Wednesday, August 14, 2019

To Be Taught, If Fortunate - Becky Chambers

To Be Taught, If Fortunate is a sci-fi novella from Becky Chambers, whose Wanderers sequence met widespread acclaim. This novella, though, is something new. And, not to give the game away, it’s rather good. It has a lot of the elements I’ve come to associate with Chambers’ writing: complicated characters with both believable issues and an undeniable warmth. A detailed, vividly imagined world. A story that wants to explore things, to look at both what’s in the universe, and what place humanity has within it.  All of that and more help to make this novella a singular experience.

Part of that is the places the story wants to take us. In a not-overly distant future, humanity has reached out for the stars. Their instruments, volunteer search teams willing to go into cold storage, to go to the ends of space, through time, to see things that have never been seen before, and to report it all back to a world that is now nothing but a distant memory.  And what stars they’ll see. Each is something unique, and the thrill of discovery for our interlocutors is one that seeps viscerally off the page and into your bones. Each new biome is an adventure, a discovery, something truly new. That isn’t to say it’s always nice, that each instant is one of rare beauty – but each moment is definitely singular. And these worlds – well, the prose is lively, the descriptions sparkling and imaginative. Each of these worlds is somewhere entirely new, and that feeling never fades. I did appreciate that these worlds, their mystery and possibility,  are shown to us in parallel with thoughts on our own Earth, whose news remains as interminably unpleasant as ever – and for whom, as ever, hope is never entirely lost. The people exploring the edges of our known space are human enough to want to go home, and human enough to want to keep on going into the dark.

Speaking of which; the text centres around one survey team, as they move from planet to planet, dipping into and out of time like cranes on a lake. In between the descriptions of new worlds, and the surprisingly compelling scientific rigour it takes to explore them, we sit beside these people, and see them at their worst, as well as their best. They are people though. In between their professionalism are under(and over) currents of friendship, the sort of banter that evolves between four people who’ve worked together in close quarters for a long time. There’s wit and sass by the barrel-load, and I found myself chuckling more than once at a particularly clever remark. But these aren’t ciphers either 
They’re emotionally present, and if not always entirely honest with themselves about their baggage, at least trying to be. There’s a warmth and strength in the group dynamic, in a small team with a shared purpose trying to do a good job, and also be healthy, and be there for each other. There’s a transhuman element as well, exploring the changes these people have had to make in order to explore strange new worlds; but that sits alongside the human element, and accentuates it. No matter what these people look like, or sound like, or how they feel, or who they feel it for, they’re always people. 
That’s a positive message coming out of the text, and one that’s interwoven cleverly through each line of the text. These are people; in their diversity, they find strength, and humanity – and that strength, that humanity, helps keep these people feeling like people as we share their troubles and triumphs across the universe.

I won’t go into the plot, past the exploration of worlds that I’ve already alluded to. But the story is there, between the interactions of the characters, and the new places they set out to discover. It’s in each line of dialogue, each new variety of fauna. There’s stories here about people and acceptance and difficulty and crisis, and each of them feels real. There’s ethical problems and small worries and world-changing choices. There’s some dark moments and choices that have to be faced, and there’s the sort of optimism and hope that makes you want to build In short: it' a space programme all of your own for these people. It’s not a story that relies n explosions and one-liners to get your attention, but it’s a story that will keep your attention by being honest, and by  having interesting things to say. In short, it’s a damn good read.

Should you read it? I think so. It’s saying interesting things, asking interesting questions, and doing so with characters I quickly came to care about, in a world that feels very real.

Wednesday, August 7, 2019

The Last Astronaut - David Wellington

The Last Astronaut is a lot of things. Let’s start form the top. It’s a near future sci-fi novel, in a world where, after a Mars mission ends in Challenger-esque tragedy, NASA has ceased human space exploration. Decades later, however, the commander of that doomed mission has been pressed into service, to investigate an alien object falling into our solar system. Things, as you may expect, do not go entirely to plan.

Though this is an ensemble story, I want to say up front that the standout for me was Sally Jansen, the commander whose catastrophic mission to Mars ended government-funded human spaceflight decades before the story takes place. The Jansen we have before us is someone struggling with themselves. With their own guilt, of course. But also with failure, with having come close to living a dream, of embodying her own goals, and then seeing those taken away. Not only that, but seeing that failure cascade, and strip away not only her dream of going to Mars, but everyone else’s. Jansen is outwardly still a woman at the top of her game, even if the game is over. A leader, who can make hard decisions, think fast and act fast when she has to. And all of that is true. She absolutely kicks arse, and it is a sight to see. The story isn’t afraid to let her off the leash, to let her show her expertise, to let her drive her own story.

But she’s also walking on thin ice. There are cracks in the façade that we can see in her narration. The need to save others. To take the weight of the shame and guilt for those she couldn’t save. The wish for redemption. And its to the text’s credit that we can root for Jansen, even as we recognise that the pressures that have shaped her may have been catastrophic; that she is, internally, treading on thin ice. To her credit though, Jansen is smart, resilient, and willing to pick herself up off the mat – both physically and mentally. The mixture here is just right – giving us a protagonist we can believe was a hero, with more than enough of the flaws that make us human.

Jansen is aided, of course, by a delightful ensemble cast, including her new crew, some of who have secrets of their own.. There’s the secretive military man, of course, but there’s also an effervescent scientist, whose discovery of the object, and dream of going into space has catapulted him into the big leagues. And the naïve researcher into xeno-bilogy with an intellect so razor sharp she might just cut herself on it. They’re an odd crew, and they definitely have their quirks, their mysteries, their moments of difficulty. But along with the ground control team, they’re our emissaries to whatever is heading toward us.

Of course, that relies on them being able to get there first.

The text has an interesting narrative style; parts are written from the viewpoints of the characters in the moment, and the visceral immediacy of those sections hit like a freight train. Smaller sections are apparently produced ex post facto, written or recorded as an after action report for an event which looks set to change humanity forever.  The contrast in tone, the implacable dry bureaucracy of the reports, blended with the intimate horrors of the larger chapters, not only kept my attention, but left me wondering what happened next – looking for the reality under the formality of the reports and recordings, looking for the indescribable in the layers beneath the  formal reality.
This works really well for the earlier portions of the text, as both we and our characters are brought up to speed. Trying to guess what happened before it does, trying to understand what the after action reports, the video transcripts, the scattered future artefacts are telling us.We, and the characters, are caught up in the challenge, in the desire and dream of space, of seeing what’s out there. Of touching down on something truly alien. Of understanding, perhaps, that we’re not alone, and what that means. It’s energetic and optimistic and an absolute pleasure to read, as everyone works together to see what they can find outside the surly bonds of earth.

I won’t spoil anything here, but I’ll say this. The world drawn here is top-notch. The sections in corporate America, and the government facilities of Nasa, will send a tremor of familiarity through anyone who’s ever been to either .The clinical construction of a mission, mixed with the spirit of adventure and attitude that makes it work. You can see the people striding forward, torch in hand, and you can see the world around them – ours. Once they reach the object, things change. Again, no spoilers. But here the strange, the unusual is what stands out, alongside the familiar. It shocks at the same time that it seems tantalisingly within our grasp. The atmosphere is electric, and the object is tantalisingly alien. Jansen and her team are somewhere strange, where the rules don’t apply – less a frontier than a different frame of reference. 

In sum, I’m saying this: the characters are very human, and the object is absolutely, vividly not. What happens when the two meet, is something else entirely.

This is a book about discovery. About heroism in dark, dark places. About doing what you have to, in order to survive, about courage, and about duty. It’s about loss, as well, and love, and the things that make us the same and different. The intimate horrors that we share with each other, and the triumphs that get us through the day. It’s a very human story, and one that, once it has you in its grip, isn’t going to let you go until it’s done.

If you’re looking for some hard sci-fi, blended with the best of humanity as well as downright, primeval horror, then this is the book for you.

