Wednesday, August 25, 2021

Memory - Lois McMaster Bujold

So, lets talk about Memory. Memory is one of those books I have to read every so often, because it’s, well, basically it’s great. In one sense, it’s great because it’s a story about digging into a devious, complex plot from a calculating villain. But in another, perhaps more true sense, it’s a story about someone doing some very stupid things in order to keep hold of a lifeline to a life they almost kind of had, a dream of a different tomorrow, or maybe a different yesterday. And in perhaps an even truer sense, it’s a story about how we aren’t always what we define ourselves to be, and in fact how those definitions can shape us and trap us, until we accept who we are and reshape our expectations to suit. 

As long time readers will know, I am a great fan of the Vorkosigan novels, and this one is up there as a favourite. Because here we have Miles, famously the dynamo, a man who has pushed through walls, literal and figurative to have a career in intelligence, doing real work, work which matters. And we have his alter ego, Naismith, leading fleet actions, the hero of a hundred stories, including his own. And, at last, we are at the cutting edge. Because Miles has to decide who he is. Is he Miles Vorkosigan, Imperial subject and occasional troublemaker extraordinaire? Or is he going to live out the dream of being the “Little Admiral”. The story asks him this in dire circumstances, and watching Miles twist and turn on the hook is, well, at once compelling and appalling. This is a man determined to have it both ways, who can make almost anything happen by force of will, trying to overcome some intractable obstacles which make what he wants impossible

It’s a struggle not to spoil why this might be, but I will say that it’s a hard choice for him. And it’s a downward spiral too, one filled with denial and delaying tactics, and some extremely poor decisions. Of course we’ve all seen those decisions before in previous books, and they usually come off alright. But Memory isn’t playing around. It’s showing us someone coming to the end of a long rope, and not afraid to demonstrate that the intergalactic James Bond lifestyle has physical and psychological consequences. 

Miles does not have a good time for a large part of this book. 

For all that though, his personality is unbowed, a fierce, driven individual; seeing that energy misapplied is heartbreaking, but it doesn’t feel any less true. It shows us what can happen when what you want and what you can achieve are out of sync, when you have to look around at where you are at this point and decide where you want to be. There’s a couple of paths out from that catalyst, and more than a few of them lead down the spiral of distress, depression, and unpleasant decisions which Miles finds themselves in. As a portrayal of a person in trouble, it’s raw and painful and genuine, with a pain that works because ou can feel it too. Who hasn’t asked themselves what to do next, and whether what they’re doing is what they want? Fewer of us are intergalactic spies, but, you know. The pain of losing dreams is here in all of us, and you can feel it in the energy Miles puts out on the page. 

In this he’s assisted by Illyan, his boss. Illyan has always had a bit of a soft spot for Miles, but maybe not for his “Little Admiral” persona, and really isn’t here for the self-serving, self-deluding work tat Miles is doing. But Illyan has problems of his own, under attack by an unseen, uncontrollable adversary, one who might, well, also be Miles. Watching Simon Illyan, the imperturbable head of Security, slowly crumble at the edges, while in front of him Miles does the same...well, there’s no other word than searing. It’s beautifully written, a duet of sorrow of the body and soul, both breaking down, both trying to find a different path than the boxes they’ve left themselves in until now.

This is a character story, and they are both marvellous in their character.

Of course there’s a plot, and byzantine schemes. An investigation that eats its own tail, with more twists and turns than a...twisty, turny thing. And a denouement that will probably have you as delighted as I was. Because oh my does it deliver. 

As Vorkosigan novels go, this isn’t one to start with. There’s too much context to find in what came before. But once you start it, you won’t be able to stop until it’s finished. It’s brilliant. 

Wednesday, August 18, 2021

Break this week

 Normal service has been interrupted by unexpected COVID testing!

We're all fine, and will be back next week.

Wednesday, August 11, 2021

The Wolf of Oren-Yaro - K.S. Villoso

K.S. Villoso's The Wolf of Oren Yaro, is one of those books that sneaks up on you, narratively. You’re reading along, and think you have a handle on where it’s going, and suddenly the game changes. The understanding of the world, of the characters, of the situations they’re in...pivots, and suddenly everything is different. It also sneaks up on you in the sense that you start reading it, and suddenly it’s two in the morning and you remember that you have to go to work in a few hours, but also you kind of want to read just one more chapter. The Wolf of Oren Yaro is one of those books. 

It’s also a story that I want to call startlingly innovative; perhaps that’s my own narrowness of vision. In a world torn apart by conflict, the queen of Oren Yaro is trapped by a sense of duty, trying to hold disparate parts of a kingdom together after a civil war. Talyien is a hermit crab, desperately trapped in a citadel where everyone pretends to defer to her, whilst secretly - or openly - looking to subvert her will, or work it to their own ends, or ignore her and do what they were going to do anyway, short of outright killing each other. In this, she is not helped by the sudden disappearance of her husband, the other side of an arranged marriage to hold a kingdom together, or by long memories of her father, a man who apparently loved his daughter, but was perfectly willing to commit atrocities to close down a civil war. The survivors of that war, and those atrocities, have long memories, even as they bend the knee.

