Wednesday, August 26, 2020

The Baron of Magister Valley - Steven Brust

I came away from The Baron of Magister Valley smiling. It’s the epitome of a fun book, one crafted with obvious skill and passion, taking the reader on a journey that by turns excites and intrigues, horrifies and thrills. It’s got a story that kept my attention, and, as the sages say, had me turning pages, and protagonists who I cared about. There’s duels, wordplay, and a wonderful amount of baroque-yet-cunningly-crafted language. 

Speaking of which, I have to talk about the style. Anyone who picked up The Phoenix Guards, or one of Brust’s other Khaavren Romances books will be familiar with it. In theory, they’re all written by the same in-universe historian, Paarfi of Roundwood, whose academic feuds and tendency to pointed outrage at petty injustices suffuse the subtext of the story. And Paarfi is a long-winded fellow. In this, he follows the tradition of Dumas, whose works are, shall we say, an homage to Paarfi, rather than the other way around. Paid by the word, Dumas gave us flowery descriptions of every, er, description, and dialogue which laced beautifully shaped prose through a structure which meant you got rather a lot of it for your money. And Paarfi is the same. There’s rather a lot of characters asking if someone wants them to answer a question, hearing the reply, confirming that they have heard the reply, replying to the confirmation, replying to the reply, and then maybe actually providing some information. It can be a bit hard to get your head around. But after a while, you don’t notice - the words themselves flow together in a cadence which is both a surprisingly restful read, and also compels you to turn the next page. 

I suppose I’m saying that, if you’re new to Paarfi’s style, don’t worry, you get used to it. Like klava without honey in it, you may even come to enjoy it after a little while!

The story...well, depending on who you believe about who published first, you could say it bears a certain similarity to Dumas’ The Count of Monte Cristo. Taking the place of the Count is Eremit, the young scion of a noble family, recently come into possession of resources. This does not end well for him. Eremit is a wonderful portrait of someone unjustly confined, pacing the walls of their cell, marking time, trying to find a meaning and purpose in the slow monotony of their lives. Eremit is also a vivid actor when given the chance for vengeance, a mastermind with a ticking clock, moving his enemies like chess pieces, giving a comeuppance which was extremely cathartic to read. He’s easy to sympathise with, is Eremit, and his actions are always justified; thi is a paean to righteous vengeance. But it starts with a different person, a young man looking at the sun travelling over the sea - and the proof of the growth of his character is that, over time, that boy seems unlike Eremit to both himself and us. The pages that make up the text are those that shape Eremit, and drive him toward the heart of vengeance on a corrupt system, and the individuals which enable it - and if he is changed by that experience, then so too are we changed by having it with him. 

Livosha, Eremit’s betrothed, is perhaps the other significant point of view here. While Eremit’s initial stages are those of confinement and apathy driven by injustice, Livosha is an active agent, struggling to escape from carnage, survive tragedy, and take back what is hers. Livosha is charming, thoughtful, deadly with a blade - and as driven by the need for survival and for revenge as is Eremit. Her relationship with her family has some genuinely charming banter in it, and watching her kick arse and take names, whilst slowly re-ascending the steps of a society which ignored her when she was cast down - well, it’s a pure joy. Livosha, having struggled through trials and tribulations, is someone you can cheer when they’re finally holding the edge of a sword to the throat of someone used to abusing a position of power. 

And that’s what this is, in the end. A world of nobility, of power, of corruption and abuse, wrapped in phantom structures of honour, where what is right is decided by connections, magic, and the number of blades. That world can be overturned by one or two people of good intent, who are determined to make something of it, something better. Dragaera will be changed by these two, and by their friends - and by the struggles they have against a cast of delightfully unpleasant villains. This is a world of sorcery and high adventure, but its tale of the struggle to rise up out from under a system of oppression, to have agency of ones own, and not to accept what the system doles out - those are messages that resonate very strongly today., has done it again. This is at once a searing indictment of modern society, a thrilling adventure story, and a cosy fantasy delight. And for all of those reasons, I suggest that you help Paarfi pay for his next cup of klava, and pick a copy up. It’s a lot of fun, and it’ll make you smile.

Wednesday, August 19, 2020

People of the City - Marshall Ryan Maresca


People of the City is the conclusion of a chapter in Marshall Ryan Maresca’s Maradaine saga. I've been talking about it for five years, and the series has always been a mosaic. Different characters have trilogies or sequences of their own, and those stories have interwoven to produce a narrative with a genuinely epic scope. We’ve seen crossovers between them, but here all of our heroes finally meet. The crime fighting superhero Thorn, the hard-working investigators Minox and Rainey, the Rynax brothers, and the Tarians Dayne and Jerinne - they’re all going to be drawn into a plot which has the potential to shake the literal foundations of the city of Maradaine. 

