Tuesday, December 15, 2020

Back in 2021

 It’s been a heck of a year. We’re taking a few weeks off, and will see you all after the Christmas/New Year season has passed.

If you’re celebrating Christmas, or if you’re not: have a lovely few weeks. Be excellent to each other. It’s been a tough one all around. Let’s all be the good people we want to have around us.

Tuesday, December 8, 2020

Hollow Empire - Sam Hawke


Hollow Empire is the follow up to Sam Hawke’s excellent City of Lies. And, not to give the game away, but it has all the cool stuff that made me like that book so much, but also manages to bring in a whole bunch of new cool stuff, to make it better. 

Yes, I’m gushing a bit. But you know what, this book is worth it. It’s focused on politics, on reading people, on small scale actions. On poisonings and looking for the twitch at the corner of someone's eye that says they know more than they’re telling. On struggling within political institutions, and redefining those institutions. On the conflict between the rural and the urban, and on assassinations in the dark. On what people will do when they limit themselves, and what they can do when they refuse to accept those limitations. And, as ever, on the cost of past secrets in the future.

It’s...well, it’s a big book, alright? And there is just so, so much going on. It’s one part political thriller, one part epic fantasy, one part family drama, all parts awesome.

The story opens shortly after City of Lies, and once again centres on Kalina and Jovan. Siblings, one a diplomat and consummate politician, one a proofer, secret protector of the Chancellor from poisons, they form the heart of the book. Their relationship is warm, loving, and occasionally fraught. They work hard at being more one with each other, but secrets move behind everyones eyes. They love each other deeply, and that affection is visible and convincing on the page. Its a relationship of shared history, some of it filled with poison and blades in the dark. The banter is as witty and charming as ever, and both of them, in their interleaved viewpoint chapters, serve as smart, incisive commentators on each other. They’re a wonderful pair really, given agency and intelligence to see the threats before them, and working through them with skill and talent - even as they struggle to uncover the mysteries around them, the reader is walking beside them, knowing what they know, struggling to piece things together, as they do, before it is too late. 

Incidentally, I want to talk about voice. Both Kalina and Jovan have utterly unique styles of thinking, and of talking. The prose given to each is distinct, memorable, and helps shape our view of each of them, and the world they inhabit. Even though they can be in the same room as each other, their perspectives, their lived experiences, can be very different, and that comes out clearly in the text. Both of them read like individuals. Kalina is fierce, ambitious, hopeful, and has a determination borne of injury and a struggle with long term illness - a topic, incidentally, which was approached sympathetically and with deft hands in City of Lies, and continues to be so here. Kalina suffers her pain as the price of her existence, but is not defined by it, and her struggles and vulnerability are very human. Jovan is more paranoid (which, given his occupation is understandable), given to obsessing over details, and falling into spirals of emotional harm alongside insight; but while this is a facet of his character, it is, again, not the only one, and he’s given the room to breathe, to shape and define himself which helps keep him real. Both, both siblings are realised with an emotional depth and intellectual ferocity which makes them come off as heroes. They do have their flaws; underestimating adversaries, trusting where they maybe shouldn’t, or not where they should, impulsiveness, caginess; but those flaws highlight their strengths, too. They highlight a loyalty to friends, a love of city and country, a willingness to do the right thing, sharp minds, and a capacity for love and affection, which mix with their flaws to give us complex protagonists whom we might recognise if we saw them in the street - or, indeed, in the mirror. 

Incidentally, the City is as delightful as ever. Thronged with a population scarred by war, it;s nevertheless bursting with vitality. You can feel the cultural fusion, the slow mixing of an intra-society gumbo, coming together. There are those appearing from outside the city now, stepping into its streets with caution and optimism both, looking for opportunity, looking to help shape the path of their nation. And then there are the old embedded interests, looking to do not just what’s right for their world, but what’s right for them. And old grudges between aristocratic families of privilege are as liable to flair up lethally as newer ones between the city and the country; and, indeed, one can find odd allies all over. The city though, is the beating heart of the setting - and oh my, does it feel alive. 

We do see a bit more of the setting this time too; in part that’s an exploration of rural villages, more isolated areas with communities and mores different to those we’re used to. But there’s also other nations entirely, come to see what all the fuss is about in this newly reshaped city state, From towering, expansionist Empires to more sparsely settled lands dependent on co-operation and with a penchant for river sports and log tossing, everyone has sent some observers to see what happens next - and their contrasts with the folk we’re used to, themselves a pretty diverse bunch, are exciting and shocking in equal measure. There’s a growing sense of a larger world, which has its eye on the city, andis making itself more known for the first time. You can almost feel the map unrolling, as the political perspective grows ever wider. 

The story; I can’t talk about the story without spoiling it, because it’s so good. It’s a delicately woven mesh of moving parts. Character motivations, old secrets, new grudges. Quiet affections and slow poisons. There’s a whole heck of a lot going on. But you’ll walk with the characters every step of the way, trying to work out what’s going on. And I can promise that it’s worth it. There’s murders, and tragedies. Quiet triumphs and some truly epic moments of magic. Reversals, betrayals and unexpected loves. The politics is byzantine, the intrigue compelling, the whole edifice of the story ticking over like a well crafted clock. But it’s the human elements that make the story. You’ll be turning the pages at 2AM like I was, to see what happens to your favourite characters, to see how (or if!) they get out of their mess this time, wanting to see what will happen next, to unmask the villain(s) and cheer on our champions. This really is a thriller, a slow, simmering burn of tension slowly ratcheting up until you’re biting nails at every turn of the page, gasping at every revelation, wanting to see how the story ends, and not wanting it to end. 

I really enjoyed City of Lies, but Hollow Empire is better, and that’s probably the highest praise I can bring to bear. If you were wondering if this sequel was worth picking up, I can only say this: yes, yes it is. Go and get a copy, right now!

Tuesday, December 1, 2020

Escape Pod - Mur Lafferty & S.B. Divya (eds.)


Escape Pod is an anthology of science fiction stories, written to celebrate the fifteenth anniversary of the influential Escape Pod podcast, focused on sci-fi and fantasy.. The contributors include top notch writers, who have produced a lot of scintillating, thought provoking work for this anthology. I’ve been a big fan of some of these folks for years, but some of them were new to me. Fortunately, though the tales ran the gamut from laugh out loud humour to transcendental, to grim looks at the best and worst of humanity, the quality level remained pretty consistent throughout. Though I enjoyed some more than others, I had to appreciate the sheer quality of craft on display throughout this collection. 

The first piece, “Citizens of Elsewhen”, came from Kameron Hurley, whose work I’ve always enjoyed. It’s centred around a team of operatives going through time, bringing their technology and assistance to different times and places, in order to bring about a better future. This is thoughtful, and asks tricky, moral questions, and certainly kept my attention throughout. It’s a little less grim (I think!) than her other work, but it’s still got the uncompromising fire in the prose that keeps you turning pages.