But Talis journey is one that works both personally and on a broader level - finding her husband to attempt to preserve her political and social position, as well as their kingdom, yes. But also Tali is trying to find out who she is, and what she needs or wants. She may be a fierce queen, hamstrung by circumstance. Or a hopeless despot. Or a woman who needs to be fragile and affectionate and human sometimes. Or maybe all of these, though history won’t say for sure just yet. But that’s the journey we’re on with her. And Tali is a beautiful character, crafted with a warmth of human empathy and an understanding of the depths of despair and the horrors of duty and the acceptance of obligation. Tali limits herself, makes herself the queen she needs to be - and sometimes she doesn’t And that has consequences of its own. Who Tali is, who she will decide to be, is a central path through this story, I think. It’s exploring her hurt and her shame and what in her pats has shaped her into the queen shaped mould she never quite seems to want to put herself in. The sorrowful queen, on the edge of acceptability, at the centre which cannot hold, is also a woman determined to strike out on her own, to do what needs to be done, to know and understand her world, to carve her own path in it, not the path of expectation. And the way that feels, reading it, is breathtaking. We can see the Queen of Oren-Yaro grow and change, and shift - and maybe not always in the way we might like or the way we might expect, but in a way which feels real and true.

And hers is a dangerous world. Court politics are one thing, but outside the broken kingdom of Oren-Yaro are worse things. Things she may yet meet with a sword in hand, or run away from. There are cities which seem like magic, and there’s magic that feels like hell itself. There are wonders and terrors here, and they’re not quite like anything else you’ve seen. The world is organic, drawn with an eye for detail, a precision and a grime and a patina of veracity that means the world feels lived in and real at the same time as it feels wonderful and terrifying in equal measure. 

I won’t get into the story here, because it really does want to surprise you. But I will say that there’s enough politics and murders and love and heartbreak and, well, occasional stabbings to make you sit up and take notice. This is a story of a journey, and it’s not so much an adventure as a woman trying to shape herself and shape her understanding of her world, as others try and do the same around her, with her, to her - with varying degrees of success. 

The Wolf of Oren-Yaro is a fascinating book. It’s one I couldn’t put down. It’s something I think you ought to give a try. 

Wednesday, August 4, 2021

Light Chaser - Peter F. Hamilton and Gareth L. Powell

Light Chaser is a novella length work from Gareth L. powell and Peter F. Hamilton. Those two have written some of my favourite science fiction of the last decade, so seeing them together was enough to make this mandatory reading. I’m happy to say that I went in with high expectations, and they were surpassed. This is some top notch science fiction, combining a universe sprinkled with fascinating environments and different societies, with characterisation that lets you feel the pain, the struggle, the hope and the love of our protagonist, makes them feel real, and with an overarching story which  keeps you wanting to turn pages until it’s far too late at night. 

Light Chasers circle the worlds of a galactic civilisation. Some of those worlds are high-tech utopia, others are more medieval hellscapes. But each is linked together on the route of a LightChaser. These pilots have ships moving at significant amounts of lightspeed - centuries for the rest of us pass as moments for them. The Lightchasers drop in on each world on their route, observe society, and collect information about it before removing on to the next world in their loop. They’re people out of time, chasing an ouroboros. And we’re following one of these wanderers across space and time, as they dip in and out of everyone else’s lives. In part, this is a story that’s a meditation on loneliness and connection. In the way different people and places speak to each other, and in the way that those tying the web together sometimes spend their time alone, outside of the societies which rely on them.  Because a Lightchaser isn’t really from anywhere, not any more - and as they live on for centuries, enhanced beyond their natural span, they slowly forget more and more of themselves, losing who they were in the eternal now of who they are.

Powell and Hamilton are past-masters at creating living, breathing, believable worlds, and they do that again here. Each place we see is different, and special, and vividly drawn, and feels real.

This is matched by the Lightchaser herself, a woman who lives in the silent spaces between the stars,  content in the endless round of circling her route between the stars. Cynical and world weary and craving experiences that are more than her boundaries allow. But also an explorer, and alone, and looking for something genuine, a sense of connection in the individual which is mirrored in the connections she enables in the worlds. The Lightchaser is smart and funny and wounded and sometimes painful to read, and still very, very human. As someone living in an eternal now, we're looking over their shoulder into both the new and old, trying to figure it out as she does. 

And figure it out she must. Because there is something rotten in the state of Denmark. Or in the state of the universe, at any rate. Everything is not as it seems, and although I won’t spoil it, I’ll say this: the story is tightly plotted, letting out a slow burn of revelation which will keep you coming back to the story, and which certainly kept me reading until well past my bedtime.  

Light Chaser is a smart, high-concept piece of sci-fi, with a great, well realised protagonist, a universe filled with different human societies which feel new, alien and real at the same time, and with a story that doesn’t let up, and won’t let go. In short, it’s great fun, and a great read. Give it a try.