Wednesday, October 18, 2017

The Bastard Legion - Gavin Smith

The Bastard Legion is the first in a military sci-fi series from Gavin Smith. Why is it awesome? Well, it’s about a penal legion. Our protagonist has hijacked a prison ship, attached explosive collars to all of the prisoners in stasis, and now plans to use them as her own private mercenary force. That, that is why it’s awesome.

This is a universe where humanity has had a diaspora. We’ve reached out to the stars at last, and found them welcoming. On the downside, we’re still people, still as messed up as we’ve always been. National governments began the space-race, but now they’re in it alongside mega-corporations and colony worlds that have their own agenda – and their own private armies. Space is seething with opportunity for those with the right skillset, and enough of a ruthless bent. This is a universe which seems familiar; its struggles between semi-accountable governments and corporations that are the size of governments is likely to resonate. It’s a time when humanity is reaching out to the stars, with, one hopes, It’s also a universe where labour problems (or unionisation) can be met with deadly force. The blend of these strands of hope and despair gives us a context we can recognise, a well realised projection into our own futures. It helps, of course, that the projection includes power armoured mechs and space travel alongside its convincing corporate dystopia.

Into this space steps Miska. She’s smart, ruthless, and willing to kill. Which is just as well really, because she’s stolen a maximum security prison ship. We spend the book following Miska, and it can get rather…explosive. She’s in mourning for her recently deceased father, and that grief bubbles away silently between the lines, occasionally arcing out of the page. Miska usually feels calm, in control, but the raw nature of her grief has an honesty to it which helps make her feel more human. Miska also has something of a troubled relationship with the rest of her family – including a particularly nasty case of sibling rivalry, whose visceral emotions are entirely on display, and have a genuine fire to them.

If Miska’s grief is part of what makes us able to sympathise or empathise with her, part of that is that it feeds her rage. Goal oriented, she’s got no qualms about kicking the living crap out of someone if they’re in the way, or pushing the button on the explosives strapped to all of her putative recruits. She’s harsh, hard, and willing to be lethal – which makes a great contrast to the other emotions she’s experiencing. She’s also a badass, and her kicking butt and taking names is great fun to read, both for the emotional catharsis and because the fight scenes are fast paced, kinetic, and bloody.

She’s joined by a cast of…well, mostly prisoners. A few of them get enough time on the page to suggest that we’ll be seeing more of them later, though they mostly seem to serve as a combination of sounding board and meat shield for Miska. Still, those we see the most of are distinctive and in some cases sympathetic; our emotional attachment to them grows alongside Miska’s. If they’re merely tools and ciphers at the start, by the close of the text, some of them have become people. Though in some cases, terrible, terrible people.

The story…well, it’s a fast-paced hard hitter, and no mistake. Smith shines writing his battle scenes; I can’t speak for their accuracy, but the rest kept me turning pages – small arms fire, giant stompy robots, hard choices, tension, blood. The characterisation wrapped around the battles is enjoyable, convincing, and puts emotional stakes into the fights. At the end of the day, this is a well crafted piece of military sci-fi, with enough genuine characters to make it feel real, and enough convincing battles to keep the pages turning. 

If you’re on the look out for something like that, then this may be for you.


Wednesday, October 11, 2017

Ironclads - Adrian Tchaikovsky

Ironclads is a near future sci-fi piece by Adrian Tchaikovsky; it's been a good month for Tchaikovsky - his Dogs of War was absolutely brilliant. So this short, near-future novel had some very big shoes to fill. In that, it largely succeeds.

In a near future Europe, run in large part by corporations and their super-rich members (‘Scions’), one of those members has gone missing. This is a bit of a problem, because he was wearing a suit of allegedy impenetrable armour at the time. This makes his relatives, and others who rely on their invulnerability to supplement their economic control, rather nervous. If a Scion in a suit can be disappeared, it’s always possible that they’re not as invulnerable as they thought.

The foundation of the world of the Scions is distressingly familiar. Large corporations control vast amounts of capital. With the creation of suits of impenetrable armour which only they can afford, the corporate class are working to merge corporatism with feudalism. If the invention of gunpowder democratised war, allowing the poor to hold the chivalric types to account, then the invention of the Scion suit reverses the trend. With their fingers in a lot of pies, the corporations can also restrict access to anything which would be able to crack a Scion suit – and so hold onto their effective monopoly of violence. There’s some interesting undercurrents there as well – the US government is implied to be hard-libertarian, and sceptical of rights for women, workers or, well, anyone who doesn’t run a multinational. By contrast, European governments re more sceptical, but the same hierarchy runs through them as well.

The conflict between these two philosophies has led to an actual war, the US marching into Sweden, and using its armed forces as cannon fodder, backed by the rich men in invulnerable suits who will see the benefit of any success. Looking at this from one angle, it’s a suggestion of where a world increasingly in thrall to a corporate vision will go; from another, it’s rather depressing. This is a world where the rich are going to stay on top, and everyone else is going to bleed, one way or another.
Our insights into the world are given by a squad of US grunts, sent after the missing Scion suit. They’re a diverse set, and that emphasises their humanity alongside their low status. There’s the corporate worker, now a drone operator. There’s the giant who believes firmly in the truth of libertarianism, and has the fire of religion to sustain him; then there’s his opposite, the near-socialist who can’t seem to keep his mouth shut, cynically pointing out the way everyone is getting ripped off, but unable to offer the hope of something better. They’re all under a Sergeant willing to do quite a lot for them, the everyman – smart enough to acknowledge the cynicism put forward by one of his squad mates, but also smart enough to reign it in, to look at the world from a smaller, more immediate perspective – and so survive firefights.  It’s to Tchaikovsky’s credit that though we’re with the squad a relatively short amount of time, they feel like people. Troubled, wry, and rather aware that they’re not expected to survive, their resilience in the face of great events mixes with their awareness that there’s nothing spectacular about them – they’re  the everyman, and that makes them easier for the reader to identify with.

