Wednesday, April 28, 2021

The Shadow of the Gods - John Gwynne

The Shadow of the Gods is the first in a new series from John Gwynne, whose previous tales I’ve enjoyed immensely. It’s set in a new world, rather than using his existing setting - this one seemingly influenced by Norse mythology. From sea-faring, battle-fame hungry raiders, to societies trembling on the precipice between local consensus and monarchy, from dead gods to magic scribed in runes and blood, and a thousand other cuts of the axe, comes a vividly realised world, often brutal, occasionally lethal, but with a living, breathing beauty running through it, around a core of hard steel tipped in carmine. 

This is a world that really is, no joke intended, in the shadow of the gods. A war in the heavens left the world broken, new geography, and scattered remnants of humanity, forced labour in this conflict of divinities. Centuries later, the gods are dead, their bones, their magic, scattered across the world. Their part-human descendants carry magic, but not power; the mass of humanity is determined never to live through another war of gods, so attempts to restrain or eliminate these scions of old powers. That said, the society they live in is, itself, no picnic for anyone. There’s a significant warrior class, with a desire for glory running through them like fool gold; but they also have their own traditions, their own compromises, their own conflicts. They do live alongside farmers, villagers, those who sought the stability of the land over the glory of the whale-road. Of course, there are transitions from one to the other - warriors coming home to turn their swords into ploughshares. Gwynee crafts a world which feels very real,at a social level,  in its divisions and complexities. Smaller groups of villages are finding themselves swallowed up by the “protection” of armed bands, themselves falling under the sway of proto-monarchs, looking to consolidate their power-bases. 

It’s a world that is cold, and makes a people hard. They know their lives are often unstable, and on the edge of a blade at any given moment. There’s a liminal social space, as old, more informal institutions slowly falter, and newer, more hierarchical structures lock into place. But that space is filled with warriors out for blood, gold, and fame. It’s a joy to read through, feeling the snow edge through the links in chale of in mail, the chonk of a shield-wall coming together, the scream as an arrow enters a throat, or the sizzle of flesh under the influence of magical fire; it’s also filled with that quieter, suppressed power of the descendants of the old gods, their blood letting then shift into killing machines, or follow the smell of blood, or see the last moments of life, and death. This is a world which has magic built into it, which has violence built into it, has wonder and old horror at it’s core - and will convince you and grip in equal measure

That’s helped by Gwynne’s top-notch characterisation. We get three points of view through the text, from a seasoned, retired warrior, looking out for her family, from an ex-thrall, entering onto a career of organised violence, and a young man entering into a band of mercenaries. They each have a voice of their own, which is marvellous. Orka’s quietly lethal, no nonsense attitude, twinned with her deep love of her family, and her casual abrasiveness contrast wonderfully with Varg’s desperation and determination never to be a slave again, and Elvar’s youthful energy and desire to make her own reputation, running into the rocks of reality. Each chapter feels like a breath of fresh mountain air, each voice memorable, different, bringing something new to the table. You can feel their wants and needs, both conscious and otherwise, running at and under the surface. You can see Orka enfolded in the warmth of her family, prickly as she is, and you can see Varg’s trauma as he tries to define himself in freedom, even as you marvel at Elvar’s possibly unearned confidence. 

They’re all people, is the point. Bloodily, beautifully human, believable people who could step off the page and have a drink with you, quite possibly before stabbing you in the eye. They take the fabric of the world and shape it, and in that shaping, they feel whole, feel real. 

I won’t speak to the plot, even more than usual. I’ll say this though, the book sets expectations, subverts them, realises them, works around them and through them. Every chapter is a new moment, as things go wrong, spin out of control, are rebuilt, where betrayals are realised or courage applauded. There’ much going on. And the story is precision crafted to enrapture, to exercise a gritty sense of wonder. It’ll grab hold of you as you read, and it won’t let go until the story is done. 

This is an absolute barnstormer of a story, one I was up until way too late at night reading. I thin you will be too. Give this one a try. 

Wednesday, April 21, 2021

Off this week

 Hi everyone,

We’re off this week for pandemic related reasons.

We should be back next week, as scheduled!

Wednesday, April 14, 2021

Fugitive Telemetry - Martha Wells

Fugitive Telemetry is the sixth (sixth!) story in Martha Wells’ Murderbot series, and the second full length novel. If I’m honest, I went into this one with high hopes. I have, as I’ve said before, a lot of time for Murderbot. As a construct, Murderbot was artificially shackled with a kill-switch, given the capacity to kill along with the tools and augmentations to do so very efficiently, and then forced to guard humans who, frankly, probably shouldn’t have been allowed out of doors on their own. All Murderbot really seems to want to do is be left alone to watch its soaps.

