Wednesday, January 29, 2020

Fleet of Knives - Gareth L. Powell

Fleet of Knives is the second in Gareth Powell’s Embers of War series, and like its predecessor, it’s a good one. Here we have science fiction that asks some big questions, and dose so through the lens of characters we care about, in a universe filled with wonder and terror in equal measure. 

Speaking of which. That universe. It’s an interstellar polity in the aftermath of a conflict that nearly broke everyone involved. Both sides exhausted. But the end of the war, that sits on the shoulders of crew and ships who committed an atrocity to bring the end to a conflict that was reducing everything to rubble. But this isn’t that story. It’s the story of the aftermath. Those people, and their ships, live different lives now, where they’ve survived. Those people, and their ships, are paying their penance. To be sure, some take a different approach to others, but they all are marked by that experience.  

The universe, however, rolls on. Alien species meet humanity. Trade, fight, make agreements. Ignore or participate in internecine squabbles. The tapestry of this space is writ large, filled with the strange and the familiar. I have a particular soft spot for the Druff, a many-face-handed species who work and fix things and grumble and live in nests, and keep their crews close to whatever serves them for hearts, as they live a quiet, collective faith. But there’s starkly vast hulks, generation ships crossing the vast gaps between the stars. There’s broken monuments to the hubris of humanity, on a global scale. There’s intelligent AI personalities, who have absolutely no time for any of your nonsense. There’s a whole rich play happening out beyond the boards of the story, and that helps put flesh on the bones of the narrative, helps it feel alive, helps it feel real. This is a vast, unimaginable, interconnected universe – and though the characters are small within it, they are giants unto themselves. This is a space that breathes, that has history, that is showing us part of itself – but there’s so much more out there to see.
And onto this stage step our players. Most notorious, perhaps, is the Trouble Dog. As an aside, the name remains an absolute delight. Anyway. The Trouble Dog has gone, if not up in the world, at least sideways. Having given purpose to a fleet of alien warships, she’s now back saving lives, after a rest and refit. I’m always delighted to share the thoughts of the Trouble Dog; wry, sometimes sarcastic, driven working very hard to find a home, to keep her crew close, to keep the razor’s edge of the universe at bay whilst also being rather sharp herself. There’s an honesty to this ship, a quiet vulnerability, and a vast reservoir of courage.  You can rely on Trouble Dog  to rescue those in need, look after her crew, and to impolitely tell bullies exactly where they can tick it.  

That said, she’s ably assisted by her crew, including the Trouble Dog’s captain, haunted by her own failure to keep all of her crew alive. Here is a wonderfully drawn mixture of anxiety, stress and raw bravery, mixed with compassion. The others are similarly compelling, similarly real. The young medic, struggling to deal with the aftermath of events that left him alone, but for the crew, trying to comprehend his place in the world where he can shape his own destiny. The veteran, still scarred by older losses, looking for understanding, and looking for a fight. The engineer, just trying to use as many of its face-hands as possible to get things fixed before the human idiots get parts of the ship blown apart again. They’re all here, the survivors of the Trouble Dog, trying to shape a new life, a new meaning into their worlds, living with and paying for past sins. 
There are others of course, new and old faces. And they have the same humanity as these ones we know well. The same depth, the same grace (or otherwise). The same conflicted, troubled humanity that lets us see their goals, see the validity and truth of what shaped them, what drives them, even if we don’t agree with it. Or, if we consider the alien, the strangeness. The views that seem to fit together, but end up taking us down deep, dark holes. The difference of experience which feels like something not human, but still a person.  

I guess what I’m saying is, this is some seriously strong character work. The people, be they alien, A.I. or even humans, feel like people. They live and breathe and bleed and die and love and hope on the page, and you’ll feel their pain and their affection with each word you read.
Then there’s the story. I won’t spoil it, of course. But it goes interesting places. Asks inteeresting questions about the cars we wear, if they shape us, and how they do. But it also, and this is important, is a damn fun story. There’s some beautiful ballets of space combat, there’s daring rescues. There are, and I am not exaggerating, some seriously unpleasant villains. There’s conflict that makes you gasp and turn the page to see what happens next, and dialogue that will sear itself across your brain like fire in the blood. There’s chases, and escapes. Feats of daring that left my heart in my mouth. Tragedies that wrench at you, and moments of quiet triumph that make it all worthwhile.  

