Wednesday, October 13, 2021

An Unintended Voyage - Marshall Ryan Maresca

An Unintended Voyage is a new novel in Marshall Ryan Maresca’s Maradaine sequence, which, if I’m honest, is something I always look forward to! And, just to start here: this is a damn fine book. It’s smart, it’s funny, it’s human, it has real emotional stakes, a good heart, and you know what, it’ll make you turn the pages pretty quickly, too! It’s also a story that isn’t part of the many Maradaine subseries, but the start of something new  - so if you’ve been wanting to dip your toes into the water of this sprawling saga, this would be a great place to start.

At its heart, this is a fish out of water story (well, among other things). Corrie Welling is police. Willing and able to knock heads in order to serve the law, and, perhaps more importantly, to serve justice. She has a streak of duty a mile wide, a quick mind, and an ever so slightly quicker mouth, with a penchant for exotic insults. Corrie is young, and maybe a little idealistic, but her ideals are those that recognise the flaws in the world and want to make it a better one. She’s willing to stand up for her friends, and…well, anyone else she thinks isn’t getting a fair shake, actually. Corrie Welling is an engaging protagonist, one we can empathise and sympathise with, one with whom we can happily walk into the unknown.

Which is just as well, because Corrie Welling is having a very bad day. She’s been knocked on the head, and thrown into the belly of a ship travelling to who knows where, with a cargo of children, and nothing that suggests they’ll come to a good end.  Surprisingly, things can actually get worse from there. But Corrie has the resilience to weather it, and the mental and physical strength to refuse to back down from those looking to cause harm, and instead get right up in their faces. In a genre which can all too often Chosen Ones chasing their McGuffins, Corrie’s solid refusal to let Bad People do Bad Things is refreshing. She’s not here to save the world, but to find a place in it, to find something of herself. To learn and understand, and build communities. And, admittedly, occasionally to bust heads and yell at people. Corrie is a regular working woman, who just wants to go home already, and is very much tired of everyone else’s crap. That crap might involve deep magic, weird celestial events, indentured servitude, religious fanaticism, or (occasionally) coffee. But the weary attitude of an everywoman who is trying to make their way in the world and get things done is a tonic, an opportunity to see that heroines are made, not born. Corrie can change the world by doing the right thing, and she does that while standing square in a working class heritage of family, duty, service and friendship – and while doing that she shines.

Anyway. Yes. Corrie is a fantastic protagonist. She comes off the page at you with her energy, ferocity and kindness. And the places she goes, which, well, I shan’t spoil, have that life and crackle to them, that sense of depth and history that gives them context and reality. As Corrie wanders the strange and unknown, I was right beside her, as curious, as intrigued, as delighted and terrified as her. The Maradaine saga is known for its great worldbuilding, and if that’s your thing, you won’t be disappointed here.

The same is true of the story, which I really must not spoil. But it really did grab me and not let go. I picked the book up and didn’t put it down for hours, immersed in Corries’s world, in her story, and yes, I really couldn’t stop turning pages. This is compulsive reading right here, that you’ll pick up and not put down, and then lament when you’re finished that there isn’t any more. I, for one, am here for more adventures  like this, speaking to the dangers of fanaticism and selfishness , filled with the strength of community and friendship and trust, exploring what it means to be human with big questions behind a page turner of a tale.

So yes.  Anyway. This is a fun book, a great story, and one you should go and pick up right away – give it a try!

 

Wednesday, September 29, 2021

Elder Race - Adrian Tchaikovsky


Elder Race
is a sci-fi  novella from Adrian Tchaikovsky, who has recently been absolutely knocking it out of the park with high concept sci-fi which embraces the human factor. This story is, in that sense, no different. It’s smart, sometimes funny, and explores the human condition sympathetically, while asking some interesting questions. And, you know, also, it tells a heck of an adventure story, too.

The core of that story is Lynesse, and Nyr. Each is given alternating viewpoint chapters; which matters, because the social context, the way in which they see things, is so different.

Lynesse is the unlikely heroine of a fantasy story. She’s thetrailing daughter of the ruling house of a kingdom in the medieval mould, ruled by her mother, who has a will of iron and a thick streak of pragmatism. Lynesse is the wild daughter, the one paying out rope behind her as she prepares to leap over a cliff to see what’s at the bottom. But Lynesse is also the thoughtful one, the compassionate one. The one willing to do what needs to be done, fuelled by tales of ancestral heroism. Willing to stride out into the darkness, sword in hand, and master whatever monster is causing her kingdom grief. But she needs help And so Lynesse is going to find the last of the Elders, a powerful sorcerer, who could turn the tide, a mythical creature from a forgotten age, who promised aid to Lynesse’s family, should they ever call.

So she is going to call, and then go forth and righteously kick arse.

Nyr is, well, the last of the Elders, a powerful sorcerer, who could turn the tide, a mythical creature from a forgotten age, who promised aid to Lynesse’s family, should they ever call. Except..he isn’t. Nyr is a junior anthropologist from a space-faring earth, here to keep an eye on the development of this offshoot of humanity. But the rest of his team left centuries ago, and Nyr I s dipping in and out of stasis, spanning centuries in the blink of an eye, and getting worse and worse at the whole “non-interference” thing. Nur is fragile, depressed, living a loneliness that spans centuries, surviving on a cocktail of smart-drugs and an eroding sense of duty. He is not the hero that Lynesse wants. That said, he has access to satellite surveillance nets, orbital strikes, drones, ad a panoply of technological knowhow that would make your garden-variety sorcerer rather nervous.

