Wednesday, May 26, 2021

Seven Deaths of an Empire - G.R. Matthews

Seven Deaths of an Empire is a sprawling work of epic fantasy from G.R. Matthews. It begins, as one might expect, with a death.And, in the interest of full disclosure, it doesn’t stop with just one. What it does do is give us a complex, clever storyline with narrative threads interwoven between two disparate viewpoints in different places. What it does do is give us a world which has familiar cultural undertones, and asks thoughtful questions about Empires, and what they are actually for. What it does do is do this through the lens of some compelling characters, and by providing intriguing mystery, kinetic, bloodthirsty combat, top-quality dialogue and believable relationships. This book is the whole package.

To be fair, at over five hundred pages, it is also a pretty big package. But it’s all useful stuff. Each page carries with it some snippet of character, a witticism that makes you chuckle, another strand in the world building tapestry, or a moment that makes you think you know what’s going on - having already made you think that, and switch dit up on you a couple of times before. 

But I digress. 

The Empire is the world. Everyone outside its boundaries is a barbarian. Or at least, so those in the Empire would have you believe. And the Empire thinks it has a mission to civilise. By which it means, to assimilate. It does so by fire and sword, cracking skulls and leaving trails of bodies across a continent over centuries. One strand of the narrative follows the aftermath of one of these expeditions, into the dark forests of some as-yet unconquered tribes. The clash of cultures is as much soft power as armed force. Those outside the Empire have no desire to pay its taxes, no desire to kneel to an Emperor who burns their woods and would throw away their religion. But the Empire is there anyway, legions invincible, or at least endless. And it brings learning, and books, and indoor plumbing in its wake. Are those within it better off than those without? It’s something to ponder, and I think the text explores the nuances of liminality on the borders of strong polities really well. And it makes the forest feel alive, from the close packed trees and dark mulch underfoot, to the people within who fade in and out of sight of their adversaries, and have a rich sociocultural life of their own. And as an army retreats back through that forest to the safety of its borders, we get to see some of Imperial military life. Harsh, sometimes, hierarchical, but also a place of opportunity, and one where comrades stand by one another; where the people in the machine help bend or shape the machine.And they do so with religion and blood, yes, but also with magic, and ties of friendship and history.

The other strand of story is deep within the Empire, in the capital. Here the lavish lifestyle of the aristocracy is made visible, but so too we see some regular people; all of whom seem fairly content with their lot. Sure, there are problems, but they’re not living in forests and crapping in compost heaps like barbarians. But this is a place of byzantine politics, patient schemes, and, well,murder. We’re here for the aristocracy, for their backbiting and human tragedy and moments of genuine growth - and, of course, the potential for their demise. But the world, the Empire, the marble palaces and the stone dry hills, the thronging streets and the simmering conflict between religion and magic - they all combine to help us see a living, breathing world. 

The viewpoints. Well, I don’t want to give much away. But we get The General, and The Magician; one steeped in the service of the Empire, mired in old struggles and old loyalties, and keen to hand over the reigns of power. The other is younger, more idealistic about their role in things, but also perhaps naive, and willing to question their assumptions. Each brings their own biases, their own weaknesses and strengths as a narrator to the table - and it’s to the author’s credit that each is a totally unique voice. When the General speaks, you can hear the world weariness seeping through his bones, the rigid armour of old competence and quiet secrets. And in the Magician is youth and hope and that simmering insecurity, and a need to do something, to choose to be better, to be, even if changing, doing, being can end badly and bloodily.  In both cases, their inner lives are opened to us - well, mostly. And What we see is rich and detailed and plausible; these are people, living in the spaces we see, with friendships and enmities and, well, everything that makes 

The story I really won’t  spoil. But yes, you can count the number of deaths. It’s in the title. Eqal parts murder investigation, explosive combat, suspense thriller and, well, magical shenanigans, this is all great fun. There’s enough twists and turns here that you could probably use the book to crack open a bottle of wine, and enough heartfelt emotion left on the page to make you laugh or weep. It’s a good story; at times a tragic, poignant one, at times hilarious, often thoughtful, and always interesting. If you’re a one for big fantasy tomes, this is one for you; and if you aren’t, generally, you might give this a look anyway, because it has so much going on that it may well grab your attention and not let go, much like it did mine.

A very fun read!

Wednesday, May 19, 2021

The Borders Of Infinity - Lois McMaster Buold

I’ve been re-reading Lois McMaster Bujold’s Vorkosigan series recently, which means that it’s time to add another entry to my extremely timeline-extended set of reviews for the series.

This time, we’re going to talk about Borders of Infinity, which is a collection of Vorkosigan short stories and novellae. 

In the interests of full disclosure, I think one of the stories in this volume, The Mountains of Mourning, coming in at a whopping 84 pages, is one of the tightest, most emotionally affecting, beautiful and sorrowful pieces of writing I’ve ever read, and I don’t say that lightly. 

