Wednesday, September 29, 2021

Elder Race - Adrian Tchaikovsky

Elder Race
is a sci-fi  novella from Adrian Tchaikovsky, who has recently been absolutely knocking it out of the park with high concept sci-fi which embraces the human factor. This story is, in that sense, no different. It’s smart, sometimes funny, and explores the human condition sympathetically, while asking some interesting questions. And, you know, also, it tells a heck of an adventure story, too.

The core of that story is Lynesse, and Nyr. Each is given alternating viewpoint chapters; which matters, because the social context, the way in which they see things, is so different.

Lynesse is the unlikely heroine of a fantasy story. She’s thetrailing daughter of the ruling house of a kingdom in the medieval mould, ruled by her mother, who has a will of iron and a thick streak of pragmatism. Lynesse is the wild daughter, the one paying out rope behind her as she prepares to leap over a cliff to see what’s at the bottom. But Lynesse is also the thoughtful one, the compassionate one. The one willing to do what needs to be done, fuelled by tales of ancestral heroism. Willing to stride out into the darkness, sword in hand, and master whatever monster is causing her kingdom grief. But she needs help And so Lynesse is going to find the last of the Elders, a powerful sorcerer, who could turn the tide, a mythical creature from a forgotten age, who promised aid to Lynesse’s family, should they ever call.

So she is going to call, and then go forth and righteously kick arse.

Nyr is, well, the last of the Elders, a powerful sorcerer, who could turn the tide, a mythical creature from a forgotten age, who promised aid to Lynesse’s family, should they ever call. Except..he isn’t. Nyr is a junior anthropologist from a space-faring earth, here to keep an eye on the development of this offshoot of humanity. But the rest of his team left centuries ago, and Nyr I s dipping in and out of stasis, spanning centuries in the blink of an eye, and getting worse and worse at the whole “non-interference” thing. Nur is fragile, depressed, living a loneliness that spans centuries, surviving on a cocktail of smart-drugs and an eroding sense of duty. He is not the hero that Lynesse wants. That said, he has access to satellite surveillance nets, orbital strikes, drones, ad a panoply of technological knowhow that would make your garden-variety sorcerer rather nervous.

I think what I like about the two is that they complement each other so well. Their different views describe the same thing in more-or less modern, more or less scientific terms. Demons of air and darkness are malfunctioning drones, cursed forests are laced with old radiation, and so on. The tale weaves wonderfully between the two, letting us have sword and sorcery and solid science fiction in the same few pages. And in both cases, the story works. Each character brings their own truth to the world, their own struggles – their self doubt, their depression are depicted with razor clarity, with empathy and understanding. They’re people, these two, as different as can be, but in holding each other up, and those they run across, they embody what makes humanity rise. They are enough alike that they too, can be heroes.

Anyway. No spoilers for the story, but it’s a journey of discovery, for both the characters in metaphor, and quite literally, as our team try to solve the mystery of what undermines Lynesse’s kingdom before it’s too late. And that story make me laugh, wrenched my heart, and damn sure kept me turning pages far too late in the night.

Which is to repeat myself; Tchaikovsky has crafted a gem here, something clever and human, a beautiful and compelling read. Give it a try!

Wednesday, September 22, 2021

Bi-Weekly for a bit!

 Apologies for the slow update, but we’re going to switch to a bi-weekly schedule for a bit and see how that works out. It turns out that a pandemic is great for taking away time that would rather be spent doing this; instead we’re spending a lot of it getting covid tests, etc.

We’ll be back next week, hopefully in good health!

Wednesday, September 15, 2021

The Wisdom of Crowds - Joe Abercrombie

The Wisdom of Crowds is the finale of Joe Abercrombie’s Age of Madness series, set in his First Law universe. It’s probably worth mentioning a bit of history -this series works as a standalone, but its context is strongly informed by the other books in the existing universe. 

Which is to say, this is a bloody good book, but a better one if you know some of the history. I wouldn’t start this book without at least reading the first two in the Age of Madness sequence, but I will say that those two are also bloody fantastic books.

Anyway! This is a story about what happens when The People, and I capitalise intentionally, are put in charge. It’s a story full of murder, mayhem, and living in the whirlwind of a sociopolitical disaster. It’s a story about the shifting centres of power, personal and institutional, and about how society is a dream we share and agree on - until we don’t. And then it all ends in fire and blood. In a seismic change, which may or may not actually be a change. 

This is, not to give anything away, a clever book. It approaches big issues, like the idea of governance by consent, or concentration and dispersion of socio-political power, and explores them through the lens of characters operating at all levels of society. And those people, those people mean this is a book that isn’t a treatise, but at once a searing indictment of populism and more hierarchical systems of oppression and also a damn good story. 

