Wednesday, April 29, 2020

Firewalkers - Adrian Tchaikovsky

Firewalkers is a stand alone sci-fi novella from Adrian Tchaikovsky. Tchaikovsky has written some of the most fascinating and imaginative stories I’ve read in the last few years, and that trend has continued here.

This is a story of an Earth which is slowly becoming less and less habitable. The equator is becoming a desert, the heat of the sun during the day no longer survivable. People are migrating north and south, toward the coasts, toward lives of desperation, armed compounds, and survival. Well, most people are. For the super-rich, for those with the will and the resources, there’s another option. The rich have their own starships. These are being built, in theory, to save some remnant of humanity from climate catastrophe. Practically, they’re the playground of oligarchs, accessible only by space elevators scattered across the equator. Nobody goes up without an invitation, and while a lot fo resources go up the elevators, not a lot comes back down again.

Around the elevators, the gates to an unseen world of privilege, towns have sprawled, dedicated to fulfilling the needs of those who haven’t yet made their way up the elevator. People are crammed cheek-by-jowl, searching for patches of shade in the day, eyeing the slow disintegration of their society and their dignity each night, as the desert gets closer, and hotter, and the number of jobs goes down.

It’s a harsh world, yes, but there are wonders. The ships themselves are fantastic, of course, but there are other things out in the deep desert, where those now up the elevator spent their youth in secret research labs, building the technologies that would save them. There are rumours of botched biological experiments, of stashes of forgotten riches, of rogue computers taking over facilities, of research vaults that could make you rich, if you could find them. And the infrastructure, the power which ran those labs, now runs the cut down shanty towns around the elevator whisking the privileged away.

That’s where the Firewalkers come in. Sometimes, things break. Or things need retrieving from the deep desert, no questions asked. Firewalkers will drive days through killing sun, into unmapped geography, and face the monsters - for a price.

Our crew is Mao, and Lupé, and Hotep. The muscle, the mechanic, the tech wizard, teenagers taking a horrifying risk for the promise of just a little more money, just a little more medicine, just a little more hope. The story stands by Mao, a boy growing into a man, deciding who he’s going to be, and whether he’s ready to keep taking risks, keep walking into the fire. It’s a wonderful portrayal of someone fumbling for answers, driven by their confidence and confusion, struggling to keep making things right. The two women, Lupé, and Hotep are wonderfully realised themselves. Hotep is damaged, cutting, and surprisingly fragile, wrapped in bandages both concrete and metaphorical, trying to live out a life wrapped in rage and hurt and betrayal. Lupé is pragmatic, generally more phlegmatic, with moments of fire and a sense of the burden of responsibility. The three of them are chaos, a team working well together, with an abiding friendship disguised under an atmosphere of mercantilism. You can see them all, out there in the broken-down dustrunner that they use to hurl themselves into the teeth of danger, striding through the ruins and secrets of a shattered world, risking their lives, but not heroes - just people, with all the fragility, the hard edges and quiet looks that make them feel real.

And they’re on an adventure, for sure. I won’t spoil it, but there’s so much cool stuff here. The climate crisis and the concentration of wealth in the hands of an elite are front and centre here, explored with a precision and passion which makes for searing, unforgettable reading. It’s linked to some fabulous characterisation, and more personal stories, which help shape their world. Of course, if you’re here for the delving into shattered datavaults looking for remnants of a world long gone, whilst dodging sec-bots and horrifying abandoned experiments, it’s here too. This is a great story; it has a lot to say, and wraps its larger themes in a compelling narrative that kept me reading all night, even as I didn’t want it to end.

This is great stuff, and you really should read it. 