Each of the stories has been published elsewhere, but getting them together in one collection is handy - though there’s now another short, Flowers of Vashnoi available, meaning you don’t quite get all the Vorkosigan short tales in one volume any more. The stories are surrounded by a framing story, of Miles Vorkosigan (he of The Warrior’s Apprentice and well, much of the rest of the series) getting surgery on his bones, on Earth, after the events of Mirror Dance. The frame is amicable enough, and gives a little connective flesh between the bones of the stories it surrounds - but it’s by no means the meat of the thing, and I’d struggle to recommend picking up the collection just for the frame, unless you’re a real completionist. 

The Borders of Infinity is, confusingly, the same of one of the stories in the collection.  Here we see Miles at his best - or worst, depending on how you look at it. Thrown into a military prison camp, he works to gather resources, motivate the prisoners, and escape. The prison, though, is a near featureless void - a plain on which there is nothing to see, nothing to do, where the vast possibilities of humanity are constrained udunderner the edges of their own expectations, chained by their own demons. And, to be fair, by a giant dome which encircles the place. Guards are dispensed with, the prisoners sealed in the dome. Shelter, given the dome, is unnecessary. Food is dispensed, regularly, but in such a way as to encourage internal conflict. By the time Miles arrives, military hierarchy is breaking down. The worst impulses of the prisoners, left with no external enemy to turn upon, are turning on each other, even as their minds slowly turn in on themselves. With no way to act, those people Miles has come to save are slowly going mad, driven to depression, suicide, and infighting.  Bujold brings a desolate emptiness to grey, horrifying life. But she also gives us more of Miles’ verve, energy and manic refusal to stop, as he pushes forward, shaping circumstance and people in the service of his goal, with a combination of high expectations and fast talking bullshit. Miles brings hope to the hopeless, and that keeps me turning pages - well, along with the banter, and the “How will he get out of this” tension.

Labyrinth is a story from Jackson’s Hole, a world where everything has a price, and anything can be bought. That includes your own personal monsters. And here is Miles, thrown into the pit with a monster, a creature bred for war, left languishing in a pit, unable to die, unwilling not to live. But this is as much the monster’s story as one of Miles. As he sits on he precipice of ignominious demise, he finds common ground and respect with Taura - who moves gently from the Other, the horror in the dark, to being a person, someone to be seen and loved and known in her own right, with her own agency. Labyrinth is Taura’s story of manumission, and of personhood, and Miles is the catalyst. The transformation of Taura is done wonderfully, with a delicate craftsmanship that lets us see her as she is - and also lets her embrace herself. There’s a fair amount of action in this one too, and it’s always good to see the folk of the Hole get their comeuppance. This is a story of love and friendship and kindness, and, also, kicking the arses of some malevolent, awful people. Which also means it’s a heck of a lot of fun. 

And then there’s The Mountains of Mourning. It’s actually at the start of the collection, and I don’t want to spoil it. But it’s beautiful. Miles is packed off to the backwoods of Barrayar to investigate claims of a murder. There are twists aplenty - who did what and to whom is remarkably hard to establish, even when you have truth serum at your disposal. And the poverty, the desperate, grinding life lived by people Miles is responsible for, is drawn vividly, brutally, and sympathetically. These are people shaped by circumstance, forgotten by those who should uplift them, trudging through their days, living as best they can. But doing so with the best and worst of humanity in themselves - bigotry and violence, old grudges and bone-deep prejudices, warring with kindness and honesty and hope for a better future for children. This is a story with teeth, and it hurts. It hurts to read, in so many ways, as the death of a child becomes the centre of a widening gyre which could tear apart a community, and where those who thing mutants should have their throats cut, have to contend with a Lord’s son, from the far off capital, who is under five feet tall, feisty, and unafraid. It’s a special story, exploring poverty and prejudice, responsibility and grace, and the prose is polished until it shines.You want to read this one; though be warned, it may hit close to home. 

Overall, this is a solid collection, with some good stories, and one genuine standout, gamechanger of a tale. It’s worth the read, worth your time, and I recommend it wholeheartedly. 

Wednesday, May 12, 2021

Shards of Earth - Adrian Tchaikovsky


Shards of Earth is the latest sci-fi novel from Adrian Tchaikovsky. Tchaikovsky has written epic fantasy, and some of the best high-concept science fiction of recent years. I’ve been a fan of his work for years, and I tell you what: I went into this space opera with high expectations, and this one did not disappoint. 

This is a post-war universe. A universe defined by a conflict which shattered worlds. Literally. Mysterious forces, seemingly beyond the ken of man, the enormous creatures known as Architects, appear above the skies of populated worlds, and render them into exotic, incomprehensible art. Of course, nobody survives the process. But this isn’t the story of war with the architects. This is the story of a world built on the ruins, Of a humanity whose home is shattered rock and outgassing air, which has rebuilt itself over several generations, whose scattered refugees are now living in (relative) peace. Of course, being people, they’re also busy running up factions, and politics, and internecine feuds. Not only between themselves, but with everyone else as well - from the Hivers, a self-aware nanite swarm, to the inscrutable mollusc Empire which circles the fringes of humanity, and tries to assimilate their worlds through persuasion and koans.Humanity is trying to come to terms with its own trauma, in a universe where it is not the dominant power, and where what is known is vastly smaller than whatever is at the edges of the map. The sense of scale, of vacuum as a vast, unknowable deep, held together by thin lines of force, accessible to a scattered few, the scope of the galaxy is wondrous and terrifying. 

