Monday, April 22, 2019

One Word Kill - Mark Lawrence

One Word Kill is the start of a new science-fiction series from Mark Lawrence, whose other series I’ve always found very enjoyable. That meant this book landed with the weight of expectation behind it. I’m bound to say that those expectations were met. This is a book about a lot of things; pain, death, growing up. The things you choose to keep, and those you leave behind. It’s about being a teenager, and the intensity of feeling that entails, and about chosen families, and those you’re born into. It’s about living in the London of the eighties, about being better, about recognising evil and stepping up to fight it.

It’s a book about a lot of things. Many of them contradictory, all of them fascinating.
The centre-point for this whirlpool is Nick. Nick is a geek before I’s cool. A smart kid, just trying to get through the day without being bullied, and doing so with the help of his friends. Nick is also, somewhat inconveniently for him, dying. The voice of the story is Nick’s, and it’s one which is both fierce and exhausted, unsure of itself and uncertain of its decisions. There’s a fragiliy there which I suspect many readers will recognise from their own youth, fronted by a black irony at the state of the world, and a determination not to appear fragile which will…also, probably be familiar. In any case, this is top-notch character work. As Nick fights against the disease slowly eating him alive, you can feel the tension in his bones, the mordant humour overlaying a rising realisation of how own mortality. The persistence in refusing to break down in front of his friends is so sharp I could almost taste it. Nick is, with all the prideful flaws of adolescence, and all its joys, a thoroughly believable, entirely human character.

In this he’s helped by being surrounded with an absolutely scintillating ensemble cast. Nick’s posse is a wonderful agglomeration of socially awkward spods with serious intellectual focus. They’re smart enough to know people don’t like them, and to have organised coping strategies for it. These are less enlightened times, as well, and there are undercurrents here of facing the sort of prejudice which would be unacceptable these days. In any event, the awkward squad are funny, naïve, charming – and the loyalty which binds them to Nick, and to each other, is strong enough you can almost see it flickering in the air as they talk.

Which they do quite a lot. They get together to play Dungeons and Dragons, and these gatherings are the social core of the story. There’s a lot of wizards, barbarians, and orc slaying going on. But it’s heartwarming in its portrayal of outsiders who just want to be together and have a good time, and behind the rush of nostalgia for those of us who spent our weekends the same way, here’s a genuine emotional depth and warmth that makes you smile as you turn the pages.
On a similar note, the villains are wonderfully repulsive, the sort of bullies and sociopaths who infest every school and every neighbourhood. As Nick and his friends confront their adversaries, it’s almost possible to feel the terror they feel, realising that the enemy has no moral compunctions, and is more than happy to give them a good kicking, and maybe something else. These antagonists are individuals radiating the kind of electrically unhinged danger or acceptance of violence that will eventually leave them in jail; but Nick and his friends need to decide if they’re willing to be the ones broken during the process. I really do want to shout out on this one – these are spot on portrayals of lost teens and people with something a little broken inside them, the one possibly blending into the other. They are Not Nice, and I felt an escalating tension and sense of danger on every page in which they appeared. Even that is nostalgic, in its way – and again, absolutely pitch perfect, a portrayal of unsullied malevolence which makes the hairs on the back of your neck stand up, and the pages go by faster in the hope you’ll see what happens next.

Speaking of nostalgia, the world-building is top notch. London in the eighties was sitting on the cusp of something, a bright-lights city where it was possible to make a lot of money very quickly, and equally, where social equality and social cohesion were taking second place to the acquisition of cold, hard cash. The story takes place throughout London – on packed, sweltering Tube trains, along the banks of urban rivers. In decaying tower blocks, where the delicate scent of urine mixes with despair. It’s cold a lot fo the time, rains a lot of the time, and often feels like a grey morass. The text doesn’t shy away from that vision, embraces it, gives us a London which makes the bones ache and the pocket lighter – but it shows off the heart, as well. There’s the neighbours in the towers, who will look out for each other even while they turn a blind eye to the dealers on the stairwell; there’s the streets that will come out in support of their neighbours, too. There’s the mist rising off the parks and making the city into a liminal space every morning. And there’s the scalpel blade of technology, of skyscrapers and research labs pushing the city into the future.

All of it is here, between the lines or on the page, and it makes the space in which Nick walks feel dynamic and alive. Here, the idea of London in that one moment is captured on the page, and it feels real, from the tops of the towers down to the much clogging the drains. If the characterisation is top-notch, the world-building, in constructing that recognisable place, is superb.
So, it’s got some cracking characters, ones you’ll love and ones you’ll love to hate. But what about the story?

As usual, no spoilers. But I’ll say this It works. In part it’s a coming of age, as Nick tries to deal with his own imminent mortality, and with the struggles he’s having with his friends, and even (horrors), romantically. But it’s also got a personal dimension, as Nick and the gang work to save, if not the world, at least themselves – while figuring out who exactly they are. There’s some wonderful dialogue, which made me chuckle at its teen awkwardness in one breath and wrung my heart at its genuine, raw emotion in the next. It’s a story which opens strongly, and one which won’t let you go. It’s a story about making hard choices, and about growing up. It’s a story about deciding who you are, or want to be. And it’s an absolutely cracking read, for that. I genuinely couldn’t put it down once I started, and if the characters and the world helped build that, the need to see what happened next, the way the story pulled me into the world, the way I was gripped by every page – that surely put the capstone on it.

This is, to be simple about it, a really enjoyable, clever work of science fiction, which invites you to wrestle with some big ideas alongside a compelling and personal story. Pick it up, you won’t regret it.

Wednesday, April 17, 2019

The Poison Song - Jen Williams

The Poison Song is the finale to Jen Williams’  The Winnowing Flame’ trilogy. The previous two books were great fun to read, whilst also having a lot of heart, so the conclusion had rather a lot to live up to. Fortunately, this is a book which delivers the goods:  characters who matter, who feel real, in a backdrop of action, adventure, and saving the world.

The characters sit at the heart of the text here, and if you’re coming back to the series after some time away, they’ll feel like old friends. Tor, who I may have previously described as “a vampire elf with a drinking problem” is struggling to take responsibility in a world looking for heroes. He’s wracked by guilt, both institutional and personal. The institutional is perhaps easier – Tor is an Eboran, and they have a recent history of massacres in order to drink the blood of others, and keep themselves alive. Tor was too young to be part of that history, but as we sit beside him, it can be felt in his bones. Then there was the plague, which ravaged the Eborans who drank human blood – and the slow, tortured demise of an entire grand civilisation. Tor’s regrets evoke a certain amount of pathos; even as he claims to be a rake, a ne’er-do-well who accompanies Vintage in search of good wine and good company, the light behind his eyes is dimmed in remembrance. Tor also does rather a good line in affectionately edged banter with Vintage, and his relationship with Noon is something else. So yes, the Tor here is one on the cusp of change, an inch from either plunging over a cliff, or learning to fly. Either way, his scenes are always an affecting, albeit sometimes painful, read.

Vintage, whose friendship with Tor and Noon is the keystone of the text, is also a delight to read. She absolutely seizes any page that she’s on. Bluff, no-nonsense, and utterly unwilling to let either of the others indulge in their worse natures. But behind the façade we can catch glimpses of a compassionate woman, a romantic whose travails have left her a little vulnerable; admittedly, that vulnerability is masked by some top-marks sarcasm and a penchant for shooting things that annoy her with a crossbow. I have, it must be said, a lot of time for Vintage, who manages to show off some of the fragility inherent in humanity, while also demonstrating the benefits of emotional honesty and a quick trigger finger. Say what you will about Tor, moping around looking for excuses for things to be his fault; Vintage takes things to heart, yes, then deals with them and cracks on. She’s an absolute joy to read, a masterclass in character with heart and soul.

Then there’s Noon. If Vintage is the heart of the group, Noon is the fire in the blood. She has passion and enthusiasm and a courageous stubbornness which lets her leap off the page fully-formed. Noon is captivating – in part because of her nuanced, awkwardly growing and from time to time bloody difficult relationship with Tor. Seeing the two of them struggle to deal with the emotional connections they’ve built around each other is by turns painful, amusing and aggravating – but the feelings are recognisable and genuine. But Noon isn’t just there to keep Tor company. She has her own agenda, her own goals. Getting into it would be a bit spoilery, but suffice to say, Noon is fierce. She absolutely won’t be denied, and her ability to throw literal fire to accentuate her points is one that is likely to come in handy. As a survivor of a brutal regime, Noon is also cautious, coming out of her protective shell and looking around to work out what to do next – and determined not to repeat the mistakes of the past.