Wednesday, April 22, 2020

Shorefall - Robert Jackson Bennett

Shorefall is the second novel in Robert Jackson Bennett’s Founders series. I absolutely adored its predecessor, Foundryside, and so went into this one with pretty high expectations. In good news, those expectations were more than met. Bennett has played a blinder; Shorefall was absolutely dazzling, a book that I’ve spent a large part of a week in lockdown thinking and talking about. It has the audacity to ask interesting questions with vast scope, like: who are we? What are we willing to do to right wrongs? How do we justify what we do to ourselves, as a society and individually? . The story takes those questions and wraps them up in compelling characters and a world lavish in its detail.

Basically, if you want the short version, I think this is a fantastic book, an absolute cracker of a sequel, and that you should get hold of a copy and read it as soon as possible.

After the events of the last book, things have settled down a bit for Sancia and her team of ne’er-do-well guerilla scrivers. They’re sitting pretty outside the walled compounds of the scriving merchant houses, figuring out how to disrupt the status quo. Scriving certain sigils onto machinery has magical effects, you see - convincing reality to work in ways different to the ones we’re used to. What could you do if writing on the wheels of a cart convinced it that gravity didn’t apply, or that flat ground was actually a slope? Scrivers ask these questions, echoing (for me) the systems of information technology in our own world. Here, though, most scriving knowledge was kept under lock and key by the massively wealthy and their teams of scrivers, living in walled off luxury while everyone on the other side of the walls scrabble to survive.

Sancia and her team are here to change that, offering their own designs for review for free -  as long as those reviewing them are willing to add their own designs to those available for review. It’s open source, but with grimoires, and their initial struggles to change the paradigm of their society are fascinating in themselves. There’s a heist, chases, and some very tense moments near a steam pipe. It’s a page turner, for sure. And the world is as wonderful as it was previously. The lavishly decorated campos compounds, filled with scions of educated privilege, and the sneering sons of a monied elite, are as wonderful and terrible as ever. The shattered remains of The Mountain, the huge complex now inhabited only by the ghost of a semi-conscious magical AI is grand and appalling in equal measure, the grandeur somehow heightened by its now also being a shattered ruin. Questions of autonomy and sovereignty are here too - as slaves escaped from the island plantations which drive the wealth of the city begin to surface in the land around the campos. There’s a distinct whiff of politics in the air, and  some complex double dealings kicking off in the first few pages.

But there’s something else as well. I won’t dig into it for fear of spoilers, but will say this; it’s a problem which can reshape the world, for better or worse. Whether Sancia and  her gang can stop it is another matter, as is whether they want to. But big changes are coming to the world, one way or another, and the story makes sure that Sancia and her people know the costs of their choices, and that every decision they make will have consequences. It’s a wonderful thing, this story that lays out difficult moral choices for its protagonist, plays on her need for agency, for freedom, and juxtaposes that need with survival, or with deciding to do the “right” thing.
 This is a story unafraid to ask its characters difficult questions. The antagonists are smart, focused people, and in other books they might have been heroes. They’re certainly assured of the need to realise their own goals, and unflinching of their cost, to everyone else and to themselves. They’re wonderfully complicated people in their own right - broken and reforged, perhaps. Making terrible choices, possibly. But convincing, and consistent. You can feel for them even while desperately hoping Sancia and her team thwart them, or find a way out of the situations they find themselves in.

Speaking of Sancia, I just want to add how much I loved seeing her grow here. Both with her friends, and in her relationship. Reaching out and finding solace and love where she can has always been difficult for Sancia; trust and intimacy are things that tend to happen to other people. But here, she’s growing, reaching out to others, wrapping herself in the armour of their love, affection and loyalty, willing to take risks to help them get through another day alive, willing to trust and to believe - even as she is put through the wringer of tough choices. The emotional connections here are raw and genuine, and they have a kick like a mule. The struggles and trials here have an authenticity to them which had me at the edge of tears at times, and laughing far too hard at others. The relationships work, and they feel real. The characters, with all their pain and joy, are people you share the page with, and are wonderfully realised.

In the end, we’re back to the short version: this is a fantastic book. Buy it now, read it now. You won’t regret it.

