Wednesday, November 27, 2019

Gamechanger - L.X. Beckett

Gamechanger is the debut novel of L.X. Beckett. It focuses on Rubi Whiting, some time professional gamer, part-time lawyer, as she investigates events around one of her clients, the mysterious and troubled Luce, in a world that is pulling back from the bring of ecological catastrophe.
If you’ve not got the time to read any more, and want to know whether the story is any good: yes! It’s an interesting narrative, wrapped in a detailed, plausible, compelling world, with some character’s it’s easy to enjoy spending time with – and some it’s equally easy to dislike. If innovative, near-future SF is your jam, this one is made for you.

Lets talk about that world, by the by. It’s ours, lets start there. Well, it used to be. Today, we’re living the early stages of one of the great crises that shaped the world of Gamechanger, the ominously named Setback. Alluded to, picked up from environmental clues, from reminiscences of characters who were young in the middle years of the Setback, we can infer it was a mixture of economic downturn and climate catastrophe, turned up to eleven. Flooding destroyed cities. Wildfires razed forests. Ecosystems collapsed. Thousands, then millions, starved. Billionaires locked themselves in fortresses, and were torn apart by howling mobs.

The Setback was followed by the Clawback, as surviving governments, power-brokers and ordinary people came together in a last-ditch effort to build a sustainable global society. There was rationing. Mass graves. Brutal violations of civil rights.

Gamechanger, however, sits squarely within the Bounceback. After a generation of chaos, horror and catastrophe, humanity is getting its feet under it again. To do so, however it operates in a society that is at once familiar and alien. It’s dependent on co-operation, dependent on group sharing of resources, dependent on high-tech solutions, dependent on everyone being almost constantly surveilled, and under the aegis of a social-capital currency.

That’s the short version. But what I want to talk about (and what my inadequate summary above may demonstrate) is how cohesive and richly realised this society is. It’s not just modernity with some paint-by-numbers cyberware. The social fabric makes sense on its own terms. The space the story operates in is cogent, coherent, and showing us something different. To me, at least, it blended elements of utopia and dystopia, building a richly complex stew of social mores as a result. The death of most individual property, the provision of a universal basic income – sure. The replacement of staples with things that can be stimulated to taste like those staples? Sure. The loss of pets? Now we’re hitting a nerve. The constant monitoring of each person allows for a society that dealing simultaneously with being informationally post-scarcity but in a resource-scarce environment. But having each person subject to social consensus is a double-edged sword.
What this ends up meaning is, the world on display here has wounds, and scars. Though it’s being built back up, it has the sense of becoming something new – and at once terrifying and awe inspiring. That said, it’s a hopeful vision of the world, once where people are doing better, at least most of the time, and that’s a treasure.

In part, that’s helped by technology.

This is a space filled with subdermal implants. With AI programmes which simulate intelligence, and curate your experience. In short, it’s a plausible, albeit worrying, extrapolation of our future. The sense that the real can be removed, that scrubbing a toilet with a drone is masked and gamified, is at once believable and disquieting. That the goals these tasks purpose are positive ones does help shape our perceptions of this future, but still.

The broader point here is that this is a richly described, finely crafted world. It makes sense on its own terms, and as it skips between the virtual and the “real”, as it moves from city to city, from rain-drenched streets to virtual palaces, it works hard to make all of those places seem real. It’s a world that will draw you in, a world that feels real.

 On this well-crafted stage step our players. And to their credit, they’re an interesting lot.
Rubi Whiting is probably the closest thing to a protagonist, though we do switch between point of view characters every so often. In a world where permanent jobs are a rarity, Rubi is famous for having played virtual games very well indeed (requiring the training of a professional athlete as well as the reflexes of a gamer). But now she’s taking her first client as a lawyer and that client is…to put it mildly, a bit strange. Getting back to Rubi though, she’s a pleasure to share a book with. Professional, focused, genuinely trying to do her best for people, and not overly willing to take any crap to do so. She is, not to put too fine a point on it, fierce. Rubi is a fine window into her world, taking things in stride as we try to catch up on how things work they way they do, and why. She’s sympathetic and complicated. There are feelings there of inadequacy, imposter syndrome – but also of love and loyalty, a genuine idealism, a desire to make things better. Rubi is a very human hero. Flawed, yes, but still working to do the right thing, for the right reasons. That she’s smart, sassy and kicks occasional arse only makes her more of a joy to see on the page.

In this she’s joined by her father, one of the survivors of the Setback, now an old man, whose personal demons make it difficult for him to maintain the social cachet that his talents demand. Troubled, yes, but he’s still a person of honesty and integrity. Contrasting his weary cynicism and determination to do better with Rubi’s enthusiastic idealism makes for an interesting read. Both approach things from a calm moral centre, but have very different perspectives.

