Wednesday, January 31, 2018

Planetfall - Emma Newman

Planetfall is a sci-fi novel from Emma Newman, looking at the human colonisers of a new world, the public motives and private shames which brought them there, and what happens when submerged sins are brought up into the light.

Renata Ghalis is our protagonist in what, at first glance, appears to be a utopian world. Each of the inhabitants of this, the first human colony, live in balance with their environment. All of their collective and individual needs are met by a printer, which takes in raw material and dispenses whatever is required. Though the planet remains somewhat hostile – with flora and fauna hostile to the colonists – it seems mostly quiescent. It’s a place seemingly in harmony with itself. It’s also a settlement founded on faith; the expedition pathfinder, Suh-Mi, received the location of the planet in what she chose to see as a divine inspiration. Arriving, seeing that the planet exists and is safe for humanity seems to vindicate that faith. The colony is one of true believers, whose presence is itself a marker and a confirmation of what they believe. Though it’s not overly explicit, it’s interesting to see how the currents of realised faith move this community of scientists and explorers.

That said, there’s  suggestion of a secret at the heart of the colony, something which may change the way that they think of themselves. Renata has some understanding of this, and she’s a fascinating protagonist – torn apart by the need to discuss the truth, for altruistic and selfish reasons, and the need to contain it in the spirit of maintaining the balance of the colony.

If this secret isn’t the centre of Renata’s being, it’s at least part of the core.Still, we’re shown other sides to her. There’s the genuinely imaginative, inspirational engineer, a woman who could end plagues, or solve hunger – but whose faith and love brought her to the stars instead. There’s love – and the delicate tracery of old feelings is alive and well here, a passion which mimics Abelard and Heloise in its transcendence and its prosaic nature. Rentata had a great love, to be sure, and one she was defined by – but the pain has been occluded, if not faded, and Renata has, if not moved on, at least moved sideways. She has, of course, also got her own problems – managing the waste that people discard, assessing what can be fixed and what should go into the printer. There’s an edge there, and a genuinely affecting exploration of obsession and its effects – romantic and practical , Renata had her romance, and it shaped her life for good or ill – and what she does as a consequence is itself an obsession of sorts, her character a portrayal of someone functioning in a society in which she exists with an incredible secret pain.

Renata is damaged and vulnerable, but also incisive, intelligent and pragmatic. That these characteristics balance out, and shape a sympathetic protagonist, one we can both sympathise and empathise with, is part of what makes Planetfall such a triumph.

Because it is, let’s be clear, a thoughtful, well characterised, high concept sci-fi novel. When something arrives to disrupt the carefully maintained stasis of the system Ren and her people inhabit, it very quickly spills out of control. There’s examination of the small community dynamics – as the village of civilised colonists becomes ever-more a Salem of the future. But it’s matched by a genuine and affecting search for truth That this search runs into the central mystery of the founding of the colony though, and there’s a dichotomy between the need for clarity and the requirement, in an environment which can kill, for stability. It’s one the text approaches carefully, and in a nuanced fashion, letting the reader make up their own mind – as much as Renata does.

Is it any good? Absolutely. If it isn’t full of laser-swords or rampaging alien hordes, it’s bursting with quietly affecting human moments, and some interesting discussions on the concepts of faith and the alien. This is a book which is prepared to tell you a story, and one which has its share of tension – but also one which wants you engaged, thinking through the dilemmas and struggles of its actors. If you’re in the mood for some uncompromisingly intelligent, highly engaging sci-fi, give it a whirl. 

Tuesday, January 23, 2018

Jade City - Fonda Lee

Jade City is the start of a new series by Fonda Lee. It feels like a blend of eighties kung-fu movies, gangster shows, and cunningly wrought, emotional family drama, blended together into one very appetising cocktail.

