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.