They’re joined by a pitch-perfect ensemble cast, including the detective who takes themselves a little too seriously, wrapped up in their own image and ego, investigating Rubi’s client, Luce. Luce’s oddities are obvious, and quite who he is may not be immediately clear. But they’re certainly a compelling presence, an unplanned variable in a system which is struggling to get back to self-maintenance. There are others, a diverse cast of smart, well-drawn characters, whose lives and loves, arguments, victories and defeats will be enough to keep you turning the page. I do want to mention that the villains of the piece are artfully, unpleasantly awful – they have fewer shades of grey, I suspect, than they deserve, but then again, it’s nice when a baddy is so deliciously bad.

Anyway. This is a complicated book. It’s a mystery, on the one hand. On the other, it’s a romance. On the gripping hand, it’s exploring a lot of big science-ficition themes: transhumanism, the rise of artificial intelligence, virtualities, sifting economic and social models. It’s a big book with big ideas, which it explores through some fantastically readable characters, in a vivid and richly detailed world.

It’s absolutely worth the read, and I look forward to seeing more from the author!

Wednesday, November 20, 2019

Dispel Illusion - Mark Lawrence

Dispel Illusion is the final part of Mark Lawrence’s Impossible Times trilogy. The first two books were firm favourites around here, and I’ve been a massive fan of Mark’s work since forever, so anticipation and expectation were high for this conclusion to a cracking series.

I can’t imagine it’ll surprise anyone here if I say that my expectations were met, and the anticipation was well deserved. This volume wraps up the story with skill and care, delivering the characters an ending they deserve, and one that makes for a very satisfying read.

This is a story of time travel, sure enough. Where the previous entries were across the eighties and nineties, while they kept us alive with nostalgia – today’s entries are the 90’s. the 2000’s. That includes the taboo era of the 2010’s, until this case obfuscated due to character goals. I suppose the thing I want to say here is. Each of the eras in this text feels real. Of an age with Nick, the protagonist, I could feel trends just settling out of view. I could feel a world starting to feel more open, more accepting. The zeitgeist is captured in the text, and in its capture lies the crackling energy of inspiration.

This is a story of cultural nostalgia, right enough. Of remembering the shibboleth, of remembering how to get into an empty ground in the middle of the night for a rave. This is a story with historicity and modernity twined throughout/ You’ll not subsist on nostalgia – but fair enough, the nineties and 2000’s were an era apart, one not quite within the modern, but one where the reader might be asked to understand. It’s a liminal space, and that’s a benefit here, for the reader looking back. The world is in flux as much as the characters are.

And so here we are. With Nick, the voice, the face of the stories up until now. Nick is principled, thoughtful, dangerous,. An individual fighting against the course f time, even as he’s shaped by it. I’ve got a lot of time for Nick. Despite his unique position, a genius driving temporal change, the immediacy and emotional reactions have a visceral immediacy to them which make the feel real. We get a variety of views on Nick, travelling between decades with an ease which puts the TARDIs to shame. He is at once recognisably similar, and very different, with each leap between the pages. That has to have been difficult to arrange, and I want to highlight the craft involved. Nick is at once the gangly teenager we know and love, a more focused professional in the throes of an early career, and someone lurking, exhausted, in middle age.

That each of those views feels familiar between chapters, whilst also being individually distinguished is, frankly, a triumph of the craft.

The world is ours. Well, mostly ours. I think there may be a few readers young enough that the 1990’s and early 2000’s are a mystery. To you I say: this is how we lived. Take my word for it. The awkwardness. The careful consideration of those nearby in your judgments. The records turning into CD’s. This is a world in transition, as much as the protagonist is, a world trying to shape itself under pressure, a world trying to make the unfamiliar familiar. Here we sit, reading it, and the flashbacks are real – to the top ten, to HMV, to not being able to use your mobile to answer a call. To so much more. This is a well realised, vividly created world, one that you can feel in your bones.

The same is true o the characters, mind you Nick and Simon and all of the others. Each has the authenticity that speaks of experience It hurts, it hurts to read in a lot of ways. To go back and live in spaces which had no room for these people For their lived experience. But for all that, each of them is a person, fighting to leave their own shape in the world, trying to make things different. The strength of character is there. It’s enough to make you turn the pages, to see where Nick and the gang are going next. They’re playing less D&D than they used to, but at the same time, they feel  as real in their concerns as ever they did. It’s a quiet desperation here in the cast, a team reaching out to something just beyond reach, wrapped in the issues that, as younger folks, they dismissed.
In any event, this is a story which knows how to treat its characters; with respect and with a sense of authenticity and truth. Even the villains, vile as they are, are not unfamiliar – these are people who are real, or were, to some of the leadership.