Then there’s another piece featuring midwives, “Report of Dr. Hollowmas on the Incident at Jackrabbit Five”, from T. Kingfisher, who I’d never read anything by before. It’s quirky, it’s funny, it’s acerbic, and it made me laugh out loud at least once. There’s a few surprises, and it’s a lovely contrast to Hurley’s tale. Kingfisher gives her protagonist a real sense of personality and a voice that really comes through as something special, and you really got a sense of character and world from the narration. Great fun. 

Tim Pratt’s “A Princess of Nigh Space” is next, and it’s mostly contemporary, with a splash of strangeness, and a dark iron streak running through the middle of the tale. I won’t spoil it, but I will say that it hits like an iron bar. This is a fairy tale where the fairies have fangs, and a twist like a knife at the end. 

Ken Liu’s “An Advanced Reader’s Picture Book of Comparative Cognition” shows off different types of alien life, and their methods of thought and communication. It’s startlingly inventive, gently lyrical, and it’ll make you think about the way you view the world. 

Sarah Gailey’s “Tiger Lawyer Gets It Right” is next; it’s innovative, bloody, brutal stuff, which slides a message in there under the blood and guts, so quietly that you might not notice until it’s living in your head. It does, just to be clear, feature an actual tiger, and centres on a courtroom drama of corporate malfeasance, which ends rather unexpectedly - and lets you know that there are ways to bring truth to power, but that you might get your hands dirty. 

“Fourth Nail” from Mur Lafferty is a mystery of sorts on a space station circling a ruined earth, populated by the super rich and those who serve them in return for escaping from the hell of the gravity well. It’s smoothly flowing sci fi, with a snappy story that always had me wanting to see what happens next. Though the ending was a little abrupt, it left me wanting more - and I’ll be off to find Lafferty’s other work as a result. It’s a fun story with some interesting social undertones and solid characterisation of people making hard choices in difficult, deeply strange circumstances. 

John Scalzi brings us “Alien Animal Encounters”. This explores various different creatures that humanity has run afoul of, with occasionally unpleasant, but always hilarious results. It’s a comforting read, which made me chuckle whilst admiring the breadth of imagination on display, and I hope it’ll do the same for you. 

Beth Cato’s “A Consideration of Trees” has a murde mystery at its heart, as a xeno-arbitrator attempts to work out how someone has been killed, why, and works that discovery through their own unique lens. The mystery  is rather clever, builds tension nicely, and feels fair to the reader - they’re always one step behind, but the revelations by the narrator always feel within reach. The conclusion is at once unexpected and rather fun. As a blend of science fiction and something else entirely, this is a story you may want to read more than once.

By contrast, Broaddus’ “City of Refuge” feels horrifyingly grounded in the contemporary. It centres on issues of structural racism, and the way society is weighted against those already fallen the furthest. It’s also a meditation on the stories we tell ourselves, what happens when we try to rise up, and the many forms of resistance available to those willing to pay the price. This is affecting, painful stuff, which also has a ring of truth and a raw pain about it. 

Then there’s Mary Robinette Kowal’s story, “Jaiden’s Weaver” about a young girl and her relationship with her very own teddy-bear spider, on a planet at the edge of nowhere. This is actually rather sweet, and the creature itself is vividly painted and its relationship with its human both affecting and believable. 

Tobias Buckell brings in “The Machine that would Rewild Humanity”, about an AI seeding programme to resurrect the human species. It’s a fascinating study of a different perspective, an effort to portray non-human intelligences, and their priorities. That this takes place in a thriving world, whose context includes the demise of humanity, is a bonus.

Cory Doctorow’s “Clockwork Fagin” is, as the title implies, reminiscent of a steampunk version of Oliver Twist, where orphaned children from the computing looms try to better their lot, and succeed perhaps a little too well. This one is a straightforward tale, which cracks along nicely, and has some fun beats. I was smiling all the way through!

Full disclosure, I’d never heard of Greg Van Eekhout before I read the story “Starship October”, but I’ll absolutely be looking out for more of their work. An exploration of power dynamics on a generation ship, whose inequalities are sometimes obvious and sometimes less so, it has powerful things to say about the necessity for change. About the process of that change. And about the fierceness required to see it through. Couldn’t stop turning the pages, and really wanted to see more of the creaking starship and its desperate dreams, even as the story came to a close. More please!

“Lions and Tigers and Girlfriends”, from Tina Connolly, is a delightfully wholesome tale of queer teen romance, on a starship on its way to colonise another world. It, um, also features a space mutiny. And a play. The voice is intelligent, wry and thoroughly teen, and the whole story just made me smile. My heart grew three sizes that day! It’s fairly light, told through diary recordings, and really just great fun.

N.K. Jemisin’s “Give me Cornbread or Give Me Death” is another story of revolution against a cabal of wealth and power. Cornbread does feature, but what kept me turning pages was the anger, the exploration of racism and the reaction against it, and, to be fair, the dragons. It’s a story that wears its heart on its sleeve, and it’s also a damn fine story.

Overall, this is a collection which, not to belabour the point, has something for everyone. There’s humour, pathos, tragedy, full on sci-fi, time travel, dragons, a goat. It’s a set of diverse voices, bringing their best, and providing us with wildly imaginative and utterly delightful stories. It’s totally worth a look - I, for one, found a few authors that were new to me, and now need to go read the rest of their work.This is a marvellous collection, and one I wholeheartedly recommend.

Tuesday, November 24, 2020

The Burning God - R.F. Kuang

So, The Burning God. It’s the end of a series which has a reputation for being packed with bloody, brutal action. For its precision crafted plots, filled with tension, crosses, double crosses, sudden revelations and emotional catharsis. And for the characters, which have a humanity to them;  sadness, rage and joy, bundled together in the clothes of heroes and monsters. Sometimes not even the same person. This is the conclusion to a trilogy which did more than pull no punches - it punched right through your sternum, grabbed your heart and made you feel things. Often while everything exploded. 

And this book, the concluding chapter, ramps it all up to eleven.

Rin remains our protagonist, and is now living life in a whirlwind of rage, self-hatred and resentment. But she’s also self aware enough to realise what she’s doing, and what she’s becoming. She’s been betrayed by almost everyone and everything she’s dealt with. The Imperial system trained her, used her up, and then tried to cast her aside. The Republic that fought in the shattered remnants of the Empire...also wanted to use her, then trade her away. External actors just wanted to cut her open and see how she worked. Friends died almost at random. Others because of her decisions. Others fell into madness. Basically, what I’m saying is, Rin has had a hard time recently. It’s definitely shaped who she is, scarred her, left her fighting not just the forces arrayed against her, but her own demons. You can feel Rin’s pain, and the way it fuels her rage - and the way that rage rolls out in waves of flame and incinerates her enemies. Gaining strength from her trauma is one thing, but Rin is defined by it too; and part of that is embracing her pain, and the choices she makes because of it. In some ways she feels cooler, more ruthless - whilst living in her own head with a vulnerability, and a focus that drives her forward relentlessly. You can cheer for RIn as she fights back against oppressors - I certainly did. But the costs are there, visible, raw and real. Physically and mentally, Rin is a woman dancing on the brink of the flame and the void. That the balancing act is so wrenching, so emotionally honest and painful,is a genuine triumph. That her struggle to decide who she wants to be, what she wants to achieve, and what she’s willing to do it feels genuine, even as she slips the leash of monstrosity and reels back in. You can sympathise with Rin, empathise with Rin, be absolutely horrified by Rin, and find yourself laughing at some of her banter or crying at her loss and the way her and others choices have taken her to this point. And that can happen in the space of a couple of pages!