Wednesday, July 31, 2019

The Unbound Empire - Melissa Caruso

The Unbound Empire is the third in Melissa Caruso’s Swords and Fire series. The saga up to now has included more than a few swords, and a fairly hefty amount of fire, both deployed to maximum effect in making me turn pages to find out what happens next. This conclusive chapter not only continues that tradition, but ramps it up to eleven. There’s plots and politics aplenty, as well as more than a little blood, all wrapped around some well-crafted characters, whose relationships, for good or ill, are at the scintillating heart of the story.

At the sharp end, this is a book about empires, about magic, and about the people who will wield either to make change happen. The Serene Empire is the central geography. A sprawling entity, it has both client states and a rather hungry next door neighbour. The Empire carries traces of the Italian renaissance about it – its head of state is a Doge, whose rule is advised by a council of nine landholders. The Empire is rich, and largely happy. Its citizens seem to toil away at trade and religion and martial activities, without too much in the way of feudal oppression. There’s definitely some problems here, but they are, by and large, the good guys.

One of the problems is how they feel about magic. Because this is a world where magic is something brought about by birth. Something any child could have. Some of the things one can do with magic – crafting defensive wards, or elaborate items – are relatively harmless. Other things some mages could do – such as setting large numbers of people on fire – are less so.

This has left the state to step in, to hoard those with magic, and to seek to control the. Each is tied to another, non-magical person, who decides if and when the mage’s powers are released, or shut down. This isn’t a perfect solution, but I’d say it makes sense in the world of the Empire. It’s also a great way for the book to explore inequality, and sacrifice. While some of the mages in the story feel they’ve lost their freedom,, others are accepting of the luxury they live in – constrained, but away from the streets. Others struggle with it, but recognise that they don’t have a better way t control small children with the ability to incinerate anyone who looks at them funny.

Ther’s a lot of politics here, as our protagonist, herself bound to a mage, struggles to give them more in the way of rights. It’s a thoughtful, nuanced discussion of the power of the individual and the power of the state, and what responsibility each has to the other, and to their fellow citizens.  But it’s also a lavish backdrop for some thoroughly byzantine politics, as factions of the Empire all try to set its direction. To be fair, they’re all fairly united against a common enemy; but efforts to shape the Empire are often rather cutthroat from poisonings through political chicanery and, theoretically, up to extra-judicial assassinations. It’s a weltering whirligig of factions, and at the same time, a sprawling, thriving, heart-poundingly  alive place.

The same may not be said of its nearest neighbour, a federated autocracy run by mages. Those at the top of the heap are obscenely powerful mages. Those without magic also lack any power. Those at the top of the tree are only loosely confederated, each holding to their own slice of the pie, and always eyeing the others for a chance to seize more territory. But now they’re also looking for an excuse to get involved in the Empire, as a nice change of pace from trying to kill each other. Their demesnes feel more rural, closer to nature than the humming urbanity of the Empire, That said, the trickling streams and verdant forests are in stark contrast to the horrors of those Witch Lords who rule them, typically blending magical puissance with long-held grudges and little in the way of morality.
These are the two powers on the stage, and though they feel very different, they both feel equally alive, equally real.

The central duo for this book are the same as in those preceding: Amalia Cornaro is the noble heir to her family, linked to one of the Empire’s only fire warlocks in a magical accident, and, I think it’s fair to say, a woman who has been having a bit of a tough year so far. She’s linked to Zaira, a smart-mouthed woman from the bottom of society, whose main talent (aside from creating some great insults), is being able to generate vast amounts of fire on command – essentially making her a one-woman-army.

Full disclosure, I think they’re both great.

Amalia is a woman who has, to put it mildly, had a tough time recently. But as the text progresses, it’s possible to see the steel she has at her core, willing to pick up and run with tough decisions. Even if they’ll feel like they break her. Perhaps doubly so, then. But alongside that steel sits enough humanity to worry about what power and responsibility could turn her into; to observe the ruthless measures of the circles she’s moving into, and decide where she’ll draw the line, decide who she’ll want to be. That’s helped by the skein of compassion wrapped around the aforementioned steel core. Amalia isn’t a bad person, doesn’t want to be one, and is still willing to bear the costs that she knows are the price of action. But she feels for people. Maybe she doesn’t always understand them, maybe she’d rather be in a  book than at a party charming political opponents, but she wants the best for her Empire, for her friends, and even for herself. It’s easy to sympathise with a woman who feels out of her depth, and to cheer her on as she rises to the challenges = be they maniacal witch-lords, or her own romantic entanglements.

In her aims, she’s largely assisted by Zaira, who seems never to have met a person she actually liked. The fire warlock is working hard not to show too publically her thoughts on whether she wants to be a weapon for the Empire. She’s still hurt, still struggling to come to terms with herself, and watching her iron pragmatism clash with Amalia’s ideals is an outright joy. It helps that she is, honestly, really rather funny. There’s a person here, a conflicted, struggling person, who is willing to pitch in with Amalia to make things better, but isn’t doing so with any illusion of it all ending well.  Zaira brings a different energy, a different voice to the pairing – more jaded, but perhaps, behind the shell, more vulnerable.

Watching both women grow over the past two books has been fantastic, and I can safely say that the apotheosis of their relationship here carries all the emotional weight it deserves.

They’re surrounded by a wonderful gaggle of other characters, including the rather delightful Marcello, the straightforward Captain who helps guard the Empire’s mages from harm, and whose affection for Amalia is obvious, heartfelt and straightforward. Marcello gets some more time on the page in this book, and watching him change, seeing where his priorities lie, is by turns wonderful and painful. In part, that’s because social standing leaves his affection for Amalia in a bit of a troubled state; she’s also courting one of the Witch Lords, Kathe,  in what both know to be a political alliance. But the man Amalia is working with by necessity is also enigmatic, powerful, handsome, intriguing, and yes, witty. Of course he’s also dangerous, and probably has a hidden agenda. But the chemistry between Kathe and Amalia is undeniable – the page crackles with energy while tey’re together, and the attraction is at least as genuine as the danger. Negotiating this rather awkward triangle is one of the ways Amalia is trying to shape herself – to decide where what she wants and needs is taken up in what her country wants and needs. It’s powerfully written, compelling work.

And of course, there’s the villain. Ruven. Oh, hats off to the author on this one. Ruven is deeply, deeply creepy. A powerful witch-lord, he can change the skin of those he’s in contact with. That can involve magically healing their wounds, or paralysing with a touch, or making someone explode from the inside out. Ruven is…not a very nice person. That he thinks of everyone without magic as less than a person isn’t a great surprise, perhaps. But he also carries an affection, of sorts, for Amalia, seeing her intelligence, and a chance to drive his goals forward. Of course, he’s also a monster, with a penchant for atrocities. Ruven slithers insidiously on and off the page, and has a certain audacious charisma that makes his every appearance into compulsive reading – if only to see what horror he’ll unleash next, and which scheme will bear terrible fruit.

There are more, of course – an entirely delightful ensemble of new and old friends. And each steps up to the reader to introduce themselves, and even if we only see the for a few moments, they are seen, they are real. They may not be nice; there’s more than a fair share of tyrants and ruthless politicians here, between the blades and the fire. But they are people, and even if their goals are appalling, we can understand them. These are characters with heart and soul, whose presence gives the story a depth and heft, the weight that makes it something true.

I won’t, having gone on this long, go into the details of the story. It is, after all, the finale of a series. I wouldn’t want to spoil it. But if you’re here, you’re probably wondering how many of your questions will be answered. You may be wondering whether the end of the series can hold up to the high bar set by the previous books. You may be wondering if the story will still pick you up and make you soar, whilst wringing out all the emotions it can manage.

My answer is this: Yes, to all those things. This is a fantastic conclusion, a high-water mark in a series which was already really very good. It has interesting things to say about freedom, about oppression, about sacrifice and power. But it does those things with a verve that keeps the pages turning, by giving us characters we care about (one way or the other!), by making their struggles feel real, making their conflicts, emotional and otherwise, have real cost and real triumphs.
So, if you’re here wondering if you want to know how the story ends, I’m here to tell you that yes, you do.