There’s a lot of cool stuff here – marches through parts of occupied Sweden are cold, stark, and bleak – whilst also offering up the essential humanity of both sides of the war. That they also include tripod-esque drones, enormous helicopter gunships and the occasional power-armoured death match is icing on the cake. There’s a fair bit of blood on the deck, but this is a book which helps show off the futility of war, the crass motives behind it, and the way in which the costs are borne, wrapped in rhetoric. In that sense, it’s not a positive book, but it does feel like one which is true. There’s a fair amount of high-octane firefights, carefully, lethally described, which will keep you turning pages to see who survives (if anyone does). But these scenes bookend a more nuanced story about how the little man can work within the confines of his situation to do something better, and how even if the deck is stacked against you, it’s possible to hope, and to be human.


Ironclads is a book which throws an interesting political reality together, extrapolated plausibly from the present. It adds nifty technology – drones, cyberwarfare, bio-weapons – to the mix, and then stirs in a soupcon of war, and a healthy measure of humanity, up to its eyeballs in chaos and just trying to make the best of it. It’s a smart book, with an interesting, unflinching message – and that makes it a very good read.

Wednesday, October 4, 2017

A Time Of Dread - John Gwynne

A Time of Dread is the first in a new series of fantasy by John Gwynne, whose ‘Wrath’ I reviewed earlier in the year. Gwynne has a reputation for producing high quality epic fantasy, with some compelling characterisation and…rather a lot of blood. I can safely say that in A Time of Dread, that reputation is burnished further. 

The book is a follow-up of sorts to his earlier series, taking place a century after the climatic battles and social changes of ‘Wrath’. Though a century feels like a long time, the longevity of some of the world’s inhabitants – giants, semi-divine seraphim and their nemeses - suggests the possibility of the return of a few familiar faces. But having read the previous series isn’t necessary; though there were a few times when it added extra depth to some interactions, the shift in time means that this is designed to work as a stand-alone series from the get-go, and at that, I suspect it succeeds. 

The land is, at least nominally, at peace. A large swathe of it is ruled by the winged Ben-Elim, apparently servants of an absent god, who followed their enemies back into the world to hunt them down. The Ben-Elim have a cultural advantage as rulers – their legend has been put out before them, and the malign nature of their enemy isn’t really in question. They flatly state that they were the servants of a god, and propound and propagate his lore. They’re also, broadly speaking, fair – they’re encouraging people to live safe, peaceful lives, which helps prevent the abuses of nobility against the common man. Mostly though, they’re doing this for their own reasons – a peaceful dominion allows them access to people and resources, to continue prosecuting their ongoing war against their less friendly kin. The Ben-Elim are goal oriented, and that has its own problems. They’re prone to rigidity, and to being prepared to sacrifice anything and anyone (else) if they feel it will help them achieve their aim. After all, defeating the more unpleasant flying monstrosities will lead to a safer humanity – so in the meantime, a bit of impressment or the occasional massacre is for the greater good. 

That makes them a great, conflicted set of characters to root for. They’re definitely fighting against an absolute, horrifying evil. But their efforts to end that fight are horrifying I their own way. The humans they’ve brought in around them are similarly conflicted. Some question the rigidity of Ben-Elim rule, and others, drawn from cultures being drawn under the benevolent boot of Ben-Elim rule, wonder why they let these monsters be in charge in the first place It’s a complex situation, and one which Gwynne portrays with sympathy and an unflinching eye for the consequences of “the greater good”. 

There’s also a politically separate group of humanity, out on their own and causing trouble. They feel like the Big Damn Heroes of the operation, without oversight from the Ben-Elim, living free and disrupting the bad guys that they and the Ben-Elim have in common. They suffer from a lack of resource and direction, seemingly, but they make a strong contrast in the forces of ‘good’. I’d like to see their fissures as much as those of their putative allies, but hopefully we’ll see that they’re not a united front either.

The bad guys are…well, they’re bad. The antithesis to the Ben-Elim, they’re full-on cultist-acquiring, scheming, plotting, indiscriminate slaughter bad guys. If the Ben-Elim are the perils of good intentions and an overly-taught system, their opponents are evidence of why that system exists, and they’re not nice people at all. If I have a complaint, it’s here – the bad guys are bad. Sure, the good guy have different strands of discussion over which brand of goodness they’re going to follow, in the authoritarian/libertarian mode, but their enemies represent a unifying threat – they’re so genuinely appalling, I haven’t worked out yet how they get their cultists to sign up. It’d be nice to see the same level of complexity that we see amongst the Ben-Elim in their direct opposition. 

Character-wise, there’s some interesting people in play. I’d have liked to see more of their internal monologue. Some may be familiar from the earlier series, but some – like the Drem, a trapper youth in the far wilds of the empty area known as the Desolation – are entirely new. Gwynne has a firm grasp of characterisation – Drem, for example, has mannerisms and an internal monologue which make him feel awkward and a bit confused by social nicety, whilst also explaining to the reader how his viewpoint is constructed, and letting us sympathise with it. Others, like Riv, a trainee under the Ben-Elim, give us an insight into their culture, and a degree of empathy to that culture by way of what they’re going through. Riv is smart, funny, articulate – and given to the occasional blind rage. It’s to Gwynne’s credit that he can craft characters like this sympathetically, and make the reader feel alongside them, and understand the travails which they go through. 
There’s some nifty character work here, especially as it opens up for longer term arcs in follow up books; I’m looking forward to seeing both how our protagonists from this volume interact with each other, and with any new characters in the next book. In the meantime, they’re convincing as people, with the sort of small troubles familiar to anyone, and the sort of larger causes and ideals which make them feel more heroic. Once again though, it’d be lovely to see something from the eyes of our putative villains – the book doesn’t suffer from the lack, mind you, but I’d love to get an understanding of their ideology. 

