Wednesday, October 30, 2019

Bloodchild - Anna Stephens

Bloodchild is the final part of the Godblind trilogy from Anna Stephens. We’ve reviewed the previous instalment here , and found both the first and second books to be fantastic works of fantasy.

So, if you’re here to read the final part of the trilogy, you’re probably wondering…does it measure up? Does it have brutally visceral action? Sudden reverses, betrayals, lives hanging on the turn of a word? Gods striding the lands of men? Relationships which are artfully drawn to feel immediate, personal, heartbreakingly human? Wonderfully crafted villains, who can be empathised with as people, even as they’re busy being awful people doing awful things?

Yes. Yes to all of that.

I could probably write a paean to the sheer mastery of craft on display in this narrative. The way the text is a crescendo of tension, each page turning the screw just that little bit more tightly. The way each of the characters, from your favourite (and I know we all have a favourite) hero to the most reviled villain get the closure both we and they deserve. The world, from ruined forts to occupied cities, from liminal spaces populated by the divine, to muddy, blood-soaked fields. There’s a diversity of environment, but not just that – each has the detail, the depth, the solidity that makes it feel real.

I think this is, if it wasn’t clear already, a very good book.

Well, some of you may be saying, tell me about the characters. Tell me that the one I like, lives, the one I don’t, dies. Tell me that the feels are still there, that these words on a page still make a wonderfully realised person.

Well, the second of those things is certainly true. I’ve said before how much I enjoy the villains of this piece. The way they do all sorts of terrible, terrible things (often lovingly, viciously described), but manage to make sense as more than two-bit caricatures. They’re lovingly spun from the stuff of nightmares – family men who commit atrocities, thoughtful, ambitious women who order those atrocities. They’re people, is the point. People like us, albeit at the horrific end of the spectrum. There are weird creatures here, true enough, gods and prophets, but the most terrible thing is the people, the way they’re shaped, the way they shape themselves; the viewpoint chapters for the villainous Mireces are fabulously horrifying. On the other hand, our protagonists are equally compelling. In many ways, each is paying the price from previous books. Be that in imprisonment, in slavery, in fear, in responsibility, in truth. But they also show off the best of people – in their courage, in their grit, in a determination to hold fast, to keep each other safe, to do the right thing, not the easy thing. To pay the price, if it needs paying.

Yes, these characters, in a world of gods and monsters, are the work of writing that scintillates darkly across the page, giving us heroes and villains, and sometimes both in the same person. This is top-notch writing, characterisation that makes you want to laugh and weep along with the people on the page.

I’m not going to tell you who lives and who dies though, that would be spoiling things. That said, it’s worth remembering that this is a lethal world, where no-one is entirely safe.

The story – well, you can see my emotional reaction above. I don’t want to get into detail But just to round things off. Yes, there is an end that meets the outstanding quality of the story so far. No, it did not disappoint. Yes, your heart will be in your mouth at points. Yes, it’s something of an emotional rollercoaster. Yes, the payoff is absolutely worth it, in each line, in each page, in a book which grabs hold and won’t let you go until it’s done.

Yes, this is a good book, a bloody book, and a bloody good book. It’s a fantastic conclusion to a brilliant trilogy, and I advise you to pick up a copy straight away.

Wednesday, October 23, 2019

Fall Or, Dodge In Hell - Neal Stephenson

Fall or, Dodge in Hell is the latest (rather awkwardly titled) novel from Neal Stephenson, who has a reputation for writing novels full of big ideas, laid out in interesting ways. If you’re new to Stephenson’s work, or you’re a long time reader coming in to see if this one’s worth taking a look at, let me see if I can help.

First of all, the answer is yes.


This is vintage Stephenson, in several senses.

First: It’s a book so thick you could probably use it to stun livestock. That’s somewhat ameliorated if you’re reading the ebook, but be aware, up front, that this one is a doorstop, and it’s probably going to require some time commitment.

Second: Yes, this involves some of the same characters as one of Stephenson’s previous works, Reamde. Arguably, they’re not the centrepiece of the text, which sprawls across geographies and generations with equal aplomb. But they’re there, and if you’ve read Reamde then there’s some nice callbacks and thematic notes for you. If you haven’t, don’t panic! The story works perfectly well as a standalone. Speaking of which: This is a story with two broad strands. 