Wednesday, July 24, 2019

Limited Wish - Mark Lawrence

Limited Wish is the second in Mark Lawrence’s Impossible Times series. It’s a book that’s equal parts time travel physics, teenage romance, Dungeons and Dragons, and snappy, fast-paced action.
I say equal parts. At the heart of it, this is the story of Nick Hayes. When we last ran into Nick, he was escaping from a psychotic killer, and saving his own reality by (maybe) following the instructions of his future self. Nick is, it must be said, used to some weird stuff. Between the time-travel shenanigans and his own terminal cancer (now in remission), Nick’s been having a fairly hard time. Mind you, he’s also been having adventures nobody else would believe.

As we come into the new book, we find Nick at university.  Always a mathematical prodigy, he’s managed to finagle his way into a relationship with a professor researching the mechanics of time. This is, as one might expect, fraught with difficulties. The funding for this research comes from obscure and obfuscated sources, with a face which isn’t averse to turning up at the lab and asking for a demonstration, or even a change of direction. The shadowy nature fo the funding adds a certain spice to the proceedings. While Nick is working his own angles, trying to work out how to shape a future which he may already have seen glimpses of, there are other forces shifting at the boundaries of his understanding. Still, the central issues which face him feel central to the narrative, and each is delivered with a raw energy which will tear the reader inside-out.

This is good stuff. Nick feels real, sure enough. His struggles feel genuine, and his own lack of confidence that things will work out help keep the tension bound within the story. Seeing events unfurl through Nick’s eyes means we see the metaphorical device tick down, unable to think of a way to contain or stop it – and we stand alongside the narrator whilst they struggle so hard to do so. Nick’s insecurities, failures, difficulties, honesty and decent-ness are all familiar; that’s in no doubt. But in their immediacy, in the closeness of their feeling, and in the raw veracity of their energy, those feelings make Nick real. He’s a living, breathing person bound between pages, an awkward adolescent under seismic pressure, trying to do the right thing while trying to understand what the right thing even is. But as part of that struggle, we have to recognise Nick’s fierce intelligence between the pages, and his own furious vulnerability and mortality. This is not someone who wants to die, and they’re willing to bend the universe to prevent it.

Happily, a lot of what stands true for the previous book is also the case here. The world is, for those of us that existed in it, instantly familiar. The scent of cigarette smoke in pubs, the slang, the less modern approach to sexuality – they all carry the fevered scent of the era. If you managed to skip it on your own, this may seem like a fever dream; if not, it’s likely to feel as familiar as a second skin. To Nick, this is modernity, to us history. But it lives and breathes for us as much as for him, a world that knows our memories and won’t let go. I guess what I’m saying is, if you weren’t there, you may feel like you were, and laugh at the oddity of it; if you were there, you may well feel the same. It’s a well-drawn memory of the period, and one which evokes the memory enough to feel real without also revelling in nostalgia. There’s old songs, sure, there’s familiar neighbourhoods; but there’s the old prejudices too, and old blood on people’s hands.

Still, Nick and his gang are a constant delight. They’re personable,  and crackling with the sort of energy that defines long-tie friends. They’re willing to walk the line for each other, to take risks – and also to murder Orcs and delve dungeons for each other. The D&D gives a certain geek cachet, but it also helps to shape the mood of the text, of a set of friends fighting against an unutterable evil and triumphing alongside, or in spite of each other. The parallels are there, but the mechanics also serve to ground the story I friendship, in personal relationships, in the emotional, human core, rather than in the snappy happenings of other sections.

Speaking of which. If everything is a compelling blend of the strange and the familiar. If the world is one which stalks the edges of nostalgia, then twists with a jagged edge. If the characters seem like old friends, but with difficult choices in front of them, then the same can be said of the plot. No spoilers, of course, but it’s talking about our relationship with time, on the one hand, and about what we’re willing to sacrifice for our goals, on the other. There’s a sense of free will and destiny, yes, but also of people trying to shape their own truths in a world determined to shape them. This is a story about people who are willing to fight back, to take the weight, to do the right thing. It’s also a story about illness, about family, about one boy’s struggle to become the person he wants to be – oh, and about a romance, perhaps. About what two people will be vulnerable enough to let themselves feel.
Is it a good book? Yes. This is whip-smart science fiction. It unapologetically asks big questions, and lets the characters and the reader work out the answers. It’s also honest, bringing a depth of understanding and emotion to all of its characters, giving them the depth they need to feel real.  The story is gripping, fast-paced and believable, with a drumbeat of tension which won’t let you put it down until you’re done.

In short, this is a cracking sequel, and a great story in its own right. Give it a try.

Wednesday, July 17, 2019

This Is How You Lose The Time War - Amal El-Mohtar & Max Gladstone

This Is How You Lose The Time War is a lot of things. But if you’re just here for the topline, the first of those things is that it’s really, really good. It’s an artful blend of hard-science fiction, high-concept ideas, and emotionally fraught, honest, affecting characterisation, laced through with a complex, believable, thoughtful romance seasoning. And all of this is wrapped up in an epistolary format, as a pair of agents on different sides of a struggle that threatens to tear apart causality start leaving each other notes.

Those writing the letters are referred to only as Red and Blue. They feel almost like concepts more than names. One lives in the boundaries of a timestream dominated by technology; there are sweeping dataspheres, constant communications, constant monitoring, soaring data edifices, that sort of thing. The other comes from a timeline which feels more organic, where the organic is at the heart of philosophy and civilisation.  Both parties are utterly immersed in their conflicting realities, and in their conflict up and down the twisting ladder of time. The prose is fluid and lyrical where it needs to be, and intentionally not when it shouldn’t be – as Red and Blue try the hardest thing, to actually speak to each other. That mastery of language makes this book such a pleasure to read, it’s untrue.  

It’s helped by the fact that both central characters are so very likable. That said, travelling up and down the time-stream as they do, disrupting each other’s work by, say, arranging for Lincoln not to be assassinated, or for Caesar to die a little later than we think of as correct,  has given them both a rather distinct perspective. It bleeds from the letters they send each other, the sense of the long view, of waiting for the right moment to do the right thing, and watching the results cascade outward in a multiplicity of changes. Each of their exchanges is an exercise in elegance, and the reader sits on either side of this burgeoning relationship, which mixes up that temporal vision with a more immediate, though no less strange, sense of desire.

I’d be hard put not to call this a love story. But the growth of affection between Red and Blue is a gradual thing at the same time that it’s a white-hot furnace. It’s a sense of slowly growing trust, and a willingness from each to protect the other, to try and live up to each other. They’re a strange pair, but the spaces between the words, the hidden truths they don’t dare write down, are an inferno in the minds eye. These are people. Strange, wonderful people, with a passionate intensity that is no longer restricted to the worst. Because they’re such fun to read. The letters between Red and Blue are full of wry observance, of a closeness, an affection which resonates throughout, and feels like the backbone of the text.

The worlds they explore are wonders in their own right. Though we only see snapshots, still there are flashes of the familiar and the strange, to keep us on our toes. And each is vividly, lavishly described, each jump to a new period carries the same depth and heart as the one which came before. The future, or futures, our future (or futures) are there as well, of course. And they are both as wonderful and terrible as one might expect. To read of the dance of Blue and Red is to be swept up in it, to feel their hungers and their fears, to live their careful steps between realities, to understand the craving and the energy which drives them back and forth through time, and away from and toward each other.

This is a novella that is, as you can probably tell, rather difficult to describe. What the authors, fictional and otherwise, have wrought here is an intricate tapestry, or a sparkling jewel of a narrative. Its complicated, passionate, compelling work. It’s a thoughtful, powerful work, which has interesting things to say, and interesting questions to ask – and it does so while telling a fantastic story.  You should read this. If it does nothing else, it will make you feel.

Wednesday, July 10, 2019

Beneath The Twisted Trees - Bradley P. Beaulieu

Beneath the Twisted Trees is the fourth in Bradley P. Beaulieu’s The Song of the Shattered Sands series. It’s filled with the intricate world-building, the emotional depth, the detailed characterisation we’ve come to expect; all of that wrapped up in a plot which has a constant roiling boil of tension, punctuated by explosive revelation, the narrative ground shifting underneath the reader’s feet. It is, in short, rather good. If you’re here after the first three books, and want to know if you should carry on – then here’s the unequivocal yes. There’s a lot going on here (it’s a rather thick book), but a strong, rewarding story is being told as a result.

