Tuesday, November 24, 2020

The Burning God - R.F. Kuang

So, The Burning God. It’s the end of a series which has a reputation for being packed with bloody, brutal action. For its precision crafted plots, filled with tension, crosses, double crosses, sudden revelations and emotional catharsis. And for the characters, which have a humanity to them;  sadness, rage and joy, bundled together in the clothes of heroes and monsters. Sometimes not even the same person. This is the conclusion to a trilogy which did more than pull no punches - it punched right through your sternum, grabbed your heart and made you feel things. Often while everything exploded. 

And this book, the concluding chapter, ramps it all up to eleven.

Rin remains our protagonist, and is now living life in a whirlwind of rage, self-hatred and resentment. But she’s also self aware enough to realise what she’s doing, and what she’s becoming. She’s been betrayed by almost everyone and everything she’s dealt with. The Imperial system trained her, used her up, and then tried to cast her aside. The Republic that fought in the shattered remnants of the Empire...also wanted to use her, then trade her away. External actors just wanted to cut her open and see how she worked. Friends died almost at random. Others because of her decisions. Others fell into madness. Basically, what I’m saying is, Rin has had a hard time recently. It’s definitely shaped who she is, scarred her, left her fighting not just the forces arrayed against her, but her own demons. You can feel Rin’s pain, and the way it fuels her rage - and the way that rage rolls out in waves of flame and incinerates her enemies. Gaining strength from her trauma is one thing, but Rin is defined by it too; and part of that is embracing her pain, and the choices she makes because of it. In some ways she feels cooler, more ruthless - whilst living in her own head with a vulnerability, and a focus that drives her forward relentlessly. You can cheer for RIn as she fights back against oppressors - I certainly did. But the costs are there, visible, raw and real. Physically and mentally, Rin is a woman dancing on the brink of the flame and the void. That the balancing act is so wrenching, so emotionally honest and painful,is a genuine triumph. That her struggle to decide who she wants to be, what she wants to achieve, and what she’s willing to do it feels genuine, even as she slips the leash of monstrosity and reels back in. You can sympathise with Rin, empathise with Rin, be absolutely horrified by Rin, and find yourself laughing at some of her banter or crying at her loss and the way her and others choices have taken her to this point. And that can happen in the space of a couple of pages!

I’ve been going on about Rin because this is, really, her story. Don’t worry though, sports fans - she’s surrounded by faces old and new. There’s that quiet love that sustains, driven to the kind of highs and lows that shape loyalty, devotion, and abuse. There’s the poisonous hatred that comes twinned with genuine but curdled affection. And there’s the whole gamut of betrayal, revelation, revenge, betrayal...catastrophic, cathartic violence, release, murder, love again...too much. I can’t talk about what really goes on without spoiling it. So I’m going to just say that it’s intense. We can feel the political, physical and spiritual geography shifting, seismic ripples driving out from Rin, her relationships, her choices and her consequences.

If you’re here for Rin and her journey of self destruction and self discovery, you’re going to love this. 

If you’re here for Rin and her amazing array of terrifyingly, terminally fraught relationships, with abused, abusers, and...well, the occasional regular person? You’ll love this too. 

If you’re here to see how it all ends, when the immovable object meets the immovable force, you’ll love this.

If you’re here for explosive, epic battles and magic that terrifies and astounds in equal measure, you’ll love this. 

If you’re here to have your heart torn apart, to feel, then yeah, you’re going to love this, though you might need a while to decompress and think about it afterwards.

Bottom line, this is a worthy end to a series I’ve really enjoyed and talked up for years. It’ll make you think, it’ll make you feel, and it will do both of those while telling a damn fine story. So go get a copy, right now, and get started on the ending you deserve.

Tuesday, November 17, 2020

Tales From the Folly - Ben Aaronovitch

Tales From the Folly is a short story collection from Ben Aaronovitch. It pulls together short stories from the viewpoint of P.C. Peter Grant, long suffering wizard apprentice and, to be fair, equally long suffering policeman, as well as some stories from the viewpoints of other recurring characters, as well a sequence of vignettes, or “Moments”. 

