Wednesday, September 25, 2019

Rosemary and Rue - Seanan McGuire

Rosemary and Rue is the first of Seanan McGuire’s “October Daye” series of urban fantasy novels. This “tenth anniversary” edition also contains an extra short story, set prior to the events of the main text (but placed after it in the book!).

So lets talk about October Daye, and her story, and why we care. In a world where the realm of fairies sits alongside our own, where you can step between the two words if the time is right, and where(at least some) fae have a strong interest in what’s going on in our world, October is half human, half fae. But that’s not necessarily something to be proud of. October has a little magic – just enough to get her into trouble – but she’s no world-shattering mage. She makes up for it with wits, guile, stubbornness, and some interesting friends. Because October isn’t a typical heroine, filled with martial arts derring do and high ideals. October is middle aged, and tired. October is utterly unwilling to take anyone’s shit. And October really just wants to be left alone, to fall down a well of loathing for her last failure and struggle with what feels like a nasty case of PTSD. But the universe has other plans. It’s great to see a female protagonist who has a career, carries her own crises and owns her own crap. No great sorcery here, but a private investigator under stress, unsure of her own direction, but competent and uncompromising. October Daye is a wonderful breath of air in a market crowded with leather-clad teen arse-kickers. She’s a skilled, competent adult who still makes mistakes, and owns to them, but isn’t defined by them. An incisive mind is backed with a no-nonsense ability to take action. I’ve got a lot of time for October, a complicated, thoughtful woman with courage and convictions - and some cracking investigative skills.

October operates inside San Francisco, and McGuire’s sinuously smooth prose brings the Bay to life. It’s a city of fog and invisible boundaries, filled with people living their lives to the full, and in the shadows. The city flickers between night and day, light and shadow, and you can almost taste the tang of ocean air travelling down alleyways and through run-down apartment windows. And the atmosphere, the crackle and vitality, is as much on display in the realms of the fae  From dark, mysterious halls to golden forests, there’s a vividly imagined world at play here. It’s well-drawn, and imaginatively realised – and you’ll feel like you’re there on the beaches of San Francisco, and in the strange mansions of the fae.

I shan’t spoil the story, but suffice it to say that it has everything a good mystery needs. There’s intrigue. Crosses. Double crosses. Sudden reversals. Murders. The central mystery is clever, and though I managed to guess a few of the twists and turns, there were always more around the corner. This is a very personal story, a character driven story, October’s story. It has an emotional truth and weight to it that makes it feel real. That it’s also a cracking murder mystery is a bonus.
The prequel story included has a lot of similar traits – and it’s interesting to see a younger, less cynical, less tired October walking toward her own future. Quite what’s going to happen in bth cases remains a mystery – and one that kept me turning pages well past bedtime.
Is it good? Yes. It’s a great start to a series, filled with complex characters one can sympathise (or at least empathise with), in a believable yet strange world with a story that grabs hold and won’t let go. 

Looking for a new urban fantasy? Give Rosemary and Rue a try!

Wednesday, September 18, 2019

The Dragon Republic - R.F. Kuang

The Dragon Republic is the sequel to R.F. Kuang’s much-acclaimed The Poppy War. The latter was one of our top ten novels of 2018, and so anticipation for the sequel has been rather high, to say the least. 

Happily, I can report that it’s been worth the wait. The Dragon Republic  is a fierce, searing and powerful story, filled with politics, brutal, bloody conflict, and complicated characters, many of whom are trying their hardest to kill each other. It’s also a story which isn’t afraid to explore the larger issues behind the curtain: colonialism, the morality of assassination, the difficulty of ascertaining what price is worth paying, if a goal is worth achieving. That extra layer of complexity is the crocodile in the reeds of each thrown knife, each smart-mouthed aside, each key player struggling with their doubts.

Don’t get me wrong, the story works on its own terms. If you want to watch Rin kick everyone’s arse (including her own), trying to set the world to rights – there’s something here for you. But there’s always things bubbling under the surface or, returning to the crocodile metaphor, waiting until you’re distracted to bite your metaphorical leg off.