The story is one that wraps so much in its sense of tension and of prophecy unrevealed. Do we know what occurs, a modern Cassandra? Or not? This is truth. The story moves from time to time, from antagonist to protagonist, and what happens is unsure all the way between the pages. It’s got a conclusion though, one that kicks like a mule. If you’re at wondering if you want to see where this goes, then yes.

If you want to see whether this is worth your time, then yes.

If you want to know if you should finish the series, then yes

If you want to know if this will make you cry and laugh and feel, and see someone trying to be the best version of themselves, and move you to try and be that version of yourself…then yes.

It’s a great finale to a great series, and wholeheartedly recommended.

Wednesday, November 13, 2019

Carved from Stone and Dream - T. Frohock

Carved from Stone and Dream is the fifth entry and the second full length novel in T. Frohock’s Los Nefilim universe. I’ve been a fan of Frohock’s work for ages, and have found the Los Nefilim series to be an absolute gem, filled with relatable characters with complex, believable relationships, within a vividly realised slice of history. So I was quite excited to get my hands on this one, albeit a little worried it wouldn’t live up to my expectations.

Fortunately, it met and exceeded them instead.

The story is set in the aftermath of the Spanish Civil War, as broken Republican forces and lines of non-combatant fall back toward France. And in France, we find our Nephilim. They’re the offspring of angels (or demons), individuals able to harness the power of the infernal and the divine to shape the mortal world. They feud and politick as much as anyone else, or perhaps more. It’s possible to see the Nephilim as a stand against a darkness most of us don’t know exists – though equally, one can argue that some of them are as much a part of that darkness as any angel, fallen or otherwise. In any event, the Nephilim and their struggles are deeply embedded in this world, influencing and influenced by its events.

Frohock has always been fantastic at worldbuilding, and that hasn’t changed here. The refugee camps for those on the road to Paris are believably appalling. Starving refugees crammed cheek-by-jowl. Turning on each other, turning on themselves, walking out into the sea on the border coast, leaving their worldly goods behind. This is the harrowing aftermath of appalling conflict, brought to life and brought home to the reader. The camps are real. The simmering tensions in the aftermath fo the conflict are real. The atrocities are real. You can turn the page with these people, feel the surf against your legs, look across the sand at weary, broken people trying to find a new home, a new life away from madness and the horror of war. This is a text which is unafraid to evocatively portray the spectre of war, and its consequences. It does so with haunting effectiveness.
Time is also spent in France, in a Paris not yet at war. The atmosphere is febrile, the air taut with truth unspoken. There is a certain joi de vivre though, standing in stark contrast to the horrors of the refugees. Still, even Paris is not a safe place; gangs are paid off, crimes committed, oaths taken. Sections of pre-war Paris are here drawn with an exacting precision, and the lush, evocative prose helps to bring Paris darkly to life. This is the post-war world, and if our characters are important to us, and to their own story, there are factions and factors seething away in the background which may yet change everything.

The other core component of the story is the characters. I want to give particular space to Diago and Rafael, whose relationship has formed the backbone of the series. It’s at the core of the story here, as well. Separated in the swift tides of conflict, their search for each other is fraught, and the emotions that are drawn forth are genuine, valid, and powerful. The way that both men lean on each other, trust each other, know they can depend on each other is a tonic. That they also have their own vices, their own struggles, that just makes them more real. This is their life, their romance, their relationship. The fear and dread of possible loss is there, but also the casual affection, the longing, the comfortable silences. These are men who complete each other, and the depicition of their love on the page continues to be beautifully, truthfully realised.

There are other types of relationship here of course. This is a story which wants to talk about family as much as it wants to talk about friendship, romance, or enmity. Watching Rafael and Diago trying to raise a son has always been as delightful as it is painful. Mistakes are made on all sides, but the struggle, the fact that everyone involved is trying, continues to be a delight, and gives their struggle both weight and emotional impact. Incidentally, it’s an absolute joy to follow their son through these pages, each instalment of the story bringing him a little closer to his family, and pushing him a little further away at the same time. In any event, this is a story which is thinking hard about families, about what ties them together and about what breaks those ties. It feels honest, raw, real. You can stand beside these men as they dig into the depths of their being, struggling to articulate their own truths – and that is both uplifting and humbling. It’s wonderfully done.

Oh, and there’s a story too. Did  I not mention that? Well, I won’t get into the details, because, of course, spoilers. But there’s a lot that goes on here, in a vibrant world, filled with characters who seem almost too real for the page. There’s betrayal, for sure There’s setbacks, and hurt. There’s blood and tears. But also close friendship, heroism, triumphs against all the odds. There’s secret plots, acts of terrible villainy, shocking revelations, and heart-wrenching heroism. There’s fast-paced action, beautifully crafted magic, and consequences which will grab hold of you and keep the pages turning long into the night.