This is the part of the story where the wheels come off the wagon, which was already hurtling downhill at the metaphorical speed of sound. All the characters you know from the last two books are here: Rikke, now leader of a mostly unified North. King  Orso of the Union, rapidly finding that winning a battle doesn’t mean you get to rule entirely untroubled. Bayaz, that old trickster, more butcher than wizard indeed. Savine dan Glokta, wife of a rebel, now coming to terms with not being quitte as elegantly untouchable as she thought. Perhaps re-evaluating herself as well. And Vick, survivor of a camp for political prisoners, then a political enforcer, now trying to figure out whether she’s on the right side, along with Gunnar Broad, a man who keeps finding himself wading into violence, or perhaps just refraining from it despite himself. They’re a crew of hard cases, but for all that, they’re sometimes vulnerable and hurt and human., and here they find their old certainties swept away. If the previous book was one filled with quiet words in smoke filled rooms, this is what happens when the people in those rooms find out the smoke is there because the building is on fire. We’ve seen atrocities disguised as justice, and seen it be the only justice we’re going to get.

It is very hard to talk about this without spoilers, but I’ll say this: the word building, or rather, the slow motion collapse of a lot of things about the world we thought we knew, is top notch. It works. It gives us scared, angry, frightened people, with tools in their hands, and demonstrates what happens next. But it also asks how they got there, and isn’t afraid of the answers. From the dark, silent forests of the North, to the bloody, broken streets of the Union, there’s a vitality, a humanity, an energy that makes them feel alive. Not good, but alive.

And we’ve lived with the characters, eaten with them, seen people who say they’re good do terrible things. Seen terrible people do what they think are good things. They’re living and building and changing here, still. You may find sympathies shifting and loyalties changing in yourself as much as in the people you’re reading about. Everyone here is a hero in their own story, and I suspect that sometimes they’re their own villain, too. These are people - brilliant, confusing, broken, building, loving, laughing, hating and all the other things that people are. Nobody is all one thing, and from that, they come away feeling wonderfully real.

Go get this. It’s Abercrombie at his best: incisive, bloody, darkly passionate, narratively explosive, beautifully human, and, well, bloody good fun.

Wednesday, September 8, 2021

The Quantum War - Derek Künsken

The Quantum War is the third in Derek Künsken’s Quantum Evolution series, focused on the escapades of Belisarius, sometime con-man, and member of an engineered offshoot of humanity, designed as strategists and analysts, but typically instead shaped as contemplative, withdrawn introverts, driven in their genes to seek out knowledge. 

This is a story of humanity, and how we define it, and what it is. Alongside Belisarius’ group, there are the Mongrels, humanity designed to live in high G conditions, unable to survive outside of environmental pods or, latterly, space-fighters. I have a soft spot for the Mongrels, coarse and bluff and with a streak of nihilism and cynical humour a mile wide. They’re willing to die whilst giving everyone a bloody nose, and they’re a grand bunch. And then of course, there’s the Puppets. The Puppets are horrifying, and creepy, and also extremely real. Engineered to worship their creators, for all the usual terrible reasons, they overthrew their creators, and now instead use the descendents of those creators to keep themselves fulfilled, genetically driven to interpret the commands of those they see as above them, and addicted to it. Nobody likes the Puppets but you can admire their tenacity and conviction, even while being repelled by where that conviction leads them, and how it is derived. Fanatics, killers, zealots, they know their truth, even as they know they were shaped into it, and that leaves them as a rather odd branch off the tree of humanity indeed. 

And alongside these transhumans stride the common order of humanity, spanning worlds, skipping from star to star via archaeotech, managed by military and economic AI, and struggling to keep their footing. And in that sprawling polity, rebellion has brewed. Now war is upon them, and the stars are alight with the glitter of beams and the splash of carmine in the dark. 

And somewhere in the weave of it all is Belisarius, trying desperately to atone for sins of his own devising. The portrayal of a man living in the throes of guilt, but desperate to atone, well, that portrayal is detailed, vivid, and really very human. He lives in and out of a fugue, a quantum state which allows objectivity, suppression of the self. And that state offers new opportunities, new threats, and helps shape that small group of offshoots of humanity into a potential threat to the equilibrium of the worlds.Belisarius argues with his very nature in order to change the world, and to live out in it. And in that struggle, in that endless fight to better himself and be who he wants to be, he is also essentially human. 

There are others of course - old friends from the previous stories are here again, making better or worse choices.But also others - an intelligence officer turned interrogator, finding out where her lines lie and where she’s willing to go to defend humanity. A biomechanical menace, deciding policy from the hot ice of cybernetics. Puppets aplenty, being childlike, horrifying and pitiable by turns. And members of the Banks, the financial institutions whose creepers stretch everywhere, tying everyone together in a web of money and superior firepower. Oh, and the petits-saints,  the moral center of the human Congregate, Down's-syndrome individuals, whose sympathetic and layered portrayal here is both in line with the origins of interstellar humanity in the author’s prequel novel, The House of Styx, and also absolutely marvellous. 