At its heart, this is a personal story – Rin’s story. Rin is in something of a bad way as the story opens. 
She’s managed to get everything she wanted – won a war, punished those who broke her people. But the cost has been very high, and she’s done some (to put it mildly) extremely questionable things to get to where she is now. Rin is struggling with the consequences of what she’s done – to herself, and to everyone around her. While the latter is highlighted in interactions, the wider cost noted, it’s the inner struggle I’d like to highlight. The depression, the conflict, the spiral of shame, the poor decision-making. It’s an excruciating, razor-sharp portrayal of someone on the edge of an emotional precipice. Rin teeters, each decision or lack of decision a choice putting her nearer or further from the edge. It’s tough to read, and that’s a credit to the emotional honesty of the narrative, which isn’t afraid to shine lights in dark corners.  It’s grim, that emotional landscape, a mire which both we and Rin may have trouble escaping – but it’s one which has a raw intensity, and a truth about it. Rin’s struggle with herself is heady stuff, if not entirely pleasant.

While she’s working out what to do with herself, as someone perhaps best described as a living weapon (and there’s something of the child-soldier here, too), the world has to work out what to do with itself. The Empire that ended the Poppy War may not survive its conclusion. I won’t go into details here, for the sake of spoilers. But I will say this: you’ll see parts of the Empire with fresh eyes. 

The question of how to guide it, and how, is one that is hotly debated, to put it mildly. There are calm words here, and individuals struggling to implement what may be seen as different visions for a country which may not have a place for any of them. But it does, again, ask interesting questions. Do we accept ruthless methods in the service of laudable goals? Do we accept friendship in the guise of treachery, or treachery in the guise of friendship? In the battle of ideas, in the struggle to identify and have the power to choose the path for a nation – who decides which path is stepped down first? And what compromises will they take too get there?

Of course, the answer to more than one of those questions is answerable in carmine. In sharp knives in the dark. In betrayals and sudden reversals. It’s also answerable in magic, in walls of flame, and in the screaming torture and unutterable power which comes with making onself an avatar of the gods of a nation. The price, again, is high. But the battles are sweeping grand affairs whilst at the same time being unafraid of taking us into the fire and muck and blood. The stakes involved will get your blood pumping, but the vicious immediacy of the conflicts will keep your eyes on the page, determined to see what happens next, to see if the game is worth the cost.

Which is all a long-winded way of saying that The Dragon Republic is a great sequel, and a fantastic book in its own right. If you followed Rin this far, you should pick it up, and see where her story takes her next. The journey Rin’s on will seize your attention like a knife in the ribs; this part of her story is furious, compelling, terrifying, fantastic stuff, and I recommend it wholeheartedly.  

Wednesday, September 11, 2019

A Little Hatred - Joe Abercrombie

A Little Hatred is a new fantasy work from Joe Abercrombie, set in his First Law universe. The First Law sequence is a seminal work within the modern fantasy genre, and one of the central works within the ‘grimdark’ subgenre. We haven’t had a new First Law novel for seven years (though the short story collection was ace), so expectation and anticipation have been high.

So, first question is it actually any good?

Oh my yes.

If you’re just here to see if Abercrombie dropped the ball, rest assured that he has not, that this is a book of fierce prose, framed by superlative worldbuilding and relatable, empathetic, detailed characterisation. Also there’s a fair bit of swearing, and more than a little blood. If you were already a fan, this one isn’t going to change your mind. Go and get a copy right now.

With that out of the way. This is the start of a new trilogy, albeit in the same world as the other First Law books. So, can you read it without having read any of the preceding books? Yes, I think so. Full disclosure, I have read all the preceding books, so I may be a little off, here. But while there are some lovely references, and extra layers of context and flavour to be gained from that larger background, they aren’t required for the story to make sense, nor for it to grip you by the throat until it’s done. You can read this on its own, and it’s still going to be a cracking story.

The world is as detailed as ever, and as vividly realised. Much of the action takes place in Angland, a rather cold, desolate place that has served as a somewhat dour battlefield between the forces of “civilisation”, fronted by the Empire of Adua, and the more rural, Viking-esque North, for several generations now. The peace is uneasy, as ever, and movers and shakers on both sides are ready to kick off and see what they can grab for themselves. The portrayal of a border region, laced through with the scars of old conflicts, is both affecting and effective. Old friends can become foes on the toss of a coin here, and people are struggling.

Part of that is because of progress. Because what cities Angland has, are experiencing a boom in productivity. They aren’t necessarily sharing that boo with all of their citizens, though. The aristocracy is getting very rich indeed, while doing the best it can to ignore the less fortunate now toiling away in mills and forges. Of course, it was ever thus – the world of the First Law isn’t known for being pleasant. But the widespread deprivation, the gradual boiling of social pressure, those are things that the reader can taste on the wind, even as characters wonder how to deal with it, or what might come next. One of the cities of Angland serves as a key location for much of the novel, and in its misery, its poverty, in its low expectations and lower returns, it is heart-piercing. Likewise its robber barons, in its governing class who serve the realm and serve themselves, feel strangely familiar. Even those who are doing as much as they feel they should are, looking down the scale, doing nowhere near enough. The frisson of class warfare simmers behind every interaction, behind every strike broken, behind every cold stare from a servant who knows exactly where the knives are kept.