The first of those is in what we’ll nominally call the real world, a near future not too many steps from our own.  Here, the narrative homes in on the idea of information flow. The United States is defined no longer by its geography, but by the types of information that its citizens imbibe, consuming their media with varying editorial slants, advances in technology allowing them to experience reality as they perceive it, rather than as it may actually be. Urban centres and core agricultural areas seem to be largely members of the “reality based community”; outside of these are lawless wastelands, people poisoned by memes, shaped by the ravings of the internet into warlords or shapeless wrecks of ideological polarisation. Stephenson, always a creator of masterful prose, manages to make this world seem real, its rural areas navigated by gun-laden pickups as plausible as the towering urban enclaves reached by self-driving cars that won’t go off the Interstate system into the potentially dangerous backwoods. It’s still a bit on the nose, honestly. Stephenson has looked at the power of ideas and ideology before, in the seminal Snow Crash, and expands on that here. How people shape themselves around an idea is explored, and the ways in which feedback allows people to change a concept even as it alters them, also.

This is a compelling, believable near-future, filled with plausible characters, whom it is easy to empathise and sympathise with. That includes, to an extent, even the less-than-heroic ones, those whose self interest and selfishness is at odds with the more egalitarian space most of the protagonists inhabit. But even those “baddies” if you will are so because they want to shape the future mindset of humanity, to take it out of the comfortable mould in which it has sat for so long, and give it the freedom to become something new. Of course, they do this, in part, by being terrible people. Both protagonists and their adversaries are vividly detailed, and feel like personalities rather than cutouts.
However, whilst this word is intricate and believable, the text is not satisfied. It shows us a world on the edge of some sort of informational meme-pocalypse, and then throws in something else entirely.


Well, something like it. The idea of scribing the patterns of the brain, and deploying them into a virtual world. In typical Stephenson style, this is lavishly and painstakingly described – both the process by which the events occur, and the world which the bodiless souls begin to inhabit. Parallels with Genesis are both inevitable and seemingly intentional; whether that’s a narrative device, or the subconscious shaping of now-virtual minds is left as an exercise for the reader. Still, as the near-future and the virtual world run in parallel, as each becomes accustomed to or even aware of the other, we find a rich and complex universe, where the big questions are at least being asked, and perhaps answered.

That fantasy world, that virtual space that is as real as the real, is the home for much of the latter half of the text, which feels more fantasy than science-fiction. For all that, it’s a living, breathing world, and one whose characters are firmly seated in their universe, and whole in themselves.
Stephenson has given us a playground here, a wide open world of infinite possibility, stocked with characters whose lives, in and out of the virtual, feel extremely real.

The plot…well, it’s something. It sprawls across the pages of the text, roots drilling down into subtext and metaphor, understanding sometimes easily present, at times obfuscated beyond the ken of the reader. It’s a dense read, and one which requires a bit of thought. At times, it seems too self involved, too far absorbed in its own cleverness. For all that, though, it has a story which grabs hold, which carries you across oceans and continents, and brooks no dismissal. It has a story which gives you people to care about, and I,, for one, did so. It’s a story where the stakes are never less than real, never less than personal – and that kept me turning the pages.

On that basis, it’s a deep, complex narrative, one rich in subtext, meaning and metaphor, one which asks the big questions, but also isn’t afraid of kicking arse and taking names when necessary. It’s one to approach when you have time for a tome, and space to absorb some overwrought ideas, but for all that, it’s a fascinating read.

Wednesday, October 16, 2019

The Quantum Garden - Derek Kunsken

The Quantum Garden is the second in Derek KΓΌnsken’s “Quantum Evolution” series. It explores the idea of transhumanism, as well as delving into moral quandary, both blended with some seriously snappy sci-fi action.

