Wednesday, July 29, 2020

How to Rule an Empire and Get Away With It - K.J. Parker

At this stage, my being enthusiastic about the latest K.J. Parker novel can’t be a surprise. And that streak is going to continue with How to Rule an Empire and Get Away With It, which is equal parts social commentary, elaborate heist, and war story. It also has an extremely long title, but you can’t have everything - and as a sort-of sequel to the equally lengthily titled Sixteen Ways to Defend a Walled City, it’s on-brand. And much like that book, it's very, very good.

This is Parker at their best, frankly. The narrator is unreliable, intelligent, incisive, and sarcastic. The narrative voice, tied to the internal monologue of the character, is clear, personable, and thoroughly entertaining. As usual, Parker shines at giving us a protagonist we can root for who is at once thoroughly likable and rather flawed. Identity, come to think of it, is one of the key themes of the text. Watching our lead, a some-time professional actor-slash-impersonator, struggle to define who they are through the constraints of their own unreliable narration is a joy. When they’re still struggling to define themselves against their own legacy, how are we supposed to take what they say as entirely true.

Speaking of which, this is a story which does dip back into the past now and again, telling us the story of our protagonist’s childhood, from his own eyes, showing us, little by little, how he ended up where he is, and also how he ended up as the person that he is. Some other parts of the story are laugh out loud funny, and even these sections can get a subversive chuckle out of me, but there’s some grim reading here, dark steel beneath warmer words. The child of an enforcer in the Themes, the unofficial gangs of the City, our narrator comes from a heritage of violence, extortion, and outright murder. Struggling to shake off that heritage helps shape them, and they also have enough self-awareness to acknowledge the role that their childhood has in making them who they are. Frankly, the way that we start with an enigma, and gradually see parts of our narrator’s history field in by their own recollections, and from other characters in dialogue, is compelling stuff, and the slow drip of revelation and discovery made the story all the more intriguing.

So yes. Rock solid protagonist. Top banter. Clever. Thinks things through. Unreliable, though with a bit more of a moral centre than a lot of Parker’s other leads. Honestly, I love the characterisation here, it’s top notch. And that extends to the other characters as well. Some of them we only meet briefly, but you can feel the desperation, the sweat on their palms as they try and extricate themselves from a bad situation. Or the auger-like sharpness of a calculating gaze, weighing the odds, deciding when would be a good time to make that one roll that means either retirement to a money vault, or a rather rapid demise. Because our lead isn’t the only smart person around. There are others, and they all have an agenda of their own. Watching the fencing, the squabbling, the betrayals and moments of self-doubt, it helps shape this world,and show that there are people here, with agency, recognising or struggling against institutional inevitabilities.

As an aside, Parker has always been good about writing women who are as thoroughly realised and developed as characters as the men, and that trend continues here. There’s an abundance of sharp-witted, driven female characters here, with their own agency, utterly unwilling to take any crap from the protagonist, and getting on with their own lives, with their own goals. They’re not here to provide an incentive, or be the plot - they’re here to seize the initiative, and shape the world to their needs.

In the end, the characters here are, frankly, wonderful. They live, they breathe, and occasionally they die very quickly. Each of them feels like a person, and you can feel for them. If I had to pin down what makes them work, I’d say its their humanity - the pettiness, the spite, the conflict, and the moments of hope, of joy, of genuine love sprinkled through. These are people, and people matter. Which means that you keep turning the pages, to see what happens next.

Speaking of what happens next: Parker has always done narrative chess well, laying out all the pieces line by line, word by word, stepping the character and the readers through it until the story has the momentum of a hurtling boulder, born from the first few lines, way back at the beginning. So it is here. There’s a lot going on. This is a city under siege from an army sworn to destroy everything inside. And so there are rushes at gates. There are attempts to storm the walls, and heroic citizens laying down their lives for their culture. There’s saps and counter saps  - I learned a surprising amount about siege mining! Basically, there’s a war on. And if we’re not often on the front lines, in the dark, feeling the grate of blade against bone, we’re watching the high level discussions about how the City can survive, what to do next, how to keep things moving from one day to the next. There’s issues with logistics, and, for example, a genuinely interesting bit on the role of fire brigades. And it works! It’s sometimes funny, always utterly convincing, and smart enough to keep your attention. The war is there, driving us forward, making our protagonist make choices, decide what to do, and what the results of those choices mean about who he is.