Or at least, so it claims. Murderbot is a free agent now, inhabiting a world which sits outside the control of the mega corporations. But it’s still looking after humans who probably shouldn’t be allowed to tie their shoes without help. Now, though, it’s doing so because it wants to, and that makes all the difference. The voice of Murderbot, the throughline which gives us its thoughts in between bursts of explosive, adrenaline-surge action, has changed. It’s still wry, dry, and oh so tired of everyone else’s nonsense. But it has found a hidden space for a candle of warmth that it can hold, askance, within itself. That voice is something special, something which speaks to everyone who has found themselves out from under the thumb of power, everyone who has, or is struggling to define themselves, and everyone looking at the people they’ve fallen amongst, the friends they would die for, the ones who always have your back. It speaks to something human in us, this voice of a construct which defines itself as something different, whilst having so much in common. 

While I’m here: Fugitive Telemetry lets Murderbot expand, grow as an individual. It’s always trying to define what it is. And it’s always trying to do so from its own expectations, its own needs, and without leaning on the expectations of others. And that is a joy. Murderbot is so relatable, even while being an artificially constructed killing machine. 

So yeah, this is the sixth story. If you’re here fresh, you can probably read this without the context of the previous five stories. It hangs together very well, the narrative is tightly constructed and compelling, and it’ll keep your attention. But the context, the history that has helped shape Murderbot, is in those other stories, and I urge you to go and read those first. If you’re an old hand, know that the Murderbot is on fine form today. The internal dialogue remains whip-smart, wry and world-weary, but it has a passion and an openness to it, an honesty that feels like the armour shifting, just a crack, to let both us and Murderbot explore who they want to be, under what they have been. It’s paired with the no-bullshit attitude I’ve always adored, and the sort of tense, intimate, precision crafted plotting that leaves you with questions and answers in equal measure, and with revelations that make you (or at least me) go “Oooooh” as they land. 

After the explosive adventures of Network Effect, this story feels  more intimate, a murder mystery, an exploration of the self that comes with bladed sarcasm, gunfire, and a body or two. It’s fair, as well. The audience has the same information as our eyes and ears in Murderbot; we can try and work out what’s going on alongside our interlocutor. We can be as baffled as they are, share the “Aha!” moments, and try and puzzle over the puzzles that murder leaves behind. Whodunit? Well, we’ll see. But I’ll say this: every step of the way, I was unable to put it down. 

In short, this is a jewel of a story. Every part of it is necessary. Every part of it works. All the parts fit together, all the parts build something beautiful, build a narrative that will keep you up until far too late at night. Build something raw and painful and loving and warm, something where the action is kinetically explosive, and the characters are given the depth and life that makes them feel real. And it does all this while exploring issues of autonomy and power and humanity. Of friendship and family and understanding. Of ethics and truth. And it does all that while telling a damn good story. 

So yeah. This, this is a damn good story. And that’s as high a praise as I can think to give. 

Wednesday, April 7, 2021

The Girl and The Mountain - Mark Lawrence

The Girl and the Mountain is the sequel to Mark Lawrence’s superlative The Girl and The Stars. Long term readers will know that I have a deep affection for Mark’s work; I went in hoping I’d love this, and I went in with high expectations. And I can now say that those expectations have been met, and indeed surpassed. This is a great story.

The executive summary is thatLawrence has once again blended science-fiction and fantasy, then added a splash of humanity and shared experience, to create a delightful narrative melange, which is a long-winded way of saying it’s a damn good read, which will make you laugh, and cry, and you won’t be able to stop turning pages, and also it’s two in the morning, how did that happen, but you have to know what’s on the next page, and the next, and the next. 

Yaz is a wonderful character. A woman struggling to define herself in an environment which is beyond harsh. Given abilities which would be wonders in other times, and other places, she has to endure their disadvantages instead. Speed and power are no use on the ice field, which rewards only focus and endurance. But Yaz, and indeed those she’s fallen in with, have is not what the ice demands. It’s the ability to shape fire and water. Or to move faster than thought. Or to slip between things, out of the eyes of people and into the realm of myth. If the ice doesn’t care for such things, if the environment brutalises difference, as az well knows, then what do she and her friends bring to the table? And the answer is that they bring their differences. Their perspective. An ability to do things outside a system which is winding down, step by step by step. They walk across the ice, powered by hope and by a desire to see something more, to be something more. That  desire is likely to resonate with any reader, and it’s one with a power behind it, backed by a sharpness which engages with the difficulties of difference, but refuses to bow to them, and instead says, here are people, in all their diversity of thought and form and action, and they can, will, must do more than survive. 

