Friday, July 31, 2015

Interstitial - The Dragon Engine

Monday will see a review of Andy Remic's intriguing The Dragon Engine. Action packed fantasy, with a lot of blood, and some nice moments of genuine emotion from the characters. More tomorrow!

Thursday, July 30, 2015

Ultima - Stephen Baxter

Ultima is the sequel to Stephen Baxter’s excellent and imaginative Proxima. It starts right after the close of Proxima. And where Proxima dealt with space, and society, and interstellar colonisation, Ultima throws itself full force into a discussion of divergent universes.

In terms of setting, this means that both the characters and the reader jump around a bit. Both they and we find ourselves in a universe where the Roman Empire never fell. Baxter manages to do quite a lot with this. He delves into the social structures of a world divided into three monolithic powers, exploring with gusto the idea of a civilisation which never developed electricity, but managed to brute-force a means of space travel. The Romans, as Baxter paints them, are efficient, loyal, brave - and casually brutal. Their world is one in which environmental catastrophe is remarked upon but largely ignored. Where the reality of global conflict is never more than a few ill-chosen words away. It’s a more fragile world than any of those we saw in Proxima, but it manages to feel more alive than all of them – Baxter’s world of Rome is one with a raw vitality, mixed with an appetite for danger.
Baxter also explores several other alternate-history thought experiments, and they’re certainly interesting – I won’t get into details here to avoid spoilers. With that in mind: Baxter has an eye for vivid cultural depictions, mixed in with imaginative spectacle. I wasn’t always convinced by some of the directions of these alternate timelines – the aforementioned Roman rockets, for example, seem to run on clockwork and hope, and there’s a remarkable lack of military innovation. That said, given an infinite number of universes, it’s going to happen somewhere (which is one of the points of the text), so I won’t complain too much – it was simply a little jarring.

Many of the characters in Ultima will be familiar from Proxima. That said, Baxter isn’t afraid to remove some of those, or to add in new characters from the new reality. The most interesting thing here is the approach to time – there are swathes of it which are simply elided, the characters aging between narrative spaces. It’s an interesting approach, and one that works here. Parts of these chronological gaps are gradually revealed in the text, and give the reader insight into unfamiliar dynamics which are occurring on familiar characters. The changes in these characters are gradual, and entirely believable – and there’s a lot of opportunity available to delve deeper into each of them, and what makes them tick; it feels like in amongst the towers of reality-altering scope, the characters are our lodestones – and that they also change as the world around them does, makes them all the more real. 

There’s a few new characters as well. They don’t get as much space to develop as our more familiar travelling companions, but there’s enough. After a while, the feel of new and old falls away, and you’re left with people – flawed, often unpleasant people, but entirely believable, feeling humans, rather than narrative ciphers. There’s some wonderfully emotive moments strung through the text, and by the close, the characters have a degree of emotional heft – their various conclusions having almost physical value.

The plot…well, it spans universes. There’s a lot going on. There’s a relentless quality to Baxter’s prose, something which kept me turning pages – a desire to see how it all turned out. How it would end. In between that end and the explosive beginning, there’s quite a lot going on. Battles. Family squabbles. Personal trauma, and hope. Efforts to delve into the mysteries of the inscrutable hatches, and their builders. A journey which continues, one step at a time, a quest for both understanding and a sense of closure for the characters. The text carries so much within it, and it won’t let go of the reader. Instead it asks questions, and even answers some of them. In the end, Baxter’s universe is a grand one, and the unanswered questions are perhaps the best ones.

If you’ve not read Proxima, it’s probably best to do that first, to provide the necessary context. If you’ve already read Proxima, this is certainly worth picking up, to see how the duology wraps up. It’s also a well-crafted sci-fi novel, which takes big ideas and goes with them in unexpected directions – with interesting characters in a clever setting. 

Wednesday, July 29, 2015

Interstitial - Ultima

Tomorrow will have a review of Stephen Baxter's multiverse-spanning Ultima. It's the sequel to his excellent Proxima, which was reviewed earlier in the month. It has a lot of promise, a few minor flaws - and packs a serious narrative punch. More tomorrow!

Tuesday, July 28, 2015

Empire Ascendant - Kameron Hurley

Empire Ascendant is the second in Kameron Hurley’s ‘Worldbreaker’ series. In quick summary, it’s great. It’s a book which wants to ask complicated questions. It’s a book which requires engagement, and rewards investment. It’s a book rife with raw emotion, much of it in some way traumatic, and all very genuine. It’s a book with some excellent battles, and a refusal to look away from the consequences of those conflicts, both at the political and personal levels. There’s personal drama, there’s sprawling politics, there’s even some excellent battle scenes. Hurley has put together something with an incredible scope, and managed to make the narrative feel tight, focused, and pitch-perfect.

The setting is diverse, and  that’s reflected in the environments presented to the reader. Hurley gives us frozen wastes, a lush semi-jungle populated by carnivorous plants, cities under siege,  and an entire world, dying beneath a shattered star, amongst others. Each of these environs feels distinct from the others, a star in Hurley’s carefully crafted geographical firmament. At the same time, each locale feels lived in, and real – often horrifyingly so. There’s some excursions to new environments outside of the first book, and it’s always nice to see somewhere new – but n area where the prose shines is in making each of the places the reader is exposed to feel authentic.

It’s always felt to me like the core of this series is the characters, and here, again, Hurley is on very good form.  The existing cast of characters from the first book was quite large, and we get a few new people to read over as the text goes on. But what characters they are. There’s a determination here to not only present characters as people, but to approach that personification in an unflinchingly honest fashion. Indeed, one of the themes of the text seems to be around the creation of monsters, both physical and mental. Individuals find themselves working on behalf of a nebulous greater good, doing things which appall them – in an effort to combat adversaries who are also working for their own ideals, and performing atrocities of their own. The characters are in a turbulent gyre, where their own good intentions lead inextricably toward horrors. At the same time however, they remain sympathetic – vulnerable, damaged, struggling people.