And yes, before you ask, it does it well. There’s so much to love here. The plot is pure high-concept sci-fi It involves, without spoilers, time travel, revolution, the salvation of a people, and some well observed, sharp-edged banter. It’s a story exploring big questions. It wants to talk about what it means to be human – or post human. Several of the characters are labouring under a legacy of hyper-focus, able to step outside themselves, and provide dispassionate estimations at the price of their own self dissolution. Others are trying to shape a nation in the face of fiercely antagonistic currents. Their efforts to make something worth approving of are at once visibly fragile, and fiercely energetic. Though there’s a tight focus on the central characters and their drivers, this is in service to the larger plot, and to the issues that the story delves into. The Quantum Garden isn’t a hesit, but it is wracked with tension and character-driven passion.

In some ways, this is also an optimistic story, It looks at the shape of societies driven by people who aren’t entirely, well, human. In most cases, those societies have managed to shape themselves decently, and are struggling to shape their destiny (rather than to shape anything). The idea that post-human people, despite their benefits and flaws, are still people, is a valuable one. Indeed, the text embraces those flaws in a lot of ways, exploring them in depth, and making no excuses. That said, it’s also unflinching in indicating the pervasive, invasive nature it espouses to corporate governance – the “shoot first, monetise later” mode. For all that, it will leave you with a warm feeling, a sense that the hypothetical kids are alright The pages of The Quantum Garden are filled with people in conflict, struggling to define themselves and to do the right thing. But that conflict is fiery, impassioned, compelling, and if some of the pdopkld making an argument seem better able than others, that may well be my own bias. Kunsken has given us a gloriously intelligent book, one unafraid to back away from the engagement it at once encourages and requires in its readers.

The universe of The Quantum Garden expands that of the previous book. Though we see less of the diversity I terms of humanity as in the previous book, still it’s possible to be enthralled by the strange and mysterious on display here. There are quiet moments between pages, when the fierce sense of the new strikes, when what you’re reading feels alone and thoroughly, oddly alien And that’s just the main characters.

This is also a character driven piece, delving into the psychology, the drives and motivations of a couple of central characters. In some ways, their viewpoints can be odd, unknowable. In other ways, disconcertingly immediate and human. The Quantum Garden gives us viewpoints which it’s easy to empathise and sympathise with, even as those views are in conflict with each other. That all presented views can be correct, that the ideological debates and practical consequences are valid and that they are felt, helps to give the story texture, a raw realism that keeps the pages turning.

I won’t get into the story, but it does have a lot going on. I had to think about this one as it went along – parsing moral choices, deciding which way I felt as characters struggled with ethical quandries But it also transported me from the immediate into the transcendental, with a universe familiar but unlike our own, where blaster fire ad quick wits can change the world.

In the end, this is a great story. It wants you to think, and to feel, to ask questions and hold the answers in your gut as well as in your head. It’s telling a story that grabs hold and won’t let go, and which asks interesting questions, and offers interesting answers. It’s all good stuff, really Give it a try.

Wednesday, October 9, 2019

Shield Of The People - Marshall Ryan Maresca

Marshall Ryan Maresca has brought us back to Maradaine with Shield Of The People. The city is the focal point for the various sub-series in his Maradaine saga, and each new entry has put a little more flesh onto the bones of the city, whist also being an absolutely cracking adventure. I’m happy to report that this is still the case. Shield of the People couples the deep, immersive worldbuilding I’ve come to expect from Maradaine books, with some whip-smart characterisation, and the sort of fast-paced action and snappy dialogue that’ll keep you turning pages long after nightfall.

This time we follow Dane, one of the leading lights of Maradaine’s Tarian order. The Tarians are a historical remnant, chivalric knights in a city coming to terms with an urban police force and standing armies. But they hold to chivalric virtues; loyalty, honour, protection of the weak. Dane is an unabashed narrative hero, a nice guy who kicks arse in the name of good causes and is always trying his best not to have to hurt anyone. I’ve got a lot of time for Dane, a character whose heroism is obvious to the reader (and indeed, everyone who isn’t Dane), but to which Dane himself is oblivious. His insecurities help define Dane as much as his exceptional actions; his struggle for perfection is wrapped in a fear of failure, a fear of not being good enough, and the costs being borne by others. Dane is also, to my reading, a man uncomfortable in the spotlight, especially as it’s been thrust upon him. We get to see more of that here, as he struggles to define a role for himself, in a city which wants him (and indeed the other Tarians) as a symbol, but isn’t entirely sure what to do with him otherwise. This search for purpose, wrapped in calls to action and in demanding success of himself, helps drive Dane toward feats of heroism. He is, as I say, a nice guy, and a genuine pleasure to read as he struggles with both abject villainy and, er, crowds.

