Wednesday, August 15, 2018

The Tower of Living and Dying - Anna Smith Spark

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Wednesday, August 8, 2018

From Unseen Fire - Cass Morris

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Wednesday, August 1, 2018

The Wrong Stars - Tim Pratt

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

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

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

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

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

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

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