Speaking of damage, this is another place that the narrative performs strongly. We’ve seen characters perform atrocities. We’ve seen characters struggle with breaking the customs of their own society. Empire Ascendant portrays both of these well. But it’s not afraid to look at the consequences, at the mutability of identity, or at the ghosts that characters carry on their shoulders.  The world of Empire Ascendant has rapidly become nasty, brutal and short – and many of the characters involved are trying to rapidly adjust to that, often with a great deal of difficulty. The kind of individual and social pressure that a character is under is something that the author portrays well – some characters are increasingly wrung out and  look to be teetering on a psychological edge; others are forced to deal with more immediate changes of circumstance.

The takeaway here is that the characters in this book, like it’s predecessor, are disturbingly, wonderfully believable. Not two dimensional, but real men and women on a page, acting with the best of motives, having their society fall down around them.  A great many of them aren’t especially likable, but can be empathised with, can be understood, can be invested in, because they feel like people, not characters.

There’s a lot going on in the interactions between characters as well. There’s the issue of goals versus means. The issue of what is justifiable. There’s a discussion to be had around slavery, and the way that individuals see themselves when they’re torn out of society. There’ssome truly marvellous moments of character epiphany, as an individual assesses where and who they are, and becomes something else. It’s impressive that none of this, or the many other points raised, feel heavy-handed. They slide by as part of the extended narrative, in character  asides or setting descriptions, in the underlying assumptions of dialogue, and the occasional remark. There’s an impressive sense of broader culture here, of societies within which our protagonist find themselves. Alongside the individual portrayals of betrayal, loneliness, compassion and tiny acts of heroism, are societies which defines what those things are – and they leap off the page at the reader alongside the characters which they have shaped.

The plot kicks off pretty much from the close of the first book in the series. It’s not exactly incidental to the characters, but it feels like they drive it, rather than the other way around – and that’s a good thing. It feels like the twists and turns that get thrown out by the plot are growing organically out of character choice. The pacing is spot on – there’s instances of frenetic action, the careful tension of political discussion, the tingling excitement of discovery; the raw, focused horror of murder and the explosive disaster of battle. There’s also the opportunity to get some answers, as the book progresses – by the end, much like the characters, I was beginning to get a feel of the stakes of the game. But the author doesn’t pull any punches, and  I think it’s reasonable to say that by the end of the text, with danger in every shadow (as well as right there in front of them), none of the characters is entirely safe. A lot changes over the course of Empire Ascendant, for the characters and cultures portrayed within it – and the impacts feel seismic, and very real.

Hurley has put together something very special. There are complex characters. There’s a believable, if broken world. There’s a plot which will absolutely knock your socks off, if you’re prepared to let it. But it’s also a book willing to explore more deeply, to challenge reader preconceptions and expectations, to ask the reader to invest themselves, and willing to repay that investment in a mixture of enlightenment and blood. That depth, and that narrative bravery, makes Empire Ascendant not just a very good fantasy novel, but a great one – and one very highly recommended. 

Monday, July 27, 2015

Interstitial - Empire Ascendant

Finished up Kameron Hurley's Empire Ascendant, the sequel to her excellent Mirror Empire from last year.

In quick summary: It's absolutely stunning. Complex characters, believable world, a plot that plays for high stakes and refuses to back away from consequences. Couldn't put it down.

More on that tomorrow.

Friday, July 24, 2015

Luna: New Moon - Ian McDonald

Luna: New Moon is Ian McDonald’s latest sci-fi novel, a thriller set on a moon where everything is for sale, and everything has a price – including the air you breathe. 

I first ran into McDonald’s thoroughly corporate Luna in a short story, in one of Jonathan Strahan’s “Best of Science Fiction…” anthologies. It’s an unforgiving environment, one in which the smallest mistake can kill, and where life is both entirely artificial and extremely fragile. McDonald gives the reader a moon which feels a lot like the depths of the ocean – and then adds mineral riches, and a frontier feel. This is an unfriendly place, brought to life by the people who live, work, and die on it. And those people, at least the ones we see, are pragmatists, corporate raiders, wage slaves and founders of dynasties. Because McDonald’s moon has dynasties – the wonderfully named ‘Five Dragons’, each controlling a vital part of the moon infrastructure, or selling a valuable resource to the Earth that soars overhead. And with dynasties, there’s politics, and family drama, a microcosm of humanity being played out in pressurised bubbles – war and peace in a world which will eliminate the unwary without a qualm, and reward those that risk all and survive. 

The original short story looked at the origins of the youngest of the large Luna corporations, the Corta – who became specialists in Helium3 mining. The novel follows up from that story, shifting the narrative forward in time; the original young protagonist is now the family grandmother, the ancient regime, as it were. Her daughters, sons and grandchildren give us our view onto the world of Luna, a corporate aristocracy. There’s the analytical, driven son – and his more emotional, less focused brother, given to swift rages and swifter laughter. There’s the sister who serves as a divorce lawyer – in a court where everything, including the judges, is negotiable, and trial by combat is a last resort. There’s the odd son, the one partially outside the collective, who meshes with a strange collective of outsiders. They all leap off the page at the reader, filled with complexity, and emotional truth. They may not be particularly pleasant examples of people, but they do feel genuinely human.