I’ve been going on about Rin because this is, really, her story. Don’t worry though, sports fans - she’s surrounded by faces old and new. There’s that quiet love that sustains, driven to the kind of highs and lows that shape loyalty, devotion, and abuse. There’s the poisonous hatred that comes twinned with genuine but curdled affection. And there’s the whole gamut of betrayal, revelation, revenge, betrayal...catastrophic, cathartic violence, release, murder, love again...too much. I can’t talk about what really goes on without spoiling it. So I’m going to just say that it’s intense. We can feel the political, physical and spiritual geography shifting, seismic ripples driving out from Rin, her relationships, her choices and her consequences.

If you’re here for Rin and her journey of self destruction and self discovery, you’re going to love this. 

If you’re here for Rin and her amazing array of terrifyingly, terminally fraught relationships, with abused, abusers, and...well, the occasional regular person? You’ll love this too. 

If you’re here to see how it all ends, when the immovable object meets the immovable force, you’ll love this.

If you’re here for explosive, epic battles and magic that terrifies and astounds in equal measure, you’ll love this. 

If you’re here to have your heart torn apart, to feel, then yeah, you’re going to love this, though you might need a while to decompress and think about it afterwards.

Bottom line, this is a worthy end to a series I’ve really enjoyed and talked up for years. It’ll make you think, it’ll make you feel, and it will do both of those while telling a damn fine story. So go get a copy, right now, and get started on the ending you deserve.

Tuesday, November 17, 2020

Tales From the Folly - Ben Aaronovitch

Tales From the Folly is a short story collection from Ben Aaronovitch. It pulls together short stories from the viewpoint of P.C. Peter Grant, long suffering wizard apprentice and, to be fair, equally long suffering policeman, as well as some stories from the viewpoints of other recurring characters, as well a sequence of vignettes, or “Moments”. 

Most of these stories have turned up in Waterstones special editions, or on Aaronovitch's blog before now. However, there are a couple of new entries.”A Rare Book of Cunning Device”, set in the British Library, was previously only available on audio, and Three Rivers, Two Husbands and a Baby is making its debut appearance in this collection. THe tl;dr is that these are all rather fun tales, extra context and windows into the world of Peter Grant and the myriad of supernatural people (and regular people) he shares a world with - if you’ve not read any of them before, you’re in for a treat. If, on the other hand, you’ve got all the Waterstones editions on a shelf, you might need to think a bit harder - albeit it’s nice to have all of the stories together in a more portable package.

That being said, these stories give us more of what we all want. More Peter Grant. More weird supernatural entities with ties to London. More quirky, charming, terrifying characters. More banter that comes with the kind of sizzle that has you laughing and nodding along, even while it makes a sharp or poignant point. Really, if you’ve been reading the Peter Grant stories, you know what you’re getting here - it’s the good stuff. 

Incidentally, it’s always nice to spend time with Peter. As the tales here stretch over all of his career so far, we get to see his growth over time. Elements remain recognisable - the fierce intelligence, commitment to justice, and willingness to do the unexpected in order to make an arrest. But you can feel his confidence growing between stories, and a more mature individual cohering between his adventures with Nightingale and the others. Other stories include viewpoints from Abigail, and members of the KDA from The October Man, as well as the return of Agent Reynolds. Their voices are all different, though there’s an undercurrent of wry self knowledge that runs through the narratives. Still, they work well together; Reynolds melancholy in an isolated hotel room, for example, contrasts wonderfully with the general Christmas jolly of Abigail’s tale.


I’d say that this is a collection which is likely to appeal to existing fans, especially those looking for bite sized story snacks between books. Newcomers might want to start with Rivers of London, as otherwise you might lose context, and as the stories skip around chronologically, run afoul of spoilers.. That said, The stories here are smart, snappy, and self-contained. They’ll keep you turning pages, for sure - they’re full of sizzle. Really, as I may have said already, they’re great fun, and a great way to get to know some of our favourite folks a little better. My only real complaint is that there aren’t enough of them - I would happily have devoured twice as many. 

At the end of the day, this was a joy to read. It hits all the right notes. The humour, the pathos, the intelligence and the wry commentary of Grant are all very welcome. THe new entries into the supernatural lexicon are by turns charming and terrifying. The magic is wondrous and worrying. And London lives and breathes inside these pages. 

This was great fun to read, and if you’re trying to decide if it’s worth it: yes, yes it is.

Tuesday, November 10, 2020

Dealbreaker - L.X. Beckett


Dealbreaker is the second in the Bounceback series from L.X. Beckett. I really enjoyed the first of these, and was delighted to get my hands on the sequel. 


NOTE: I’m going to try and keep this spoiler-free, as ever, but approach with caution. 

Dealbreaker happens a generation after the events of Gamechanger. Humanity has got the attention of the universe outside it, which has come in and attempted a (failed) hostile takeover by economic means. Though still able to determine their destiny, humanity has found that when it reaches out to the stars, it’s asked if it has the necessary funds to make a purchase. Humans are the new kid on the block, and whether they can keep their prized autonomy is very much open to question. If Gamechanger brought us a post-climate exchange world, one in recovery, one where absolute surveillance went hand in hand with a culture of transparency, an economy founded on social capital, and crackdowns on hoarding, then Dealbreaker expands that world, brings different parts into focus, but keeps it just as alive, and just as fascinating. There’s so much going on here, so many criss-crossing webs of connection, of friendship, enmity, of bridges built and burned. Emergent AI are striding through humanity’s networks like ghosts - no longer afraid, no longer hunted, but recognised, with rights, needs and an agenda of their own. People are starting to claw back lives out from under the shadow of total climate catastrophe. And the world is coming to terms with a more sustainable existence, after decades of reconstruction. But all of this now plays out on a wider stage, as humanity reaches out for the stars, desperate to make its mark as part of the wider community, before something in that community scents weakness, and sends in the metaphorical gunboats. So the rebuilt economy is under strain, struggling to build out the technologies needed for us to be taken seriously and pay off the debts owed to do so to extraterrestrials with a less than wholesome interest in Earth.

Dealbreaker takes us to the stars, a strange panorama, filled with mystery and wonder in equal measure. The stumbling steps into a wider world are crafted with just the right amount of awe and discovery, blended with human courage , gumption, and a penchant for tasking unacceptable risks. 

But even as we’re stepping out into the stars, there are older crimes keeping some of us back. Quiet, hidden histories of atrocity that are slowly bulging back out from under the rug beneath which they’ve been swept. If people are courageous and hopeful, they can also be filled with selfishness and spite. And Dealbreaker shows us that. Shows us a humanity at war in its conception of itself. In the outward looking FTL-nauts looking to secure the species a place at the table, and the shadowy oligarchs behind the curtain, trying to get themselves that seat, and let everyone else get trampled over on the way there. Dealbreaker is our story, humanity’s, and it’s in the faces of its heroes and villains that we see glimpses of ourselves, shadowy figures in broken glass behind the characters eyes. 

