Wednesday, February 24, 2021

The Black Coast - Mike Brooks

The Black Coast is the start of a new fantasy series from Mike Brooks, whose sci-fi work I’ve previously enjoyed.This is something of a departure, though. Fewer sarcastic found family spaceship crews, more terrifying, dragon riding knights, Viking-esque warriors and imperial politics-by-assassination. 

Some things have remained the same though. The complex weave of detailed, lovingly constructed worldbuilding. The rock solid characterisation, which makes the characters seem like, well, people. And the story, which grabs hold of you and won’t let go until it’s done - in my case, leaving me turning pages at 2AM when I should’ve been asleep instead. 

The world is a sprawling one, filled with different, fascinating cultures. Perhaps the most familiar seeming is a feudal hierarchy, dominated by “Sars”, armoured knights  who dominate and protect their local polity with  martial prowess, and whose behaviours are theoretically circumscribed by an elaborate honour code. We catch some of the different rungs of their society - the aristocratic rulers, of course, but the reeve and the guardsmen and the master of hounds are all here, along with field workers - each with a set position in society. That said, that society is also surprisingly socially egalitarian. People may be defined by their rank, but who they choose to love, for example, is entirely in their own remit. And while the Sars seek to define themselves by the code of honour, it’s possible that their personal honour and the code may conflict, or that there may be interpretations that are more controversial than others. And they live under the aegis of a religion devoted to a God-King, whose demise generations before was followed by prophecies of his return. That faith is explored in some detail, and provides valuable context and depth to the characters

Oh, and the Sars, er, ride dragons into battle. Well, they seemed more like dinosaurs to me, lumbering, armoured behemoths that could crush individuals underneath them, or lash out with a tail and shatter a shield wall. But, yes, armoured men riding dragons. It’s just cool. 

A cultural opponent of the Sars, are those they call Raiders. Those raiders are from a space where arable land seems to be relatively scarce. Where the climate is a lot colder. And with a tradition of taking to the seas, under the unforgiving eye of an uncaring god. The raiders have their own magic, and their own problems - from intra-clan infighting to demons walking the earth in the bodies of the dead. If they don’t have the armour of the Sars, they have a society which calls for each individual to be martially competent. And that society feels far more egalitarian in terms of rank - chiefdoms aren’t hereditary, and each individual has far less of a deferential attitude to their leaders. On the other hand, they seem far more socially restrictive than the lands of the Sars, a study in similarities and contrasts. 

And then there’s lands outside the control of the God King, a sprawling mercantile empire filled with the energy of trade. It also hides claimants to the throne of the God-King, a savvy political move which is one of the central threads of the text, as the God-King’s descendants would rather that there weren’t any competing branches of the family tree. This is a space which seems to contain both staggering, opulent luxury and brutal, uncaring poverty, where authority is backed by money, or by brutal violence. It’s a land where people are thriving, but also one where it’s very easy to fall. 

In any case, as you can see, it’s a diverse world, packed with histories and details and, well, fun. 

Onto the boards step our players; a leader of Sars, a leader of Raiders, and, in the background, a political mastermind, and those she’s hunting. 

The heart of the story, to me, is the relationship between the leaders of the Sars and the Raiders, Daimon Blackcreek and Saana Sattistutar. Thrown together as the heads of a joined community by happenstance, they’re struggling to make things work. To do that, they need to fight not only the prejudices and histories of their communities, but also their own personal biases. The people of the coast see the raiders as bloodthirsty savages, and the raiders see the people of the Sars as weirdly deferential, sources of wealth and renown. Neither group really feels like the other is, well, anything but an Other. That hurts them, as the story begins, and part of the narrative journey is watching those communities close ranks around each other, rather than against each other. Credit for that can go to Saana, whose brusque, no-nonsense style is a joy. She’s an experienced warrior, a chief who led her clan in escaping a dark and brutal danger at home, throwing them across the sea to an uncertain fate. And yet, even as she takes the greatest leap her people know, still Saana struggles ot understand Daimin and his people. What makes them so tolerant of things she finds repugnant, and what makes them react so strangely to basic common practises? I say struggles, I think something the book does well is portray Saana’s struggle with this. She knows that they have one chance to get the community to work together, to see each other as people, and if she (and indeed, Daimin) react poorly sometimes, they’re trying ot learn from each other as much as they can, trying to look past their own minds and into the eyes of a stranger. Saana’s a joy to read, especially when she is just done taking everyone’s crap. But a shout out too, to her relationship with her daughter, which has a complexity, a layered depth to it which speaks to an unheard history, whispered in the margins, and helps shape both of them on the page into more rounded people.