I think what I like about the two is that they complement each other so well. Their different views describe the same thing in more-or less modern, more or less scientific terms. Demons of air and darkness are malfunctioning drones, cursed forests are laced with old radiation, and so on. The tale weaves wonderfully between the two, letting us have sword and sorcery and solid science fiction in the same few pages. And in both cases, the story works. Each character brings their own truth to the world, their own struggles – their self doubt, their depression are depicted with razor clarity, with empathy and understanding. They’re people, these two, as different as can be, but in holding each other up, and those they run across, they embody what makes humanity rise. They are enough alike that they too, can be heroes.

Anyway. No spoilers for the story, but it’s a journey of discovery, for both the characters in metaphor, and quite literally, as our team try to solve the mystery of what undermines Lynesse’s kingdom before it’s too late. And that story make me laugh, wrenched my heart, and damn sure kept me turning pages far too late in the night.

Which is to repeat myself; Tchaikovsky has crafted a gem here, something clever and human, a beautiful and compelling read. Give it a try!

Wednesday, September 22, 2021

Bi-Weekly for a bit!

 Apologies for the slow update, but we’re going to switch to a bi-weekly schedule for a bit and see how that works out. It turns out that a pandemic is great for taking away time that would rather be spent doing this; instead we’re spending a lot of it getting covid tests, etc.


We’ll be back next week, hopefully in good health!

Wednesday, September 15, 2021

The Wisdom of Crowds - Joe Abercrombie

The Wisdom of Crowds is the finale of Joe Abercrombie’s Age of Madness series, set in his First Law universe. It’s probably worth mentioning a bit of history -this series works as a standalone, but its context is strongly informed by the other books in the existing universe. 


Which is to say, this is a bloody good book, but a better one if you know some of the history. I wouldn’t start this book without at least reading the first two in the Age of Madness sequence, but I will say that those two are also bloody fantastic books.


Anyway! This is a story about what happens when The People, and I capitalise intentionally, are put in charge. It’s a story full of murder, mayhem, and living in the whirlwind of a sociopolitical disaster. It’s a story about the shifting centres of power, personal and institutional, and about how society is a dream we share and agree on - until we don’t. And then it all ends in fire and blood. In a seismic change, which may or may not actually be a change. 


This is, not to give anything away, a clever book. It approaches big issues, like the idea of governance by consent, or concentration and dispersion of socio-political power, and explores them through the lens of characters operating at all levels of society. And those people, those people mean this is a book that isn’t a treatise, but at once a searing indictment of populism and more hierarchical systems of oppression and also a damn good story. 


This is the part of the story where the wheels come off the wagon, which was already hurtling downhill at the metaphorical speed of sound. All the characters you know from the last two books are here: Rikke, now leader of a mostly unified North. King  Orso of the Union, rapidly finding that winning a battle doesn’t mean you get to rule entirely untroubled. Bayaz, that old trickster, more butcher than wizard indeed. Savine dan Glokta, wife of a rebel, now coming to terms with not being quitte as elegantly untouchable as she thought. Perhaps re-evaluating herself as well. And Vick, survivor of a camp for political prisoners, then a political enforcer, now trying to figure out whether she’s on the right side, along with Gunnar Broad, a man who keeps finding himself wading into violence, or perhaps just refraining from it despite himself. They’re a crew of hard cases, but for all that, they’re sometimes vulnerable and hurt and human., and here they find their old certainties swept away. If the previous book was one filled with quiet words in smoke filled rooms, this is what happens when the people in those rooms find out the smoke is there because the building is on fire. We’ve seen atrocities disguised as justice, and seen it be the only justice we’re going to get.


It is very hard to talk about this without spoilers, but I’ll say this: the word building, or rather, the slow motion collapse of a lot of things about the world we thought we knew, is top notch. It works. It gives us scared, angry, frightened people, with tools in their hands, and demonstrates what happens next. But it also asks how they got there, and isn’t afraid of the answers. From the dark, silent forests of the North, to the bloody, broken streets of the Union, there’s a vitality, a humanity, an energy that makes them feel alive. Not good, but alive.


And we’ve lived with the characters, eaten with them, seen people who say they’re good do terrible things. Seen terrible people do what they think are good things. They’re living and building and changing here, still. You may find sympathies shifting and loyalties changing in yourself as much as in the people you’re reading about. Everyone here is a hero in their own story, and I suspect that sometimes they’re their own villain, too. These are people - brilliant, confusing, broken, building, loving, laughing, hating and all the other things that people are. Nobody is all one thing, and from that, they come away feeling wonderfully real.


Go get this. It’s Abercrombie at his best: incisive, bloody, darkly passionate, narratively explosive, beautifully human, and, well, bloody good fun.


Wednesday, September 8, 2021

The Quantum War - Derek Künsken


The Quantum War is the third in Derek Künsken’s Quantum Evolution series, focused on the escapades of Belisarius, sometime con-man, and member of an engineered offshoot of humanity, designed as strategists and analysts, but typically instead shaped as contemplative, withdrawn introverts, driven in their genes to seek out knowledge. 


This is a story of humanity, and how we define it, and what it is. Alongside Belisarius’ group, there are the Mongrels, humanity designed to live in high G conditions, unable to survive outside of environmental pods or, latterly, space-fighters. I have a soft spot for the Mongrels, coarse and bluff and with a streak of nihilism and cynical humour a mile wide. They’re willing to die whilst giving everyone a bloody nose, and they’re a grand bunch. And then of course, there’s the Puppets. The Puppets are horrifying, and creepy, and also extremely real. Engineered to worship their creators, for all the usual terrible reasons, they overthrew their creators, and now instead use the descendents of those creators to keep themselves fulfilled, genetically driven to interpret the commands of those they see as above them, and addicted to it. Nobody likes the Puppets but you can admire their tenacity and conviction, even while being repelled by where that conviction leads them, and how it is derived. Fanatics, killers, zealots, they know their truth, even as they know they were shaped into it, and that leaves them as a rather odd branch off the tree of humanity indeed. 


