Wednesday, December 25, 2019

Wednesday, December 18, 2019

Sixteenth Watch - Myke Cole

Sixteenth Watch is a standalone sci-fi novel from Myke Cole, whose blend of fast-paced action, detailed world-building and compelling characterisation we’ve enjoyed before.  

The focus of Sixteenth Watch is the intra-solar Coast Guard. In the relatively near future, mankind has managed to make it to the moon. Mining teams are pulling helium-3 from the lunar landscape, using it to fuel an energy revolution on earth. But they’ve brought the same old conflicts with them as well. The US and China are both mining deposits, both depressingly near to each other. The surface is pocked with military installations, and the dark skies over the Moon are the depths in which naval boats from both sides silently swim. It’s a situation teetering on the edge of a blade. One wrong word, and someone’s going to start a war. Indeed, some are looking for an excuse to start one.

The world building here is absolutely top-notch. You can feel the razor’s edge of political events, both on earth and around the moon. The military training areas have the lived in feel one might expect, the slang is organic, plausible, vibrant. The hab units of lunar settlers, mining for their futures, believably utilitarian. The small lunar boats the Coast Guard uses are models of utility and craftsmanship. The world has an aura of authenticity about it; it feels real, and that makes you care about the consequences for the people who live in it.

The Coast Guard, while being a branch of the US military, is on the moon to save lives, not to start wars. That gives us an interesting perspective on events. As tensions ratchet up, as sabres move from rattling to being firmly grasped, the Coast Guard is there. Women and men doing a tough, demanding job, doing it professionally, and perhaps saving everyone from themselves.

So that’s the world. Complicated. Multi-faceted. Political. Focused on the Coast Guard, providing a sympathetic, nuanced view of the service, embracing service and duty and loyalty, while not glorifying conflict. It’s heady stuff. Interesting, thought provoking work, in a detailed, well-drawn world.

And into that world steps Jane Oliver. With this Coast Guard Captain, a survivor of the last brushfire conflict on the Moon, Cole expertly portrays a responsible, professional woman who is struggling with her own grief. The emotions moving across the page are raw and unconfined. They’re sometimes hard to read. But, much like the world Jane inhabits, they feel real. And in so doing, they give Jane an emotional weight and depth that you can feel while turning the pages. This is a complex woman, a living, breathing person, whose struggles, whose conflicts, whose rage and courage and love all surge up off the page, with serious heft behind them. It helps, of course, that Jane is likeable in her own right. Wry, sometimes cynical, funny, driven, a woman who genuinely cares for the people under her command and wants both for them to do their best and to help them become their best. A woman who believes in the broader mission of her service, who takes it seriously, who cares. Jane is a fantastic protagonist, one we can empathise and sympathise with, one we can cheer with when she kicks arse, and cry with should things go wrong.

Of course, Jane’s ably supported by a wider cast. There’s her own boat crew, who range from quiet, almost withdrawn, to fiercely angry. There’s senior officers, who manage to run the gamut from professionally helpful through personal warmth to cold fury, but also bring us personal notes that make them feel as much people, as much part of the world, as Jane herself.. There’s training commandants and their trainees. There’s people here on the page that you’re going to love, and some you’re going to love to hate, but say this for them, they’ll have your attention.

The story. Ah, well, no spoilers. But it’s probably not a surprise that in a detailed world filled with nuanced, well-crafted characters, the story is an absolute cracker as well. It’s got heroism in spades. It has the high-wire ratchet of tension which makes turning each page an act of anticipation – what will happen next? It has action sequences that are fast and brutal and visceral  and deadly, which will grab hold of you and not let go until, again, you know what happens next. It has a story with the sort of intimate, personal stakes that seize the soul, and a story with the high-stakes, world shattering consequences that make it impossible to put the book down.

Basically, Sixteenth Watch is a brilliant book.  It’s one you’ll pick up and read late into the night rather than put down. It’s thoughtful, it’s clever, and it kicks arse. Give it a try.

Wednesday, December 11, 2019

Tiamat's Wrath (The Expanse #8) - James S.A. Corey

Tiamat’s Wrath is the eighth book in the The Expanse series from James S.A. Corey. Honestly, after seven previous books, and an award-winning TV series currently running on Amazon, you probably know what you’re getting, at least in broad strokes. A work of science-fiction which contains detailed, plausible science, alongside deftly drawn characters with complex relationships, in a richly imagined world. This is a series which wants to explore the universe, wants t present the reader with big ideas – and does so through both the grand sweep of events and the intimate details of its characters lives.

This latest instalment continues the trend. TO put it simply, it rocks. If you’re seven books into the series and wondering if it’s worth carrying on – yes. Stop reading this, and go pick up a copy today.
That said, before I carry on: If you’ve not read all of the previous books in the series, or especially if you’ve only watched the TV show, be aware that you could spoil things for yourself by reading the rest of this review. Get caught up first!

So here we are. Humanity has an Empire. An artificially created one sure. One imposed on Earth, on the Belt, on all of the not-yet-self-sustaining colony worlds through brute technological force and ruthless decision making by our new dictator-for-life. But an Empire nonetheless. And the scale of it is absolutely breathtaking. There’s the entire solar system whose wrangles filled earlier books – alive with commerce and tragedy and, yes, politics. There’s the outlying colonies, trying to scrape enough together so they don’t have to rely on imported food. There’s the Slow Zone, that weird gateway between worlds, now populated by human debris, an enormous transit hub, and a very heavily armed warship. And there’s Laconia. Seat of the new imperium, mostly earthlike, populated by a swiftly rising technocracy, empowered by alien technology reverse engineered through experiments that would count as crimes against humanity, except anyone who would say that has probably been imprisoned and used as a test subject.

It’s a wonderful space, a living breathing tapestry of diverse cultures, all butting heads under one  larger roof. And those cultures are on the move, impacted by Laconian control of the apparatus of every state. There’s a wonderful moment when a Belter casts sidelong glances at a Laconian station, where even the graffiti is appropriated and artificial, trying to create a cultural cloak of authenticity over some good old autocratic authoritarianism. Each of the places we see feels different, from gritty mining tunnels to the scientific sanctums and marble halls of the Laconians. That’s the thing. They’re all different, and all real. You can feel the lush alien grass, beneath a widening gyre of a sky, one that seems familiar but also strange – and walk beneath the cool shadows metaphorically cast by the alien orbital construction platforms overhead.

This is the world. The universe It rumbles along whether we want it to or not. And there are stranger things in heaven and earth, to be sure. The series has always been good at reframing its struggles into new contexts – and there are tremors here that suggest more is coming down the pipe.

Alright, you say, but what about the people?

Worry not. They’re still thee, and as complicated, fiery, awkward, monstrous, heroic, beautiful, terrible and wonderful as ever.

I’d like to take a special moment to talk about the antagonist. The dictator of Laconia is an erudite, charming, thoughtful man. He has set out to construct an interstellar empire, not out of greed or ambition (or at least so he tells himself), but out of necessity. Only a unified humanity can survive, he reasoned – and then set out to create one. In other contexts, we might see them as a hero, a figure tying together the expansion of humanity to the stars. And that’s certainly how the Laconians paint him. As a man who was willing to do what needed to be done. A man who loves his only daughter dearly, and who will shepherd humanity into a bright future. But under the surface, there are contradictions, questions. Acts of monstrous ruthlessness. Experiments. Supression of opposition Diplomacy at gunpoint. A need for control which does not react well to challenges to that control.
It would have been easy to give us a cackling villain to face. This is something else. Someone who is the hero of their own story. Someone who others might reasonably follow. No less appalling for that, but more understandable, more human, even as their humanity slips away. There’s always a frisson, a chill in their scenes, and that makes them delightfully terrifying and a compelling read.