Anyway. At the end of the day, this is another cracking story from Parker. It has the superlative characterisation they’re known for, as well as the complex plotting, the devastating twists and turns, and the beautifully structured, thoroughly believable world. This is a fantastic story, and, as usual, I think you should give it, and Parker, a tr

Wednesday, July 22, 2020

The First Sister - Linden A. Lewis

The First Sister is a sci-fi debut from Linden A. Lewis, and, just to get this out of the way now, it’s really rather good. The characterisation is absolutely stellar. The world is interesting, populated by interesting little details and a fascinating history, and the narrative was compulsive reading, and left me wanting more. Basically, it’s a fun read, and one I can wholeheartedly recommend.

So, that world I was talking about? It’s a world in conflict. Interplanetry war is real, and here to stay. One faction of humanity has spread its metaphorical wings, and moved to the orbit of Mercury, where the discovery of a super-material has allowed them to build a high-tech society in which many of humanity’s basic needs and wants are satisfied. That said, the utopia may not be all that it seems, and a price may still be paid. But the Icarii, as they call themselves, are apple to make use of technological weaponry beyond the grasp of most, including swords made of matter that forms at a thought, and implants that allow their elites to shunt away pain, or fear, or doubt. They stand astride their world like deities, facing down the outer planets. For Earth and Mars are a hegemony, driven by war, by religion, and by the need to capture Mercury’s technology to drive the regeneration of their own dying planets. Both societies have the well-worn texture of the real, from the cool, clinical corridors of the Icarii military command, to the claustrophobic corridors of an Earth cruiser, via the remnants of community being rebuilt after conflict on the moon of Ceres, with all the discrete corners, forgotten people and horse trading that implies. This is a universe which has its own sacrifices, its own edges, one which is different enough to surprise, and familiar enough to ground its horrors in reality. These are people we see here, living their lives in the shadow of war, or in the rigid anxiety and gentle terror of encroaching oppression.

And onto this stage steps First Sister, to take hold of it, humanise it. As the first of her sisterhood on an Earth cruiser, she acts as a means of comfort and confession for its captain; the sisterhood are as religious icons to their crew, but also as comfort women. Subjugation and reification mixed together in a headily toxic brew, in a society geared for war, where young men are sent to die, and technology is prized. Where war machines stride shattered cities, and the role of women is ambiguous at best. The Sisters have their power, a power of shared secrets and intimacy, though it’s wrapped around by the power of the Aunts, those who can speak for the Sisters. Quite literally, as the Sisters have been rendered unable to speak. So they serve in silence, signing to each other, forbidden to write, knowing that when their youth and vitality fade, they’ll be moved into a servant class. These are less lives of quiet desperation than they are just regular desperation, and our First Sister shows that. Because while she is fiercely intelligent, driven to succeed, and talented, she lives in fear. The fear that what she has will be taken from her at a whim, at a word. First Sister lives in a world of delicate power dynamics, where one mis-step could end in disaster, surrounded by hungry eyes mouthing faithful platitudes. But oh, she’s a joy. In that environment, she flourishes, she fights, she works to survive and turn things her way - and does so while facing down her inner demons and crises of conscience. This is a book, in a lot of ways, about what we will allow. About what people will convince themselves needs to be done, and about where they’ll draw the line. First Sister has to make choices, decide which prices she’s willing to pay, what lines he’s willing to cross, and what she wants. To know what sort of person she is. A woman without a name, she’s seizing hold of life, refusing to be buffeted by fate, trying to choose her own path in the face of both personal and institutional pressure. I cheered her on every step of the way, and  was delighted that her story, with its intimacies, with its relationships (and points for some wonderful LGBTQIA+ representation), with its betrayals and lies and friendships and affections, could show off so much about the human condition. Because the First Sister is a person, like all of us, and comes off the page to stand before the reader as she works and struggles her way toward the life she deserves - which may or may not be the life she thinks she wants.

