We’ve got something special this week - a review of C.L. Clark’s hotly awaited (and amazing) The Unbroken. Look out for it on Friday, it’s worth the wait, I promise! (And the tl;dr is, go buy it, right now!).
Wednesday, March 24, 2021
Behind The Throne is a fun book.
I just wanted to get that out of the way, because it has a heck of a lot going on. There’s some sterling character work. There’s a world that slowly pans out from an initial tight focus to a sprawling, interplanetary scale. And there’s a story which blends byzantine politics, mystery, and heart-stopping action into a delicious narrative gumbo. The tl;dr is that it’s a cracking start to a series, and well worth a look.
The longer version of the story, starts with Hail. Hail is a gunrunner. Hail has a willingness to punch people who give her crap, and Hail has a streak of daring, and a wider streak of contrariness that make her a delight at parties. Unfortunately for Hail, she’s also on the run from a life she never wanted, and constraints she never needed.And that family runs an Empire. And has security teams that are very, very good at their jobs. Now the black sheep of the family is going to come home, whether she wants to or not.
Say what you will though, Hail is a lot of fun to follow around. Assuming you like people with a line in smart banter, that is. Or people not afraid to break out a can of whup-ass when they need it. And Hail backs those things with a gently simmering mixture of pride, familial affection, and long-buried responsibility. As an aside, whilst all of those things are fine, and they make the text a genuine pleasure to read, I want to take a moment and appreciate the way that Hail is also a portrait of grief. Dragged home because her family is under attack, she deals with deaths in a way that cloaks the rawness of her emotions in a facade of work, politics and occasional firefights. But the emotion, the essential humanity, is still there.
And the world. Ahhh, this is something. We’re swiftly embedded in conspiracies and palace politics, and the marble halls of a palace have an austere beauty that contrasts wonderfully with the more gritty mood of Hail. Then there’s the sense of a broader universe - hints of gangster havens. Civic squares filled with celebrations. An Empire which spans star systems, and aliens and other polities out beyond their writ. It’s a space filled with life and energy.It’s a universe, not just a backdrop, and one which is carrying its own history, and sense that something else is out there.
That said, we tend to focus on the palace, the politics, and the urban environs thereof; and those have a realism, and if not a grit, a kind of gently used patina that makes then feel like real places, human places. These aren’t start spaces filled with ideas, but living textures, filled with people going about their day. That for some of them, their day is figuring out a series of murders, or plotting to keep or overthrow a throne, or just trying to get home and see their kids. ..well, it’s all wrapping life and humanity around the characters.
I talked about Hail, but she’s surrounded by a cast of, if not thousands, more than a few. And one of the wonderful things about this book is their relationships With Hail, as the protagonist of course but with each other. Old wounds are dug up, new friendships made.A particular shout out to a sensitive portrayal of queer relationships, which were also a spot on look at long term partners and their foibles, and the deep affection they have for each other. In any event, Hail is the protagonist, and fills every page she’s on, but there are quieter, delightful moments stashed away too, from families to couples, from banter to cold silence. In all those case,s these are people that feel like people.
In the end, as I say, this is a fun book. It gives us believable characters, with relationships that you can care about, in a convincing, vivid sci-fi world, with a story filled with backstabbing, politics, buccaneering, grandstanding, and general adventure.
It is, again, a fun book. Go give it a read!
Wednesday, March 17, 2021
Recluce Tales: Stories from the World of Recluce is a selection of short fiction from L.E. Modesitt Jr, set in his long running Recluce universe. The stories fill in gaps in the chronology between the published novels, and focus either on side-characters from those stories, or entirely new perspectives. The short version is that these tales add context and texture to the larger tapestry; though they do stand on their own, they also benefit from a knowledge of the existing series.
So, why would you read this? Well, I’ll start with this. There’s a tale here from the very start of the world of Recluce. A world settled by people from outside, from other dimensions, other quantum strands, whose ships have been shifted into this space, whose technology is slowly failing, who have no choice but to set themselves at the task of building a new society. But detail on that first group of settlers, those who founded an Empire, whose antecedents ruled, large sections of the world as Cyador...detail on those people has been extremely sparse. A historical artifact here. An ancient “chaos tower” there, still creakingly humming with old science, no longer replicable, in deep decay. But nothing tangible. The first story in this collection, The Vice Marshal’s Trial, changes that for us. From internal monologue, from snatches of half heard discussion and asides, we draw ourselves a portrait of a people in crisis, a divided leadership, and a sense of poignant loss. And at the same time, there’s a story here. Not a gentle one, perhaps, but inexorable, the story of a person stepping onto an unfamiliar path, trying to be as much themselves as they can and survive. Modesitt has always excelled at giving Recluce a human face, and in showing that what may seem like good and evil, or diametrically opposed sides, are, well, people. Flawed and struggling in the structures of their time.