Of course, a lot of our old favourites are back to fight the good fight. Because not everyone is thrilled about the Laconians being the authoritarian power in their lives. Naomi is trying to become someone different. Separated from Holden, she’s finding her centre in isolation andanalysis, working through pain in an attempt to survive. That’s not all she is – the fire and the passion are there, and the ability to act – and watching her grow through this story is an absolute joy.

Holden is mostly seen through others eyes this time around. A Laconian prisoner, a dangerous terrorist (again!). He’s a man on house arrest, trying to hold himself together, and do what he can to avert catastrophe. Always the idealist, his attempts not to fall into the warm but bloody bath of Laconian benevolence are fraught, and each moment of that struggle carries a tension wrapped around it, as much as it’s wrapped around the quiet core of Holden himself.

Bobby and Alex…ah, I love those two. In different spaces, they still manage to connect, to have moments of intimacy and understanding. And Bobby is still an absolute arse-kicker, and Alex is still a conflicted, complicated person, trying to make the best of himself. They’re a wonderful pair, and seeing them struggle with themselves as much as the Laconians, well, it has a raw strength and believability to it. They’re a delight to see on the page, and wonderfully well realised.

Amos…well, Amos is Amos. Enough said.


You’ve got your struggle on a grand scale, as the Laconians attempt to stamp out resistance to their rule – and also figure out what murdered the people who left behind all the kit they appropriated for their conquests. And you’ve got the personal impact, in characters we can empathise with, sympathise with, laugh with, cry with.

Either would probably be enough to make a decent book. Together, they make for a great one.

And then there’s the story.

I won’t spoil it. But, wow.

This one pulls out all the stops. Again.

It’s snappy. It’s fast paced. It has the sort of personal stakes that leave you with your heart in our mouth, waiting to see who lives and who dies. It has the twists, the betrayals, the heroic reversals that seize the soul and keep you turning pages until three in the morning. It has the Big Ideas to make you think, and the down and dirty heroism to take hold of you and not let go. It has blood in the streets, soaring rhetoric, and some damn cool space battles.

If you’ve come this far, you’re going to want to read this. You need to read this.

So yeah, like I said at the start, put this down, and go get yourself a copy now. You won’t regret it.

Wednesday, December 4, 2019

The Broken Heavens - Kameron Hurley

The Broken Heavens is the third and final book in Kameron Hurley’s Worldbreaker saga. The previous two books were complicated, deeply weird, incisively fierce work. I’m more than happy to report that the conclusion follows in their footsteps.

Worldbreaker is set in a world surrounded by parallel universes. Quite literally. It’s possible to rip holes between parallel realities, leap through, and find yourself in a world where your double made different choices, or their friends did, or their politicians did. To stride from a space where someone is your lover, to one where they’re your worst enemy. But to cross those boundaries, your duplicate needs to be dead.

That drove the central concern of the previous book, as an invading army overwhelmed the pacifist Dhal nation, engaging in genocide in order to save the population of its own ruined world. Now the Dhal are intruders in their own space, occupied by a people who have become a bit more blasé about mass-murder than is good for them. The story explores that occupation, and the conflict that preceded it, with a forensic care, but also with real humanity. There are members of the surviving Dhal who want to rise up and fight. There are members that just want to run, to go somewhere else, to get away from the scene of their catastrophe. Both make excellent arguments, both feel like people trying to do their best by the people behind them. Of course, “their best” is debatable. Nobody here really has clean hands. Those few who appear to are also those with seemingly the least impact on the world. If they’re not willing to get dirty, they’re also not going to get anything done – and will bear the costs of their inaction in any event. The story explores this dichotomy between moral clarity and the personal cost of action – and it does so in an engaging way, using characters that we care about, even as we watch them stand on different sides.

This is a book that really reaches, that is grounding big ideas in its world and in its characters. The world is centred on constantly shifting parallels, but it’s also defined by its magic, itself driven by a complex, shifting pattern of celestial satellites. It’s a complex, detailed, richly imagined universe. But there are enough unanswered questions to make the reader wonder how it all hangs together, and why. The big ideas, the big questions, are the bones of this narrative. Looking at consent, at morality, at what people are willing to do, what costs they’re willing to bear, and why. Examining ideas of love and of understanding, of betrayal for the sake of power, or for the sake of advancement, or for that very love. Of seeing people stand up for what they believe in, and be beaten down over and over, and still fighting. Or acquiescing and working within a system. Or both. This is a text that peels back the human experience, flensing to the heart of the lived shared experience, showing that everyone is as much the same as they are different, that monsters are heroes of their own story – and that you can flip a coin between those seen as monsters and heroes.

So yes, this is a big ideas book.

It’s also an intimate one. While we’re tracking the characters through woods filled wit carnivorous plants, or through disturbingly organic temple-strutures teeming with magic, they’re having heartfelt, genuine discussions. There’s an openness there, a front-faing truth which makes the dialogue feel genuine and heartfelt. That the dialogue includes more than a few sharp words, and the occasional verbal assassination makes no odds – they feel equally real. There’s a sense here of real people, who love and live and hurt and die, and invite the reader to experience that alongside them. Some of these people are, incidentally, not very nice people. But they’re people nonetheless, ones you can empathise – if not sympathise – with. In a world populated by doubles, not everyone is who they seem to be, and truth isn’t always what it appears either. But the people, the people are real. And the way they speak to each other lays aside illusions, and has a sort of emotional honesty which gives the words a serious punch – even if (especially if) the words are a horror, or a lie.

So yes.

A broken, strange world, one that carries a weight of history, and is screaming from the changes imposed upon it by its own paradigm.

Characters who feel real, who you’ll care about, who will make you laugh and cry alongside them, who will make you cheer their failure and fear their success. Who are brave, or not, heroes, or not, terrified, or not, magical, or not. Who are, when it comes down to it, people – with all the behavioural spectrum that entails. But they’re real, and you’ll feel for them, and with them.

There’s the story too I mean, I’m in love with the weird world, and the horrendous, compelling, wonderful characters. But there’s the story too. And it kicks arse. I won’t spoil it. But it has all the explosive, strange, unbelievable magic you’ve been looking for. All the unexpected tragedies. All the moments of soaring triumph and sour defeat (possibly in the same paragraph). It’s complex, with tales interweaving as they build to that climatic conclusion we’ve been waiting for. And that conclusion is painful and glorious and fierce and bloody and wonderful. This one has serious emotional energy, and the kind of compelling prose that leaves you turning just one more page before bed – and then suddenly it’s five in the morning and you’re not entirely sure how that happened, but know you loved getting there. This is a story that makes no apologies, that sears the reader as much as it delights, that wants you to think, and will pull you heart and soul into its story.

This is a damn fine conclusion to a damn fine trilogy, and if you’re here trying to decide if it’s worth finishing the series – yes! If  you’re trying to decide if  the series is worth reading – also yes!