The plot…well, it’s solid. There’s a slow ramp up as we’re introduced to the world and to the stakes. By the end, there’s sword fights, dread cultists, raids, blood everywhere, a little bit of magic – and, on a broader level, the suggestion that the world is about to change, not necessarily for the better. There’s some great emotional payoffs, not just at the close, but spaced through the text. They, along with the kinetic and vivid combats, and the closely observed characters, kept me turning pages long after I should have stopped for, you know, food. 

In the end, this is a precursor to other volumes – and I imagine that the time of dread will open into something more sprawling and ominous. It’s a great start though, giving us high stakes action, believable characters, and a world which carries some of the complexities and shades of grey of our own, whilst still feeling fresh and imaginative. 

If you’re coming to this series off the back of Gwynne’s last one, I’d say this will fit your expectations – smart and well-crafted epic fantasy. If you’re coming in without the benefit of that series, don’t panic. It still works on its own, and is still a great read. In either case, it’s a rewarding read.

Wednesday, September 27, 2017

Godsgrave - Jay Kristoff

Godsgrave is the second in Jay Kristoff’s “Nevernight Chronicle” fantasy series. The series looks at the actions of Mia Corvere, a young woman with a thirst for revenge, a talent for assassination, and a companion who lives within her shadow. I really enjoyed the first outing in the series, which blended some sharp dialogue with a strong core narrative and solid characterisation, so this new entry was hotly anticipated. To get it out of the way: I enjoyed it. A lot of the same things that made the first book work are resent here, and there was enough new material that I kept on turning pages.

Kristoff has created a detailed and thoroughly convincing world, with flashes of renaissance Italy and strains of late Republican Rome. Those influences seep through in the text, which is largely centred around a series of gladiatorial games. There, slaves compete for the honour (and profit) of their masters, and one of the lucky competitors gets their freedom, and the chance to hobnob with some of the highest born and most well-protected members of the aristocracy. Which is handy if your revenge requires you to assassinate them. Thus does Mia Corvere end up infiltrating one of the gladiatorial houses, with nothing much between here and her vengeance except a small pile of other people’s bodies.

Mia is always a pleasure to read. At heart she’s a young woman who has been through severe trauma. But she’s not just that, being something of a multifaceted dark jewel. There’s a brutal pragmatism, with a charming indifference to body count. But that exists alongside a personality which longs for and fears connection and emotional intimacy. As those around her become friends and colleagues, and not just obstacles in the way of her goal, she struggles with the ruthlessness required to follow through on her goals. This is further emphasised in her travails in forming romantic attachments; watching the often surefooted Mia stumble through serious emotional entanglement is a terrifying delight. She is, as the saying goes, so sharp that she might just cut herself, and we’re left waiting to see what she does. The hard-skinned assassin is here, the ruthless killer – but also a lonely woman and the armour she’s placed over a traumatised young girl. At the end, Mia is a complex, troubled, troubling character – and the intricacies of her personality, and her own internal conflicts, make for a compelling protagonist.

In this she’s ably assisted by a strong supporting cast; if we see them through Mia’s eyes, they’re no less believable for all that. Really my only complaint is that we don’t see enough of them. That said, if Mia is possessed of conflicts, the same isn’t to be said of her closest compatriot – the mysterious creature that lives within and shapes itself around her shadow. The eponymous Mr. Kindly is sharp-witted, and has a dry, wry tongue like a razor, which is rather fitting really. There’s an acerbic, venomous humour to his chats with Mia which had me chuckling in appreciation every time he popped up. I’m still not sure what he gets out of his relationship with Mia, and am interested to find out as the series proceeds, but for now he’s just a lot of fun to read.

The footnotes laced through the text, placed there by our narrator, have a similarly waspish and cynically observant style; some may find them too much detail, or dislike the style, but I think they fit for the way the text is constructed. That they’re informative as well as often blackly humorous is a plus.

The world is as vivid as ever. There are moments when you can feel the crunch of sand beneath gladiatorial sandals, or see the tinge of blood on a knife. The pace is quick, and tends to end in blood, or violence of one sort or another. But if there’s more than enough action set-pieces to satiate the most blood-thirsty, there’s also heart-rending and surprisingly uplifting emotional beats. The world Mia inhabits is one filled with living, breathing humans – and the systems which they’ve created. The politics of the world are happening out of frame of the novel, but they’re still impacting it; as we become more aware of the intricacies of the social systems of the space, and the inequalities that exist within it, so does Mia, and that’s one of the more emotionally evocative arcs of her character.

I haven’t touched on everything here, but to sum up: the world continues to be a multi-layered gem, filled with both small, convincing details, and strangely familiar institutions. Mia is a sharply observed and complicated woman, and her vengeance is fast-paced, bloody, and a bloody good read. If you’re already a fan of the series, Godsgrave is a fantastic entry. If you’ve not started the series yet, I strongly advise you to start immediately. This is top stuff.

Wednesday, September 20, 2017

Dogs of War - Adrian Tchaikovsky

Dogs of War is a standalone sci-fi novel from Adrian Tchaikovsky (whose science-fiction credentials include the superlative Children of Time, which we looked at very favourably last year).

It’s a book which explores a lot of interesting ideas, including the role of artificial intelligence in society, exactly what we define as humanity, the ethics of conflict resolution and the manufacturing of sentient biological life. But it does all of this through a variety of different perspectives, from civilian medical personnel to military bioforms, offering a personal view as an immediate and emotional underpinning to its exploration of these big ideas. It is one of the finest sci-fi novels I’ve read this year, and if you’re looking for a new book to read in the genre, it should probably be this one.