So yeah, Fleet of Knives. It’s a great sequel, a great work of science fiction, and I encourage everyone reading this to go catch the further adventures of Trouble Dog, preferably right away. 

Wednesday, January 22, 2020

False Value - Ben Aaronovitch

False Value is the latest in the long running P.C. Peter Grant series by Ben Aaronovitch, in which a young London policeman discovers he can do magic, investigates mystical crimes, finds love, and does a truly horrific amount of paperwork. I’ve been a fan of the series for years, so I went in expecting quite a lot from False Value – and it absolutely stepped up and delivered. 

One of the strong points of the series has always been the worldbuilding. It suggests a London which lives alongside the one we’re familiar with. One where vampires lurk in suburban basements, and where mystical pacts drive the tunnels of Crossrail. And this works, because both sides of the liminal divide are treated with equal attention, and equal respect. The pageants of the old gods of the river have all the colour, verve and life that sits at the heart of these celebrations even now. And the fluorescent flickers of the Silicon Roundabout, with its buzzwords and ruthlessness disguised as corporate beneficence is appallingly familiar. It’s also no less strange than a policeman who can fling fire from his fingertips, though perhaps a little more mundane.  

For me it’s the blend that makes this world work. The way that the normal and the supernatural mix, the way they interweave, until the idea that the tech wizards over the river might have something in common with actual wizards seems worryingly plausible. Also, even as these worlds are being woven together by an expert hand, we get to see London. Living, breathing, occasionally kicking the crap out of someone, occasionally letting that sparkle at the bottom of a sewer grate be your wedding ring after all. Aaronovitch loves London, and it shows in the prose, whose descriptions balance sharp observation with wry affection. By the end of this story, I defy you not to love London too, or at least, understand it a little better.  

So yes. We’re back in London. And yes, London is as fierce and driven and dark and beautiful as it ever was, laced with history, with romance and death, with people getting by, people getting rich, and people fighting to survive. You can feel that on the page.  

Which brings us to Peter. In a lot of ways, we’ve watched Peter Grant grow up over the series. The man on these pages is perhaps a little more emotionally honest with himself than he had been. Carries a few more scars, physical and mental. This Peter Grant can still be surprised, which is a delight for him and us (well, except when he’s surprised by some new and exciting way to get himself killed, which is less good for him), but has the experience to be cautious. Watching Peter mature has been a joy, and he’s a good man here, I think. Someone who can be a friend, a partner, a mentor. Possibly not always doing the correct thing, but by his light, trying to eventually do the right one.  

As a character study, it’s a joy to read. Peter’s internal voice is wry, cynical, observant and self aware. It’s a pleasure to be along for the ride with him, and that voice is what keeps you turning pages, trying to see what Peter is seeing, trying to work the corners of a mystery, trying to understand what’s coming next. And what’s next for him too, actually.  Peter is comfortable in himself, I think, but trying to understand what’s next – and at the same time is warm and loving to his family, a smartarse, and a top-notch investigator.  

There’s a wider cast, of course. Many are familiar faces to long time readers. Some are new. All of them have something. Each of them is memorable, from the odd denizens of London’s tech sector, to the at-least-as-odd denizens of its supernatural courts. They’re real. Police working on cases with minimal budgets and support, trying to do the best they can and keep the peace. Private security, balancing the needs of their bosses and a steady income with what they’re willing to do in service of either. Rivers who want to have fun – or not. And other things, stranger, darker things, they live here too. And if all of the people feel real, if we empathise with them, if we feel their sadness and their passion and their amity and their rage and their love for one another, we also feel the darkness, sitting just out of view, and it is no less intimate, no less real than the people who live with it, around it, or investigate it. It all works, this story of people, and works wonderfully.  

So the world is brilliantly realised, the characters live and breathe. But is the story any good, though? 
Well, in a word, yes. I do think it works better if you’ve read the previous books in the series. It would work as a standalone, but there’s context here, relationships built up, personal accretions constructed over the course of years of fiction, which you’d miss out on without the previous books. I probably missed more from not having read the comics. But yes, the story, it works. As a standalone, yes. As part of a wider series, of a wider universe – very much so.  

