Wednesday, February 26, 2020

The Fenmere Job - Marshall Ryan Maresca

The Fenmere Job is the latest in Marshall Ryan Maresca’s expansive Maradaine sequence. A sequel to Lady Henterman’s Wardrobe, which I said a lot of very nice things about a little while ago, it focuses on the further adventures of the Rynax brothers. Thieves, conmen, killers, and, surprisingly, general good sorts. This time around, the Rynaxes and their crew of loveable miscreants are doing their best to make an honest living – making bread, selling cheese, and staying out of trouble. It can’t last, of course, and they’re swiftly up to their necks in more trouble than ever. From there it’s a rip-roaring ride into an adventure involving drug smugglers, sinister conspiracies, mysterious allies, explosive magery, and some good old fashioned con games.   

As usual, I need to take a minute and talk about the setting. Maradaine is a city at the centre of a federated kingdom, a melting pot where various ethnicities, religions, political groups and nationalities all come together in the hope of making a good life – or at least making some money. By now, the teeming streets of the city are an old friend, the blend of river and spice and sweat that marks out the Rynax’s home neighbourhood of North Seleth strangely familiar. The gang rivalries in street with no police presence have the authenticity of long standing, and the patina of the neighbourhoods is gently established. Passers by are just trying to get to their job on the docks, or open their small business, and you can see the character of a neighbourhood on the edge of something new. Whether that’s a descent back into gang warfare and decay, or a shift toward more gentility and gentrification Is another matter. But I’ll say this – North Seleth lives and breathes as much as its characters do, a vividly imagined backdrop for its citizens to live and work and scheme and fight and, yes, die in.  

Which brings us to the Rynax brothers. I love these two. Asti, the fighter, the killer, the man fighting desperately to put aside the traumatic pieces of a shattered past, is driven by demons he can’t seem to exorcise. His pain is virulent and fierce, and looking through his eyes you can see that he’s holding himself together with both hands. While, also, yes, planning complicated heists and trickery and the odd on-the-spot escape plan. But there’ real emotional depth here, and growth, as Asti tries to come to terms with who he is now. This does, admittedly, have a tendency to display as a complex for sacrificing himself to save his friend, the ones he wants to have the normal life he feels he can never have. Though they tend to swiftly snap him out of it, this drive, this desire, this condition – it keeps him real to us. Asti isn’t just his pain, but also his love for his friends and his family, his courage and general decency. He’s a person, and we live his tragedies as much as his triumphs.  

And then there’s Verci. Inventor, savant inventor and family man. Verci has a penchant for elaborate traps, and exciting gadgets with the potential to explode, or spray acid, or vent poisonous gas. Or maybe this time it’s a lock which doesn’t use a key, but some combination of spinning tumblers. Who knows? In his field, he’s as brilliant as Asti, if not quite as fluid-thinking on his feet. But his relationship with his wife grounds him; their day to day gentle affection, and the tension that arises when he steps off the straight path to respectability every so often in aid of a good cause, are an absolute delight. They’re instantly recognisable, emotionally honest, relatable, and real. Twinned with Verci’s obvious love for his brother, and deep affection for the band of good-hearted scoundrels they’ve put together, it gives the story a real emotional heart, one that makes us care about the brothers, about their crew, and about their goals.  
The crew are multifarious, and growing outward in their own ways. Some are getting an education, and thinking about leaving the crew and crime life of the neighbourhood behind. Others are finding romance in unexpected places, or finally getting the chance to do what they’ve always wanted for themselves. There’s a sense that the crew, like the neighbourhood, is on the cusp of something new, creating the wave of potential but not yet quite sure which way it’ll break. Still, all your old friends are here. I have a particular soft spot for Helene, expert sharpshooter and now successful charcuterie owner, and her brother Julien, who can throw men around like rag dolls, but really just wants to talk to customers about the different kinds of cheese. But they’re all here – faces, spotters, fast talkers, muscle, wonder-workers. You’ll know them all, and if you have a favourite, I’m sure you’ll be as delighted to see them as I was.  

It’s also worth mentioning the Thorn, who has a series of his own in the Maradaine univesre. He pops up here, in this grimier world of street crime and neighbourhood grudges, and adds a dash of colour. Watching the not-entirely-honest crew from Holver Alley getting to grips with a vigilante who has a rather stricter interpretation of the law than they do, as well as magical powers and a smart mouth, is a delight, and arguably worth the price of admission on its own. I won’t go into detail for the sake of spoiler, but the sections with the Thorn involved were a great deal of fun to read.  