This isn’t a story about a progressive society bringing peace and enlightenment to the masses. It’s a story of oppression, of rebellion, of revolution. Of the way in which a mob can turn on the hand which feeds it, the way order can be nothing more than institutionalised violence, and the way that disorder ca look surprisingly similar. It’s a story of a society on the cusp of something, trying to work out what, and making some very poor choices.

At the same time that Adua is trying to absorb these changes, and the rise of the noveau riche, there’s conflicts breaking out along the edge of the border with the North. Abercrombie’s always written beautifully crafted fight scenes, and these are no exception, both individually and en-masse. You can taste the adrenaline at the back of your throat, feel the fear the terror, the warm streak of piss running down a leg. It’s muddy, bloody, uncompromising work, which doesn’t flinch from the exhilaration of combat for some, but isn’t afraid to look at its aftereffects, at the price paid, and the ongoing costs. You may thrill to the surge of a cavalry charge, but cringe at the blood, at the screaming and the running, at the ambushes, at the way glory transmutes into a man trapped under a horse, begging for water. This isn’t a story about the glories of war, but about its realities, and about the people who live within it.

They, much like the urban-dwellers further into Angland, make some very poor choices.
I won’t dig too far into the characters, at least in part for spoiler reasons. But I will say this. Each of the cast has such a unique voice, There’s over a handful of viewpoint characters, and they each feel different, each feel like individuals Some of them feel like fairly unpleasant individuals, to be fair. But in their thoughts and feelings, in their reactions, in their internal monologues and external actions, you can see the faces, hearts and minds of real people. Scared people, often. Selfish? Absolutely. But not always. There are moments of hope, of humanity amongst utter madness, of joy and kindness. If the world is a dark place, and much of the time the folk in it aren’t especially nice, still, sometimes they have the capacity to surprise, the spark that draws in a breath at night.

Not all of them, of course. Some of them are right bastards.      
But that’s the thing. These aren’t people who are good, and bad, in an absolute way (well, mostly). They’re people pushed to the bring by the systems they inhabit, making the choices they think they have to. No monsters, no saints, just people. On that level, the characterisation is an absolute tour-de-force, as each of our protagonists is relatable, believable, each voice a unique note in the gathering storm.

So, you’ve got a world that lives and breathes, and characters whose fate you’ll care for, whose actions will have heart in mouth, and hands desperately flipping pages to see what happens next.
As to what happens next? As to the story they have to tell? It’s fabulous. A gradual interweaving of threads across multiple strands of narrative, each as sharp and compelling as the others. Tension is built expertly, so that each turn of the page is done on tenterhooks. The story works. It has broader themes it wants to talk about – the futility (or otherwise) of war, the benefits (or otherwise) of progress, the necessity (or otherwise) of governance – and more. It asks big questions, and takes some steps in letting the reader find their own answers. But it’s also a blood-pumping story of revenge and madness and blood and family and truth and chaos.

A Little Hatred is Abercrombie at his best, and it’s a book you ought to go and get a copy of, right now.

Wednesday, September 4, 2019

The House Of Sacrifice - Anna Smith Spark

The House Of Sacrifice is the conclusion of the Empires of Dust trilogy. And not to give the game away, but Anna Smith Spark can write a bloody good ending.  This volume contains all the things I loved about the first two books.  It has lyrical, soaring prose which manages to create poetry out of blood spatter. It has characters who do monstrous things, but also live and laugh and love within their own insecurities as much as anyone else. It has a world that sweeps from wet, cold islands and weed-raddled coastlines, through deserts drawn still with a merciless heat, to great cities, whose decay is matched only by their vitality. It has all these things, and from them is woven the sort of story which takes your hand and doesn’t let go – possibly because it just drove a knife into your chest.

So what makes it so good then?