Which is all a long winded way of saying that this is a sprawling, epic world, filled with stories, only some of which we’re privileged to know. But there’s so much here, in the rich and vivid detail, in the quiet moments between breaths, inm the broken skyscrapers covered in solar panels, in the FTL craft made of spit and duct tape, in the bright scalpels of monsters, and the slick patter of alien salesmen who definitely have a great deal for you. In the strikes and strokes of the social network made flesh, and in the whizzing simulacrum of the artificial intelligence community. It’s got a texture and heft to it which makes it feel true, which brings the world to mind, and lets you see and hear and breathe it in

The characters...well. Some of them are familiar faces, others less so. Frankie, of Gamechanger, now all grown up, and dealing with her trauma as best she can, is perhaps the closest thing to a protagonist. That said, there are other points of view - from AI, from aliens, and from some less than amicable others. But Frankie we know, at any rate, And she shines, she really does. From the first page, you can feel her anger bubbling away, feel her guilt pushing her in different directions. Feel the way she struggles to be good enough, fighting skirmishes against the demons of her own head, determined to save everyone in order to save herself. But she’s also fierce and proud, and filled with a love that burns inside and out. Her family, the close-knit polyamorous unit that helps shape her in the world, is warm and loving and has the sort of gently well-trodden affection of a relationship as comfortable as a well-worn boot. It has a joy to it, an acceptance that, again, makes it feel real. Frankie has her sharp edges, but she’ll fight for her family, and protect them, and be protected by them - perhaps despite herself. Seeing her grow over the course of the text is a joy, feeling her pain and sorrow and pleasure and happiness one word at a time. And seeing her shape herself under pressure, trying to be, if not the best of us, the best that she can be. Flawed? Definitely. A heroine? Absolutely. 

Maude is another voice worth mentioning, a survivor of the atrocities of Gamechanger, now part of Frankie’s family unit. Maude has her own issues - of trust and memory. Of caution, and betrayal, trying to define who she is whilst grappling with a past which seems to slide away as she reaches for it. Maude is wracked with her own pain, with her own internalised protection, with a need for trust and walls that she’s still looking down from, rather than demolishing. But her pain is raw and personal and sharp on the poage, and her struggles to be better, and her refusal to just be what other people want  her to be, are inspiring. Between them, this dynamic duo make every page they’re on just so much...fun to read, be it through smart banter, cunning plans, or straight up risk-taking arse kicking. Or, er, locusts. But we’ll say no more about that.

Anyway. Dealbreaker. It has everything really. A grand concept that sweeps out from the page to enfold you in huge issues with a personal, immediate context. Aliens! Betrayal! Personal crises. Love, death, old truths coming to light. And humanity, battling against the dark to be its own version of its best selves. It’s a story which makes you feel hope. And right now, that’s a powerful story indeed.Go and give it a try - you won’t regret it.

Tuesday, November 3, 2020

Back next week

 Honestly, we were too tired and stressed by everything this week to write a half decent review. So we’re taking the week off to let things calm down, and eat a bunch of ice cream. 

See you next week, and be kind to each other. 

Wednesday, October 28, 2020

Call of the Bone Ships - R.J. Barker

R.J. Barker’s work has been a breath of cool, fresh air across the fantasy scene for years. Their latest in the Tide Child series, Call of the Bone Ships, has a lot to love about it. Some eldritch, weird magic that seems to stand just at the edge of human understanding. Majestic and lethal cryptids. The sort of complex characterisation that will have you laugh out loud with a character one minute, and feel the steel barbs of their sorrowful tears in the next. A world filled with odd corners, intricate details, and soaring descriptions of wine-dark seas, thunderous waves and glorious, terrible craft that sail upon them. Yeah. The tl;dr right here is that if you read The Bone Ships and wondered if the sequel held up to the already very high standards of its predecessor - yes. The answer is yes. This is a story of blood in the water, of piratical boardings, of fights that start blade to blade and end edge to edge, one inch from disaster. It’s a story that reminds us that you can lose everything. That heroism has a price. But also of the necessity of virtue, the strength of it, and the value of pride and loyalty. If the ice-soaked sea is the stage, still it’s those upon it that make the story sing. 

And sing it does. A full throated roar in harmony, a melody that wraps compassion around friendship and sacrifice. This is a book that will grab you by the heart and by the guts, and not let go until it’s done. 

Our main perspective on this world come from Joron, a man who spent much of the previous book finding out how far it was to rock bottom, and then starting the long climb back up to the person he wants to be, inspired by the leadership of a Captain who gave him the opportunity to earn respect, earn trust, and change the world. Joron here is wiser, kinder, perhaps a bit more settled in his sense of self. The growing bonds between Joron and the crew whom he helps oversee are a delight to watch, built on countless small acts of humanity and friendship, backed by moments of heroism and heart-stopping action. Joron still carries his scars, but is learning to bear them a little better.  Still, the price of this is that now he has attachments, has people he cares about. Wher ebefore he might have simply accepted the worst under the black dog of depression, now he cares, wants respect, wants to build a life. And in becoming a better person, or at least one more whole, he’s also become more vulnerable. THe portrayal of a man damaged, often in over his head, and struggling with the vagaries of circumstance is beautifully done. It has the emotional rawness that makes it feel genuine, and a certain truth sears through the pain and the trust, the faith of Joron in his people and their acceptance of him. Mind you, it’s not all good news - Joron is going to find out the hard way that now he has more to lose, and this is a world quite keen to take it from him.

Speaking of which, the world remains as vivid as ever, as marvellous as ever, as terrifying and strange and wondrous as ever. There are still dragons stalking the crashing waves of a space defined by the spaces between islands. Humanity is still (with apologies to Pratchett) barely on the right side of the rising ape. Those who bear children not marked by the poisonous environment are still an aristocracy, and like any aristocracy, they still hold to their system of power. There’s oppression, and war, and, worst of all, politics. Oh yes, Joron has stepped into a (metaphorical) whirlpool.  Because this is a story filled with quiet intrigues. With betrayals. He’s a man whose seemingly sound footing in the world may be swept away, as we uncover the secrets, half truths and bloody bargains that help the Bern keep their iron grip on the levers of power. As we see how the powerless fare in a society structured to discard them. As the Guillaume, avian masters of magic, and mutilated slaves, reveal a little more of their secrets. As the dragons roar in the deep.

