Wednesday, March 25, 2020

Ballistic - Marko Kloos

Ballistic is the second in Marko Kloos’ Palladium Wars series. I enjoyed the first book a great deal; it deftly explored the aftermath of an interplanetary war, the morality and ethics of occupation, and the effects of the conflict on both occupiers and the occupied. And it did all of that while managing to tell an absolutely cracking story, where fast-paced, compelling action was wonderfully leavened with raw, emotional, character-driven moments of humanity. It was, in short, rather good.  

So what about the sequel?  

Well, it has all of the same facets that made the first book in the series so much fun. The world (well, worlds) are vivid, well-realised, each with their own unique mix of societies and cultures. Our protagonists are engaging, with unique voices, and seeing through their eyes always feels like it adds a unique perspective to the story as that crackles along.  And yes, there’s more than enough plot here for anyone. High politics. Low politics. Knives in the dark. Some outright heroism, and moments of emotional resonance, backed by adrenaline thumping action sequences which actually made me gap more than once. If you want the tl;dr, then this is it: this is a high quality work of science fiction which will take and hold your attention, and you won’t want to put it down until you’re done. 

The story takes place over multiple worlds; some we’ve seen before, while others are new to us. I have to admit, I have a particular liking for the scenes set on Gretia, a planet which started a war with every other planet in the system, and then had the poor grace to lose. Now occupied by forces form the other planets, the Gretin society is fascinating, as are the tensions within it. Business people from the old political classes are restricted in their dealings. Gretian police officers are paired up with non-Gretian military. Civilians are trying to adjust to a new reality, living with the guilt of starting a war, the shame of losing one, and the economic consequences of both. Gretia is a world on the edge, trying to decide which way it’ll fall. 

Unsurprisingly, the occupiers aren’t popular there, and simmering resentment is starting to build, even if it’s purposeless and poisonous. Gretia is a cauldron on simmer, waiting for the right demagogue to boil it over.  
On the other hand, it’s also a place with people like Solveig; heiress to one fo Gretia’s largest interplanetary businesses, thrust into the role after her unpleasantly political father has been locked out, she really wants to do the right thing. To cut deals, yes, but to make good ones, with old friends and new, to try and put Gretia’s past behind and make something.  This is the younger generation, strikign out for themselves – or, in some cases, falling back into the dry embrace of a dead past. Solveig though, is energetic, driven and perceptive. She can see the power structure of her company, and the way it still revolves around the fierce intelligence of her father, who is no less a sharp businessman for his unapologetic views on the lost war (and whose regrets over losing it are oozingly self-justifying. They make an interesting pair, fencers face to face, one trying to make something of his daughter, the other trying to get out from under the shadow of her father and become what she needs to be. It’s  a lovely dynamic, and Solveig’s efforts to turn Gretian commerce around are quietly compelling, if less explosive than others. Solveig also takes us to all sorts of exciting new places, about which I’ll say little, except thaat they’re richly imaginative, and very well drawn indeed. 

Then there’s Idina. If Solveig is the new GretiaIdina is their nightmares come to life. A member of the elite ground troops of their occupying enemies. Idina is fast with a gun, faster with a blade, and has so much technological backup inside her armoured suit that you’d need an anti-tank rifle to put a dent in her. Idina is great fun to follow, because she will take absolutely no crap. A senior NCO, she’s not just a one-hit warrior, swinging madly into crowds – but a thoughtful, analytical individual, always maintaining situational awareness, ready to leap into action (occasionally literally) at a moment’s notice. Idina humanises the Gretian’s enemies; not forgiving the cromes of their leaders, but perhaps softeninig on the populace as a whole. She’s fierce, smart, and taking absolutely no crap, which meant the pages turned very fast during her chapters. In this, she’s ably assisted by her Gretian partner; she nominally supervises the other woman’s work. Of course, Idina is military, not police, so really it’s more that the two are learning to come together, to rub along without strife, to see each other’s strengths and weaknesses, to put aside preconceptions that were shaped by years of now quiescent conflict, and make something better. ANd you know what, it works. 

This is a slowly warming friendship, opening up by degrees, and the role that the two fill, investigating weapons caches and rising terror threats against civilian targets on Gretia, is utterly fascinating.  
Solveig’s brother is another viewpoint; the black sheep, ex-military, a man with false papers, living on a courier vessel which might, sometimes, take on a cargo that’s a little bit grey market. Living on the boundaries of things, and just trying to make a life for himself as something other than his past – a past which the world just won’t let go of. Of course, being a scion of one of the most famous families on Gretia wouldn’t help that – if anyone knew, anyway. The slow growth of camraderie and loyalty that Aden has for his crew is genuinely warming, and their jaunts through space with a cargo of a somewht mysterious nature make for interesting reading; Aden’s quieter, more contemplative, and the threats his crew face tend toward the personal – the knife in the dark, the offer that’s also a threat. Another perspective on evolving, complex situations. 

Which leaves Dunstan, captain of a non-Gretian warship, trying to stave off piracy and work out exactly what's making so many ships disappear, if it’s not piracy in his spare time. Dunstan’s military approach is direct, honourable, but still has some room for wit, guile and manoeuvre. He’s someone we can trust, looking at the direct threats out of the window to the stars. I shan’t say more without spoilers, but his sections are always riveting. 

