Wednesday, December 19, 2018

Happy Holidays!

Well, it's Christmas (or at least Christmas-adjacent) here, so I'm signing off for the year.

2018 has been a difficult year for a lot of reasons, out in the world at large, but none of those reasons are related to the books I've read and enjoyed this year.

It has been an absolute privilege to share thoughts on those books with you all, and I look forward to doing the same again in 2019.

Thanks for reading, and I hope you have a great holiday season!

Wednesday, December 12, 2018

Top Ten SF&F Novels of 2018

It’s that time of year again – the season of top ten lists. Who am I to argue with tradition? 2018 has been a fantastic year for SF&F literature, which has made picking the ‘top ten’ almost impossible. Still, I’ve done my best. If you were looking for somewhere to start with books that came out in 2018, these would be a great place to start. Title links go to the relevant review.

N.B. I’ve only included books which were actually available for purchase in 2018, in case anyone’s looking for a holiday gift or two.

A barnstormer of a novel from Lawrence, picking up where the equally excellent ‘Red Sister’ left off. There’s a lot to like in here; fast paced, lethal and brutally kinetic fight scenes are interlaced with equally vicious politics. There world-building is intricately detailed and sweepingly grand at once, and the characters…well. Warrior-assassin-nuns, yes. But also determined, broken, fierce people. It’ll keep you turning the pages deep into the night to find out what happens next. This is a richlky imagined world, with heartfelt, heartbreaking characters, and a story I couldn't get enough of. 

Another favourite around here, Williams has really pulled out all the stops with The Bitter Twins. This is a world of flying hives, where the long lived elf-analogues may just want to drink your blood, and where monsters and wonders are coming back in full force. Into the breach step Vintage, whose mature archaeologist persona wraps around her sharp mind and broken heart – and the rest of her gang; a witch with a penchant for setting things on fire, one of the aforementioned vampire elves, and, of course, a giant bat. Obviously. The dialogue here is whip-smart and edgy, and the emotions coming off the page are so raw they’re bleeding. Oh, and our heroes are trying to save the world, too. Definitely one to watch.

This is a selection of sci-fi short stories starring the titular Nyx. Nyx is, frankly, terrifying. She kicks serious arse, drinks heavily, is functional but broken by the things she’s done,  refuses to take any crap, and absolutely, one hundred percent refuses to apologise for it. Nyx has a personality that radiates off the page, and more than likely sets about mugging the reader in a literary dark alley. These are stories jump about in the timeline of Nyx’s broken world – a world where persisten war with biological weapons has left much of the place uninhabitable, and the rest protected by gene-masters and magicians. Each is a tightly plotted standalone, which less plucks on the heartstrings and more kicks the reader in the emotional groin. These are hard-edged tales of fast-paced violence and cold blooded murder, with some fancy tech thrown in. They’re snappy, brutal, raw work, and, like Nyx, they’ll make you hurt.

The Poppy War is a multi-layered fantasy, which, among other things, wants to talk about culture, identity, and how far someone would go to protect or shape those things. It’s also a story about war. About how conflicts simmer and burn until they’re out of control, and about the hard choices conflict gets people to make. It’s a story of a young woman who deserves better, whod rags herself up by sheer bloody determination to be something, or to at least be able to decide what it is she wants to be. It’s about those terrible choices, and their consequence. The world is a living, breathing thing, and as real as the people who may end up breaking it. This one will reward multiple readings – but is also a damn fine work of fantasy the first time around.

Here we start with a heist. With a young girl called Sancia arranging to steal something in a world where magical artifice has shaped the pace of industrialisation. Where great mercantile houses squat over a city, drawing in the brightest and best, and spitting out the rest to die in the streets outside of their armed compounds. Things quickly escalate from there. There’s a lot of narrative  undercurrents here – looking at inequality, at power, at the limits of personal volition – but they’re all at the service of a powerful, imaginative story.

To steal a catchphrase, this is a fairytale for grownups. It looks at several different women -  a princess, a moneylender, a servant – and their goals, their needs and wants, in a world stalked by capricious, often cruel creatures of ice and fire. Each has a fierce agency and passion, and a unique voice; each has a depth of feeling and an internal strength visible to us, even as they try to save the world, or themselves. It’s not all sweetness and light in these pages, but there’s love, loyalty, heroism and cunning along with deceit and villainy in plenty. This is a book about ties that bind, and about choices, and about women who choose to be themselves. It absolutely kicks arse.