They’re backed by a fantastic ensemble cast, whose relationships and actions feel organic, feel human. These aren’t faces put on a page to be devoured by a baddie, but living, breathing people who sacrifice, who wake up with a bad hair day, who love and feel as much as we do. A shout out to the villains in particular. The slithering Queen of the Jure’lia remains terrifyingly alien, with a brutal precision that invites horror, and a curiosity about humanity which hints at possibilities unspoken. Hest, Tor’s sister, and her war-beast are as conflicted and broken as ever, a pair looking to make something of or for themselves, to doom a world which didn’t want their help in saving itself. They’re complicated people, capable of kindness, of anger, of violence, and of some very poor decision making. A triumph of the text is giving us antagonists who can be loathsome and understandable by turns, whose wounds sit beneath the surface and shape their actions, even as the reader tries to talk them out of it (well, I certainly did, turning pages in the hope of redemption).

Alright, you say, the characters are fabulous, but what about the world? Well, these players are what drives the finale, as the author draws a world on the edge of destruction. From lush jungle to plains scarred by the touch of the Jure’lia, to the towers of the witches of the Winnowry, this is a world filled with small touches that make it feel alive, make it feel worth saving. The broken towers of the Eborans carry a poignant history and are the sign of a price to be paid; the fortified cities of the plains a sign of a military might that hopes to avert catastrophe, the scars on the ground a reminder of the absolute consequences of defeat

And the story? I mean, no spoilers, but it is the last book after all. This one pulls no punches. It’ll pull your heartstrings taut with tension, then emotionally gut you with no hint of an apology. Or it’ll have you turning pages trying to beat a ticking clock, trying to find out what happens next; be prepared to miss out on some sleep, is what I’m saying. It’s a story which has spend two books giving you emotional investment in the characters and their world, and I can only assure you that the investment absolutely pays off. There’s kinetically elaborate fight scenes that left me feeling every slash of a blade, and heartfelt talks that could bring you to tears. Prices are paid, costs borne, and in the end, it’s a story which you’ll both want to tear through to the finish, but also not want to be over.

As endings go, this one’s an absolute cracker. Pick it up, you won’t regret it.

Wednesday, April 10, 2019

A Parliament of Bodies - Marshall Ryan Maresca

A Parliament of Bodies is the latest in Marshall Ryan Maresca’s ‘Maradaine’ saga (we've got an interview with him here, giving some insight into this latest book), a shared universe populated by, among others, mages, vigilantes, coppers and villains. It’s part of the ‘Maradaine Constabulary’ sequence, which focuses on two police inspectors on the mean streets of the city of Maradaine, where government corruption is rife, back-up is often optional, and crimes have a tendency to get a bit magical. 

The sequence has a tradition of blending magic and mystery together in a compelling cocktail, and I’m delighted to report that this latest book continues that tradition.

Rainey and Welling are back, and their latest case takes us behind the scenes in the Parliament of Maradaine. This provides a great opportunity to see how the city works, officially and…otherwise. The halls of the Parliament have a thick veneer of history, and you can feel the crackle of past events as our protagonists walk through them.This is a series which has always had rich worldbuilding, and that continues here – the history of the Parliament (and thus of the city) emerges in casual conversation, in glances taking in artifacts, in the glimpses of an extraordinary institution going about the everyday business of power. If a building can feel alive, it’s this one, packed with byzantine tunnels, swathed in layers of historical tradition, creaking under the weight of age and symbolism. But it’s also a hub of current politics in a city where politics is a very dirty business. The same honoured halls are home to threats, bribery, peculation and, yes, murder. There’s fast-talking, backhanders and realpolitik in all its many forms, all buttressed by the power, influence and hard cash of the politicians who call the building home. Maradaine has an opulence we haven’t seen before, and a sense of historical idealism and grace – but has also added a hard-nosed edge to its already fraught politics. The clash between the ideals of the institution and its implementation provide narrative friction, but are also a joy to consider in themselves, adding a depth and richness to a complex, living world.

Steppimg into this seething cauldron of political plots and counter-plots are Rainey and Welling. The pair have always had an engaging professional relationship and a deepening friendship, and that continues here. Rainey is at once more pensive, aware of the consequences of their actions as representatives of the police, and less willing to conform to others expectations than previously. She’s experienced, smart, and isn’t going to let anyone talk down to or past her, which creates some delightful clashes with the less modern members of the government. Welling, by contrast, seems to be struggling to come to terms with the potential for magical power which has recently been thrust upon him. Welling’s ruminations on responsibility, and his desire to do the right thing are counterbalanced by a tendency toward near-obsession, and analysis paralysis, and all these are wonderfully evoked here. Welling is a person in crisis, and the text isn’t afraid to explore that, to give us a look at someone who may be on their breaking point, and see how (or if) they make their way back.

The duo are the emotional heart of the text, and watching them explore and investigate is a joy on its own. But I want to take a moment and give a shout out to the ensemble cast as well. From Welling’s extensive family, willing to drop everything to come to one another’s aid, to the complicated relationship he shares with another man, to family with two awkward children and a comatose father, they all feel absolutely real. There’s the squabbles and pettiness of long familiarity, mixed with the silvered  warmth of familial affection. These are people in their own stories, as well as the one we’re reading, but they add extra emotional heft and dimension to a tale which already had it in spades.

There’s also appearances by characters from other Maradaine novels, most notably Dayne and Jerinne from the recent The Way of the Shield. The clash between the duo’s, particularly Daine’s idealistic heroism and Rainey’s forceful and somewhat pragmatic upholding of the law, and awareness of its grubbiness, is wonderful. That they can come together and work as a team to try and solve a crisis and save lives – well, it warms the heart, and also makes for very compelling reading.

The plot? Well, as ever, I’ll try not to give any spoilers. But it begins with an elaborate clockwork deathtrap placed on the floor of the Parliament, with a dozen victims trapped inside. It’s a race against time for Rainey and Welling to negotiate the politics of the city’s most political institution, and track down the clockwork killer, in an effort to save those victims from a horrendous demise. There’s all sorts here – elaborate plots, bizarre death-machines, heroism, marvellous and terrifying magic. It’s a story where you’re turning each page to see what happens next, always aware that each page moves the countdown to crisis a little nearer zero.The tension is artfully crafted and garrotte-taut, and the stakes are high. It’s a book you’re not going to want to put down, and one I read until far too late at night because I didn’t put it down.

If you’re already reading the Maradaine novels, or even for new readers, this one is probably the best yet; clever, emotionally honest, imaginative fantasy, with characters that hold your heart in their hands as they try to save the world as well as themselves.

Friday, April 5, 2019

Interview - A Parliament Of Bodies - Marshall Ryan Maresca

Marshall Ryan Maresca has written a complex, fascinating sequence of fantasy novels in his ‘Maradaine’ universe. We’ve really enjoyed them here from day one, so we’re delighted to talk to one of our favourite authors about world-building, reading, writing, and his latest book, A Parliament of Bodies, which we’ll be reviewing next week!

1.   A Parliament of Bodies reads like fantasy blended with a hard-boiled police procedural, following two detectives as they investigate inventive and brutal slayings. What made that concept leap out at you? What inspires you while writing the Constabulary series?

I’ve always loved “buddy cop” pairings, and when I started to conceive of Maradaine as a larger epic spanning the whole city, I thought to myself, “if this is a city story, then there needs to be a police force as part of that.”  And I drew from one of my favorites of the classics of SFF, Caves of Steel, which uses the mystery/procedural format to build the two main characters and explore the setting.  That became the spark that I fanned into the flame that became Maradaine Constabulary.

2.   A Parliament of Bodies is the latest book in the larger universe of your ‘Maradaine Constabulary’ series, itself a part of a far larger sequence of novels in a common world. What would you say are the unique opportunities, and challenges, of writing within that shared geography?