I don’t want to give story spoilers here. But this one is a lot of fun. There’s some lovely personal interludes for Peter, working on his relationships. There’s some top-notch scheming. The investigative work is meticulous, the action sequences tense, the dialogue witty, the banter abundant. If Peter’s always half a step ahead in cracking the case, we’re always there with him, seeing what he sees, and trying to work out what’s going on. In finest mystery tradition, the clues are all there for us to work on. And this one is a pretty fine mystery, too. There’s heart-in-mouth moments, and the pindrop silences of quiet terror. There’s backchat between friends, and explosions. There’s action sequences that had me speeding through the pages, and emotional moments that had me savouring every word. 

Basically, this is another fine entry in the series. You’ll want to pick it up, and once you do, you won’t be able to put it down.  

Wednesday, January 15, 2020

Upright Women Wanted - Sarah Gailey

Upright Women Wanted is a thoughtful, provocative work. Sometimes poignant, often wryly, grimly funny, and always incisive, cutting at the heart of the way we see ourselves, the way society shapes us, and the capacity of people to re-imagine themselves. It really is all those things. And they help make it a great book. What also makes it a great book, is it being a dystopian western, where gender-queer spies and six-shooter-toting revolutionaries trickle around the edges of a nation at war. It’s a story which isn’t afraid to grab your attention by kicking arse, and uses the moments when you’re looking to draw breath as an opportunity to ask the bigger questions.  

What I’m saying is, this one was a lot of fun to read.  

In a sense, the world is a familiar one. You can see the badlands, the cracked gravel trails that a horse-drawn covered wagon crunches down. The sweeping vista of the big sky. We know the big hats, the sheriff’s stars. The lonely, intimate majesty of a campfire shared with travelling companions new and old, airing old wounds and showing older scars. And at the same time, there’s something else. There are sweat-shop factories turning out microcircuitry for drones. There’s diesel fuel going to military convoys rumbling toward a seemingly endless war. There’s fatigue, and a sort of quietly poisonous patriotism. There’s hyper-masculinity, a sense of old horrors brought back out into the night, of women (and every other oppressed group) being dragged back into their  ancient chains, in a society which is unable and unwilling to understand the convulsions that wrack it within and without.  

It’s a world where you can feel the dust in the back of your throat, and see the hugely waving national flags under the scorching sun. Where you can taste fear, and trace the oily scent of power back to men with money, and men with guns.  

Esther is our window into this world. A stowaway. A young woman who wants to get as far away from her town as she can. A young woman who is no longer sure who she is, or what she wants to be. A young woman living in the heart of a trauma, used to the ways of a world which demands much from her, a world which is willing to make sure she conforms to it. But Esther is more than the will of a totalitarian state acting on her. She is her self. And even as the story opens, we can see that Esther has grit, has will, has the fire and energy to become something else. To live a story that isn’t the one expected.  

I have a lot of time for Esther, who doesn’t know much about the world at large, but knows how to cook. Who isn’t sure whether stories she’s heard are true or not, but is willing to learn. Who doesn’t know much about travelling backroads, or sedition, or revolution, but knows a good person, and tries hard to be one. Esther is a heroine whose discomfort, whose discoveries, we feel alongside her. We can see her struggle, see her rise up in the face of adversity, and cheer her on.  

In this she’s aided by a delightful cast of cheerful reprobates. They’re by turns hopeful, furious, conflicted, loving – and all the other complexities of the human experience. Gailey can write characters. They come to life before our eyes, with their own quiet stories, with their own hurts, their own needs, their own fierce passions and quiet tragedies. These are people; as they flow into Esther’s life, as they build something for her, with her, and as the wagon keeps rumbling down the trail, we see them as living, breathing souls, who just happen to be in a book. The prose that gets us there is concise yet rich, with a certain poetry living in the quiet spaces between the words.  

Which isn’t to say it isn’t also a bloody good story.  

I’m always saying this, but, no spoilers here. The broad strokes are there: fleeing into the night. Sudden betrayal. Gunfights. Romance that carries a white hot heat, and also the gentle affection and compassion that makes the heat bearable. More gunfights. Self realisation. Revelation. Hard riding in a good cause. People being rather sarcastic, and very funny. A fight for truth, for justice, for something better. It’ll grab hold of you and not let go until it’s done, this story. It’s bloody wonderful. If you want to try something new, something a bit special, this is the story for you.