Speaking of which – the Tower of Living and Dying is also fierce, in a different way. There is, fair warning, a lot of blood. Most of the characters are terrible people. The rest are definitely skating the far end of the line toward ‘monster’. But given the Homeric cadences of Smith-Spark’s prose, they rise up, they become archetypes and avatars, they become people too. Horribly flawed, yes. Ready to burn the world? Yes. But people, unafraid. There’s nihilism here, a philosophical underpinning to some of the text – and at the same time, a kind of delicate humanity, underpinning the slow essential decay of things. There’s an empire on the decline, wrapped in the politics of quiet murde, mass starvation and popular revolt. And there are armies on the march, looking for something else – for victory, for history, for identity, and for the means to tear all those walls down. This one is a complex, thoughtful read, that will demand your attention to the intimate drama between pages splashed with blood.

Morgan has outdone himself this time. Mars is not, it has to be said, a nice place, but that’s where we are, looking at the red planet through a noir filter. There’s some fun techno-wizardry here , from bio-modified people who spend the trips between the stars asleep, to examination of Mars-made cosmetics. But there’s also an  incisive social commentary here, about the role of power in society, in the lies that those in power tell to stay that way, and the lies people underneath them tell themselves. All delivered in the wry drawl of a person who’s done some terrible things, and is now just too tired to want to do more than have a whisky and be left alone. This is sharply observed sci-fi noir with an edge of politics and techno-thriller to it, and if the well-drawn characters and top dialogue don’t keep you turning pages, maybe the tautly strung plot will do instead. It’s cracking stuff.

This one is an absolutely brilliant debut. It starts as the story of a crime, as our protagonists work to discover the cause of a murder. And it’s really rather good at that. The investigation is well-plotted, each step tying into the others, with enough red herrings and double-crosses to keep the reader guessing. But it’s not just that. It’s also the story of a society, of the way that those in power have isolated and insulated themselves, and how actions which may have been seen as for the greater good can come back later in the worst way. It’s a story that wraps those ideas in sieges, in the compromises people have to make to see another day, and in magic. It’s a story of family, found and otherwise, working together to put things right. It’s about how some things are broken, and how they might be fixed. But, also, it’s a story of a murder, and how solving it might stop a war. This one’s for you if you don’t mind a murder mystery in your fantasy, if you enjoy precision crafted, time-ticking plots or well-realised, convincing characters.

We’re back in the Misery. Galharrow is an important man now, for sure, trying to prevent the fall of his civilisation (again). But he’s still the same world-weary, hard-talking smartarse he’s always been, quick with a well-or-ill-considered word, and quick with a sword, too. And the world he’s trying to save is seeping off the page, and it’s not a great place. Immortal beings are ready to shatter sections of reality to keep their selfish plans in action, sacrificing untold lives in the process – and those are the ones on our side. In a world of petty gods and byzantine schemes, Galharrow prowls, a troublesome troubleshooter with a broken heart, trying to become something more, or less than he was. Sacrifice is a theme here,  backed by utter carnage and blood in the streets, An uncompromising story in a broken world, with heroes you can feel are real, because they’re just as tarnished as the rest of us.

 As I say, it's been a brilliant year for SF&F all round, and these are just a flavour of all the excellent releases from 2018 - but I do think they make a great place to start.

Wednesday, December 5, 2018

Shadow Captain - Alastair Reynolds

I really enjoyed Alastair Reynold’s ‘Revenger’ when it came out last year. A blend of sci-fi buccaneering in the mode of Treasure Island and Indiana Jones style archaeology made for a snappy, compelling read. So I was quite excited to get my hands on the sequel, 'Shadow Captain'

This is a book about monsters. It centres on Adrana Ness, whose sister Fura was the protagonist of the first book in the series. Though Fura carries scars, Adrana has problems of her own. She spent more than a little time in the company of a notorious pirate captain, being conditioned through trauma to become that captain’s eventual replacement. Fura we’ve seen alreadyin the first book, a fierce soul, tortured, compromising with potentially appalling consequences to rescue Adrana and take a ship from Bosa. Adrana is…quieter. More concerned with the effects that the pirate captain may have had on her mind. Perhaps more introspective.

But make no mistake, Adrana is still a Ness, and still a monster Her steely determination is a trait shared with her sister, and one which comes off the page with the force of a freight train, alongside an eloquent, thoughtful internal voice. This is a young woman who is not going to take any crap from anyone, even her sister – unless it quietly serves her goals to do so. She’s always looking at the angles, trying to work out what’s real and what isn’t, to understand where she sits in the scheme of things. This is a rawly shining portrayal of a fiercely intelligent woman on the edge – striving with each breath to achieve her goals, whilst trying to work out exactly what they are – and if they’re her goals, or ones left behind by the ghost of someone else in her head. The dynamic between Adrana and her sister is impressive for sure; both broken, twisted people, trying to do the right thing even if they aren’t sure what the right thing is. They, and their associates and antagonists, are drawn in the gently exaggerated fashion of an R.L. Stevenson story – given traits that make them larger than life, while their actions make them even more so.

