Tuesday, June 30, 2020

Happy Canada Day!

Some of you may know we moved to Canada this year.
Well, Wednesday, our regular posting day, is also Canada day, a public holiday, so we’re taking a break this week.
We’ll be back next week, thoroughly rested!

Wednesday, June 24, 2020

Demon In White - Christopher Ruocchio

Demon In White is the third in Christopher Ruocchio’s Sun Eater series, a sprawling space opera with galactic scope, and one I’ve spoken about very positively in the past. This instalment takes a lot of the stuff I loved about the first two books - galactic conflict, knives-out politics, rich world-building and strong characterisation - and turned them up to eleven. People scheme. Things go boom. Secrets are revealed. A galactic war soars to new heights. It’s thoughtful science fiction, asking interesting questions about the human condition, but it’s also extremely fun to read, and that alone, apart from all its other virtues, would be enough to recommend it.

We’re back in the universe of Hadrian Marlowe. It’s a universe where humanity has escaped the surly bonds of Earth, and spread throughout the galaxy. Where a time before galactic colonisation is less history than myth. Where a war between rebellious humans and AI left humanity scarred, averse to technology, and with a technophobic priesthood on hand to make sure that the mistakes of the past are not made again. Where humanity is ruled by an aristocracy whose genetic modifications render them near immortal, inhumanly fast and strong, but also sterile. This is the universe of the Sun Eater.

The largest part of the human galactic polity is the Empire into which Hadrian Marlowe fits. Its institutions are modelled on ancient Rome, and the ersatz romanitas blended with remnants of high technology makes for a compelling setting. The mix of late antiquity and far future is a potent one. But the Empire is surrounded by enemies and uncertain allies - from the edges of humanity come the Solarians, who augment their bodies with technology in ways the Empire forbids, to the ravening, cannibalistic hordes of the alien Cielcin. And the Empire is losing. The floating cities of the hartworld of Forum still fly, and the court of the emperor is as lavish as ever, but each battle in this war is costing humanity dearly, even as that cost pays for their continued survival. It’s a cold universe, where the Empire, brutal and feudal as it can be, is still a bright centre of learning, truth and a future for humanity. But the tension of that society is being ranked higher every day, as the Cielcin devour world after world, or are driven away under mountains of bone.

This universe is vivid and real, the splash of blood on a nano-molecular blade being as starkly visible as the towering hulks of Cielcin siege engines, or the quiet, dusty, weighted reality of hidden datavaults clutching forbidden secrets from a lost past. There’s so, so much here it’s hard to talk about it all. It’s enough to say that this universe feels real, feels live din. It shows off the panoply and glory of its institutions in a way that makes you gasp and turn the page, while not shying away from showing the price of that empire, the mud, the blood, the sheer hard graft and sacrifice that keeps the wheels turning. And that too, the essential humanity of glorious institutions built on the back of blood and bone and sacrifice, will keep you turning pages.

Which brings us back to Marlowe. A man who is turning slowly to dreadful things. We’ve seen him in his youth, fiery for change to a system which is, to be fair, systemically unfair. Desperate to form a dialogue with the monsters that threaten humanity, to show that thinking species can reach across the gulf of understanding. This is another Marlowe. One tired of politics and conflict. One with dead friends. With centuries of life under his belt, a lot of it on ships of war. This Marlowe still has that vitality, and it shows: in his love for his partner, and in his affection for his friends and the troops under his command. But there’s harder edges to him now, a willingness to demand sacrifice, even as he’s willing to make them himself. Hadrian Marlowe may now have something of a longer fuse, and more self awareness, but he’s still trying to make the Empire fit his ideals of what it could be, rather than what it actually is. Again, to be fair, he’s not alone in this. All sorts of people in the Imperial court are trying to do their best inside a system which shapes how they can respond to it. But Marlowe’s our protagonist - an unwilling politician, a reluctant hero. The old dream, of living a quiet, scholarly life among the remnants of the past has been swept aside by the reality of military actions and holding things together. I’m not sure Hadrian is a good man, and neither we nor the text can afford ot lionise his choices, even as they get more difficult - but he does make for an interesting, conflicted protagonist, doing “heroic” things, but always on the edge, always not seeing himself outside of others eyes, or out from under the shadow of his past.I’m not sure I always like Marlowe, but I can understand him - his loves, his flashes of temper, his principles, and the hard decisions he makes which have the potential to break with those principles. Hadrian is a whole person, as real as you or I, striding off the page with a blade on his hip, a clever plan on his tongue, and a lot of potential. In any event, he owns every part of the page he appears on, and that’s a joy to read.