Wednesday, November 27, 2019

Gamechanger - L.X. Beckett

Gamechanger is the debut novel of L.X. Beckett. It focuses on Rubi Whiting, some time professional gamer, part-time lawyer, as she investigates events around one of her clients, the mysterious and troubled Luce, in a world that is pulling back from the bring of ecological catastrophe.
If you’ve not got the time to read any more, and want to know whether the story is any good: yes! It’s an interesting narrative, wrapped in a detailed, plausible, compelling world, with some character’s it’s easy to enjoy spending time with – and some it’s equally easy to dislike. If innovative, near-future SF is your jam, this one is made for you.

Lets talk about that world, by the by. It’s ours, lets start there. Well, it used to be. Today, we’re living the early stages of one of the great crises that shaped the world of Gamechanger, the ominously named Setback. Alluded to, picked up from environmental clues, from reminiscences of characters who were young in the middle years of the Setback, we can infer it was a mixture of economic downturn and climate catastrophe, turned up to eleven. Flooding destroyed cities. Wildfires razed forests. Ecosystems collapsed. Thousands, then millions, starved. Billionaires locked themselves in fortresses, and were torn apart by howling mobs.

The Setback was followed by the Clawback, as surviving governments, power-brokers and ordinary people came together in a last-ditch effort to build a sustainable global society. There was rationing. Mass graves. Brutal violations of civil rights.

Gamechanger, however, sits squarely within the Bounceback. After a generation of chaos, horror and catastrophe, humanity is getting its feet under it again. To do so, however it operates in a society that is at once familiar and alien. It’s dependent on co-operation, dependent on group sharing of resources, dependent on high-tech solutions, dependent on everyone being almost constantly surveilled, and under the aegis of a social-capital currency.

That’s the short version. But what I want to talk about (and what my inadequate summary above may demonstrate) is how cohesive and richly realised this society is. It’s not just modernity with some paint-by-numbers cyberware. The social fabric makes sense on its own terms. The space the story operates in is cogent, coherent, and showing us something different. To me, at least, it blended elements of utopia and dystopia, building a richly complex stew of social mores as a result. The death of most individual property, the provision of a universal basic income – sure. The replacement of staples with things that can be stimulated to taste like those staples? Sure. The loss of pets? Now we’re hitting a nerve. The constant monitoring of each person allows for a society that dealing simultaneously with being informationally post-scarcity but in a resource-scarce environment. But having each person subject to social consensus is a double-edged sword.
What this ends up meaning is, the world on display here has wounds, and scars. Though it’s being built back up, it has the sense of becoming something new – and at once terrifying and awe inspiring. That said, it’s a hopeful vision of the world, once where people are doing better, at least most of the time, and that’s a treasure.

In part, that’s helped by technology.

This is a space filled with subdermal implants. With AI programmes which simulate intelligence, and curate your experience. In short, it’s a plausible, albeit worrying, extrapolation of our future. The sense that the real can be removed, that scrubbing a toilet with a drone is masked and gamified, is at once believable and disquieting. That the goals these tasks purpose are positive ones does help shape our perceptions of this future, but still.

The broader point here is that this is a richly described, finely crafted world. It makes sense on its own terms, and as it skips between the virtual and the “real”, as it moves from city to city, from rain-drenched streets to virtual palaces, it works hard to make all of those places seem real. It’s a world that will draw you in, a world that feels real.

 On this well-crafted stage step our players. And to their credit, they’re an interesting lot.
Rubi Whiting is probably the closest thing to a protagonist, though we do switch between point of view characters every so often. In a world where permanent jobs are a rarity, Rubi is famous for having played virtual games very well indeed (requiring the training of a professional athlete as well as the reflexes of a gamer). But now she’s taking her first client as a lawyer and that client is…to put it mildly, a bit strange. Getting back to Rubi though, she’s a pleasure to share a book with. Professional, focused, genuinely trying to do her best for people, and not overly willing to take any crap to do so. She is, not to put too fine a point on it, fierce. Rubi is a fine window into her world, taking things in stride as we try to catch up on how things work they way they do, and why. She’s sympathetic and complicated. There are feelings there of inadequacy, imposter syndrome – but also of love and loyalty, a genuine idealism, a desire to make things better. Rubi is a very human hero. Flawed, yes, but still working to do the right thing, for the right reasons. That she’s smart, sassy and kicks occasional arse only makes her more of a joy to see on the page.

In this she’s joined by her father, one of the survivors of the Setback, now an old man, whose personal demons make it difficult for him to maintain the social cachet that his talents demand. Troubled, yes, but he’s still a person of honesty and integrity. Contrasting his weary cynicism and determination to do better with Rubi’s enthusiastic idealism makes for an interesting read. Both approach things from a calm moral centre, but have very different perspectives.

They’re joined by a pitch-perfect ensemble cast, including the detective who takes themselves a little too seriously, wrapped up in their own image and ego, investigating Rubi’s client, Luce. Luce’s oddities are obvious, and quite who he is may not be immediately clear. But they’re certainly a compelling presence, an unplanned variable in a system which is struggling to get back to self-maintenance. There are others, a diverse cast of smart, well-drawn characters, whose lives and loves, arguments, victories and defeats will be enough to keep you turning the page. I do want to mention that the villains of the piece are artfully, unpleasantly awful – they have fewer shades of grey, I suspect, than they deserve, but then again, it’s nice when a baddy is so deliciously bad.

Anyway. This is a complicated book. It’s a mystery, on the one hand. On the other, it’s a romance. On the gripping hand, it’s exploring a lot of big science-ficition themes: transhumanism, the rise of artificial intelligence, virtualities, sifting economic and social models. It’s a big book with big ideas, which it explores through some fantastically readable characters, in a vivid and richly detailed world.

It’s absolutely worth the read, and I look forward to seeing more from the author!

Wednesday, November 20, 2019

Dispel Illusion - Mark Lawrence

Dispel Illusion is the final part of Mark Lawrence’s Impossible Times trilogy. The first two books were firm favourites around here, and I’ve been a massive fan of Mark’s work since forever, so anticipation and expectation were high for this conclusion to a cracking series.

I can’t imagine it’ll surprise anyone here if I say that my expectations were met, and the anticipation was well deserved. This volume wraps up the story with skill and care, delivering the characters an ending they deserve, and one that makes for a very satisfying read.

This is a story of time travel, sure enough. Where the previous entries were across the eighties and nineties, while they kept us alive with nostalgia – today’s entries are the 90’s. the 2000’s. That includes the taboo era of the 2010’s, until this case obfuscated due to character goals. I suppose the thing I want to say here is. Each of the eras in this text feels real. Of an age with Nick, the protagonist, I could feel trends just settling out of view. I could feel a world starting to feel more open, more accepting. The zeitgeist is captured in the text, and in its capture lies the crackling energy of inspiration.

This is a story of cultural nostalgia, right enough. Of remembering the shibboleth, of remembering how to get into an empty ground in the middle of the night for a rave. This is a story with historicity and modernity twined throughout/ You’ll not subsist on nostalgia – but fair enough, the nineties and 2000’s were an era apart, one not quite within the modern, but one where the reader might be asked to understand. It’s a liminal space, and that’s a benefit here, for the reader looking back. The world is in flux as much as the characters are.