Most of these stories have turned up in Waterstones special editions, or on Aaronovitch's blog before now. However, there are a couple of new entries.”A Rare Book of Cunning Device”, set in the British Library, was previously only available on audio, and Three Rivers, Two Husbands and a Baby is making its debut appearance in this collection. THe tl;dr is that these are all rather fun tales, extra context and windows into the world of Peter Grant and the myriad of supernatural people (and regular people) he shares a world with - if you’ve not read any of them before, you’re in for a treat. If, on the other hand, you’ve got all the Waterstones editions on a shelf, you might need to think a bit harder - albeit it’s nice to have all of the stories together in a more portable package.

That being said, these stories give us more of what we all want. More Peter Grant. More weird supernatural entities with ties to London. More quirky, charming, terrifying characters. More banter that comes with the kind of sizzle that has you laughing and nodding along, even while it makes a sharp or poignant point. Really, if you’ve been reading the Peter Grant stories, you know what you’re getting here - it’s the good stuff. 

Incidentally, it’s always nice to spend time with Peter. As the tales here stretch over all of his career so far, we get to see his growth over time. Elements remain recognisable - the fierce intelligence, commitment to justice, and willingness to do the unexpected in order to make an arrest. But you can feel his confidence growing between stories, and a more mature individual cohering between his adventures with Nightingale and the others. Other stories include viewpoints from Abigail, and members of the KDA from The October Man, as well as the return of Agent Reynolds. Their voices are all different, though there’s an undercurrent of wry self knowledge that runs through the narratives. Still, they work well together; Reynolds melancholy in an isolated hotel room, for example, contrasts wonderfully with the general Christmas jolly of Abigail’s tale.


I’d say that this is a collection which is likely to appeal to existing fans, especially those looking for bite sized story snacks between books. Newcomers might want to start with Rivers of London, as otherwise you might lose context, and as the stories skip around chronologically, run afoul of spoilers.. That said, The stories here are smart, snappy, and self-contained. They’ll keep you turning pages, for sure - they’re full of sizzle. Really, as I may have said already, they’re great fun, and a great way to get to know some of our favourite folks a little better. My only real complaint is that there aren’t enough of them - I would happily have devoured twice as many. 

At the end of the day, this was a joy to read. It hits all the right notes. The humour, the pathos, the intelligence and the wry commentary of Grant are all very welcome. THe new entries into the supernatural lexicon are by turns charming and terrifying. The magic is wondrous and worrying. And London lives and breathes inside these pages. 

This was great fun to read, and if you’re trying to decide if it’s worth it: yes, yes it is.

Tuesday, November 10, 2020

Dealbreaker - L.X. Beckett


Dealbreaker is the second in the Bounceback series from L.X. Beckett. I really enjoyed the first of these, and was delighted to get my hands on the sequel. 


NOTE: I’m going to try and keep this spoiler-free, as ever, but approach with caution. 

Dealbreaker happens a generation after the events of Gamechanger. Humanity has got the attention of the universe outside it, which has come in and attempted a (failed) hostile takeover by economic means. Though still able to determine their destiny, humanity has found that when it reaches out to the stars, it’s asked if it has the necessary funds to make a purchase. Humans are the new kid on the block, and whether they can keep their prized autonomy is very much open to question. If Gamechanger brought us a post-climate exchange world, one in recovery, one where absolute surveillance went hand in hand with a culture of transparency, an economy founded on social capital, and crackdowns on hoarding, then Dealbreaker expands that world, brings different parts into focus, but keeps it just as alive, and just as fascinating. There’s so much going on here, so many criss-crossing webs of connection, of friendship, enmity, of bridges built and burned. Emergent AI are striding through humanity’s networks like ghosts - no longer afraid, no longer hunted, but recognised, with rights, needs and an agenda of their own. People are starting to claw back lives out from under the shadow of total climate catastrophe. And the world is coming to terms with a more sustainable existence, after decades of reconstruction. But all of this now plays out on a wider stage, as humanity reaches out for the stars, desperate to make its mark as part of the wider community, before something in that community scents weakness, and sends in the metaphorical gunboats. So the rebuilt economy is under strain, struggling to build out the technologies needed for us to be taken seriously and pay off the debts owed to do so to extraterrestrials with a less than wholesome interest in Earth.