Which brings us to Lito. While First Sister showcases the Gaean (Earth and Mars) society for us, Lito shows us what’s going on for the Icarii. And Lito is drowning. Teaching cadets at a military academy, one half of a partnership torn asunder by war. Lito is one of the elite, having fought to join it from a background less than salubrious. Lito has fought and killed, been physically injured, and then left to recuperate without their partner, Hiro, whose absence is a deep seated anguish, an emotional amputation. I have to admire Lito for their obvious devotion to their partner, their desire to find them, to get them back from whatever hole they’ve fallen into, and for their quiet idealism. Lito isn’t unaware of the truths of the world they grew up in, of the point of privilege they now occupy, of what it took to get them there. But they’re struggling with their image of themselves, and with whether the society they’ve paid a cost to maintain was worth it. We do hear from Hiro as well, and, as an aside, the non-binary representation in the text is a joy, but it’s Lito’s story that comes to us and stands beside that of the First Sister, showing a physical power restrained by social oppression, by a military that looks on Lito as (at best) a tool, one which can be broken - and replaced. And like First Sister, Lito fights, struggles, drives forward trying to become their own version of themselves, something they can live with. The text puts them both through the wringer, and it’s agonising and wonderful at once.

I don’t want to get into the story, for fear of spoiling some fantastic reversals and revelations. But it was a truly gripping read. Each chapter left me at the edge of our couch, excited to see what the other characters were getting up to, and also desperate to see what happened to the ones I was switching away from. It’s a work of art, this story, art that kept me guessing all the way through about motivations, costs, and how it was going to end. This is a story about people, and about relationships, about systems and the way those can become less a means to help people than to hurt them - and about what happens when people decide they won’t take that sort of treatment any longer. It’s a story of treachery, and blood. It’s a story with more than one gruesome moment, of psychological or physical horror. But it’s also a story with bravery, and kindness and love at centre stage. A story about the voiceless finding their voice.

 And in the end it’s a damn good story, one I think you should read.

Wednesday, July 15, 2020

The Tyrant Baru Coromorant - Seth Dickinson

The Tyrant Baru Cormorant is the conclusion to Seth Dickinson’s Baru series. I absolutely adored the first of those, and the second was no slouch either; a conclusion had a lot to live up to. And, to get the tl;dr out of the way: it does. Absolutely smashes it. There’s a whole lot of stuff I loved from the first two books - life-in-crisis Baru, looking at deep moral and ethical issues through a fantasy lens, some baffling magic, and rock-solid, multi-layered characterisation. And then there’s some new cool stuff too. Spending some time in the heartland of the Empire. Baru getting asked some hard questions. Some intriguing backstory (more on that later). And, of course the sort of byzantine power plays, personal leveraging and political machinations from unexpected angles that help keep baru the savant alive. This is all the things I loved about the first two books, and you can rest assured that if you enjoyed those, this one proves to be a worthy conclusion..

Baru...oh, Baru is the heart of this book. A woman absolutely determined to do what must be done to reach her goals. Ruthless, driven, focused. After spending much of the previous book deep in depression and being dragged out of it, it’s good to see her on task. Well, I say good. Baru is definitely paying the cost for her actions, mostly by watching those costs happen to other people. There’s a moral corrosion which she’s aware of, as everyone else bears the price for her decisions, and as she weighs up whether to let them continue to do so, or walk away and pay the cost of that decision too. Part of the reason I love Baru so much is her complexity, and her internal conflicts. In other books, she might be seen as a villain, and is..absolutely responsible for some deeply sketchy stuff. But at the same time, we can see Baru as a person with a strong moral purpose, trying to do the best for her people, and for herself. Do the means justify the end? It’s a question that the narrative is asking the reader, not just about the protagonist, but about her opponents. It helps that Baru is self-aware enough to question whether she is, in other people’s lights, a monster. And the emotional heart of the book, her relationship with her old friend Amanita, and the tragedy of her love for a now-dead revolutionary, ground Baru, keep her human. If she’s sometimes odd, febrile, prone to lashing out, and too focused on the board and not the other players, still she can be empathised with, understood, seen sympathetically. Baru is complicated, as are we all - and in trying to break apart forces both personal and systemic, she’s someone we can stand alongside, even as they do terrible things.

