Wednesday, October 28, 2020

Call of the Bone Ships - R.J. Barker

R.J. Barker’s work has been a breath of cool, fresh air across the fantasy scene for years. Their latest in the Tide Child series, Call of the Bone Ships, has a lot to love about it. Some eldritch, weird magic that seems to stand just at the edge of human understanding. Majestic and lethal cryptids. The sort of complex characterisation that will have you laugh out loud with a character one minute, and feel the steel barbs of their sorrowful tears in the next. A world filled with odd corners, intricate details, and soaring descriptions of wine-dark seas, thunderous waves and glorious, terrible craft that sail upon them. Yeah. The tl;dr right here is that if you read The Bone Ships and wondered if the sequel held up to the already very high standards of its predecessor - yes. The answer is yes. This is a story of blood in the water, of piratical boardings, of fights that start blade to blade and end edge to edge, one inch from disaster. It’s a story that reminds us that you can lose everything. That heroism has a price. But also of the necessity of virtue, the strength of it, and the value of pride and loyalty. If the ice-soaked sea is the stage, still it’s those upon it that make the story sing. 

And sing it does. A full throated roar in harmony, a melody that wraps compassion around friendship and sacrifice. This is a book that will grab you by the heart and by the guts, and not let go until it’s done. 

Our main perspective on this world come from Joron, a man who spent much of the previous book finding out how far it was to rock bottom, and then starting the long climb back up to the person he wants to be, inspired by the leadership of a Captain who gave him the opportunity to earn respect, earn trust, and change the world. Joron here is wiser, kinder, perhaps a bit more settled in his sense of self. The growing bonds between Joron and the crew whom he helps oversee are a delight to watch, built on countless small acts of humanity and friendship, backed by moments of heroism and heart-stopping action. Joron still carries his scars, but is learning to bear them a little better.  Still, the price of this is that now he has attachments, has people he cares about. Wher ebefore he might have simply accepted the worst under the black dog of depression, now he cares, wants respect, wants to build a life. And in becoming a better person, or at least one more whole, he’s also become more vulnerable. THe portrayal of a man damaged, often in over his head, and struggling with the vagaries of circumstance is beautifully done. It has the emotional rawness that makes it feel genuine, and a certain truth sears through the pain and the trust, the faith of Joron in his people and their acceptance of him. Mind you, it’s not all good news - Joron is going to find out the hard way that now he has more to lose, and this is a world quite keen to take it from him.

Speaking of which, the world remains as vivid as ever, as marvellous as ever, as terrifying and strange and wondrous as ever. There are still dragons stalking the crashing waves of a space defined by the spaces between islands. Humanity is still (with apologies to Pratchett) barely on the right side of the rising ape. Those who bear children not marked by the poisonous environment are still an aristocracy, and like any aristocracy, they still hold to their system of power. There’s oppression, and war, and, worst of all, politics. Oh yes, Joron has stepped into a (metaphorical) whirlpool.  Because this is a story filled with quiet intrigues. With betrayals. He’s a man whose seemingly sound footing in the world may be swept away, as we uncover the secrets, half truths and bloody bargains that help the Bern keep their iron grip on the levers of power. As we see how the powerless fare in a society structured to discard them. As the Guillaume, avian masters of magic, and mutilated slaves, reveal a little more of their secrets. As the dragons roar in the deep.

It’s hard, so very hard to talk about this book without spoiling it. So, forgive that digression. But think on this. The world drawn here is, at turns, one capable of displaying appalling atrocity and evoking true wonder. The people - Joron, and the crew of the Tide Child, misfits, miscreants, rebels all - are fiercely, searingly human. They live, love, hurt, bleed, and hope. They live the comedy and tragedy of our lives, cast upon an ocean swept by storms of magic. The same, but different. Different, but the same. They’re people, and damn good ones, at that (well...some of them!). And the story, well, it has its twists, and its turns, and you’ll be torn between inhaling each page to see what happens next,, and not wanting the book to end. It’s got everything - the grand, sweeping elements of an epic tale. Sea shanties. Boarding actions. Blood on the decks, and in the water. New secrets and old magic. But it’s also devastatingly, beautifully personal - with quiet moments, moments of honesty, moments of epiphany, times of betrayal and times of quietly powerful love. It’s a story that, once again, will not let you go - and one you won’t want to put down until it’s done

I certainly couldn’t. I miss the Tide Child and its crew already. I can only suggest that you join them on their journey. You won’t regret it.