The world of Jade City is one with several layers. It’s set on an island which overthrew colonial rule a generation ago. There’s a legacy of occupation here, one where immediate family, clan and associates are all bound together strongly. The social strings which tie these groups together are forged in a legacy of struggle against an external oppressor. With that oppressor vanquished – or at least temporarily removed from the equation – the society is out of equilibrium. The text isn’t afraid to embrace the exploration of clan based societies after declaring independence, and it’s all the better for it. This is a land where the government is beholden to families, and those families drive the political agenda. If there are a few institutions not under familial control, they’re the exception. This is problematic, and the text addresses it to some degree - the melting pot of post-independence prosperity is on the boil, as a second generation comes into power, and attempts to work out how to keep it. That generation has a certain familiarity, leaping offstage and screen at the reader.

The leaders of the central clans, children of fighters for independence, are clever, ruthless people. They have a trade in Jade, which grants greater physical power to its owners – superhuman speed, strength, acuity. They’re ready to do anything to protect this trade from outsiders, and from each other. The thematic blend is one of gangster flicks and kung-fu movies, where the hard-souled line of “Just business” meet the operatic acrobatics of combat as-art. Which is to say, that the leaders of these clans, these owners of socio-economic respectability, are deadly. Fast-paced, hard-souled killers, skating on the edges of respectability. This isn’t a generation willing to settle down into rich respectability, but one determined to flex its economic muscle along with the physical, in the name of family destiny.

If the idea of gangster families running an island for profit, and defending their privileges with supernatural martial arts sings out to you, then this is probably the right book.

That the action is backed by some strong and nuanced character work is certainly not incidental. We follow one of the two ruling clans of the nascent nation, watching the conflicts between those who created independence, those who have to live in it, and those who have to live with them. It’s a family drama, in some ways, filled with past slights and future hopes. Still, the people with whom we spent our time are, between being terrifying exemplars of superhuman strength and agility, no less human than the rest of us. The youngest of the family has returned from a sojourn abroad, somewhat chastited and perhaps even more unrepentant, determined to cut her own path away from the family business. The middle child is fast, impulsive, unforgiving, a trained killer in the service of the family, with a ready smile and a hard loyalty for those he follows, and those he leads. Their elder brother is cool, collected and troubled, living up to the example of a father gently shuffled out of the way, working forever to live up to the image of a national hero.

The interaction between family members, and their followers, is masterful. It shows off the bonds of loyalty and obligation, and doesn’t flinch awy from troubled waters. This is a family. It’s complicated, damaged, full of anger and unrealised ambition alongside the love – but one with a warmth and loyalty at the heart which keep the characters sympathetic and human.

Plot-wise, it’s…well, there’s a lot going on. Territory seizures. Hand to hand fighting. The question of sovereignty and how a nation should be governed (and by whom). There’s old grudges to be settled, heroism, and new feuds being started. Jealousy and rage are here in spades, alongside faith, trust and humanity. It’s a complex stew of characters with emotional depth and their own motives, mixed in with some kick-ass fight scenes and moments of tension with a razor’s edge.
This is a wonderfully drawn work, bringing a flawed, powerful family to life within an imaginatively detailed world, embracing some hard-hitting, bloodily realised action. It’s a very exciting work – you owe it to yourself to give it a try.

Wednesday, January 17, 2018

Persepolis Rising (The Expanse #7) - James S.A. Corey

Persepolis Rising is the seventh in James S.A. Corey’s  ‘Exapnse’ grand space opera series. The Expanse has always fused hard-hitting action with relatable characters in a sweeping cosmos- and that tradition continues here.

Persepolis Rising is, at least in part, a book about legacy. Don’t get me wrong, it’s also a book about change, about insurgency, about family, about hard fought victories and bitter defeats. But the idea of legacy was one which stuck with me as I turned the pages. Holden and Naomi, two of the central protagonists of the series, are starting to feel the weight of their years. They’ve fought the good fight and saved the world multiple times, but heroism isn’t an especially forgiving gig. They’re tired – even Holden’s relentless idealism has had the sharp edges filed off it over the years. This consideration of what happens to folk heroes after they’ve done their time in the saddle is fascinating. Legacy is also a concern of the antagonist – an individual determined that humanity will be prepared to face the challenges thrust upon it as it enters a wider universe. Where Holden and Naomi have a legacy, this is a more targeted approach to immortality. Here is an individual who wants humanity to survive and throve, and believes that having one leader, with one vision, rather than a multiplicity, is the way to achieve this. It’s slightly terrifying to find that the arguments presented are plausible, the ideology resonant, if also repulsive. Here is a person with a grand, sweeping vision of humanity, one which is a response to the factors driving a new galactic society. That the vision is backed by atrocities, and the society by military force, is almost ancillary.