And so here we are. With Nick, the voice, the face of the stories up until now. Nick is principled, thoughtful, dangerous,. An individual fighting against the course f time, even as he’s shaped by it. I’ve got a lot of time for Nick. Despite his unique position, a genius driving temporal change, the immediacy and emotional reactions have a visceral immediacy to them which make the feel real. We get a variety of views on Nick, travelling between decades with an ease which puts the TARDIs to shame. He is at once recognisably similar, and very different, with each leap between the pages. That has to have been difficult to arrange, and I want to highlight the craft involved. Nick is at once the gangly teenager we know and love, a more focused professional in the throes of an early career, and someone lurking, exhausted, in middle age.

That each of those views feels familiar between chapters, whilst also being individually distinguished is, frankly, a triumph of the craft.

The world is ours. Well, mostly ours. I think there may be a few readers young enough that the 1990’s and early 2000’s are a mystery. To you I say: this is how we lived. Take my word for it. The awkwardness. The careful consideration of those nearby in your judgments. The records turning into CD’s. This is a world in transition, as much as the protagonist is, a world trying to shape itself under pressure, a world trying to make the unfamiliar familiar. Here we sit, reading it, and the flashbacks are real – to the top ten, to HMV, to not being able to use your mobile to answer a call. To so much more. This is a well realised, vividly created world, one that you can feel in your bones.

The same is true o the characters, mind you Nick and Simon and all of the others. Each has the authenticity that speaks of experience It hurts, it hurts to read in a lot of ways. To go back and live in spaces which had no room for these people For their lived experience. But for all that, each of them is a person, fighting to leave their own shape in the world, trying to make things different. The strength of character is there. It’s enough to make you turn the pages, to see where Nick and the gang are going next. They’re playing less D&D than they used to, but at the same time, they feel  as real in their concerns as ever they did. It’s a quiet desperation here in the cast, a team reaching out to something just beyond reach, wrapped in the issues that, as younger folks, they dismissed.
In any event, this is a story which knows how to treat its characters; with respect and with a sense of authenticity and truth. Even the villains, vile as they are, are not unfamiliar – these are people who are real, or were, to some of the leadership.

The story is one that wraps so much in its sense of tension and of prophecy unrevealed. Do we know what occurs, a modern Cassandra? Or not? This is truth. The story moves from time to time, from antagonist to protagonist, and what happens is unsure all the way between the pages. It’s got a conclusion though, one that kicks like a mule. If you’re at wondering if you want to see where this goes, then yes.

If you want to see whether this is worth your time, then yes.

If you want to know if you should finish the series, then yes

If you want to know if this will make you cry and laugh and feel, and see someone trying to be the best version of themselves, and move you to try and be that version of yourself…then yes.

It’s a great finale to a great series, and wholeheartedly recommended.

Wednesday, November 13, 2019

Carved from Stone and Dream - T. Frohock

Carved from Stone and Dream is the fifth entry and the second full length novel in T. Frohock’s Los Nefilim universe. I’ve been a fan of Frohock’s work for ages, and have found the Los Nefilim series to be an absolute gem, filled with relatable characters with complex, believable relationships, within a vividly realised slice of history. So I was quite excited to get my hands on this one, albeit a little worried it wouldn’t live up to my expectations.

Fortunately, it met and exceeded them instead.

The story is set in the aftermath of the Spanish Civil War, as broken Republican forces and lines of non-combatant fall back toward France. And in France, we find our Nephilim. They’re the offspring of angels (or demons), individuals able to harness the power of the infernal and the divine to shape the mortal world. They feud and politick as much as anyone else, or perhaps more. It’s possible to see the Nephilim as a stand against a darkness most of us don’t know exists – though equally, one can argue that some of them are as much a part of that darkness as any angel, fallen or otherwise. In any event, the Nephilim and their struggles are deeply embedded in this world, influencing and influenced by its events.

Frohock has always been fantastic at worldbuilding, and that hasn’t changed here. The refugee camps for those on the road to Paris are believably appalling. Starving refugees crammed cheek-by-jowl. Turning on each other, turning on themselves, walking out into the sea on the border coast, leaving their worldly goods behind. This is the harrowing aftermath of appalling conflict, brought to life and brought home to the reader. The camps are real. The simmering tensions in the aftermath fo the conflict are real. The atrocities are real. You can turn the page with these people, feel the surf against your legs, look across the sand at weary, broken people trying to find a new home, a new life away from madness and the horror of war. This is a text which is unafraid to evocatively portray the spectre of war, and its consequences. It does so with haunting effectiveness.
Time is also spent in France, in a Paris not yet at war. The atmosphere is febrile, the air taut with truth unspoken. There is a certain joi de vivre though, standing in stark contrast to the horrors of the refugees. Still, even Paris is not a safe place; gangs are paid off, crimes committed, oaths taken. Sections of pre-war Paris are here drawn with an exacting precision, and the lush, evocative prose helps to bring Paris darkly to life. This is the post-war world, and if our characters are important to us, and to their own story, there are factions and factors seething away in the background which may yet change everything.

The other core component of the story is the characters. I want to give particular space to Diago and Rafael, whose relationship has formed the backbone of the series. It’s at the core of the story here, as well. Separated in the swift tides of conflict, their search for each other is fraught, and the emotions that are drawn forth are genuine, valid, and powerful. The way that both men lean on each other, trust each other, know they can depend on each other is a tonic. That they also have their own vices, their own struggles, that just makes them more real. This is their life, their romance, their relationship. The fear and dread of possible loss is there, but also the casual affection, the longing, the comfortable silences. These are men who complete each other, and the depicition of their love on the page continues to be beautifully, truthfully realised.

There are other types of relationship here of course. This is a story which wants to talk about family as much as it wants to talk about friendship, romance, or enmity. Watching Rafael and Diago trying to raise a son has always been as delightful as it is painful. Mistakes are made on all sides, but the struggle, the fact that everyone involved is trying, continues to be a delight, and gives their struggle both weight and emotional impact. Incidentally, it’s an absolute joy to follow their son through these pages, each instalment of the story bringing him a little closer to his family, and pushing him a little further away at the same time. In any event, this is a story which is thinking hard about families, about what ties them together and about what breaks those ties. It feels honest, raw, real. You can stand beside these men as they dig into the depths of their being, struggling to articulate their own truths – and that is both uplifting and humbling. It’s wonderfully done.

Oh, and there’s a story too. Did  I not mention that? Well, I won’t get into the details, because, of course, spoilers. But there’s a lot that goes on here, in a vibrant world, filled with characters who seem almost too real for the page. There’s betrayal, for sure There’s setbacks, and hurt. There’s blood and tears. But also close friendship, heroism, triumphs against all the odds. There’s secret plots, acts of terrible villainy, shocking revelations, and heart-wrenching heroism. There’s fast-paced action, beautifully crafted magic, and consequences which will grab hold of you and keep the pages turning long into the night.

Should you read this? Yes, yes, I think you should.

Wednesday, November 6, 2019

The Unspoken Name - A.K. Larkwood

I’m not sure where to start with The Unspoken Name, a fantastic fantasy novel from A.K. Larkwood. It has so many facets, it’s difficult to decide which one to speak about first.