Wednesday, October 21, 2020

Give Way To Night - Cass Morris

Give Way To Night is the second in Cass Morris’ “Aven Cycle”, the first of which I enjoyed immensely back when it came out. It combines a secondary world, alternate Roman Republic, lavishly furnished with rich detail, with some eye-popping magic and some fantastic characters. The tl;dr is that if any of those sound like something you’d enjoy, then this is a series you should already be reading. Frankly, I’d suggest you pick it up anyway, because the series is delightful, all the way from its closely observed Roman social mores, to the viscerally realised battle scenes, and back around to cut-throat politics, intermingled with warm friendships to make you smile, and romance to sear the heart, there’s something for everyone here.

Aven sits at the centre of its world. Rome, but one step to the left, Aven is a republic on the rise. Its senate believes they’re at the centre of the world. And why wouldn’t they? Aven’s gods - Juno, Mars, a familiar pantheon - clearly favour them. Aven is on the cusp of authority over much of the known world. And the city lives and breathes that truth. The question in that world, in the marble halls of the forum and the grime of the Suburra, is what that truth means. Whether the city should expand its influence, bring more of the world under its aegis, and accept change as a consequence alongside trade and wealth - or whether to shut itself away, isolate itself in the name of purity, hold fast to what it has, and let the rest of the world fend for itself. It’s an issue of identity which feels very contemporary, even embedded in the systems, institutions and personalities of an alternate Rome. From street to street, from Senate hall to darkened forest, Aven and its world are real, living, breathing places. The author really manages to capture a sense of place- -from the bustling urban metropolis of Aven, with its marble lined hallways and decrepit tenement blocks, to the isolated farms and small villages that drive an agrarian economy, to the wild lands beyond the reach of the legions, where unpleasant spirits and inimical tribes hold sway under lowering boughs. Even as the Aventine are our Roman analogues, still we see other perspectives - in both their allies and their enemies, both of whom clash not only in terms of arms, but culturally with the Aven; indeed, their unwillingness to assimilate, and the struggle of some tribes to assert their own identity (albeit with, er, unpleasant blood magic) is part of what drives the conflict for the story. This clash of ideology and identity is combined with an interest in the liminal spaces - the borders where changes can be made. Socially, yes - in the tribes that ally with the Aventine, and the Aventines that see the role of their city as part of a wider world, but also in a more concrete fashion; this is a world of gods, of magic, of mysticism and active spirits, as much as blood and iron. 

Incidentally, there’s rather a lot of that. The legions of Aven are on the march, coming to the aid of their allies in not-Spain. When the tribes and the legions meet, it’s often messy - and the battles are wonderful set pieces of tactics, magic and adrenaline. The crash of blood-fuelled berserkers again a shield wall thunders off the page. The world changes as we turn those pages, and the stakes are at once extremely high, and extremely personal. The visceral energy of combat is matched by the mystery and intrigue of investigations into a magical conspiracy at the highest levels of the Aventine seat of power. That strand is a compelling blend of mystery and magic, of betrayals, divided loyalties and stunning revelations.

