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.