If Holden and the Rocinante crew are aging heroes, their opposition is energised, vital, and downright plausible. They’re not ravening hordes of unreasoning zealots, but individuals prepared to put themselves on the line for humanity, just as our protagonists are. That lets us see them as sympathetic and human, as part of the whole, rather than as an ‘other’ – and that very humanity is part of what makes them so relentlessly terrifying.

Anyway. Many of my old favourites are here – Holden, Naomi, Amos and the rest of the Rocinante gang. Seeing them react to sea-changes in their relationships, in the way which they interact with each other, is delightful. They’re a family, yes, but one with the familiar level of squabbles and strife. At the same time, they’re also able to back each other to the hilt. Reading about the Rocinante again is like a warm bath – comfortable, relaxing, enjoyable. We also get the point of view of one of their antagonists – which is humane, relatable, charming, and as a consequence, rather worrying. Sitting in the head of a man with ideals isn’t as strange as all that - witness our time with Holden. It’s a nuanced portrayal of a complex individual, on willing to do anything in service of their goal – and it’s a point of view which by its very every-day humanity evoked unease in me as a reader. I’d recommend the book for this nuanced portrayal of an opponent alone; that it mixes with a loving and unflinching gaze on the crew of the Rocinante, and their own slow decline into obscurity, makes it downright wonderful.

Plot-wise, this – well, it’s the Expanse. There’s some marvellously choreographed space-battles, if those are your thing. The tension, the sense of velocity and human cost, kept me on the edge of my seat. The feeling that both words and actions mattered was constant, and as the stakes and effects mounted, the narrative kept me committed to seeing it through. Alongside these are some compelling scenes of struggle on the ground – and the text isn’t shy about exploring themes of collaboration, terrorism, the effects and aftermaths of actions on all sides. It’s sharply observed, bloody-edged work, and it’s certain to keep you wondering what happens next.

As with preceding books, this one comes with some big ideas. There’s galaxy-spanning transport networks, and discussions about how far one can go in service of humanity. There’s grand visions and ideas that surge off the page like a fire in the brain. But they’re backed by quieter, complex moments, where everyone makes their own decisions. Where the ‘bad guys’ are heroes in their own minds, and where even the heroes have to make hard choices and bear the consequences.

Is this worth reading? If you’re new to The Expanse series, you may want to go back to the beginning, and see if its blend of hard sci-fi, human drama and high concept is for you. If you’re all caught up – then yes, you need to read this. It throws open entirely new questions about what’s going on, and what will happen next, and it does so by exploring big ideas through very human experiences, and a willingness to explore both rewards and costs. It’s an absolute cracker, and a must-read for any fan of the series. 

Friday, January 12, 2018

A Time Of Dread: Blog Tour, Extract and Review!

We've been talking about John Gwynne positively for a while now; Wrath, the last book in his The Faithful and the Fallen series had all the blood, battles and emotional conclusions one could hope for, and hearing of the start of a new series, a successor set in the same world but centuries later, left us waiting with great anticipation. 

As a result, we're very excited to be part of John Gwynne's "A Time Of Dread" blog tour, along with some other brilliant bloggers. You'll see their twitter handles on the left. If you want to learn more about this new series (which we can assure you is epic stuff), then we'd suggest casting an eye over their twitter feeds on the dates mentioned. 

Anyway, being part of the blog tour, we've got something special for you - an extract from A Time of Dread. Well, actually, it's the entire first chapter, which follows Bleda, young prince of one of the horse tribes, as he encounters the Ben-Elim, semi-divine messengers and now iron rulers of much of the world, for the first time. 