This is a story of swashbuckling and adventure beyond the stars. But it’s also a story which wants to look unflinchingly at the price such a life cots. Our heroine (or heroines) are doing what they must to survive. Sometimes they’re not making the right calls. Sometimes their ruthlessness saves their lives, sometimes its an impediment. But they feel like two roughly oriented siblings, trying to rub along in far, far less than ideal circumstances. That’ s what Reynolds has done so well here – given us a seething sibling rivalry, rooted in horror and gross technology; and provided both pints of view over the course of several books. As a result, we’re now seeing each party from their external and internal points of view, and the frisson is delicious.

The short version is – the relationship between the sisters shapes this book, and it’s absolutely pitch perfect; dark, playful, thoughtful, with undercurrents, like ice in a darker sea. You can feel the Ness sisters similarities in their growing inhumanity, even as they tidally creep away and toward each other.

For the crew of the Revenger, you see, victory hasn’t been entirely sweet. They have a ship, and a crew, yes. But nobody else is likely to believe that they aren’t pirates. So begins another adventure, looking for somewhere to buy fuel that won’t ask too many questions.

The universe that Reynolds has created for Adrana and the rest to explore carries his usual grand scope. Thousands of worlds in an intricate dance across the stars. Millions of years of history, much of it a blank space to the inhabitants of this space. The characters are the centrepiece, for sure – but the universe is one of sweeping grandeur. There are baubles – rocks filled with treasure, but also filled with traps, monsters and risk. There are populated worlds with a population in the thousands, rusted soldier-bots without explanations. Stations floating in the depths of the void, avoiding answering too many questions. This is a vivid, detailed world, one with far, far more questions than answers. Fair play to the characters for recognising that, and delving into the mysteries. And fair play to Reynolds, for giving us a playground which is successfully so grand in scope – thousands of worlds backed against a sun – yet so intimate, as we follow characters around the minor eddies of worlds around that sun. What population centres we see fit into the Stevenson aesthetic – pirates, madmen, fools, a grim and gritty  universe demanding much and giving, well, nothing. But they’re lavishly described, with not an atom out of place. This is a living, breathing, broken world, but one whose grandeur is undeniable.

The plot – well, it’s a farrago of suspense, of revenge, of bad decisions made under pressure. Of conspiracies and half truths. There isn’t the clarity of revenge that the first book gave to us, no, but a web of obfuscation and partial understanding, wrapping a lot of human, understandable, very poor decisions, and an exploration of the way those decisions affect both the immediate parties, and the universe at large. The former…well, this is an exploration of the way people become monsters, each step seeming like the right one in a long chain of self justification. The universe? Well, read and find out. It’s a page turner, I’ll tell you that. A rip-roaring tale which makes you want to know what happens next, between crosses, double-crosses, vengeance, and some incredibly poor choices. The adrenaline is there, the action, the heart-breaking emotional investment. 

This is a story to break hearts and make you turn pages. It’s great stuff; pick it up, you’ll want to know what happens next.

Wednesday, November 28, 2018

They Mostly Come Out At Night - Benedict Patrick

So, lets talk about Benedict Patrick’s ‘They Mostly Come Out At Night’. It’s the  first book placed in the ‘Yarnsworld’ setting, which now contains three separate standalone novels. Having sped through this one, I can safely say it was an entertaining read, that it made me think, and that it inspired me to seek out the other books in the same setting.

Speaking of which. The setting here is at once broad and limited. Most of the action takes place in and around a forest, an entity implied to have presence over a large geographic area. And it abuts neighbouring kingdoms, themselves geographically distinct. As in a fairy tale though, this is just the forest. It’s a backdrop to the culture, lives and loves of our protagonist(s). In the forest sits a village – itself one of a series of settlements. And somewhere out of sight, somewhere in the forest and away from the villages, sits a castle. This is a world which carefully evokes that fairytale certainty of place, but also one which puts something of a spin on it. The villagers are bucolic enough, but they fear attacks from mysterious entities in the night, protecting themselves with underground shelters. The castle isn’t the delicately spired confection of modern stories, but a buttressed fortress. The forest is a dark, brooding, wild thing, and within it lurk monsters.
It’s also a place where stories have power. Between chapters, we’re treated to scraps of folklore, tales from the world. These give the reader a nicely mythic context for current events, shaping the story into one which fits into prior narratives. It’s a clever device, and one which made learning more of the background a delight, rather than drudgery.

The sense of myth and tale is evoked intentionally with the characters, too. Some are personifications – the Wolves, seemingly slavering beasts. The Magpie King, a cloaked, masked, super-human monstrosity which protects the villages from the Wolves, and expects tribute in return. These are ideas given form; here though they have enough agency to make them some combination of frightening and fascinating. 