So, looking at it in detail, what’s it about? Well, the central character is Rex. Rex is a bioform, an artificially created life. We’re along for the ride in Rex’s head, and that head is one which marries sentience with different instincts to our own. Derived from canine stock, then bred for war and cybernetically integrated with weapon systems, Rex is extremely loyal to his Master, and extremely dangerous to those he’s told are the enemy. He works in a unit with other bioforms, each as weird, wonderful, and thoroughly deadly as the last. Perhaps the greatest triumph of the text is in giving the reader a great many non-human viewpoints to consider – from Rex’s canine loyalties and desire to help, to the combined consciousness of a cloud of weaponised bees, and the quietly murderous thoughts of a giant reptile. They’ve been given the ability to think, and to communicate with each other, within the bounds of their cybernetics, and each of them thinks differently, speaks differently, and reads differently on the page.

Unfortunately for Rex, his desire to do what his Master wants, indeed his almost inability to refuse, means that he may do some rather bad things. This throws up some exciting questions, first about the role that diminished actors could take in the commission of what might otherwise be war crimes, and about the responsibility and ethics that would come with the creation of new sentience. Actually, the lack of ethics is something more on the table here. At the same time, there’s an ongoing conversation about whether these bioforms, created in laboratories to fight others wars, are themselves actually people.  That particular thread rumbles in the background of the narrative; as a reader, it’s possible to walk alongside Rex as he begins to feel, if not more human, perhaps more independent – and as we begin to see him as something other than a weapon, as he is portrayed that way, so too does the wider context round bioform rights open up.

There’s a fair bit of action here, laced bloodily throughout the text. It’s never glorified, and the consequences are shown, with a stark light that lets the reader form their own opions on the conflict. At the same time, the combat periods are kinetic, fast paced scenes with real impact – and the moments which explore what’s left behind are thoughtful and affecting without being mawkish. I have to admit, Rex’s unit working together is an awesome sight – and also one which is terrible. Kudos to the story for giving glimpses of both.

There’s other stuff in here too; the narrative is layered through with complex questions. If Rex and his bioform colleagues are alive, what does that say about artificial intelligences, also in their infancy in this near-future world? If bioforms are awarded personhood, how does society deal with people who are always heavily armed or actively designed to kill? Seeing that the conflicts Rex has, to be someone, to decide whether he actually wants to be anything other than a follower of his Master’s voice – well, they’re beautifully, honestly portrayed, and a very difficult read. At the same time, they ring true, evoking the US civil rights movement, or the institutional struggles of South Africa. This is a book which is trying to look at big issues in a future context, and also tell us something about humanity, and I think it succeeds.

Rex’s personal story – well, by the end of the book, listening to his voice, his thoughts, his feelings, and knowing has sacrifices, I’d been moved to tears several times. Though the story approaches and explores these grand ideas, and does so with complexity and nuance, it’s not afraid to give us stakes in the game. This isn’t a dry, academic exploration of social changes. It’s raw and bloody and personal – and fantastic.

Once again: this is one of the best science fiction books I’ve read this year, perfectly blending larger themes and big ideas together with a personal, emotional story; it’s a feast for the mind at the same time that it wrings out the heart, and I can’t recommend it enough – go buy it.

Wednesday, September 13, 2017

Shadowblack - Sebastien De Castell

Shadowblack is the second of Sebastien De Castell’s ‘Spellslinger’ series. The first, a cunning blend of coming of age tale, fantasy and weird western, was very enjoyable – so I had high hopes for this one too. Shadowblack re-emphasises a lot of the good things about the first volume, including the sharp banter, the well observed, convincing characterisation, and the world I wanted to see more of, then adds some new narrative spices of its own.

Where the first book was set in an oasis of magic users, and centred around Kellen, an adolescent coming rapidly to terms with the fact that he didn’t actually have any magic to speak of, we, along with Kellen, are now outside that oasis, thrust into the wider world and wondering what on earth happens next. Unfortunately, it turns out that the Badlands outside of the oasis are, well, not very nice. There’s radiating heat, scrubby brushland, and rather a lot of horse manure. It’s a barren land with a big sky; to me it evokes a start, Western-style vista. De Castell draws out the difficult beauty of these Badlands in the tribulations of his protagonist – struggling against an uncaring space, but one with a beauty of its own, means that geography helps shape character.

If the Badlands, and the fractured region of which they’re a part aren’t enough, then there’s the Academy. A thriving university town, with students from the richest and most influential of this world.  If it feels a little parochial in some ways, that just serves to provide a patina of authenticity to the experience.  If the Badlands feel like the edge of the world, then the thriving, hopeful town in which the Academy sits is its crowning jewel and greatest contrast. It’s to De Castell’s credit that he makes both environs feel alive.

The unlikely trio from the first book are back. I have to admit that for me the star of the show is always Reichis, the squirrel cat. He’s a few pounds of fur, sharp teeth and a sharper attitude. Reichis has a degree of focus which I suspect the other characters envy – he’s a fan of baubles, and of murdering small animals, and as long as nothing interferes with those cat-activities, he’s fairly happy. That said, he also enjoys trying to educate Kellen in the ways of the world, with a distinct lean toward solving problems by disembowelling them. Acerbic, he may be, but Reichis leaps off the page as a convincing portrayal of a person who isn’t also a human. Over the course of the text, he exhibits a bit of personal growth, bringing his team mates a little further into his heart. But in the meantime, his dialogue is sharp, witty, and often hilarious, and the action sequences he appears in are have a penchant for kinetically charged brutality which kept me turning pages.

Ferius is Kellen’s other mentor, a traveller with a set of alchemical pouches, cards that are both prophecies and weapons, and her own line in dry repartee. Where Reichis is the personification of the id, Ferius is calmer, more collected. She has her own goals, and a certain enigmatic magnetism. Quite what drives Ferius has remained unclear, but in the interim she serves as a solid counterpoint to Reichis, and as one of the few people around Kellen who seem prepared to let him realise his potential, rather than have him enact some scheme of theirs.