One of the big opportunities—which I think I used to full effect in Parliament, is while I’m telling a story that is focused primarily on one cast, I have the freedom to grab threads and characters from other series and weave them into the larger tapestry.  Especially since I had laid the groundwork for one of Satrine’s plots in the Thorn series, I was able to put her in a situation with a fully formed cast of characters and run with it.

3.   Rainey and Welling, the Inspectors of Police who are the protagonists of this series, are a tight team but one with distinctly different personalities. I won’t ask which is your favourite, but is there an aspect of their characters and partnership which you find particularly interesting, or would highlight to readers?

The big thing is the bond of trust established between the two of them in the first book, and the respect they have for each other’s abilities.  They have very different methods, but they will always be able to read each other’s intentions and instincts.  So when one of them has a wild inspiration, the other one will always go, “All right, let’s think that through and see if it works.”

4.   Both Rainey and Welling are more mature characters than used to be the standard for fantasy;  both have families, and are working in senior roles for their careers. What made you decide to take this path, rather than having younger characters at centre-stage?

As part of crafting the larger Maradaine narrative, I knew that Veranix and his main cast was going to be young, and that his story was going to be driven by a certain youthful impetuousness.  So I felt that needed to be balanced with older characters in a more mature story, focused on adult responsibilities.  And that felt like a perfect pairing with the “buddy cops” of police procedural.

5.   Speaking of maturity and families, Rainey and Welling have a lot of relationships; Rainey’s raising a family, and Welling is surrounded by a large network of extended kin. Was this a narrative choice, in contrast to the legacy of fantasy’s lone-wolf heroes? And can you describe what shaped the decision to make these relationships so important?

So, it the very first draft of A Murder of Mages, Welling was a loner, living in a boarding house and devoted to his work above all else, but at the same time there were the references to him being from a long-time constabulary family.  In the next draft, the big question of “So where is this family?” loomed over me, and I realized that of course he needed a huge, extended family, and it was far more interesting to keep him anchored to that family than making him a loner.  His tendencies still isolate him to a degree, but he still has that safety net behind him.

6.   A Parliament of Bodies involves a gruesome murder in, perhaps unsurprisingly, Maradaine’s Parliament. What made you decide to mix together the machinery of politics and the machinery of murder?

The big thing I wanted to do with this one was shove Minox and Satrine deep out of their comfort zone—in as much as “solving gruesome murders” is their comfort zone—so I put them on a case outside of their jurisdiction.  That meant the Parliament, which also was critical for the other thing I wanted to do here: pair them up with Dayne and Jerinne of The Maradaine Elite.   I also pushed them out of their comfort zone by, instead of giving them a crime to solve, giving them an crisis to resolve.   The immediacy I wanted was like a clock ticking down, so I made the clockwork aspect literal.

7.   Thinking about the Parliament, both it and the surrounding city of Maradaine feel like living, breathing places. Was there any historical (or otherwise) reference for the shaping of Maradaine and its history?

Not any one specific historical reference, but the history for Druthal (the nation that Maradaine is the capital of) is one I’ve put a lot of worldbuilding work into.  But I did make a point of detailing the formation of the current, modern version of the nation and the government, modeling it somewhat on the foundational myth of America, in the sense that there are names and people that are associated with the foundation, and there are the simplified stories we tell ourselves about it, and there are also the messier truths behind those stories.

8.   On the topic of the past. While there’s a lot going on in the foreground, both in this latest book and the others in the Maradaine sequence, there’s always a sense of history, of wars fought and lost, of context, if you like. The past underpins the city of Maradaine and helps it breathe – so how do you keep track of all that history?  I’m imagining an enormous tome filled with notes…

Yes.  The history of Druthal is a document about 30,000 words long, plus I have further timelines, less extensive histories of the other parts of the world.  And that doesn’t include the background on characters, cultures, immediate storylines of the books themselves.  It’s a big saga bible, as well as spreadsheets and timelnes.  It’s a lot.

9.   On a more personal note: as reader, what type of book do you enjoy? What are you reading right now?

I have to confess, nowadays I find it challenging to read other SFF books—get a little too “looking under the hood at what they’re doing” when I do.  I tend to read history books and memoirs the most now, as palate cleansers from writing. That said, I’ve finally gotten around to reading Ancillary Justice, and I’m enjoying that a lot.

10. 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?

Very much the outline-in-great-detail.  The outlining process is always a preliminary one—no outline survives contact with enemy—but I’ve got a long game planned out for all things Maradaine that is, for the most part, staying on track.

11. 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 had started in film and theater—my degree is in film, and in college I helped found a theatre company that’s still part of campus life 25 years later.  So I had done some screenwriting and playwrighting, but I had always had a goal of doing novels.  At one point my wife said, “you keep talking about doing novels, so maybe you should stop volunteering your time running the sound board, and focus your energy on that?”

12. Have you found the rise of social media has had any impact on you as an author?

For me, the big thing is it’s helped me find a community of authors to interact with—people I wouldn’t have met or talked with otherwise.  This is a pretty solitary business, so that can have a huge impact on morale, having people all over the world I can reach out to, who are in a similar enough headspace to relate with what I’m doing.

13. Finally,  I know A Parliament of Bodies has just come out, but could you let us know what’s next for you?

In the fall, the second Maradaine Elite novel will come out, called Shield of the People.  Then next year we have the third novel each of both Streets of Maradaine and Maradaine Elite, which are The Fenmere Job and People of the City, respectively.  And that will wrap up Phase I of the whole Maradaine Saga.

Wednesday, April 3, 2019

Atlas Alone - Emma Newman

Atlas Alone is the fourth in Emma Newman’s ‘Planetfall’ series, though (as I can attest) it also works as a standalone novel. There are some callbacks to the earlier works, but while they add additional flavour and context, you can quite happily read this book on its own.
This is a story which examines big ideas in a futuristic setting. And a story about one person, and the choices which they make, and why. And a story about the near future, and what it may look like. And a story about colonising other worlds, and what that may look like. All these facets of the narrative are wound together into a narrative which crackles with potential, and works hard to live up to that potential.

Our protagonist is Dee. Dee is clever, and driven, and very goal oriented. Dee also struggles with people, with the kind of social cues that most of us take for granted. Where people are kind to her, or affectionate, or less than selfish, Dee is always looking for their angle, trying to understand what their behaviour means, refusing to believe that everyone will not, at some point, fail or betray her. Part of this is due to events of her past, the sort of childhood trauma which could leave anyone on edge. Part is perhaps due to some more interventionist conditioning received as part of an (initially vague) corporate debt deal. The genius of the writing here is in giving us a character so wrapped up in containing their own past, and so affected by it as to be atypically non-empathetic – and getting the reader to feel empathy for that character, to understand them on their own terms.
Dee’s internal voice is an angular, precise, edged thing, which makes for sometimes difficult, but utterly believable reading. It matches perfectly with the self-contained emotional chameleon that Dee has perfected as an exterior – giving people what they expect, and hiding what remains of herself, past the façade, behind barriers of pain and emotional armour.

Given we’re in Dee’s head, I’d be hard put to describe her as a good person – but that’s one of the questions the text gives to the reader as it progresses. Whether the actions which Dee takes are the right ones is, it seems, a matter of moral perspective. Because Dee is on a spaceship, which appears to have barely escaped the ruination of Earth in a cataclysm of fire. And it appears that whoever ordered that catastrophe to unfold made sure they were also on that ship. Dee’s initial plan is to find that person, and to make sure they pay for their crime. Doing so will require intelligence, guts, quick thinking, and a mile-wide streak of ruthlessness. As the reader walks that long mile with Dee, we can see the decisions she makes in the face of moral expedience, deciding when enough is enough, shaped by her own remembered pain.

That moral journey is matched by an investigative one, as Dee delves into some rather dark corners trying to work out what happened, who did it, and how she can get to them. That investigation moves between the sterile corridors of the spaceship Dee calls home, and a variety of sweeping virtual environments. The corridors of the ship are described in a clipped, bare way which leaves them feeling cramped and utilitarian as much as their descriptions do; by contrast, the virtual environs are vividly imagined, richly detailed worlds – and they give us an opportunity to dig into our own future history – such as seeing the prelude to widespread riots in near-future London. In all cases, the world has its own feel; you can taste the smoke in the virtual air, and smell the tang of machined cleaning product in the sparse corridors of the ship around Dee’s compartment. The wider world is there in flashes, in cultural indicators in dialogue, in the studied disdain and flatly keen analysis Dee provides for most of her personal interactions.