In this he’s ably assisted by a marvellous supporting cast. Maresca has always had a knack of bringing even minor characters to life, and the magic is very much present here. Jerinne, for example. Jerinne is Dane’s right hand, a junior Tarian, and one with rather more of a tendency to make quick decisions and sort out any regrets later. She’s no less driven to succeed than Dane, a smart, successful young woman trying to put her mark on the world (and do the right thing). Her banter back and forth with Dane is a delight, and her clarity and sense of purpose  combine with intelligent, well-thought out dialogue in a unique voice to make her moments in the narrative thoroughly enjoyable.  I’m only skimming the surface here – the story is full of interesting people. They always seem like people, not one-note characters, and that helps keep Maradaine feeling alive.

Which it does. This time the focus is on upcoming elections, so we can see a city whose mood is becoming increasingly febrile as it waits to see who will be in charge and why. The neighbourhoods that the Tarians take us through all have their distinct flavours, and the struggles within them – for political recognition, for equal rights for women, or even for secession – carry the grounded weight of reality. These are living, breathing places with real problems and genuine conflict, not just backdrops for our heroes to strut upon. The neighbourhoods of Maradaine are all the better for their depth and the context they provide to the characters – each reinforcing the strenghth of the other.

As usual, I won’t delve into the story here. But there’s some wonderfully byzantine plotting, with crosses and double-crosses that elicited more than one gasp of surprise. It’s backed by some wonderfully drawn villains, some of whom are cloaked in more than a little mystery. And, of course, there’s more than a little running, jumping, swordfights, last-minute rescues, desperate chases, and so on. 

If you’ve not read anything in the series before, it might be wise to go back to at least the start of this series for context – but overall I think this book still works as a standalone. That said if you’re a returning reader, this trip to Maradaine really is a fantastic adventure. It has the top-notch characterisation and complex, believable world we’ve come to know and love, backed up by a strongly realised and compelling narrative. Go get it – you won’t regret it.

Saturday, October 5, 2019

David Wragg - The Black Hawks - Interview


Good news, everyone! As a bonus for the start of an autumnal weekend, we've got an interview with David Wragg, whose excellent debut fantasy, The Black Hawks, we reviewed a few days ago. The book itself is great fun - a fast-paced fantasy adventure filled with memorable villains, amoral 'heroes' and razor-sharp dialogue. So we got Mr. Wragg in to tell us more about it:

     Could you tell us a little bit about yourself?  What would you like readers to know about the writer behind The Black Hawks?
Hello! I am a large, white middle-aged English man, once described by a colleague as “seven foot of irreverence”. I am, in fact, only six foot six. I am married, with cats and children.

2       How did you get into writing? Is it something you’ve always wanted to do, or is it something of a new path for you?
I grew up reading huge amounts of genre fiction, and some of it was so trashy that I became convinced I could do better. I held on to this thought right up until I actually tried. Still, I kept plugging away, and the Black Hawks is the result.

3      Given the proliferation of sub-genres within SF&F currently (grimdark, hopepunk et al.), how would you describe the genre of your own work?
Good question. I’m far too squeamish for proper grimdark, but drama without peril is as untethered to reality as drama without humour, so I think I probably end up somewhere in the middle. I’m certainly not writing comedy – the books are serious, even if the characters aren’t always. Ed McDonald coined it as “WitPunk”, and I’m rather taken with that.

       On a related note, what draws you to work within that genre?
Fantasy has an abiding appeal to me: it’s the ultimate blank slate. You can create situations – moments or quandaries – unconstrained by superfluous concerns. You can create millennia of histories, or complex and devious magic systems, or just be all about the specifics of a plot – whatever you need to tell your story. I deliberately took a very pure, very classic setting for the Black Hawks because I wanted it to be immediately familiar to readers – when you’re not trying to work out the kinks of the world, you can be carried along by a quicker plot. And all the better to start messing with convention from there.

It could have been space opera, I suppose, but then I’d have needed to worry about airlocks.