And alongside these transhumans stride the common order of humanity, spanning worlds, skipping from star to star via archaeotech, managed by military and economic AI, and struggling to keep their footing. And in that sprawling polity, rebellion has brewed. Now war is upon them, and the stars are alight with the glitter of beams and the splash of carmine in the dark. 


And somewhere in the weave of it all is Belisarius, trying desperately to atone for sins of his own devising. The portrayal of a man living in the throes of guilt, but desperate to atone, well, that portrayal is detailed, vivid, and really very human. He lives in and out of a fugue, a quantum state which allows objectivity, suppression of the self. And that state offers new opportunities, new threats, and helps shape that small group of offshoots of humanity into a potential threat to the equilibrium of the worlds.Belisarius argues with his very nature in order to change the world, and to live out in it. And in that struggle, in that endless fight to better himself and be who he wants to be, he is also essentially human. 


There are others of course - old friends from the previous stories are here again, making better or worse choices.But also others - an intelligence officer turned interrogator, finding out where her lines lie and where she’s willing to go to defend humanity. A biomechanical menace, deciding policy from the hot ice of cybernetics. Puppets aplenty, being childlike, horrifying and pitiable by turns. And members of the Banks, the financial institutions whose creepers stretch everywhere, tying everyone together in a web of money and superior firepower. Oh, and the petits-saints,  the moral center of the human Congregate, Down's-syndrome individuals, whose sympathetic and layered portrayal here is both in line with the origins of interstellar humanity in the author’s prequel novel, The House of Styx, and also absolutely marvellous. 


The story is, well. I won’t get into it. But it’s a marvellous blend of high concept science fiction, personal stakes, and politics, blood and fire. Questions are asked about how we define humanity. About what atrocities are justifiable, for whom, and under what circumstances - and some of them are skin-crawlingly awful, and performed under high stakes by individuals who may or may not know better. About where humanity is going, and what it will look like when it gets there. About faith, and truth, and how we look at either, or both together. And more, scattered like gems through the text and subtext. They are hard questions, and they are an exercise for the reader, which is a joy. In part, that’s because they’re wrapped around the very personal story of Belisarius and his confederates and his antagonists, who bring the stakes to a human level. That story is compelling, convincing and tightly written; I was turning pages way into the night. 


In the end, this is another fine entry in a series filled with interesting ideas, fascinating people, and intriguing stories - so go give it a read.


Wednesday, September 1, 2021

Komarr - Lois McMaster Bujold


Alright. It’s been a Vorkosigan couple of weeks here, and the trend may continue for a while. I want to apologise, but also, I don’t, because the series in general is so good, and the next book in our reread sequence,
Komarr, is absolutely one of my favourites.


The book begins with an accident. Well, with a mystery. Well, with an explosion. Well, with a mysterious explosion. Well, with a mysterious explosion which damages a solar array that helps keep a Barrayaran conquered planet fed, watered, and not-rebelling. Was it an accident? Was it rebellious dissidents? Was it something else entirely? Who the hell knows. 


Having said that, Miles Vorkosigan is going to find out.


Having been forcibly parted from the Barrayaran military in Memory, Miles is tryinng on a new hat, that of Imperial Auditor. He’s now a galactic troubleshooter, who speaks with the Emperor’s voice, and can essentially do whatever he likes, a sling as it solves the problem at hand, and as long as he can justify it in person to the emperor. We all thought intergalactic secret agent was Miles’ dream job. I think Imperial Auditor is the job he needs. It rewards out of the box thinking. It hands you virtually unlimited power. And it expects a duty-bound Vor lord to have enough sense of responsibility to be exhilarated and terrified by both of the first two things. Miles..well, he’s always wanted to find a pair of shoes big enough to fit his drive, and so, here he is, investigating an interstellar terrorist bombing-slash-accident. 


The investigation, the who did what, when, where and why is  by turns tense, byzantine and darkly comic. It certainly kept me guessing. I’ve re-read it enough times to see the twists coming now, and yet they somehow always still land their hits perfectly. You’ll see dogged determination, paperwork, interrogations, and some darn sneaky investigation at play here, in a world away from the Barrayar, beta and interstellar fleets we’ve known until now. Komarr is a rich planet, a planet driven by money, and a planet uneasy under the yoke of the Barrayarans, a people it betrayed to their previous conquerors. It’s a subtle place, a place  still stirring between identities. A place tat may know where it is three generations from now, but for now is torn between embracing the wealth and power of a Barrayaran empire, or tearing down the fragile peace and charting their own destiny. 


And here is Miles, the son of the man who conquered Komarr for Barrayar, looking to solve their problems for them.


Oops. 


The stage is a grand one then, and the story fast-paced and convincing. But it’s the characters that make this one, that make my heart ache for them, even the fools and idiots and villains. A key figure is ekaterin Vorsoisson, whose husband is the deputy administrator for a key ministry, largely staffed by Komarrans, whom he barely tolerates. Madame Vorsoisson is bound to her husband by loyalty more than love, and by their shared family, their little boy, for whom she has every hope in the world. Vorsoisson is, himself, a petty man in many ways. Misreading everything in the worst light. Struggling with prejudices and preconceptions of Barrayaran society, a man out of his time, and suffering, along with his family, because of it. Every time I read this book, I see Ekaterin’s husband, and I ask myself to be better. To do better. Because as a character, Vorsoisson is banal and prosaically awful, each one of us on one of the worst days of our lives, over and over again. And Ekaterin has turned herself so small, to fit into his vision of the world. 


And here is Miles, the human tornado, physically small, but definitely a giant, there to investigate her husband’s department, and show another way through, with verve and grace and more than a little accidental humility. Oops.


Komarr is a fantastic book, one I cannot recommend highly enough. It has family drama, and raw truth and pain backing it. It has a story filled with mystery and quiet, tense-wired adventure. It has a world that will amaze and delight even as it baffles. And in the end, its a damn fine book, and one you’ll read again, and again, and again. 