Both edges of this world fit together seamlessly as Dee investigates what she believes is democide, and both feel real. Often bloodily, horrifyingly so. This is a world which pulls no punches, which wants both its characters and the readers to know that every action will have a consequence, and it may be swift and brutal, or it may be slow and corrosive. Dee begins as a prisoner of her past, of her past actions, the actions imposed upon her, and her reactions to them – shaped by trauma and circumstance into who she is – an open blade.

So, this is a really strong and intriguing character piece, and the world-building is plausible, tight and detailed. But is the story any good? I’d say so. The investigative threads are drawn ever tighter as the narrative progresses, until the tension is as taut as a piano-wire garrotte. There’s some snappy, visceral action scenes wrapped around that thread, and they’re not afraid to be dangerous or bloody or packed with narrative consequence. The threads were never quite going where I expected, which combined with the relentlessly paced prose to keep me turning pages to find out what happened next, and to see my questions answered.

In the end, this is a story which takes excellent characterisation with an interesting world and an intriguing plot that blends mystery and personal discovery, and combines them into a sterling piece of top notch science fiction.

Wednesday, March 27, 2019

A Wasteland Of My God's Own Making - Bradley P. Beaulieu

A Wasteland Of My God’s Own Making is a novella from Bradley P. Beaulieu, set in the same world as his ‘Sharakai’ stories. Regular readers will know that I’ve been a fan of Beaulieu’s for quite some time – and that I think the ‘Sharakai’ sequence is some of the most imaginative contemporary fantasy available. So expectations were set fairly high from the first page of this latest work.

It’s a prequel of sorts, seeming to occur earlier than the first ‘Sharakai’ novel. Its protagonist is Djaga, a pit fighter. Which is to say, she goes out onto the sands in front of a baying crowd, and hurts people for money. Djaga shows an impressive depth of character. Yes, she fights, braking bones and taking money for an audience. But though part of her revels in the attention, though part of her wants to fight, even to kill, and to keep fighting until she can’t fight any longer, that’s not all she is. Not just muscle and reflex, no. On the one hand, Djaga is a creature of regret. A long ago error in judgment festers at the back of her mind, its consequences visible with every red blow she lands in the pit. Djaga fights in part because she enjoys it. In part because she’s good at it. But also in part, I think, to atone, to expiate the past, or at least buy its acceptance for another night or two.

But the other pole for our protagonist is her love. A fierce affection, as much an absolute as the fighting rage. Djaga wants to leave the pits, to become something else, to share a new life with the woman she loves. And each word she speaks is an avatar for that affection, each kinetic ballet in the pits sitting in balance with the warmth and togetherness she feels in the arms of another. Djaga is built to fight, yes, and has a past that wracks her dreams – but she isn’t an avatar of destruction, but a flawed person, making their way in the world with the reader, and with a chance at a love that makes her feel complete. It’s a multi-layered, thoughtful type of affection, a comfortable certainty and fountain of hope in a world which could have spoken about blood upon the sand for a few more pages instead. The story is better for it – for giving us Djaga as a person, one whose needs and wants are complex and contradictory, whose inner life is a whirlwind of crackling thought and deeply felt, honest emotion – even as to the outside world she is a calm avatar of destruction.

What I’m saying is, Djaga is thoroughly human, and manages to balance her need for more connection with her capability to be an incredible badass. She’s a great focal point, and I’d love to see more work focusing on the character. The text is approached from her viewpoint, which serves to keep the narrative tight and focused on the world around Djaga.

And what a world it is. If you’re coming in fresh: Sharakai is a city in the desert, a thriving metropolis, ruled by immortal Kings, whose magic has kept the city alive, and whose jealousy and power keeps them in charge, if less than united. The soaring spires of Sharakai connect to everything outside the desert via ships on the sand – sailing craft driven by the desert winds. And outside the city, rebellion and  unsanctioned magic are fermenting into a dizzying, deadly brew. Here though, we, and Djaga, are centred on the fighting pits. On the sand beneath her feet, still slick with blood from that last cut. On the background roar of a crowd which wants blood, and isn’t too particular about how it gets it. On each breath taken under a blazing sun.  The pits are the centre of a close-knit world, and there’s a strange intimacy in the struggle, the sweat, the crowd, the blood. It’s mirrored in the digressions into Sharakai, in the gentler moments Djaga tries to share with Nadin. It’s a strange, richly imagined world, but one which feels very real.

I won’t get into the plot, for fear of spoilers. But I’ll say this: It’s got a lot going on. There’s a searing emotional heart, yes. And there’s dark secrets from the past, uncovered. And treachery, and blood, and tears on the sand, and friendship. Love and sorrow. And there’s some absolutely top-notch fight scenes, which will put your heart in your mouth, right before the story breaks it for you. There’s a little bit of everything here, and it’s all put together with the precision of a stiletto to the heart.
This novella serves as an excellent entry point into the wider Sharakai universe. But it also succeeds on its own terms, giving us a well-crafted work of fantasy which will keep you turning the pages until morning. If you’re a long time reader of the series, or a newcomer to the deserts of Sharakai, this is a book you ought to try.

Wednesday, March 20, 2019

The Light Brigade - Kameron Hurley

The Light Brigade is a multifaceted, scintillating, bloody gem of a book. It’s a masterclass in sci-fi from Kameron Hurley, whose other works have always had that perfect blend of interesting ideas and emotional impact. This latest, a sci-fi story in what may be our near future, has the same energy and a raw, visceral feel that keeps the text grounded even while exploring some high concept ideas.

This is a book about conflict. At one level, that conflict is a concrete one. Mega-corporations which now run the world struggle with each other for dominance. And while they engage in a cold war with each other, they also have a hot war with Mars, where a different branch of humanity does not appear to regard them kindly. Our protagonist is a front line soldier in this war, and through their eyes we get a view of guts and mud and horror.

This is also a story about more personal conflicts. About the sacrifices people make internally, the hurt they do to themselves while working within systems that limit their potential. About the self justifications that allow that to continue. About how someone makes it through the day, when they don’t know if they will, in fact, make it through the day. This is, after all, a war run by corporate entities, who are almost equally effective at dehumanising their own troops and those of their enemies. But people fight through this. The narrative lets us see people at their best, under the pressure to do anything to win, deciding who they’ll become, how far they’re willing to go, and for what cause.

I’m not sure I can fully describe how visceral, how horrifying and immediate and brutal the scenes in the active war zones are. They’re typically fast-paced, snappy, with a thread of tension running through them like a razor-edged tripwire. Nobody is safe. The connection our interlocutor feels to their squad mates has some real emotional weight, and I found myself sympathising with these grunts as they trekked through mud and ruined cities, as they were asked to do more and more appalling things for a command structure which felt so far removed as to be more alien than the individuals they were fighting against.

This is a conflict whose futility is written in the actions of the people fighting it; the increasing disaffection and rage some feel at doing sounds in parallel with those who just want it all to be over. This is a conflict of exhaustion, of atrocity, of disenfranchised rage against a slow slide into seemingly inevitable disaster. Each page is searing, an indictment of a society which isn’t more than a few steps away from our own.

So it’s a story about conflicts, personal and systemic, played out through the lens of a near-future war. Maybe that’s enough to get you to pick it up and turn some pages.

It’s also a top notch character piece. Sitting behind the eyes of our protagonist, we live through the conflict with them. We learn about their past, the matter-of-fact horrors that shaped their trajectory before the story began. We learn about their loves, and about the ideals which they hold close to their heart. We learn about their mistakes, and see them commit what might be unforgivable acts, under the aegis of war. We see them struggle to forgive themselves and others for similar acts. This is someone drowning, trying to remain human whilst the environment militates against humanity.

The characterisation is, I would suggest, top-flight. The feelings we gain from our narrator have an honesty to them, an immediacy which makes them feel real; and their inner voice is thoughtful, aware of its limitations, a regular person playing out a situation which is pretty irregular. The supporting cast are an intriguing bunch as well – by turns villainous, conflicted, complex, unfeeling, affectionate, treacherous and loyal. They are, to sum up, people, and they shape the world by being seen as people through our protagonist. Some of them aren’t very nice people, but that’s neither here nr there -w hat they are is real, one way or another.