Into this uncaring universe step a ship full of miscreants and vagabonds. Perhaps the most central is Idris, the result of military experiments in the war generations ago, who can navigate his ship between the stars. Idris struggles with past trauma, the experiences which shaped him into a weapon, and the experience of war against the Architects. He’s a person on the edge, trying to get through each day, trying to find meaning and connection in a universe which is slowly forgetting the old heroes. 

And then there’s Solace, a genetically engineered super soldier, a myrmidon who was decanted for war. Where Idris has lived the future, Solace has missed it, put on ice by her sister-warrior culture, to be brought back into the fight at need. Solace is dislocated, out of time, building new alliances and a new future with every word.

These two veterans, in and out of time, are embedded in a ship that skims the edge of the known, digging up salvage and secrets in equal measure. Their Captain is a voluble figure who thinks of himself as a father; they have a lawyer on board who is as much at home in a duelling circle as a courtroom, their engineer is ensconced in a life support system which also happens to be a giant scorpion combat exoskeleton. And those are the humans. I won’t even get into the aliens, but rest assured they’re a weird and wonderful bunch.The crew is a diverse, squabbling, complex organism filled with old and new grudges and quiet affections alongside public joys. It’s a ship filled with organic histories, where sense and story are heard in the quiet spaces between the words. 

Which is all to say, the characterisation is top-notch. The people seem like people, in all their glory and horror, apes reaching for the stairs with one hand, flinging faeces with the other. The aliens, the non-humans, are strange and wonderful in different ways, which suggest perspectives just out of reach. And those aliens are people too. People we don’t really know, or understand a lot of the time, but still people themselves. And each is coming off the page, fully realised and whole.

The story? Well, I won’t spoil it. There are enough turns here for...a twisty-turny thing. There were moments when I turned the page in surprise, needing to see where a sudden revelation left the story. This is a soaring adventure, a found family investigating deep mysteries, with social relationships that give the fast-paced action a heart and depth. This is a fun story, a clever story, with some big questions woven through the narrative. The characters are intriguing and feel real; the universe is vast, filled with mystery and the scintillating shimmer of hidden treasure among the scattered remnants of ruined worlds. And the story is smart, and funny, and emotionally affecting, and has the kind of drive and energy which leaves you reading page after page late into the night - or early into the morning. 

This is, in sum, a great space opera, and a joy to read. And you should read it!

Wednesday, May 5, 2021

Hard Reboot - Django Wexler

Hard Reboot is a new novella from Django Wexler. It’s a cracking piece of science fiction, which mixes some great characterisation with an interesting universe in the background, and also some kick-arse robot fights. It’s a lot of fun.

The story is split between two viewpoints; a scholar, visiting the shattered ruins of Earth in a distant future, and a scavenger whose life has been described within those same ruins. They both have different senses of presence, of voice. Kas comes to us from a space of privilege, aware of her own opportunities, and of the limits that have been forced on her by those further up the academic hierarchy, limiting her due to her ancestry. Kas is clever, thoughtful, and acutely aware that she’ll always be regarded as a second class citizen by her peers. Zhi, on the other hand, is fierce. She’s determined to rise above her position combing the ruins of Earth for usable remnants, and if her physical circumstances are brutal, still, nothing is there to stop her rising as far as she can. Well, except for the crime syndicate which wants her to work for them. I do love the differences in voice - Kas’s careful restraint, sens eof rising dread, and startling bravery. Zhi’s energy, drive, and fury at the circumstances she refuses to let define her. 

The two have a chemistry together which is undeniable, and a pleasure to read. The dialogue between them flows naturally; the sparks that fly always threaten to start a more personal fire, and their passion and enthusiasm feel real. Like people living their lives, with passion and joy. Well, those and more than a little frustration, banter and joy. They’re good people. They’re people that you can come to care about in a very short period of time. 

They do this, in part, due to the world they live in. The scattered remnants of Earth are quietly sad and the desperation of its inhabitants, abandoned by those that left them behind out in the stars - it’s real. Earth is a corpse of metal and blood, what remains of its economy driven by ghoulish sightseers and research visitors who see it as equal parts museum and zoo. But there are treasures there too, technological wonders buried under meters of steel and earth, things that in latter days of a star-spanning history, are outside our reach.

There are also, of course, the aforementioned giant robots. And I’ll be honest, they do fight. And their melee is kinetic and vicious and will drive up your adrenaline and keep you turning pages. Each blade scoring against armour plating, each metal fist crunching into a cockpit, carries the threat and promise of change. And it works on its own terms, but you’ll care because of Zhi and Kas, and their clash with both each other and the forces arrayed against the both of them. 

In the end, this novella is a fun story, with fast-paced action, an interesting world, and characters that’ll make you care about them even more than giant robot gladiatorial games. Go and give it a read, you won’t regret it.