So go do that. I will be.

 

Wednesday, August 25, 2021

Memory - Lois McMaster Bujold


So, lets talk about Memory. Memory is one of those books I have to read every so often, because it’s, well, basically it’s great. In one sense, it’s great because it’s a story about digging into a devious, complex plot from a calculating villain. But in another, perhaps more true sense, it’s a story about someone doing some very stupid things in order to keep hold of a lifeline to a life they almost kind of had, a dream of a different tomorrow, or maybe a different yesterday. And in perhaps an even truer sense, it’s a story about how we aren’t always what we define ourselves to be, and in fact how those definitions can shape us and trap us, until we accept who we are and reshape our expectations to suit. 


As long time readers will know, I am a great fan of the Vorkosigan novels, and this one is up there as a favourite. Because here we have Miles, famously the dynamo, a man who has pushed through walls, literal and figurative to have a career in intelligence, doing real work, work which matters. And we have his alter ego, Naismith, leading fleet actions, the hero of a hundred stories, including his own. And, at last, we are at the cutting edge. Because Miles has to decide who he is. Is he Miles Vorkosigan, Imperial subject and occasional troublemaker extraordinaire? Or is he going to live out the dream of being the “Little Admiral”. The story asks him this in dire circumstances, and watching Miles twist and turn on the hook is, well, at once compelling and appalling. This is a man determined to have it both ways, who can make almost anything happen by force of will, trying to overcome some intractable obstacles which make what he wants impossible


It’s a struggle not to spoil why this might be, but I will say that it’s a hard choice for him. And it’s a downward spiral too, one filled with denial and delaying tactics, and some extremely poor decisions. Of course we’ve all seen those decisions before in previous books, and they usually come off alright. But Memory isn’t playing around. It’s showing us someone coming to the end of a long rope, and not afraid to demonstrate that the intergalactic James Bond lifestyle has physical and psychological consequences. 


Miles does not have a good time for a large part of this book. 


For all that though, his personality is unbowed, a fierce, driven individual; seeing that energy misapplied is heartbreaking, but it doesn’t feel any less true. It shows us what can happen when what you want and what you can achieve are out of sync, when you have to look around at where you are at this point and decide where you want to be. There’s a couple of paths out from that catalyst, and more than a few of them lead down the spiral of distress, depression, and unpleasant decisions which Miles finds themselves in. As a portrayal of a person in trouble, it’s raw and painful and genuine, with a pain that works because ou can feel it too. Who hasn’t asked themselves what to do next, and whether what they’re doing is what they want? Fewer of us are intergalactic spies, but, you know. The pain of losing dreams is here in all of us, and you can feel it in the energy Miles puts out on the page. 


In this he’s assisted by Illyan, his boss. Illyan has always had a bit of a soft spot for Miles, but maybe not for his “Little Admiral” persona, and really isn’t here for the self-serving, self-deluding work tat Miles is doing. But Illyan has problems of his own, under attack by an unseen, uncontrollable adversary, one who might, well, also be Miles. Watching Simon Illyan, the imperturbable head of Security, slowly crumble at the edges, while in front of him Miles does the same...well, there’s no other word than searing. It’s beautifully written, a duet of sorrow of the body and soul, both breaking down, both trying to find a different path than the boxes they’ve left themselves in until now.


This is a character story, and they are both marvellous in their character.


Of course there’s a plot, and byzantine schemes. An investigation that eats its own tail, with more twists and turns than a...twisty, turny thing. And a denouement that will probably have you as delighted as I was. Because oh my does it deliver. 


As Vorkosigan novels go, this isn’t one to start with. There’s too much context to find in what came before. But once you start it, you won’t be able to stop until it’s finished. It’s brilliant. 


Wednesday, August 18, 2021

Break this week

 Normal service has been interrupted by unexpected COVID testing!

We're all fine, and will be back next week.

Wednesday, August 11, 2021

The Wolf of Oren-Yaro - K.S. Villoso


K.S. Villoso's The Wolf of Oren Yaro, is one of those books that sneaks up on you, narratively. You’re reading along, and think you have a handle on where it’s going, and suddenly the game changes. The understanding of the world, of the characters, of the situations they’re in...pivots, and suddenly everything is different. It also sneaks up on you in the sense that you start reading it, and suddenly it’s two in the morning and you remember that you have to go to work in a few hours, but also you kind of want to read just one more chapter. The Wolf of Oren Yaro is one of those books. 


It’s also a story that I want to call startlingly innovative; perhaps that’s my own narrowness of vision. In a world torn apart by conflict, the queen of Oren Yaro is trapped by a sense of duty, trying to hold disparate parts of a kingdom together after a civil war. Talyien is a hermit crab, desperately trapped in a citadel where everyone pretends to defer to her, whilst secretly - or openly - looking to subvert her will, or work it to their own ends, or ignore her and do what they were going to do anyway, short of outright killing each other. In this, she is not helped by the sudden disappearance of her husband, the other side of an arranged marriage to hold a kingdom together, or by long memories of her father, a man who apparently loved his daughter, but was perfectly willing to commit atrocities to close down a civil war. The survivors of that war, and those atrocities, have long memories, even as they bend the knee.