Well, for one thing, the characterisation. Marith has been one of the core figures in this story from the beginning. Demon king, lover, conqueror, he mixes casual brutality and a penchant for offhand murder with a sense of fragility, a need for connection and compassion, and a deep love for his wife. In some ways, this story is as much a close study of Marith’s psyche as it is anything else. Reacting with or against his own demons is what drives him forward, is what moves him to the battles edged with slaughter in which he partakes, with the reader over his shoulder. As each friendship carries within it a betrayal, as each decision steps further into a self-referential whirl of recrimination and retaliation, Marith is never quite willing to let go. Of course it helps that he’s leading a host of killers, themselves driven by his imprecations and charisma. The armies of the demon king won’t let go, won’t back down. Have found freedom and release in carmine and carnage. As reflections of his will, they are a marvel. From moment to moment, they seem no better or worse than any of us – thinking about sending money home to their families, grousing about terrible food. But they’re also unrelenting professional killers. The text invites comparison, and lets us wonder, not if we can be anything more, but if we are already something less. Monsters are people too, yes. But also, people are monsters too.

And Marith isn’t alone. What can we say about Thalia, about a character whose appearance on the page can wrench the heart (and guts) on quite so many directions at once? Thalia is a survivor. Pulled away from horror, from a life of blindness and ritual sacrifice and death, she seems to love Marith deeply. But Thalia is also not a stupid person. She knows what he is, and what he’s done. But then, she’s done a fair few things herself. In her struggle for self determination and self actualisation, Thalia is quite willing to set the world on fire. I can’t blame her really. And for all that, she’s a joy to read. Driven, thoughtful, self-aware and complicated. Thalia thinks ahead when Marith is immersed in his own id. She knows her position, of wealth and luxury, of a life without fear, is built on the backs and blood of others. But she’s also not willing to give it up, to be hunted down and broken by vengeance, or by history. Thalia is inspirational, in some ways – someone who saw a way to take what they wanted, and seized it. Someone who genuinely lives within their own great love story. It’s a shame she also has a history of doing terrible things.

These two are at the heart of the story, but they’re not all of it. Orhan still sits in the decaying remains of Sorlost, nominally the greatest city in the world. His plans in disarray, Orhan is discovering both that everything can be lost, and what he may wbe willing to sacrifice to prevent it. And Sorlost – ah, alright, I always want to talk about Sorlost. This is a city with walls that are one winding ribbon of bronze, feet high. A city that nominally runs the greatest empire known to humanity – at least on paper. A city that has rested on its own laurels for so long that they’re starting to stink. But oh, when you see the energy behind it, in the soaring spires and in the dusty statue in the Court of Broken Knives…it feels like a living, breathing place. Riddled with corruption, of course. Ossified, yes. But still a humming metropolitan engine, which may surprise us all and shake of its torpor.As Marith marches on, laying waste to everything around him (sometimes more than once), Sorlost is always there – a jewelled band laced with thorns, waiting for a conqueror to seize it. Orhan embodies Sorlost, strives to save it, and in that struggle, gives room to let the reader feel both hope and tragedy.

Thankfully, there’s always Tobias. In a story which does give us a lot of grand themes, of armies on the march, of regal politics – even when those things are brought into the realm of the personal through blood and sex and death - , Tobias is the voice of the everyman. He’s feeling old, and tired, and not really willing to put up with anyone’s crap, What Tobias is, is good at staying alive. But he’s also a great mix of blunt and incisive, a professional who knows his work, and isn’t wiolling to take any guff from management, even when his work is killing people. Tobias grounds the story for me, helps keep it real, between the soaring dragons, the explosive, watercolour magic, and the death-metal romance of Marith and Thalia. Between all those things is Tobias, asking where the next meal is going to come from, and trying to avoid getting stabbed in the gut.

It’s this humanity, from everyone involved, that beats behind the ribs of the story. The sense that even awful, awful people are people, that they do what they can (or sometimes what they must), as much as anyone else. This is a story of terrible decisions, for sure, as much as it’s a story of shining spears, and blood painted on walls. But it’s also a story which is unflinching in letting you into who its characters are, and into the world they inhabit. That isn’t a comforting experience, but one which can sear the soul. Which may sound a bit dramatic. But this is a dramatic book, too. It’s prepared to let you revel in the chaos, the destruction, the nihilist drives that it dishes out – and then quietly points out the horrors that sit behind them. I was thinking about the end of The House Of Sacrifice for days afterwards, trying to decide what it had persuaded me to feel, and what I thought of it all. It’s a triumph of layered narrative – and if a lot of those layers are trauma, death, struggle, death, defeat, death , victory and, er, death…not all of them are. There’s hope among the embers, maybe, and if not 
that, then a sense of commonality, a sense of community – even if it is that of an army on the march, willing and eager to burn everything down.

So yeah. This is a great book. It will, as said previously, grab you and refuse to let go until it’s done. It has heart, and soul, and it has rather a lot of blood. It’s an unforgettable story, and one which ends on its own terms, and ends very well indeed.