Of course, there’s a story here. Don’t get me wrong. Yaz is the heart of the story, and her journey into discovering who she is, and whether that is who or what she wants to be, and how she decides to live her life, in a world which seeks to deny that choice, is the iron core at the centre of the tale. Watching her grow, and watching her friends grow alongside her, is a joy. But there’s also a lot going on. I won’t spoil it, but there is, of course, the titular Mountain, the Black Rock, filled with the mysterious priests, the closest thing that the sweeping ice fields have to anb authority, and a cultural touchstone. And alongside those mysterious figures, are the shattered remnants of archaeotech that help define the setting - old cities, crushed under glaciers, holding long forgotten marvels which could shatter worlds, or rebuild them ,if any were able to reach them, and understand their needs. There are the abominations that are those who came before, trapped in the ice, devils singing out for bodies to possess and havoc to cause. And there are voices in the aether which might be more or less than gods and men. And all of them have an agenda, and all of them have a hand in the pot, where Yaz and her fellows are (metaphorically) gently boiling.

There’s betrayal here, and revelation. There’s relationships torn apart, rebuilt, and forged. There’s the promise of the green lands, and the certain and deadly monotony of the ice. There’s truths about humanity and how it feels about difference and survival, and there’s more to learn about the world of Abeth, and how it came to be quite how it is. There’s dark things beneath the world of men, and characters bringing light to it. 

Which is all very fluffy. But I don’t want to spoil it. So stick with me here. Because again: Yaz is a beautifully drawn character, vivid and human, who steps right off the page and onto the nearest glacier. Her friends are as interesting, and as real (even the ones who may not be). And her enemies are vital and clever and compellingly vile. The world lives and breathes around them, from the starkly lit fluorescent tunnels of the underground labyrinths of mad cities, to the gentle creaking of the black ice in the face of an endless blizzard. And the story itself, filled with revelation and hard human truth alike, will take your hand and pull you out along the ice with it,and you’ll end up, as I did, turning pages deep into the night. 

The really short version: this is a bloody good book, I couldn’t put it down, and I bet you won’t be able to put it down either. Go and get a copy right now.

Friday, April 2, 2021

The Unbroken - C.L. Clark

The Unbroken is, first of all, a hell of a story. It’s got magic. It’s got muskets. It’s got monarchs. It’s got rebellions and mysteries aplenty. But it’s also got a heck of a lot else going on, exploring the choices and consequences of colonialism, of conscription, and of the idea of agency, of choice. It’s a book with Big Ideas lurking like a crocodile beneath the waters of its heart-thumping narrative, ready to make you think, even as it dazzles, terrifies and delights in equal measure. It’s also unabashedly a queer story of love, and loss, and connection. It is, in other words, a book which fills every inch of its pages with wonder, and is really bloody good.

Emphasis on the bloody.

Touraine is the gyre at the centre of the story. Taken from her country as a child, after its conquest, she was raised by the conquerors, the Balladaire. Educated to be “civilised” by their lights. Trained as a soldier. Conscripted to lead her fellow dispossessed into the worst of the conflicts begun by their colonisers. Always left feeling under the weight of expectation, even from those Balladaireans who are willing to see her as something like a person. Touraine has trained herself to live a life of strict control, conforming to external expectations, forcing herself into the mould that her captors, her surrogate parents, her life, has prepared her for. And the story looks at Touraine, and asks her questions, and asks us questions. Touraine fights for Balladaire, partly because there are no other options, and partly because, embedded in their culture, she thinks they’ll win. And so she struggles to be more like them than they are themselves, trying to win her small command of conscripts room to breathe, maybe even room to choose.  There’s an old pain and old scars there, a code of submission and adoption, but also that sense of struggle. Even as she has fought Balladaire’s wars, she fights for her people, for the family that she has now, the conscript company under her.Trying to fit them into a world which aims to make them like itself, but denies them the opportunity to be equals. 

The Unbroken is often a painful, affecting read. In Touraine and her conscripts, we can see the face of a colonial past laid bare, a generation after brutalities and madness. Now the survivors are trying to find something to hold to in the rubble. Watching Touraine try to squeeze herself into Baladaire’s expectations, like a uniform a size too small, is painful. Watching her friends argue for revolution, or just to keep your head down, as things won’t improve, is painful - but it’s an honest pain, one which rings true. 