Wednesday, April 15, 2020

Gaunt's Ghosts: The Founding - Dan Abnett

Gaunt’s Ghosts is one of the flagship series of the Warhammer 40,000 novel-verse. There’s fifteen or so of them now, chronicling the adventures of the titular Ghosts, a regiment of guardsmen, regular humans, trying to make their way in a universe filled with demons, super-human cyborg warriors, psychotic orcs, condescending, murderous space-elves and all sorts of other creatures with attitudes that range from grudging tolerance to apocalyptic hostility. Into this mix step a gang of soldiers with very little in the way of armour, armaments, or chances for survival. They’re the Imperial Guard, humanity’s first line of defence against all the horrors of a hostile galaxy - and they tend to be led by people who see guardsmen as fungible assets, to be thrown at the enemy until they overwhelm by sheer force of numbers, stepping over piles of their comrades on the way.

Not so the commander of the Ghosts. Gaunt is a blend of political and military, a colonel of a regiment, but also a Commisar, a political officer whose job is to ensure loyalty to the undying God-Emperor who sits at the centre of humanity’s empire in this grim-dark future. Stereotypically, Commissar's do this by shooting a few of their more recalcitrant men in the head, but Gaunt, at least, seems unwilling to waste lives, and seems reluctant to kill his own men. This omnibus edition of the first three books in the series shows us Gaunt at various points: in childhood, in training as a Commissar, as part of another regiment, whilst raising the Ghosts as a regiment, and in the aftermath, as they and he work together to, if not save the universe at ;east try to prevent it getting any worse. And from this we see Gaunt grow. He’s clever, and focused, and driven, and has a surprisingly dense core of morality at his heart. This is a man who appreciates loyalty, and truth, and has a genuine conviction in the divinity of his Emperor, and in the necessity of the Guard to help keep humanity safe. But Gaunt is also ruthless, when he needs to be, willing to make sacrifices in order to achieve his goals (though unwilling to make the same sacrifices if they’re meaningless). There’s a growing hard-edge to Gaunt, a willingness to do what he feels needs to be done over the years, as tragedy takes friends and colleagues. But at the same time, there’s a heart, a willingness to stand by his men, to take risks with them, to do his best to keep them alive, even as they all walk into the cannon-fire together. The blend of compassion, ruthlessness, personal courage, tactical acumen, loyalty and a razor-sharp intelligence help embody Gaunt, and the complexity of his character is at the heart of what makes these stories so readable.

It’s not all about Gaunt, of course. This omnibus includes a variety of short stories from Ghost engagements on multiple worlds, and uses that as a framing device, showing us the perspective of different key personnel in the Ghosts. From the gentle Trooper Bragg, whose inability to hit anything with a weapon gave him both the sobriquet “Try Again” and a penchant for carrying around massively heavy weapons, to the slitheringly lethal Major Rawn, willing to stab you in the back and the front simultaneously ands powered by an engine of internal fury, to Colonel Corbec, hearty, bluff and well aware of his role as Gaunt;s counterpart, the Ghosts all have their own personalities; they aren’t all just faceless numbers, but given to us as individuals with their own backstories, needs and desires. That helps us care about them and the stakes they’re working for on the page, and we can feel more as they live and die around us, on battlefields filled with horrors and heroism in equal measure. My only complaint would be the lack of women in the Ghosts, though this looks like it could be resolved in later volumes.