McDonald also gives us a view from the bottom. In a world where food, water, air and bandwidth are all billable, there’s room for an underclass. For people educated enough to make it to the moon, but unfortunate enough to be unable to stay. Our view here is given by Marina, who begins the narrative unemployed and rapidly running out of air, takes a job as a waitress at a Corta party – and has a larger impact on the high-flying dynastics than they might expect. Marina is our every-woman, someone outside the social structures, confines and freedoms of the corporate structure – she’s not the only viewpoint character, but perhaps the easiest to empathise with. Much like the others, she’s given her own voice, and feels like an individual, rather than a character.

Between the starkly lethal beauty of the environment, the carefully crafted society where everything is a matter of contract, and the feuding dynastic families, the plot really writes itself. It starts with an assassination attempt, and rarely lets up from there. There’s a wonderful strain of mystery running through the narrative, as well as some carefully crafted strands of family conflict, which had me by turns chuckling at their familiarity and gasping at their consequences. No more for fear of spoilers, but McDonald manages to set up a multi-layered plot, a fusion of family dynamics, character pieces and sweeping action pieces, and bring the whole together seamlessly. It was very, very hard to put this book down. I would say that the end is clearly a set up for the forthcoming sequel – but it’s very well done.

Overall, it’s a really good read – the environment is convincing, the characters wonderfully flawed and entirely believable, and the plot well-paced and gripping. It’ll draw you into its world and refuse to let you out again. If you want to try an innovative piece of sci-fi, with a lot to say and a good means of exploring ways to say it, then this is the book for you.

Thursday, July 23, 2015

Interstitial - Luna: New Moon

Tomorrow we've got a review of Ian McDonald's latest sci-fi thriller. It's a wonderful exploration of the moon as a harsh, unforgiving environment, and of corporate dynastic politics. It definitely doesn't pull any punches, and I've enjoyed it a great deal. More tomorrow.

Wednesday, July 22, 2015

Two of Swords (Part Six) - K.J. Parker

Two of Swords is the new serialised novel by K.J. Parker. The first three parts are available now, and run to about eighty pages each. Further parts will be made available on a monthly basis. I’m going to try and put out a review for one of the currently available parts each week, and then review each new part in the month where it becomes available.

The sixth part continues the tradition of changing perspective on us. In the last section, we got insight into the mind of one of the Belot brothers, the fearsome leaders of the military on both sides of the civil war. In this section, the reader is given the other brother as their protagonist. On that basis, there’s some good stuff here. The second Belot brother has a tone a lot like the first, something which feels like a deliberate choice from Parker. There’s a focused intelligence and a certain dry wit. 

Admittedly, the focus is largely lensed toward eliminating our previous protagonist, but that keeps things interesting. Our new point-of-view isn’t an irrational monster – quite the reverse. Much like his sibling, he feels rational, logical, and entirely plausible. There’s a certain sense of high flying intelligence, confined into the straits required of it by the establishment. We’re also given, through this new viewpoint, a little more insight into what drives the Belot brothers into their seemingly eternal conflict.

Alongside this new Belot, we do get a few supporting characters – including some from previous sections, which I won’t spoil here. We do also get a look at one of the Emperor’s; as ever with Parker, the sense of wry deprecation wrapped around a steel core is evident. Inevitably, it will all end badly, but for now,  that Emperor is entirely plausible. There’s less of an ensemble cast here than perhaps previously, but the Belot we have this time does get a few defining character moments – there’s a level of regretful necessity, and an aura of necessary violence, about the narrative. On the other hand, this applied to the previous section as well – again, perhaps intentionally.

Plot-wise, we pick up immediately after the end of the previous part. The beginning, the struggle against another Belot’s forces, is frenetic and well paced – keeping the reader on the edge of their proverbial seat. It gives way to a more deliberate prose and plotting as things move along. By the close, the visible action is over, and all the knives and schemes are confined to dialogue. That dialogue, however, hits Parker’s usual high standards – there’s a sense of incredibly clever people operating at the top of their relative games, which is, as is traditional with Parker, leading to an appalling amount of institutional entropy. Where there is a potential to heal an institutional gap, a personal issue steps into the way. As ever, the dialogue is clever, often funny, and brutally cynical.

I won’t get into the plot per se, except to say it’s a light touch here. There’s a sense that pieces are being queued up for following parts of the narrative. That said, the contained arc is entirely readable – shifting gradually from action to political thriller as the pages turn. There’s a lot of tension in the text from about the halfway point, a feeling of unanswered questions, which Parker expertly exploits to leave his audience hanging.

Overall, this is a decent piece of work – it picks up and runs with the prose from the previous section. It doesn’t so much tie up loose ends as extend the threads. Each action seems to be spiralling into others, joining issues up and exacerbating them. There’s a feeling of a narrative slowly bubbling toward boiling point.

If you’ve not read the other parts before this one, I’d advise you do so before coming to this. It does work as a standalone novella, but there’s a lot of context being built up by this stage, and it adds layers to the plotting, the dialogue, and the characters. As part of a series, or alone, this is an excellent piece – clever and tight dialogue, believable characters, and a plot which shifts speeds quickly, but never lets go of the reader. Certainly worth reading, especially if you have the preceding sections. 

Tuesday, July 21, 2015

Interstitial - Two of Swords (Part Six)

Tomorrow will see another in my ongoing series of reviews of K.J. Parker's "Two of Swords", which is being released in instalments as a serial novel.  Part Six came out last week, and once again it changed things up on us a bit - not as much of a game changer as earlier sections, but certainly an alteration of perspective.

More tomorrow!

Monday, July 20, 2015

Proxima - Stephen Baxter

Proxima is the first part of a duology by Stephen Baxter. It has a focus on our first attempt to colonise a new world, and the lengths that they take to do so. It’s also the story of family, and friends, of hardships overcome, overwhelmed by, or endured. It’s the story of two impossible sisters, and of humanity.