         How long would you say it’s taken you to write The Black Hawks? And what was the hardest part about writing it?
The original idea dates back to 2009, possibly to a dream I had after one sherry too many. I only started planning it in late 2014, wrote the first draft the following year, then took 2016 to plan and write the sequel (I wanted to see how it ended). After another year of revisions, I queried in 2018 then enjoyed another 9 months of edits and proofing on the way to publication. So somewhere between one and ten years, depending on how you care to measure…

The opening remains the hardest part: it’s the oldest in terms of the idea and plot architecture, and the first bit I wrote. It’s been much revised, but much of what follows is dependent on it, precluding more radical approaches.

6      The Black Hawks follows a mercenary band of oddballs and troublemakers as they travel the breadth of the land, trying to get paid. What made that concept leap out at you? What made you want to write about this crew?
As I mentioned, I have a deep and respectful love for classic quest fantasy, and I wanted to do something in that mould. I’m also innately contrarian, so decided to write the Fellowship of the Ring from the perspective of the least heroic people imaginable – a group of struggling freelancers, just trying to make a living. A lot of what does (and doesn’t) happen in the book is a result of setting out to tweak the tropes and traditions of classic fantasy.

As for why them: I’ve had a pretty long and varied career in my day job, working on variety of projects with a variety of people. You can choose your friends, but you can rarely choose your colleagues, so you tend to stick by the ones you like the most. I thought that was a concept that deserved illustration.

       As a follow up: each member of The Black hawks is vividly realised and memorable; would you say that you have a favourite from the band? Or the reverse?
Each of them is, on some level, me, which is a deeply disturbing thought. That said, while you’d have to be a godless savage not to love Lemon, I do have a soft spot for Foss. I bet he gives amazing hugs.

       The world of The Black Hawks is a complex and intriguing; could you tell us a little about how you built it? Was there any historical (or otherwise) reference or inspiration for the shaping of its history?
Like, I suspect, a lot of fantasy writers, I’m a big fan of history. When it came to the setting, despite aiming for a classic quest fantasy feel, I wanted to do something a little different (did I mention that I’m a contrarian?). The land is in the southern hemisphere, set in an equivalent mid-13th century Eurasia probably closest in geography to the Caucasus.  The setting is very specific (although most readers may not notice, which is fine by me!). There’s no magic, but there is Technology, and as the residents of the kingdom in question are about to find out, it’s not been standing still.

9      As The Black Hawks is the start of a new series for you – how many books do you think will be in it?
Given the standard unit of fantasy is the trilogy, the Articles of Faith series will be two books long (see previous note re contrarianism etc and so on).

1   On a more personal note: as reader, what type of book do you enjoy? What are you reading right now?
I’m currently (still!) reading the Lies of Locke Lamora, which has been on my TBR for over a decade. I keep reading other things in the middle - a mixture of research and genre-typical books, depending on what I'm writing. My personal taste is books with a sense of humour - not necessarily joke-packed, but at least acknowledging the absurdity of existence. You've got to laugh, right?

1   On process: Some authors plan their novels in great detail before setting pen to paper; others seem to take a more seat-of-the pants approach. How would you describe yourself on that continuum?
Lots of planning. LOTS. Detailed outline, the occasional character sketch, reams of world-building notes, mood boards, family trees and timelines, swathes of dialogue for pivotal scenes written months in advance.

…Then I leave most of it out, and cheerfully deviate from the outline as I write, according to what actually fits better with the story as it develops. Past Me would be furious if he knew.

1   Have you found the rise of social media has had any impact on you as an author?
I don't think I'd have a grounded understanding of publishing without Twitter, and concomitantly a writing career. I first tried writing in 2011, wrote a thing, then had no idea what to do with it. Eventually I shelved it as I learned more about writing as a craft from following writers, and publishing as an industry from following everyone else. When it came to starting the Black Hawks (a couple of years later), I had a much clearer idea of what I needed to do, as well as story structure, characterisation etc. I still held off querying it for another 3 years, so possibly I was a bit too pessimistic.

On the bright side, I now know about the editing process, the writer's influence on things like cover and title (none), and my expectations as a debut are, I hope, pretty reasonable. The absolute best thing about Twitter now is hearing that people have enjoyed the book - it tickles my shrivelled black heart and makes me very glad indeed.