The story is, to sum up, a page turner. It’s filled with the trademark Rynax plans, which have a tendency to work like clockwork, right up until the point where they spring a gear, and everything falls into chaos. It has duels, and some genuinely impressive magic. It has narrative tension drawn as taut as a garotte, as well as revelations which will make you gasp in delighted surprise (well, I did, anyway!). It’s a con game, and a fight for survival, and a crime story, and a tale of a family looking out for its neighbours, and I devoured it whole over the course of an evening, utterly unwilling to put it down. I suspect, if you’re this deep into the world of Maradaine, you’ll feel the same way. This one is great, fellow fans of Maradaine. It’s absolutely worth your time, and I encourage you to stop reading this review, and go pick up a coy right away.  

Wednesday, February 19, 2020

Bone Silence - Alastair Reynolds

Bone Silence is the third and final (for now) novel in Alastair Reynold’s Revenger sequence. I really enjoyed the previous two novels, chronicling the adventures of the infamous Ness sisters, their ship, and their motley crew, and was looking forward to seeing what happened next. And I’ll tell you right now, it was worth it. There’s a lot going on in these pages. There’s Reynold’s trademark elaborate, complex worldbuilding, each piece of the wider universe sliding into place as smoothly as a cog in an elaborate clock. There’s the Ness sisters, whose growth from na├»ve country bumpkins to hardened pirates, with their own code and their own quests has been a delight to watch. And that’s before exploring the complex weave of emotion and action which binds two very different siblings together. There’s mysteries still to be investigated, whose solving promises to shake the foundations of the universe. There’s politics and knives in the dark, moments of despair and abject terror. This is a story which will draw you into its pages with dazzling, high concept science fiction, then throw out an emotional gut punch. This is a story to make you end up in the metaphorical gutter, looking up at the stars. 

Just to be clear, I really enjoyed this one.  

I’ve talked about the world (or worlds) of this series before. But to recap: this is the Congregation. It’s a rich necklace of worlds wrapped in their own orbits around an old sun. Each of the worlds is small, ranging from meters to perhaps hundreds of miles across. And they dodge and weave around each other in a delicately elaborate dance of celestial mechanics, one which nobody entirely understands. There’s a sense of age and loss permeating the text; the Congregation is old, filled with baubles - worldlets containing artifacts of earlier, more scientifically advanced times (as well as lethal traps). There’s a melancholy to it, a sense of decline, as humanity seems to have fallen from greater heights to scrapping in the gutter. If the Congregation is a marvel, those who live in it are all too familiar, all too human. Avaricious. Vengeful. Compassionate. Loving. Traitors and fools, thieves and scholars, all of the best and worst of us on display.  

Between the worlds fly ships of interstellar commerce, in a way which would be familiar to Nelson (or, perhaps more appropriately, Horatio Hornblower). Plying the deeps on solar sails, these ships are delicate, complicated things, and those who take them out into space are odd, driven, complicated people. Also, sometimes, pirates. Because shooting holes in the sails of another interplanetary craft, boarding it and stripping it of cargo is entirely possible. 

This is a universe to stir the blood and call out to the soul, as tiny glistening drops traverse the endless deeps of space. 

That’s before we even get to the aliens. Because humanity isn’t alone in the universe. Out there somewhere are other species. More advanced than humanity. Holding the levers of power – government, finance, policing. Quite what they want and why they want it has been one of the mysteries of the series, and if more light falls on some of those questions here, I shan’t delve into the detail. I’ll say this though: the story is one about fulfilling your curiosity, about the price and reward of doing so. As the end approaches, some of the big questions will be answered, though by the final page you may find yourself with more questions than you started with. 

After focusing on each of the Ness sisters in turn in previous books, here we get to see them side-by-side. Their stories are woven together with interleaving chapters, each having their own viewpoint. It’s a testament to Reynold’s skill that both sisters feel distinct, genuine, and having vivid personalities in their own right. You won’t mistake Fura, boiling with a slowly rising rage, driven to acts of violence and compassion in equal measure, with the more collected, but equally tormented Adrana. Their voices are as different as their stories – but as those personal narratives wrap around each other, they make something greater than they are alone. The Ness sisters are a triumph of characterisation. They’re both damaged, yes. Physically and mentally struggling. Trying to make decisions for the lives in their hands, trying to serve their goals, to uncover answers to the mysteries that plague the congregation and, incidentally, to stay alive. But they’re compassionate, and willing to hold the line and die with (or for) their crew. They’re sometimes ruthless, sometimes riven with doubt, occasionally wise or compassionate, always curious. They’re heroines, shaped by circumstances which might have broken them, but have instead bound them to common purpose, and left them burning more brightly and more fiercely than the Old Sun. Their story, and that of their crew, is an absolute pleasure to read. 