The stories themselves? Well, this is Warhammer 40,000. The baddies tend to be, really, pretty bad. Here we see ravening cultists, corrupt aristocracies, warped creatures that used to be men, daemonic machinery, and all sorts of other nastiness. There’s less grey here than you might expect, at least initially; though Gaunt and his Ghosts aren’t always the best of people (and the Ghosts are driven by the tragedy of being the last survivors of their world), they are pretty much always better than the enemies they face in this volume. For example, Rawne’s scheming and black marketeering seem pedestrian in the face of literal teleporting demons that can rip you limb from limb, or quiet, whispering horrors that slowly turn men mad. And it’s all wonderfully described, in prose that carries the screams of battle and the punch of laser fire in its wake, telling us tales without a wasted word, whilst also managing to describe this horror of a gothic nightmare future with every necessary detail to make it feel intensely alive, a lived-in space that is real, from the gothic-cathedral ships plying the space lanes, to the charnel-house of a billions strong hive-city under siege. The universe is real here; you can step through the page, and follow the crump of artillery shells and the sound of crisp-commands soaked in blood, to stand beside Gaunt and his Ghosts at the edge of the world, saving a humanity which will never know or care about the sacrifices that they’ve made.

Overall, I’d say this is a very well done piece of military science-fiction, which benefits from being wrapped into the dense lore of the Warhammer 40,000 universe. It avoids glorifying the conflicts the Guard take part in, and lets us see them as humanity doing its best to survive, to do the right thing, and to make things better. In a world populated by larger-than life aliens, and super-human Space Marines, the genuine humanity of Gaunt and the Ghosts is refreshing, and their trials and tribulations are the more compelling because of it. I was gripped from the first page, and if you’re looking for some good military sci-fi, an entry point into the 40k world, or both, I’d say this would be a great place to start.

Wednesday, April 8, 2020

The Last Emperox - John Scalzi

The Last Emperox is the final part of John Scalzi’s The Interdependency trilogy. The previous entries were both full of big ideas, and entertaining stories, which meshed those ideas with convincing characterisation, and a sense of fun that kept the pages turning. 

This entry, I am delighted to say, is at least as much fun to read as the preceding entries. That same blend of big sci-fi ideas and characters you can laugh with, love, or hate, remains compelling, with an underpinning of a universe that feels richly woven and believable as a convincing background.

Speaking of which, that universe is, well, ending. An interstellar empire that spans multiple systems is set to collapse into fire and madness, as the space lanes between them shift out of alignment. Each system, populated by artificial habitats, and hamstrung by corporate patents on crops and other necessities, is, well, dependent on the others. As the links between them collapse, the question isn’t going to be who survives, but how long it will take for them all to fail. For all that, the institutions and people of the story - the noble houses, the merchants guilds, the politicians and fixers, the guardsmen and artisans, react much as people seem to. They ignore the end of their world, and settle down to putting another basket of bread on the table, assuming (or hoping) that someone else will fix the problem. The scintillating orbital habitats are wonderfully described, their inhabitants - crotchety, scheming  loving, wonderful people, all sharply observed. This is a universe which feels lived in, and as it begins to fall apart at the edges, as the seams unpick themselves, as markets start to panic, and as the rich quietly start looking for lifeboats for themselves, as all of this occurs, its lived in reality gives the slow disintegration of society an emotional kick, a weight, and a tension which you can feel simmering with each turn of the page. Whether anything of this glorious string of worlds can be saved is something the narrative proposes as an open question - and invites the reader to join in finding out the answer. 

In this, they’re joined by the characters. I need to take a minute and say how much I appreciate the antagonists. In the main, they’re smart, driven people, doing what they think is best. Admittedly, they tend to be more selfish than our heroes, but they’re not idiots. Callous, perhaps, ruthless, occasionally murderous - but still working with an agenda which makes sense. Yes, you want, say, the Nohamapetan family’s plot to seize control of the Empire to fail, but you have to respect their drive and commitment to the goal; the moments you see things from a Nohamapetan point of view are rather revealing. 