Dealbreaker takes us to the stars, a strange panorama, filled with mystery and wonder in equal measure. The stumbling steps into a wider world are crafted with just the right amount of awe and discovery, blended with human courage , gumption, and a penchant for tasking unacceptable risks. 

But even as we’re stepping out into the stars, there are older crimes keeping some of us back. Quiet, hidden histories of atrocity that are slowly bulging back out from under the rug beneath which they’ve been swept. If people are courageous and hopeful, they can also be filled with selfishness and spite. And Dealbreaker shows us that. Shows us a humanity at war in its conception of itself. In the outward looking FTL-nauts looking to secure the species a place at the table, and the shadowy oligarchs behind the curtain, trying to get themselves that seat, and let everyone else get trampled over on the way there. Dealbreaker is our story, humanity’s, and it’s in the faces of its heroes and villains that we see glimpses of ourselves, shadowy figures in broken glass behind the characters eyes. 

Which is all a long winded way of saying that this is a sprawling, epic world, filled with stories, only some of which we’re privileged to know. But there’s so much here, in the rich and vivid detail, in the quiet moments between breaths, inm the broken skyscrapers covered in solar panels, in the FTL craft made of spit and duct tape, in the bright scalpels of monsters, and the slick patter of alien salesmen who definitely have a great deal for you. In the strikes and strokes of the social network made flesh, and in the whizzing simulacrum of the artificial intelligence community. It’s got a texture and heft to it which makes it feel true, which brings the world to mind, and lets you see and hear and breathe it in

The characters...well. Some of them are familiar faces, others less so. Frankie, of Gamechanger, now all grown up, and dealing with her trauma as best she can, is perhaps the closest thing to a protagonist. That said, there are other points of view - from AI, from aliens, and from some less than amicable others. But Frankie we know, at any rate, And she shines, she really does. From the first page, you can feel her anger bubbling away, feel her guilt pushing her in different directions. Feel the way she struggles to be good enough, fighting skirmishes against the demons of her own head, determined to save everyone in order to save herself. But she’s also fierce and proud, and filled with a love that burns inside and out. Her family, the close-knit polyamorous unit that helps shape her in the world, is warm and loving and has the sort of gently well-trodden affection of a relationship as comfortable as a well-worn boot. It has a joy to it, an acceptance that, again, makes it feel real. Frankie has her sharp edges, but she’ll fight for her family, and protect them, and be protected by them - perhaps despite herself. Seeing her grow over the course of the text is a joy, feeling her pain and sorrow and pleasure and happiness one word at a time. And seeing her shape herself under pressure, trying to be, if not the best of us, the best that she can be. Flawed? Definitely. A heroine? Absolutely. 

Maude is another voice worth mentioning, a survivor of the atrocities of Gamechanger, now part of Frankie’s family unit. Maude has her own issues - of trust and memory. Of caution, and betrayal, trying to define who she is whilst grappling with a past which seems to slide away as she reaches for it. Maude is wracked with her own pain, with her own internalised protection, with a need for trust and walls that she’s still looking down from, rather than demolishing. But her pain is raw and personal and sharp on the poage, and her struggles to be better, and her refusal to just be what other people want  her to be, are inspiring. Between them, this dynamic duo make every page they’re on just so much...fun to read, be it through smart banter, cunning plans, or straight up risk-taking arse kicking. Or, er, locusts. But we’ll say no more about that.

Anyway. Dealbreaker. It has everything really. A grand concept that sweeps out from the page to enfold you in huge issues with a personal, immediate context. Aliens! Betrayal! Personal crises. Love, death, old truths coming to light. And humanity, battling against the dark to be its own version of its best selves. It’s a story which makes you feel hope. And right now, that’s a powerful story indeed.Go and give it a try - you won’t regret it.

Tuesday, November 3, 2020

Back next week

 Honestly, we were too tired and stressed by everything this week to write a half decent review. So we’re taking the week off to let things calm down, and eat a bunch of ice cream. 

See you next week, and be kind to each other.