So here we are, anyway with a city surrounded by a desert. The city is its own welter of political concerns, but the desert is no longer quiescent. And of course, there are third party actors. Those looking in from outside, seeing something they can exploit, a rival they can bring down, a threat that can be neutralised.  

So lets talk about the desert. It’s at the hart of the text, an environment which surrounds and swallows characters whole. This is a space filled with baking sands, and with the occasional life-giving oasis. Fleets sail across it, with tough wheels to drive the sane and trim sails to take advantage of the win. Sailing the dunes is not for the faint hearted, but here we have the potential, crackling like lightning between the grains of sand. The silence, the life, the soaring birds of the desert are all there, an ecosystem which exists as a force much like the ocean, washing people upon it. As they struggle between themselves, the sands are always there, waiting to seize upon anything abandoned.

In the centre of this unrelenting seeming-emptiness sits Sharakai. Less a city on a hill than a city between the dunes. It has high walls, and pits for fighters, and markets, and kings, so many kings, and a resistance willing to fight and die for change. The city is ruled by the king,s, a rapidly diminishing number of immortal oligarchs. Their slow removal due to infighting and enem action, and their struggles with their children, desperate to rise to the power they see as their birthright, are brutal, vicious, and entirely believable. When rulers carry divinity and the gift of immortality, still one may rise up to claim what one things they are due. The city is a heartbeat, fast and brutal and bloody, unforgiving and certain. Until it skips a beat. Then, things may struggle out of control.

In this liminal space, between the Kigns and the desert, we find Ceda, once again. The kings are monsters, that’s undeniable. They use their immortality to suppress history, to hide atrocities behind what may be nominally considered lesser atrocities. But they keep the city safe, swathed in sorcery and ruthlessness. Though they do not accept internal opposition, still less are they willing to accept external power. But that’s changing here, in these pages. As Kings are eliminated, the populace fees their hand less on their shoulders. But external forces are poised to fill the vacuum, fleets from across the sea and beyond. The text does a good job of showing us Malasani, Qaimiri, as distinct cultures, with their own goals and loyalties, and with rulers whose decisions will make or break them. We spend more of our time amongst these powers in this book than we had previously, and by the end, they each feel like a living, complex culture with its own needs and mores.

As ever, Sharakai is alive, and the desert, perhaps more than previously, is alive; now those who step upon the sands in trepidation take their turn.

This hols true of the characters as well. Ceda remains the star, here. Her feral energy pours off the page, even when she’s lost in thought. She has to take a lot of decisions very quickly, and though some of them are difficult, still the text crackles with the choices she makes. Ceda, not to put a point on it, kicks arse She’s not afraid to get into a fight – indeed, quite the reverse. At the same time, she’s embracing the mysticism of her life, of the powers she’s having to embrace on her own course for revenge and for truth. And even more, she’s coming to terms with being a leader, not just a fighter. With having to make the hard choices which get people killed. While the kings will stand and make the argument that each sacrifice is necessary, Ceda’s evolution is in parallel. She’s not willing to sacrifice friends on the altar of power – or at least, not yet. The truth will out.

And in her search she’s supported by a fantastic interweaving of parallel tales. There are the blood mages on the run, desperate to avoid notice, but trying to break free nonetheless. And the aide to the Qaimiri queen, a man desperate to rescue his monarch from herself, and willing to take horrendous risks with body and soul to do so. And the pair of a man and a desert djinn, a warped love story whose truth has yet to be entirely realised, but lies mapped in desolation. And the fellow seeking to turn back the tide of Malasani, an old friend of Ceda’s whose compassion may be his greatest weakness.

They all live and breathe between the leaves of the book, and they each drive the plot in their own way. Fundamentally though, the people feel like people. The entities – desert ghosts, deities, immortal kings – are strange and real and terrible, but still you can eel something of their needs. Ceda is the heart, but every one else is a key to the text as well.

I won’t go too far with the plot, but if you’ve come this far, through the rich, detailed world and the convincing, heartfelt characters, you won’t be surprised by the emotional investment. The story pulls no punches here, building up and creatively detonating tension, and making you care about each of the maladjusted characters. There’s parts that are a slow boil conspiracy, parts that are a fast-paced adventure, and segments which are a sweeping, epic scene of combat. Each has emotional integrity, and will grab you until its work is done.

Its an absolute stormer of a text, given a pitch perfect fusion of characterisation, universe and plot; as such I would say that you should pick it up.

Wednesday, July 3, 2019

The Howling Dark - Christopher Ruocchio

The Howling Dark is the second in Christopher Ruocchio’s “Sun Eater” series. The first was a thoroughly enjoyable blend of space-opera and military SF, with some thoughtful characterisation and exploration of philosophical themes. It gave us a fast-paced sci-fi adventure, the journey of a boy into a man, and a backdrop of imperialism and repression cloaked in the mantle of necessity. It gave us Hadrian, whose efforts to be a better person had a tendency to end badly for him – even as those hardships shaped him into a thoughtful man and a valiant commander, while leaving him an idealist, a believer still in himself and humanity. It was a lot of fun, too!

The Howling Dark takes the series, and its hero, to new places; it retains the narrative details and complexity that help build a compelling story, and builds on Hadrian’s experience to paint a portrait of a protagonist on the cusp of revelation – though what form that will take is open to question. This is a text that holds a darker mood than its predecessor; the prose wrapped up in a gloriously Gothic panoply.

The first book showed us a central human empire, a mixture of high-technology and semi-feudal social structures, assured of its own greatness and role at the centre of things. While that came with a certain arrogance, and while we could see the fissures running through that social contract, still, this was the centre of the light in terms of galactic civilisation. Sometimes brutal, yes, but a space where people lived and worked and suffered and were content.

Now, however, we move to the liminal spaces. Hadrian moves across the page, hunting a way to communicate, to negotiate with the aliens that are slowly embroiling humanity in a war. That means working at the boundaries. The places where the writ of the greater part of humanity runs thin. These are strange places, dark places. Following our hero and his entourage into some very deep holes is problematic. Stealing through ships larger than cathedrals, unearthing the wonders and horrors therein, seeking an understanding cloaked beneath centuries of hidden realities and outright untruths. 

The world is larger than Hadrian knew, and here we get to see a piece of it outside of the constraints of the Empire from the previous text. And yes, there are bio-technical wonders and horrors. And yes, there are secrets unearthed and hidden from view. But it’s cloaked in a baroque strangeness which can make the skin crawl. In the crafted bio-oddities whose mental adjustments are a skin-crawling horror. In the laser-sharp attitudes of those shaping lives for their own purposes. In the stiletto-thin puncture as those in roles of ancient power change the direction of the universe without a thought.

These are strange spaces, ones which challenge the perception and mentality of the reader. The crafted horrors which inhabit them also inhabit their own conceptual space. How far is humanity stretched once the freedom to choose, outside the realm of biochemical triggers, is removed? The text explores these questions alongside the idea of transhumanism. Hadrian, one of the Imperial aristocracy, is the recipient of gene coding which will let him age slowly, in good health, with speed and stamina to match. But other changes, forbidden by Imperial society, occur on the fringes. From weight-lifting to free will, everything is for sale on the fringes. The atmosphere of creeping dread is one that is masterfully spun, and difficult to dismiss. Each page carries the quiet signs of horror, ciphered in more mundane matters. It’s still a sprawling, thriving, complicated universe – but perhaps a less simple one. Those outside the borders of the Imperium are now people, not abstracts. Though their decisions may baffle us as much as they do Hadrian, this is a delightfully weird dip into a new, unusual culture.