In this he’s ably supported by a wonderful cast of comrades on arms, including a few whose appearance brought a genuine smile to my face. Their affection for their commander and esprit de corps are one thing, but the informal banter, the joshing and general signs of long acquaintance and friendship are all there, all showing us another way into this world. The lower decks aren’t faceless automatons, but soldiers with lives and loves and fates and names, and the story doesn’t forget that, and so neither do we. And then there’s Hadrian’s romance, which is (to repeat myself) so much fun. It’s understated, thoughtful and also obviously incredibly heartfelt, an underground torrent racing beneath the surface - and the subsurface - of a man we’re watching hold back the alien hordes. The pure strength of this affection on the page is awe inspiring, and its gentle heart keeps it human. It helps that his lady love is smart, effective, utterly unwilling to take any of Marlowe’s crap, and a force of nature in her own right, of course. It’s not ornate or explicit, but it is a very human kind of love, theirs, and very affecting.

So anyway. The story. In short: Good. Slightly longer? OK. There’s a lot going on here from Hadrian’s search for answers in forbidden vaults of unquiet knowledge, to some downright epic warfare involving humanity and the Cielcin. There’s some court politics mixed in there too, including opportunities for lost love and the slow building of simmering resentments over perceived slights. There’s gladiator combat that has the kinetic energy of a boot to the gut, and space battles that feel at one distant and clinical and immediate and bloody. Tension so thick you could only cut it with highmatter permeates the air, and old secrets are unearthed in a search for truth and victory. The story demands your attention, and it deserves it. This is another fine instalment in the Sun Eater series, and one I strongly encourage you to go and read immediately.

Wednesday, June 17, 2020

Ashes of the Sun - Django Wexler

Ashes of the Sun is the start of a new fantasy series from Django Wexler, whose Shadow Campaigns series I’ve gushed about repeatedly in the past.This is a new series, in a new world, and, just to get it out of the way, it’s really rather good.

One of the reasons that’s the case is the world, and the history that weaves its way through the background of the more immediate narrative. Because our eyes are focused on a society built on the ruins of magic. Humanity lives in walled cities and agrarian communes, but those population centres are built on the broken bones of someone else’s shattered empire. That empire was filled with magic and high technology, with craft that flew through the sky, and hand weapons that can fire quickly and melt stone. Humanity scavenges over the remains, often unable to differentiate trash and treasure. Sometimes both of those things explode messily. Sometimes they end up being exactly what you need to get rich and retire. Magic is, mostly, a half-understood remnant of power pulled from someone else's corpse. That doesn’t apply to everyone, though. There are the elites. Those who were handed power directly from the survivors of the conflict that shattered high civilisation, before those mysterious beings disappeared. Their heirs took power as a right, and as necessity, keeping back the swarms of biological monstrosities that remained in the post-conflict gloom. Centuries later, those with the ability to use this legacy are found, empowered, and trained to serve and protect the people around them, and to hunt down any possibly dangerous piece of techno-wizardry. Given that service comes with both supernatural power and essentially unlimited legal authority, and that the only challenge to that authority is dangerous pieces of techno-wizardry, that’s going about as well as you’d expect. There are simmerings of rebellion in out of the way places. Rumours of guardians misusing their power for their own aggrandisement, of corruption and abuse of power. The world is, basically, not in a great state, and as we can see, it didn’t start in the best place either. But in terms of depth, of detail,of scope of imagination, this world is marvellous.

Maya and Gyre are our protagonists, siblings on different sides of a simmering war. Maya was taken by the magical elites as a child, her potential honed, her skills sharpened, her sense of purpose shaped to the mission of keeping humanity safe. Maya is, basically, a heroine. She believes in her mission, she believes in the basic worth of people, and she’s committed to fighting off the various ghouls, biological horrors and more human monsters that plague the world. It’s refreshing to see someone with this level of virtue front and centre in the story. That isn’t to say that Maya is uncomplicated - she struggles with her own sense of inadequacy, and trying to twin her values with the pragmatism of someone required in the field. And her greatest failing is, perhaps, her inability to map her own personal virtues against the systemic oppression, corruption and broadly problematic stances of the organization in which she as raised. The exploration of same, incidentally, is a wonderful arc in her growth, and also something it was a pleasure to explore as a reader. But still, she shines, a champion for a different age, unfortunately cast into this one. Watching her find  her feet and start figuring out who she is was an interesting and emotionally affecting journey.