If that whets your appetite, we've also republished our review beneath the extract, so that you can decide whether you liked it as much as we did. 

Now dip your toes into the world of A Time of Dread...


We'll admit, that first chapter packs a serious punch. Hopefully you enjoyed it as much as we did! If the extract captured your attention, you'll find a review for the full story below, and you can follow along on the rest of the blog tour too!

A Time of Dread - Full Review

A Time of Dread is the first in a new series of fantasy by John Gwynne, whose ‘Wrath’ I reviewed earlier in the year. Gwynne has a reputation for producing high quality epic fantasy, with some compelling characterisation and…rather a lot of blood. I can safely say that in A Time of Dread, that reputation is burnished further. 

The book is a follow-up of sorts to his earlier series, taking place a century after the climatic battles and social changes of ‘Wrath’. Though a century feels like a long time, the longevity of some of the world’s inhabitants – giants, semi-divine seraphim and their nemeses - suggests the possibility of the return of a few familiar faces. But having read the previous series isn’t necessary; though there were a few times when it added extra depth to some interactions, the shift in time means that this is designed to work as a stand-alone series from the get-go, and at that, I suspect it succeeds. 

The land is, at least nominally, at peace. A large swathe of it is ruled by the winged Ben-Elim, apparently servants of an absent god, who followed their enemies back into the world to hunt them down. The Ben-Elim have a cultural advantage as rulers – their legend has been put out before them, and the malign nature of their enemy isn’t really in question. They flatly state that they were the servants of a god, and propound and propagate his lore. They’re also, broadly speaking, fair – they’re encouraging people to live safe, peaceful lives, which helps prevent the abuses of nobility against the common man. Mostly though, they’re doing this for their own reasons – a peaceful dominion allows them access to people and resources, to continue prosecuting their ongoing war against their less friendly kin. The Ben-Elim are goal oriented, and that has its own problems. They’re prone to rigidity, and to being prepared to sacrifice anything and anyone (else) if they feel it will help them achieve their aim. After all, defeating the more unpleasant flying monstrosities will lead to a safer humanity – so in the meantime, a bit of impressment or the occasional massacre is for the greater good. 

That makes them a great, conflicted set of characters to root for. They’re definitely fighting against an absolute, horrifying evil. But their efforts to end that fight are horrifying I their own way. The humans they’ve brought in around them are similarly conflicted. Some question the rigidity of Ben-Elim rule, and others, drawn from cultures being drawn under the benevolent boot of Ben-Elim rule, wonder why they let these monsters be in charge in the first place It’s a complex situation, and one which Gwynne portrays with sympathy and an unflinching eye for the consequences of “the greater good”. 

There’s also a politically separate group of humanity, out on their own and causing trouble. They feel like the Big Damn Heroes of the operation, without oversight from the Ben-Elim, living free and disrupting the bad guys that they and the Ben-Elim have in common. They suffer from a lack of resource and direction, seemingly, but they make a strong contrast in the forces of ‘good’. I’d like to see their fissures as much as those of their putative allies, but hopefully we’ll see that they’re not a united front either.

The bad guys are…well, they’re bad. The antithesis to the Ben-Elim, they’re full-on cultist-acquiring, scheming, plotting, indiscriminate slaughter bad guys. If the Ben-Elim are the perils of good intentions and an overly-taught system, their opponents are evidence of why that system exists, and they’re not nice people at all. If I have a complaint, it’s here – the bad guys are bad. Sure, the good guy have different strands of discussion over which brand of goodness they’re going to follow, in the authoritarian/libertarian mode, but their enemies represent a unifying threat – they’re so genuinely appalling, I haven’t worked out yet how they get their cultists to sign up. It’d be nice to see the same level of complexity that we see amongst the Ben-Elim in their direct opposition. 

