Wednesday, December 19, 2018

Happy Holidays!

Well, it's Christmas (or at least Christmas-adjacent) here, so I'm signing off for the year.

2018 has been a difficult year for a lot of reasons, out in the world at large, but none of those reasons are related to the books I've read and enjoyed this year.

It has been an absolute privilege to share thoughts on those books with you all, and I look forward to doing the same again in 2019.

Thanks for reading, and I hope you have a great holiday season!

Wednesday, December 12, 2018

Top Ten SF&F Novels of 2018

It’s that time of year again – the season of top ten lists. Who am I to argue with tradition? 2018 has been a fantastic year for SF&F literature, which has made picking the ‘top ten’ almost impossible. Still, I’ve done my best. If you were looking for somewhere to start with books that came out in 2018, these would be a great place to start. Title links go to the relevant review.

N.B. I’ve only included books which were actually available for purchase in 2018, in case anyone’s looking for a holiday gift or two.

A barnstormer of a novel from Lawrence, picking up where the equally excellent ‘Red Sister’ left off. There’s a lot to like in here; fast paced, lethal and brutally kinetic fight scenes are interlaced with equally vicious politics. There world-building is intricately detailed and sweepingly grand at once, and the characters…well. Warrior-assassin-nuns, yes. But also determined, broken, fierce people. It’ll keep you turning the pages deep into the night to find out what happens next. This is a richlky imagined world, with heartfelt, heartbreaking characters, and a story I couldn't get enough of. 

Another favourite around here, Williams has really pulled out all the stops with The Bitter Twins. This is a world of flying hives, where the long lived elf-analogues may just want to drink your blood, and where monsters and wonders are coming back in full force. Into the breach step Vintage, whose mature archaeologist persona wraps around her sharp mind and broken heart – and the rest of her gang; a witch with a penchant for setting things on fire, one of the aforementioned vampire elves, and, of course, a giant bat. Obviously. The dialogue here is whip-smart and edgy, and the emotions coming off the page are so raw they’re bleeding. Oh, and our heroes are trying to save the world, too. Definitely one to watch.

This is a selection of sci-fi short stories starring the titular Nyx. Nyx is, frankly, terrifying. She kicks serious arse, drinks heavily, is functional but broken by the things she’s done,  refuses to take any crap, and absolutely, one hundred percent refuses to apologise for it. Nyx has a personality that radiates off the page, and more than likely sets about mugging the reader in a literary dark alley. These are stories jump about in the timeline of Nyx’s broken world – a world where persisten war with biological weapons has left much of the place uninhabitable, and the rest protected by gene-masters and magicians. Each is a tightly plotted standalone, which less plucks on the heartstrings and more kicks the reader in the emotional groin. These are hard-edged tales of fast-paced violence and cold blooded murder, with some fancy tech thrown in. They’re snappy, brutal, raw work, and, like Nyx, they’ll make you hurt.

The Poppy War is a multi-layered fantasy, which, among other things, wants to talk about culture, identity, and how far someone would go to protect or shape those things. It’s also a story about war. About how conflicts simmer and burn until they’re out of control, and about the hard choices conflict gets people to make. It’s a story of a young woman who deserves better, whod rags herself up by sheer bloody determination to be something, or to at least be able to decide what it is she wants to be. It’s about those terrible choices, and their consequence. The world is a living, breathing thing, and as real as the people who may end up breaking it. This one will reward multiple readings – but is also a damn fine work of fantasy the first time around.

Here we start with a heist. With a young girl called Sancia arranging to steal something in a world where magical artifice has shaped the pace of industrialisation. Where great mercantile houses squat over a city, drawing in the brightest and best, and spitting out the rest to die in the streets outside of their armed compounds. Things quickly escalate from there. There’s a lot of narrative  undercurrents here – looking at inequality, at power, at the limits of personal volition – but they’re all at the service of a powerful, imaginative story.

To steal a catchphrase, this is a fairytale for grownups. It looks at several different women -  a princess, a moneylender, a servant – and their goals, their needs and wants, in a world stalked by capricious, often cruel creatures of ice and fire. Each has a fierce agency and passion, and a unique voice; each has a depth of feeling and an internal strength visible to us, even as they try to save the world, or themselves. It’s not all sweetness and light in these pages, but there’s love, loyalty, heroism and cunning along with deceit and villainy in plenty. This is a book about ties that bind, and about choices, and about women who choose to be themselves. It absolutely kicks arse.