From a setting point of view, Proxima has a pretty broad scope. 

Geographically, it dips across Mercury, Mars and Earth, as well as less familiar locales – the first interstellar colony ship, and the first human colonies on Proxima C. Baxter manages to make all of these locations feel at the same time alien and familiar. Mars is a red hell, a barren wasteland marked by human efforts. Those efforts span the ramshackle base of a UN taskforce, through to a sleek, towering needle constructed by the Chinese. Mercury feels just as much a wilderness marked by human occupation, but there things are of a different tenor – the tone is one of exploration, a scientific base teetering on the verge of great, potentially universe altering discoveries. There’s enough reminders that the outside is lethal, but the essential humanity of the characters isn’t subsumed into the environment – rather, it emphasises it.

Baxter’s near-future Earth is a contrast to both of these – it has a feel of population not present in the Mars or Mercury environs. At the same time, there’s passing mention, in dialogue and in descriptive passages, of world-shattering events in the past, though in our future – the effects of climate change, clearly visible, driving people north, and the impact of the attempts made to avert global catastrophe – with apparently ambiguous results. It’s an Earth we may recognise, with a mental squint, but at the same time, far enough into the distance to look unfamiliar.

The other key environment is the world of Proxima C, which the Earth is reaching out to expand into. I won’t spoil what they find here, but will say that Proxima C is full of surprises. It also manages the trick of seeming a lot like Earth, whilst retaining the sort of differences which demarcate the two for the reader. Baxter makes a strong effort to remind the reader that they, like the characters, are somewhere new, somewhere unknown, and somewhere potentially deadly. 

Along with the sprawling set of environments, there’s a fairly large cast of characters. We begin with the charmingly named Yuri Eden, involuntarily decanted onto a ship set for Proxima C. Yuri is clearly damaged, withdrawn, and with a certain abrasiveness displayed toward those he interacts with. The feeling is of an incomplete human being, one wrung out by circumstance. He’s ably assisted by a supporting cast which have a similar feel about them – humanity’s expedition to the stars is, perhaps fittingly, not exactly one crewed by the best and brightest. The ensemble around Yuri is perhaps a little thinner in character moments than it needs to be – we learn names, potted histories, and observe actions, and typically this works – but we don’t invest in them as much as we do our viewpoint character.

Similarly, there’s the scientist looking into a new energy source on Mercury. We get a large portion of her backstory through flashbacks, and are introduced to many of the characters around her in this way. There’s more of an emotional truth here, a woman digging for answers, driven by a need to know, a desire to understand. Baxter manages to evoke a feeling of isolation here, a woman looking to use work as a means of understanding the world around her, as well as herself. The reader gets a sense of her emotional wealth in the flashbacks, and the consequences of her decisions based on that in the novel’s present. Again, there’s an able cast of supporting characters – it would have been nice to give them more time, but they feel sufficiently three-dimensional for the purposes of the narrative.

I won’t get into the plot much, for fear of spoilers. However, I will say that the scope is impressive. Baxter manages to talk about a great many things at once. The place of humanity in the universe. The price of greed, morally and ecologically. The way that people will act, when they have nothing left to lose. The way that small actions can snowball out of control, with unexpected consequences. How we, as a species, might react to a paradigm shifting event. 

He also manages to do this whilst being unafraid of the consequences, and while appreciating the passage of time. The book takes place over a period of years, and there’s a sense of seeing characters grow, shift their stances as they age. It feels organic, and entirely believable in the framework Baxter has set up.

Overall, Proxima is a novel of plausibly hard science fiction, with decent characters, fascinating environments, and a plot with sprawling breadth and scope. If that sounds like your sort of thing, then it’s certainly worth your time.

Friday, July 17, 2015

Interstitial - Proxima

Monday will have a review of Stephen Baxter's hard-sci-fi spectacular, Proxima. It promises a great deal - grand scope, neat science, interesting characters - lets see if it delivers.

Thursday, July 16, 2015

Wool Omnibus - Hugh Howey

Wool is a solid entry in the dystopian future sub-genre. It began as a self-published short story in e-book format, then increased to five volumes due to reader demand, before being aggregated in this omnibus edition.

The first few pages of the omnibus give the reader the greatest attraction of the series - the environment. The story is set in `The Silo', a huge underground structure which houses a thriving society. But outside the ground level of the Silo is a howling wasteland.

And inside isn't perfect either. The society is heavily stratified, with social classes linked to locations inside the silo. `Mechanicals', `Supply' and `IT' , for example are no longer job descriptions, but distinct social groups, separated by the stairs that wind down through the silo. And all of those classes are laced through with taboos around asking about the outside, and about the past history of the Silo.

The initial thrust of the text centres around `Cleaning' ; an individual who has committed a crime punishable by death, or who has expressed interest in the outside, will be sent out into the wasteland to clean the external sensor lenses of the silo. Invariably, those sent will clean the lenses, and invariably, they never come back.

The mystery around the past of the Silo, the act of Cleaning, and the state of the outside world drives the start of the narrative. The environment is well detailed and lovingly described - and the concept of a closed society which it describes also makes interesting reading (and invites positive comparisons to classics like Oath of Fealty). The characters that inhabit this world are reasonably well-drawn. Whilst they don't seem to have quite the same level of depth as the society in which they are situated, they are typically comprehensible in their goals, and the main characters are well drawn, each with unique drivers and feelings which are gradually revealed to the reader over the course of the text.

The prose is well structures, giving key descriptions whilst not overloading the reader. Particularly worth mentioning is the dialogue between characters, which flows smoothly, and unlike some other texts in the genre, is remarkably empty of jargon or stilted technobabble. Howey succeeds in making his characters feel like people, even where they are drawn with something of a broad brush.