Hadrian, speaking of which, is changing again. This is a story which isn’t afraid to carve away at the soul of this protagonist, to see what they want and will and how they would ave it, and then flense away their choices, one at a time, until every option is the least-worst. Hadrian is a good lad. He’s willing to fight and kill and even damn himself for his beliefs  He’s a tough person not to empathise with, even when making the sort of decisions which make you prone to shouting at a book. He’s a good lad, with a good heart, running full-tilt into a more obdurate universe. That said, Had is a thoughtful lead, one willing to consider his actions before leaping feet-first into the fray. As the story rolls on, his own ideological edges are being filed off, and it’s a joy to watch (albeit somewhat depressing). He’s joined by a circle of friends, mostly from the preceding book. The bonds of friendship, trust and loyalty are described in the subtext, but clearly enough that you can almost see them, glittering gold in the recycled ships air. Though we live Had’s point of view, his friends and colleagues are not ciphers; they live and love and fight beneath his gaze, and their conflicts, if ancillary, are just as absorbing as Had’s own.

So, alright, it’s a strong character piece, with a fantastic backdrop of sci-fi conflict within a universe with a rich history. But why do you care? Why are you turning pages? Because it kicks arse. Because Had moves from page to page with increasing amounts of blood on his hands, trying to do the best that he can for everyone. Because the aliens on the march are monsters, but understandable enough that understanding can be possible. Because the ancient history of this universe, with its Mericanii and AI is actually our moderate future. It’s a story of Had’s search for meaning, in is need to shape the universe to make sense – and the refusal of the universe to oblige.

It’s a philosophical treatise sneaked in between gunfire, immortality and immortal horrors. It’s a story which isn’t afraid to ask the questions around the heroism of its protagonist – though for now it leaves the final call up to the reader. There are space battles, no doubt. Bloody and dark with the scream of vacuum There are sword fights and banter and brutality and blood. In between, as our hero inches ever closer to a war they don’t want, there are mediations on the human condition, and exposure to a complicated universe, filled with powers perhaps best-left forgotten.  This is the bottom of the lake, filled with darkness, dirt and tentacles as much as with the promised glint of silver.

So. What is it, in the end? It’s a cracking sequel, for one thing. A nuanced character study within a precision-crafted work of science fiction, one filled with passionate intensity. Once you’ve finished Empire of Silence, once you’re looking for something more, this is what you should pick up next.

Wednesday, June 26, 2019

Crowfall - Ed McDonald

Crowfall is the conclusion to Ed McDonald’s “Raven’s Mark” series. I’ve been a big fan of the series since the get-go. There’s something about the hard-bitten cynicism of (most of) the characters, the haut-feudal world run by gangs of squabbling, unknowable gods, and the twisted, broken border between them which makes for a compelling read. That compulsion is, of course, helped along by the well observed and convincing characterisation.

At the centre of the series stands Galharrow, a captain of the Blackwing, a special-circumstances group thrown together by one of the horrifying Nameless, the sorcerous Powers that rule his part of the world. The Blackwing do all sorts of dirty jobs for their master, usually involving fighting against the encroachments of the Deep Kings, an entirely different, even more awful group of sorcerous horrors. Galharrow has always been hard-bitten and lethal, a person struggling under a cloud of internalised guilt and rage, whilst having enough self-awareness of his own flaws to keep moving forward. This Galharrow, however, is something new. Exposed to the influence of The Misery, the liminal land twisted by magical weaponry, Galharrow is becoming less and less human, seeming to be deliberately walking down the path ending in monstrosity and madness.

At the same time, his voice remains familiar on the page – acerbic, flensingly unforgiving, pragmatic, occasionally brutal. There’s a construction here of a person struggling to do what they believe is right, fighting against themselves as much as anyone else.

In this struggle – and the others throughout the text, Galharrow is aided by a wonderfully drawn cast. There’s the Nameless, whose otherworldly visits tend to end in an explosive demise. There’s those of Galharrow’s friends who remain – most of them in some way broken or twisted by the events of the past. And then there’s the enemies. Oh my, so many enemies. If you’re coming to Crowfall, you probably already know about the Deep Kings, the ancient monstrosities that want to take the already unpleasant world our cast lives in and make it worse – replacing individuality with a commonality of thought and purpose in every individual, that purpose being service and worship of those Kings. They’re unknowable and malevolent, and the fusion of the scale of their thoughts and designs with a very personal pettiness is done with pitch perfect precision.

They’re joined by a whole host of new awfulness, though, as horrors crawl out of the Misery which will make your skin crawl. The Misery itself is as artfully drawn as ever – a wasteland of constantly shifting norms, populated with creatures which tend to be, tactfully, less than benign. The ever-changing ground of the Misery is shaped by some truly psychedelic prose, and the mental and physical pressure it exerts on those within it is often felt by the reader as well. The Misery is a weird, terrible place, where weird, horrible things happen. But for all that, it feels like a living place, not just words on a page. Admittedly, it’s not somewhere you’d want to go on holiday (or ever, really), but it’s vividly described, even if the pictures it will paint in your mind are ones you’d rather not have seen in the first place.

And outside the Misery, the world continues. The soaring heights of the city of Valengrad still stand tall. At the same time, strange rains are falling, and beneath them the streets feel narrower, darker, more lethal than they did before. And it wasn’t exactly a high bar to start with. But in the slow-dripping desperation of Valengrad is wrapped the sensation of implacability, the sense of endings. As the Deep Kings once more look to the Misery, searching for ways to break through and end their Nameless rivals, with everyone else caught in the middle, it’s difficult to see the existing system as sustainable, even as those within it struggle to maintain it, struggle to declare its normality, struggle to survive. There’s a wonderful feeling of tension wired through the pages, each one carrying the feel of an indrawn breath as the ice beneath your feet begins to crack. Each page you’re listening for the creak a little more, and getting a little closer to the end. But there’s no safety there, no. This is a story which builds and builds and builds on the foundations laid by its predecessors, but isn’t afraid to tear down what it’s built, one brick at a time, to bring about an ending which feels right, feels true, and packs a serious emotional punch.

I won’t get into the plot, for fear of spoilers, but I will say this: this is the ending to a series filled with blood, grime and horror. It’s the end of a series of people facing up to darkness, in others and in themselves. It’s the end of a series where the heroes are people doing their jobs, and willing to do terrible things. It’s the end of a series which was never afraid to show emotional depth, or how easy it is to hide those emotions away. It’s the end of a series which has, in the past, blown up entire regions, laced in horror and washed down in gore. This is the climax of a series which has given us some genuinely impressive endings.

It. Does. Not. Disappoint.

Crowfall is, in sum, a wonderful end to a sequence that can be regarded as modern classics. If you’re wondering if it’s worth reading, then the answer is simple: Yes.

Wednesday, June 19, 2019

Hexarchate Stories - Yoon Ha Lee

Hexarchate Stories is an anthology of tales from Yoon Ha Lee, set, as the title implies, in the Hexarchate universe that was made famous by Ninefox Gambit and its sequels. I was a big fan of the original trilogy of works, with its unexplainable super-technology driven by a mixture of ritualised torture, belief, and mathematics, and its searingly memorable characters. What I wasn’t sure of was whether an anthology was necessary, whether it would add something to the universe, whether it would tell us new things, add new perspectives, or just serve as an unnecessary addendum to a sequence which wrapped up on a high.

I’m happy to say that my fears were ill-founded, and that this is an absolutely cracking collection, which adds flavour to an already rich universe, and context to already vivid characters. If you’re coming here after enjoying the trilogy, wondering if you want to give this a shot – stop here, go and read it.

Structurally, this is an interesting collection. There’s a novella, a coda to The RevenantGun, which takes up the back half of the text. But before that are a diverse and fascinating sprinkling of short tales in the Hexarchate universe. They range from vignettes – lines of poetry and self examination – to character studies and full blown narratives, which manage to fit some serious weight of content into their short lengths. All the things I loved about the Hexarchate are in here. There’s the diverse, difficult, broken, argumentative, trusting, loving, emotionally valid cast, ranging from mathematically apologetic servitor bots through Kel before they got quite so uptight, all the way to Shuos with attitude problems. What they all have in common, these characters, is that their feelings matter, that their stories matter – that they stand out in sharp relief from the background, they seize your attention, they make you empathise with them, if not always sympathise. They’re living people, real people, and the stakes they play for are real too.