This is, above all, a fun book. It’s probably also one you’d want to be familiar with the rest of the series in order to truly enjoy. All of the central cast are established characters, and knowing their issues, what drives them, the costs which they’ve already borne, their quirks and in-jokes, will make the experience far richer. You can still read this as a standalone, I suspect, but it works better as a culmination of threads from all of the other works, being tied together into something larger.

With that in mind, there’s always a lot going on. The story starts off quickly, and ramps up the tension and pressure as it goes, pulling you along with it. There’s plots and counterplots here, new mysteries and the settling of old scores. If you’ve got a favourite character, worry not, they’ll have their moment in the sun. This is a song for the people of Maradaine. A paean for civic co-operation, and for the way that groups of ordinary people, standing as one, can be stronger together, can defeat any evil they put their mind and arm to. It’s also a story about evildoers trying to take over a city, using a wonderfully diabolical plan, and about a band of heroes coming together to kick arse and keep evil off the streets.

Is it good though? Yes. Yes it is. 

It has everything I’ve enjoyed in previous Maradaine novels. There’s the complex, compelling world building, which constructs a city with a real sense of itself, one which feels alive, one where the different neighbourhoods feel different. Where the politics has the glitz and glamour and hard graft and seams of corruption we all know from our own lives. Where people make excellent pastries, and I surface from the page feeling hungry. Where magic and science collide, and construct wonders and horrors in equal measure. There’s the characterisation - here informed by books worth of back-adventures for each of the main characters, all of whom seem to be acting in line with their own needs. Some of the villainy is a little over the top, though in fairness, that felt like it added to the fun, but in general, the people on the page are as real as we are. Working hard jobs, going for a pint, looking for love - and, occasionally, trying to overthrow the government, or saving people from assassination attempts. 

The story rattles along wonderfully. I always wanted to know what the next page brought, and the conclusion left enough unanswered threads that I came away from the book wanting more. It has revelations, sudden reversals, some genuinely impressive magic, some moments of appalling villainy, and some of genuinely hopeful heroism.

This is a story which will take you into the world of Maradaine, and when you come out on he last page, leave you wanting more, wanting to know what happens next. So go now, and pick a copy up - it’s a genuine delight.

Thursday, August 13, 2020

The Seventh Perfection - Daniel Polansky


Daniel Polansky is, for my money, one of the most innovative fantasy writers in the field today. He’s always writing stuff that feels fresh, takes an interesting approach to the genre, and draws in the reader with well-wrought characters and interesting worlds. Basically, I always look forward to reading his next work, because I never know what it’s going to be like, only that it’s unlikely to be similar to anything else, and it is likely to be very good.

And so it is with The Seventh Perfection, which is not like anything else I’ve read this year, but is, absolutely, very good indeed.

One of the most striking things about the story is the narrative structure. Told in the second person, each chapter is the other side of someone’s dialogue with our protagonist. That this all fits together naturally is, frankly, a triumph. We pick up on the questions our interlocutor asks, and construct an image of her based entirely on the perceptions of others. We understand her, not through her own eyes, but through theirs. And equally, we understand those she speaks to through their words, their silences, their pauses, what they fight not to answer and what they divulge freely. This is a world constructed entirely from dialogue. That the world built in this way is as richly drawn and real as any other is rather impressive, to put it mildly.

And what a world it is. One populated by god-kings and a militant priesthood. And by people just out for a pint and a quiet celebration. By strange, constructed people, and by technology whose workings are lost in time. Where books are burned, where the past is forbidden, where the story is at once eternal and perpetually changing. Where the national myth is also the national reality. It’s a rich, intriguing world, one not afraid of blood and bone and hurt, though also one with sparks of kindness and quiet joys.

 This is also a book filled with mysteries. Our protagonist is searching for something, or someone. Why they’re doing so, and who or what they’re looking for becomes clearer as their questions are answered. Clearer to both us and, I think, themselves. The gradual unveiling of our “narrator” and their cause is skillfully done, the revelations at once inevitable and startling. It’s a book asking about the mutability of history, and truth. Whether the story we tell ourselves is what is true, or what we remember. Or if what we remember can change, and if that change is true. The seventh perfection is the perfection of memory, which is something, in a story where everyone’s memory of past events is different.

