Wednesday, May 29, 2019

Walking To Aldebaran - Adrian Tchaikovsky

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

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

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

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

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

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

Wednesday, May 22, 2019

Luna: Moon rising - Ian McDonald

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Wednesday, May 15, 2019

Seven Blades in Black - Sam Sykes

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Wednesday, May 8, 2019

A Brightness Long Ago - Guy Gavriel Kay

I want to give you a quick reaction, which I put together a few minutes after finishing this book - hopefully that will convince you to give it your attention. If not, there's more below. But this was my first, unfiltered thoughts:

This is numinous, illuminating work. Expectations high, expectations surpassed. Very emotional. Going to be thinking about it for a while.

Not convinced? OK. Let's get into it a little more:

A Brightness Long Ago is a fantasy novel from Guy Gavriel Kay. It’s also a remarkably hard novel to talk about. That’s to its credit; the reason it’s hard to talk about is that there’s so much going on, so many layers, so many personalities, so much story, that getting a handle on it to explain why it’s so great has proven a bit difficult. So, lets start with this: This is a fantastic book, which explores life, death, sacrifice, age, the role of chance in history, and the role of people in the world. And that’s only a narrow sampling. 

This is a book with a lot to say. But it’s not just that, not just a pick-up-and-play philosophy text. It has characters whose lives feel as real as the reader’s own, whose loves and hatreds, dreams and duties, whose enmities and hopes all shape them, and the people around them. These are living, breathing people, with a rich inner life to match the political machinations and world events they find themselves entangled by. The world? The story’s set in the world of one of the parallel, almost-histories that Kay does so well, and I drew parallels with the renaissance Republic of Venice, which we’ve seen once before in another work of Kay’s.

So that’s the elevator pitch. Deep, complex, believable characterisation. Vividly realised, semi-historical setting. A story that draws you in and won’t let go, through all its tides of hope and torment. The narrative is about people, first – about the way their personalities, their ambitions their affections and enmities shape the world around them.

The world is classic Kay, in both senses. It feels like a lightly shifted version of Europe in the 1400’s, with a focus in a peninsula of warring city states with more than a passing similarity to Italy of that period. Regular Kay readers will have seen this world before – and even this small part of it, which was also heavily featured in his last novel, Children of Earth and Sky. New and old readers alike can delight in the lyrical prose, which builds a world up brick by brick, a world which feels instantly familiar, but with flashes of strangeness woven through it – a dream of sea-foam in the mortar. It’s a mark of Kay’s skill that every  tree, every leaf, every stone, every wall feels alive, a luxuriant tapestry for his characters to run through. And while the detail is there, the wider aspect doesn’t suffer. There’s feuding cities, driven toward conflict by politics negotiated on a knife’s edge. There’s mercenary armies on the march, with all the destructive potential that implies. And there’s joys, as well – horses running their hearts out, and unexpected friendships found between cups of wine.
This is a sprawling epic, engaging with difficult questions about ethics and systemic and personal morality, while also getting up close and personal – be that romance, individual crises of conscience, duels or any other of the plethora of human experience. This is such a densely packed story, and throughout, is absolutely captivating.

I normally go on about the plot and the characters a little more – here, I wanted to give impressions of the breadth and scope of the work, of the way it made me feel, of the depth and emotional integrity of it because getting into the detail quickly got a bit spoilery.
Suffice to say, if you’ve picked up a Kay novel before, this is another masterclass in fantasy from him; smart, emotionally raw, incredibly well characterised, wrapped in some truly beautiful prose. If this is your first step into this world – it’s fantastic. That simple. Pick it up and you won’t want to put it back down. It’s an ambitious, compelling story whose ambitions are realised, and which it’s a genuine pleasure to read.

If you need to know whether it’s worth buying? Yes. Stop reading this, and go pick it up instead. You won’t regret it.

Wednesday, May 1, 2019

The Kingdom Of Copper - S.A. Chakraborty

The Kingdom Of Copper is S.A. Chakraborty’s follow up to the really rather good The City of Brass, and like its predecessor, promises to be a tale of magic, djinn, high fantasy and low politics. Does it deliver? I’d say so.