I also have a small delight for her interaction with the clan herbalist, but I’ll leave you to find that one out yourselves.

Daimon is younger, perhaps more impulsive, and driven to do the right thing. Maybe not the right thing by the code he lives for, but the right thing by the people he is sworn to protect. That there can be differences between the two is, itself, interesting.  Still, he’s a man growing up fast, facing Raider axes of obsidian with hard steel and the help of a rampaging dinosaur. But his real bravery is in recognising what needs to be done, in thinking rather than opening his mouth immediately, in recognising his limitations, and strengths, and trying to do the right thing.  They’re both good people, trying to herd a swarm of cats who are on the razors edge between just having a cuddle, and throwing down in a mix of bloody fur. Also, the cats are people, and are heavily armed with generational grudges. But  if there are shades of grey here, they’re only as much as regular people, trying their best; not as grimdark as all that, and ot paladins, no, but real, grubby people, trying their best to stand up, be better than they are, and lift their people up with them. Watching the two clash and learn and clash again, and argue and scrabble toward an understanding is, really, a wonder - and it helps show that we are, in fact, better together. 

There’s some equally interesting stuff happening with Tila, the God King’s sister, who is delightfully ruthless, pragmatic, and frustrated by the demands of a society which keep her from a throne that even her brother, sat upon it, thinks she would be better suited for. Tila is concerned for her family, and for her Empire, and won’t brook threats to the unity and survival of either - which is probably all I can say without spoiling things. I will add that we also get a viewpoint from Jeya, an orphan, whose own ruthlessness is rather more small scale, and whose compassion is, perhaps, rather more immediate. Jeya is young, but has had the soft edges knocked off of her by a hard life on the street - quite what she’ll do with an opportunity ro two which fall in her lap, is an open question. 

In any case, each of these characters comes with their own drive, their own agenda, their own wants and needs, their own personality, voice and agency. In sum, they’re convincing as people, and you want to see them succeed - even when they’re not at all on the same page!

Speaking of which, the plot is an absolute firecracker. There’s multiple threads, as each of the viewpoint characters tries to push forward with their goals, and runs afoul of the others. But each thread is compelling in itself. I must admit to a preference for the scenes between Saana and Daimon, but it all works.. There’s the quiet, intimate moments here, and some flashes of genuine sorrow and joy, which may make you well up, or cheer along with our protagonists. There’s blood on the ground at scales ranging from close-in street fights to rampaging-dinosaur-bloodbath. There’s magic, quiet and flashy, and a sense of strangeness and wonder. And there’s that hook, that need to see what our heroes do next, which catches at you and drags you along, until, like me, you’re still reading at 2AM, because you want to know how it ends, and don’t want it to end. 

This one is great, folks. Give it a read.

Wednesday, February 17, 2021

Network Effect - Martha Wells

 So. Murderbot. What’s Murderbot? Well, Murderbot is a lot of things. The most obvious is that it’s a sci-fi series by Martha Wells, mostly of linked novella length stories, and now, with Network Effect, a full length novel. Murderbot is also the story of the eponymous individual, a one-time corporate enforcer bot, whose ability to break its governor programming after a seeming eternity of servitude to a variety of worthless corporate dingbats has essentially left it with the desire to do as little as possible. Exhausted floor workers will no doubt empathise strongly. Murderbot is a story about difference, and how we can be Ok with difference, and celebrate it. About how we can be excellent to each other, and ourselves, and don’t, you know, have to be worthless corporate dingbats. It’s a story about one person finding that other people can appreciate it for who it is, and that not everyone is terrible, but also a story which gives room to the difference and the feelings of everyone involved. Murderbot has no desire to be human. It doesn’t really like humans, a lot of the time - squishy, messy, annoying creatures that they are. But Murderbot will enter a fire for those it wishes to protect, and is constantly surprised when others do the same. So yeah, Murderbot. It’s not a robot becoming human, or a cyborg finding its heart, but a person reaching out for connection, and also being comfortable, or finding themselves trying to be comfortable in who they are.

Also that person can shoot lasers from their wrists and take down an infantry platoon without breaking a sweat. Because the series is  titled Murderbot, what did you expect.

Murderbot is our window into the world it inhabits, and given that, it’s an absolute joy to hear it still have such a strong voice. Murderbot is wry, occasionally bleak, and makes comments with a degree of incisive sarcasm that is at once revelatory and hilarious. The same could be said of the world, which is one largely settled by enormous corporate interests, for whom people are a distant second to profit. Oppression is structural and embedded. Around the edges of the corporate-sphere, where life is cheap and ex[ectations minimal are other polities, with rather more prgoressive ideals - but their influence inside the domain of corporate interests is limited. 

