Tuesday, December 15, 2020

Back in 2021

 It’s been a heck of a year. We’re taking a few weeks off, and will see you all after the Christmas/New Year season has passed.

If you’re celebrating Christmas, or if you’re not: have a lovely few weeks. Be excellent to each other. It’s been a tough one all around. Let’s all be the good people we want to have around us.

Tuesday, December 8, 2020

Hollow Empire - Sam Hawke


Hollow Empire is the follow up to Sam Hawke’s excellent City of Lies. And, not to give the game away, but it has all the cool stuff that made me like that book so much, but also manages to bring in a whole bunch of new cool stuff, to make it better. 

Yes, I’m gushing a bit. But you know what, this book is worth it. It’s focused on politics, on reading people, on small scale actions. On poisonings and looking for the twitch at the corner of someone's eye that says they know more than they’re telling. On struggling within political institutions, and redefining those institutions. On the conflict between the rural and the urban, and on assassinations in the dark. On what people will do when they limit themselves, and what they can do when they refuse to accept those limitations. And, as ever, on the cost of past secrets in the future.

It’s...well, it’s a big book, alright? And there is just so, so much going on. It’s one part political thriller, one part epic fantasy, one part family drama, all parts awesome.

The story opens shortly after City of Lies, and once again centres on Kalina and Jovan. Siblings, one a diplomat and consummate politician, one a proofer, secret protector of the Chancellor from poisons, they form the heart of the book. Their relationship is warm, loving, and occasionally fraught. They work hard at being more one with each other, but secrets move behind everyones eyes. They love each other deeply, and that affection is visible and convincing on the page. Its a relationship of shared history, some of it filled with poison and blades in the dark. The banter is as witty and charming as ever, and both of them, in their interleaved viewpoint chapters, serve as smart, incisive commentators on each other. They’re a wonderful pair really, given agency and intelligence to see the threats before them, and working through them with skill and talent - even as they struggle to uncover the mysteries around them, the reader is walking beside them, knowing what they know, struggling to piece things together, as they do, before it is too late. 

Incidentally, I want to talk about voice. Both Kalina and Jovan have utterly unique styles of thinking, and of talking. The prose given to each is distinct, memorable, and helps shape our view of each of them, and the world they inhabit. Even though they can be in the same room as each other, their perspectives, their lived experiences, can be very different, and that comes out clearly in the text. Both of them read like individuals. Kalina is fierce, ambitious, hopeful, and has a determination borne of injury and a struggle with long term illness - a topic, incidentally, which was approached sympathetically and with deft hands in City of Lies, and continues to be so here. Kalina suffers her pain as the price of her existence, but is not defined by it, and her struggles and vulnerability are very human. Jovan is more paranoid (which, given his occupation is understandable), given to obsessing over details, and falling into spirals of emotional harm alongside insight; but while this is a facet of his character, it is, again, not the only one, and he’s given the room to breathe, to shape and define himself which helps keep him real. Both, both siblings are realised with an emotional depth and intellectual ferocity which makes them come off as heroes. They do have their flaws; underestimating adversaries, trusting where they maybe shouldn’t, or not where they should, impulsiveness, caginess; but those flaws highlight their strengths, too. They highlight a loyalty to friends, a love of city and country, a willingness to do the right thing, sharp minds, and a capacity for love and affection, which mix with their flaws to give us complex protagonists whom we might recognise if we saw them in the street - or, indeed, in the mirror. 

Incidentally, the City is as delightful as ever. Thronged with a population scarred by war, it;s nevertheless bursting with vitality. You can feel the cultural fusion, the slow mixing of an intra-society gumbo, coming together. There are those appearing from outside the city now, stepping into its streets with caution and optimism both, looking for opportunity, looking to help shape the path of their nation. And then there are the old embedded interests, looking to do not just what’s right for their world, but what’s right for them. And old grudges between aristocratic families of privilege are as liable to flair up lethally as newer ones between the city and the country; and, indeed, one can find odd allies all over. The city though, is the beating heart of the setting - and oh my, does it feel alive. 