Character-wise, there’s some interesting people in play. I’d have liked to see more of their internal monologue. Some may be familiar from the earlier series, but some – like the Drem, a trapper youth in the far wilds of the empty area known as the Desolation – are entirely new. Gwynne has a firm grasp of characterisation – Drem, for example, has mannerisms and an internal monologue which make him feel awkward and a bit confused by social nicety, whilst also explaining to the reader how his viewpoint is constructed, and letting us sympathise with it. Others, like Riv, a trainee under the Ben-Elim, give us an insight into their culture, and a degree of empathy to that culture by way of what they’re going through. Riv is smart, funny, articulate – and given to the occasional blind rage. It’s to Gwynne’s credit that he can craft characters like this sympathetically, and make the reader feel alongside them, and understand the travails which they go through. 

There’s some nifty character work here, especially as it opens up for longer term arcs in follow up books; I’m looking forward to seeing both how our protagonists from this volume interact with each other, and with any new characters in the next book. In the meantime, they’re convincing as people, with the sort of small troubles familiar to anyone, and the sort of larger causes and ideals which make them feel more heroic. Once again though, it’d be lovely to see something from the eyes of our putative villains – the book doesn’t suffer from the lack, mind you, but I’d love to get an understanding of their ideology. 

The plot…well, it’s solid. There’s a slow ramp up as we’re introduced to the world and to the stakes. By the end, there’s sword fights, dread cultists, raids, blood everywhere, a little bit of magic – and, on a broader level, the suggestion that the world is about to change, not necessarily for the better. There’s some great emotional payoffs, not just at the close, but spaced through the text. They, along with the kinetic and vivid combats, and the closely observed characters, kept me turning pages long after I should have stopped for, you know, food. 

In the end, this is a precursor to other volumes – and I imagine that the time of dread will open into something more sprawling and ominous. It’s a great start though, giving us high stakes action, believable characters, and a world which carries some of the complexities and shades of grey of our own, whilst still feeling fresh and imaginative. 

If you’re coming to this series off the back of Gwynne’s last one, I’d say this will fit your expectations – smart and well-crafted epic fantasy. If you’re coming in without the benefit of that series, don’t panic. It still works on its own, and is still a great read. In either case, it’s a rewarding read.

Wednesday, January 10, 2018

The Bitter Twins - Jen Williams

The Bitter Twins is the second in Jen Williams’ “Winnowing Flame” trilogy. Its predecessor was one of the better works of fantasy I picked up last year, so I had hopes for this one. Fortunately, The Bitter Twins is a smart, emotionally charged and imaginative work, and a worthy follow up to the Ninth Rain.

Full disclosure. I really enjoyed The Bitter Twin, and I’ve spent a couple of weeks trying to work out what it was that resonated with me. Perhaps primarily, it’s because The Bitter Twins is a story about relationships. Between families. Between fragments of the same society. Between cultures. There’s all of these links tying people together, or breaking them apart, and that feels like a really strong theme in the narrative. For example, we spend more time with the Queen of the Jure’lia. The worm people. The enemy, those who have broken apart civilisations in their wake, whose desire to consume, to change, is near infinite. But the Queen is spending more time around people these days. 

Or at least around one person; Hestillion, one of the last of the Eborans, once the legendary defenders of the world against the Jure’lia, now a broken, dying people. Hestillion begins as a prisoner, of sorts. She is devastated by the current state of her people, and horrified to be present during the return of their greatest enemy, with no means to prevent utter destruction. But Hestillion is also a pragmatist, a hard-faced, ruthless woman, willing to do a lot to survive. In doing so, she bonds with the Queen, each a conduit into the alien mindset of the other. Hestillion discovering what drives the Jure’lia, and the Queen being somewhat humanised by her contact with Hestillion. I say somewhat, because the bridge between the two is vast; the Queen is wonderfully alien, a creature struggling to understand the ants which cry out as it raises its boot to crush them. Hestillion, by contrast, is fiery, damaged, cloaking pain in an agony of false confidence.
It's a fabulous and tortured pairing, one which lets you have insight into the antagonist, even as they’re making your skin crawl.  But the awkward bond between them may also be the first step in the road to peace.