It’s hard, so very hard to talk about this book without spoiling it. So, forgive that digression. But think on this. The world drawn here is, at turns, one capable of displaying appalling atrocity and evoking true wonder. The people - Joron, and the crew of the Tide Child, misfits, miscreants, rebels all - are fiercely, searingly human. They live, love, hurt, bleed, and hope. They live the comedy and tragedy of our lives, cast upon an ocean swept by storms of magic. The same, but different. Different, but the same. They’re people, and damn good ones, at that (well...some of them!). And the story, well, it has its twists, and its turns, and you’ll be torn between inhaling each page to see what happens next,, and not wanting the book to end. It’s got everything - the grand, sweeping elements of an epic tale. Sea shanties. Boarding actions. Blood on the decks, and in the water. New secrets and old magic. But it’s also devastatingly, beautifully personal - with quiet moments, moments of honesty, moments of epiphany, times of betrayal and times of quietly powerful love. It’s a story that, once again, will not let you go - and one you won’t want to put down until it’s done

I certainly couldn’t. I miss the Tide Child and its crew already. I can only suggest that you join them on their journey. You won’t regret it.

Wednesday, October 21, 2020

Give Way To Night - Cass Morris

Give Way To Night is the second in Cass Morris’ “Aven Cycle”, the first of which I enjoyed immensely back when it came out. It combines a secondary world, alternate Roman Republic, lavishly furnished with rich detail, with some eye-popping magic and some fantastic characters. The tl;dr is that if any of those sound like something you’d enjoy, then this is a series you should already be reading. Frankly, I’d suggest you pick it up anyway, because the series is delightful, all the way from its closely observed Roman social mores, to the viscerally realised battle scenes, and back around to cut-throat politics, intermingled with warm friendships to make you smile, and romance to sear the heart, there’s something for everyone here.

Aven sits at the centre of its world. Rome, but one step to the left, Aven is a republic on the rise. Its senate believes they’re at the centre of the world. And why wouldn’t they? Aven’s gods - Juno, Mars, a familiar pantheon - clearly favour them. Aven is on the cusp of authority over much of the known world. And the city lives and breathes that truth. The question in that world, in the marble halls of the forum and the grime of the Suburra, is what that truth means. Whether the city should expand its influence, bring more of the world under its aegis, and accept change as a consequence alongside trade and wealth - or whether to shut itself away, isolate itself in the name of purity, hold fast to what it has, and let the rest of the world fend for itself. It’s an issue of identity which feels very contemporary, even embedded in the systems, institutions and personalities of an alternate Rome. From street to street, from Senate hall to darkened forest, Aven and its world are real, living, breathing places. The author really manages to capture a sense of place- -from the bustling urban metropolis of Aven, with its marble lined hallways and decrepit tenement blocks, to the isolated farms and small villages that drive an agrarian economy, to the wild lands beyond the reach of the legions, where unpleasant spirits and inimical tribes hold sway under lowering boughs. Even as the Aventine are our Roman analogues, still we see other perspectives - in both their allies and their enemies, both of whom clash not only in terms of arms, but culturally with the Aven; indeed, their unwillingness to assimilate, and the struggle of some tribes to assert their own identity (albeit with, er, unpleasant blood magic) is part of what drives the conflict for the story. This clash of ideology and identity is combined with an interest in the liminal spaces - the borders where changes can be made. Socially, yes - in the tribes that ally with the Aventine, and the Aventines that see the role of their city as part of a wider world, but also in a more concrete fashion; this is a world of gods, of magic, of mysticism and active spirits, as much as blood and iron. 

Incidentally, there’s rather a lot of that. The legions of Aven are on the march, coming to the aid of their allies in not-Spain. When the tribes and the legions meet, it’s often messy - and the battles are wonderful set pieces of tactics, magic and adrenaline. The crash of blood-fuelled berserkers again a shield wall thunders off the page. The world changes as we turn those pages, and the stakes are at once extremely high, and extremely personal. The visceral energy of combat is matched by the mystery and intrigue of investigations into a magical conspiracy at the highest levels of the Aventine seat of power. That strand is a compelling blend of mystery and magic, of betrayals, divided loyalties and stunning revelations.

The characterisation is top notch. Latona of the Vitelliae remains our central protagonist, a woman who is slowly coming out from under the shadow of her own trauma. Latona is growing more aware of her own strengths now, less willing to accept the word of others, to shrink into her own self. Instead, she’s reaching out to others, making connections and constructing a self of her own, one which is shaped by her past, perhaps, but not defined by it. Latona is clever, articulate, and above all, good - a heroine who does the right thing for the right reasons, or at least tries to. Watching her slowly unfurl, build a self confidence backed by actions, is a pure joy. That she kicks arse, holding fire and friendship in one hand, and spirit and righteousness in the other, is great too. Every time she appears on the page, Latona is a joy - and that she does so in the company of her family dynamics, likewise. We can see her speaking with her sisters, working through relationships shaped by year, and struggling with a failing marriage, as well as a father who isn’t quite sure who she really is. This is a woman who has lived a life, and her life is a thing all its own, of texture, weight, sorrow and joy. 

Part of Latona’s changes is her budding romance with Sempronius, the general currently leading legions into a maelstrom of blood magic and madness. Sempronius remains fun to watch, as he shuffles pieces around like they’re on a chessboard, parts of his agenda still uinclear, but his essential humanity and decency still very much visible. If he seems pale beside the pure energy of the Vitelliae women, that is not to his detriment - the Vitelliae each bring a presence to the page, and make for a wonderful read.

Which is what I’d say about this story of conspiracy, murder, epic battles and marvellous, mysterious magic. It’s a wonderful read, and you should definitely give it a try.

Wednesday, October 14, 2020

The Ikessar Falcon - K.S. Villoso

The Ikessar Falcon
is the follow up to K.S. Villoso’s excellent The Wolf of Oren Yaro. It follows up immediately from the events of the first book, and remains centred on Queen Talyien of Oren-Yaro.Isolated from her kingdom, surrounded by foes and traitors, Tali has fought her way from one disaster, one site of carnage to the next, trying to reconcile her duty to her kingdom, her love for her son, and her own needs.Now she takes a step out onto a wider stage, setting out to return to a kingdom which may not welcome her at all. And it seems likely that things are going to get bloody along the way.

This is Tali’s story. A story of a young woman living under the crushing weight of expectation. Of someone whose family casts such a shadow, leaves such a weight, that she is defined by others before she knows herself who she is. Tali’s father ripped the kingdom apart in a war he saw as necessary, then raised a daughter to realise his ambitions. Is Tali a queen? In the ceremonial sense, perhaps. But she can also be seen as the last blade of a dead conqueror, shaped by his hand to serve his agenda beyond the grave. But Tali is also her own woman, someone who thinks of honour and duty, of service and war - but not always in the same way as her father. Tali is an unknown variable, a paper boat cast on rough seas, trying to shape a safe harbour. 