It's also worth noting that Howey doesn't pull any punches with his characters - continuing the trend of willingness to sacrifice major players in the narrative for dramatic effect.

Of course there are some failings. Some characters don't seem to be given enough space in the text to express themselves, to give their point of view to the reader. Parts of the later narrative seemed a little illogical on a second reading - though I won't go into detail here for fear of spoilers. That said, on the initial read I was far too entertained to think about a few plot quibbles.

In the final analysis, Howey has created a cleverly structured, entirely believable world, populated with interesting characters, with multiple points of view - and the ability to express those points of view reasonably in their dialogue, to each other and to the reader. Wool may not be a literary masterpiece, but it is certainly a superior example of the genre, and is heartily recommended.

Wednesday, July 15, 2015

Interstitial - Wool

Tomorrow we're going to take a look at the work of dystopian fiction that put Hugh Howey on the map - his post-apocalyptic thriller, Wool!

Tuesday, July 14, 2015

The Vagrant - Peter Newman

The Vagrant is Peter Newman’s debut. Amongst other things, it’s a journey novel, following the titular character as he attempts to cross a hostile territory, crawling with demons and broken men, in an effort to get several items of great importance out of danger. It’s a novel filled with interesting emotional moments, with difficult choices. It’s also one with several swordfights, stern chases, high stakes combat. It’s about what breaks people apart, what binds them together, and whether people can change. There’s some flaws in there, but the narrative as a whole hangs together beautifully.

The setting, a shattered land under the boot of a strange horde of twisted creatures, exudes a kind of crawling horror. As the protagonist moves across the land, the domains of various monstrosities are uncovered – each a malign merger of the demonic with the everyday. In one, a twisted essence acts as guard-dog for a town of broken workers, each willing to sell out the rest for scraps. In another, détente is observed between two warring creatures, giving it the feel of a warped Casablanca, where servants of the creatures are given new limbs or health in return for their service, and where the rebellious or the unwary are broken down for their component parts. Each has something distinct about it, something which feeds into the welling sense of horror that Newman is giving to the reader. The strange feeling of life writhing around these blasted wastelands is skilfully evoked, and I, for one, was left marvellously unsettled.

Voice is something that gets spoken about with characters a great deal. The way that they feel, they way they present themselves to the reader, is often couched this way. Newman has done something different, giving us a protagonist who is effectively mute. Rather than immerse us in the thoughts of our protagonist, making us one with the Vagrant, the reader, like the supporting cast, serves as a mirror. They and we reflect something of ourselves back onto this man, a cipher whose actions have no choice but to speak louder than his non-existent words. Instead the protagonist is defined by those actions, and by the way others react to him. And yet, the text doesn’t suffer for this. It feels like it comes from the same tradition as the Sergio Leone spaghetti westerns, or the grim, reluctant heroes of the vintage paperbacks of the same genre.  Whilst the Vagrant does not speak, he does subtly emote, and those around him do a lot of the heavy lifting for the reader in this regard.  It’s an impressive feat of authorial magic that the protagonist feels well realised, the relationships both genuine and human, despite all the dialogue being one way.

The supporting cast have to carry their weight here, in order for the narrative to work, and Newman doesn’t disappoint. There’s  shifty market traders. Villains with a mindset and reference points so far outside of our experience as to be presented as alien. Men seeking redemption for past sins – or at least pretending to. And there’s a baby, and a goat. The former serves as a rallying point, as a central emotional focus for the Vagrant – and allows for a degree of character growth across the board. The goat…well, I feel like the goat’s largely there to provide opportunities for a lighter tone, but it does this very well, sparks of humour in a darker landscape.

At the same time, there are sections in the text that are set in the past, before cataclysm befell the setting, and these provide an excellent counterpoint to the shattered wastes the reader encounters in the mainline narrative. There’s a sense of struggle and change here. There’s also an opportunity to see the Vagrant as a younger man, to see the events which shaped him, that forced him onto his journey with a sword, a baby, and a goat.

The main plot rattles along nicely. The Vagrant moves from town to town, from crisis to crisis, finding companions and adversaries in equal measure, struggling to return the sword, the baby, and, if possible, the goat, to whatever passes for non-demonic civilisation. The pacing is spot on, giving moments of character discovery, wrapped in a growing understanding of the setting, broken by points of crisis and apotheosis. It’s not an elaborate story, but one which settles into a comfortable rhythm, reminiscent of True Grit, the reader following in the Vagrant’s footsteps. The story is the journey, and the journey is the story – and it’s well represented and compellingly done.

In the end, The Vagrant is an excellent, highly original piece of work. It has an interesting setting, a set of intriguing characters, who feel very much alive, and a plot which will keep you turning the pages. Absolutely worth reading.

Monday, July 13, 2015

Interstitial - The Vagrant

Tomorrow we'll have a review of Peter Newman's marvellous fantasy debut, The Vagrant. It's a stylistically clever piece, with a mute protagonist. It's also full of demons, swordfights, loyalty and inevitable betrayals. And a sword. And a baby. And a goat. It's all good stuff!

Friday, July 10, 2015

Three Moments of an Explosion: Stories - China Miéville

Three Moments of an Explosion: Stories is the rather unwieldy title for a new collection of short fiction by China Miéville. Much like the collection it fronts, it’s baroque, intriguing and baffling in equal measure – and like the stories in that collection, shows off Miéville’s flair for evocative prose.

The first thing to note is the staggering scope of Miéville’s imagination. There’s a lot of stories in this collection, and each of them has something unique to say. The tales leap across time and space, between modes of expression and paths of thought, challenging the preconceptions of the reader. There’s an early piece in which mysterious icebergs take up residence over London. Another where model patients begin expressing symptoms of a disease before it surfaces. Another where preserved remains of non-human figures are found in the ash-strewn ruins of a Pompeii analog. Another…well, you get the picture. Each scenario is something unique.