The characterisation is top notch. Latona of the Vitelliae remains our central protagonist, a woman who is slowly coming out from under the shadow of her own trauma. Latona is growing more aware of her own strengths now, less willing to accept the word of others, to shrink into her own self. Instead, she’s reaching out to others, making connections and constructing a self of her own, one which is shaped by her past, perhaps, but not defined by it. Latona is clever, articulate, and above all, good - a heroine who does the right thing for the right reasons, or at least tries to. Watching her slowly unfurl, build a self confidence backed by actions, is a pure joy. That she kicks arse, holding fire and friendship in one hand, and spirit and righteousness in the other, is great too. Every time she appears on the page, Latona is a joy - and that she does so in the company of her family dynamics, likewise. We can see her speaking with her sisters, working through relationships shaped by year, and struggling with a failing marriage, as well as a father who isn’t quite sure who she really is. This is a woman who has lived a life, and her life is a thing all its own, of texture, weight, sorrow and joy. 

Part of Latona’s changes is her budding romance with Sempronius, the general currently leading legions into a maelstrom of blood magic and madness. Sempronius remains fun to watch, as he shuffles pieces around like they’re on a chessboard, parts of his agenda still uinclear, but his essential humanity and decency still very much visible. If he seems pale beside the pure energy of the Vitelliae women, that is not to his detriment - the Vitelliae each bring a presence to the page, and make for a wonderful read.

Which is what I’d say about this story of conspiracy, murder, epic battles and marvellous, mysterious magic. It’s a wonderful read, and you should definitely give it a try.

Wednesday, October 14, 2020

The Ikessar Falcon - K.S. Villoso

The Ikessar Falcon
is the follow up to K.S. Villoso’s excellent The Wolf of Oren Yaro. It follows up immediately from the events of the first book, and remains centred on Queen Talyien of Oren-Yaro.Isolated from her kingdom, surrounded by foes and traitors, Tali has fought her way from one disaster, one site of carnage to the next, trying to reconcile her duty to her kingdom, her love for her son, and her own needs.Now she takes a step out onto a wider stage, setting out to return to a kingdom which may not welcome her at all. And it seems likely that things are going to get bloody along the way.

This is Tali’s story. A story of a young woman living under the crushing weight of expectation. Of someone whose family casts such a shadow, leaves such a weight, that she is defined by others before she knows herself who she is. Tali’s father ripped the kingdom apart in a war he saw as necessary, then raised a daughter to realise his ambitions. Is Tali a queen? In the ceremonial sense, perhaps. But she can also be seen as the last blade of a dead conqueror, shaped by his hand to serve his agenda beyond the grave. But Tali is also her own woman, someone who thinks of honour and duty, of service and war - but not always in the same way as her father. Tali is an unknown variable, a paper boat cast on rough seas, trying to shape a safe harbour. 

As a character study, Talis journey is a flawless gem. Unlike Tali herself, whose flaws are as manifest as her better qualities. Tali is a woman trying to break free of the rails of circumstance. Of the bounds that duty and family place on her horizons. But at the same time, she is shaped by those expectations, by those needs. She can not rip herself from the social fabric in which she has been crafted, but cannot survive the events within it as she is. And so we have a conflicted woman: one part politician, deploying a lethal wit to uncover the schemes of her enemies, one part deadly warrior, willing to cross blades for a slight, and to face down five or six men alone - and win. And if those aspects are not enough, there’s the more vulnerable, intimate part of her. The part which struggles to give the woman behind the mask, behind the armour of expectation, social nicety and history room to breathe. That last part humanises Tali, defines her with a raw honesty and searing humanity, gives her a texture and context outside of heroines and villainesses. A scorned wife, an embattled mother, trying to save home and country, see her son and untangle her feelings for, among others, her ex-husband, Tali is a bit of a mess. A genuine, conflicted, brave and struggling mess. And she wears a face like armour, and, well, also regular armour - but the bitch-queen is a woman, a person, even as the person is contorted around the needs of the roles she is wearing, has no choice but to wear.. This is a portrait of a woman under stress, meeting adversity with strength and courage, while carrying heavy weights, and it has an authenticity, a truth to its voice which will have you turning every page with heart in mouth, to see what happens next.

