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 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.