Then there’s families, made by blood and choice. Though Hestillion’s relationship with her brother, Tor, is a key part of their journey together, it was the bonds of friendship that I thought brought out some marvellous and evocative flashes of narrative. Tor is, of course part time assistant and full tiem troublemaker for Vintage, archaeologist, derring-do-er and smartarse.  But the way they interact is more common to siblings – an exasperated warmth that you can feel radiating off the page, regardless of their cultural differences. Sure, one is a semi-immortal blood drinker, and one is a cranky Indiana Jones in late middle age, but they care for each other, and that care shows.
Tor, of course, is also intrinsically linked to Noon, the Fell-witch. She’s human, and therefore an excellent venue for both Tor’s charms and his occasional need for ichor. But she can also cause things to spontaneously combust. With her mind. I have a lot of time for the portrayal of Noon; she’s a woman who has come out of a hellish situation, fought her way clear, and is dealing with it – whilst also saving the world, and occasionally flirting with a blood-drinking immortal. Noon is alright.

Vintage, of course, remains Vintage – the only person in the main cast with any idea what’s going on. That is, of course, a rather strong presumption. Still, whilst Tor and Noon are squabbling like teenagers - she setting him on fire, him stabbing him, etc. – Vintage is the voice of exasperated reason. She is also, of course, the voice of youth, of a sort. The difficulty comes where Vintage is in a relationship – with a person older than hr, more experienced, more cynical, perhaps – but also physically, visibly younger. Vintage struggles with the conflict between hr earlier, juvenile memories of a relationship which shaped her life, and the more cynically exhausted expectations of her current age – and it rings true; the ache of remembered adolescent infatuation against the wisdom of age.

Anyway, the question you’re asking is: Is it any good? Yes. Yes it is. There’s a whole investigative adventure plot I haven’t touched on for spoiler reasons. Vintage and the beasts of war get to dig into the truth behind the Eborans, past and future. It’s a melancholy exploration of a people whoappear to have lost their purpose along with their strength – and also a great adventure of mystery, discovery, Poirot-esque exclamations and more than a little blood. The plumbing of the mysteries has a suitably creepy atmosphere, one which keeps the pages turning – and the final result is, to put it mildly, a revelation.  

Alongside this plot of secrets, lies and webs of deceit, there’s also one of dragons, heroics, and, dare I say it, love. It’s complicated and simple all at once – people realising who they are, engaging their affections, and occasionally trying to save the world. It’s heartfelt, inclusive, charming fantasy, backed by explosions, dragon-fire, and the warming, wrenching, entirely plausible emotions of the protagonists.

In the end, is this something you want to read? If you’re looking for a sequel to The Ninth Rain, yes, absolutely. If you’re looking for a story not afraid to expose human frailty and emotional honesty in the search for truth, absolutely. If you want mystery and ancient crimes as a backdrop, absolutely. If the idea of flying war-beasts and the end of the world interests you, absolutely. If you have, in the past, read a book, absolutely.

The Ninth Rain was a top pick from last year, and this is a worthy successor; read the original, then follow it up with this – because it’s awesome.

Wednesday, January 3, 2018

Iron Gold - Pierce Brown

Iron Gold is the fourth in Pierce Brown’s ‘Red Rising’ series. It takes place several years after the previous trilogy, showing both us and the characters what happens after a war for liberation is won. It’s not all roses, by any means.

The universe of Iron Gold is distinct from that of the precursor series. The Golds, mankind’s erstwhile masters, have been driven to the core and edge of the solar system. In between, a Republic rules. The society of the outer Golds is one which can evoke some sympathy. Where previous entries gave us sybaritic rulers, interested more in their rights than their assumed responsibilities, those at the boundaries of things hold to a different moral aesthetic. If they still regard the other classes of their population as inferior, they do so with a sense of parental duty, forces of occasionally brutal guidance, rather than feckless waste. These are the Iron Golds, those who are prepared to back their claim to superiority in blood and fire, and accept that loyalty is a two way street. They’re sympathetic, to some degree, with the courage of their convictions and a willingness to see them through.