It helps, of course, that the prose in which each story bathes is, to extend the metaphor, liquidly smooth. Miéville has always had an eye for a well-turned phrase, and his language here is superb. The dialogue flits between the elaborate declamation and the sparse everyday speech easily, and each step on the scale between the two is also well represented. The descriptive passages, speaking broadly, have a languid, almost poetic quality to them. In part this is affected by the context of the story they’re portraying, but the words have a fluid feeling to them –portraying meaning, but always capable of change. Reading through the collection, the rhythm of the prose can leave the narrative feeling dreamlike, a subtle separation from reality. The language is very easy to read, but is unashamed in demanding attention from the reader, whilst acting to lull and shock them in equal measure.

Miéville is also known for his mastery of the strange, the unexpected, the prosaically obscene and the obscenely prosaic – and the collection doesn’t disappoint. I won’t approach spoiler territory here, but each of the stories in this collection has a twist to it – the thing that makes the text veer from the expected, and enter the universe of the weird.  There are times when this works well, when the reader is drawn  with their interlocutor into an elaborate confusion, or a sparse, conflicted new reality, their expectations challenged or downright destroyed. On the other hand, there are moments when this feels a little awkward, where the conceit that defines the weird doesn’t quite work as it might. This is limited by the format, however – the reader gets the context to fill their shorter narrative, with more focus and less breadth than might be expected in a more long-form text.

Perhaps my one complaint as a reader was the endings – at least some of them. There’s a certain abruptness to some of the closing paragraphs, which leave the reader teetering on the edge of realisation and revelation, unfulfilled. I suspect this is intentional in some cases, leaving the reader to draw their own conclusions. Still, the text as a whole seems averse to closure, leaving questions in its wake rather than a feeling of completion. Stories end where they will, and perhaps not where one might expect. The feeling, as with the prose, is almost dreamlike – but in this case, a dream from which one involuntarily is forced to wake.  It’s an interesting stylistic choice, but I can’t deny a feeling of emptiness, a need for closure which may be intentionally evoked.

In the end, the stories that Miéville provides in this collection are an excellent read. Each is expertly crafted within its own context. The prose is a pleasure to go through, and the concepts are wonderfully imaginative. They’re both fascinating and deeply, deeply weird – and the former may be a function of the latter. The abrupt endings aside – or perhaps because of them – this is clever, compulsive reading. I suspect you have to be in the right mood, a sort of sanguine acceptance of the strange, to fully appreciate it – but this is an excellent collection, which will reward any reader who follows the strange paths it offers up to them.

Thursday, July 9, 2015

Interstitial - Three Moments of an Explosion: Stories

Tomorrow we've got a review of China Miéville's new collection of short fiction, Three Moments of an Explosion: Stories . It's as you'd expect from Miéville - transformative, imaginative, and deeply strange.

Wednesday, July 8, 2015

The Great Bazaar & Brayan's Gold - Peter V. Brett

This collection actually contains two novella length pieces by Peter V. Brett. Both are set in the universe of ‘The Painted Man’ (‘The Warded Man’ in the US) and concern the actions of one of the protagonists from that series, Arlen Bales. There’s also some other materials – for example, some analysis of the wards that characters in Brett’s universe draw in order to stop themselves being devoured by demons, a vignette with Leesha, one of the central characters of the saga, and a previously-excised chapter from the first novel, giving us a little more insight into Arlen’s childhood.

Lets take the last of these first; the narrative is itself preceded by some notes from the author as to why the scene was deleted. He makes a reasonable argument for its removal, but notes that he had some personal attachment to it, which is why it’s been shared here. It’s actually…pretty good. The reader is introduced to an Arlen even younger than his first previously published appearance. We’re given an insight into his character, into his need to travel, and his need to run. The theme here is one of thwarted constraint – Arlen is portrayed as longing to break free, both from the confines of his village, and from the childhood and life this entails,  but being unable to do so. Brett picked this theme up again in the published text of The Painted Man, but this vignette provides even more emphasis. It also gives a slightly broader view of Arlen’s family life – there’s some remarks on his relationship with his parents which aren’t earthshattering, but do add context and texture to that portrayed in the novel this chapter was removed from.  It’s narratively sparse, but really does help evoke that tone of fear and confinement that the people in Arlen’s life subsist under at the start of The Painted Man.

Moving on, there are the two novella’s for which the volume is titled – ‘Brayan’s Gold’ and ‘The Great Bazaar’

 ‘Brayan’s Gold’, is a story focused around one of Arlen’s first runs as a ‘Messenger’, who braves the demon-haunted nights in order to move cargo and news between warded enclaves of humanity. It gives the reader a bit more insight into the world that Arlen inhabits during ‘The Painted Man’ – a westernised fantasy realm with restricted movement and communication and a stratified social structure,  where travel is both lucrative and dangerous.  It has a lot of scenes that take place in various secured areas, and give the reader some insight into how the deprived, the average and the privileged population of this world manage to maintain themselves.

It also has demons. Lots and lots of demons. Arlen manages to spend quite a bit of his time trying to avoid getting into a fight with a demon, and also somehow managing to fail. There’s some fairly hectic chase scenes, and some genuinely raw and impactful combats. Brett writes fast-paced, gruesome fights, and they’re entirely believable. His non-protagonist characters don’t have quite the same depth, but this is more of a stricture of length than anything else – they’re certainly excellent foils for Arlen, and the reader does get a broader understanding of both the world and Arlen’s character from the narrative. It helps that it’s a page turner; the spaces between action are less lulls, and more necessary breathers.