Speaking of which – the Tower of Living and Dying is also fierce, in a different way. There is, fair warning, a lot of blood. Most of the characters are terrible people. The rest are definitely skating the far end of the line toward ‘monster’. But given the Homeric cadences of Smith-Spark’s prose, they rise up, they become archetypes and avatars, they become people too. Horribly flawed, yes. Ready to burn the world? Yes. But people, unafraid. There’s nihilism here, a philosophical underpinning to some of the text – and at the same time, a kind of delicate humanity, underpinning the slow essential decay of things. There’s an empire on the decline, wrapped in the politics of quiet murde, mass starvation and popular revolt. And there are armies on the march, looking for something else – for victory, for history, for identity, and for the means to tear all those walls down. This one is a complex, thoughtful read, that will demand your attention to the intimate drama between pages splashed with blood.

Morgan has outdone himself this time. Mars is not, it has to be said, a nice place, but that’s where we are, looking at the red planet through a noir filter. There’s some fun techno-wizardry here , from bio-modified people who spend the trips between the stars asleep, to examination of Mars-made cosmetics. But there’s also an  incisive social commentary here, about the role of power in society, in the lies that those in power tell to stay that way, and the lies people underneath them tell themselves. All delivered in the wry drawl of a person who’s done some terrible things, and is now just too tired to want to do more than have a whisky and be left alone. This is sharply observed sci-fi noir with an edge of politics and techno-thriller to it, and if the well-drawn characters and top dialogue don’t keep you turning pages, maybe the tautly strung plot will do instead. It’s cracking stuff.

This one is an absolutely brilliant debut. It starts as the story of a crime, as our protagonists work to discover the cause of a murder. And it’s really rather good at that. The investigation is well-plotted, each step tying into the others, with enough red herrings and double-crosses to keep the reader guessing. But it’s not just that. It’s also the story of a society, of the way that those in power have isolated and insulated themselves, and how actions which may have been seen as for the greater good can come back later in the worst way. It’s a story that wraps those ideas in sieges, in the compromises people have to make to see another day, and in magic. It’s a story of family, found and otherwise, working together to put things right. It’s about how some things are broken, and how they might be fixed. But, also, it’s a story of a murder, and how solving it might stop a war. This one’s for you if you don’t mind a murder mystery in your fantasy, if you enjoy precision crafted, time-ticking plots or well-realised, convincing characters.

We’re back in the Misery. Galharrow is an important man now, for sure, trying to prevent the fall of his civilisation (again). But he’s still the same world-weary, hard-talking smartarse he’s always been, quick with a well-or-ill-considered word, and quick with a sword, too. And the world he’s trying to save is seeping off the page, and it’s not a great place. Immortal beings are ready to shatter sections of reality to keep their selfish plans in action, sacrificing untold lives in the process – and those are the ones on our side. In a world of petty gods and byzantine schemes, Galharrow prowls, a troublesome troubleshooter with a broken heart, trying to become something more, or less than he was. Sacrifice is a theme here,  backed by utter carnage and blood in the streets, An uncompromising story in a broken world, with heroes you can feel are real, because they’re just as tarnished as the rest of us.

 As I say, it's been a brilliant year for SF&F all round, and these are just a flavour of all the excellent releases from 2018 - but I do think they make a great place to start.

Wednesday, December 5, 2018

Shadow Captain - Alastair Reynolds

I really enjoyed Alastair Reynold’s ‘Revenger’ when it came out last year. A blend of sci-fi buccaneering in the mode of Treasure Island and Indiana Jones style archaeology made for a snappy, compelling read. So I was quite excited to get my hands on the sequel, 'Shadow Captain'

This is a book about monsters. It centres on Adrana Ness, whose sister Fura was the protagonist of the first book in the series. Though Fura carries scars, Adrana has problems of her own. She spent more than a little time in the company of a notorious pirate captain, being conditioned through trauma to become that captain’s eventual replacement. Fura we’ve seen alreadyin the first book, a fierce soul, tortured, compromising with potentially appalling consequences to rescue Adrana and take a ship from Bosa. Adrana is…quieter. More concerned with the effects that the pirate captain may have had on her mind. Perhaps more introspective.