So, lets start here: This is a bloody good book. It has artfully crafted, believable characters. It has relationships which feel real. Fraught, sweet, complicated, unpleasant, all of the above – but real. It has a vividly imagined world which blends the strange and the familiar in order to make something new, something that evokes the thrill of discovery as much as it does a justified fear of the unknown. It has a story laced through with hooks, which will bite in as you turn a page, and then capture your attention so that you’re unwilling to put the book down.

That isn’t entirely hyperbole. At one stage, while making dinner, I was sufficiently distracted reading this that the smoke alarms went off. This is a story which will grab on and not let go, a story which has teeth, but also has a lot of heart.

It is, as I already said, a bloody good book.

Part of the reason it’s such a good book is the characters, their interactions, their relationships. The central character is Csorwe. Csorwe has both a difficult to pronounce name, and other sterling qualities. For one thing, she is a sacrifice. Or was. As the story begins, she makes a choice, decides to live her life rather than the one mapped out for her in advance. A short lifetime in service to a very real, very hungry god is put aside rather rapidly, as she takes up with an enigmatic sorcerer who, of course, has an agenda all his own. Their relationship is an odd one; Csorwe seems to see him as a saviour, perhaps as a surrogate parent, and as an authority figure. She is a tool, a willing one in his hand. As Csorwe grows, she learns what might be called a particular set of skills – survival, assassination, swordplay. But even while she sees her rescuer through the eyes of the saved, we can see distance and, if not cruelty, then detachment. This plays out against the backdrop of Csorwe’s desire to live up to her patron’s expectations, and it’s a wonderful portrayal of a woman trying to understand herself.

That isn’t all, though. Csorwe has other influences. I’m particularly fond of Csoranna, the librarian of the cult whom Csorwe escaped. Csoranna is driven, powerful, and moral by her own lights, which given she serves a god of entropy, may not be entirely in accord with the rest of us. But she’s a woman like Cosrwe, who is unwilling to accept the path laid out for her, and whose refusal to do so has shaped her into something new. That her incisive, occasionally lethal presence always seizes the audience when she appears is a bonus.

There’s no shortage of characters for whom that’s the case though. Shuthmili is another. A young woman whose magical power is titanic, sheltered by her people in an effort to keep her safe. The parallels with Csorwe’s life are clear, though neither appears to articulate them. Shuthmili has a curious vulnerability, which lurks behind a cool academic façade. Still, her time with Csorwe aches with unrealised passions, simmering beneath the surface for them both. It’s excruciatingly cute, and highly entertaining. There’s a whiff of regency romance in the air, if Austen had had relationships where one party could fight off a horde of enemies, and the other could set fire to a city. There’s a sweetness to it, a headiness of youthful romance, tempered with the expectation of death – or at least, the end of life.  They’re living, or trying to live, within the bounds that society expects, whilst also trying to break free, to be greater than the expectations put upon them.

That’s all an absolute joy. The interaction between them, as well as their supporting cast of enemies, frenemies, generals, gods and monsters, is a wonder. It really does feel genuinely emotive and emotional. These are real people, struggling to shape their own lives, whilst also, say, evading the winding coils of a serpent deity.

Speaking of which, a moment to talk about the world. This is a universe of broken gods, which simmer and brood under mountains, or channel their power through sorcerors in glass towers. We see settings as diverse as bustling market towns, the citadels of kings, magical spires, and worlds whose life has been sapped from them, worlds gradually falling into entropy, buried under a mystical…er..mist, which enshrouds dying worlds until they vanish entirely. Travelling between locales is done through shimmering portals, bridges between cultures and contexts. Flying ships skip through the air, moving between worlds at a stroke – powered by the life force of the magicians who navigate them. This is a universe already old, with a history that has seeped through every pore. It’s a beautiful, horrifying, intriguing place, and one I’d like to see more of.

That applies to the people that populate it too; I look forward to more adventures with this crew, even if (especially if) I’m never entirely sure who is on the right side at any given moment. I want to see more of Csorwe, her friends, and her enemies. They’re always fascinating to read, and the story, the story is one of romance, of love across a divide. Of magic that can shatter everything, or build something. Of friendships that sour, and enmities which may not be as absolute as they seem. It’s a story of people defying the known path, a story of those people having the courage to reach out, shape things around them, and make their own lives.

In short, it’s a bloody good story.

Read it!

Wednesday, October 30, 2019

Bloodchild - Anna Stephens

Bloodchild is the final part of the Godblind trilogy from Anna Stephens. We’ve reviewed the previous instalment here , and found both the first and second books to be fantastic works of fantasy.

So, if you’re here to read the final part of the trilogy, you’re probably wondering…does it measure up? Does it have brutally visceral action? Sudden reverses, betrayals, lives hanging on the turn of a word? Gods striding the lands of men? Relationships which are artfully drawn to feel immediate, personal, heartbreakingly human? Wonderfully crafted villains, who can be empathised with as people, even as they’re busy being awful people doing awful things?

Yes. Yes to all of that.

I could probably write a paean to the sheer mastery of craft on display in this narrative. The way the text is a crescendo of tension, each page turning the screw just that little bit more tightly. The way each of the characters, from your favourite (and I know we all have a favourite) hero to the most reviled villain get the closure both we and they deserve. The world, from ruined forts to occupied cities, from liminal spaces populated by the divine, to muddy, blood-soaked fields. There’s a diversity of environment, but not just that – each has the detail, the depth, the solidity that makes it feel real.

I think this is, if it wasn’t clear already, a very good book.

Well, some of you may be saying, tell me about the characters. Tell me that the one I like, lives, the one I don’t, dies. Tell me that the feels are still there, that these words on a page still make a wonderfully realised person.

Well, the second of those things is certainly true. I’ve said before how much I enjoy the villains of this piece. The way they do all sorts of terrible, terrible things (often lovingly, viciously described), but manage to make sense as more than two-bit caricatures. They’re lovingly spun from the stuff of nightmares – family men who commit atrocities, thoughtful, ambitious women who order those atrocities. They’re people, is the point. People like us, albeit at the horrific end of the spectrum. There are weird creatures here, true enough, gods and prophets, but the most terrible thing is the people, the way they’re shaped, the way they shape themselves; the viewpoint chapters for the villainous Mireces are fabulously horrifying. On the other hand, our protagonists are equally compelling. In many ways, each is paying the price from previous books. Be that in imprisonment, in slavery, in fear, in responsibility, in truth. But they also show off the best of people – in their courage, in their grit, in a determination to hold fast, to keep each other safe, to do the right thing, not the easy thing. To pay the price, if it needs paying.

Yes, these characters, in a world of gods and monsters, are the work of writing that scintillates darkly across the page, giving us heroes and villains, and sometimes both in the same person. This is top-notch writing, characterisation that makes you want to laugh and weep along with the people on the page.

I’m not going to tell you who lives and who dies though, that would be spoiling things. That said, it’s worth remembering that this is a lethal world, where no-one is entirely safe.

The story – well, you can see my emotional reaction above. I don’t want to get into detail But just to round things off. Yes, there is an end that meets the outstanding quality of the story so far. No, it did not disappoint. Yes, your heart will be in your mouth at points. Yes, it’s something of an emotional rollercoaster. Yes, the payoff is absolutely worth it, in each line, in each page, in a book which grabs hold and won’t let you go until it’s done.