Speaking of which - given that each chapter is a dialogue between our silent protagonist and whoever they’re questioning, I want to note the marvellous diversity of voice. From old antiquity traders, to ex-lovers, to broken-down members of the old regime, each person sees differently, speaks differently, thinks differently. Each of these people come across as completely different, a snapshot of an individual, with their own needs, their own old wounds, and iceberg covered depths. That they draw around her the shape of our protagonist, with those wants and needs under a skein of words, shape our own views with the warp and weft of their stories - well, it’s fantastic.

Which is how I’ll leave this review, really. The Seventh Perfection is, in a word, fantastic; Polansky has done it again, and brought forth another innovative, intriguing, must-read work of fantasy. Go get it.


Wednesday, August 5, 2020

When Jackals Storm The Walls - Bradley P. Beaulieu

When Jackals Storm The Walls is the latest in Bradley Beaulieu’s Sharakai saga, and a story which expertly blends three-dimensional, thoroughly human characters, a vividly realised world, and a properly kick-arse plot into a delicious narrative gumbo. I’ve talked at length before about how much I enjoy this series, so it’ll be no surprise that the tl;dr for this one is: yes, it’s as good as the previous installments. Yes, if you enjoyed those, you should go and get hold of a copy immediately. And yes, if you haven’t read the previous installments, you should do that, too.

We’re back in Sharakai, and the city is as beautiful and terrible as ever, even if things have changed. The spires still soar into a desert sky. The Collegia is still filled with scrolls of ancient knowledge, the quiet riffle of parchment and the laughter of students still matched incongruously with blood magic and mysterious disappearances. The Silver Spears are still on the march for their rulers, keeping the streets safe - but the new Kings and Queens aren’t the same as the old. But still, the heart of the city beats in its people, and the city has a vibrance, an energy, which makes it a jewel at the heart of the desert. It’s filled with contradictions, of course, though I think the most interesting is a matter of identity. As new rulers replace the old, is Sharakai still itself, or something new? Will the old systems remain in place, or are new alliances being made, new deals cut. Will old prejudices outweigh common ground? Given that the story has a deep history, one which very much informs the decisions of the characters, this isn’t a casual question. The city, and the desert, are wracked by change, with different actors trying to move the identity being built to ward their own designs. Will the desert tribes come together? Who can say. They may storm Sharakai and topple those towers, or perhaps come together with those inside the walls to act against invaders from outside the desert sands. Or perhaps neither. This is a story which is looking at what makes people who they are, and also one where who people are is very much in flux, both individually, and on a larger scale.

Which is a long winded way of saying that the elaborate wonder of the city, and the stark, unflinching beauty of the desert are breathtaking in their own ways, and the story expertly brings both to life. If you’ve missed the purple skies of a desert sunset, or the text-shrouded gloom of the collegia, you’ll find everything you needed here.

The characters...well, they’re difficult to talk about, actually. Because this is a story, as I say, of change, of flux. Çeda is still our protagonist, but we see more viewpoints too, from those in her orbit, but also those without, including some we might have previously considered antagonists. I will say that each comes with their own life, their own goals, and you can see them reaching out for those, see the tragedy when they fail (or succeed), and the triumph too. There’s nobody here who feels like a caricature, because we’ve been with most of them for several books. We know their complex, multi-layered story. There are revelations here though, changes to relationships that will make you gasp, make you re-read a page just to make sure something is true. I, for one, have been emotionally invested in this lot for some time, and so I feel every betrayal, and cheer for every victory - because they’re people, right there on the page, and in their humanity, in their defeats, in their reversals, in their lies and truths and moments of hope, you can see their humanity, and feel for, and with them. The characterisation here is, as always with the series, marvellous.

And the story. Well. As ever, no spoilers, so this’ll be brief, because there’s a lot going on! So many things change here, in this book. Alliances collapse, or are formed between unlikely compatriots. Romances are realised, The final steps in the dance begin to be laid down, and no-one, no matter how beloved, is safe. There are some very well deserved, carefully built up, beautifully delivered narrative moments that gave me joy, and you can see the plans set in motion books and books ago finally coming to fruition. Essentially, this is a book where the final pieces are getting played out, where the truth is becoming clearer, where people decide which sides they’re on - and there are so many surprises, so many pitch perfect moments, I couldn’t list them all. This is a love letter to Sharakai and its people, and an absolutely fantastic read; if you’ve come this far with the series, you owe it to yourself to see where this book takes you. It’s a heck of a journey.