Obviously, the rest of the time it's an absolute sewer, but I think overall it's been a positive for me!

1   Finally, I know The Black Hawks has just come out, but could you let us know what’s next for you?
Book 2 is now with my editor, and the next year will be spent converting what I sent her into something fit to publish. In the meantime, I'm working on a standalone follow-up, set in the same world, which should have something of a Wild West/Fury Road feel to it. We'll see.

Thank you for having me!

Wednesday, October 2, 2019

The Black Hawks - David Wragg

The Black Hawks is a debut fantasy novel (and start of a series) from David Wragg (who we'll be interviewing tomorrow!). It follows the titular crew of smart-mouthed mercenaries as they try and survive, and even make a little money, in a world which seems determined to get the better of them.

The protagonist is Chel, a young man from a noble family, who dreams of doing something more exciting with his life. It’s true that being a hanger-on to an uncle who seems to be some sort of minor court functionary is a little dull, but lets just say that Chel’s life is about to get more exciting than he might like. Still, Chel is an absolutely cracking protagonist. That’s helped by the sense of voice deployed throughout the book. Chel has a naivete of sorts; his lack of experience outside of a bubble of privilege is clear from the beginning, though it becomes sharper over time. In a sense, this is a coming-of-age tale. Watching Chel cast aside his preconceptions of life as it should be, and instead pick up the raiment’s of life as he finds it is at once empowering and saddening. If Chel isn’t a stereotypical hero, though, or a chosen one on a grand quest, still, he’s easy to empathise and sympathise with. An everyman, cast onto the winds of fate, trying to figure out what to do with himself in unusual and potentially shark-infested waters. Chel is, to continue the theme, a fish out of water, struggling to understand exactly what’s going on, and what compromises may be asked of him as he finds himself working with a band of mercenaries to save both himself and the kingdom.

In this he’s assisted by a thoroughly enjoyable supporting cast, most notably the members of the Black Hawks. These are mercenaries, willing to do just about anything to get paid, and with fewer moal scruples about who does the paying than Chel might hope. Each has depth and a sense of personality. These aren’t traits masquerading as characters to tell Chel’s story, but living, breathing, bleeding people. They’re in the Black Hawks for their own reasons, and if it’s because they’re hurt, or mad, or dangerous, so be it. They have a capacity for teamwork, for kicking arse and taking names, that makes every page with the squad on it a delight to read. Their relations with each other are cleary complex, an undercurrent beneath the fast-paced adventure that sits in the foreround. I was delighted by the wit and banter between them, especially juxtaposed with their casually grey morality and penchant for solving problems with  sword to the head.

If Chel is the heart of the book, the rest of the company are the soul, in the way they interact with each other and with Chel. They’re fighting and dying for each other and, of course, for the money. But the ties that live in the history of this band of malcontents are there, twining around each member of the ensemble even as they begin wrapping themselves around Chel. This is a coming of age story, for Chel, but also a story of family, or at least, found family – albeit a family that spends its days outrunning bands of hired thus, and doing less than entirely legal jobs for hard cash.

The plot begins with a surprise attack, and it doesn’t really ramp down the adrenaline from there. Because while this is a coming of age story, and a family story, it’s also an adventure story, as Chel and the gang try to fight their way out of a hornets nest they’ve walked into. There’s a few surprises tucked away in a well-crafted narrative, one which doesn’t pull punches, and isn’t averse to sneaking something up on you when you least expect it. That said, the story is occurring in a world I want to see more of. We’ve got icebound tribes and deep snows; nobility-packed ocean castles, and a church filled with overweening ambition. It would be great to look at these systems a little more closely, and I look forward to seeing more of the world in the forthcoming sequel. What’s there is compellingly drawn stuff, and certainly provides a wonderful backdrop for a story which hums along wonderfully

This one’s a lot of fun, folks. The Black Hawks keep you turning pages to see what happens next. It’ll keep you turning pages to see how Chel gets out of his latest jam, or if he’s managed to get the hang of the group yet. It’ll keep you turning pages for the often carmine, fast-paced action sequences. It’ll keep you turning pages, in the end, because it’s a damn good story – and that’s why you should give it a try.