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.