Should you read this? Yes, yes, I think you should.

Wednesday, November 6, 2019

The Unspoken Name - A.K. Larkwood

I’m not sure where to start with The Unspoken Name, a fantastic fantasy novel from A.K. Larkwood. It has so many facets, it’s difficult to decide which one to speak about first.

So, lets start here: This is a bloody good book. It has artfully crafted, believable characters. It has relationships which feel real. Fraught, sweet, complicated, unpleasant, all of the above – but real. It has a vividly imagined world which blends the strange and the familiar in order to make something new, something that evokes the thrill of discovery as much as it does a justified fear of the unknown. It has a story laced through with hooks, which will bite in as you turn a page, and then capture your attention so that you’re unwilling to put the book down.

That isn’t entirely hyperbole. At one stage, while making dinner, I was sufficiently distracted reading this that the smoke alarms went off. This is a story which will grab on and not let go, a story which has teeth, but also has a lot of heart.

It is, as I already said, a bloody good book.

Part of the reason it’s such a good book is the characters, their interactions, their relationships. The central character is Csorwe. Csorwe has both a difficult to pronounce name, and other sterling qualities. For one thing, she is a sacrifice. Or was. As the story begins, she makes a choice, decides to live her life rather than the one mapped out for her in advance. A short lifetime in service to a very real, very hungry god is put aside rather rapidly, as she takes up with an enigmatic sorcerer who, of course, has an agenda all his own. Their relationship is an odd one; Csorwe seems to see him as a saviour, perhaps as a surrogate parent, and as an authority figure. She is a tool, a willing one in his hand. As Csorwe grows, she learns what might be called a particular set of skills – survival, assassination, swordplay. But even while she sees her rescuer through the eyes of the saved, we can see distance and, if not cruelty, then detachment. This plays out against the backdrop of Csorwe’s desire to live up to her patron’s expectations, and it’s a wonderful portrayal of a woman trying to understand herself.

That isn’t all, though. Csorwe has other influences. I’m particularly fond of Csoranna, the librarian of the cult whom Csorwe escaped. Csoranna is driven, powerful, and moral by her own lights, which given she serves a god of entropy, may not be entirely in accord with the rest of us. But she’s a woman like Cosrwe, who is unwilling to accept the path laid out for her, and whose refusal to do so has shaped her into something new. That her incisive, occasionally lethal presence always seizes the audience when she appears is a bonus.

There’s no shortage of characters for whom that’s the case though. Shuthmili is another. A young woman whose magical power is titanic, sheltered by her people in an effort to keep her safe. The parallels with Csorwe’s life are clear, though neither appears to articulate them. Shuthmili has a curious vulnerability, which lurks behind a cool academic fa├žade. Still, her time with Csorwe aches with unrealised passions, simmering beneath the surface for them both. It’s excruciatingly cute, and highly entertaining. There’s a whiff of regency romance in the air, if Austen had had relationships where one party could fight off a horde of enemies, and the other could set fire to a city. There’s a sweetness to it, a headiness of youthful romance, tempered with the expectation of death – or at least, the end of life.  They’re living, or trying to live, within the bounds that society expects, whilst also trying to break free, to be greater than the expectations put upon them.

That’s all an absolute joy. The interaction between them, as well as their supporting cast of enemies, frenemies, generals, gods and monsters, is a wonder. It really does feel genuinely emotive and emotional. These are real people, struggling to shape their own lives, whilst also, say, evading the winding coils of a serpent deity.

Speaking of which, a moment to talk about the world. This is a universe of broken gods, which simmer and brood under mountains, or channel their power through sorcerors in glass towers. We see settings as diverse as bustling market towns, the citadels of kings, magical spires, and worlds whose life has been sapped from them, worlds gradually falling into entropy, buried under a mystical…er..mist, which enshrouds dying worlds until they vanish entirely. Travelling between locales is done through shimmering portals, bridges between cultures and contexts. Flying ships skip through the air, moving between worlds at a stroke – powered by the life force of the magicians who navigate them. This is a universe already old, with a history that has seeped through every pore. It’s a beautiful, horrifying, intriguing place, and one I’d like to see more of.

That applies to the people that populate it too; I look forward to more adventures with this crew, even if (especially if) I’m never entirely sure who is on the right side at any given moment. I want to see more of Csorwe, her friends, and her enemies. They’re always fascinating to read, and the story, the story is one of romance, of love across a divide. Of magic that can shatter everything, or build something. Of friendships that sour, and enmities which may not be as absolute as they seem. It’s a story of people defying the known path, a story of those people having the courage to reach out, shape things around them, and make their own lives.

In short, it’s a bloody good story.

Read it!