That it happens in a wider world than we’ve seen before now is another joy. Here is Oren Yaro, and the sprawling counties around it. Each shaped by their Warlords, by their histories of struggle and brief pauses of something like pace. This is a land unquiet and wounded, but not broken. One whose woes are not limited to the continual internecine bickering, the insurmountable pride of its purported rulers - but one where other, darker things have begun to slither in the shadows. We learn a little of the past, of the history of the war Tali’s father began, and why. We see the broken stumps that remain of the Oren Yaro dragon towers. And we find ourselves among the wondrous, the magical both fair and foul. There are so many moving parts, in a world where Tali is a critical cog. There are schemes within schemes, wizards performing diabolical acts, and warlords making power plays. And smaller, quieter, perhaps more important people, living their lives in the shadow of ruined towers and squabbling nobles - selling fish and getting by. Still, there are wonders and horrors alongside the prosaic - monsters and dragons, oh my. And it all feels deeply real.

In the end, this is a fabulous work, filled with truth and wonder, with a core of humanity which makes its voice feel powerful and honest in each breath. Go give the series a try.

Wednesday, October 7, 2020

Dread Nation - Justina Ireland


Justina Ireland’s “Dread Nation” is a story about identity. About truth. About the way we shape our own stories, be they personal or national. And it’s a story about kick-arse young women fighting their way out of a zombie apocalypse set a few years after the American civil war.

Jane, the protagonist, is, to use an overly used descriptor, fierce. She’s a young woman at the top of her game, and that game is killing off the restless dead. Blades, unarmed combat, crossbows - she is a swift and efficient killer. But at the same time she’s a young woman, with a penchant for talking before thinking, and a disdain for compromise. There’s a fragile arrogance there, which clashes with the harsh treatment she receives at her..lets call it an educational establishment. 

Because this is an alternate America, where the dead began to rise from the battlefields of the civil war. Where the question of slavery was answered by the tearing jaws and ravening hunger of walking corpses, and where reunification and reconstruction was the only alternative to extinction. So we see a tenuously United States, where the south is heavily fortified urban centres, linked by patrolled corridors. Where plantation workers are nominally free, but the howling death waits outside the barbed wire fences for those who might complain that what was promised isn’t delivered. A society which is at war within and without. The text does a brilliant job of showing us the claustrophobia and paranoia of southern cities, the need to feel like there can be a new normal, against the backdrop of hugely disruptive social change. The glitz and glamour, the stately opulence of dances and coming-outs is ion stark contrast to the staggering moans of the unquiet dead, whose relentless march against the living is met with equal parts violence, restrictive social measures, and outright denial. The double talk, the “fake news” muttering sof politicians, the rise of populism, echo from the story into our world, and are all the more powerful thereby. This is a society which is sick, facing a plague that comes with blood already stained between its teeth.

And part of that sickness is the sort of school which educates Jane. It’s a combat school. One where young women of certain ethnicities and extractions can be sent, to gain an education, to better themselves. But their roles are set out for them - as bodyguards to the wealthy, as guardians of privilege against the hungry teeth that challenge it. They may be better off, but still aren’t able to decide their own path. Equality is still a distant star, even as the girls of the combat schools are expected to die for their patrons. 

Jane is one of the best at what she does, ready to go out into the world and kick arse. But she has other needs as well. Quieter parts of her past are simmering, soon to boil over, and the reader will be taken along with her, as she struggles against the power structures and expectations that seek to enclose her, and decide who she wants to be in the face of her own demons. It’s easy to cheer Jane as she beheads a shambling corpse, metaphorically or literally. And the shadow and tragedies living beneath the surfacer add hidden edges of complexity to her integrity and searing anger. Jane is a heroine, no doubt. Tossed in the dark sea of circumstance, we can root for her to triumph.

And the story...well, it’s a good one. Jane faces off against hordes of the undead. Against racists and murderers, liars and powerful men with a hidden agenda. She’s a young woman finding herself, and she’s finding herself with a bloody weapon in each hand, with whip-crack dialog, with a quick mind and a smart mouth. The story shows us adventure, excitement, and a rage against the machine which will keep you turning pages through the night.Check it out!