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.