But Talis journey is one that works both personally and on a broader level - finding her husband to attempt to preserve her political and social position, as well as their kingdom, yes. But also Tali is trying to find out who she is, and what she needs or wants. She may be a fierce queen, hamstrung by circumstance. Or a hopeless despot. Or a woman who needs to be fragile and affectionate and human sometimes. Or maybe all of these, though history won’t say for sure just yet. But that’s the journey we’re on with her. And Tali is a beautiful character, crafted with a warmth of human empathy and an understanding of the depths of despair and the horrors of duty and the acceptance of obligation. Tali limits herself, makes herself the queen she needs to be - and sometimes she doesn’t And that has consequences of its own. Who Tali is, who she will decide to be, is a central path through this story, I think. It’s exploring her hurt and her shame and what in her pats has shaped her into the queen shaped mould she never quite seems to want to put herself in. The sorrowful queen, on the edge of acceptability, at the centre which cannot hold, is also a woman determined to strike out on her own, to do what needs to be done, to know and understand her world, to carve her own path in it, not the path of expectation. And the way that feels, reading it, is breathtaking. We can see the Queen of Oren-Yaro grow and change, and shift - and maybe not always in the way we might like or the way we might expect, but in a way which feels real and true.


And hers is a dangerous world. Court politics are one thing, but outside the broken kingdom of Oren-Yaro are worse things. Things she may yet meet with a sword in hand, or run away from. There are cities which seem like magic, and there’s magic that feels like hell itself. There are wonders and terrors here, and they’re not quite like anything else you’ve seen. The world is organic, drawn with an eye for detail, a precision and a grime and a patina of veracity that means the world feels lived in and real at the same time as it feels wonderful and terrifying in equal measure. 


I won’t get into the story here, because it really does want to surprise you. But I will say that there’s enough politics and murders and love and heartbreak and, well, occasional stabbings to make you sit up and take notice. This is a story of a journey, and it’s not so much an adventure as a woman trying to shape herself and shape her understanding of her world, as others try and do the same around her, with her, to her - with varying degrees of success. 


The Wolf of Oren-Yaro is a fascinating book. It’s one I couldn’t put down. It’s something I think you ought to give a try. 


Wednesday, August 4, 2021

Light Chaser - Peter F. Hamilton and Gareth L. Powell


Light Chaser is a novella length work from Gareth L. powell and Peter F. Hamilton. Those two have written some of my favourite science fiction of the last decade, so seeing them together was enough to make this mandatory reading. I’m happy to say that I went in with high expectations, and they were surpassed. This is some top notch science fiction, combining a universe sprinkled with fascinating environments and different societies, with characterisation that lets you feel the pain, the struggle, the hope and the love of our protagonist, makes them feel real, and with an overarching story which  keeps you wanting to turn pages until it’s far too late at night. 


Light Chasers circle the worlds of a galactic civilisation. Some of those worlds are high-tech utopia, others are more medieval hellscapes. But each is linked together on the route of a LightChaser. These pilots have ships moving at significant amounts of lightspeed - centuries for the rest of us pass as moments for them. The Lightchasers drop in on each world on their route, observe society, and collect information about it before removing on to the next world in their loop. They’re people out of time, chasing an ouroboros. And we’re following one of these wanderers across space and time, as they dip in and out of everyone else’s lives. In part, this is a story that’s a meditation on loneliness and connection. In the way different people and places speak to each other, and in the way that those tying the web together sometimes spend their time alone, outside of the societies which rely on them.  Because a Lightchaser isn’t really from anywhere, not any more - and as they live on for centuries, enhanced beyond their natural span, they slowly forget more and more of themselves, losing who they were in the eternal now of who they are.


Powell and Hamilton are past-masters at creating living, breathing, believable worlds, and they do that again here. Each place we see is different, and special, and vividly drawn, and feels real.


This is matched by the Lightchaser herself, a woman who lives in the silent spaces between the stars,  content in the endless round of circling her route between the stars. Cynical and world weary and craving experiences that are more than her boundaries allow. But also an explorer, and alone, and looking for something genuine, a sense of connection in the individual which is mirrored in the connections she enables in the worlds. The Lightchaser is smart and funny and wounded and sometimes painful to read, and still very, very human. As someone living in an eternal now, we're looking over their shoulder into both the new and old, trying to figure it out as she does. 


And figure it out she must. Because there is something rotten in the state of Denmark. Or in the state of the universe, at any rate. Everything is not as it seems, and although I won’t spoil it, I’ll say this: the story is tightly plotted, letting out a slow burn of revelation which will keep you coming back to the story, and which certainly kept me reading until well past my bedtime.  


Light Chaser is a smart, high-concept piece of sci-fi, with a great, well realised protagonist, a universe filled with different human societies which feel new, alien and real at the same time, and with a story that doesn’t let up, and won’t let go. In short, it’s great fun, and a great read. Give it a try.


Wednesday, July 28, 2021

Orders of Battle - Marko Kloos

Orders of Battle is the latest in Marko Kloos’ Frontlines series. It follows on from the previous instalments, which were rather fun, well thought out works of military science fiction, which blended right, well-crafted characterisation with some adrenaline-pumping action and a universe that slowly pulled back its dark corners to let in both the characters and the reader. 

The latest book continues the trend. In high level terms, you probably know what you’re going to get going in, at this stage in the series. There’s the delightful relationship between Major Andrew Grayson and his dropship-pilot wife Halley, which highlights the travails of making a relationship work alongside a military career, but also portrays that relationship as genuine, warm and caring.


And alongside that there’s the camaraderie and rivalry of inter-service teams, going into combat with alien enemies one might never understand, trying to get through the day, to survive, to make sure your luck doesn’t run out. And the odd enmity, of course because even when humanity is menaced by creatures bigger than houses which just want to flatten us and get on with their colonising, people found a way to make feuds themselves. Those relationships are at the heart of this story, and Halley and Andrew’s is the soul. It’s a warm bath, a love which allows for the flaws of the people involved, but also shows us some of the good and hope and long-steeped affection they have for each other - the way people who’ve lived together a long time do.