Yes, this is a good book, a bloody book, and a bloody good book. It’s a fantastic conclusion to a brilliant trilogy, and I advise you to pick up a copy straight away.

Wednesday, October 23, 2019

Fall Or, Dodge In Hell - Neal Stephenson

Fall or, Dodge in Hell is the latest (rather awkwardly titled) novel from Neal Stephenson, who has a reputation for writing novels full of big ideas, laid out in interesting ways. If you’re new to Stephenson’s work, or you’re a long time reader coming in to see if this one’s worth taking a look at, let me see if I can help.

First of all, the answer is yes.


This is vintage Stephenson, in several senses.

First: It’s a book so thick you could probably use it to stun livestock. That’s somewhat ameliorated if you’re reading the ebook, but be aware, up front, that this one is a doorstop, and it’s probably going to require some time commitment.

Second: Yes, this involves some of the same characters as one of Stephenson’s previous works, Reamde. Arguably, they’re not the centrepiece of the text, which sprawls across geographies and generations with equal aplomb. But they’re there, and if you’ve read Reamde then there’s some nice callbacks and thematic notes for you. If you haven’t, don’t panic! The story works perfectly well as a standalone. Speaking of which: This is a story with two broad strands. 

The first of those is in what we’ll nominally call the real world, a near future not too many steps from our own.  Here, the narrative homes in on the idea of information flow. The United States is defined no longer by its geography, but by the types of information that its citizens imbibe, consuming their media with varying editorial slants, advances in technology allowing them to experience reality as they perceive it, rather than as it may actually be. Urban centres and core agricultural areas seem to be largely members of the “reality based community”; outside of these are lawless wastelands, people poisoned by memes, shaped by the ravings of the internet into warlords or shapeless wrecks of ideological polarisation. Stephenson, always a creator of masterful prose, manages to make this world seem real, its rural areas navigated by gun-laden pickups as plausible as the towering urban enclaves reached by self-driving cars that won’t go off the Interstate system into the potentially dangerous backwoods. It’s still a bit on the nose, honestly. Stephenson has looked at the power of ideas and ideology before, in the seminal Snow Crash, and expands on that here. How people shape themselves around an idea is explored, and the ways in which feedback allows people to change a concept even as it alters them, also.

This is a compelling, believable near-future, filled with plausible characters, whom it is easy to empathise and sympathise with. That includes, to an extent, even the less-than-heroic ones, those whose self interest and selfishness is at odds with the more egalitarian space most of the protagonists inhabit. But even those “baddies” if you will are so because they want to shape the future mindset of humanity, to take it out of the comfortable mould in which it has sat for so long, and give it the freedom to become something new. Of course, they do this, in part, by being terrible people. Both protagonists and their adversaries are vividly detailed, and feel like personalities rather than cutouts.
However, whilst this word is intricate and believable, the text is not satisfied. It shows us a world on the edge of some sort of informational meme-pocalypse, and then throws in something else entirely.


Well, something like it. The idea of scribing the patterns of the brain, and deploying them into a virtual world. In typical Stephenson style, this is lavishly and painstakingly described – both the process by which the events occur, and the world which the bodiless souls begin to inhabit. Parallels with Genesis are both inevitable and seemingly intentional; whether that’s a narrative device, or the subconscious shaping of now-virtual minds is left as an exercise for the reader. Still, as the near-future and the virtual world run in parallel, as each becomes accustomed to or even aware of the other, we find a rich and complex universe, where the big questions are at least being asked, and perhaps answered.

That fantasy world, that virtual space that is as real as the real, is the home for much of the latter half of the text, which feels more fantasy than science-fiction. For all that, it’s a living, breathing world, and one whose characters are firmly seated in their universe, and whole in themselves.
Stephenson has given us a playground here, a wide open world of infinite possibility, stocked with characters whose lives, in and out of the virtual, feel extremely real.

The plot…well, it’s something. It sprawls across the pages of the text, roots drilling down into subtext and metaphor, understanding sometimes easily present, at times obfuscated beyond the ken of the reader. It’s a dense read, and one which requires a bit of thought. At times, it seems too self involved, too far absorbed in its own cleverness. For all that, though, it has a story which grabs hold, which carries you across oceans and continents, and brooks no dismissal. It has a story which gives you people to care about, and I,, for one, did so. It’s a story where the stakes are never less than real, never less than personal – and that kept me turning the pages.

On that basis, it’s a deep, complex narrative, one rich in subtext, meaning and metaphor, one which asks the big questions, but also isn’t afraid of kicking arse and taking names when necessary. It’s one to approach when you have time for a tome, and space to absorb some overwrought ideas, but for all that, it’s a fascinating read.

Wednesday, October 16, 2019

The Quantum Garden - Derek Kunsken

The Quantum Garden is the second in Derek Künsken’s “Quantum Evolution” series. It explores the idea of transhumanism, as well as delving into moral quandary, both blended with some seriously snappy sci-fi action.

And yes, before you ask, it does it well. There’s so much to love here. The plot is pure high-concept sci-fi It involves, without spoilers, time travel, revolution, the salvation of a people, and some well observed, sharp-edged banter. It’s a story exploring big questions. It wants to talk about what it means to be human – or post human. Several of the characters are labouring under a legacy of hyper-focus, able to step outside themselves, and provide dispassionate estimations at the price of their own self dissolution. Others are trying to shape a nation in the face of fiercely antagonistic currents. Their efforts to make something worth approving of are at once visibly fragile, and fiercely energetic. Though there’s a tight focus on the central characters and their drivers, this is in service to the larger plot, and to the issues that the story delves into. The Quantum Garden isn’t a hesit, but it is wracked with tension and character-driven passion.

In some ways, this is also an optimistic story, It looks at the shape of societies driven by people who aren’t entirely, well, human. In most cases, those societies have managed to shape themselves decently, and are struggling to shape their destiny (rather than to shape anything). The idea that post-human people, despite their benefits and flaws, are still people, is a valuable one. Indeed, the text embraces those flaws in a lot of ways, exploring them in depth, and making no excuses. That said, it’s also unflinching in indicating the pervasive, invasive nature it espouses to corporate governance – the “shoot first, monetise later” mode. For all that, it will leave you with a warm feeling, a sense that the hypothetical kids are alright The pages of The Quantum Garden are filled with people in conflict, struggling to define themselves and to do the right thing. But that conflict is fiery, impassioned, compelling, and if some of the pdopkld making an argument seem better able than others, that may well be my own bias. Kunsken has given us a gloriously intelligent book, one unafraid to back away from the engagement it at once encourages and requires in its readers.

The universe of The Quantum Garden expands that of the previous book. Though we see less of the diversity I terms of humanity as in the previous book, still it’s possible to be enthralled by the strange and mysterious on display here. There are quiet moments between pages, when the fierce sense of the new strikes, when what you’re reading feels alone and thoroughly, oddly alien And that’s just the main characters.

This is also a character driven piece, delving into the psychology, the drives and motivations of a couple of central characters. In some ways, their viewpoints can be odd, unknowable. In other ways, disconcertingly immediate and human. The Quantum Garden gives us viewpoints which it’s easy to empathise and sympathise with, even as those views are in conflict with each other. That all presented views can be correct, that the ideological debates and practical consequences are valid and that they are felt, helps to give the story texture, a raw realism that keeps the pages turning.