As a character study, Talis journey is a flawless gem. Unlike Tali herself, whose flaws are as manifest as her better qualities. Tali is a woman trying to break free of the rails of circumstance. Of the bounds that duty and family place on her horizons. But at the same time, she is shaped by those expectations, by those needs. She can not rip herself from the social fabric in which she has been crafted, but cannot survive the events within it as she is. And so we have a conflicted woman: one part politician, deploying a lethal wit to uncover the schemes of her enemies, one part deadly warrior, willing to cross blades for a slight, and to face down five or six men alone - and win. And if those aspects are not enough, there’s the more vulnerable, intimate part of her. The part which struggles to give the woman behind the mask, behind the armour of expectation, social nicety and history room to breathe. That last part humanises Tali, defines her with a raw honesty and searing humanity, gives her a texture and context outside of heroines and villainesses. A scorned wife, an embattled mother, trying to save home and country, see her son and untangle her feelings for, among others, her ex-husband, Tali is a bit of a mess. A genuine, conflicted, brave and struggling mess. And she wears a face like armour, and, well, also regular armour - but the bitch-queen is a woman, a person, even as the person is contorted around the needs of the roles she is wearing, has no choice but to wear.. This is a portrait of a woman under stress, meeting adversity with strength and courage, while carrying heavy weights, and it has an authenticity, a truth to its voice which will have you turning every page with heart in mouth, to see what happens next.

That it happens in a wider world than we’ve seen before now is another joy. Here is Oren Yaro, and the sprawling counties around it. Each shaped by their Warlords, by their histories of struggle and brief pauses of something like pace. This is a land unquiet and wounded, but not broken. One whose woes are not limited to the continual internecine bickering, the insurmountable pride of its purported rulers - but one where other, darker things have begun to slither in the shadows. We learn a little of the past, of the history of the war Tali’s father began, and why. We see the broken stumps that remain of the Oren Yaro dragon towers. And we find ourselves among the wondrous, the magical both fair and foul. There are so many moving parts, in a world where Tali is a critical cog. There are schemes within schemes, wizards performing diabolical acts, and warlords making power plays. And smaller, quieter, perhaps more important people, living their lives in the shadow of ruined towers and squabbling nobles - selling fish and getting by. Still, there are wonders and horrors alongside the prosaic - monsters and dragons, oh my. And it all feels deeply real.

In the end, this is a fabulous work, filled with truth and wonder, with a core of humanity which makes its voice feel powerful and honest in each breath. Go give the series a try.

Wednesday, October 7, 2020

Dread Nation - Justina Ireland


Justina Ireland’s “Dread Nation” is a story about identity. About truth. About the way we shape our own stories, be they personal or national. And it’s a story about kick-arse young women fighting their way out of a zombie apocalypse set a few years after the American civil war.

Jane, the protagonist, is, to use an overly used descriptor, fierce. She’s a young woman at the top of her game, and that game is killing off the restless dead. Blades, unarmed combat, crossbows - she is a swift and efficient killer. But at the same time she’s a young woman, with a penchant for talking before thinking, and a disdain for compromise. There’s a fragile arrogance there, which clashes with the harsh treatment she receives at her..lets call it an educational establishment. 

Because this is an alternate America, where the dead began to rise from the battlefields of the civil war. Where the question of slavery was answered by the tearing jaws and ravening hunger of walking corpses, and where reunification and reconstruction was the only alternative to extinction. So we see a tenuously United States, where the south is heavily fortified urban centres, linked by patrolled corridors. Where plantation workers are nominally free, but the howling death waits outside the barbed wire fences for those who might complain that what was promised isn’t delivered. A society which is at war within and without. The text does a brilliant job of showing us the claustrophobia and paranoia of southern cities, the need to feel like there can be a new normal, against the backdrop of hugely disruptive social change. The glitz and glamour, the stately opulence of dances and coming-outs is ion stark contrast to the staggering moans of the unquiet dead, whose relentless march against the living is met with equal parts violence, restrictive social measures, and outright denial. The double talk, the “fake news” muttering sof politicians, the rise of populism, echo from the story into our world, and are all the more powerful thereby. This is a society which is sick, facing a plague that comes with blood already stained between its teeth.

And part of that sickness is the sort of school which educates Jane. It’s a combat school. One where young women of certain ethnicities and extractions can be sent, to gain an education, to better themselves. But their roles are set out for them - as bodyguards to the wealthy, as guardians of privilege against the hungry teeth that challenge it. They may be better off, but still aren’t able to decide their own path. Equality is still a distant star, even as the girls of the combat schools are expected to die for their patrons. 

Jane is one of the best at what she does, ready to go out into the world and kick arse. But she has other needs as well. Quieter parts of her past are simmering, soon to boil over, and the reader will be taken along with her, as she struggles against the power structures and expectations that seek to enclose her, and decide who she wants to be in the face of her own demons. It’s easy to cheer Jane as she beheads a shambling corpse, metaphorically or literally. And the shadow and tragedies living beneath the surfacer add hidden edges of complexity to her integrity and searing anger. Jane is a heroine, no doubt. Tossed in the dark sea of circumstance, we can root for her to triumph.

And the story...well, it’s a good one. Jane faces off against hordes of the undead. Against racists and murderers, liars and powerful men with a hidden agenda. She’s a young woman finding herself, and she’s finding herself with a bloody weapon in each hand, with whip-crack dialog, with a quick mind and a smart mouth. The story shows us adventure, excitement, and a rage against the machine which will keep you turning pages through the night.Check it out!

Tuesday, September 29, 2020

Short Break

 Hi everyone,

Apologies, but we're holding posts for a few weeks, while one of us is in the hospital.

We intend to be back as soon as possible!

Thanks for all your support and understanding.

Wednesday, September 23, 2020

The Vinyl Detective: Written In Dead Wax - Andrew Cartmel

 The Vinyl Detective is a mystery and a lifestyle all in one. The protagonist is a man interested in obscure jazz. And vinyl. Someone whose hobby has not consumed their life as much as become an integrated part of it. Someone for whom digging around in second hand bins at charity shops in search of that one elusive release with the limited run slip, or a B-side that nobody’s seen in thirty years.

It’s natural then to turn that hobby, that lifestyle, into a job. And Cartmel does that for us perfectly, with the eye of an expert. With affection, tinged with wry humour that shows that our interests are shaping us even as we define them. There’s a love here, a warmth for collectors and hobbyists of all kinds. In a lot of ways, the story is like a cup of hot tea on a cold winter evening. It leaves you with the same sense of contentment and satisfaction, and it fits around you like a well-fitting shoe, or washes off the page into the soul like, well, some particularly good Coltrane. There’s a mystery, and we can talk about that too, but the heart of this feels to me like a blend of domesticity and discovery. Of taking joy in the small things, in searching out that 1920’s vinyl you’ve never seen before, of finding hidden treasure between blank covers - and taking it home, and putting it on the player, just to see what it sounds like. There’s a quietly human transcendence to those moments, and so to this story, which captures them so well. 

The story, well, that’s something else. Our nameless protagonist is approached by a mysterious woman, on behalf of an even more mysterious patron, to find a rare record. Why someone wants that particular record, and why they’re willing to pay quite so much to find it, is at least initially unclear. Things quickly spiral out of control, as our hero discovers that other parties are also in search of this record, and are prepared to do anything, including kill, to keep hold of it. And their own patron is of dubious reliability at best. But it’s a great adventure piece, which makes digging through record bins at flea markets into high adventure, and blends that prosaic joy with the simmering tension of a noir investigation, and the occasional explosion of gunfire. Over the course of the story, the central mystery unfurls, and its all, just, rather a lot of fun. While there are revelations, and while they can knock you for six and turn your head, they never feel unfair. The reader may be one step behind the protagonist, but they have as much of an opportunity to put all the pieces together. And all the pieces of the mystery lock together into a satisfying, cathartic conclusion. 