Of course those relationships are cloaked in a world that’s coming back out of a near-extinction event. Where out there, somewhere, are aliens who want us all dead. But where the veterans of that last war are slipping into obsolescence. Things are quiet now, why not forever? |This is a world that isn’t rash, but perhaps arrogant in its victories. A world that respects sacrifices, but is starting to forget what it was like to make them. Earth is building ships to fight a threat that it half thinks of as ended. If the slums and tenements are now fewer than before, still, the centre is not holding. Privilege and power sit on the knife edge of revolution yet - and the threat of the alien aggressor helps keep folk in line, even as they dismiss it. And the military arm where we spend our time - well, Kloos has an eye for the culture, the can do, and the tensions between levels of unit command. Our protagonists are leaders now, and they struggle under the weight of that - and they may yet butt heads with others in similar positions.


The story is, well, something new. It’s a little slower, perhaps, than one might think. Ratchets the tension up, one turn of the screw at a time. And it wants to let you think about what lies ahead. This is the slowly soaring score, the trek toward the peak. But it has all the action one might want, in space, where the glimmer of reaction drives is the evidence of total disaster, and on the ground, where dead worlds and staccato gunfire mean that humanity has once again found itself in something messy. And in both cases it carries the sense of visceral energy, humanity, bravery and chaos and hope and loss that makes up a war, lets you feel the iron on your tongue, and gets you to turn the page.


Kloos has given us another fine instalment in his series, and as ever, I think you should read it; I know it left me wanting more.


Wednesday, July 21, 2021

Space Opera - Catherynne M. Valente


You know what, Space Opera is, at its heart, a hell of a lot of fun. It's a story of glamour, pop, washed up legends, hope, murder, and humanity. But it's also the story of how people have to sing for their lives, what they justify to themselves, aliens, old friendships, galactic wars, and, well, a whole melange of things, blended together into a sci-fi gumbo. With sequins. 

At heart, Space Opera is a hell of a lot of fun. 

But it has soul, too. And much fo that soul is Decibel Jones. 

Decibel Jones is a superstar. In his head. He was, once, for a while. He had a band, and they did drugs and danced and sang like angels or demons, and the money rolled in like the leading edge of a tsunami. But years later, he's someone sat on the edge of the bed, wondering where it all went wrong. Where the money went, where the friends went, why it's so hard to sing any more, when it's so hard to care.  This is a portrait of a washed out, washed up rock star. You can feel the trailing tingle of depression, of self destruction, of someone lost at sea in a haze of past hedonism gone sour. But down in there is a flicker of talent, a flicker of hope, a kind of flicker of humanity that makes us feel like people, and lets us know that we're alive. Decibel Jones may not be happy with where and how and who he is, but he's still there, somehwere, between one drink and the next. 

In a lot of ways, this is his story, the story of one old pop star given the chance to put on their skin-tight leather trousers again, to bring out one more hit so that they can feel alive. But also so they can reach out into the roaring sea of adulation and use it to go inward, to find redemption, of sorts.

Unfortunately for Decible Jones, he has to do that while also singing to save the world. Because humanity is not alone in the universe, and the others looking in want to see the heart of humanity, want ot hear it sing. And they want to hear from Decibel Jones, a person trying to find his own soul, never mind representing that of humanity. So, you know, no pressure. 

The story itself is built around Jonesand his relationshis past and present - with band mates and with the weird and wonderful aliens of the now. The world we know is presented with care and compassion, people shown to be flawed in so many different ways, struggling in so many different ways, but rising up almost despite thmesleves. It contrats wonderfully with the glamour and glitz of a galactic confederation which is at once advanced, and filled with backbiting, politics and moments of genuine bravery and wonder. There's so much to see out there, and so much on the page which is new and exciting and impressive, that I don't want to spoil it. But Eurovision, but with aliens - well, if that doesn't sell you, I don't know what to say. The event, the glamour of it, the stakes, that'll keep you turning pages. The weird aliens and the way they think, the same but also not of us, but also the same again, will amaze and delight you. But the heart and soul, Decibel Jones and the Absolute Zeroes, the band, are hauntingly, brokenly, beautifully human, and this is their story, their stand against a tide, their moment of being fully human.

Which is to say, this is a fun book, and a page turner, and it'll make you laugh, and it might make you cry, because it has some serious thoughts, some serious human moments to slip in between the funny. It's great, and I really want you, yes you, to give this disco-ball gem a whirl.

Wednesday, July 14, 2021

The Splinter King - Mike Brooks


I’ve been a fan of Mike Brooks for yonks, ever since his Dark Run brought some punky fun to sci-fi. And I thought his new fantasy series started off rather well, with The Black Coast, a story of family, togetherness, politics, assassination, compassion, magic, and some explosive battles that dovetailed with a strong thread of humanity to make something rather special. 

Happily, the sequel is here. The Splinter King takes a lot of the core themes from its predecessor, and expands on them or enhances their impact. It’s a clever book, with a story whose twists and turns will make you want to keep reading, and whose characters have enough flaws to make them feel human, as you cheer them on through their struggles.


And it’s a book which will show you more of its world, will ask a few more questions, and even provide some answers.


I will say that this is a book with what feels like a lot of point sof view. Fortunately, they all come with their own unique voices, and their various storylines are cool enough and interesting enough that they don’t feel spread too thin. Worry not, folks, because some of our existing friends are back in this book - Saana and Daimon and their struggles at Black Kepe are still here, though they’re not as much of a focus this time around, as the narrative camera pans out for the metaphorical wide angle shot. But they’re still a wonderful portrayal of a couple tied together by necessity, trying to find something in themselves and each other, and trying very hard to do the right thing, dancing a tightrope of obligation, affection and power to shape a community. 


But Darel is here as well, Daimon’s brother, heading to the capital of an empire to plead the case for the people of Black Kepe and their old enemies to be able to live in peace. Darel is perhaps more bookish than his brother, arguably more learned, but equally out of his comfort zone, heading through violent seas toward a thronging capital filled with deadly politics. But he’s amiable and thoughtful as well as brave, and great fun to walk alongside every chapter or two.