The same applies to the second novella in this collection, ‘The Great Bazaar’; this one takes place a little before the start of the second volume in the wider series, ‘The Desert Spear’. Here the reader is given an older, more experienced Arlen, and (re-)introduced to Abban , one of the supporting cast from the second book in Brett’s Saga, The Desert Spear. Here, Arlen is sent into the desert wilds by Abban, in an effort to retrieve some priceless pottery from a town destroyed by demons. All does not, as you might expect, go entirely to plan. There’s also a highly convoluted and extremely entertaining sub-plot dealing with Abban’s interactions in the “Great Bazaar” of the title,  struggling to  deal with the enmity of a wounded warrior-turned-merchant.

As with Brayan’s Gold, this story gives us a great deal of fast-paced action. Arlen manages to do some incredibly stupid things and get away with them, at least partially through luck; but the chases, the fights, they’re page-turners, every one. At the same time, the reader is getting more context for the larger trilogy. Arlen as a younger man, possibly less angry, more easily thwarted perhaps, and not as cunning as he might be – but still driven, still recognisably the protagonist of Brett’s larger series. His careful, respectful relationship with Abban is fleshed out a bit more in this text than it has been before, and gives a new layer of meaning to their interactions in other slices of Brett’s narrative. The Great Bazaar is less of a journey story than Brayan’s Gold, but it feels like it puts a bit more meat onto the bones of extant characters, and it’s a lot of fun to read.

Overall then, this is a pretty good adjunct to Brett’s main series. We’re given a lot of Arlen Bales, to be sure, but Arlen is quite fun to read about. There’s a lot of  action, a lot of death-defying, and quite a lot of hectic chases, all of which are a great read. Where all of the narratives in this collection shine though is in the characters – in the quiet moments of interaction, of shared glances, of moments of understanding which help put another layer of humanity, a patina of truth, over them.

The piece with Leesha is good fun, a quirky look at life in Cutter's Hollow. Leesha's on fine form here, slowly establishing her role in village society, and confounding the expectations of those who remember her differently. It's interesting to see this context, this sign of character growth. It feels like a relatively short scene, and it's a satisfying one, though not particularly load bearing - still, it gives us a little more of Leesha's character, and expands the world of Cutter's Hollow slightly, and is a decent quick read.

Overall, if you’re already a fan of Brett’s Demon Cycle books, this is an excellent adjunct to that series. If you’re coming to it fresh, these are perfectly fun standalone novellas – you actually don’t need to have read the rest of the series to ‘get’ them; that said, I’d recommend you do, because if you have, there’s more understanding to be had. In either case, this collection is entirely worth your time.

Tuesday, July 7, 2015

Interstitial - The Great Bazaar & Brayan's Gold

Tomorrow we're reviewing a collection of Peter V. Brett's short fiction, including the titular "The Great Bazaar", focused on Arlen's time amongst the Krasians, and "Brayan's Gold", where a younger Arlen journeys to a distant mine, and runs into trouble along the way,

The collection also includes a few cut pieces from Brett's work, and they're quite interesting, filling in gaps and adding context to their world. There's even a grimoire of runes, which was interesting to flick through.

Anyway, it was a lot of fun to read - review will be up in the morning.

Monday, July 6, 2015

A Murder of Mages - Marshall Ryan Maresca

I knew I was going to like A Murder of Mages when I read the title. It was
clever, it had undercurrents of subtle humour and darkness, and it promised a great deal. A bit like the book underneath it, really.

Maresca gives us the world of Maradain, a city seemingly at boiling point. There are groups of magic users, working together in groups as ‘Circles’. There are other mages, unmonitored outside those circles. There’s an ongoing war – and as a consequence, there are groups of returning veterans. There’s the poor, the needy, the criminal. And where there’s crime, Maresca gives us the Constabulary. The world of Maradain is a curious mixture of the oppressively claustrophobic and the terrifyingly expansive. On the one hand, the entire narrative takes place within the city walls. The wider world comes to the reader in asides, in passing remarks, in assumptions made by characters in dialog. The presence of the city, a dark, grimy, lively place, invades the reader by degrees. It’s not a place that leaps off of every page – but rather, one that seeps into your fingers as you turn those pages.

The centre of the narrative, however, is crime.

 Specifically, the investigation of a case by two members of Maradain’s city police force. It’s rare to get this sort of boots-on-the-ground view in fantasy (the only immediate comparison I can make is Pratchett’s Guards!, Guards!), and if nothing else did, the sheer novelty might carry the text. Fortunately, it has more going for it in any case. The centre of the text  is the relationship between these two investigators, our protagonists. One is the first female inspector in the Constabulary. The other is a borderline eccentric, an uncircled mage, with undertones of Sherlock Holmes.

The two of them begin, as is traditional, unsure whether they need each other. Over the course of the text, their relationship grows more complex, as they begin to rely upon each other. This isn’t the will-they-won’t they romance, however – it’s a nicely drawn platonic relationship, camaraderie under fire and with a shared purpose serving to tie the two together. They’re also both fascinating characters in their own right. The mage is tightly wound, intense, and extremely analytical – watching him tear into the deeper aspects of their case, whilst remaining slightly detached from those around him, is wonderful. Seeing his relationship with a large, boisterous, and occasionally broken family is also a joy – the family dynamics are complex, barely visible to the reader, and hold promise for impact on later books.

By contrast, the other inspector’s struggles to be taken seriously are tough to read – but her no-nonsense attitude, professionalism, and amply demonstrated ability to crack skulls are a similarly great read. She also has a complex relationship waiting for her at home – and the frailty of the emotions here, the implied depth, leaves the reader swimming in very deep waters. Maresca isn’t afraid to throw in a punch to the emotional gut when required, but manages to wrap it under a complex layer of humanity that leaves it feeling affecting and genuine.