In contrast to Maya, her brother is...well, I’ll call it morally flexible. Gyre has one goal - the overthrow of the system which took his sister from him. In service to that goal he’ll do pretty much anything, pair up with pretty much anyone. He has friends, and colleagues, and they have ideals and want to serve up revolution and compromise. But Gyre, Gyre is ready to tear down the system, whatever the cost, and doesn’t really care what happens next. He’s ambitious, fights like a demon, and has a core of charisma which comes off the page and grabs you. Gyre is perhaps less individually “good” than Maya, but may serve a more sympathetic cause - though, like her, he could stand to examine the ideals he’s in service of a little more closely. Still, as a contrasting (and conflicting) duo, they’re a joy to follow on the page. They live, laugh and love as people do, and feel their woes and tragedies just as strongly. In short, we can empathise and sympathise with them both, even as they struggle with their internal problems and, well, each other.

In this they’re helped by an absolutely top notch supporting cast, from archivists to revolutionaries, smart-arsed scouts to mildly-insane scavengers, and, indeed, monsters of all varieties. Though not centre stage, they provide colour and texture, romance and heartbreak in equal measure, and always manage to make the reader, well, feel.

The story I shan’t spoil for you, but it’s a firecracker. There are magical duels, with more than a little stabbing. Horrifying villains who’ll make your skin crawl, and antagonists whose very plausibility makes them rather disturbing. There’s petty vendetta’s and world-scouring vengeance. There’s the quiet warmth of friendship, and the searing joys of romance. There’s love and death and blood and grief. There’s techno-mage archaeology, and chases which, somehow, managed not to feature giant boulders rolling after you, but felt like they could. This is a complicated, human world, with characters you’ll care about, and a story which I, for one, couldn’t put down. Go pick it up!

Wednesday, June 10, 2020

Unconquerable Sun - Kate Elliot

Before I get into the detail: Unconquerable Sun is incredible. It blends tightly written heart-pounding sci-fi action with sharply observed and complex characterisation, in a richly detailed universe. It had me turning pages at 2AM, wanting to know what happened and not wanting the story to end. If you’re a fan of military sci-fi, this is for you. If you’re a fan of politics, intrigue and family drama with the occasional bout of lasers, this is for you. If you enjoy exploring a soaring worldscape, filled with fascinating institutions and a deep cultural background...this is for you. That may seem like a lot, and it is - this is a cracking story, which takes each individual element, themselves wonderfully done, and blends them into something on a whole new level.

Again: Unconquerable Sun is incredible.

Part of that is the personalities at play. Sun herself is equal parts empathetic heroine and ruthless political player. She clearly cares for her companions, will laugh with them, stand with them in their trials, and avenge their deaths. But Sun is equally willing to eliminate a potential threat, to take drastic action quickly, and to rely on her skills to ride out the consequences of her actions. This is an intelligent woman, no doubt, forceful and driven and determined - but also one with a temper, and perhaps a little too keen to take what she feels she needs, rather than wait for it to arrive. But the energy and the drive and the ambition, tempered with that ruthless streak and a visible intelligence, mean that all of her time on the page absolutely sizzles.

The other central point of view is Persephone, one of the children of a family that bears Sun and hers no friendship. They’re powerful, vicious, and determined that in any given power struggle, they’re going to come out on top. Persephone, however, has flown the coop, setting out with an assumed name and a can-do attitude in order to make a name for herself somewhere far, far away from the family business. This...does not go entirely to plan. Persephone is a study in contrasts with Sun. She’s incisive, quick witted, but more contemplative. A decent shot, but willing to stand beyond her leader and offer good advice.Able to compromise, but perhaps not compromise her principles. The pair are fire and ice, and they make an absolutely dazzling pair.

There are others represented here too - including the enemies of both women, and those they might think of as antagonists, but who may have other motivations. But I’d suggest they hold the central dynamic, and that the sparks between them are a marvel to behold. Others - like Sun’s companions, who act as her honour-guard in whatever trouble she falls into - are given enough room to manoeuvre that they feel real, and I have a special place in my heart for the implied history between the Queen, Sun’s mother, and one of Persephone’s family, which just simmers with old loyalties and newer grudges. The characters are alive, is the point. They walk the stage with passionate intensity, and quiet humanity.