Anyway. If you’re this deep in the series, you know Baru. Know this: you’re going to see the costs of Baru’s actions paid. You’ll see her work through her understanding of who and what she is. Of what she’s willing to do. You’ll see love and family and professionalism and respect and madness and outright hate. It’s going to get emotionally messy. But it’s Baru, whose inner life (and trauma) is richly realised here, and who comes to us as a living, breathing person. Reading this is going to hurt. It may make you laugh, it’ll probably make you cry. It may rip your heart out of your chest...possibly literally. It will, to coin a phrase, be emotional. Be warned. But its also fantastic.

The world...well, we don’t spend quite as much time at sea as previously. But we do get to see some mind bendingly imaginative, and occasionally horrifying environments. Falcrest, the city, gets a look in, the towering spires of the shining city on the hill, mixed with the cold cells, and reconditioning rooms, and icepicks to the frontal lobe. There’s also some time spent with the Mbo, drawing us back into the past, looking at the reaching hand of Falcrest, and the rise of the Cryptarchs whose later presence has put such a weight onto Baru. We can see history at work here, the underpinnings of the modern tragedy in the heroics of the past. And the Mbo, its warmth and its reliance on intrinsic social bonds, and its reaction to threats...all those things stand as a fascinating contrast to the Falcresti model of industrial society. It has its flaws as well, and the text does not flinch away from those, but lets the reader think and draw their own conclusions from the options on the table, and from the people living within the systems. Quite whether any system can be good, or just less oppressive, is something I had to think about as the story drew to a close - but I was also thinking about the clinical efficiency and ravening energy of the Falcresti, and the hospitality, the warmth, and the stratification of the Mbo. It’s a difficult world, this one, filled with unknown terrors, and even the people we see are grist for the mill. But they are also, importantly, people, with faces, lives and names, and in the end, both the world and the people in it feel important, feel real.

I won’t go into the story, but will say that it kicks off very strongly, and only improves from there. As Baru drives forward, the story carries her along, a fast-flowing river that becomes a torrent of plays, counter-plays, betrayals, revelations and revolutions. There is, basically, always something going on, and that something always grabbed my attention and kept my eyes on the page. I wanted to see how this one shook out, see what Baru could do, what she would allow herself to do, and how the various seemingly unsolvable moral and ethical dilemmas (and their rather more immediate physical counterparts - threats of warm invasion or world-ending pestilence) would turn out. This is a story with bite, which stands before you unflinching and asks you to follow it through, and to think it through as well. It made me gasp, genuinely, more than once, and swear, loudly, more than once too. This is the ending I was hoping for, once which takes the investment I made in the characters and the world, and makes it worth it.

If you’ve reached this point in the series, I can only urge you to finish it - because this is a book i was sad to finish, and a book I couldn’t stop reading. It’s a fantastic ending, and one that delivers on the promise of earlier installments - so go read it.

Wednesday, July 8, 2020

Chaos Vector - Megan O'Keefe

Chaos Vector is the second book in Megan O’Keefe’s Protectorate series. I’ve been a fan of O’Keefe’s work for ages, and really enjoyed Velocity Weapon, the first in this sci-fi series, so hopes were high on this one. And it definitely delivers. There’s a lot of entertaining, high-concept sci-fi in there - from pieces of jump-gate plans living inside people’s skulls, to gunships coasting between the stars, to off-the grid research stations trying to find their way around the technological restrictions of humanity’s interstellar government, and well, all sorts of dark secrets that I won’t speak about for the sake of spoilers. But underneath that, this is a story about people, and relationships. That said, there’s an absolute cracker of a story here too, as those characters investigate old mysteries, are caught up in new conspiracies, and kick some serious arse.