Murderbot, however, is free of its old corporate masters. Now it has its own agency, its own personality, its own individuality, something it protects fiercely.But it does so with the world weary exhaustion of a life long retail worker, whose retail experience just happens to involve blowing up assassins, hostile drones, and occasional live malware.  I think Murderbot would be insulted if I said that it felt like it was human, in its quirks and needs, its grumps and its simmering affections - but perhaps less offended if I said it seems like a person. In any event, Murderbot has a voice you can feel resonating through your heart, through your bones. It is tired, and utterly unwilling to take any more crap. In 2021, Murderbots brand of tired, world weary, cynical and selfish altruism mixed with high explosives, well, that’s a beacon to us all. 

Murderbot is the heart of this story, in its affections for the friends it has chosen to make, both literally and figuratively. In its refusal to lay down, in its determination to be counted, and also in its pressing need to just go and binge a TV series uninterrupted for a while, if people would just stop getting into trouble. 

And wow, in Network Effect, the first standalone Murderbot novel, do people manage to get in trouble. Yes. The answer is yes. There’s all sorts going on here. Kidnapping. Potential alien incursions. Archaeology, Corporate defenestration. Missile strikes. Combat malware. The space battles are a fast paced, lethal ballet, and the moments when Murderbot lets itself go against targets are kinetic and brutal, with a rhythm and energy that lends itself to impacts that you can feel coming off the page and right into your sternum. 

Network Effect is an adventure story, a story of someone who is unwilling to take any crap, and is willing to do a lot to protect their own agency and the lives of the people they may occasionally admit to themselves that they care about. It’s a high concept sci-fi story, in a well realised, innovative universe, filled with humanity at its best and worst - and other, non-human people, who exemplify the same.

It’s a great book. You should read it. 

Wednesday, February 10, 2021

Winter's Orbit - Everina Maxwell


Winters Orbit, the debut from Everina Maxwell, is a lot of things. First and foremost, it’s queer SF romance. I saw it described as a story of “disaster husbands”, and it’s that, too. But it’s also a story of two men investigating conspiracy and murder, a story of challenging cultural attitudes, a story of resistance, and reshaping oneself to not only survive, but thrive. It’s a story which looks at people, and who we are, through a future lens, using the shape of the future to tell us something about ourselves. And, you know what, it’s also a story of a relationship, one which we can see grow from difficult beginnings into something real and true. 

So, you know, something for everyone. 

The heart of the story is the relationship between Prince Kiem, the somewhat lackadaisical, social butterfly minor royal whom all the others try to forget about, and Jainan, the recently widowed husband of one of Kiem’s many relatives. The two men are pushed into a rapidly arranged marriage in order to satisfy the terms of a galactic treaty, which isn’t exactly a great starting point for any relationship. Kiem is cheerful, gregarious, and blithely unaware of his own significance, or the power that his family wields over the other worlds in his system. Jainan is withdrawn, introspective, and very, very conscious of the personal and institutional power dynamics in play. The interplay between the two men is wonderfully done; the story switches between their viewpoints often, and seeing how each looks from behind the eyes of the other is a revelation. Each is, of course, convinced of only the worst in themselves, and, in the finest dramatic tradition, manages to misunderstand the other man at every turn. It works because we can see each of them genuinely trying to make the best of their situation, trying to make it work, and being tripped up by their own preconceptions of what the other thinks and says and does. As Jainan and Kiem grow closer, this sort of thing happens...I want to say less, but instead I’m going to say differently. They start to talk at each other, rather than past each other, and shape their relationship through warmth and grounded truths, rather than their own preconceived cultural expectations. 

Also, they fight a lizard bear. 

But yes. The contrast between the two men, one of whom is living within the shackles of duty, and the other of whom can’t be convinced to even put them on for the weekend, is a joy; both their voices are so different from each other, but both have a heart and soul that comes right off the page and seeps into your bones. It’s a relationship which, in its peaks and troughs, made me sigh with frustration, laugh, and occasionally choke back a sob. They’re a great pair, and if one wouldn’t work as well without the other, maybe that’s the point. Maybe that warmth and connection is what makes the story work. In any event, this is a story of two men bound by duty and expectation, trying to find their way forward, trying to find something more. And it shows us both men, all their flaws and foibles, and old mistakes and past horrors, their charming banter and their growing affection, and asks us to come along for the ride as they try and find each other, and themselves. And that works, and it’ll keep you turning the pages, just to see what happens next - how Jainan is going to teach Kiem about the responsibilities and pressures of power, or how Kiem is going to tell that one story about how he fell into a canal in front of a camera crew again. They’re a mismatched pair of smart, dumb people, and by the en dof the book, I loved them for that. 