Having spoken about Reichis and Ferius, I just want to take a moment to say that the dialogue here is absolutely pitch perfect. The banter has that amiable edge to it, as colleagues and friends take swipes at each other. Where it’s more serious, the emotional payload is raw and convincing, and threats of violence come freighted with depth and weight that gives them serious menace. In either case (and indeed in the more standard everyday chit chat as the characters go about their business) the language absolutely scintillates, and the rhythm and texture of the dialogue goes a long way to keeping the pages turning. That it is (much like in De Castell’s Greatcoats series) by turns hysterical and genuinely emotional and honest is a great help too, of course.

Kellen is our protagonist again, and I have to admit, he feels spot on as a teen conflicted about his place in the world. The coming-of-age tale is in full flow here, as he steps into a world which is fairly confident that he isn’t special. Being on the run from his own people, and not entirely willing to share who he is with the world, Kellen is rather occupied trying to work out who he, well, is. Or rather, who he wants to be, now that he’s out from under the constraints of his society. There’s a part of Kellen which is a sulky, surly teen, but there’s a score of moral choice there as well, and the steel of adulthood slowly becoming visible beneath it all. Quite who Kellen is I’m not entirely sure, and he isn’t either, I suspect – but watching him try and work that out, deciding what his own principles and morals are, and what they’re worth, well, it makes for an intelligent, sometimes troubling, but always interesting read.

The plot – well, no spoilers here. I will say that it rumbles along at a reasonable pace though. There’s an assortment of trickery, thievery and fast talking. There’s even a little bit of magic, here and there. The stakes, as ever, are high, both personally and in a wider context, and there’s a tension and sense of consequence which ties up with the stellar characterisation and cracking dialogue to keep the pages turning. Is it worth reading? Oh yes. Our trio are always at their best when they’re in hot water, and they’re definitely there this time. This is a worthy successor to Spellslinger, and if you were wondering if the sequel could be as good, I’d say you can now stop wondering, and start reading. 

Wednesday, September 6, 2017

The New Voices of Fantasy - Peter S. Beagle (Ed.)

The New Voices of Fantasy is a collection (edited by Peter S. Beagle) of some of the best short fiction from ‘up and coming’ fantasy authors. There’s some Nebula and Hugo award nominees and winners amongst these stories – and if awards aren’t the only indicator of quality, still they’re suggestive. The work as a whole is of a very good standard, and there’s some interesting themes explored, and questions asked – and, occasionally, answered.

There’s a range of stories here, from the hard-edged sentiment of Max Gladstone’s “A Kiss with Teeth”, where Vlad the Impaler struggles to relate both to the modern world, and to his family, to the lyrical modern mythology of Usman T. Malik’s “The Pauper Prince and the Eucalyptus Jinn”, or the quiet secrets and gentle romance of Amal El-Mohtar’s “Wing”. Given there are nineteen stories in the collection, there’s always going to be some that fit a particular reader more than others, but the overall quality is very high. I won’t go through them all, but there are definite highlights.

I have a lot of affection for Alyssa Wong’s “Hungry Daughters of Starving Mothers” – a young woman who feeds off negative emotions is slowly drawn towards monstrous acts. Wong portrays a fragile, confused, powerful woman, unsure of who she is and wants to be – and the sacrifices she’s willing to make whilst working that out.

“Left the Century to Sit Unmoved” from Sarah Pinsker is a piece of fantasy in the modern day, exploring why people are prepared to take risks, to fall with and for each other. In this case, the fall is literal, as inhabitants of a town leap into a possibly bottomless pool. Not all of them return, but the exploration of why people would jump in the first place is compelling and emotionally evocative.

Ben Loory’s “The Duck” is a heartwarming piece, ostensibly about a duck who falls in love with a rock. The other ducks are perhaps less than supportive of this decision. The piece is a pleasant allegory, exploring what it means to fit in, or to deliberately not do so. It wants to examine what people are willing to do for each other, and for love, romantic and otherwise. It’s likely to raise both a chuckle and a smile or two.

Maria Dahvana Headley’s “The Tallest Doll in New York City” is an enjoyablu whimsical piece where the buildings of New York are both sentient and mobile. It’s a love story of architecture, with a thirties thread running through it. The protagonist, at least nominally, is a waiter in one of the buildings, who is also on the lookout for romance in this Valentines Day modern fable.

Those are, of course, just a sample. There’s more here, from the wry, ironic and often darkly appalling “Here Be Dragons”, tracking a pair of con-men in a sword-and-sorcery world, now trying to fit back in to village life with their wives and children, to the travelogue-esque “My Time Among the Bridge Blowers”, a story which is putatively a description of a small mountain society, but which also explores the ideas around power, formation of narrative and colonialism.
As I say, there’s probably going to be some stories here which you find better than others, but the sheer diversity of work on display here, and the excellent overall quality, make this a collection that’s certainly worth exploring.


Wednesday, August 30, 2017

Hannah Green and Her Unfeasibly Mundane Existence - Michael Marshall Smith

Hannah Green and Her Unfeasibly Mundane Existence is a new standalone novel from Michael Marshall Smith. It’s something of a coming-of-age tale, as the young Hannah Green travels with her Grandfather and the Devil (yes, the actual Devil) in an effort to hold the seams of reality together, and help her parents work out their relationship.

Hannah is the young girl whose existence is apparently so mundane. She lives in a world of routine – of trips to other parts of the state, in the back of the car whilst her parents talk. Of school – lessons, bells, and so on. It’s a universe of certainty, where each day holds close to something of the previous. That routine is shattered when Hannah’s parents decide to stop living together. Smith manages to give Hannah a unique, persuasive voice. She’s only eleven, and so lacks some of the context that an older reader may get, as her parents relationship gently fails. But she’s bright, inquisitive, and not afraid to ask questions – and if there’s an innocence there, it never grates. There’s some great characters floating through this text, but Hannah is probably the most challenging, and the most convincing – a girl thrown into situations she doesn’t entirely understand, determined to make the best of them, to be treated as if her opinions matter, and do the right thing. 