The universe...well, it’s one where a brewing system-wide war is (at least nominally) over. But there’s still a question of how to handle the aftermath. We mostly see one side of this - a space filled with diplomats and crisis management, and a sense of underlying tension in everything that gets done. There’s a ticking clock here, as the survivors on both sides try and work out how to keep everyone alive. We also get to see more from the mysterious Keepers. They handle most of the governance for the system(and, indeed, outside it), each carrying around part of the knowledge needed to construct the gates that let humanity move between the stars. One of our protagonists is now firmly embedded in the Keepers, and finding his ideals, his idea of what the group should be, running on the rocks of what it actually is. Partly this is because of the drive of organisations to perpetuate themselves, and partly...other factors. There are some sections of the story which draw us back into the past, looking at the formation of the Keepers, the construction of the Gates, and how humanity was shaped into the society we’re seeing in the rest of the story - and both the older organisation, striving for survival with both vitality and appalling ruthlessness, and the “current” one are fascinating, believable, compelling and, occasionally, horrifying. This is a story which shows us systems and societies as a means of challenging both their internal assumptions, and those of the reader. From orbital habitats run by clandestine researchers, to the military arm of the Keepers, and over to nefarious, high-stakes band of assassins-slash-retrieval specialists, there’s a diversity and depth to the social structures, providing a rich and imaginative playground for our characters to, well, make a mess of. 

On which note: Sanda and Biran are back! They both carry on their viewpoints from the previous book, and both are an absolute joy. Sanda is in full take-no-prisoners mode, running on adrenaline, kicking arse and taking names. But in between those moments where she shakes things until they come loose, there are quieter periods of reflection> Sanda is trying to work out who she is now, struggling with internalising her role as a public heroine with her own desire to do her job, quietly, efficiently and with as little fuss as possible. At the same time, she has the sense of moral purpose, clarity and strength of personality to drive forward, to search out truth, try and understand things, and to change them for the better. Sanda is being put into a constructed role, true enough, but she is managing to embody the principles behind that role regardless, even as she struggles to define herself, rather than be defined by others. Sanda...ah, she’s complicated, in the best way. Her relationship with her family - warmly affectionate with her parents, and her brother - is a genuine high point. Her self-doubts, conflicts and desire to be better are easy to empathise with, and make her both sympathetic and more human. And Sanda is agonisingly, wonderfully human; a person who could step off the page and have a drink and a chat with you, and that’s a fact.

Biran is equally intriguing. Now fully immersed in Keeperdom, he’s a charmer, a fast-talker, and slowly, slowly getting to grips with the levers of power. If he’s an idealist, still, that’s wonderful - but the tarnish is there, as he tried to leverage a system which doesn’t want to be useful to do what he requires of it. His love for Sanda is clear and comforting, and helps keep him grounded. Still, Biran seems fit to survive and thrive in the cutthroat world of Keeper politics. His caution, and willingness to internalise struggles whilst displaying another face to the world, is by turns impressive and troubling. Still, as someone trying to do the right thing, despite his flaws, Biran is great fun to travel alongside.

They’re surrounded by a truly fantastic supporting cast, including some complex, believable, and occasionally downright appalling antagonists. In all cases, though, there are no caricatures. Each of our (probable) heroes and (possible) villains has their own agenda, their own needs and drives, which make them feel real, and alive. We may not agree with their choices - vehemently so, even - but can see where they’re coming from. They have a depth and integrity that makes them concretely, believably real.

And the story...well, this one’s a doozy. I don’t want to go into any detail, because the twists, the reveals, the turn-on-a-dime gasp of surprise, well, they’re all here, and I won’t be the one to ruin it for you. But this is a tightly plotted narrative, winding up tension and clicking down to the denouement with beautiful precision. It’s a story which is happy to lead you up the metaphorical garden path, and then behind the metaphorical woodshed, where you’ll run into some metaphorical muggers. What I thought was going on...well, it often was, but the reasons why, and the context of those reasons, were liable to change, to revelation, to differences in points of view and clarity. This is a book which made me sayNo way..” a lot. It’s a really interesting story, in any case - talking about the stories we tell ourselves personally, and as a society; the way sometimes those stories are lies, and the way that sometimes they also reveal more hidden truths. About what humanity is, what it tells itself it is, and what it can be. About the need for regular people to be decent, and about the price we can be willing to pay to reach our goals. Some of this story is captured in the marvellous, sometimes searingly emotional character work, but it’s also there in the questions the story asks of us, and the answers it (sometimes) provides.

This is a very clever book, asking interesting questions, showing us people at their best and worst, in a world which is not only rich and imaginative, but feels wonderfully real. It’s a top-notch sequel, and highly, highly recommended.