Wednesday, May 27, 2020

The Lesser Devil - Christopher Ruocchio

The Lesser Devil is a standalone novel set in the same universe as the Sun Eater series, whose complex world-building and strong characterisation I’ve spoken about here before, at length. It has occasional appearances by familiar characters, but stands very well on its own.

This tale focuses on Crispin Marlowe. Crispin was, quite literally, born to rule. He’s genetically enhanced to live for centuries. He has super-human reflexes. He’s the son of a man who rules over an entire planet, with all the privilege which that accrues. So Crispin has a lot going for him. But he’s also someone living under a shadow. His father has the iron will and ruthlessness you’d expect from someone with absolute power over the population of a planet, and his older brother left under a cloud decades ago, having fought his way past Crispin to do it. Those things put a pall over the man, as he tries to find his own shape, his own purpose which isn’t defined in the poles of what his father demands that he be, or what his absent brother decided to be instead. Crispin isn’t a small man, but struggles to break free of the constraint nd expectations into which he is bound - or, perhaps, to refine them so that they fit his form rather than the needs of others.

I especially enjoy the relationship Crispin has with his sister, Selene. Crispin is impulsive, maybe a little too quick to anger, striving to surpass the expectations and reputation of his house. A man who can lead from the front, and begins the story with a sense of his own nobility, and an embedded entitlement. Still, the fire in his nature keeps him liable, as does the streak of gentle introspection which you might not expect. Selene, by contrast, is calm, cool, collected, and ruthless. She complements Crispin nicely, and adds a little more calculation as he bulls ahead. They do make an excellent duo, and their cross-talk and dialogue is always both intelligent and entertaining. While the focus is, understandably, on Crispin, I’d be delighted if Selene got stories of her own as well.

Anyway. The Marlowe’s find themselves in something of a scrape, and this gives us an opportunity to explore a slightly smaller scale setting than the sprawling wider universe of the larger series. Much of the story occurs in a wonderfully bucolic village of low-tech individuals, consigned to the back of beyond for their rather outre religious beliefs. The village is charming, and its inhabitants, while part of the plebeian caste of this society, showcase the best of humanity. They have courage, integrity and honour, and are wonderfully forward with the slightly baffled Crispin.The honesty and humanity of the supporting cast of villagers really helps the story shine - we care about them, and their struggles, as they work with the aristocratic Marlow siblings to resolve the hole that they’ve fallen into.

And what a hole it is. I won’t get into it in detail, but there’s a lot going on here. Some fantastically drawn, furiously kinetic fight scenes. Some appalling tragedies and reversals to take the breath away. Technology that makes you feel wonder as much as terror, and draw breath at the grandeur of human ambition. Human courage and sacrifice at its finest.It’s a ot of fun, and Crispin manages to realise something about himself as well, fighting alongside these people he might only have thought of as mayflies, and perhaps has insight into a larger epiphany of the soul.  But, also, and I can’t stress this enough, he kicks arse, and makes it look cool.
This is a great story, off the main path of this series. It adds some nice context for the other books, and they in turn feed into the flavour for this one. As a standalone, it’s a fast-paced, fun, thoughtful and above all entertaining read. Give it a go.

Wednesday, May 20, 2020

Gideon The Ninth - Tamsyn Muir

I am totally late to the party on Gideon The Ninth. But I’ll join quite a few people in saying that I really enjoyed it. This is a story with far more of a sense of style and sense of fun than you might expect from space lesbian necromancers.

 Because, well, that’s the opener. The dead can be raised, if you need someone to do your fetching and carrying for you, or if you want your enemies brutally murdered for interfering with your nefarious plots.The world of Gideon the Ninth is a world build on bones, on the shattered carcasses of broken worlds, and on the lies people told each other to make it happen. In a sense, it’s a far larger space than our own world - the habitats of various groups are spread throughout a solar system. In another, it’s far smaller. There are nine great houses, each with their own responsibilities - but all of them we see appear to be in a state of slow decline. There aren’t thriving millions here, as much as there are scattered hundreds, clinging to their rocks in the ever-darkening shoals, keeping the candle-flames of their houses alive as the night draws ever closer. There’s an intimacy to it. These people all know each other, or know of each other, in their little bubbles, filled with old grudges and older broken promises.