But make no mistake, Adrana is still a Ness, and still a monster Her steely determination is a trait shared with her sister, and one which comes off the page with the force of a freight train, alongside an eloquent, thoughtful internal voice. This is a young woman who is not going to take any crap from anyone, even her sister – unless it quietly serves her goals to do so. She’s always looking at the angles, trying to work out what’s real and what isn’t, to understand where she sits in the scheme of things. This is a rawly shining portrayal of a fiercely intelligent woman on the edge – striving with each breath to achieve her goals, whilst trying to work out exactly what they are – and if they’re her goals, or ones left behind by the ghost of someone else in her head. The dynamic between Adrana and her sister is impressive for sure; both broken, twisted people, trying to do the right thing even if they aren’t sure what the right thing is. They, and their associates and antagonists, are drawn in the gently exaggerated fashion of an R.L. Stevenson story – given traits that make them larger than life, while their actions make them even more so.

This is a story of swashbuckling and adventure beyond the stars. But it’s also a story which wants to look unflinchingly at the price such a life cots. Our heroine (or heroines) are doing what they must to survive. Sometimes they’re not making the right calls. Sometimes their ruthlessness saves their lives, sometimes its an impediment. But they feel like two roughly oriented siblings, trying to rub along in far, far less than ideal circumstances. That’ s what Reynolds has done so well here – given us a seething sibling rivalry, rooted in horror and gross technology; and provided both pints of view over the course of several books. As a result, we’re now seeing each party from their external and internal points of view, and the frisson is delicious.

The short version is – the relationship between the sisters shapes this book, and it’s absolutely pitch perfect; dark, playful, thoughtful, with undercurrents, like ice in a darker sea. You can feel the Ness sisters similarities in their growing inhumanity, even as they tidally creep away and toward each other.

For the crew of the Revenger, you see, victory hasn’t been entirely sweet. They have a ship, and a crew, yes. But nobody else is likely to believe that they aren’t pirates. So begins another adventure, looking for somewhere to buy fuel that won’t ask too many questions.

The universe that Reynolds has created for Adrana and the rest to explore carries his usual grand scope. Thousands of worlds in an intricate dance across the stars. Millions of years of history, much of it a blank space to the inhabitants of this space. The characters are the centrepiece, for sure – but the universe is one of sweeping grandeur. There are baubles – rocks filled with treasure, but also filled with traps, monsters and risk. There are populated worlds with a population in the thousands, rusted soldier-bots without explanations. Stations floating in the depths of the void, avoiding answering too many questions. This is a vivid, detailed world, one with far, far more questions than answers. Fair play to the characters for recognising that, and delving into the mysteries. And fair play to Reynolds, for giving us a playground which is successfully so grand in scope – thousands of worlds backed against a sun – yet so intimate, as we follow characters around the minor eddies of worlds around that sun. What population centres we see fit into the Stevenson aesthetic – pirates, madmen, fools, a grim and gritty  universe demanding much and giving, well, nothing. But they’re lavishly described, with not an atom out of place. This is a living, breathing, broken world, but one whose grandeur is undeniable.

The plot – well, it’s a farrago of suspense, of revenge, of bad decisions made under pressure. Of conspiracies and half truths. There isn’t the clarity of revenge that the first book gave to us, no, but a web of obfuscation and partial understanding, wrapping a lot of human, understandable, very poor decisions, and an exploration of the way those decisions affect both the immediate parties, and the universe at large. The former…well, this is an exploration of the way people become monsters, each step seeming like the right one in a long chain of self justification. The universe? Well, read and find out. It’s a page turner, I’ll tell you that. A rip-roaring tale which makes you want to know what happens next, between crosses, double-crosses, vengeance, and some incredibly poor choices. The adrenaline is there, the action, the heart-breaking emotional investment. 

This is a story to break hearts and make you turn pages. It’s great stuff; pick it up, you’ll want to know what happens next.