Wednesday, June 26, 2019

Crowfall - Ed McDonald

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

It. Does. Not. Disappoint.

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

Wednesday, June 19, 2019

Hexarchate Stories - Yoon Ha Lee

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Very much recommended.

Wednesday, June 12, 2019

Children Of Ruin - Adrian Tchaikovsky

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Wednesday, June 5, 2019

The Deathless - Peter Newman

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

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

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

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

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

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

Give it a try; it’s a smashing tale.