That the text can evoke as much emotional response from a few lines of delicate poetry and an action-packed, kinetic high tech brawl is…delightful. But know that when you pick it up, this is a text which comes to the reader from all angles, and doesn’t hold back from any of them.

I would perhaps sound a note of caution; it feels like a lot of these stories would land better if you were already steeped in the word of the Hexarchate; if you know about the travails of the Kel, delight in the games of the Shuos, have seen Jedao and Cheris work their way through three books trying to be better versions of themselves, and/or break or save the world. As vignettes, as stories, I think they still work in isolation – but there’s a connective tissue which informs these stories, and you might be missing out if you come to them before the trilogy – especially the final novella, which rather gives the game away for some of the larger trilogy if read first!

On the other hand, there are some delightful notes from the author scattered between stories, and a sense of wry whimsy permeates both these informative missives and the surrounding text. There’s love and lust and enmity and friendship on the page, and the people that feel those emotions will seem genuine and fragile and real. And what the stories say about the sprawling universe of the Hexarchate – well, it’s there in the undertones of poems, and the silent beats between words as the people on the page decide what they can say next.

These are good stories. Some will probably appeal more than others (and I suspect everyone who came out of The Revenant Gun hoping for more will want to dive into the novella), but it feels like there’s something for everyone here, and that the collection as a whole is a cohesive, thoughtful treatise not only on the Hexarchate, but on the human condition. If you’ve been wanting more of the Hexarchate, then this collection is a jewel, one you’ll want to pick up and examine closely, with more there the deeper into it you look.

Very much recommended.

Wednesday, June 12, 2019

Children Of Ruin - Adrian Tchaikovsky

Children Of Ruin is the sequel to Adrian Tchaikovsky’s superlative Children Of Time. It takes place in the same universe, a few (human) generations after the first book. As such, fair warning: This review may contain spoilers for Children of Time.

The story takes place across viewpoints and times, and switches between them with a sinuous ease. In one, we find a crew of terraformers, sent out to make something habitable from chunks of water ice and rock, waiting for the colony ships that will surely follow. Our central focus on this crew is Senkovi, a man who has very little time at all for other people. He’s quite good with machines though, and also with cephalopods. Much like the ill-starred Avra Kern from the first book, Senkovi is gently playing god; introducing a virus to his octopi which may make them more intelligent, more sentient, even, than before. Senkovi’s octopi are a triumph. Not only for him, but for us. Watching his struggles to teach them to deal with their new intellects over generations of breeding, watching him try and bridge a gap in understanding carries an impressive emotional weight and depth. The other terraformers think they’re just getting some handy creatures to maintain the terraforming systems on a water ball, but we know they can be something more than that. It’s an exploration of the alien, of the way humanity interacts with the strange, strives to make the unknowable knowable. At the same time, Senkovi is taking risks, and you may want to go through the pages and stop him before everything gets out of hand. There’s a skill to this kind of characterisation – giving us a fully realised person, whom we can empathise with, even sympathise with, even as we see them step down some very dangerous roads indeed. It’s a big idea, this – the idea of people creating new intelligence – and it’s approached respectfully and thoughtfully. Senkovi and his relationship with his children will make you think, even as they struggle to become less of an enigma to each other.

To put it mildly, the terraformer’s efforts to create a newly habitable world do not go entirely to plan. 

I don’t want to get into it for fear of spoilers, but to skirt around it: this is a wonderful exploration of humanity, absolutely. Of the way it reaches out and tries to understand, and the way it reacts under pressure. The way small group environments are a few bad decisions and failed systems away from catastrophe The way we’re a voice in the wilderness, looking for something that answers back. It’s a story which, in some ways, is about hope. But it’s also a different kind of story– oh yes. A story of how quickly things can go wrong, a story of insidious loss, of escalating conflict, of desperate measures and hard choices. While we’re watching Senkovi try and match wills with his commander, and train his octopi into sentience, we’re also seeing how things could slide out of control. There’s a delightful slow burn horror here, one which kept me turning pages, albeit with the occasional shudder. The terraformers, deep in the past of Children of Time, are eminently human, and eminently fallible. It’s to Tchaikovsky’s credit that he approaches some big themes in this sequence – who we are, what we want, what were willing to do to survive, and what our legacy might be – and then wraps it around and throughout  a compelling character drama, and one which had great success in evoking visceral emotional reactions. This is a book that doesn’t pull any punches, emotionally or narratively.

The other strand of the story occurs further in the future, a few generations after Children of Time.  Our spiders and their humans are reaching out now, looking to see if they are really all there is in the universe. Hunting for meaning and communication from the stars. And when they find it, they’ll go and investigate, because that’s what they do.

What they find when they do – well, again, no spoilers. But Tchaikovsky has a talent for showing us an alien viewpoint, making it relatable but other, a lived experience very different from our own. This is a story about different kinds of intelligence trying to talk to each other, to stop talking past each other, and, preferably, to do so without everyone killing each other. The spiders are still the spiders – forthright, dealing with humanity on the one hand, and their own social dilemma’s on the other (the exploration of the struggle against sexism in a species where the females have been known to eat a disagreeable male was a spot of genius), and in the gripping hand, trying to handle whatever new thing the universe casts at them next. There’s  people too, of course – complicated, slightly awkward people, doing their best to get by, to reach out to their colleagues, to bridge the gap between humanity and Other. Oh, and, well, there’s Kern. The AI that was once a god, like Senkovi, and is now something less than a person, and struggling so hard, wanting so much, to know what that’s like.

This is a story that weaves beautifully across these two strands of time, two voices of humanity working to understand the Other, and the rewards and perils that can be presented thereby. . I’m not sure I can usefully articulate how well done this book is, but…it is. The prose is tight, pragmatic, and utterly engrossing, drawing you into the creaking octopus tanks, the recycled air of the terraformers ships, before dropping you into strange worlds, with people struggling to convince each other that they’re people.

It’s a big story, which examines some really big ideas – the nature of intelligence, the nature of personhood, the sense of self – but within an immediate context. We feel for Senkovi and his struggle, we feel the excitement and terror of the terraforming team. We see our spider-human expeditionary force bicker over academic credit, and throw their lives to the wind to help each other, and face the strange, the unknown, together. This is a story which will let you know its characters, possibly better than you might like, will get them to feel alive, will have their choices and their decisions become things you feel in your heart, in your gut. That combination, of a vivid, detailed, innovative universe, populated by strange, wonderful, terrifying people and a story which will grab hold of you and not let go until it’s done…that combination, blended up with some really clever exploration of Big Idea’s, makes for a fantastic story, which is what this is.

Coming from Children Of Time you may be wondering – can this be as good as its predecessor? Is it worth the wait? And I would say yes and yes again. Children of Ruin is top-notch sci-fi, thoughtful and action-packed in equal measure, and you owe it to yourself to go and read it, right now.

Wednesday, June 5, 2019

The Deathless - Peter Newman

The Deathless is the start of a new fantasy series from Peter Newman, whose Vagrant trilogy has been very well received. The Deathless, though, is something else – bringing us  a new world, filled with unknown horrors and immortals on the edge of righteousness, exploring the price people are willing to pay for their goals, the bonds of family and friendship, and the way a society can be both more or less than it is thought to be.

The Deathless, you see, are the perfect aristocracy. Living in castles in the air, they justify their wealth, their extravagance, their very existence, by their ability to defeat The Wild. What is the Wild? It is horror. It is dark woods on a day full of spilled noonday sun. It is creeping horrors in the corner of your eye. It is monstrosities creeping behind you. It is transformation wished and unwished for, decisions made incorrectly. It is the risk taken and betrayed. But at a more immediate point, it’s a massive dark wood, filled with psychotic monsters whose most immediate goal in life is devouring people alive, at best.