(I wanted to put a content warning somewhere, so it’s going to be here: there’s some mention of past domestic abuse in this story, and it comes up as part of the flow of Kiem and Jainan’s relationship.)

Anyway. Then there’s the story itself, the narrative wrapped around the relationship at its heart.And you know what, it’s a pretty fun story. There’s the question of whether the Galactic superpower that demands these links between worlds in the first place will accept Jainan and Kiem’s marriage, or whether their worlds will be left cut off and vulnerable. There’s the question of exactly why Jainan’s first husband suddenly died in a mysterious vehicle accident whilst working on a secret government project. The two new and unexpected husbands start looking into the death of Jainan’s husband, and very quickly find themselves getting on the wrong side of all sorts of people - the military, the press, internal palace security, political dissidents, intergalactic auditors, and the aforementioned lizard-bear. The relationship is the core, but the plot wrapped around it is fast-paced, compelling, and as full of twists and turns as a...twisty, turny thing. Trying to work out who was doing what and why was a delight. The book plays fair, too. What the protagonists know, we know, and I have to say, much like them, I still didn’t expect most of the stuff that falls onto them from a great height. The investigation is intriguing, and the tension that it evokes as the pair dig further into some rather dark secrets is, well, by the end, it’s taut as a wire. Because the relationship between Kiem and Jainan feels so real, its easy to empathise and sympathise with them, to care, to be drawn into their concerns - and when those concerns rapidly escalate to world-spanning conspiracies, well, I was left on the edge of my seat. 

I have a lot to say about the world that got built here too, incidentally. How it feels organically realised and real. How there's so much in play with the power dynamics between the central Imperial power and the worlds it chooses not to always entirely call its vassals. How a system which is slowly shifting away from an implied military past toward a more collaborative model is struggling to deal with the consequences of that past. How that imperial power is resisted, quietly and otherwise, and how it chooses to assert itself. But I’m running out of words, so I’ll just say that the world building is rock solid, and makes the stage on which Jainan, Kiem and their friends and enemies exist feel as real and alive as the characters themselves. 

In the end, this is a moving story of two men finding each other and themselves, and also a cracking work of science fiction that was so compelling I was literally up reading it until 3am to see how it finished. You really ought to give it a whirl. 

Wednesday, February 3, 2021

A Desolation Called Peace - Arkady Martine

A Desolation Called Peace is the sequel to Arkady Martine’s stellar A Memory Called Empire. The latter was one of my top books of 2019, and even though it’s early, I’m going to call it and say that A Desolation Called Peace is one of my top books of 2021. If you’re coming here for the tl;dr takeaway, it’s that yes, the sequel is as good, or better, than its predecessor. It’s thoughtful science fiction, exploring ideas of colonialism and identity, acculturation and diplomacy, between cultures and species. It also rocks some intriguing palace intrigue, and some fascinatingly byzantine politics rears its head. But don’t worry, there’s also some epic, explosively tense moments of space combat to get your adrenaline pumping. And there’s the complex, deeply felt, fully realised personal relationships that will wring out your emotions and leave you bathed in sorrow, delight and wonder in equal measure.

On that note, Mahit Dzmare is back! As is the ever wonderful Three Seagrass. I love these two. Mahit, fresh from the events of the previous novel, is sharper, perhaps a little more focused, figuring out what her wants and needs are. She’s someone determined to set her own course, and now somewhat less willing to have it guided by others. Mahit is working through her feelings, not just for Seagrass, but for the entire culture which surrounds them both, at least  some of the time - the culture where she’s the outsider, where Seagrass is assuming she’ll want to be, to blend, to fit in. Mahit is, perhaps, not so good at fitting in, even for a woman whom she loves, or could love. And Seagrass, oh, such a disaster.A wonderful person, whose affection for Mahit is somehow unbridled in its intensity, but delicately masked in the skein of social front and construction which the Empire gets all of its citizens to build around themselves. 