Bringing all of these characters and their myriad stories toward a conclusion without us losing the thread is quite a task, but it’s done wonderfully here. There’s always enough from any given viewpoint to advance the story, to answer a few questions, to leave us asking more, to push toward a climax, or allow for a moment of personal tragedy, or triumph. And tying the whole ball of string together is seriously impressive. The story works, it ticks along with the precision of a finely made watch. You’ll find yourself stopping to eat dinner, wondering where the time went....and then wondering how it got to be three in the morning before you put the book down. This is a story with a lot of really interesting themes to lay upon and questions to ask, but it’s also a personal story, a character driven story, and also, a story with rather a lot of snappy action and, er, explosions. 

What it is, in the end, is a really good read. So,if you wondered if this sequel was worth your time, I can only say this: yes. Give it a go, you won’t regret it.  

Wednesday, March 18, 2020

Back next week

Hi everyone.

Between the news of a rising epidemic globally on the one hand, and being in the midst of moving, personally, this didn't seem like a good week to place a review.

We'll be back next week - regular service will resume then!

Wednesday, March 11, 2020

The Doors Of Eden - Adrian Tchaikovsky

The Doors of Eden is a new standalone novel from Adrian Tchaikovsky, whose other books I’ve been known to talk about very highly. If I’m honest, I went into this excited, and with pretty high expectations. And you know what, it’s a great book. A sci-fi thriller, which mixes the author’s trademark grand scope and big ideas, with some gritty, kick-arse action, and some characters whose depth and heart gives the novel a strong, genuine sense of humanity.  

This is a story that looks at the strange, at the unexplained. That wonders what happens when the mists rise up in a particular place at a particular time, taking people with them when they go. That has a sense of the wonder and mystery of the unexplained, the horror and excitement of breaching the boundaries of the unknowable. Because as the story begins, we’re looking at a pair of young idiots (Lee and Mal, two young women whose romance is heartstoppingly heartfelt, and fantastically real) stepping off the metaphorical edge of the world. The consequences are there, sure enough. And the characters themselves - more on them in a minute. But they’re living that deep breath of tension as they step over a line, from one moment, one life, into another. And that’s the soul of the book, for me. Discovery, connection, understanding – the best qualities of people are here, as they delve into things people were perhaps not meant to know. Because humanity is great at doing stupid things and seeing what happens later, and Lee and Mal are, in this case, even better than most of us. 

That said, they’re definitely challenged by Julian Sabreur, MI5 desk jockey, and general management-level intelligence troublemaker. Julian and one of his colleagues have a penchant for getting dragged into the weirder aspects of some of their cases. Things that are shimmering at the edge of the map, while Lee and Mal stumble through that terra incognita. If the younger couple have their romance, Julian’s detachment, emotional repression, and self-awareness about himself, twinned with a sharp intelligence, is equally refreshing, a delight in precision character-crafting. A dry wit completes the deal, as does the gently bubbling care he shows for those whom he works with, and his genuine love and loyalty for the country he serves.  

And then there’s Dr. Khan. She’s smart, driven, compassionate, and has a tendency to attract trouble Or at least, is prone to people knocking her door down in an effort to find out what she knows about mysterious disappearances, and asking awkward questions MI5 would also rather like the answers to. A fierce individual, and it’s great to see a scientist given room to show their vigour and passion. Personally, I found her struggle to deal with bigots, alongside the broader sweep of universe-shattering events in the story  to be emotionally affecting, adding further emotional weight and gravitas to a story which already had a surfeit of wonderful characterisation.  

Anyway, this motley bunch are all driving different agendas, all looking at strange disappearances, and indeed appearances. Trying to understand what’s happening, and why. In this they’re ably assisted by fantastic superscience, by their own wits and guile, and (though in this case perhaps assisted is the wrong word) by a sinister billionaire and associated henchmen, who, of course, have a mission of their own.  
And it works. The story begins cloaked in mystery, sure. But it has a thread of tension, an edge running through it like a razor seeping through cloth. Each turn of the page opens up the characters, and us, to a little more of the truth, doses out revelation with swift assurance but slow doses, and ratchets up the stakes, the connection, the pace, just a little at the same time. This is one that will grab hold of you and refuse to let go, while you work with our protagonists to try and understand what’s going on, and what they should do about it, while they discover things about each other, and themselves, at the same time as they’re trying to put the world (or the universe?) to rights.  

Speaking of the world. There’s some beautifully imaginative world building here. Mists that sink into your bones. A London that’s strangely familiar, or perhaps, not actually that familiar at all. And there are stranger places by far on the table – though for sake of spoilers, I shan’t go into detail. But know this. As ever for Tchaikovsky, those worlds are crafted to a soaring scale, but detailed with a care and attention that makes them feel lived in, feel real – the strange and the familiar mixed together to make something new, something it’s impossible to look away from. 

So yes. This is a good story. A great one, even. It has a world that will capture your attention, and characters whose struggles will capture your heart, even as the story shoots it full of adrenaline. This is another fantastic tale from Tchaikovsky, and one I can recommend to you without reservation. Go and pick up a copy, as fast as you can. Just watch out for mists on your way to the shops....