So you’ve got a war, a conflict in a vivid and believable world that lets us explore ideas about wealth and violence, about humanity and personal and institutional power, under the hood of an adrenaline-stoked struggle. And you’ve got characters who feel real, who live and die for each other, whose passions and needs come right off the page. The story is stylistically clever too, smoothly moving between non-linear sections; the reader working alongside our protagonist to make sense of their dislocation. Plotting this out, working out which pieces g where and when, which are visible to the reader and the narrator at which time, must have been a nightmare. But as a means of getting the story across, it’s perfect; as the clouds begin to lift, as quite what’s happening becomes clearer to our protagonist, so too the lines of story begin to join up for the reader. The plotting is intricate work, which pays off admirably over the course of the story.

But there’s other ideas here, too. I won’t touch on it too much for fear of spoilers, but there’s this: In order to move soldiers around, in order to take part in an interplanetary conflict, the corporations have found a way to turn their soldiers into light. To shift them across the world (or worlds) instantly, to reconstitute them, and let them hit the ground fighting immediately. But this is a process with costs. Some come back broken, some come back dead, some come back mad. What they see in that disembodied journey is a mystery, and one which might change the course of history.

This is Hurley at her best. It’s a story about people – real people. Not always good people. Often the opposite. Sometimes beaten, broken, fighting, furious people. But always people. And it’s a story which asks big questions about society – about the way we shape it, and it shapes us. It’s also a book which plays with some big sci-fi ideas in innovative and clever ways, and will reward an in-depth read.

Hurley’s really knocked it out of the park with this one – give it a try.

Wednesday, March 13, 2019

Holy Sister - Mark Lawrence

Holy Sister is the conclusion to Mark Lawrence’s ‘Book of the Ancestor’ trilogy. Regular readers will know I’m a big fan of Lawrence’s work, and that I thoroughly enjoyed both previous parts of the trilogy. I went into this book with high expectations, and I have to say at the outset, those expectations were more than met.

To me, this is a story about family, and about affection, and the ties that bind us all to each other. It’s about struggling with strangeness, and with finding the meaning in your own lives, and those of others. It’s a story about taking hard decisions, and about forgiveness. By this time, I imagine you’re familiar with Nona, whom we’ve followed from her somewhat unfortunate childhood, through her time in the convent of warrior-nuns and into the present. If not, I’d say the first word I’d use to describe her is ‘fierce’. Possibly alongside ‘bloody stubborn’ or, if pressed, maybe just ‘bloody’. Nona has an absolute loyalty to those she has decided are her friends, a quality which gleams in the underbrush of every paragraph. If not the smartest of her peer group (albeit due to some very strong competition), she’s certainly also a fast thinker, and one able to do so under pressure. But  she remains the sum of her flaws as well as her best parts; the events which have shaped her and left her with a sharp edge have also gifted her with a fast-rising temper, and the skills to make a red mist out of anyone who happens to be standing too close when it blows.

I’ve got a lot of time for Nona. She’s an amalgam if her experiences – the broken reeds of childhood, the intense need for family, for acceptance, the desire to do more, to do better. The fiery drive that works with her rage to move mountains. Like all of us, she’s not a hero or a villain in her head, but a person, broken and re-forged in each moment, trying to make the best decisions she can, and deciding what matters to her. There’s pain between the lines of these pages, raw and honest; but there’s joy as well, and the scintillating prose gives both an equal depth and truth.

This is Nona’s story, and it explores her connections into the found family she’s built for herself. I won’t go through one by one (for fear of spoilers if nothing else), but I’ll say this: they all have a part to play. This is Nona’s story, but she isn’t surrounded by ciphers. Her friends are as vividly alive as they ever were, and you can see their minds ticking over and their blood pumping. They’re people too, a strong ensemble behind the lead. They help to guide Nona, they help shape her decision, and in many cases, they help to execute them as well. They share her concerns, hopes and fears, and they feel too, taking on the burden of her world and sharing their own. This connection, this sense of togetherness, seems an accent on the larger theme. It’s also worth mentioning the antagonists, who have a tendency to be intelligent, mildly unpleasant, and utterly ruthless. Maybe they’re the heroes of their own stories. There’s certainly no moustache twirling here, just individuals, organisations and nations with incompatible goals, and a desire to see themselves win out. Which isn’t to say it doesn’t get bloody. But does mean that when it does, the emotional and narrative stakes feel higher. This is a book which isn’t pulling any punches.

Okay, so Nona is raw and vital and honest and fun to read. Great. And her friends are people too, well-crafted, vivid characters that give us different insight into her world and facets of Nona’s character. Fantastic! And the villains are cunning and terrifying. Marvellous!

But what about the story?

The story is an absolute firecracker.

I’ve now tried to describe it several times here without spoilers. I’ll say this. Lawrence is a master at building narrative tension. At making you chew your nails and turn pages wanting to know what happens next. At cutting away as everything builds to a seeming crescendo, leaping onto another thread, and winding the screw a little tighter. There’s a lot going on in these pages. All of it is important. All of it is intriguing. And I wanted to know what was going on with all of it, all at once.
The climax, when it arrives, is an absolute tour-de-force. In a story with revelation, betrayal, with grief and murder and love and joy interweaving with each other, the close is a ray of light which feels like a kick in the gut. And the denouement has the sort of emotional heft which can leave you in tears, can demolish the reader entirely, in fact.
Is that too fluffy?

Okay. If you’re not just here for the characters, for the closure, for the feels, I can promise you this:
The world is still there, and the story takes us to places we’ve never seen before. There’s ice and darkness, there’s new questions and even a few answers. There’s battles which aren’t just talking about rivers of blood, but showing human fear and courage and the price of resistance. But the blood’s there too – there’s scenes which will take your breath away with their terror and grandeur, and ones which will bring you to your feet with their immediacy. There’s sweat and dirt and tears in here, there’s intimacy amid the great sweep of armies. There’s a story which wraps all of these things together, and will make you feel them, feel this world and these people as sharply as a razor-cut.

Holy Sister is, truly, a revelation, It’s a conclusion which will leave you satisfied but also wanting more. It’s an ending and a beginning, and it’s, seriously, a bloody good story.

Wednesday, March 6, 2019

Finder - Suzanne Palmer

Finder is a snappy, smart space adventure from Suzanne Palmer. It’s a lot of fun, and has some clever big ideas lurking beneath some tremendously human characters and a breakneck plot.

The story is centred on the marvellously alliterative Fergus Ferguson. Fergus calls himself a finder. He retrieves things for people. That leans less toward dropped earrings, and more toward slightly larger things – in this case, a spacecraft. To retrieve these lost objects, Fergus employs a variety of soft skills, including fast talking, impersonation, building improvised tools and the occasional well-placed theft. Fergus is also thoughtful, introspective, and altohihg unwilling to dig too far into his own psyche, gives us some truly vivid imagery to allow for a partial analysis of his personality.
The larger point here is, Fergus is fun to read. He can talk his way out fo a lot of things, and seeing the excuses and rationales he runs up to get out of various scrapes is a delight. At the same time, when events call for the physical, he’s no slouch (if not a ninja). There’s enough high impact conflict here to sate anyone – but there’s also a lot of running away, or arranging events so as to  fight again another day. This is a smart, thoughtful protagonist, unwilling to risk their hide unnecessarily. That Fergus is also always ready with some banter is a plus, and helps carry the story along. But Fergus has enough depth to make him more than an entertaining cipher. There’s a sense of history, of past hidden beneath a shroud of memory and long con’s gone wrong. The meat is there if you want to infer and dig into it, and if not – he’s an interesting person with a smart mouth and a degree of competence that makes the characterisation an absolute joy.