The story is, well. I won’t get into it. But it’s a marvellous blend of high concept science fiction, personal stakes, and politics, blood and fire. Questions are asked about how we define humanity. About what atrocities are justifiable, for whom, and under what circumstances - and some of them are skin-crawlingly awful, and performed under high stakes by individuals who may or may not know better. About where humanity is going, and what it will look like when it gets there. About faith, and truth, and how we look at either, or both together. And more, scattered like gems through the text and subtext. They are hard questions, and they are an exercise for the reader, which is a joy. In part, that’s because they’re wrapped around the very personal story of Belisarius and his confederates and his antagonists, who bring the stakes to a human level. That story is compelling, convincing and tightly written; I was turning pages way into the night. 

In the end, this is another fine entry in a series filled with interesting ideas, fascinating people, and intriguing stories - so go give it a read.

Wednesday, September 1, 2021

Komarr - Lois McMaster Bujold

Alright. It’s been a Vorkosigan couple of weeks here, and the trend may continue for a while. I want to apologise, but also, I don’t, because the series in general is so good, and the next book in our reread sequence,
Komarr, is absolutely one of my favourites.

The book begins with an accident. Well, with a mystery. Well, with an explosion. Well, with a mysterious explosion. Well, with a mysterious explosion which damages a solar array that helps keep a Barrayaran conquered planet fed, watered, and not-rebelling. Was it an accident? Was it rebellious dissidents? Was it something else entirely? Who the hell knows. 

Having said that, Miles Vorkosigan is going to find out.

Having been forcibly parted from the Barrayaran military in Memory, Miles is tryinng on a new hat, that of Imperial Auditor. He’s now a galactic troubleshooter, who speaks with the Emperor’s voice, and can essentially do whatever he likes, a sling as it solves the problem at hand, and as long as he can justify it in person to the emperor. We all thought intergalactic secret agent was Miles’ dream job. I think Imperial Auditor is the job he needs. It rewards out of the box thinking. It hands you virtually unlimited power. And it expects a duty-bound Vor lord to have enough sense of responsibility to be exhilarated and terrified by both of the first two things. Miles..well, he’s always wanted to find a pair of shoes big enough to fit his drive, and so, here he is, investigating an interstellar terrorist bombing-slash-accident. 

The investigation, the who did what, when, where and why is  by turns tense, byzantine and darkly comic. It certainly kept me guessing. I’ve re-read it enough times to see the twists coming now, and yet they somehow always still land their hits perfectly. You’ll see dogged determination, paperwork, interrogations, and some darn sneaky investigation at play here, in a world away from the Barrayar, beta and interstellar fleets we’ve known until now. Komarr is a rich planet, a planet driven by money, and a planet uneasy under the yoke of the Barrayarans, a people it betrayed to their previous conquerors. It’s a subtle place, a place  still stirring between identities. A place tat may know where it is three generations from now, but for now is torn between embracing the wealth and power of a Barrayaran empire, or tearing down the fragile peace and charting their own destiny. 

And here is Miles, the son of the man who conquered Komarr for Barrayar, looking to solve their problems for them.


The stage is a grand one then, and the story fast-paced and convincing. But it’s the characters that make this one, that make my heart ache for them, even the fools and idiots and villains. A key figure is ekaterin Vorsoisson, whose husband is the deputy administrator for a key ministry, largely staffed by Komarrans, whom he barely tolerates. Madame Vorsoisson is bound to her husband by loyalty more than love, and by their shared family, their little boy, for whom she has every hope in the world. Vorsoisson is, himself, a petty man in many ways. Misreading everything in the worst light. Struggling with prejudices and preconceptions of Barrayaran society, a man out of his time, and suffering, along with his family, because of it. Every time I read this book, I see Ekaterin’s husband, and I ask myself to be better. To do better. Because as a character, Vorsoisson is banal and prosaically awful, each one of us on one of the worst days of our lives, over and over again. And Ekaterin has turned herself so small, to fit into his vision of the world. 

And here is Miles, the human tornado, physically small, but definitely a giant, there to investigate her husband’s department, and show another way through, with verve and grace and more than a little accidental humility. Oops.

Komarr is a fantastic book, one I cannot recommend highly enough. It has family drama, and raw truth and pain backing it. It has a story filled with mystery and quiet, tense-wired adventure. It has a world that will amaze and delight even as it baffles. And in the end, its a damn fine book, and one you’ll read again, and again, and again. 

So go do that. I will be.