In the end, this is a fun, cozy mystery with an innovative premise, which it uses well in service to a compelling story. If you dig this sort of thing, it’s going to be a good read.

Wednesday, September 16, 2020

The Girl Who Could Move Sh*t with Her Mind - Jackson Ford


The Girl Who Could Move Sh*t with Her Mind not only has a great title, it’s a fun sci-fi adventure, filled with banter, explosions, and a delightful found-family set of character dynamics. Oh, and a girl who can move shit with her mind. It’s a fun-filled mystery, a thriller, an adventure, and, did I mention, there’s a girl who can move shit with her mind? It’s well paced, compelling without being frantic, a page turner, but it’s the sheer ebullient fun  of it all that kept me coming back.

It helps that it’s written by an author whose stuff I’ve always enjoyed, but this is a new series, and one you can come to fresh.

Teagan Frost is the Girl of the title. And I have to say, I have time for her. Teagan is smart, and knows what she wants. Which is, basically, to live a normal life. Eat great food at nice restaurants. Maybe watch some trashy television. And learn to cook. Teagan has dreams which are at once prosaic and vast. The only known telekinetic, she doesn’t want to rule the world, or form a league of superheroes. Teagan would like to run a restaurant. And be normal. And that sheer urge to be normal, to have the life she can see on television, and in the city all around her, is heartbreaking and wonderful at once. Because Teagan’s life isn’t set up to be normal. She’s an involuntarily black bag operator for the US government, saved from being experimented on only by her willingness to go out and do whatever she’s told - stealthily bugging drug lords, for example. The juxtaposition of Teagan’s desire for a normal life with the work she actually does, and the powers at her command, is one of the most wonderful parts of the story. You can feel for a woman who would just like to go open up a place that makes really good Bahn Mi, but has to be an Operator instead, and isn’t overly happy about it.

Teagan is the everywoman we need, struggling with memories from her past that she’d rather forget, trying to make a decent future for herself, despite the situation she’s in. A reluctant heroine, to say the least, and she certainly doesn’t think of herself that way - wanting to be left alone to cook and listen to her tunes, rather than save the world.

And helping her do the latter, rather than the former, is her team. They’re all part of this black ops squad for different but similar reasons. Somewhere along the line, they made a mistake, and had their feet pulled from the fire in exchange for access to their special set of skills. Or, to be fair, they enjoy being paid large sums of money. Themselves sarcastic, opinionated, and constantly rubbing their rough edges against each other, the team is mismatched, often hostile, and struggling to work together effectively as the story begins. Still, they’re the human element, believable in their pettiness, in their struggles, in their effort to shape their own destinies. ANd there’s a pearl at the heart, a sense that the group could come together to be something really special, if they were willing to try. That energy, that dynamic, the affections and the bickering, make the group real, make you care.

I’ll say this, too. The author knows how to write a city. I’ve never wanted to go to LA, but seeing it through Teagan’s eyes made me feel, just for a little while, like I’d seen its soul. There’s bright lights and dark thoughts, but also an energy, a crackling in the soul, that you can see in the restaurateurs, in the gang members, in the police response, even. There’s love and faith and broken hearts, betrayals and moments of true hope. And the city weaves its way through it all, from traffic-clogged highway to charming public library and glistening office skyscrapers. The heat, the shade, and the search for truth are there in LA, the moral ambiguities and the need for justice. You can feel it in the city as it breathes - and that the city feels this alive is impressive, and marvellous.

I won’t touch the story, except to say that it’s a lot of fun. There’s explosions, fast cars and chases of all sorts. There’s villains of various degrees of sympathy. Stuff blows up real good. And in the quieter moments, in between all the things, ha, flying through the air, we can think about the people we are, the people we want to be, and how to bridge the gap between the two. But there’s a heck of a lot of thrills and spills on that journey, for sure. And this is a story that’ll keep you on the edge of your seat, keep you turning pages to see what happens next, and keep you caring about it, too. It’s a great start to a series, and one I want to read more of - and I bet you will, too.

Wednesday, September 9, 2020

The House of Styx - Derek Künsken

The House of Styx  is, at its core, a tale of family. It’s about the arguments which divide us, the shared moments which bind us together. The traits that we pick up from our parents, our siblings, our children. The ideals and the flaws that we pass on, or that we absorb through osmosis. It’s a story of one family, doing extraordinary things to survive, and maybe changing the world.

It’s also, and I can’t forget this, a story about Venus. Because that’s where our protagonists are, hanging in the cloud belts of Venus. Their bedraggled, run down, on-the-edge-of-perdition craft teeters from layer to layer, resource harvesting giving the means for a subsistence living, albeit one with at least the illusion of freedom.  Family is the narrative centre of the story, but the heart of it is Venus. Every decision, every moment, is shrouded in actions which the environment makes necessary. The howling acid storms leave each individual very alone against the night, and find families hunkered together in tight knit universes of their own construction. Each craft in this Venusian society, this colonial society, is surrounded by a world which is trying to kill them, and won’t even notice if it succeeds.

Künsken’s prose is evocative, and shapes a Venus which is wonderful and terrible in equal measure. The cloud layers are all different, and the Venusian surface is a sight rarely visible. Being on that surface, rarer still. With its hostility, its searing winds, crushing pressures and generally horrifying weather, it’s still somehow a place that feels alien and new. A stark and unknown sea, with desolation yes, but also a kind of stark and lethal beauty. This is a Venus which feels like an entity in itself, brought to life by Künsken’s vivid descriptions as we walk alongside some compelling characters.

And they’re an odd bunch, that’s a fact. Colonials, descendants of Qubequois, sent out to scrabble on the scraps of the solar system nobody wanted. The settlers in turn separated from the separatists, and now Venus is their own. And beneath both these layers of stubborn independence and anti-colonialism, live our family, whose choices decades before have doomed them to the margins of a marginal society. From the adolescent struggling with their identity, to the father so stubbornly ensconced in his own skin of old grudges, around to the elder siblings, living life in the shadow of their parents tragedies and choices, and around to the eldest, whose life was the hardest choice of all - they all have something about them. An essence, a humanity. So many weaknesses, and destructive tendencies, and rages and misunderstandings, yes. But also a love that is less transcendental than bred into the bone: family first, always. The family of deep diving Venusians speaks to us, and in its loyalty, in its bonds that creak across generations and across old wounds, it says that there is truth and honesty in love and family, and in not just the family you’re born to, but the family you find and grow yourself.

The story is...well, I won’t give it away! But it’s rather clever, a story of engineering, of getting around the towering depths of Venus. Of taking up that once chance you might have to change the world. And while doing that, trying to keep out from under the nose of a government who are, themselves, trying to keep out from under the nose of the Banks, who everyone must owe. It’s a science fiction story, in that it asks big questions about colonialism, and about gender, and about family, but it does so within the bounds of an imaginatively crafted world, where crafting poetry to shape the soul of Venus lives alongside the hard engineering problems needed to survive within its body. There’s something for everyone here - the romantic and the pragmatist married in one story; those here for the characterisation will be delighted by the protagonists, while those who love their world building will struggle to find anything as convincing as Künsken’s Venusian skies. And the story, well, it left me reading at 2AM, trying not to cry and determined both to finish the book, and that it couldn’t end this way, that I wanted more.