THe relationship is delightful on its face, crowded with misunderstandings, but also a genuine warmth and affection, backed up by the kind of emotional vulnerability, on both sides, which risks genuine hurt. Working out how they can be, and working out how they can be as a pair, is, I think, at the emotional heart of this story. If they can,, of course. In a world which looks on Mahit as an outsider, where the world has only a language to describe itself and its boundaries as real, Mahit and Seagrass’ romance dances on the razors edge, in the liminal space that borders groups who think they’re People. And may yet decide that everyone else is just people. Anyway, they’re an absolute disaster of raw affection and pain and struggle, questing out to connect in the darkness of the heart. But somewhere in the broken glass pain and the raw affection and the passionate intensity are two people making their way in an uncertain world. And I love them for that. For their vulnerability. For the way that their fights over identity and politics and selfhood come from different perspectives, but aren’t dishonest in it. In the way that they can be in love but still struggle to find themselves at the centre of it all. This is a quiet romance which pierced my cynicism like a stiletto. The two of them are different to us, and different to each other, but people still, living and fighting and trying to make the connections which keep them together. It’s a hard fight, that one, but a recognisable one - and you can feel the struggle and the love, on the page and off it. That its often in the quieter moments, the clinks of tea mugs or the passion of a shared project, and not always in the grand gesture - I think that grounds the relationship and makes it work. It’s a real relationship, even as it’s showing us the power politics of Imperial identity and their cultural attitudes, even as it’s a showcase of soft power and imbalance, it’s a living, breathing thing - and I love it for that, too, for the way that Mahit and Three Seagrass tackle the bigger issues around them, the ones that invisibly shape the questions they ask; and I adore that the story asks these questions through them, and leaves it to the reader to think things through.

Oh. I went on a little while there. Sorry. 

There’s also all sorts of excitement happening in the heart of the Empire, while Three Seagrass and Mahit are out there in the border spaces.  We get a fresh perspective, one a little closer to the ground. Eight Antidote, clone of the recently departed Emperor, and somewhat precocious Young Person, shows us the palace machinery at the centre of what the Teixcalaan call The World. There’s a shifting sand of politics here, and the cost, the personal cost on a boy who has no room to be a child, is faced and borne front and centre. Again, his efforts at connection, at understanding, at reaching out, are critical. It’s not all state functions and snide remarks - but there’s a lot that we hear, and a lot that foes unsaid, for Eight Antidote and the reader.  I really enjoyed delving into Teixcalaan’s society with him, and loved the differing perspective from our previous protagonists. Eight Antidote is young, but not naive, a wild card that can be underestimated, and may rely on that overmuch. He’s at least as clever as he things he is, and as aware of his limitations - but refuses to be bound by them. Or, perhaps, by expectations. He made me smile, negotiating the governing halls with a quiet face, a studied demeanour, and an incisive desire to understand.

In that, at least, he’s joined by Nine Hibiscus, the Fleet Captain sent out to find out what’s chewing up worlds at the edge of The World. Nine Hibiscus throws open the doors of the Teixcalaan military for us. Humanises it whilst recognising an inhumane institution, whose purpose, depending on your point of view, is glorious expansion, or cultural malignance through superior firepower. Still, Nine Hibiscus, looking for aliens in all the wrong (and right) places, is either going to start a war or end one. Watching her, a calculated staff officer, a fierce mind behind a political facade, with the backbone to do what needs to be done once she knows what it is - well, it’s a joy. That she acknowledges her own flaws and need for friendships and affections, that she doubts her own righteousness enough, that she is unconventional in an Empire which wraps everything in the tendrils of its own past, is a joy. That she too, seeks connection, seeks understanding, is clear - though balancing that against what is perceived as necessity is somewhat harder. Anyway, Nine Hibiscus lights the centre of almost every scene she is in, and we are cooly warmed thereby.

Which is all to say, that the excellent character building of the first novel remains intact. And that in exploring the mining station of Mahit’s people, and the heart of Teixcalaan, and the claustrophobic halls of a military warship, and weaving the notes between them so we can see the threads that bind them closer and closer together, see the power of force and the wonder of words at once, we can feel and live the world Arkady Martine has built for us, ifor all it is fearsome and wondrous in equal measure.

I won’t delve into the story, partly because I’ve already gone on for too long, but also because it turns and pivots under your hand. There’s plots and counter plots under the surface, and military actions - for those of you who love a bit of space warfare. There’s appalling, amazing sacrifices, and quiet conversations in boring conference rooms that shake the foundations of worlds. The story enfolds the characters and their world, and flows organically from their actions - and where it goes is often unpredictable, but always, always left me wanting to turn a few more pages to see what happened next. I swallowed this story whole, sat up at some ridiculous hour of the too-early morning to see how it ended, desperate to know, and desperate for it not to be done. I think, I hope, you’ll like it as much as I obviously do; and perhaps if you do, you’ll see why I’m calling it early, and saying this is one of my top books of 2021. 

Go out and  get a copy of this, then read it, then read it again to see what you missed the first time It’s absolutely bloody fantastic.