So it is with the first story in this collection, and so it is with the rest. They show off hidden corners. They tell us what happened to the forgotten characters, or the trailing ends of different stories. Even while the mainline books were giving us a larger story, these vignettes are more intimate in their brevity, and show that other stories are, perhaps, just as important. At least ot the people living them. Slices of life from every era of Recluce are here - from the Rational Stars, to the end of Cyador, to the rise of Recluce, and the end of the balance. Perhaps a handful of pages, perhaps a little more, flashes of life and love and tragedy intertwined, giving us stories that show us what happens outside the spotlight, and that there’s still truth to be found there.
I think you could read these without knowing the world of Recluce. They have Modesitt’s perfectly honed prose, which builds the prosaic into the numinous. They have the characters who feel whole, even in these flashes of their lives. And it has enough of Recluce, of the world of Candar, to feel real, feel whole. And from this you’ll find stories which can bring out tears and laughter, right enough. Though they may feel a little lacking. But if you come to it with that longer history in mind, you’ll know their contents and shapes - what has or will happen. And that can make both these new stories and those already told take different shapes - a joy indeed.
This is an interesting collection, and one that I think a first time reader could dip into in order to get a feel for the Recluce series, and Modesitt’s style of writing. But it’s also something for those who want to delve into these offcut gems, which will make the mainline tales shine all the brighter.
Wednesday, March 10, 2021
Tuesday, March 2, 2021
The Conductors is the debut fantasy novel from Nicole Glover. In a world one step away from ours, magic is real. But the atrocities of humanity are still just as real. The American civil war still happened, and so did the emancipation of the slaves. But some of those slaves were wielders of a celestial magic, a scattered remnant of their own truths; and some of their owners were sorcerors, driving direct and brutal change through sheer focused power. Escapees made their way to freedom on the underground railroad, shepherded from safehouse to safehouse in slave-owner territory by Conductors, who took their lives into their hands on every journey. But now, the war is over, and the slaves are free. At least nominally; as a people and a collective, they still carry the scars of their experience, in a nation which still isn’t sure it wants anything to do with them. And in one small corner of that already fraught world, someone is murdering those who escaped from slavery - and horrors carved on their flesh.
Hetty is our window on this world, this delicately blended melange of the strange and the familiar. Hetty was a Conductor, someone who dove into and out of slave owning territory to rescue people from bondage. And she was rather good at it. Pragmatic, occasionally ruthless, with a good heart and willingness to do what she had to in order to save lives, Hetty stands as someone with a strong moral core, and the skills to do something about injustice. Part of that core may be driven by her own escape from slavery, fleeing with her sister into the wilderness; the cost of that freedom was losing track of her sibling. Hetty now is washed up on the shores of a world with less use for the Conductors, a world where liberty has given way to civic responsibility, and heroics to the day-to-day grind of paying the rent. But Hetty is a woman with purpose, investigating things which don’t make sense - finding the lost, and tracking down murderers for a community which the larger establishment has, at best, no interest in.
I’ve got a lot of time for Hetty. We talk about strong female leads a lot, and she is that, but she’s also a fully realised individual, fighting for agency, with her own wants and needs, her own fears and dislikes, her own relationships - with her landlord, with those she helped to freedom all those years ago, with preachers and weavers and doctors and, well, her husband. I have to shout out ot that relationship, incidentally, because it’s a joy to read - a pair who worked together for years, living together because they don’t have another way to be, comfortable around each other, and stepping lightly around the idea of eros. Adults in the prime of life, deciding what their relationship is, as comfortable with each other as a pair of well-worn shoes. It’s refreshing!
Anyway, Hetty investigates a series of gruesome murders, partly because nobody else will. Nobody else, in fact, seems to care. The world that we have here carries the authentic stain of discrinmination throughout, seeping into every interaction like a bloody ink. You can hear the crack of war-torn gunfire in the recent, unforgotten past. And the silent, sideways glances that keep “certain people” in certain areas of the city speak volumes. This is a story of oppression and power, and the consequences when one has been led by the other. But it’s also a story about community, the strength of friendship and the way those let us be more than we are; as Hetty dives into death, she finds assistance from old friends, and the warmth and energy and love that comes from those connections gives the hear tot this story, make sit something real and vital. In a civic society that wants nothing to do with ex-slaves and other people of colour, these families built of experience and connection give some truth and weight and joy.
In the end, this is one part mystery story, one part period drama, one part explosive magic adventure, and all of those are great fun. Hetty is a fantastic, no-nonsense protagonist, and I really would like to see more of her adventures.
This one’s worth a look!