So I can recommend it in good conscience; it’s a marvellous book, and well worth your time.

Wednesday, September 2, 2020

The Trouble With Peace - Joe Abercrombie


The Trouble With Peace
, the latest book in the First Law universe, is both brilliant and bloody. 

I’ll start here: fans of Abercrombie will not be disappointed. The masterful characterisation, the whip-smart dialogue, and the thick vein of cynicism traced with capillaries of hope, are all immediately evident. As is the world, as broken as ever, as treacherous as ever, and as full of chances for redemption, truth and love, as ever. Also, if you’re here for people sticking sharp bits of metal into other people, for battles where you can feel the dirt underfoot, quail at the cannonades, and realise the existential futility of the whole thing while messily taking someone apart with an axe - well, then this is the series for you.

This is a world that is, in theory, at peace. Just this once, the Union isn’t at war with anyone. Which is novel. It does have rather a lot of enemies, but who doesn’t? And just this once, the North isn’t at war with anyone. And neither is the protectorate of Uffrith, which is sandwiched between them, and is definitely not very nervous about that. Everyone is rebuilding from the last war, and just wants to be left alone. In theory. In practise, the court of the Union is a seething nest of vipers. They’re torn between social climbing, cutting each other dead at parties, oppressing their workers, and high stakes politicking. Pressures are coming to bear on the Union from all sides. Workers are rising up against their chains, against working a fourteen hour day for an unlivable wage. Nobles are determined not to sacrifice any of their privilege. Parts of the Union, now that the wars are over, are manoeuvering for advantage, questioning why their taxes are so high, or talking about why they’re in the Union at all.

Peace, for the Union, is merely the absence of armed conflict. It’s a complex system, limping along on the dream of what it should be, and the brutal control of the levers of power exercised by those at the top of its systems. Of course, those who would like to break off those levers aren’t often very nice themselves.

Still, Adua, the capital of the Union, is a thriving city, filled with as much light and life and technological advancement as it is with misery, oppression, and sudden disappearances at the hands of the secret police. A study in contradictions, Adua sees itself as the height of civilisation, whilst also acting with a pragmatic and ruthless brutality when it feels threatened. Adua, indeed, the Union as a whole, is a system. One of the key tensions in the text is between systems and individuals. The king of the Union is one of our viewpoints, as, indeed are other prominent worthies - and its notable that they all struggle to manipulate, drive or change the system, and all lament the inertia and expectation which causes so many of the worst excesses. They live in a systematised world, which cares less and less for the individual, and not a lot more for the aggregate - it merely exists to perpetuate itself. That said, even as it does this, it produces marvels alongside horror, though of course, horrors alongside marvels.

The North, by contrast, is as familiar and as strange, and equally broken. The North is filled with space, with sprawling valleys, with Named Men leading bands of warriors. It’s populated by reputation, and by the ideal of honour. It’s more rustic, trading uniformed armies for berserkers, and cannons for the terrifying mystery of unknowable sorceries. But the North puts aside its virtuous pursuit of honour in the name of pragmatic ruthlessness when required. Reputations are built on being bloody and brave, but kingdoms are built from betrayals, or swift knives in the kidney. Still, you can feel the room, feel the ice water in the lakes, the culture built on loyalty to people, not to institutions. The contrast to Adua is beautifully done - as our characters move from one end of the world to the other, we can see that each system has its own strengths, and that hypocrisy and moral turpitude are as common as bravery and courage in both cases. Both societies may try and fool themselves into some superiority over the other, but they share more similarities than anything else.

In any case, the sprawling emptiness of the North, its strange majesty and desolation, stand as beautifully drawn and cunningly crafted as ever, alongside the bustling cities of the Union, even if the latter have traded in their horse-dung carts for the smoking towers of industry. These are societies on the cusp of change, and that, as well, is one of the tensions in this story. The Union is being driven to industrialise; its workers are renegotiating their relationship with the traditional capital using fire and steel, while the new owners of the mills respond in kind. The Lords of the Union are grumbling under the autocracy of the Closed Council, and the King is trying to find a way to do the right thing, whilst navigating all of these varied (and often malevolent) interests.

One of the beautiful parts of this book is that it so expertly threads the needle of motivations. The systems which people act in cause them to do ruthless things, bad things, and arguably, necessary things. But each of our viewpoints can be seen to be making a good case for what they’re doing, and why they’re doing it. Some of them are fooling themselves more than anyone else, that’s for sure. But when you can see both sides of the question as the heroes of their own story, it’s an absolute joy. In creating and sustaining this ambiguity, Abercrombie has proven to be a masterful storyteller. Everyone is not a shade of grey, a moral swamp of grimdark awfulness. No. They are, in their own lights, heroes. Doing the necessary thing, and often the right thing. That we can switch views and immediately see them as the opposition, as enemies to be crushed, is a marvel. It showcases the reality that each of these characters is not an ideal of heroism or villainy, but just someone trying to get stuff done. To build a better world, or hold what they have, or improve working conditions, or keep their family safe, or, or, or. As much as we all do, these are people who have hopes and dreams, lives, aspirations. That they all feel so human is a wonder, and in making their shared humanity cut across their antagonistic goals, we’re left asking questions about conflict. About why the choices we make are the right, or wrong ones. About whether there are any simple answers. About how the system drives people to do terrible things, or how individuals outside the restraints of the system do them anyway.

This book is poetry. It’s the poetry of errors. Of mischance. Of bureaucracy. Of armies tramping in the mud, to kill men with whom they share far more than the leaders who drive them. The poetry of leadership trying to do the right thing, in a world where nothing is certain, and where certainties are a trap. It’s a song about the sheer, bloody minded brilliance of people, who can be knocked down and get back up again, always reaching out for something better, always asking themselves how to make their dreams reality. It’s a story of how reality meets songs, and the compromises that means have to be made, and about refusing to accept compromise.

The Trouble with Peace is a page-turner. It less grabs your attention than walks up, slips a stiletto of narrative into your gut, and demands your attention. It’s smart. It’s witty. It has things to say about government, about systems, about finance, about power and the circumscriptions of power. And it also has things to say about the price we’re willing to pay for comfortable lives, and when saying enough is enough is the right thing to do. And about what happens when the right thing to do meets a different right thing, but more heavily armed. There’s battles, and politics, and some genuinely heartfelt emotional moments which made me choke up,and betrayals, reversals and revelations which will hit like an anvil, and in one memorable case, made me swear loudly in disbelief.

This is an absolutely top-notch work of fantasy, which deserves to be on everyone’s shelf. If you’ve made it this far, and you’re still wondering: yes, you should absolutely read this series, and if you’re reading this series, yes, you should absolutely buy this book. Thoroughly recommended.