I won’t get into the story, but it does have a lot going on. I had to think about this one as it went along – parsing moral choices, deciding which way I felt as characters struggled with ethical quandries But it also transported me from the immediate into the transcendental, with a universe familiar but unlike our own, where blaster fire ad quick wits can change the world.

In the end, this is a great story. It wants you to think, and to feel, to ask questions and hold the answers in your gut as well as in your head. It’s telling a story that grabs hold and won’t let go, and which asks interesting questions, and offers interesting answers. It’s all good stuff, really Give it a try.

Wednesday, October 9, 2019

Shield Of The People - Marshall Ryan Maresca

Marshall Ryan Maresca has brought us back to Maradaine with Shield Of The People. The city is the focal point for the various sub-series in his Maradaine saga, and each new entry has put a little more flesh onto the bones of the city, whist also being an absolutely cracking adventure. I’m happy to report that this is still the case. Shield of the People couples the deep, immersive worldbuilding I’ve come to expect from Maradaine books, with some whip-smart characterisation, and the sort of fast-paced action and snappy dialogue that’ll keep you turning pages long after nightfall.

This time we follow Dane, one of the leading lights of Maradaine’s Tarian order. The Tarians are a historical remnant, chivalric knights in a city coming to terms with an urban police force and standing armies. But they hold to chivalric virtues; loyalty, honour, protection of the weak. Dane is an unabashed narrative hero, a nice guy who kicks arse in the name of good causes and is always trying his best not to have to hurt anyone. I’ve got a lot of time for Dane, a character whose heroism is obvious to the reader (and indeed, everyone who isn’t Dane), but to which Dane himself is oblivious. His insecurities help define Dane as much as his exceptional actions; his struggle for perfection is wrapped in a fear of failure, a fear of not being good enough, and the costs being borne by others. Dane is also, to my reading, a man uncomfortable in the spotlight, especially as it’s been thrust upon him. We get to see more of that here, as he struggles to define a role for himself, in a city which wants him (and indeed the other Tarians) as a symbol, but isn’t entirely sure what to do with him otherwise. This search for purpose, wrapped in calls to action and in demanding success of himself, helps drive Dane toward feats of heroism. He is, as I say, a nice guy, and a genuine pleasure to read as he struggles with both abject villainy and, er, crowds.

In this he’s ably assisted by a marvellous supporting cast. Maresca has always had a knack of bringing even minor characters to life, and the magic is very much present here. Jerinne, for example. Jerinne is Dane’s right hand, a junior Tarian, and one with rather more of a tendency to make quick decisions and sort out any regrets later. She’s no less driven to succeed than Dane, a smart, successful young woman trying to put her mark on the world (and do the right thing). Her banter back and forth with Dane is a delight, and her clarity and sense of purpose  combine with intelligent, well-thought out dialogue in a unique voice to make her moments in the narrative thoroughly enjoyable.  I’m only skimming the surface here – the story is full of interesting people. They always seem like people, not one-note characters, and that helps keep Maradaine feeling alive.

Which it does. This time the focus is on upcoming elections, so we can see a city whose mood is becoming increasingly febrile as it waits to see who will be in charge and why. The neighbourhoods that the Tarians take us through all have their distinct flavours, and the struggles within them – for political recognition, for equal rights for women, or even for secession – carry the grounded weight of reality. These are living, breathing places with real problems and genuine conflict, not just backdrops for our heroes to strut upon. The neighbourhoods of Maradaine are all the better for their depth and the context they provide to the characters – each reinforcing the strenghth of the other.

As usual, I won’t delve into the story here. But there’s some wonderfully byzantine plotting, with crosses and double-crosses that elicited more than one gasp of surprise. It’s backed by some wonderfully drawn villains, some of whom are cloaked in more than a little mystery. And, of course, there’s more than a little running, jumping, swordfights, last-minute rescues, desperate chases, and so on. 

If you’ve not read anything in the series before, it might be wise to go back to at least the start of this series for context – but overall I think this book still works as a standalone. That said if you’re a returning reader, this trip to Maradaine really is a fantastic adventure. It has the top-notch characterisation and complex, believable world we’ve come to know and love, backed up by a strongly realised and compelling narrative. Go get it – you won’t regret it.

Saturday, October 5, 2019

David Wragg - The Black Hawks - Interview


Good news, everyone! As a bonus for the start of an autumnal weekend, we've got an interview with David Wragg, whose excellent debut fantasy, The Black Hawks, we reviewed a few days ago. The book itself is great fun - a fast-paced fantasy adventure filled with memorable villains, amoral 'heroes' and razor-sharp dialogue. So we got Mr. Wragg in to tell us more about it:

     Could you tell us a little bit about yourself?  What would you like readers to know about the writer behind The Black Hawks?
Hello! I am a large, white middle-aged English man, once described by a colleague as “seven foot of irreverence”. I am, in fact, only six foot six. I am married, with cats and children.

2       How did you get into writing? Is it something you’ve always wanted to do, or is it something of a new path for you?
I grew up reading huge amounts of genre fiction, and some of it was so trashy that I became convinced I could do better. I held on to this thought right up until I actually tried. Still, I kept plugging away, and the Black Hawks is the result.

3      Given the proliferation of sub-genres within SF&F currently (grimdark, hopepunk et al.), how would you describe the genre of your own work?
Good question. I’m far too squeamish for proper grimdark, but drama without peril is as untethered to reality as drama without humour, so I think I probably end up somewhere in the middle. I’m certainly not writing comedy – the books are serious, even if the characters aren’t always. Ed McDonald coined it as “WitPunk”, and I’m rather taken with that.

       On a related note, what draws you to work within that genre?
Fantasy has an abiding appeal to me: it’s the ultimate blank slate. You can create situations – moments or quandaries – unconstrained by superfluous concerns. You can create millennia of histories, or complex and devious magic systems, or just be all about the specifics of a plot – whatever you need to tell your story. I deliberately took a very pure, very classic setting for the Black Hawks because I wanted it to be immediately familiar to readers – when you’re not trying to work out the kinks of the world, you can be carried along by a quicker plot. And all the better to start messing with convention from there.

It could have been space opera, I suppose, but then I’d have needed to worry about airlocks.

         How long would you say it’s taken you to write The Black Hawks? And what was the hardest part about writing it?
The original idea dates back to 2009, possibly to a dream I had after one sherry too many. I only started planning it in late 2014, wrote the first draft the following year, then took 2016 to plan and write the sequel (I wanted to see how it ended). After another year of revisions, I queried in 2018 then enjoyed another 9 months of edits and proofing on the way to publication. So somewhere between one and ten years, depending on how you care to measure…

The opening remains the hardest part: it’s the oldest in terms of the idea and plot architecture, and the first bit I wrote. It’s been much revised, but much of what follows is dependent on it, precluding more radical approaches.

6      The Black Hawks follows a mercenary band of oddballs and troublemakers as they travel the breadth of the land, trying to get paid. What made that concept leap out at you? What made you want to write about this crew?
As I mentioned, I have a deep and respectful love for classic quest fantasy, and I wanted to do something in that mould. I’m also innately contrarian, so decided to write the Fellowship of the Ring from the perspective of the least heroic people imaginable – a group of struggling freelancers, just trying to make a living. A lot of what does (and doesn’t) happen in the book is a result of setting out to tweak the tropes and traditions of classic fantasy.