Fergus operates in a weird, complicated, fascinating world. It’s one which knows about non-human species, where some are better known as your neighbours, but others are a potentially lethal enigma. The system he’s working in is a string of habitats, linked together by a desire for atmosphere and commerce, at the edge of any space where anyone cares about law enforcement. It’s a pot on the boil, torn between several factions, none of whom particularly want to share power with the others. But they’re also part of a broader universe, a claustrophobic environment connected by hump oints to a larger, sprawling universe. And to Palmer’s credit, this universe feels alive. If the habitats are often cramped, claustrophobic and filled with dangerous flora and fauna, they’re also thriving, with a dynamic and invested population base. The politics, the environs, the details of life in this world feel believable. The wider scale also works for internal consistency. There’s grime and grudges and attitude, and they all feel real. This is a real, living, breathing world – it makes internal sense, and it will keep your attention even as Fergus leaps across it wreaking havoc.

Speaking of which – the plot is rather fun. It ramps up quickly, and although you’re grounded, there’s a sense of the unknown and unfamiliar throughout. We’re grounding ourselves alongside Fergus, and as he looks into alien ships, into political malfeasance, and as he works to talk his way into stealing a star cruiser, we empathise, we understand his pain, every step of the way. The conflicts though have depth and raw, hard edges, and a history which helps them to feel real The stakes are high, for sure, and the pacing never lets up – throwing you between witty repartee, gunfire and the potential end of the world between paragraphs.

This is a tightly written, compelling space opera. It has charm and grace, and will make you want to finish it very quickly, to see what happens next. It is, above all, a fun piece of sci-fi which will reward your attention – and so I recommend it.

Wednesday, February 27, 2019

A Veil of Spears - Bradley P. Beaulieu

A Veil of Spears is the third in Bradley  P. Beaulieu’s “The Song of the Shattered Sands” sequence. I’ve enjoyed the first two, with their nuanced, complex, bloody take on a more Arabian-styled fantasy. This latest addition is an absolute stormer, upending the setting, revealing secrets, and, if possible, raising the stakes even further.

It strikes me that this is, at its core, a book about identity. About the history of individuals and peoples, and about the way that history blends with myth and legend to create culture. That is, in the end, what Sharakhai is – a culture, built on a myth, the myth that is semi-divine Kings deserve to rule, that they carry a divine blessing, that what exists now is the way things have always been. That the Kings are inevitable, immutable, natural forces It turns out that  this is, to say the least, not entirely true. The world of Sharakhai has been rocked at its foundations, and people within and without the city are questioning who they are. This happen at several levels; there’s the grand sweep, where the mysterious Thirteenth tribe, survivors of a historical massacre, thrown to the winds, have begun to come back together, to redefine themselves as a people in the desert, against not only the hostile Kings, but the remaining desert tribes, who aren’t entirely sure whether a new player is a good idea. There’s the more intimate  though, as Çeda, our protagonist for the last few books, finds herself at the heart of this new tribe – looking at a wider family, a kin that she’s never known growing up almost alone.

This matter of identity reaches further, too. Whilst the struggles of the Kings and the Tribes of Sharakhai are at the core of the text, they’re both part of one cultural tradition. That tradition may have been controlled by the narrative of the semi-immortal Kings, but it serves as much to unite as to divide, But there are other forces on the march now, other kingdoms eyeing the struggles in Sharakhai with interest. They’re perfectly happy to take over Sharakhai and its valuable trade route, and have, it seems, relatively little interest in the cultural struggles of those they’d have to step over to seize it. There are tremors here suggesting that we’re about to open the story out onto a wider canvas.
In the meantime however, there’s the political manoeuvrings of the Kings of Sharakhai to look into, as these monstrously powerful individuals fight not only the tribal forces gathering against their rule, but also with each other. This book gives us more insight into the personalities and goals of the remaining Kings, leaving them less ciphers than men – albeit ones cloaked in supernatural power. This revelation to the reader maps well with the same discovery by Çeda and her allies – that the Kings are mortal, can be hurt, can die. We also get a bit more insight into the life of the desert tribes outside of Sharakhai, where family and blood are everything, where life in the desert often sits on the edge of a knife. They’re a tough bunch for the Kings to bring to heel, but they’re just going to roll over for Çeda and the gang either. Exploring the society of the tribes takes us out into the deep desert, away from the confines of Sharakhai – the geography broadening alongside the scope of the story. It paints a vivid picture that lets you feel the heat of the sun on your face, or the desert winds, the cool dark of the nights around a campfire, the shriek of a supernatural creature coming to rip your head off. The desert is as alive as the city, if differently – and this new facet of the world is as perfectly realised as the others. Sharakhai lives, the desert breathes.

The plot comes at the reader from multiple angles. Though we tend to be focused on Çeda, there are other viewpoints – Kings, outright outsiders, and those further down the social chain. Each of their stories interweaves with the others, and each has something to contribute to the larger tapestry. I won’t go into details on what that wider picture looks like, but will say this: there are some beautiful, intimate moments of precision character work here, payoffs of arcs constructed over the course of the preceding texts; there’s discoveries that will change how the characters and the reader view the past couple of books, too. And there’s some buccaneering, fast-paced, brutal, bloody action, too. There’s clashes of armies, betrayals, revolutions in the making. This is a book with real heart, and a real emotional heft.

 If you’ve been wondering whether to pick up the next book in the series: yes, yes, this is a good book, you should read it. If you’re wondering whether to start the series: Yes, that too. Go, read them all. This is great stuff.

Wednesday, February 20, 2019

Titanshade - Dan Stout

Titanshade is the debut fantasy-noir novel from Dan Stout. It certainly has a lot going for it. There’s a city in the centre of an ice-field, whose economic survival depends on slowly depleting oil reserves. There’s different species living side by side, with all the socio-cultural tension which that brings. There’s politicians who have an agenda to promote, and little care for what damage they’ll do. There’s sorcerors who can bring back the dead for a bit of a chat. There’s a police force whose members have a penchant for graft, planting evidence, and applying a swift phonebook to the side of the head of a problem when an interrogation won’t solve it. Oh, and there is, of course, a murder

So yeah, there’s a lot going on here. The first thing I have to say is that, with all of these things going on, there’s a sense of style, and a vivid sense of place. The style – well, it feels like a blend between the hard-edged noir of Hammett and Ellroy, and the blurred excesses of an extravagant Seventies. Wide collars, smart shades and smart mouths are available in equal measure. The place? The place is Titanshade. It’s a city that sits on the edge of nowhere. An urban hub nestled against a mountain, with freezing plains in every direction. A city of rings, each ring a little further out than the last, each ring a little colder than the last. It’s a city built on a desire to escape government intrusion – in the far end of nowhere – but also on wealth. This is an oil town, whose liquid gold has kept the populace in work and in ready cash for quite some time. You can feel the sense of the past in the prose – in characters in richly decorated offices, looking out on run-down drill-rigs. In the neighbourhoods in the city which still hold some of their care and class, but are just that little bit more decrepit than the year before. This is a city on the edge of a downturn, hanging on to its former glory by its fingernails. And the prose gives us that – in the sparkling white of the snow, in the rust and steel gleam of the oil rigs. In the energy of the populace, warming themselves in the city’s heart, and in the cool calculation of its leadership. This is a place which comes alive on the page, which pulls you into its streets and makes you feel the clamour, the drive, the need to be alive – and the undercurrent sin the same streets, the darker pulses of the urban heart. Titanshade lives.

Our protagonist in this town is Carter. Carter works homicide in Titanshade, a place where the dead can be revived to answer awkward questions (albeit with no guarantee that they’ll be answered), and where corruption makes sure that inconvenient answers are delicately swept under the rug, along with the people who found them. Carter hits a lot of familiar notes – he’s down on his luck, he has a mysterious past, he’s not a completely straight shooter, but has limits; for all that, they ring true. Carter’s voice is wry, thoughtful, aware of his position, but determined to do some good despite himself. The colloquial tone makes for an accessible read, and if Carter isn’t always the best person, still he’s easy to empathise with.

Watching with Carter’s eyes works especially well when compared to his partner, who, apart from having mandibles (being from one of Titanshade’s other resident species), is new to the city. He’s keen to learn, keen not to mess up, and keen to do the right thing – but far, fasr less keen to be seen anywhere near Carter. There relationship is a small joy in the text, as they circle each other, trying to reach a rapprochement through banter, the odd bite of street-food, and examining the occasional murder scene.

Both, I have to say, manage the tricky feat of feeling alive, of feeling like people. I felt their successes, their fears, their victories and defeats.  They’re ably supported by a broader cast of memorable figures – from the down-home oil baron, to the activists trying to help get sex-workers off the street, to ice-cold political operatives. There’s a lot going on here, and the people in it have their own lives and their own agenda.