The focus here is on the world of the djinn, individuals with magical powers, largely kept out of sight of humanity by magic surrounding the walls of their city of Daevabad. The djinn are themselves split into different tribes, and the history between the groups can be…fraught, to say the least. One of those tribes, the Daeva, ruled Daevabad for generations (perhaps unsurprisingly , given the name!). But relatively recently, they were overthrown in a bloody revolution by the Geziri tribe, who now rule instead. The conflict between these two tribes is tied to the personal relationships of their representatives, and the political machinations for power, for control, and even for personal agency, are at the core of the book.

The Daeva have Nahri, whom most of you probably remember from the first book. Nahri grew up on the streets of Cairo as a quick-fingered urchin, a con-artist with a penchant for medicine. Now she’s the leader of a group that sits out of power, and hasn’t forgotten about it. She can read people, and isn’t afraid to assert herself in the face of a misuse of authority. Nahri’s own qualms over being a face of that authority are perhaps less pronounced now, as she grows into the role previously thrust upon her. Still, there’s a strain of compassion, of a humanitarian nature and a desire to find a better, more co-operative way about her. Where others will seek to take and hold control through sheer ruthless will, Nahri is trying to build something different. The text uses Nahri’s struggles to look at themes of authority and moral certainty, as well as unpick toxic narratives of historical grievance. Every time she stands against those who want to start fights over old battles, or claim authority based on historic atrocities, I couldn’t help but smile. This is an intelligent story with a strong message, and it wants to engage the reader in a dialogue about the big issues – even when it’s using magical monsters to do it.

Alongside Nahri is Ali, prince of Daevabad, scion of the Geziri tribe. Ali has, in the past, been a bit of a stick in the mud. But hurled from the corridors of power after the end of the previous story, he’s out in the world, meeting new people and making new friends (and enemies). This requires a little more flexibility, sure. But Ali’s strength has always been that he’s basically a decent person, just with a moral code that makes him a pain for everyone else to be around. Still, he’s dealing with new issues of his own, and one can’t help but empathise as a man once certain of everything is left wading in  extremely uncertain waters. That he has an emotional entanglement with Nahri is almost inevitable; that they approach it like adults, emotions captured behind walls of silence and political necessity, is a delight. Not for them (obviously) but for the reader, watching their affection wax and wane in the face of the social and political moves they find their duty forces them to make. It’s a credit to the author that this intense masked affection seems to simmer on the page, just looking for an opportunity to boil over. It’s a fraught relationship, but its intensity and complexity feels genuine; it’s a lot of fun to read.

The same can be said of much of the rest of the book, really. The world-building is rock solid.  Daevabad, with its thriving neighbourhoods, social tensions and gossamer strands of amazing magic, is guaranteed to astound, whilst also keeping you grounded. It’s a playground for its people, for Nahri and Ali as they struggle with both each other, and the existing power structure of the city, which isn’t entirely accepting of young people with new ideas – to put it mildly. In particular, Ali’s family, the rulers of Daevabad, somehow manage to be astonishingly broken, often terrible people – but even as they shape the system which oppresses those around them, it’s possible to see that once they were the young people with the fresh ideas, and that the same system they now operate has ground them into new shapes – and is continuing to do so. Sure, Ali’s father is a tyrant, one who views half the city, whose heritage is mixed, as an inconvenience at best, and sure, he has a tendency to brutally execute dissenters. But he’s also terribly pragmatic, and seems to genuinely want to bring about a détente between his ruling family and the Daeva. Siimiilarly, Ali’s brother is often drunk, with a tendency to indulge a vicious temper, and perhaps a smidge of the jealous about him; and yet he loves his family, and will fight for them.

These are complicated people, living in complex times.  They’re driven by wants and needs that feel genuine, their hopes and fears, pain and love brought to life for us on the page. There’s so much more, of course – I’ve avoided going into it here for the sake of spoilers. But there’s a lot going on, and it’s presented in a precision crafted, captivating story which will capture your heart. This is a more than worthy sequel, and if you’ve been waiting like I have to return to Daevabad, let me assure you: it’s been worth the wait.