Really, the relationship between these two characters sparkles. The dialog is first rate, the relationship feels plausible, and, most importantly, it feels real – fraught with all the little knocks and lifts that tie real people together.

The plot, beginning with an investigation into the gruesome murder of a mage, is quite intriguing stuff in itself.  The reader is learning the details of the murder, as well as the motive, along with the investigators. It’s well paced, and there’s a nice mix of action and moments of quiet reflection. There’s also the requisite red herrings – but pleasantly enough, each of the steps forward in the investigation feels consistent, logical, and plausible. I was left trying to work out whodunit until the last couple of pages, and there were some genuinely tense moments in there.

The fantasy police procedural is a rarity, and this is a good one. It’s accessible and easy to read. The world presented is sparse, but has all the details the reader needs. The mystery itself is both suitably obfuscated and a lot of fun – and the relationship between the lead characters is pitch perfect. If you’re in the mood for something a little different, this one’s worth your time.

Friday, July 3, 2015

Interstitial - A Murder of Mages (and more)

Next week kicks off with a great fantasy mystery story, Marshall Ryan Maresca's A Murder of Mages. It's really quite clever, and it's great to see this sort of blend of fantasy and police procedural done so well.

Later in the week, I'll be looking at a collection of shorter works from Peter V. Brett, and, if I read reasonably quickly, another from China Mieiville.

Stay tuned - it's going to be a busy week ahead!

Thursday, July 2, 2015

Miserere: An Autumn Tale - Teresa Frohock

Miserere: An Autumn Tale is Teresa Frohock’s debut novel. It posits a level of reality where faith is physical, prayer is power, and demons are very real.

The world that Frohock has created feels both unique from and similar to our own.  That dissonant similarity is evoked in its name, ‘Woerld’. In a sense, Woerld is quite familiar. It’s populated by a culture that feels, and acts, like medieval Europe. There’s towering citadels, men with large swords, and a warrior elite, defined  by their faith. On the other hand, that last similarity defines the key difference between Woerld and our own reality – in Woerld, faith is real, and provides power. The warriors are, quite literally, warriors of the divine. They draw power from it, and use it to fight the very clear and very present danger of a demonic horde.

Interestingly, Frohock avoids using a fictional religion for her purposes. Instead, the faith of the characters is mapped to religions in our own world. The characters that the book follows are largely based around the ‘Citadel’, which seems broadly based around Christianity – but there’s mention of other bastions as well, including the wonderfully named ‘Rabbinate’, and a shattered city dedicated to Zoroastrianism. In part, this is due to one of the other quirks in the setting – the ‘Red Veil’. This rather worryingly named phenomenon occasionally appears, and links areas of Woerld with our own world – drawing people through from the former to the latter, bringing their faith with them.

Frohock’s world is one with a structure and order defined by conflict, where a common enemy affects humanity. Of course, since that enemy is actually demonic, there’s always the opportunity for temptation, and a very literal fall from grace.

The characters that the reader follows through the narrative have all managed to take an unfortunate step or two down that path, for one reason or another. The core of the story is wrapped around the relationship of a duo – an exiled exorcist, who entered hell with his love in order to retrieve his sister – and the cause of his exile, the love whom he abandoned in hell whilst performing the rescue. The latter was eventually retrieved, but suffers from blackouts and intermittent demonic possession; the former is crippled, forced to live with his sister, whose rescue was anything but – she’s quite happily embraced the worship of demons.

It seems a bit convoluted, but Frohock excels at bringing the characters to life. Unlike the typical teenage fantasy hero, most of her characters are middle aged, at least slightly cynical, and weary. When the exorcist hobbles from his sister’s house, in an effort to escape, you wince with every clack of his walking stick on the roads; when his love repudiates him, using coldness as armour against forgiveness, you can almost feel the frost riming the page, and feel torn by both points of view.

The exorcist is tormented, wrung out by his betrayal of a lover for his sister, physically and emotionally damaged by the relationship with his sibling, and desperate to make something better. His erstwhile paramour is permanently distanced by her struggle with demonic possession, fighting not to be defined by the horror wrought on her. And the exorcist’s sister is a wonderfully drawn creature, dependent upon him, with a twisted love that requires his acquiescence to every demand, and is selfish enough to require her every need satisfied. She’s skin-crawlingly unpleasant to read, and as such, a pitch-perfect villain.

The plot revolves somewhat around the exorcist’s escape from his sister –but also around his journey with a new ‘foundling’, one from our own world, as he attempts to get them to safety, and away from his unpleasant sister’s clutches. The narrative’s a fairly straightforward journey – though there’s some nice twists, the basic structure will be familiar. But there’s great stuff in here, as the exorcist finds himself regaining his faith, and his humanity, in service to a higher goal, in the person of his foundling. The whole thing rattles along nicely – there’s some lovely pieces of quiet reflection and dialogue, blended with some brilliant faith-as-magic, and the occasional sword fight and an awful demon or two to break things up. I won’t spoil it here, but will say that the narrative, as a whole, hangs together quite cleverly – it’s tense, fraught, and genuine, and it’s very difficult to put down.

Frohock’s done well here. There’s definitely room for a greater exploration, both of the world, and of the characters that are presented to the reader, but what’s there does the job very elegantly. As a whole, the text is both interesting and intense – certainly worth a read.

Wednesday, July 1, 2015

Interstitial - Miserere: An Autumn Tale

Cracking through Teresa Frohock's debut novel at the moment, and it's really rather good. Life and death struggles with demons, high stakes, and an interesting world - more in the morning.