By contrast, the Republic, founded by the heroes of the series prior – Darrow and the rest – is something of a lame duck. Or perhaps a sick horse. A senate packed with jobsworths and useful connections debates the worth of further war whilst being insulated from it, while the military looks to its commanders for instructions, and for leadership if the orders it’s given aren’t the right ones. Pierce Brown crafts a convincingly fledgling republic out of whole cloth. Its institutions are new, and in many cases, may be as corrupt as what they’re replacing. Where the existing social support network has been ripped away, often by violence, the consequences are harrowingly portrayed. If the original trilogy showed us that idealism and will can triumph over embedded hostile interests, Iron Gold shows that this sort of action has a cost. Social upheaval is as likely to bring suffering as benefit, and more likely to impact those at the bottom of the existing strata.

This is the start of a story about consequences, and about the danger of assuming happy endings. Idealism let the protagonists drive a social change, and bring a Republic into being over a degenerate aristocracy. But it turns out that building and sustaining a society is more difficult than tearing one down. Iron Gold keeps the neo-Romano themes of the original trilogy as well. The senate of Darrow’s Republic has classical undertones, and the society of the Golds on the outer edges of the system is one which carries the social virtues of duty and honour, and the sense of fatal consequences for dereliction of either.

This society serves as a fascinating backdrop to the adventures of the characters, both returning and new. Darrow, of course, we know from the original series, though now with a few more edges knocked off as time has passed. In his role as The Reaper, he’s still an idealist in the cause of freedom, as well as an elemental force of rage in its service. But that role doesn’t sit quite as well here, where Darrow is also a family man. It’s wonderful seeing him involved with his immediate and extended family – the warmth, compassion and loyalty flowing through these interactions is palpable. It serves as a contrast to the swift, brutal action Darrow is willing to take in the field – and helps to expose the internal conflict in Darrow’s soul. It may be that the world he has built no longer has a place for monsters in it. On the other hand, Darrow may be unwilling to go quietly into the night, and let others pick up what he’s built; whether that’s the right decision or not is something he’s conflicted over, and I had a sense of a man fighting to relive the conflicts of the past in the battles of the present. On the other hand, Darrow is clever, loyal, and an excellent tactician. The weight of the previous books is here, playing on reader expectations. After all, we’ve seen our hero do some seemingly disastrous things for a later purpose -  but that may not be the case here. The issue of whether Darrow has accomplished his goals and should pass the torch is a key segment of his journey through the text – selfishness wrapped in a selfless coating, or vice versa. This is a text which is unafraid to discuss the slow failing (or otherwise) of old heroes.

In that vein, we also get to spend some time with Lysander, once heir to the Gold society centred on the moon, and now a wandering vagabond of sorts. Lysander serves as a nice counterpoint to stories of decadent, oppressive Golds. He’s often warm, empathetic, and willing to at least consider the way in which society has been structured to his benefit. At the same time, there’s an incisive intelligence and a youthful energy which dance off the page, making him an engaging protagonist – one whose insecurities, flaws and virtues are held in balance by the reader. If Darrow is part of the old guard, bringing about a new ociety, Lysander is one of the consequences – freed of responsibility, but looking for a cause of his own, willing to accept change, but also to hold onto some of the history which Darrow and his acolytes see only as sclerotic remnants. Lysander is someone we can learn alongside, and seemingly a principled, even-tempered voice in a world shaped by the dying grudges of the previous generation. Much like Darrow, his internal conflicts and contradictions help to provide depth, a portrait of an adolescent troubled by expectations – his own, and others. It’s to the author’s credit that Lysander is someone the reader can empathise and sympathise with, eve as Darrow, the older hero, works to undermine and destroy the society Lysander is a part of.
If Darrow and Lysander give us high level politics, by means of debate and violence – then the other new actors in this drama give it heart, and a grounding which is needed in a world where men duel with razorwhips in armoured suits on finer points of honour.