The plot – well, I shan’t give anything away. It starts with a murder, which is how Carter finds himself involved. But even as the investigation is hitting its stride, there are suggestions that there are other things going on – including politics, blackmail and betrayal. It’s a story whose central post is a complex murder with many different angles, and the investigation is both convincing and compelling. You’ll want to know whodunit, but I, at least, also wanted to know why they dunnit. There’s more than enough action here to set the pulse racing, and the prose pulls absolutely no punches in that regard; but there’s a strong emotional centre as well, and a believable mystery with a strong resolution sat at the heart of the text.

This is a solid debut, giving us a fascinating new world, some fun characters who feel real, and a story which, I guarantee will keep you turning pages into the wee hours. Give it a whirl!

Wednesday, February 13, 2019

The True Queen - Zen Cho

The True Queen is Zen Cho’s follow up to their utterly charming debut, Sorcerer to the Crown.
It’s a delightful blend of magic and manners, as well as wit and romance. It’s the sort of book you can happily read while drinking a cup of tea on a rainy day, letting it transport you to a world where fairies are real (and sometimes deadly), and so is magic; where a scathing word can cut deeper than a blade, where dances are utterly serious, and where everyone should know their place.

Muna, the protagonist, isn’t particularly good at knowing her place. She begins her journey on a beach, with no memory of who she is, and with a sister. Muna is grounded, considerate, thoughtful, and unbending in the face of adversity. You can feel her quiet strength suffusing every line she speaks, and parse it from her quick thinking and craft in the face of danger. By contrast, her sister is imperious, sharp, sometimes thoughtless – but also fierce, witty, a being of air and fire . Their relationship is characterised by their love for each other. Though they bicker, squabble and banter as much as siblings do, there’s an undercurrent there of trust and affection, a bond which sustains each, even as it holds them to fight for each other. This familial bond is given a sympathetic rendering in the text, and it’s wonderfully drawn, as the pair of bickering siblings strive toward their mutual goals.

I’d also be remiss if I didn’t mention the friendship she has with Henrietta, one of the magieiennes of Britain, whose family issues probably deserve a novel all of their own. The two of them are kind to each other, supportive, fierce and endearing. The time they spend together, through thick and thin, was an absolute delight.

Still, Muna is our viewpoint on the world, and it’s with her we explore Regency Britain once again. Well, actually, we begin at Janda Baik, near the straits of Malacca The text brings to life the myths of the area – sometimes literally, with a vividly realised originality. The warmth and life of the island on which Muna and her sister find themselves has a constant dynamic thrum, and it’s brushed into being with care and vitality. The contrast of an island where power lives informally with its dependents, and cheek-by-jowl with its own mythology, is contrasted cleverly with the more formal, colder, more regimented world of Regency England, where Muna finds herself after something of a mishap while trying to trace her identity.

Identity is something of an issue here, actually. Muna is looking for who she is, but the English are more than happy to try and craft a role for her, layering on colonial expectations as well as gendered and social ones. Muna I thought, was expected to be a magicienne, of a strange  (to the English), far away tradition, and to be at once a divergence from the expected role of women and one of its exemplars. Unsurprisingly, she doesn’t take this overly well. Still, it means we get to see Regency society once again – the parties where people are willing to talk about what dress someone’s wearing, the scandal of that one fellow who is up to his ears in debt, and of course, that cousin who ran away to join the faerie court, or, more scandalously, that daughter who now does magic. That baroque sense of style is back, and it wraps around the text, giving it a style and grandeur of the period. We do get to see more of the faerie realm as well, an odd, ineffably cruel place, where nothing is quite what you’d expect.

Muna is going into these places looking for herself. What she finds may be something else entirely.
The plot takes a while to get rolling, but don’t let the gentle tone of the characters disguise the scheming and steel which lies beneath. By the mid point I was intrigued to see what happened next, and where it was all going. By the last quarter, you would have had to pry it from my hands to stop me getting to the end.

This is a clever, thoughtful book. It explores a lot of interesting ideas around identity, gender, and empire. It draws and builds some marvellous relationships, which feel vivaciously human. And it’s a book which is hopeful, and a genuine balm for the soul. If you’re new to the series, maybe read Sorcerer to the Crown first; but I’d say if you’ve read the first book, you know what you’re getting into – this one is a delight, and worth your time.

Wednesday, February 6, 2019

A Time of Blood - John Gwynne

A Time of Blood is the second book in John Gwynne’s “Of Blood & Bone” epic fantasy series. The first, A Time of Dread, was fabulous: character driven, action-packed fantasy. So it’s fair to say that my expectations had set a pretty high bar for this book to clear. And clear it, it did. If you’re looking at this now, having read the first book, trying to decide if this sequel is worth buying, let me say this: Yes. And, in more detail: it has more of the things I loved about its predecessor. Snappy, kinetic, downright bloody fight scenes. Protagonists struggling with their own choices as well as the choices of those around them. Villains who manage to come across as people, even as they descend into monstrousness. And a world where towering citadels mix with tangled forests, and where the magic of blood meets the shield-wall. It is, in summary, wonderfully epic fantasy.

The characters are the heart of this story. I’ve got an especially  soft spot for Riv, the half-breed with self-control issues. Her entire world has been ripped asunder, and this book doesn’t really let up on that. Riv is trying, so hard, to build herself up, to hold on to the potential that others see in her. Her struggle to write a new identity for herself is a fraught one, and you can feel the raw emotion bubbling away within her. The conflict between a woman who desperately wants to do the right thing, and the desire to lash out and bring down a system which seems almost designed to keep that from happening – well, it’s felt viscerally on the page. That Riv also kicks serious arse is a plus – watching her learn and fight and fall and win, having got her hands dirty and rather bloody, is inspirational reading. There’s also a well-crafted and somewhat troubled romance rearing its head here – done in such a way that it feels genuine and an organic outgrowth of events, which is a delightful rarity.

Then there's Drem. I rather like our hero-protagonist, as he struggles to articulate who he is, what his feelings are, and tries to find a way to get the rich inner world he experiences out in front of anyone else. That’ s a raw, heartfelt struggle. Drem seems to spend a fair amount of time either on the run, or caught up in blood-soaked skirmishes. Watching his confidence surface through the text is great fun, and I was happy to be cheering him on from the sidelines. He’s still quiet and struggling with parts of himself, but definitely grows over the course of the text.

The character that sticks with me, though, oh that has to be Fritha. Once the woman Drem held a torch for, now the high priestess of the Kadoshim, whose penchant for murder and torture is not at all exaggerated. Fritha’s viewpoint is some interesting emotional geography. She’s holding tight to a savage emotional wound, and that allows us to feel empathetic toward her excision of that pain, even when doing so leads to utter ruin for our heroes. Fritha is smart, driven, and focused. She also is more than capable of doing absolutely terrible things in service to her goals, and the story doesn’t flinch away from showing us that. This delving into the mind of the villain is masterfully done. Even as I recoiled from her, I could see how Fritha had started down her particularly unpleasant road, and what the price of that had been .Every time she showed up on the page was a tense mix of delight and burgeoning horror; as an antagonist, she’s complex, believable and makes compelling reading.

I talked a lot about the world of this series when reviewing the previous book. Suffice to say, there’s more here of what I loved then. The soaring fortresses of the giants are stunningly realised. The forests that our protagonists tramp through are dark, mysterious and teeming with life. The crunch of feet on the deep snows of the Desolation feels crisp, and you can almost feel the icy wind on your face as you turn the page.  The environment is rich, detailed, and comes alive in your hands.

There’s politics here, too, the world of people to go alongside the natural. And my, there’s so much scheming going on. I mean, the Kadoshim are fallen servants of the divine. They’re often monstrous, but have surprising moments of vulnerability. Their schemes tend to be a bit more focused, and the monsters that they put into play are both repellent and magnetic. The Ben-Elim, though, the eternal enemies of the Kadoshim; they’re an odd lot. Convinced of their own superiority as guardians of humanity, they have a penchant for heavy-handed arrogance which makes them unsympathetic at best. If humanity are on both sides of this war, it’s worth noting that even the ‘good’ Ben-Elim are not often nice people. They have, it seems, just as much a capacity for treachery, realpolitik and deceit as anyone else, and possibly more, having wrapped themselves up in a tale of their own effortless superiority which…may not exactly be borne out. Though the Kadoshim are definitely the baddies (oh my yes), they come by it honestly. The Ben-Elim claim to be on the side of right, but that doesn’t make them automatically possessed of virtue. Often quite the opposite. You can see in every word they speak the incalculable arrogance which suggests that the war they’ve found themselves in is of their own making.