Where Hannah is a gentle and amusing protagonist, her parents are something else entirely. Smith paints a picture of a relationship which isn’t in crisis, per se, but in slow decline. There’s an energy to it, a sense of individuals struggling to define their emotional connection to each other – or redefine it. If Hannah’s character is one of the highlights of the text, this relationship – febrile, built on memories and now in flux – is another. The silences, the justifications, the sense of drifting further apart, of quietly needing different things, is well-crafted and feels genuine. 

Then, of course, there’s the Devil. He is, perhaps unsurprisingly, not a nice person. Still, as Hannah and her family have layers, so does this personification of malice, whose efforts to work out why he’s no longer as powerful as he should be  are entangled with Hannah and her family. The Devil’s straightforward, politely expressed spite is a gem – each appearance mixes polished banter with an aura of lethality. The Devil is joined by an “Accident Imp”, also described as a talking mushroom, which attaches to people and gets them into, well, accidents. As a foil to the Devil’s polish, the imp is a gem – avuncular, chatty, aware of its low status in the Devil’s er…organisation – and prone to mishaps of its own. There’s a warm comic timing between the two, and the imp’s interactions with other people are equal parts hilarious and charming, inhabitant of Hell though he is.

Along with Hannah’s grandfather, a man with a penchant for machinery and mystery, this motley collective make up a thoroughly enjoyable cast. The frustration and emotional devastation of Hannah’s parents is palpable and real, at least as much as the whimsy and determination of Hannah herself, the Devil’s temper and penchant for overwhelming force, or the accident imp’s surprisingly insightful banter. 

That they operate, mostly, in the real world is helpful – the vistas of Nothern California are lovingly described when required, and the small town life which Hannah leads really does seem to come alive as one meanders through it alongside the story. From a multiplicity of coffee shops and forests, through to the environs of Hannah’s home, each environment feels both strange and familiar, coming off the page with vivacity and verve.

The plot – well, no spoilers, but I think it works rather well. Hannah’s journey is one which encompasses both an effort to save the world, and one to understand her family. Both these threads are fascinating in their own right, and where they wend and intersect with each other, it becomes impossible to stop turning pages. This is a story of a journey, and of a family, as much as it is one of demons, ancient pacts and talkative mushrooms. I’d have to say that these, and the sheer imagination deployed, make this book one that is very much worth picking up.

Wednesday, August 16, 2017

Back soon...

On holiday for a couple of weeks.
Normal service will resume on the 30th!

Wednesday, August 9, 2017

Infinity Wars - Jonathan Strahan (Ed.)

Infinity Wars is the sixth collection of short stories in Jonathan Strahan’s ‘Infinity’ series. I’ve read several of the others, and found they contained some good stories, so I was quite hopeful going into this one. There was a decent mix of authors who I was aware of and those I’d never read before, which always helps.

Infinity Wars is about the future of war. The scope ranges from alien invasions at interstellar distances, down to the human cost of pulling the trigger. In some ways the environs can be familiar – people wading through muck and blood, or in the cold darkness of outer space. In others though, they can be strange or alien – soldiers driven by their subconscious, or government agencies weaponising a climate grown more ferocious after global warming. The stories in this collection look at war across the scale – and provide an imaginative, inventive window into one of humanities oldest pursuits. 

It’s not all explosions and space battles. There’s some great character work going on as well. Nancy Kress gives us “Dear Sarah”, a letter sent home by a soldier now part of an unpopular military – which also touches on the issues of personal and cultural identity, on prejudice, and on the feeling of what is right. There’s a unique voice there, and a sense of personality which grips you as the pages keep turning. Or Indrapramit Das’s “The Moon is not a Battlefield”, which gives us a woman who was once a soldier on the moon, reliving the grace and beauty of her youth, and the dreams which shaped her as she returns to an earth which is less than forgiving. There’s soldiers as heroes, and as bureaucrats. Elizabeth Bear’s “The Perfect Gun” gives us a richly cynical mercenary, someone accustomed to making the amoral choices, whilst working within a ship powered by an AI. The latter becomes perhaps more personable as the tale unfolds. The former is charmingly unlikable, but entirely believable – a person out for themselves, unashamed and unafraid. If you’re looking for characters to shape these stories, then you’re in the right place. Warfare has always had the capacity to break or shape humanity – and the characters here have been exposed to the kind of pressure that moves them, shifts their centre, and lets us explore a raw humanity beneath. 

That isn’t to say there aren’t some storming plots as well. I absolutely love Garth Nix’s “Conversations with an Armory”, where several tired, scarred and wounded men try and talk their way past an Armory AI, in a putative effort to stop an alien invasion. It’s a delicate piece on the costs of war and what happens to those who remain – and also carries an urgency, a sense of the kinetic, a high-stakes story. There’s a race against time, and the consequences for failure are dire. It’s an absolute page turner, and also one with a serious emotional punch. Then there’s the creeping horror of Caroline M. Yoachim’s “Faceless Soldiers, Patchwork Ship”. Here our protagonist is asked to pay the cost to infiltrate an enemy craft and bring it down before it can cause incalculable harm. The risk, though, is assimilation into the collective of the enemy. It hits all the right beats – there’s an organic tension, the smell of something dead or alive in the air, and a growing awareness from the reader that our narrator could become what she’s set out to oppose. It’s a story about loyalty and hard choices – and that kept me turning the pages. 

In the end, this is another solid entry in Strahan’s “Infinity” series. It looks at the lies and truths of war, the mental and physical joys and costs. There’s plenty of humanity on display here – the darker, stranger parts, and the virtues we cling to when everything else is lost. There’s also the strange, the weird, the wonderful and horrifically alien. So if you’re looking to explore some new authors, or want to think about humanity and its conflicts of the future, then this collection is worth your time.

Wednesday, August 2, 2017

The Imposters of Aventil - Marshall Ryan Maresca

The Imposters of Aventil is the third in Marshall Ryan Maresca’s “Maradaine” sequence of novels. The author has also written several other series in the same universe – and if you’ve been following those, there’s some crossover here.

