some diversity at play here. It's nicer still that these agents of power and authority, in and-out of narrative, have their own schemes, their own needs - they're not here for Veil, but perhaps in spite of him. The book is all the better for it. 

There’s a lot going on in this book.

In some ways it’s simple. Protect the client, get paid, go home. If someone has to get shot along the ay, that’s a shame. But things aren’t that simple. Layer upon layer of concealed meaning wraps the narrative, as we try and work out who’s double crossing who, and why. If you’re here for the gunplay, there’s a lot of it – tight, kinetic prose mixed in with splashes of blood, and the cordite smell of the consequences. But there’s politics here too, wrapped in obfuscation and mystery -as Veil tries to work out what’s going on and why, and we come along for the ride. There’s larger causes, and those intertwine with the personal needs of a man who isn’t entirely sure what he wants – or needs – any longer.

In any event, there’s a lot going on. I love the Mars we see here – riven by factional politics and suffering under the leeches of corruption, it’s still a vibrant and distinct culture. Indeed, those things – and the upsurge in nationalism and independence – are part of the Martian culture. I have a lot of time for Veil, an action hero brought out of retirement, too tired to deal with any of the nonsense that the world keeps throwing at him. And the plot will suck you in and keep you trying to figure out where it’s going, and how it’s all going to end.

Does it work? Yes, I think so. There’s sex and violence aplenty, but it doesn’t feel over-done; it’s merely a part of the world. There’s a story which invites you to invest in it, and will reward you for doing so, filled with complex characters in a difficult, living, breathing world. If you’re in the mood for some fast-paced sci-fi, or ready to dip a toe into a noir novel of the near future – then I can recommend this one wholeheartedly. Once you’ve picked it up, it’s pretty much impossible to put down.

Wednesday, September 26, 2018

Salvation's Fire - Justina Robson

Salvation’s Fire: After The War is the second book in the ‘After the War’ universe; the first, by Adrian Tchaikovsky, having come out earlier this year. This book follows on from the events of the first, but it can be read as a standalone – though you may lose some useful context by doing so.

This is the world after the end. After a dark threat has arisen, raised its armies and broken them against heroes. After the darkness has seeped in and poisoned the soil After the darkness has killed the Gods. After it has shaped a new world, one which necessitates co-operation and incentivises action. The great villain drew peoples together even as he broke them. In their shattering, they recombine into a stronger whole. And this book is part of that process. The war is over, that’s for sure. But remnants of the past are difficult to shift.

There’s a sense here of spaces in recovery. Things are quieter, perhaps, than previous. Though there are still the poor, the destitute, the wandering remnants of armies, these things are less visible than before, though still a factor. This is also a world coming to terms with a lack of religion; in a space where the gods have been active and real, and where their servants and avatars have been embedded in the day to day, life without them is a complex, difficult, damaging work in progress.

We wander forests – only some of which are on fire – and seas here. There’s the opportunity to catch up with several cultures, and delve into the harrowing depths of the broken citadel of the enemy. The description is tightly written, giving enough detail to set the reader’s imagination to filling in the blank spaces. It avoids baroque prose and gives out what it needs you to know, and invites you to fill in the remainder. This builds a living, breathing world from the struts of the narrative – though yours may look different to mine, they carry the same story. The world breathes, its denizens living, suffering, hopeful creatures, its locales a smorgasbord for the imagination.

What I’m saying is, if you came here from the first book in the series, the world will feel familiar, but with enough differences to make you sit up and take notice. If this is your first step into this space, then I’ll say this: the depth and complexity of the world on display is impressive.

This is more of an ensemble piece than the last book. Though there are some old favourites, there’s enough new people around to keep us guessing. Celestine, slayer of evils, whose search for redemption defines much of the series so far, is still here. She’s still tired, still questioning herself, and still unwilling to take any crap from any of the various gods, monsters and everyday idiots that cross her path. Celestine kicks arse, in between worrying about what she’s doing and why – which makes her feel rather human, in her competences and her doubts.

There’s a focus here on Kula, one of the newer members of the group; a girl who has very little, and now has to decide exactly what she wants. Watching the other members of the team – demi-gods, old monsters and struggling heroes all – try to interact with a young girl is a delight, exposing as it does some of their own troubles, and the darker secrets beneath the personalities they put out for public consumption. Kula is thoughtful, strange and frightened, and those attitudes seep off the page as you turn the pages – and as her understanding of her purpose and that of the team grows, sodoes yours.

At heart this is a character piece webbed into an ensemble adventure. Fortunately the characters are convincing, crafted with a precision which leaves them stepping off the page to pick up a snack and ask when youre getting to the next chapter. As an ensemble, they work well together, the conflicts and bickering keeping the wheels going, and a sense of deeper issues acting as a shadow over the lighter moments.

Another new arrival carries a wonderful dichotomy about them – in things they have done, actions performed, regrets created. Yet they live and laugh and love with an energy and passion which belies that quieter emotional flow beneath. I won’t go into details for fear of spoilers, but rest assured – these are people, and their struggles and triumphs, losses and hopes will compel you to find out what they do next, and what choices they make.

The plot – well, I won’t spoil it. But I’ll say this. It has moments which are truly epic, struggles which are also spectacle. It has moments of heart-rending sorrow, of people making appalling, difficult choices. It has some wonderfully dry wit in the dialogue, which made me chuckle, and some sting that made me bleed as I turned the page. It’s got individual stories, moments of personal growth and suffering which show us individuals shaping themselves, and it has explosions of magicn and power which (also) shape worlds.

This is a clever, vivid, cunningly crafted work of fantasy, one which moves from the personal to the epic and back with swift, assured prose. It’s a good story, and one which will make you think in between seeing what happens next. Give it a try.

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.