Anyway.  You’ve come this far. You’ve read the excellent A Time of Dread, and you want to know if you should read the sequel.

Yes. Yes you should.

It’s got everything you loved about the first book – be it the bloody, close-quarter, no-holds barred fight scenes, the fast-paced, tense plotting, the detailed world building, or the complex characterisation. But more. Yes. More. This book takes everything from its predecessor and turns it up to eleven. 

I can’t wait to see where John Gwynne takes us next.

Wednesday, January 30, 2019

A Memory Called Empire - Arkady Martine

I’m going to put my cards on the table here, before going any further. I think Arkady Martine’s A Memory Called Empire is an absolutely brilliant book. It has everything I want in sci-fi, wrapped up in one very imaginative package. It asks complicated, thoughtful questions about society, about culture, cultural appropriation, and what empire actually means. It even provides some answers, and not all from the same perspective. It does this by giving us complex characters, with their own hopes, drives and fears, and putting them into a rich, vividly imagined world. It’s a world with tensions between great political powers and those just outside their reach, and where politics can have swift and deadly personal consequences.

Yeah, I liked this one.

It starts with Mahit Dzmare, the new ambassador from a small, single system mining concern to the towering (and difficult to spell) Teixcalaanli Empire. Mahit has immersed herself in Teixcalaanli culture since childhood to prepare for this role, but been thrust into it not entirely prepared, due to the sudden demise of her predecessor. Teixcalaanli is the lead weight on the surrounding galatic sheet. Their ships are everywhere, heavily armed and exuding authority. But what the story shows us is more about their soft power. The way that Teixcalaanli culture wraps itself around and through the cultures surrounding it, so that the songs they sing are Imperial songs – or derived from them. So that the books they read are Imperial books – or drawn from them. So that, eventually, the habits of thought for these non-Imperial territories become conditioned into Teixcalaanli habits of thought. So that they see themselves as outsiders in their own cultures, so that they see Teixcalaanli as the Teixcalaanli do – as the centre of the universe. Mahit is a product of this strategy; she knows the culture of the empire she is being sent to treat with. Though proud of her own people, and what they’ve accomplished, she is riven by cracks of cultural confusion. In being proud of her differences, or conforming to their expectations of her differences, is she perhaps falling into the mode of the outsider that the Teixcalaan expect? Or can those be leveraged to her advantage? Similarly, in finding a lodestar in Teixcalaan, in appreciating its traditions, literature, media, politics – is she left little more than an ersatz portrayal of an outwith barbarian? Or is there the potential to craft a unique seeming from the blending of these values? Mahit is smart, pragmatic, incisive – and even as she’s thinking about who she is, and the way she portrays herself, those around her are doing the same, adjusting their expectations in light of her arrival.

So yes. This is a book that has a lot to say about identity. About what the conception of self entails, and how we shape ourselves in a given environment. At the larger level, it explores this by looking at the differences between the Teixcalaanli and Mahit’s station home – and at the casual arrogance and force, along with an undeniably rich history which allows the Teixcalaan to see themselves as the centre of the universe. At the micro level, it’s about Mahit, and the way she handles being very far from home, and how she starts asking and answering questions around what home actually is.

Which may sound frightfully esoteric, but…isn’t, really. It’s a big question wrapped in more immediate ones – in the day to day politics of the empire, in Mahit’s investigation into the demise of her predecessor. In the poems sung during marches by protestors, and at wakes. In the way that the Teixcalaanli see and question themselves. It’s everywhere, and that means you get to think about the big question of identity while also wondering whether Mahit will, for example, manage to survive her first night in the Teixcalaanli Empire without being assassinated.

We’ll come back to that in a second.

Before we do – I’ve talked about Mahit’s struggle with identity, as part of an exploration of one of the text’s larger themes. And it’s fascinating, multi-layered, and like all good questions, raises more off the back of itself. But I also want to talk about Mahit more precisely.

As our interlocutor, she’s fiercely clever, thinks fast and speaks fast as well. Having been flung into this shark-pool at short notice she, like us, is somewhat at a loss, and this allows us to be brought along for her journey while looking on her with a sympathetic eye. I felt for Mahit throughout. Her confusion, hurt, damage and determination all hit with the punch of precision-crafted steel. Not a super-powered avatar of justice, but a person trying to do their level best in difficult circumstances – something we can all, perhaps, identify with. I cheered her victories, and sorrowed in her defeats. What I really want to say here is that Mahit felt real. Lovingly, sympathetically, but honestly rendered, and entirely believable.

This extended out to the rest of the cast as well. The Teixcalaan have something of a stiff upper lip approach, cloaking emotion behind a façade – but in between the cracks of those Mahit runs into, you can feel a fire absolutely blazing. They are, much like Mahit, fierce people, proud of their culture and what they do – and if their empire is an engine of expansion and slow cultural infusion and homogeneity, the people within it would perhaps argue that it has to be so, and that the propagation of their civilisation and culture to the outer reaches is a necessity. Arrogance, yes, and it leaves so many questions about colonialism, and the liminality of both physical borders and ephemeral identity – but arrogance which comes well argued, and makes both Mahit and us stop and think before challenging them, as they must be challenged.

As part of that, it’s a pure delight to see The City, the capital city of the empire, whose name underscores what its inhabitants see as its central nature to the universe. It’s beautiful, connected, and in many ways vital. It feels like a real city, with its soaring columns, utilitarian government ministries, and suburbs you might not want to visit on your own at night It contrasts wonderfully with the claustrophobic, intimate spaces of Mahit’s home station, where the sky is something which happens to other people, and where their methods of cultural retention are less orthodox than the Teixcalaanli’s worldwide network.

Anyway, that’s the big questions again. But in between those, we see a mechanical beast of a station, ticking along through the centuries, with a lively cultural scene of its own, determined to hold its independence against the far larger and viciously enticing Teixcalaanli, Again, both feel like real places. Both have completely different moods, the people who we see are, on both sides, still people, but their viewpoint is coloured by their environs and their history to make their approaches totally different. The history of the Teixcalaanli oozes off the page, and you’ll find you suddenly know a lot about it, perhaps unconsciously. What we get of the station is perhaps more direct, but no less impactful. Both feel like lived in spaces, both feel like you could wake up there tomorrow, feel the clank of your feet on the station deckplates, or breathe the scent of the flowers in a Teixcalaanli night garden.

The story though. OK. It’s great. I’m not going to spoil it, but it starts with a mystery. What happened to Mahit’s predecessor? And how can she keep the charming, intelligent, beautiful, thoughtful Teixcalaanli from absorbing her station? Should she even want to? There’s…a lot going on in the answers to those questions. Some of it involves politics – the dialogue there is absolutely pitch perfect, often wry, often viciously funny. Some of it involves violence, politics by other means. There’s assassinations (as alluded to earlier!), murders, explosions and investigations. Underneath all that is a slow-boiling tension which kept me turning pages until late in to the night, because I needed to know what happened next. The story, like any good mystery, hides a lot from you, and then lets you back behind the curtain as it goes on. The pace remorselessly ratchets up, and the conclusion left me breathless.

As I said earlier: Yeah, I liked this one. There’s so much going on, and it all manages to fit together absolutely perfectly.

Short version: If you’re here for the world-building, this book has your back. If you’re here for the characterisation, this book has your back. If you’re here for a plot filled with political intrigue and occasional explosions, this book has your back. If you’re here for the big ideas, the way that this text asks them and weaves it through the narrative is incredibly impressive – reminiscent of the best of Iain M. Banks, while being startlingly original in its approach. So there, too, this book has your back.

Should you be reading this? Yes, yes you should. It’s a brilliant debut, and I’m already craving more. Go out and pick up a copy right now, read it, and thank me later.