But opportunity beckons, as a necromancer from each house is summoned, with their bodyguard-companion, to the First House. The invitation is mysterious, its purpose doubly so. But still, these inward looking houses must look out once again, at least at each other. What a gaggle of bone-summoners with varying sociopathic tendencies, and their heavily armed goons, will do to each other in close proximity, in search of power, is anyone’s guess. 

The world...doesn’t live, exactly, but it’s there, a burial wrapping wound around the characters. As Gideon, our protagonist, gets a wider perspective, we pick up alongside them. The atmosphere isn’t exactly funereal, but it’s clearly a system in decay. There are hints that this was a thriving empire once, that there was once more than bones and remnants. Hints of splendour, of soaring ambition, and of terrible bargains made in service of that ambition. The prose is haunting and delicate one minute, unflinchingly robust the next - and in each case, it gives us a real, multi-faceted, fully-formed world. In many instances, that world is melancholy. In others, outright terrifying. But it feels real anyway.

And into that world steps Gideon, of the Ninth House. In a world laced with the tattered remnants of majesty, Gideon is a breath of fresh air. Gideon is  blunt, forceful, and unwilling to take any crap. She’s lived in a mausoleum for her entire life, a life encompassed by bones, by endless rituals of the dead, surrounded by skeletal automatons, and the spiteful venom of the slowly dying gerontocracy of the Ninth House. But Gideon, ah, Gideon is alive. She’s foul mouthed, happier with a sword in her hand than a book, willing to fight dirty, and fiercely vital. It's that energy, that life that makes her sparkle on the page. It helps that she’s willing to fight hard, and her skills are definitely a sight to see. I won’t lie, watching a smart-mouthed, expletive-laden sword-master lend their arm to a cause, and exercise their mind around the mysteries of the First House was always going to be a joy, but Gideon’s sheer energy gets her extra points. That and her relationship with her necromancer - the only other young-ish person in the Ninth House, the greatest necromancer in a house of the dead, and a general pain in Gideon’s arse. Their squabbling, their loathing, their efforts to one-up each other, and to strive together in service of a common goal, is wonderful. It, well, sparks joy. The air crackles with the dialogue, and it keeps your attention - the wit and artistry on display is wonderful, and also, it’s a great deal of fun.

The story, I shan’t spoil. It’s a mystery wrapped in an enigma. A story about deciding how far you’re willing to go for an ultimate prize. About deciding who you are, and the sacrifices you’re willing to make. But also a story about Gideon finding herself, finding friendship, finding love, and occasionally kicking arse. There are personal struggles, new friends, and conflicts that range from epically sprawling to deeply individual duels of magic and blade. The central mystery is compelling, and it’ll keep you turning the page time after time after time, wanting to see what happens next, and hoping the story doesn’t have to end. This is a great book, a great start to a series, and one I would totally recommend

Wednesday, May 13, 2020

Of Mice and Minestrone - Joe R. Lansdale

It’s that time again: when I take a few minutes to stop trying to convince all of you to go and read whichever cool SF&F book is on my desk at the moment, and instead try and convince all of you to read the next Hap & Leonard book. Joe R. Lansdale has been writing these books for quite some time now - I think there’s now something in the area of twenty books, and three seasons of a TV show. The series, centred around the titular old-poor Texan Hap, and his “brother” Leonard, Vietnam veteran, black cowboy extraordinaire, and lover of vanilla cookies, has quite a pedigree. What it also has is a sense of adventure, an ability to show the reader a good time without compromising on the narrative values which it wants to put across, and some concisely but precisely crafted characters who you might not want to meet in a dark alley, but are startlingly human with it.

This collection of short stories, Of Mice and Minestrone, digs into the backstory of the dynamic duo. Leonard, fresh from the army, and Hap, fresh from prison as a conscientious objector, are trying to live their lives - peacefully, quietly, they’ll enjoy it. As usual, though, life has other plans.

One of the things that makes this collection work is the sense of place. The dark, star-filled humidity of east Texas is vividly present in the mind’s eye. Small towns where everyone knows each other, for good or ill, are as much characters as the people who live within them. Those people are wonderful, too - not in themselves, because some of them are properly terrible, but in their humanity. Quiet, backwoods mafia bagmen stand cheek-by-jowl with down on their luck boxers, sullen bartenders and abusive husbands whose every-day evil is grimly palpable. It’s not all bad news, of course. In bars at the back of beyond, or in the quietly domestic family scenes of cooking and connection, there is room to show off the best of humanity. The world is familiar, populated with real people, but has a strangeness to it, delving into a Texas that feels as far in mindset, in time, as it is in geography from now. This is a place showcasing the best and worst of humanity, and we’re embedded in it, appalled by the latter, luxuriating in the former.