Lyria is, as Darrow was, a Red. His great efforts to reshape the world and bring freedom to his people have mostly brought her pain. When the social order shattered, so did infrastructure for those at the bottom of the scale who didn’t march with the Reaper. Lyria’s family were miners, cast out into refugee camps once the overseers were overthrown in turn. With nowhere to go, and no prospects, Lyria’s initial existence is an indictment of Darrow’s new society, at the cusp of where ideals run headlong into the wall of reality. Fiery and determined, Lyria ekes out her days in a refugee camp, with never enough food, and with the eve-present threat of violence. Where society is invested in grand conflicts, people like Lyria have fallen through the cracks. I have a lot of time for Lyria. She’s sympathetically portrayed, someone who has been a victim of circumstance, forced to suffer the agonies brought about by the choices of others. But the grit that sustains her, the unwillingness to accept that her new life is all there is, makes her soar. If Darrow is the voice of freedom, then Lyria is that of the freed, asking difficult questions and unwilling to accept platitudes for answers. Things have become more complicated since the first series ended, and Lyria is the avatar of that complexity. In some ways na├»ve, but with a remarkable inner strength and a great deal of potential, she’s more than a little broken, utterly unwilling to give up, and an absolute delight to read.

Ephraim is something else entirely, another voice from the lower strata of the new social order. Once a resistance fighter, he’s now disillusioned, unwilling to commit to ideals which seem to have a cost too high to pay. The cynical, world-weary shell he projects serves as a fortress, a means to contain the damage that failed ideals and their consequences have had on his soul. But Ephraim’s quiet desperation is intriguing, and his loyalty and affection for his team is undeniable. That his team are high-priced burglars without much in the way of moral scruples is, to be fair, also undeniable. Ephraim’s exhaustion, his willingness to cut corners and make deals, shwos him as another casualty of a society in spasms. But his quick thinking and backing of his friends gives him a sympathetic veneer that helps him stand in the swamp of his own bad decisions. Here is a tarnished paladin, one with noir coursing through his soul, whose wry, cynical voice works alongside Lyria’s passionate calls for justice, both antidotes to the uncaring, blind face of high ideals and high politics.

What’s it all about, though, Iron Gold? What’s it like? Well, as ever, I’ll try and avoid spoilers.  But I’ll tell you this. It’s got some absolutely amazing scenes, ones which made me swear out loud on my commute, and, in one memorable case, miss my stop because I refused to stop reading until I found out what happened next. This is a story which will grip you, look into your eyes, and refuse to let you go until it’s done being told. There’s some truly amazing combat in here, if that’s your thing – from hand to hand violence with knives and axes, through back alley brawls with blood on the cobbles, to railguns and orbital strikes. It’s explosive, frenetic, energetic and kinetic. But around these moments are quieter ones; not all change is backed in blood. Relationships are built and founder. Betrayals, real and imagined, are constructed in a delicate filigree of social nuance which seeps off the pages and makes the world of the Reds, Golds and everyone else in between, feel alive. There’s some high politics, looking at the very shape of a future society – and there’s low politics, in the form of bribes, grubby compromises, and murder. This is also a book which isn’t afraid of consequences, and is unwilling to pull punches. No-one is safe, and that sense of fragility means that each page is an opportunity for an indrawn breath to turn into a sigh of relief – or not. It’s also a book about people. About Darrow and Lysander Au Lune, sure, but also about Ephraim and Lyria, and everyone around them. It’s a book exploring the meaning of family, looking at the virtues and vices which make people, well…people, in all their messy, confusing torment and grace. It’s a storyy willing to make incisive points, and to rip your heart out, to ignite an incandescent flame of wonder, and work its hardest to sustain it.

If you can’t tell, I really enjoyed Iron Gold. If you’re new to the series, it’s accessible, but I’d suggest working forward from the original, Red Rising. If you’re already a Pierce Brown devotee, then you’re in for a wild ride. It’s one which will make you question your assumptions, and one which will reward your attention and your commitment. It’s fast paced, snappy, clever, emotional, and deeply human. It’s the sequel you’ve been waiting for. Read it. Now.