The same can be said of Stonejaw, leading the survivors of a raid on Blackkeep, looking for somewhere else to be, and something else to do. Stonejaw is caustic, capable, and taking no crap from anyone.But also very much done with quests and leaders and orders. Maybe she was a bad guy in the last volume, and here isn’t exactly always making the heroic choices - but as someone with limited options, getting out from between a rock and a hard place, she’s easier to sympathise with, and puts a human face on what could have just been a foe without identity. 


There’s also Jeya, and her efforts to keep the survivor of an assasination attempt hidden, in a city that would very much like to see both of them dead. Jeya has a painful shaping to her, someone grown on the streets of fear and pain, but also a  kind of potential, and an honesty of the soul, a purity of affection which makes her great fun to read, as she ducks and weaves and dodges and talks their way into all sorts of trouble.There’s murder and mayhem and daring escapes aplenty, among moments of heartbreaking friendship and genuine love. I’ve got a lot of time for Jeya, and she really gets to shine here.


The same can be said of Tila, sometimes a princess, sometimes the head of a criminal underworld.If Jeya is at street level, Tila is the reverse - moving smoothly in a world of power politics, and occasional violence, with a collected cool that makes you want to cheer her on, even as she does necessary, terrible things. Of course, sometimes those things happen to terrible people, which always helps. And you know when you see her name come up, that something is about to go down. The political machinations of the city are her domain, yes, but it’s her calm, her agency, her refusal to be cowed, her ability to look for surprising solutions, which make her an engaging, compelling character. And she’s going to need to be a ruthless one as well, as there’s plots stacked on plots on...well, more plots, in the Empire her brother runs, and it’s possible not everything will go her way. 


Zhanna is back as well; she was perhaps a bit overshadowed by Saana in the first volume, but here she has more of the focus. Watching her develop from a potential leader into a reluctant, decisive leader, well, that’s a delight. And the mistakes along the way are bloody and epic and heroic - and if I could sing a song of them without spoilers, I would. But for now, I’ll say this: the blood and bone and tears and terrors and deaths and sorrows and victories are here, a microcosm of the world on the page, and Zhanna stands among them, and you just want to cheer her on. 


And then there’s Marin; sometime thief, fulltime bullshit artist, trying to be a good husband. 

I always enjoy watching Marin run his lines on people, trying to do what’s best for his in-group, and ending up in what I’ll call shenanigans. His is another story woven with spoiler tags, but it’s a fast paced, snappy one, filled with some cracking dialouge, and more than its fair share of wry chuckles and “Wait what” moments. 


The whole ensemble are a joy, and between them they cover off a huge amount of geography - from busy city streets to mountain passes, to the monster-infested sea depths, there’s something for everyone here. And it’s described in lavish, loving detail which pains the world into something living and real. You can smell the curling smoke of the woodfire on the breeze, hear the banter of the market, the ring f steel on steel, feel the hot breath of a dinosaur..er...war dragon on your neck. 


And in between is woven a story that made me laugh more than once, wrung my heart more than once, and absolutely, one-hundred percent delivers. It’s got politics, it has best friends, it has stabbings, it has magic, it has war dragons and armies on the march. It has death and love and all of life right there on the pace, but woven together with such a pace, such tension, such gripping sensibility that you will probably, like me, end up turning the pages long ater you should have been asleep. It’s great fun, and a great sequel. Go read it!


Wednesday, July 7, 2021

The Empire's Ruin - Brian Staveley


The Empire’s Ruin is the start of a new fantasy series from Brian Staveley, It’s set in the same world as his Chronicle of the Unhewn Throne series, and the excellent stand-alone, Skullsworn. In fact, it has several familiar faces appear in central roles, along with some we’ve never seen before. It’s probably easiest to pick this book up after reading the others in the sequence, though it has more than enough narrative weight to work as a standalone. 


Anyway. Here we are again. A large part of the book takes place in the delta city we saw in Skullsworn. It’s a polity shaken to its foundations in the aftermath of revolution. An urban environment whose permanence is always in question, as the waters, reeds, and vicious predators of the delta slip in and out of focus. A place where the population is turning on itself in purges and blood, and where struggle is, quite literally, a religion. 


It’s worth calling out Staveley’s evocation of atmosphere here. The city is close, paranoid. Stepping out after dark feels dangerous, not doing so armed is probably lethal. The nights are muggy and close, and everyone is always looking at everyone else for signs of backsliding. This is a people who have set out to define their own identity, but not yet decided what it’ll be. In the meantime, the priests of their long suppressed gods are driving them to frenzy and violence. The city is, essentially, a powderkeg. 


That said, it contrasts beautifully with the delta. The humming claustrophobia of the metropolis is replaced by the lapping of muddy water against the hull of a hand-driven craft. Ten minute south side of the city, you’re probably lost in a sea of identical, head high reeds. Ten minutes after that, you’re probably dead, as one of the many, many predators - poisonous snakes, murderous fish, hungry gods - makes you deeply regret getting on the boat in the first place. The isolation, the tension of constant vigilance, the low thrum of danger are seeping off the page, contrasting with the boiling over pot that is the city on its edge.


But it’s not all familiar ground. I don’t want ot spoil things, but we also get to see a whole new area of the world. A place forbidden. A place filled with a slow and seeping contagion. A place that has been quarantined for, well, ever.And as we explore the unknown with our characters, the true horror of what sits within that area will become clear. Again, Staveley offers a masterclass in narrative tension, mapping the reader’s sense of discovery with those of the characters - and leting the in and out of universe sense of dread build slowly, until turning the page is something done because you need to know, need to see, what’s going to snap. 