As for that story: as ever, I shall try for no spoilers. But it has a sense of wonder to it. As I said above, there are big questions here, about humanity’s place in the universe. About why that universe is the way it is. About the economy, about sous, about the real agenda of the aliens walking the congregation. There are new marvels unveiled, and old horrors stalking the streets. There’s antagonists so vile you can feel their presence seeping off the page, and flights of grand imagination which left me breathless. Reynolds has pulled out all the stops here, and given the Ness sisters a conclusion which you’ll remember; this is one of those stories that you won’t want to end. I was left torn between needing to know what happened next, and hoping not to turn the final page. 

Which is all a long-winded way of saying this is a great story, and a cracking conclusion to the series. If you’ve come this far with the Ness sisters, you’ll want to take this voyage too. I promise, it’s  worth it.  

Wednesday, February 12, 2020

Antediluvian - Wil McCarthy

Antediluvian is a standalone novel from Wil McCarthy, and I’ll say this: it’s imaginative work, and it tells a good story. You can pick it up and lose yourself in other times, other places, other people; the story is intriguing, and the characters have depth and weight. It reminds me, in a lot of ways, of the sci-fi tales of the seventies, boys-own adventures, which had the capacity to dazzle and amaze, and also to keep you turning pages past your bedtime. Like them, this story has its flaws, its problematic passages and conceptualisations, and doesn't always hit its mark, but also like them, it is ultimately a fun ride.  

The big idea of Antediluvian, which I cannot promise not to misspell as we go through this review, is that genetic memory is real. That with enough budget, enthusiasm, and scientific knowhow, we can reach into that memory, and live the lives of our ancestors. See through their eyes. And here, I won’t lie, the book absolutely shines. The idea is a bit bonkers, of course. But taking it on its own terms lets us delve into other times, other places, to tell the stories of people so utterly unlike the modern reader, but also still wonderfully, recognisably human. 
It's worth noting here that the science, as presented, feels only a few steps ahead of where we are now. That technically it feels plausible, even if the results might be open to question. McCarthy has clearly done the research, and made it into something accessible, something approachable something that helps drive a fascinating story. 

McCarthy expertly melds myth and legend to bring us a set of stories which may not be true, but could be. From bronze-age hunters dealing with what they think of as trolls, to an Atlantean civilization swept away by a flood, from a garden of plenty to things far worse – these are the myths of the western world brought to life. Well, some of them anyway. But to life, nevertheless. I was particularly fond of the not-Atlanteans, a civilisation with complex astronomy, with a religious subtext we only see the edges of, with architecture and dreams of conquest, with currency, with families whom they care for. The art is in the way that these people are given viewpoints different enough from our own that they feel strange, but close enough that they feel almost familiar, second cousins, twice narratively removed. As one of the men whose eyes we look through argues with his mother-in law, with his brother, we can feel the pang of the domestic, even as we gasp at the soaring ziggurats, and shiver in anticipation of the encroaching waters.  

The worlds that McCarthy spins from the tattered edge of myth are beautifully realised ones, within their perspective. Richly detailed, plausible, internally convincing. They’ll draw you in with their sights and sounds and smells, and you’ll care. You’ll see the struggles of the people, the conflicts, the deals, the internal agonies and the white-hot violence, and you’ll care. There’s so much to explore here, so much potential, and to be fair to the story, it gives you all sorts of different adventures in its time travelling tour of its narrator’s ancestry.  I would’ve been delighted to explore further through the times and places, seen other worlds that are ours, through other, older eyes.  

I did think that the focus on male perspectives was a bit of a shame. The story justifies it internally with a bit of sciencey handwaving, but it felt like a missed opportunity. In that regard, the text picks up some of the bad habits of its own ancestors – like not giving the women who are on the page enough to do. The biggest issue though, I found, was our interlocutor, the modern college professor whose Weird-Science-esque experiment drives the tale. His name is Harv, and he’s equal parts science action hero and unreconstructed sex-lizard. The rest of the story centres around its men, but it works, because those men are sympathetic characters, thoughtfully cast so that we can feel for them, empathise and sympathise even where we don’t agree. Harv I struggled with, perhaps because the old-school masculine style he embodies is a bit more problematic these days than when it graced the pages of Astounding and Asimov's 

Still, with that caveat, Antediluvian is a fun story. It’s snappy, and if you let it, it’ll pull you into its universe of time-travelling genetics, and you’ll have a good time. It has issues, yes, feeling like something of a throwback to an earlier time in genre history, and with that in mind, it’s probably not for everyone. Personally, I appreciate its ambition, many of its well-drawn characters, and its lush, vivid worldbuilding and so much of what it's trying to do, but can't help seeing the potential to realise that ambition more thoroughly. But like Marmite, some of you will be willing to look past the flaws, past the aggravating central character and the old-school all-boys-together focus, and will absolutely love it. If that sounds like you, then give this one a whirl.  It has some great ideas, and with them, it reaches for the stars.