Wednesday, November 28, 2018

They Mostly Come Out At Night - Benedict Patrick

So, lets talk about Benedict Patrick’s ‘They Mostly Come Out At Night’. It’s the  first book placed in the ‘Yarnsworld’ setting, which now contains three separate standalone novels. Having sped through this one, I can safely say it was an entertaining read, that it made me think, and that it inspired me to seek out the other books in the same setting.

Speaking of which. The setting here is at once broad and limited. Most of the action takes place in and around a forest, an entity implied to have presence over a large geographic area. And it abuts neighbouring kingdoms, themselves geographically distinct. As in a fairy tale though, this is just the forest. It’s a backdrop to the culture, lives and loves of our protagonist(s). In the forest sits a village – itself one of a series of settlements. And somewhere out of sight, somewhere in the forest and away from the villages, sits a castle. This is a world which carefully evokes that fairytale certainty of place, but also one which puts something of a spin on it. The villagers are bucolic enough, but they fear attacks from mysterious entities in the night, protecting themselves with underground shelters. The castle isn’t the delicately spired confection of modern stories, but a buttressed fortress. The forest is a dark, brooding, wild thing, and within it lurk monsters.
It’s also a place where stories have power. Between chapters, we’re treated to scraps of folklore, tales from the world. These give the reader a nicely mythic context for current events, shaping the story into one which fits into prior narratives. It’s a clever device, and one which made learning more of the background a delight, rather than drudgery.

The sense of myth and tale is evoked intentionally with the characters, too. Some are personifications – the Wolves, seemingly slavering beasts. The Magpie King, a cloaked, masked, super-human monstrosity which protects the villages from the Wolves, and expects tribute in return. These are ideas given form; here though they have enough agency to make them some combination of frightening and fascinating. 

There are others though. Adahy, child of the Magpie King, uncertain of his destiny, of his calling to be the monster people demand, sits in the shadow of a father with an iron will. And Lonan, a young man who lives in the liminal area between family and outcast in one of the villages. Both give us more humanity than monstrousness, though both carry their own flaws. Adahy is compassionate, thoughtful and a worrier – but also often unthinking of his privilege or the effect he has on the world. Lonan is bitter, caustic, driven to the social margins by a close-knit community that feels he’s done them a great wrong; but he’s also driven, determined, and willing to do what’s right. They’re a complex pair, and even more so when rounded out by the supporting cast. Particular points for Lonan’s mentor, whose non-nonsense attitude when dealing with his drama made her a brilliant read, and Adahy’s ex whipping-boy, a young man willing to risk a lot for his friend, and whose own intelligence and back and forth with Adahy make him a likable fellow to run alongside.

The gut of this is, there are people here, and monsters, and the story wants us to see not only which are which, but that it’s possible for one to transition into the other. This is a story of how monsters do mostly come out at night. Mostly It’s got a lot going on, within the cantic rythms of a fairy tale. There’s betrayal, blood, vicious fights for survival. There’s love, and revenge, and hatred. It hits a lot of the right emotional notes, and I was quickly invested in where the characters were going, physically and in terms of growth, and who they would become when they got there. This has the whip-crack fas-paced action that keeps you turning pages, sure, but it’s wrapped around some thoughtful, convincing character work – and the folktale lilt of the prose makes it an easy read, even if some of the content is more gruesome than Grimm.

Is it any good though? Yes, I’d say so. As a story, it will pull you into its dark corners, looking for salvation from wolves and monsters, while speaking about the larger human truths of love and vengeance and dripping blood on the forest floor. This is a story which is hard to put down, where you want to see how it ends. It’s a great start to a series, and I look forward to seeing where the next Yarnsworld book takes us.

Wednesday, November 21, 2018

Silent Hall - N.S. Dolkart

The short review of Silent Hall, the debut fantasy novel from N.S. Dolkart, is that it has a lot going for it.  It’s ambitious, imaginative and innovative. There’s some rough around the edges structure and some of the characterisation felt a bit abrupt, but overall, it’s a clever, interesting story, and a great start to a series.

The world – well, it’s a world of divinities. The liminal space between the divine and the human is very thin. They’re real, and able to act in the world. They also have a tendency to hold grudges, and play favourites. Nations, and people, attract the patronage or wrath of their gods. Their presence is a core feature of the world, and that reality is woven skilfully through the text – from casual imprecations, to desires not to attract divine attention, to soaring acts of grand majesty and smaller, more intimate violence. There’s a tapestry of human history here as well, though that tends to be uncovered by allusion. It’s a world that has known great empires, now dispersed. Where the gods themselves once made war. A lot of the lore gets thrown at the characters, and some of it sticks – to both them and us. It can be a lot to take in, but by the end of the story, it does feel like a living, breathing world.

On a more immediate level, we see a lot of the world from the ground up, as the characters we’re following tramp around it. From wizard towers to terrifying woods we go, or through the tumult of an island on the verge of its annual celebration of the sea. Each locale has its charms, and if they do feel slightly too well delineated (‘the forest place, the city place, the cave place’…), they’re well described, and the details brings each location wonderfully to life. Sure, the cave place is a bit…cavey, but those caves are deep, dark, and chill-inducing. Dolkhart excels at differentiating his locales, and giving them enough information to let us draw the detail in for ourselves. The world, in sum, feels real.

The world is a stage though, for the characters. Here we get a proper ensemble, all young people, all separated from their families, entering a new world together, mostly by happenstance. And they all work. Different as they are, they all feel like people. Argumentative, yes. Emotionally fragile, for sure. Bloody minded? Absolutely. But that’s what makes them believable. They all fulfil different roles in the group, but have a dynamic of slowly dawning trust which makes for compelling reading.
They’re a nice bunch, and you have to appreciate a group that, when it interacts with a problem, doesn’t immediately attempt to stab it. There’s room here for thinkers, for people who don’t want to fight, because it turns out that fighting gets people killed. On the other hand, there’s also some absolutely top-notch fight scenes, filled with an energy which made flipping pages to find out what happened next an absolute joy.

The plot? Well, I won’t spoil it, but there’s a lot of hunting for various macguffins. Which isn’t a bad thing. It lets us into the world. It lets us see how the characters react, to that world, to each other, and to the increasingly large bushel of questions that they carry around with them.  I’ll say this though – as a journey novel, this one works. You want the characters to reach their destination, sure, but the journey itself carries the heart of the story. It’s good stuff.

That’s really what Silent Hall is. It’s well-crafted fantasy, which takes some familiar elements and puts a new spin on them, then blends that with an original world and some cracking characterisation, and lets rip. It’s a good start to a new series, and I, for one, will be looking to see where it goes next.

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.