And rest assured, this is a richly imagined, beautifully terrifying, strange place we will go. It has its own character, nothing we’ve seen before, but something different. Something often awful, and unspeakably vital. Which is all rather vague - but the book does a fantastic job of its worldbuilding, giving us a strange, terrible, beautiful place where you would never, ever want to go, but which nonetheless has the beauty of an open wound. It’s beautifully realised, and skin-crawlingly real. 


On which note: Gwenna Sharp is back! I’ve always had time for Gwenna, the sharp talking, smart arsed, worryingly competent leader of a Kettral Wing. She’s like a member of the special forces, if they flew on ops using giant birds. Now, though, there’s not many Kettral left, and fewer birds. Now, Gwenna is going to make some unfortunate, albeit perfectly sensible, choices. Now Gwenna is going to crawl into a small dark hole and hope to die. Now Gwenna is going to decide who she is - or not, and become something new. Gwenna has a hard time in this book, but oh, it rings fierce and true. Gwenna is not well, emotionally speaking - and we can watch her slide into depression happenning in front of our eyes. It’s an amazing portrayal of a woman falling down an emotional well, one which rings painfully true. Quite who she’ll be by the end of the story is somethin else, but Staveley shows us the strength of his characterisation in the descent of Gwenna Sharpe; honestly, its surgically accurate and breathtakingly painfully honest reading. 


There’s others of course.Priests turned involuntary gladiators in the delta arena. A man chosen by the delta gods to be a killer, their killer, struggling with his heart, his faith, and his sense of self. An Admiral who is an utter arse, but has a sense of duty like a rod of iron. Young legionnaires, following Gwenna Sharpe with too much pride and concern, but not enough fear. A shin monk, setting out to run a con on the leader of the Empire (that whole thread is smart and funny and painful, and comes in such a different voice to the others, it;s a breath of fresh air).So many more, some of whom I can’t speak of for the sale of spoiling things. But in any case, the character-work is first rate. These are living, breathing people, and you’ll laugh and quail and love with them, celebrate their triumphs and mourn their deaths.


The story...well, I’ll say this. It’s epic. All three strands of the story - the con, the exploration, the delta - feel different. And examine different things. But they slowly intertwine into a larger creative structure, a cathartic ending that makes you sit up and take notice. And in the meanwhile, each story makes us care about our characters, puts them into this beautiful, horrible world with each of these fragile, breaking, pressured, loving, killing, gentle, vicious people. And the story shifts up a notch and tells us what happens, and what happens next, and it;s tense and fast paced and snappy and a joy to read. 


In the end, this is a damn fun, damn fine story, one which I highly recommend.


 


Wednesday, June 30, 2021

The Past Is Red - Catherynne M. Valente

 


The Past Is Red is a new novel from Catherynne M. Valente, who has a penchant for producing clever, thoughtful stories, with strong messages, human characters, and the sort of prose that makes you sit up and take notice. I’m happy to report that this tendency continues here. The Past Is Red is a rather good book, and a damn fine story.

Before I delve into it any more though, it’s worth noting that a portion of it has turned up as a novella before, in Strahan’s Drowned Worlds collection, and more recently, as the standalone The Future is Blue.  So if you get an odd sense of deja-vu for the first section of the book, don’t worry, you’re not alone. That said, even as a re-read, the first section is an enjoyable and incisive commentary on climate change, on humanity, and the choices that we make on a personal and systemic level – and it pairs beautifully with the rest of the text, making something new, and greater than when read on its own.

This is a quiet story, and a story that speaks truth. It’s the story of a young woman, who lives on an island made of garbage. That’s humanity now. Scattered enclaves on a blue marble, living in the detritus of a civilisation which has literally sunk without trace. Every scattered, broken doll, every pill bottle, every broken CD player has its place, as a means of exchange, as a trinket, as a totem, as a home. It’s a world built on the ruins of what we have built, and a world built on the traceless remains of what we destroyed. Modernity is known simply as “The Fuckwits”, and if the people of the garbage heap are sometimes violent, sometimes cruel, they are still a people of love and generosity as well. And a people of betrayal, and old hatreds, yes. People. And this is the future, on a soundless ball of blue, scrabbling in what’s left.

And of course, some of them hate it. Some of them look at what was and what they live within, and live a dream of hope, of something else, of difference. Of land. And then there’s Tetley, our protagonist. Tetley knows that what there is, is all there is. She knows that the people of garbage island are there to stay. She knows that this is all there is. And she loves it, and is fierce in her affection, and passionate acceptance that this is all there is.  Tetley is passionate and fierce and young. Tetley is kind and generous and in love. And Tetley is true to herself. As a character, she is pitch perfect. A person shaped by pressures that we cannot know, in an environment we can barely comprehend, but recognisably a person, doing their fragile best in an often hostile world. You can see Tetley, feel her conviction and her tracery of pain and the sheer joy that burns through her. She’s strange and wonderful and human.

As are those around her, those guttering flames of humanity standing in a world surrounded by lapping waves. They’re everything we are, shaped by what we do. They are our grandchildren and our future, and the indictment cast back upon us by all of them, from  the most sympathetic to the least, is searing. There is power in these words, in what they say and the quiet spaces in between. Tetley is the future, and the past is us, the past is red.

I don’t want to spoil the plot, though I will note that the second part occurs some time after the first. Tetley the girl is replaced by someone more weary, more contained perhaps, but with that humanity, that potential to reach for anything and also to be satisfied with who and what she is, that makes this such a wonderful character piece. Because that’s what we have here, a woman traversing her world, and making choices that leave her true to herself. And sometimes those choices may change the world, for her, or for everyone else.

In any case, this is a beautifully crafted story, and one which sat with me for days afterward, as I mulled on Tetley and her rights and wrongs. It’s a warning and a truth and a call to humanity to be people. It’s a good book, and a damn fine story, and you should read it.