And as Touraine is trying to find an identity, she is flung back into the land where she was born. A land that seems familiar but isn’t. A land which has no place for those returnees walking the thin line between the conquerors and the occupied. Because the conscripts are sent back to their birthplace, to enforce the order of their colonial masters, and prove their assimilation and their virtue to those with the power to hold their reins. 

One of those is Luca, princess of Balladaire, and possibly its queen. Luca is interesting in herself. She struggles with expectations of her own, a permanent physical injury and her gender making her less than ideal monarch material, in a colonial polity recently ruled by her father, a conquering king. But Luca exists in a cloud of privilege. Her limitations are real, but her boundaries are wider; she twitches in pain from a ruined leg, but does so under silk sheets, while planning how to take her throne. And to do that, she’s come to this conquered corner of her kingdom, to settle a rebellion, and prove her right to rule in one stroke. Luca is incisive, intelligent, and, given the right circumstances, ruthless. She reads, a lot, in an effort to be a good ruler, to decide what a good ruler actually is. Luca is, by many lights, a good person, even if her kingdom is settled on old debts, paid in the blood and bones of the people whose land she now finds herself strolling through, with an armed guard. Because Luca wants two things. She wants magic. - old magic, from before this part of the world was a part of Balladaire - and she wants to solve the rebellion. And for that, she needs someone she can use to get inside. Someone like Touraine. 

The relationship between these two, the princess and the soldier, is a delight, and it’s at the heart of the story both in terms of the larger themes and the sheer emotional energy. Luca canb see strength and loyalty and courage in Touraine, but also looks at her as a tool, as someone she can love, but also someone she can use; and Touraine can admire Luca, can see that she is struggling to do what she thinks she must to build a better world in the long term, but can’t help but wonder what right she has to make those decisions. In a land in its second generation of occupation, are the reforms Luca plans genuinely good? Or are they sops to contain conflict, and, in any case, merely gifts given back to a people who used to own them?

In some ways they’re sweet, even cute. And you can feel the genuine chemistry, the bounded romance of the two leads as they try to feel their way toward common ground, toward connection. But Luca, even in her gifts, in her need, in her way of thinking toward Touraine, can’t help but take some of her choice, some of her agency. She gives things which help, which might be things Touraine has wanted - but they aren’t a path chosen, but one defined. And Touraine struggles with memories of the lash (real and metaphorical), trying to show Luca that this poart of her world doesn’t want her, that Luca’s steps toward peace are a bandage on a suppurating wound.  And while she does that, Touraine is trying to work out who she is, walking beneath a sky that is so strange but familiar from childhood, looking at faces in the street that might be family and never know it, looking at a people who are part of her, but no more accepting than those who tore her away from this place to begin. 

OK, I went on a lot here. 

But these two, they orbit each other. And they show us some of the roots of structural injustice in the way they act, react, speak, move. The way that a generation after horror, even the best of intentions may not move the needle. The future is paying the price for the transgressions of the past, and it may not even realise how its options are limited. 

I want to say more, but can’t spoil it. 

But I’ll say this. The atmosphere is right. The world is right. The way that there’s a rich class of Balladaire adventurers, profiting on the backs of a people now theoretically part of their kingdom, but never, never equals. The way that elite leans on the monarchy and their armaments to enforce a rule under the threat of blood and fire, and threatens its own crisis if not appeased. The way that the third generation are a hybrid, reaching out to the conquered, trying to make something new, but still so very scarred on both sides by the past. The way that acculturation has taken hold, in street signs, in a melange of language, in code switching, language switching. The way that certain neighbourhoods have silent lines around them, and the way certain people are punished while others walk away. It’s colonial power to a T. It’s an intricate, beautifully observed world, one that makes my bones ache with its familiarity and its injustices. 

And it’s a world of conspiracy. A powder keg, waiting for the right spark to throw it into something new. 

I haven’t said enough. 

But I’ll say this. The Unbroken is one of the most thoughtful books I’ve read in years. It’s a book with a world you can recognise, a world which does not compromise in what it shows you. A world that allows you to see real people and their relationships - family, friends, royalty, conscripts - and doesn’t wave away the costs that those relationships have, or the actions that brought them about. It’sa hard story, sometimes. But also one which feels true. It’s a story which held my heart in its hands, and which brought both sorrow and joy in its journey. 

It’s a damn fine book. It asks big questions, and refuses to give easy answers. It gives you fantastic characters, and asks you to see them as people, not archetypes. It gives you rebellion and revolution and magic and gods, and asks you to think about what happened to make it so, while the muskets crack and the blood falls to the floor. It’s a book that talks about identity, and faith, and family, and what those mean, and does so with an unflinching eye for truth as well as genuine warmth.

It’s great, is what I’m saying. Read it, right now.