The Wild, as the hostile environment surrounding and enveloping both flying castles and mystically warded roads, is wonderfully portrayed. Each breath is a gift, each step the suggestion of ominous intent. This is a place, a darkly shrouded wood, which see’s humanity ad an interloper, and is willing to reach out and cut throats before draining their blood into its roots. But it’s also corruption, a slow game. Because the strange creatures of the wilds will make details. Maybe they want your hair, or your fingernails, or your face, and maybe the dreams you have of murder can be quieted, perhaps your other goals assured. The wood knows. It scents desecration and draws it out, adding to its store of poison. And there is always a price. This is a space of madness and magic, where everything hinges on the knife-edge, on a gesture, on a word, on a decision made moments before.

The Wild is a horror, twisting and breaking the people seeking to drive it back with a road. And so the houses exist, in soaring castles, insulated from the horrors of those suffering below. But the castles do provide champions – armed and armoured, with the strength of ten and speed to match – and other magic besides – the immortals are the heads of houses fighting back the Wild/ Of course, being immortal, they have their own effect on society. Where immortality is a limited gift, it is covered – the book asks questions of worth (or otherwise) to see if our immortals should hold their thrones. Even as they murder the demon before them, there is the issue of hereditary right, the subversion of heredity and bloodline as a positive. Where these people fight demons, where they fight back the Wild, it is because it advances their own interests.  Which isn’t to say they aren’t glorious – angel-winged leading a hunt into the Wild, to defeat the existential threat to civilisation, one might think them civilised. But outside those castles are the poor and wretched and indigent, living this way to keep themselves alive. The book isn’t afraid to talk about The Wild, about the creeping horror, and the price of deals, but nor does it build a hagiography of those hacking back the roots. They have suffered and will continue to do so. But they continue to do so believable and we also see the vicious, focused, effective side of the house. Yes, they are immortal slavemasters, but they must protect their own – and if that own is not sufficiently noble, still they can be made so,

I suppose what I’m saying is, the world is a rich one, with layered interweaving of character and context. The sort of interconnection which makes characters see like people, and narratives feel real. 

This is a rich, living world, albeit a horrifying one. The people within it slay demons, yes, they fight a creeping horror with their own hands and wake up at night screaming. There’s the politics of family and of immortality, of feudal obligation and enlightenment values, of blood as an oath and blood on the sword. This is a world to evoke wonder and horror, with characters whose very depth allows both sympathy and vilification. The story is there, sure enough, and heart-pumping, adrenaline soaked stuff it  is, too. This is a text which rewards closer reading, and also one which rewards reading at all. 

Give it a try; it’s a smashing tale.

Wednesday, May 29, 2019

Walking To Aldebaran - Adrian Tchaikovsky

Walking to Aldebaran is a sci-fi novella from Adrian Tchaikovsky, whose other sci-fi works, including the seminal Children of Time have a very strong reputation. This one is an intriguing blend of stone cold horror, a well-voiced, convincingly characterised protagonist, and some Big Ideas which I’d like to see looked into a little more.

So, lets talk about the world. It’s a rock. An inhospitable rock, floating in a less-than salubrious neighbourhood of the solar system. A rock without much going for it at all. Except that once you’ve walked into the hoes in this rock, once you’ve left behind the world you know – there are rooms. Some of them are lethal. Some of them are decrepit. Some are filled with treasures. It’s like a lucky dip, where half the prizes are bear traps. And why would you want to go in there? Because some of these chambers empty out into somewhere else. You can walk a day or two through a rock that wasn’t two days across when you entered it, dodging horrifying creatures and environmental hazards – and come out in Alpha Centauri. Or…somewhere else, anyway. But the place is a maze, and a puzzle, and it’s not at all unlikely to stick something sharp in your ribcage. It also has a penchant for darkness, for tunnels you want to creep along very carefully, in case you run into something with more teeth and tentacles than thumbs. And for darkness, because if what you’re likely to see is teeth and tentacles, why would you want to.

All of this is realised in the protagonist’s monologue, a person who’s been trapped in this somewhat-deadly environment for a while. Their chatty, colloquial style overlays the bedrock tunnels, the sinuous tentacles, the bloodied claws, the necessary blood and murder and isolation and death with a folksy charm that manages to both lighten and accentuate the mood of creeping horror.

This is not a place for people. It’s a wilderness, with a razor under every rock, and a rattlesnake under every razor. The quiet, uncaring lethality is evoked with precision, and you can’t deny the emotional impact – the creeping horror, the disgust and terror that moves inexorably from the page to the reader.
Speaking of disgust and terror – the protagonist is our voice, our eyes in an absolute darkness. He is Gary, a human astronaut, from a mission dragged halfway across the solar system to investigate this rock that leads to elsewhere. And he is alone. As the text progresses, we discover more of the context around his isolation, about how Gary ended up wandering the halls. In the meantime, his voice is relentlessly, worryingly calm. It digs at the past with forensic razors, and it approaches the present with concern and a blend of enthusiasm and fatigue which is worryingly familiar. Gary is tired. Gary has been walking for a long time. Gary wants to see other people again, to see something other than the rock again. And we see some of the past with Gary, in his memory – in the mission to the rock, in the way that people interact with him then, in the stories he tells of friends and antagonists. At the same time, there’s a slow, crawling sense that Gary is telling a story, in a place where any mis-step can be monstrous, in order to stay sane. There are changes, movements in the dark. The reader is following their narrator down a rabbit-hole of terror and transition. Gary in the world is a person, a person you’d be more than happy to take out to dinner -a hero. Gary in the rock is, perhaps, something else. There’s a sublime artistry to the prose, making Gary at once sympathetic and troubling; the reader can feel his pain and loneliness and despair, and the madness creeping along at the edge of vision. We can see the golden idol, and we can see the feet of clay. This is Gary’s story, and we’re along for the ride – and for that, it feels real – often horrifyingly so.

The plot? Well, it’s the story of Gary trying to find his way home. Of walking through fire and water to find his people. Of defeating death-traps, and making friends (or making enemies). It’s the tory of how the walk changes Gary, how it takes what he wants and what he expects, and who he is, and gets inside him, changes his perspective. It’s a story of change, of the horrors and wonders of exploration and the horrors and wonders of humanity. There’s a lot there – the normal, the cold coffee and banter between astronauts on a mission, the strange - the crushing rocks and strange entities beneath the earth – and the liminal barrier between the two, as Gary tries to find his way home.

Is it any good? Oh my yes. It’s sharp, thoughtful and tightly plotted. The dialogue is pitch-perfect and the story will have you hanging on every word. It’s a clever story, too, with some high-concept ideas to play with which will reward curiosity. And it’s a multi-layered character-piece, in a story which demands character from both those in the story and those reading it. It’s a great story, and one I thoroughly recommend picking up.

Wednesday, May 22, 2019

Luna: Moon rising - Ian McDonald

Luna: Moon Rising is the third in McDonald’s Luna trilogy. The first two stories, set on a moon where everything is for sale, even the law, were tightly plotted sci-fi thrillers, packed with byzantine politics and some genuinely heart-pumping action, alongside interesting big ideas. The conclusion of the trilogy has the same notes, but turned all the way up to eleven. The short version, before we get into it below, is that in a time when it seems difficult to end a series well, this one concludes pretty much perfectly. If you’ve been reading the series, you’ll want to see how it ends – it delivers on all the promises made by the earlier instalments.

Getting into the grit, then. As with previous books, this one largely takes place on the Moon. The Moon is a free place, in the sense that everything is up for sale, or at least for negotiation, including the law. Every citizen has their balance of credit, and that credit pays for air, for water, for a roof over their heads. Without credit, they’ll literally draw their last breath. Fiercely independent, this is a culture where everything is believed to be earned. At the same time, there are several key families which own most of the infrastructure for the moon – from orbital transport to mining equipment. Those families act in an almost feudal relationship to their clients, keeping people in jobs – and therefore food and air – in return for loyalty. Of course that loyalty is also negotiable.
But the Moon is going through changes, and we get to see that here. After a massacre removed most of the Corta family from play, their counterstroke has delivered them into high office on the Moon, even though the survivors are scattered. But their new victory comes at the price of increased interest from Earth in what’s going on above their heads. Corporations have arrived, with rules, regulations, and a different way of doing things. They’re rapacious predators in their own right, the wolf at the door, and they aim to change the face of the moon.