We do see a bit more of the setting this time too; in part that’s an exploration of rural villages, more isolated areas with communities and mores different to those we’re used to. But there’s also other nations entirely, come to see what all the fuss is about in this newly reshaped city state, From towering, expansionist Empires to more sparsely settled lands dependent on co-operation and with a penchant for river sports and log tossing, everyone has sent some observers to see what happens next - and their contrasts with the folk we’re used to, themselves a pretty diverse bunch, are exciting and shocking in equal measure. There’s a growing sense of a larger world, which has its eye on the city, andis making itself more known for the first time. You can almost feel the map unrolling, as the political perspective grows ever wider. 

The story; I can’t talk about the story without spoiling it, because it’s so good. It’s a delicately woven mesh of moving parts. Character motivations, old secrets, new grudges. Quiet affections and slow poisons. There’s a whole heck of a lot going on. But you’ll walk with the characters every step of the way, trying to work out what’s going on. And I can promise that it’s worth it. There’s murders, and tragedies. Quiet triumphs and some truly epic moments of magic. Reversals, betrayals and unexpected loves. The politics is byzantine, the intrigue compelling, the whole edifice of the story ticking over like a well crafted clock. But it’s the human elements that make the story. You’ll be turning the pages at 2AM like I was, to see what happens to your favourite characters, to see how (or if!) they get out of their mess this time, wanting to see what will happen next, to unmask the villain(s) and cheer on our champions. This really is a thriller, a slow, simmering burn of tension slowly ratcheting up until you’re biting nails at every turn of the page, gasping at every revelation, wanting to see how the story ends, and not wanting it to end. 

I really enjoyed City of Lies, but Hollow Empire is better, and that’s probably the highest praise I can bring to bear. If you were wondering if this sequel was worth picking up, I can only say this: yes, yes it is. Go and get a copy, right now!

Tuesday, December 1, 2020

Escape Pod - Mur Lafferty & S.B. Divya (eds.)


Escape Pod is an anthology of science fiction stories, written to celebrate the fifteenth anniversary of the influential Escape Pod podcast, focused on sci-fi and fantasy.. The contributors include top notch writers, who have produced a lot of scintillating, thought provoking work for this anthology. I’ve been a big fan of some of these folks for years, but some of them were new to me. Fortunately, though the tales ran the gamut from laugh out loud humour to transcendental, to grim looks at the best and worst of humanity, the quality level remained pretty consistent throughout. Though I enjoyed some more than others, I had to appreciate the sheer quality of craft on display throughout this collection. 

The first piece, “Citizens of Elsewhen”, came from Kameron Hurley, whose work I’ve always enjoyed. It’s centred around a team of operatives going through time, bringing their technology and assistance to different times and places, in order to bring about a better future. This is thoughtful, and asks tricky, moral questions, and certainly kept my attention throughout. It’s a little less grim (I think!) than her other work, but it’s still got the uncompromising fire in the prose that keeps you turning pages.

Then there’s another piece featuring midwives, “Report of Dr. Hollowmas on the Incident at Jackrabbit Five”, from T. Kingfisher, who I’d never read anything by before. It’s quirky, it’s funny, it’s acerbic, and it made me laugh out loud at least once. There’s a few surprises, and it’s a lovely contrast to Hurley’s tale. Kingfisher gives her protagonist a real sense of personality and a voice that really comes through as something special, and you really got a sense of character and world from the narration. Great fun. 

Tim Pratt’s “A Princess of Nigh Space” is next, and it’s mostly contemporary, with a splash of strangeness, and a dark iron streak running through the middle of the tale. I won’t spoil it, but I will say that it hits like an iron bar. This is a fairy tale where the fairies have fangs, and a twist like a knife at the end. 

Ken Liu’s “An Advanced Reader’s Picture Book of Comparative Cognition” shows off different types of alien life, and their methods of thought and communication. It’s startlingly inventive, gently lyrical, and it’ll make you think about the way you view the world. 

Sarah Gailey’s “Tiger Lawyer Gets It Right” is next; it’s innovative, bloody, brutal stuff, which slides a message in there under the blood and guts, so quietly that you might not notice until it’s living in your head. It does, just to be clear, feature an actual tiger, and centres on a courtroom drama of corporate malfeasance, which ends rather unexpectedly - and lets you know that there are ways to bring truth to power, but that you might get your hands dirty. 