Aventil is one of the districts in the city of Maradaine. In comparison to others that we’ve seen in previous books, it’s rather prosperous. There’s a university, packed out with a large number of well-heeled students – aspiring lawyers, magnates of tomorrow, and the occasional wizard. The streets are fairly clean, and if the money of the University is one reason, another in is because Aventil’s crime is organised, but also fractured. There are several different street gangs, all with their fingers in separate pieces of Aventil territory, and each with their own history and grudges with each other.  That said, they all deeply resent intrusion into that territory from the outside – and will band together to savage interlopers. They’re insulated by a police force which is more lethargic than actively corrupt –unwilling to rock the boat, start trouble, or indeed finish it.  Aventil is, in its way, thriving – money moves and everyone has an interest in a stable neighbourhood, and as a result it has a cosmopolitan and socially active feel. This is especially true of the University, which sees wonderfully insular, with its own politics and problems, looking out on the rest of the neighbourhood from a bubble of privilege you can almost see rising off the page.

The characters…well, there’s the infamous Thorn, of course, and his gang of merry followers. Then there’s Inspector’s Rainey and Welling, brought in to investigate murders, and trying to chase down the Thorn. Alongside them, there’s our connection to the Aventil street gangs, who also happens to be tied to the Thorn. Also a small horde of side characters. I think my only complaint here is that given the smorgasbord of characters present, we don’t get to spend a lot of time with all of them. It’s great seeing the crossover between different aspects of Maresca’s worlds, but I think we could have done with a text twice the size to give them all room to breathe.

Still, the characterisation is solid – especially for Minox and Welling, whose cool competence, and incisive intelligence mixes well with troubled consciences and icy pragmatism. Those two pretty much own any page that they’re on. The Thorn and his gang, on the other hand – well, I need to go back to the earlier books to really get the context of their relationships, I think. But coming to it fresh, there’s a sense of history missing; I was able to get a sense of what tied the characters together, and it all worked, but I suspect that the deeper context from previous books would have helped immensely. Still, they each get their moments to shine. There’s a sequence that felt reminiscent of fight club halfway through the book which really shaped one of the Thorn’s accomplices for me, for example – in their reaction to danger and courage in the face of adversity. They also have a sense of privilege which seems to gradually deflate as the story goes on – as the stakes rise, and they run afoul of meddling inspectors.

They’re joined by our eyes in the gangs. This one was easier to come to without the context, really – a lone actor, of sorts. He’s a man struggling with old loyalties and old curses; an internal monologue turns these over for the reader, with a genuine voice, and a tone that seems tired of the life that’s led this far. There’s loyalty and bravery there as well, and a sense that the centre can not hold. It’s a stark contrast to the Inspector’s view of the criminal fraternity of Aventil as thugs and menaces – noting that there are costs and consequences, that gang work is violent and sometimes ugly, but not stripping away the essential humanity beneath. This is one whom I’d follow again – to see where he ends up, if nothing else

All of these characters are thrown together in a melting pot, as the Thorn appears to go on something of a murder spree. Execept of course that he hasn’t, as far as he knows. Maresca has form in this area – a slow burning plot, with investigations, discoveries, false leads and revelations, leading to an explosive conclusion. He doesn’t disappoint this time either. I was turning pages to work out exactly what was going on, trying to understand what drove the murders, who was behind them and why – and then, as that started to gel together, kept turning pages to see what would happen next. It’s a sharply observed investigative thriller, this one, in a mature and well crafted fantasy world.

Is it worth reading? I suspect if you’re new to Maradaine, you might want to go back to the start of this series, or to the start of Rainey and Welling’s adventures; it works as a standalone, but definitely benefits from exposure to the rest of the series. If you’re already a follower of the Thorn, I’d say pick this one up. 

Wednesday, July 26, 2017

Artemis - Andy Weir

Artemis. It’s a new stand alone from Andy Weir, whose first novel, The Martian, was a masterclass in producing an engaging and accessible work of sci-fi whilst also getting the science bit right. It later got made into a rather good film with Matt Damon. So Artemis has some rather large shoes to fill.
So, what is Artemis? It’s…a few things, actually. The top of which is, it’s heist story. On the moon. It’s not just that, of course. The protagonist, Jasmine (“Jazz”) Bashara is being offered an opportunity to change her life – and we’ll get on to that shortly. What I’m saying is that, though this is a heist story, one where careful planning and unexpected reversals are the order of the day, it’s also a story about a woman looking to make something of herself, and the book is as much about character and personality as it is about chases through vacuum and dubious law enforcement.

The world – well, it’s in some ways familiar, in others…less so. The moon is a harsh place, at least externally. It’s cold, dead, and the slightest mistake could kill you. There’s a certain sterile beauty to it, to be fair – but Weir has built a moon which can kill, and emphasises the fragility of life in that environment. The larger part of the world, though, is in the city which humanity has settled. It has a certain retro vibe to it – domes rising out of the moonrock, habitable areas underground as well as above. Relatively small, the cultural cadences of science and technology are interspersed throughout – this is a people who make up for their lack of numbers with intellectual capital and skill. The city bustles and thrives, and the industry around it – aluminium, for example – helps sustain it; it certainly feels both alive, and familiar – and at the same time, ever so slightly strange.

Character-wise – well, the main focus is on Jasmine. I have a lot of affection for Jazz, as she’s known – a smart-mouthed young woman, with a laser-like intelligence and an impressive facility for saying the wrong thing at the wrong time, or otherwise putting her proverbial foot in it. Still, she has a sharp tone, and a degree of hustle and charm which it’s a lot of fun to read along with. We pick up some of her history through the text. This lets us explore wider issues as well, like how parenting, or nationality work on the moon, or the role of currency in the context of moon-living. Jazz is energetic and cheerfully self-serving, and if there’s hints of larger issues there – guilt, issues with authority, family difficulties – then they help make a more nuanced character.