There are others though. Adahy, child of the Magpie King, uncertain of his destiny, of his calling to be the monster people demand, sits in the shadow of a father with an iron will. And Lonan, a young man who lives in the liminal area between family and outcast in one of the villages. Both give us more humanity than monstrousness, though both carry their own flaws. Adahy is compassionate, thoughtful and a worrier – but also often unthinking of his privilege or the effect he has on the world. Lonan is bitter, caustic, driven to the social margins by a close-knit community that feels he’s done them a great wrong; but he’s also driven, determined, and willing to do what’s right. They’re a complex pair, and even more so when rounded out by the supporting cast. Particular points for Lonan’s mentor, whose non-nonsense attitude when dealing with his drama made her a brilliant read, and Adahy’s ex whipping-boy, a young man willing to risk a lot for his friend, and whose own intelligence and back and forth with Adahy make him a likable fellow to run alongside.

The gut of this is, there are people here, and monsters, and the story wants us to see not only which are which, but that it’s possible for one to transition into the other. This is a story of how monsters do mostly come out at night. Mostly It’s got a lot going on, within the cantic rythms of a fairy tale. There’s betrayal, blood, vicious fights for survival. There’s love, and revenge, and hatred. It hits a lot of the right emotional notes, and I was quickly invested in where the characters were going, physically and in terms of growth, and who they would become when they got there. This has the whip-crack fas-paced action that keeps you turning pages, sure, but it’s wrapped around some thoughtful, convincing character work – and the folktale lilt of the prose makes it an easy read, even if some of the content is more gruesome than Grimm.

Is it any good though? Yes, I’d say so. As a story, it will pull you into its dark corners, looking for salvation from wolves and monsters, while speaking about the larger human truths of love and vengeance and dripping blood on the forest floor. This is a story which is hard to put down, where you want to see how it ends. It’s a great start to a series, and I look forward to seeing where the next Yarnsworld book takes us.

Wednesday, November 21, 2018

Silent Hall - N.S. Dolkart

The short review of Silent Hall, the debut fantasy novel from N.S. Dolkart, is that it has a lot going for it.  It’s ambitious, imaginative and innovative. There’s some rough around the edges structure and some of the characterisation felt a bit abrupt, but overall, it’s a clever, interesting story, and a great start to a series.

The world – well, it’s a world of divinities. The liminal space between the divine and the human is very thin. They’re real, and able to act in the world. They also have a tendency to hold grudges, and play favourites. Nations, and people, attract the patronage or wrath of their gods. Their presence is a core feature of the world, and that reality is woven skilfully through the text – from casual imprecations, to desires not to attract divine attention, to soaring acts of grand majesty and smaller, more intimate violence. There’s a tapestry of human history here as well, though that tends to be uncovered by allusion. It’s a world that has known great empires, now dispersed. Where the gods themselves once made war. A lot of the lore gets thrown at the characters, and some of it sticks – to both them and us. It can be a lot to take in, but by the end of the story, it does feel like a living, breathing world.

On a more immediate level, we see a lot of the world from the ground up, as the characters we’re following tramp around it. From wizard towers to terrifying woods we go, or through the tumult of an island on the verge of its annual celebration of the sea. Each locale has its charms, and if they do feel slightly too well delineated (‘the forest place, the city place, the cave place’…), they’re well described, and the details brings each location wonderfully to life. Sure, the cave place is a bit…cavey, but those caves are deep, dark, and chill-inducing. Dolkhart excels at differentiating his locales, and giving them enough information to let us draw the detail in for ourselves. The world, in sum, feels real.

The world is a stage though, for the characters. Here we get a proper ensemble, all young people, all separated from their families, entering a new world together, mostly by happenstance. And they all work. Different as they are, they all feel like people. Argumentative, yes. Emotionally fragile, for sure. Bloody minded? Absolutely. But that’s what makes them believable. They all fulfil different roles in the group, but have a dynamic of slowly dawning trust which makes for compelling reading.
They’re a nice bunch, and you have to appreciate a group that, when it interacts with a problem, doesn’t immediately attempt to stab it. There’s room here for thinkers, for people who don’t want to fight, because it turns out that fighting gets people killed. On the other hand, there’s also some absolutely top-notch fight scenes, filled with an energy which made flipping pages to find out what happened next an absolute joy.

The plot? Well, I won’t spoil it, but there’s a lot of hunting for various macguffins. Which isn’t a bad thing. It lets us into the world. It lets us see how the characters react, to that world, to each other, and to the increasingly large bushel of questions that they carry around with them.  I’ll say this though – as a journey novel, this one works. You want the characters to reach their destination, sure, but the journey itself carries the heart of the story. It’s good stuff.

That’s really what Silent Hall is. It’s well-crafted fantasy, which takes some familiar elements and puts a new spin on them, then blends that with an original world and some cracking characterisation, and lets rip. It’s a good start to a new series, and I, for one, will be looking to see where it goes next.

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 na├»ve 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