Then there’s our protagonists. I have a lot of time for Kiva, the fast-talking, expletive-laden adjutant to the Emperox. She’s quick on her feet, sharp-tongued, and entirely unapologetic about who she is and what she wants. Kiva is, by many lights, exactly as selfish as the villainous Nohamapetan’s. But she’s also self-aware enough to realise that in order to get what she wants, she needs a society to do it in - and she does have a genuine friendship with a few people, and a genuine relationship to fall back on. Speaking of which, Kiva’s romance with one of the Nohamapetan lawyers is unbearably cute; their banter flows wonderfully and makes for a highly entertaining read, and Kiva’s love interest is no shrinking violet herself. There’s an emotional honesty, a fear and a longing and a love under their words, which makes them a fabulous pair. 

Then there’s the Emperox, trying to hold everything together, with her own relationship to build, with the physicist modelling the collapse of the Flow. Greyland II, as she now is, is still impressively clever, aware of the stakes, and treading the line between being ruthless enough to rule and kind enough to remain herself. Greyland’s fire is unleashed here, trying to do the right things, the last things, the things which need to be done. That she is making an effort to save the Empire, save the people, without losing a sense of what’s right, makes her a top-draw heroine. You can see the genuine young woman underneath the ceremony as well, struggling to bear up under the responsibility, whose determination is as much a triumph as the political successes of the Emperox who she acts as on a daily basis. 

In the end, this is a fantastic conclusion to the trilogy, The story weaves from crisis to crisis, our heroes (and their antagonists) struggling to get the upper hand, to shape the world and to save the universe. The story is snappily paced, and it’ll keep you wanting to know what happens next, turning those pages again, well into the night. So yes, this is a fantastic novel, and a great conclusion to a wonderful sci-fi series. Read it!

Wednesday, April 1, 2020

The Girl and the Stars - Mark Lawrence

I’ve been thinking about The Girl and the Stars for weeks now.This, the first book in a new series from Mark Lawrence, is a story which asks difficult questions, and encourages the reader in their journey to find the answers. It’s also a story with excellent characterisation, with a world that is both imaginative and vividly realised, and a story whose pacing will keep you turning pages well into the night.

As I suspect everyone knows by now, I’m a big fan of Mark Lawrence’s work, and went into this one with high hopes; those hopes were fully justified. If you’re already someone enjoying Mark’s work, this is another top-tier start to a series. If you’re coming to this series not having read anything else Mark’s written, don’t worry. This is a bloody great story, and one which will reward the time you invest in it. 

Partly, that’s because of the world. Abeth is a world covered almost entirely in ice. A thin band of land around the equator is still free of the cold, though it gets closer every year. This isn’t s story in that habitable band. This is a story on the ice. Here are tribes for whom everything but snow and wind and ice and rock are but a memory. Whose have adapted to the horrendous environment in which they live to such an extent that the idea of not being cold is laughable. Where most of the mistakes you can make on the ice will kill you, and where making hard, often fatal decisions is a fact of life on the individual and social level. The ice is not your friend. The ice is relentless, and it will kill you eventually. The howling wilderness that is the surface of the world is wonderfully captured, the wind searing our faces as individuals march forward endlessly with furs and spears and precious shards of wood from older, warmer times. The cycle, the slow, seemingly eternal, unchanging nature of the ice and the people upon it, is impressive and terrifying at once. The system is in the appearance stasis, those in it having no way to exist beyond the way they always have; and yet, the ice changes, here and there, each year getting a little colder. 

And if the ice is pitiless, so are those that walk upon it. The priesthood, from a mysterious hidden enclave, judges each individual at adolescence. Those deemed safe, those whose metabolism, whose very nature, will not change, are left alone. Those who are different, however, are also treated differently, The injured, the different, those with something they won’t call magic coursing through their veins, tearing apart the adaptations to the ice  - they’re a danger. They slow the others on the ice. They can not be allowed to live in their tribes, in their families. Or at all. And so they are taken from their families, and cast into a pit, a pit which seemingly has no bottom. Certainly, no-one thrown into the pit is ever seen again.

