Wednesday, November 14, 2018

Terms Of Enlistment - Marko Kloos


I came late to Marko Kloos’ ‘Frontlines’ military sci-fi series. I have to admit, I picked up the first book on a whim, because it was on sale, and I’m a sucker for the sub-genre, when done well. With that in mind, I didn’t have much in the way of expectations when I started, but it turns out this is actually a really well done military sci-fi novel!

Andrew Grayson is our viewpoint character, living on the margins in an earth already crammed to bursting. His subsistence existence in a tower block, where one doesn’t dare go out of doors without a firearm, evoked the earlier works of Pournelle. This is a young man uncertain of what he wants to do in life, constrained by a system with low expectations, which also helps to maintain those expectations. Those in the towers, living on pablum and broken hoe, aren’t expected to do better. I’ll give Kloos this: the dreary welfare towers he builds sound like awful places, rest-homes for the terminally unwilling and the criminally able. I’m not sure they work in the entirety as presented – the welfare recipients not having the same complexity as Andrew, who lives among them – but they give off an emotional mood that it’s hard to deny. Two parts hopelessness, which the reader can pic up alongside Andrew, living a meaningless drudgery of an existence, and one part burning rage, as tower-dwellers remember that they’re people, and react against government efforts to remove them.
As an aside, points to the writer for managing to make both sides of this struggle sympathetic. The internal military sent in to control riots are dedicated, thoughtful and conflicted in their mission, to prevent the rioters of a city from overflowing into the wider wold, but the rioters they’re indlicted on aren’t presented as any less than  humanity pushed to the edge, and looking for a  handle on control, even if that control is split amongst a roaring mob.

Anyway, Grayson. He’s an odd duck. Shown as the recipient of government largess, he’s easily wry, with a bite that made me chuckle, albeit one that doesn’t quite fit his background. He sounds cynical and smart, and that makes him readable in a world where genuine effacing of the self to authority is a given, but doesn’t necessarily make him likable. The kid makes a lot of bad decisions. On the other hand, he’s a kid. Smart, capable, driven, and the emotional heft of his poor background and efforts to escape it are convincing.

It helps that the military the author gives us is equally convincing. I won’t bore with armour ratings and ammo calibre, but suffice to say that its all well researched and, as far as it can be, spot on. Dropship pilots, infantry, its all there, the logistics given the incidental room between the larger background and the character pieces. They glow. You can feel the research poured into every line, even as a dropship powers off of an interstellar carrier to inconvenience some poor fool with high velocity munitions. This is a world which cares, which seeks authenticity. It has a military which has leapt in amongst the stars, but doesn’t quite know what to do with it yet. That said, its immersive and convincing. Lacking a military background, I still breathed this in and felt convinced that it could be real. There’s the same levels of ferocious affection and abysmal non-performance as in our actual government branches – extending this to the space-navy was no hardship.

In this world, where marine detachments suppress earthbound riots and soar between the stars, Kloos combines a detailed, convincing military and galactically political backdrop with a heartfelt personal story – as Andrew attempts to get his crap together between bouts of serious gunfire. There’s some brilliant, well-crafted moments of action, where my heart was in my mouth turning the pages wondering what would happen next, and some where I was reading about the government(s) of Earth and how they deal with threats – and both the immediate and the longer range worked well, and kept me on the page.

Is this for you? Well, if you’re looking for a new military sci-fi series, yes. Certain elements will be familiar – the young recruit, moving through the ranks – but well executed. Others will be fresh (much of the world) or prepared to subvert expectations. If mil-sci-fi is new to you, it’s a great story anyway, but if you’re a fan of the genre in search of a new entry, this one is definitely for you.

Wednesday, November 7, 2018

City of Kings - Rob J. Hayes

City of Kings is a fantasy novel set in Rob Hayes’ ‘First Earth’ sequence. It shares the setting with several duologies, and may be read as a sequel to one of those. However, City of kings sets out to be a standalone novel, and it mostly succeeds. I found having the extra context from some of the other books in the sequence was useful, and added a bit of narrative flavour, but the story rumbles along perfectly well  without any further knowledge.

This is a book about sieges, personal and, well, slightly more physical. The latter is clear enough. Crucible is a city of kings. Well, nobles. They’re a shifty lot, with not much to recommend them, other than a sense of implied privilege, and rather a lot of armaments. Crucible is under siege from an army led by our protagonists. It sits in the Wilds, an area apparently mostly lawless and akward, where the nobility has been thoroughly impressed with the notion of private law. They are, in sum, not used to getting their own way, and the countryside has risen up against them, arranged to brutally murder their friends, and now sits outside their door. The city of the title is a fortress. Murder holes. Walls for miles. Traps. Arrows everywhere. It’s not the sort fo place you want to storm. Hayes’ description is sparse but precise; it shapes the idea of a walled, impregnable city in the mind of the reader, and leaves you to fill in the rest.

The author does shape a believable world; the towering walls of Crucible feel as blank and imposing as they might ti any infantry on the wrong side, and the larger social system, where the ‘Blooded; sit over the top of the citizenry and soldiers is, of course, fairly familiar. Indeed, the revolt the reader is asked to step into, led by the Black Thorn (see below) has echoes of the peasant’s revolt about it. As the city falls under siege, it also aches with burn scars, with catapults, with assassination squads sent under the cover of darkness, with explosions, with the sense of necessity. This is a word which is nasty, brutish and short, but also has the hum and crackle of a space which is absolutely alive.

The Black Thorn is our clearest entry point into this space; he’s a thief, a murderer, an unashamed killer. He’s also a man in love, and a man who has made, and recognises, mistakes. Stolid, thoughtful, and increasingly aware of his own mortality, the Black Thorn is someone continually attempting to divest themselves of their own reputation. Still, he has a dry, cynical, world-weary delivery which matches the continual barrage of the story, and makes you wake up and care. The Thorn also has his own connections – relationships and old friendships, rendering his actions fraught with interpersonal complexity and peril. You may be asking, is the Thorn convincing, compelling enough to keep you turning pages.  Yes, I think so. He’s an archetype to be sure, a villain turned hero, exhausted by his own existence – but convincing enough, and the humanity is there in every page, the emotional depth and resonance keeping you looking forward.

There’s a diverse cast of course, from the ruthless outlaw queen-in-waiting, whose motives may not be as dark as they seem, to the struggling, fighting, dying squaddies desperate to get into the city, or at least not to be shot full of arrows. The villains of the piece are certainly the Blooded, the enemy, sat on their walls, throwing insults from an insulated position where privilege protects from consequence. They’re an awkward lot, and repulsively entertaining to read; that dealing with them requires moral compromise seems obvious, but also causing issues for those on the ground.

And what ground it is. This is the war story you’re looking for. Ladders on walls. Boiling oil. Sappers. Trolls. There’s blood absolutely everywhere. In a sense this is more a character piece, about how people deal with stress, anxiety, the potential and reality of disaster. It’s also a war story, and a comedy, and, as the drama rachets up, a heist in the making. There’s a lot going on between the flights of arrows and the swing of swords – and you should definitely be paying attention.

I’d recommend this book as a stand-alone; having the context of other books in the same world adds something, but even without those, it’s a page-turning adventure.