Hap and Leonard are the stars, of course, and you can’t fault them for it. The chemistry between the two leads is intense enough to crackle in moments of stress, but comfortable enough that even in this early stage of their lives, they clearly know each other as well as best friends can. They’re just fun, are Hap and Leonard - starting bar fights, taking no crap from small town racists, sitting around having a big bowl of chili. They’re a comfort to all of us, a certainty in uncertain times, that good, or at least goo-ish, can triumph, and that one small corner of the world is the better off for having them in it. These are stories for people who’ve already absorbed the small-town charm of the series, already know that blend of comfortable friendship, refusal to back down to bullies, and the occasional kinetic arse-kicking. But you could dip in as a new reader too, and find them just as entertaining, these tales. Give them a whirl - they’ll make you smile, and take you to a different place, a different time, and show you some of what was terrible and beautiful about it.

(Also, there’s recipes for so much Texan home cooking on here, and it all, yes all, tastes delicious; a great resource on lockdown).

Overall, a fantastic collection, for old hands, and new readers of the series alike. Go out and give it a try, you won’t regret it. 

Wednesday, May 6, 2020

A Time Of Courage - John Gwynne

So here we are. A Time of Courage.  Conclusion to John Gwynne’s second series set in his Banished Lands universe. As some of you probably remember, I’ve been really excited about Gwynne’s work for years. It has the sort of vivid world building that sucks you into the story, the tightly drawn, human characterisation of protagonists and those that oppose them, and a story that carries that kind of compulsive quality that means reading late into the night is no longer an option as much as it is a necessity.

It’s an absolute pleasure to report that Gwynne has done it again. This is a book which will hit you like an axe to the chest. Each chapter in this journey is filled with revelation, betrayal, bitter defeat, and a wonderful blend of tragic defeat and glorious victory.  Characters - no, people - that you’ve come to feel for, and care about over three books, or six, may finally get what they deserve - one way or the other. The gloves, I am not kidding, are off. This is a crescendo brought to life in the people of this world, in their loves and lives and feuds, fears and victories.

It’s genuinely difficult to talk about the final book in a series without spoilers, but I’m guessing you can tell I really enjoyed it. So a word on logistics: If you’re coming into the third book in the series - yes, this does appear to be the final part of the sequence right now. No, you don’t need to have read both series in this universe in order to appreciate this one. Yes, you should read the other two books in this series, at least, before you come to this one. Or start with the first series anyway.

For those of you that are already here, already invested. Yes. The world is still glorious. The towers of giant-built citadels still scrape the skies. Vile revenants stalk the land in cloaks of mist and violence. Speaking personally, they make my skin crawl, the prose keeping my attention with the grim intensity of razor teeth at the throat. Ancient servants of an ancient creator continue an endless feud, regarding humanity as mildly-helpful idiots at best, chattel and food at worst. But the people soar in that world. The heroes have a fire in them that you can see pouring off the page. They have the flaws and struggles and scars that make us human, for sure. But beneath those is a core of humanity, of decency which makes them  And the antagonists range from the alien, thrillingly malevolent and inscrutably inhuman, to the prosaic; Gwynne’s talent at making atrocious people who are still the heroes of their own story, and for whose journey you can empathise without sympathising, is considerable. Both sides of the coin have emotional heft, and will make you care.

Which is just as well, because the world is ending. The plot is a snappy one, driving up into a rolling boil that left me gasping between chapters. It delivers, one page at a time. Again, no spoilers, but this is an ending that these characters deserve - glorious and real and true. The battles are visceral and bloody, shields slamming together with a force that cracks stars, arrows thrumming through the air with a grace that ends in blood. You won’t be able to look away, and you may not want to. But it works because of the people, because we believe in them, in the world they live in, we believe that they matter.

Truth and Courage are the watchwords, and they’re on display here from the first page to the last. This is a fantastic and fierce work of fantasy, and a marvellous ending to a great series. If you’re wondering if it’s worth seeing through to the end, let me assure you now, the answer is yes.