The tribes on the ice of Abeth are wonderful and awful in equal measure. We can see the constraints placed on them by their environment, the way it shapes their thoughts into those sharply honed for survival, the way it tries to cast aside empathy and love and compassion in the name of pragmatism. Because this is a question that I saw at the heart of the story: what price are we willing to pay to simply survive. What decisions will we make under the guise of pragmatism which also serve to discard our humanity. How will we treat the vulnerable when the chips are, absolutely, down? In shaping these questions in the background, in building a society which approaches these questions with the unknowing brutality of tradition within the freezing framework of subsistence survival, the story asks us who we are, what we value, where we stand. It made me think, and I hope it does the same for you. 

The ice isn’t all there is to Abeth, of course. Because there are cracks, cracks in the ice, and things which live beneath it; not all of those things are people, or even shaped like people. Because Abeth has its own history. There are ruins here, crushed beneath the weight of the ice. Ruins of cities with tall spires and mysterious technologies. There is a history from the past of Abeth that shapes where things are today;  and that history is rich, complex, and bathed in blood. Hidden from sight under the ice, some of the history of the world is revealed as the story moves forward, and each revelation is a lantern in the darkness, as well as a question in itself. I’ve been wanting to know more about the history of Abeth ever since Mark’s other series set in that world came out, and it’s wonderful to get more context, understanding, more tantalising secret histories. Beneath the ice lurk treasures and devils innumerable, and dealing with either will have its price. 

The contrast between the harsh realities of life on the surface of the ice and the broken opulence beneath is stark and forceful; it snatches at the breath like winter wind. It’s a contrast that reveals much about both environments, and also gives them a genuine texture, a sense of place and weight, of reality.  This is a world you could get lost in - though you might want to be careful what found you.  

And into this world steps Yaz. Yaz is a young woman from the depths of the ice, someone whose family and friends are strong, gentle, loving people. Those same people are, of course, prepared to hurl children into a pit, to do monstrous things under the guise of necessity. And Yaz, Yaz worries that she might be a burden. That as she comes closer to the time when she will be judged, as she comes closer to the pit, so too her chances of escape from it get smaller and smaller. Yaz is bright and fierce and strong herself, a young woman with a sharp mind and the ability to weather great hardship. And she may be something else entirely, something which would let her rewrite the rules of a society which might cast her out for her abilities, or perhaps break strands of that society apart.

 And Yaz is human, too. She has a compassion and internal fortitude that let us sympathise with her readily, even as we see her react to crises and opportunities - not always to her betterment. She wants to do the right thing, not to see people hurt, and to save lives. Yaz grows into this as the story continues, slowly filling in an idea of who she is which doesn’t entirely match the social expectations of the world which raised her. But she’s smart, and loyal, competent and perceptive and isn’t going to take any crap. As a protagonist, Yaz is stellar; she’ll seize your heart; I, for one, spent her journey through the ice rooting for her, gasping at her tragedies and failures, celebrating her triumphs, and delighting in her humanity - from jealousy to rage to forgiveness, compassion, even love; all of these things we find in Yaz, and each of them etches a sharp path through our hearts, even as they do through hers. If Yaz is to be judged wanting by her society, perhaps we should look to judge that society instead.
Anyway. I have a lot of time for Yaz, a fantastic protagonist, whose journey it was a pleasure to share. 

And what a journey it is. As usual, I don’t want to give spoilers, especially this early. But this is a cracking tale. There’s parts that made me laugh out loud, and parts that don’t so much pluck at the heartstrings as wrench at them with both hands. There’s betrayal, and chaos, and wonderful, terrible magics that got me to gasp more than once. There’s friendship and murder, there’s grand revelations and small, initmate choices which will shake the foundations of the world. And through it all, you’ll be turning pages ravenously, wanting to see what happens next.

This may be the finest work Mark Lawrence has ever done. It’s thoughtful work, passionate work, truthful work. It’s a story which you will, as I said, be thinking about weeks later. Give it a try. I absolutely loved it, and I think you will as well.