“Fourth Nail” from Mur Lafferty is a mystery of sorts on a space station circling a ruined earth, populated by the super rich and those who serve them in return for escaping from the hell of the gravity well. It’s smoothly flowing sci fi, with a snappy story that always had me wanting to see what happens next. Though the ending was a little abrupt, it left me wanting more - and I’ll be off to find Lafferty’s other work as a result. It’s a fun story with some interesting social undertones and solid characterisation of people making hard choices in difficult, deeply strange circumstances. 

John Scalzi brings us “Alien Animal Encounters”. This explores various different creatures that humanity has run afoul of, with occasionally unpleasant, but always hilarious results. It’s a comforting read, which made me chuckle whilst admiring the breadth of imagination on display, and I hope it’ll do the same for you. 

Beth Cato’s “A Consideration of Trees” has a murde mystery at its heart, as a xeno-arbitrator attempts to work out how someone has been killed, why, and works that discovery through their own unique lens. The mystery  is rather clever, builds tension nicely, and feels fair to the reader - they’re always one step behind, but the revelations by the narrator always feel within reach. The conclusion is at once unexpected and rather fun. As a blend of science fiction and something else entirely, this is a story you may want to read more than once.

By contrast, Broaddus’ “City of Refuge” feels horrifyingly grounded in the contemporary. It centres on issues of structural racism, and the way society is weighted against those already fallen the furthest. It’s also a meditation on the stories we tell ourselves, what happens when we try to rise up, and the many forms of resistance available to those willing to pay the price. This is affecting, painful stuff, which also has a ring of truth and a raw pain about it. 

Then there’s Mary Robinette Kowal’s story, “Jaiden’s Weaver” about a young girl and her relationship with her very own teddy-bear spider, on a planet at the edge of nowhere. This is actually rather sweet, and the creature itself is vividly painted and its relationship with its human both affecting and believable. 

Tobias Buckell brings in “The Machine that would Rewild Humanity”, about an AI seeding programme to resurrect the human species. It’s a fascinating study of a different perspective, an effort to portray non-human intelligences, and their priorities. That this takes place in a thriving world, whose context includes the demise of humanity, is a bonus.

Cory Doctorow’s “Clockwork Fagin” is, as the title implies, reminiscent of a steampunk version of Oliver Twist, where orphaned children from the computing looms try to better their lot, and succeed perhaps a little too well. This one is a straightforward tale, which cracks along nicely, and has some fun beats. I was smiling all the way through!

Full disclosure, I’d never heard of Greg Van Eekhout before I read the story “Starship October”, but I’ll absolutely be looking out for more of their work. An exploration of power dynamics on a generation ship, whose inequalities are sometimes obvious and sometimes less so, it has powerful things to say about the necessity for change. About the process of that change. And about the fierceness required to see it through. Couldn’t stop turning the pages, and really wanted to see more of the creaking starship and its desperate dreams, even as the story came to a close. More please!

“Lions and Tigers and Girlfriends”, from Tina Connolly, is a delightfully wholesome tale of queer teen romance, on a starship on its way to colonise another world. It, um, also features a space mutiny. And a play. The voice is intelligent, wry and thoroughly teen, and the whole story just made me smile. My heart grew three sizes that day! It’s fairly light, told through diary recordings, and really just great fun.

N.K. Jemisin’s “Give me Cornbread or Give Me Death” is another story of revolution against a cabal of wealth and power. Cornbread does feature, but what kept me turning pages was the anger, the exploration of racism and the reaction against it, and, to be fair, the dragons. It’s a story that wears its heart on its sleeve, and it’s also a damn fine story.

Overall, this is a collection which, not to belabour the point, has something for everyone. There’s humour, pathos, tragedy, full on sci-fi, time travel, dragons, a goat. It’s a set of diverse voices, bringing their best, and providing us with wildly imaginative and utterly delightful stories. It’s totally worth a look - I, for one, found a few authors that were new to me, and now need to go read the rest of their work.This is a marvellous collection, and one I wholeheartedly recommend.