That stage spans star systems. Linked together by artificial lines that allow faster than light travel, empires and republics sprawl beneath the light of a great many distant suns. We hear some of the history of Sun’s home, and those of its nearest and dearest aggressors. They are, after all, what informs the conflicts occurring right now. It’s a rich and vivid history, and, I can’t lie, one I want to hear more about, as soon as possible. There are little details scattered around the text, building a history of these worlds in the background, alongside the more up front information. There’s a lot to unpack, which is wonderful - and the story gives us splashes of history, colour and context as it goes along - never enough to be overwhelming, but always enough that we feel informed. I’d really like to hear more about the ancient history of these polities, and how they shaped themselves to where they are now - but in the end, all I can say is that the world feels lived in, feels real, feels true.

The story is a whirlwind of espionage, intrigue and high-octane action sequences. The story gives us an empire writ large, with knives out in the streets, blood in the gutters, and the sparkling of beam-weapon fire in the graceful dance of starships overhead. This is a glorious space opera, filled with personal conflicts, with love and tragedy in equal measure, with starships sweeping between solar systems in epic geometry, and soldiers face down in the mud. It’s a soaring epic, this narrative, but focused by its strong characterisation on the human element. In summary, this is a smart, fast-paced work of space opera, and one which will keep you turning pages long, long into the night.

Wednesday, June 3, 2020

Phoenix Extravagant - Yoon Ha Lee

Phoenix Extravagant is, well, it’s good. Actually, strike that. It’s great. It’s a story which wants to get you thinking about big questions - about colonialism, about identity, about family, about the nature of choice. But it’s not a weighty treatise. The story artfully weaves all of these big questions into more personal narratives, into the lives and loves and struggles of the characters, creating something which sparkles on the page, which compels you to turn just one more page, and, above all, is a delight to read.

As you can tell from the above, I rather enjoyed this one. One of the core reasons for that is the protagonist, Jyen Gebi. Jyen Gebi isn’t a Chosen One, or a general, or a powerful politician. Jyen Gebi is an artist. Jyen Gebi is just getting by, as much as they can, as well as they can, under difficult circumstances. They’re easy to sympathise with, just wanting to get on, do their job, do it well, and pay the rent. There’s a vulnerability and an honesty there, a sense of an everyday person just trying to get by. Jyen Gebi is thoughtful, introspective, someone trying to break free of the socio-economic constraints fitted around them; or at least, wanting to make those constraints chafe a little less. And they’re genuine - warm, and funny, and friendly. Not romantic per se, but willing to build relationships, to put the work in. Someone who knows what the right thing is, and will at least try to see it through.

It helps (perhaps) that we can contrast Jyen Gebi with their older sister: fierce, driven, uncompromising, she is. A wonderful contrast to Jyen’s capacity for accommodation of circumstance. Because that passion is dangerous, It can lead you into all sorts of trouble, especially in the world these two inhabit.

They’re not alone in that world, of course, being surrounded by a supporting cast that includes ominous government ministers, well-connected art dealers, elegant duelists and, well, a dragon. The latter I don’t want to discuss in too much detail, for fear of spoilers, but watching them adjust to the world, experience it fresh, deciding who and what they are and will be, is wonderful and each turn of the page is downright refreshing.

All of these folks are living in a world whose story seeps out of the page over time. It begins in a city under occupation, where cultural heritage and memory are being appropriated or expunged. Where the people - not the aristocracy, but the regular run of people - are adjusting to their new state of being, to their new leadership, and where the new leadership are trying to shape the people in line with their own cultural mores, their own truths. And that city, with its undercurrents of racial and cultural tension, its overt military control, its revolutionaries and collaborators...that city is simmering and may yet boil over. I must admit, walking the neighbourhoods with Jyen Gebi is a joy, seeing them thrive and live and absorb their new cultural overlords, or rage at their arrival. At the blockhouse of the ministry of armour, or the lavish rooms of a dealer in fine art. This is a pcle which you can see in your minds eye, feel, smell even. The words that draw this into being construct a work of art that you build out yourself, and have a sense of place, a sense of reality to them as a result. The city lives.

The plot. Look, I won’t spoil it for you, but it’s intriguing, it’s thoughtful, it will make you think, and it’s fun. There’s romance, charmingly structured and passionately compelling. There’s swordfights. There’s highwire tension, friendship, betrayal, joy and terror in equal measure. This is a story which made me gasp, which made me laugh, which wrung out my heart and, above all, a story which made me feel. It’s a fantastic story, one I deeply enjoyed, and one which you’ll enjoy as well.