As for why them: I’ve had a pretty long and varied career in my day job, working on variety of projects with a variety of people. You can choose your friends, but you can rarely choose your colleagues, so you tend to stick by the ones you like the most. I thought that was a concept that deserved illustration.

       As a follow up: each member of The Black hawks is vividly realised and memorable; would you say that you have a favourite from the band? Or the reverse?
Each of them is, on some level, me, which is a deeply disturbing thought. That said, while you’d have to be a godless savage not to love Lemon, I do have a soft spot for Foss. I bet he gives amazing hugs.

       The world of The Black Hawks is a complex and intriguing; could you tell us a little about how you built it? Was there any historical (or otherwise) reference or inspiration for the shaping of its history?
Like, I suspect, a lot of fantasy writers, I’m a big fan of history. When it came to the setting, despite aiming for a classic quest fantasy feel, I wanted to do something a little different (did I mention that I’m a contrarian?). The land is in the southern hemisphere, set in an equivalent mid-13th century Eurasia probably closest in geography to the Caucasus.  The setting is very specific (although most readers may not notice, which is fine by me!). There’s no magic, but there is Technology, and as the residents of the kingdom in question are about to find out, it’s not been standing still.

9      As The Black Hawks is the start of a new series for you – how many books do you think will be in it?
Given the standard unit of fantasy is the trilogy, the Articles of Faith series will be two books long (see previous note re contrarianism etc and so on).

1   On a more personal note: as reader, what type of book do you enjoy? What are you reading right now?
I’m currently (still!) reading the Lies of Locke Lamora, which has been on my TBR for over a decade. I keep reading other things in the middle - a mixture of research and genre-typical books, depending on what I'm writing. My personal taste is books with a sense of humour - not necessarily joke-packed, but at least acknowledging the absurdity of existence. You've got to laugh, right?

1   On process: Some authors plan their novels in great detail before setting pen to paper; others seem to take a more seat-of-the pants approach. How would you describe yourself on that continuum?
Lots of planning. LOTS. Detailed outline, the occasional character sketch, reams of world-building notes, mood boards, family trees and timelines, swathes of dialogue for pivotal scenes written months in advance.

…Then I leave most of it out, and cheerfully deviate from the outline as I write, according to what actually fits better with the story as it develops. Past Me would be furious if he knew.

1   Have you found the rise of social media has had any impact on you as an author?
I don't think I'd have a grounded understanding of publishing without Twitter, and concomitantly a writing career. I first tried writing in 2011, wrote a thing, then had no idea what to do with it. Eventually I shelved it as I learned more about writing as a craft from following writers, and publishing as an industry from following everyone else. When it came to starting the Black Hawks (a couple of years later), I had a much clearer idea of what I needed to do, as well as story structure, characterisation etc. I still held off querying it for another 3 years, so possibly I was a bit too pessimistic.

On the bright side, I now know about the editing process, the writer's influence on things like cover and title (none), and my expectations as a debut are, I hope, pretty reasonable. The absolute best thing about Twitter now is hearing that people have enjoyed the book - it tickles my shrivelled black heart and makes me very glad indeed.

Obviously, the rest of the time it's an absolute sewer, but I think overall it's been a positive for me!

1   Finally, I know The Black Hawks has just come out, but could you let us know what’s next for you?
Book 2 is now with my editor, and the next year will be spent converting what I sent her into something fit to publish. In the meantime, I'm working on a standalone follow-up, set in the same world, which should have something of a Wild West/Fury Road feel to it. We'll see.

Thank you for having me!

Wednesday, October 2, 2019

The Black Hawks - David Wragg

The Black Hawks is a debut fantasy novel (and start of a series) from David Wragg (who we'll be interviewing tomorrow!). It follows the titular crew of smart-mouthed mercenaries as they try and survive, and even make a little money, in a world which seems determined to get the better of them.

The protagonist is Chel, a young man from a noble family, who dreams of doing something more exciting with his life. It’s true that being a hanger-on to an uncle who seems to be some sort of minor court functionary is a little dull, but lets just say that Chel’s life is about to get more exciting than he might like. Still, Chel is an absolutely cracking protagonist. That’s helped by the sense of voice deployed throughout the book. Chel has a naivete of sorts; his lack of experience outside of a bubble of privilege is clear from the beginning, though it becomes sharper over time. In a sense, this is a coming-of-age tale. Watching Chel cast aside his preconceptions of life as it should be, and instead pick up the raiment’s of life as he finds it is at once empowering and saddening. If Chel isn’t a stereotypical hero, though, or a chosen one on a grand quest, still, he’s easy to empathise and sympathise with. An everyman, cast onto the winds of fate, trying to figure out what to do with himself in unusual and potentially shark-infested waters. Chel is, to continue the theme, a fish out of water, struggling to understand exactly what’s going on, and what compromises may be asked of him as he finds himself working with a band of mercenaries to save both himself and the kingdom.

In this he’s assisted by a thoroughly enjoyable supporting cast, most notably the members of the Black Hawks. These are mercenaries, willing to do just about anything to get paid, and with fewer moal scruples about who does the paying than Chel might hope. Each has depth and a sense of personality. These aren’t traits masquerading as characters to tell Chel’s story, but living, breathing, bleeding people. They’re in the Black Hawks for their own reasons, and if it’s because they’re hurt, or mad, or dangerous, so be it. They have a capacity for teamwork, for kicking arse and taking names, that makes every page with the squad on it a delight to read. Their relations with each other are cleary complex, an undercurrent beneath the fast-paced adventure that sits in the foreround. I was delighted by the wit and banter between them, especially juxtaposed with their casually grey morality and penchant for solving problems with  sword to the head.

If Chel is the heart of the book, the rest of the company are the soul, in the way they interact with each other and with Chel. They’re fighting and dying for each other and, of course, for the money. But the ties that live in the history of this band of malcontents are there, twining around each member of the ensemble even as they begin wrapping themselves around Chel. This is a coming of age story, for Chel, but also a story of family, or at least, found family – albeit a family that spends its days outrunning bands of hired thus, and doing less than entirely legal jobs for hard cash.

The plot begins with a surprise attack, and it doesn’t really ramp down the adrenaline from there. Because while this is a coming of age story, and a family story, it’s also an adventure story, as Chel and the gang try to fight their way out of a hornets nest they’ve walked into. There’s a few surprises tucked away in a well-crafted narrative, one which doesn’t pull punches, and isn’t averse to sneaking something up on you when you least expect it. That said, the story is occurring in a world I want to see more of. We’ve got icebound tribes and deep snows; nobility-packed ocean castles, and a church filled with overweening ambition. It would be great to look at these systems a little more closely, and I look forward to seeing more of the world in the forthcoming sequel. What’s there is compellingly drawn stuff, and certainly provides a wonderful backdrop for a story which hums along wonderfully

This one’s a lot of fun, folks. The Black Hawks keep you turning pages to see what happens next. It’ll keep you turning pages to see how Chel gets out of his latest jam, or if he’s managed to get the hang of the group yet. It’ll keep you turning pages for the often carmine, fast-paced action sequences. It’ll keep you turning pages, in the end, because it’s a damn good story – and that’s why you should give it a try.