That clash of corporate cultures is something the story does well, giving us clashing viewpoints, and a sense of the cut-throat nature of corporate maneuverings, as the Earthers start trying to extract value from the moon, and the Corta family (and their allies) try to fend them off whilst also stabilising the Moon’s politics. It must be said that in this case, cut-throat can also be taken literally. Corporate assassination is a way of life, and these are people playing for high stakes. There are a lot of negotiations, a lot of words spoken softly carrying big decisions with blades sliding under them. That’s the Moon for you, this one anyway – sharp suits and sharper knives.

Speaking of Earthers, while they’re trying to get a foothold on the Moon, we do get to dip below the atmosphere, to keep an eye on Marina, Ariel Corta’s one-time bodyguard, who gave up on the Moon to go home, before the physiological changes wrought by Moon living became too great. The perspective allows us to see the social problems of Earth as well – the seething overcrowding, the decaying infrastructure, and the governments turning to blaming the Moon for the woes of their citizens. Exploring these systemic issues happens in the background, as our bodyguard struggles to reintegrate with her family and a society which views her as a traitor for leaving, and for coming back. The personal story, as with that of the families as a whole, has an honesty to it; McDonald’s characters are, as a whole, complex and thoughtful beings who appear more than able to step off the page at a moment’s notice.

If the vivid and intricate worldbuilding makes the book seem real, it’s the characters which really make it come alive. Lucas Corta, now Eagle of the Moon, and very aware that he’s riding the back of a tiger in the form of the Earth Corps, is at once ruthless and tender, a man doing the best he can for himself and his family, while also carrying around a grudge so large it has its own gravity well. At the same time as Lucas is consolidating power, we see Ariel, whose relationship with Marina grounded her in the previous books, exercise a razor mind to try and extricate the Moon, and her family, from the consequences of her brother’s plotting. They’re the centrepiece, a loving, bladed, broken relationship, the mechanism which kept the pages turning in my hands like a metronome. But they’re surrounded by a vast cast – the other Corta family members, and individuals from the other corporate families, whose own agendas have been simmering, coming to a head somewhat explosively over these pages – and changing the face of the moon forever. But again, the heart is in the characters – in the nuance, in the small gestures, in the callbacks to events in previous books. In sweet words and quiet murders.

It’s not all clandestine meetings in smoky back rooms and family drama, though. There’s enough fast-paced action here to keep anyone happy. Indeed, there are moments here which will leave you heart in mouth, waiting to see what happens next – and this is a book which isn’t afraid to give the catharsis you need, as consequences fall heavily across the board. We’ve seen the wind sown, and Moon Rising is the reaping of the whirlwind.

This is a great end to a fantastic series, filled with real, complicated, human people, in a society which lives and breathes, with a story which will grip you from start to finish. If you were wondering how the Luna series turned out, you should go out right now and pick up a copy of Luna: Moon Rising. You will not be disappointed.

Wednesday, May 15, 2019

Seven Blades in Black - Sam Sykes

Seven Blades in Black is the start of a new fantasy series from Sam Sykes, who has form in the area of smart, character focused fantasy. Well, this book takes that form, and turns it up to eleven.

Sal the Cacophany is a bounty hunter, and a killer, and a woman with quite a lot on her mind. Mostly where to get the next drink from, and who, in her personal list of targets, to hunt down next.
Sal is also a fast hand with a gun, which is just as well, because her enemies – of which there are a great, great many – are powerful, magical, fierce, and deadly. Which, given she’s a woman with a gun and a bad attitude, means she has to be at least twice as quick as they are, just to stay alive.

Sal is an absolute wonder, and a horror. She’s obviously intelligent, masking behind a quietly folksy demeanour a determination and focus that could cut through steel like warm butter. But at the same time, there’s a lot that’s human in there. Sal is seeking revenge, and she has a list of people whom she has to kill to put things right. Quite what that revenge is for? Well, it’ll come out over the course of the text. What also comes out is Sal’s humanity. Sure, as we find ourselves observing a weapon of a woman, with a gun that fires shells with some very interesting properties, and a willingness to do almost anything to get the job done – we thing we know that woman. Sal the Cacophany, who bestrides her world as a rumour, a quiet voice, a silence in your skull. A myth, and a killer. But she’s also a woman who is able to feel friendship, to feel love, to feel connection to everything around her. The story gives her room to express that pain in the present, to let us feel for a woman living with some of her choices, and maybe making new, possibly worse ones. But another strand of the narrative takes us into her past, shows us a woman shaping herself, and the choices that brought her where she is now – in a wasteland, tracking down a cabal of lunatic wizards, one by one.
This is Sal’s story, and I won’t spoil it by telling it her. But I will say this.. Sal the Cacophany is a fractured, lethal bundle of smarting-off and fragile razor edges. A person who thinks they have nothing to lose, and is willing to give up on having anything else to feel like they can make that loss end.

It’s not all doom, gloom and revenge though. Did I mention the folksy charm? Sal has a wonderful voice, which is just as well, as the framing device lets her tell her own story. It has a slow drawl to it, and an immediacy and honesty of emotion and motive which leaves her feeling unflinching and real. But in that story, Sal is also her façade – a woman with a brain, not afraid to use it, willing to take any advantage, and unwilling to apologise for being herself. Also she’s fun. The refusal to bow in the face fo fear, sure. The almost anti-nobility of purpose, sure. But In between, there are the human moments – a cracked joke, a hug, a burgeoning friendship – which kept me turning pages, and which keep Sal grounded in her world.

Sal is a lot of fun to watch, running around, casting aspersions on the baddies, and trying to kill them. She does, no doubt, kick arse. And the action, when it comes, is frenetic and kinetic. But because of the human links, because of the way that the author has made Sal come alive, along with her friends, her loves and her losses – because of those human stakes, we care about the woman spitting epithets in the face of a magical storm, we care about the woman trying to drop the hammer on those she wants to see dead. We even care about those enemies, when they get up close and personal. This is a book which will give you all the intrigue and explosions you could wish for, but it’s Sal’s book, a book about people, and about the way they feel.

I mean, also it’s about mages blowing the living crap out of each other. And about politics. And about lost love and lost innocence and lost illusions, and about the crafting of emotional armour and about the lies we tell ourselves to stay sane, to stay alive. Sure, it’s all of those things. But at its heart is Sal the Cacophany, whose humanity makes it all work, and makes us care.
Sal lives in a broken world, a world where mages were once kings of everything they saw before them. A world where their servants rose up to overthrow their masters. And where those servants aligned themselves with powers and morals which might be even worse. While Sal is the individual face of loss and the cost of struggle, and of the necessity, sometimes, that drives us forward – around her, a war is playing out. It’s a hopeless, total war, whose only result seems to be the slow, grinding destruction of everything in grudges and blood. But as a backdrop, it’s a very compelling one. There’s a universe at play here, and we only see fragments of it – the alchemists who live for knowledge and construct devices and desires of their own devising. The blind priests and their hounds looking for wizards. The bargain every mage makes for his power, and the cost they pay. The rumbling mechanisms of the revolution, and the ethical dilemmas that people who don’t make decisions have to decide if they can live with.

It’s a vividly broken world, sure enough. One with the dry dust feel of a western, with Sal the Cacophany, legend, mage-killer, slouching along within it, with a magical six-iron on her hip, and a rather nice hat. It’s a world which you’ll live and breathe, as Sal kicks in doors, fights for herself, fights for others. As she tosses the dice between her revenge and the connections she’s made, the love she feels. As she tries to save the world and herself, one bullet at a time.

So what is it? It’s a fast-paced, arse-kicking magical western, with bullets that spit fire, and demons that will break your soul. It’s the story of wizards and revolutions, ad the way that conflicts spiralling out of control will affect those who just want to stay alive, and those who don’t know the cost of the choices they’ll be asked to make until it’s too late. It’s Sal’s story, a human story of life and love, possible redemption and possible revenge. It’s a compelling page turner which will keep your eyes on the page wanting to know what happens next.

It’s really rather a good book, is what I’m saying. I, for one, look forward to hearing more. In the meantime, I recommend you give Seven Blades in Black a try.