Jazz is backed up by a fairly large ensemble cast – from snide EVA instructors who also happen to be ex-boyfriends, to seemingly baffled scientists. Jazz’s father, a man seemingly confounded by his daughter’s ability to do absolutely anything other than apply herself, steals every scene that he’s in, with a combination of pragmatic competence and an obvious love for his daughter that pours off the page. There’s others of course – engineers in life support, and a particularly persistent lawman. I think my only complaint is that we don’t see enough of them. They’re there, and serve the plot rather well, and give Jazz the contrasts and banter in her life that we need to see – but I’d love to have seen them in more depth.

The plot…well, as usual, no spoilers. But it’s a lot of fun. In some ways it’s a slow burn, as facets of a plan come together. But there’s enough going on at every stage to keep you turning the pages. When things do kick off, then there’s heart-in-mouth moments aplenty, tension broken with chases, brawls, and the occasional explosion. It’s a journey in exuberant prose, which is taking joy in both the science and discovery of it all, and in the personal dramas, the horrible mistakes, the bare-knuckle recoveries and the personal triumphs.

It’s not The Martian, but that’s a good thing. Artemis is strong enough to stand on its own. It’s clever, fast-paced, tense, and carries moments of sparkling humour and emotional weight. If you were a fan of The Martian, then yes, you should give this one a read. If you’re coming to Weir’s work for the first time – this is very much worth the time. 

Wednesday, July 19, 2017

The Witchwood Crown - Tad Williams

The Witchwood Crown is the first in a new series of fantasy novels from Tad Williams. I say a new series – it’s a follow up to his existing “Memory, Sorrow and Thorn” series, the last of which came out in the early nineties. That series was thematically complex, and littered with memorable characters. Fans have been clamouring for a return since the original series wrapped up and here, at last, they have it.

Actually, a prequel novel (which we reviewed here) came out earlier this year, which was a direct follow up to the events of “Memory, Sorrow and Thorn”, and set the stage for this new series. I’d say it isn’t necessary to have read that in order to enjoy this new series, but it does provide some valuable context, and an introduction to some characters which turn up again in The Witchwood Crown.

This is a book which deals with the cost of endings, and the price of new beginnings. Which sounds portentous, but isn’t always. This is Osten Ard after the final battle, after the defeat of the Storm King and his minions – usually the point in the movie where the credits roll and the triumphant orchestral music plays. But here we are forty years later. The High Ward of Osten Ard has rumbled on since the wars, and since a kitchen boy married the Princess and took the throne. If things have been quiet, there are still rumblings of discontent. The Hernystiri, old allies of the kingdom, have a new leader of their own, and he seems less than impressed to be living under legends. To the south, the Nabbani, whose empire was quietly subsumed into the Ward before the original series, are indulging in inter-family squabbles and complex scheming that would make a Borgia shudder. To the north, Duke Isgrimnur, the man who drove the Norns back to their mountain fastness, is unwell. The Sithi, immortal survivors of several cataclysms, and related to the Norns, are mysteriously silent. The kingdom feels perhaps a little complacent, busy with internal politics over external concerns. Williams’ prose is as vividly clear as ever, and quickly brings the world of the Hayholt, the icy regions of the north and other environs back to life.

Most interestingly, it also brings us the Norns. In the original series, they were largely faceless demons, a force antithetical to humanity. In the High Ward, there’s a mixture of the strange and the familiar – odl heroes and new blood, straining against the constraints of a familiar paradigm. The Niorns though, they’re something else. Where some of their interactions are familiar, their affection for family, and for their home – it’s often overshadowed by an uncanny feeling. They live in the bowels of a mountain, servants to the seemingly immortal queen who survived the destruction of their semi-mythical homeland, and is their surviving link to it. This has bred a society with a strict sense of duty, a degree of ancestor worship, and a need for control. For each moment of connection with the Norn, there was something else –a quirk of speech, an assumption of superiority, an emotional distance – which successfully marked them as being alike, but other. If the Norn of the past were monsters, these ones are evocatively alien – and no less terrifying for it. Williams has brought an extraordinary and extraordinarily terrible society to life.

 The heroes of the original trilogy now occupy the higher echelons of the kingdom(s) in one capacity or another, but forty years on, they’re older, perhaps wiser, and surrounded by a younger generation looking to make its own mark on the world. Readers of the original series will no doubt be delighted to see Simon, Miriamele and the rest of the gang again. If some of those figures – Binabik the troll shaman, Tiamak the swamplander – seem almost unchanged, still there’s the suggestion of years having passed. To new readers, I imagine Simon the high king, the commoner-king, may be a noble if conflicted figure, his patience worn down over years of fighting the same battles, his reactions to his grandson and granddaughter those of love mixed with frustration. In the context of the original series, it’s like seeing a man box with himself. The grandson, Prince Morgan carries the younger Simon’s impulsive and restless nature, and a sense of frustrated purpose – and that feeling is very familiar to those who watched Semoan grow up way back when.

Speaking of Prince Morgan – this one is an absolute joy to read. There’s so much going on. The prince is feckless, yes, and something of a rake – more interested in wine and warm beds than in deciding the fate of kingdoms. But he’s also obviously intelligent, and, given the opportunity to do some good, is likely to do so. There’s hints of darker nuances in his relationship with his father, Simon’s son. But what really struck me was the frustration of growing within the shadow of a great man, being defined in a relationship to someone else, rather than for yourself. The story asks what it would be like to be related to the man who saved the world, and extrapolates from there. Morgan lives within the constraints of his family, and if not desperate to do something more, would still rather be doing something. His relationship with Simon and Miriamele seems to be one of frustrated ambition on all sides (as an aside, watching Simon deal with someone with his own temper was a special delight), but it presents that frustration as part of a layered, complex relationship, a shared history which shapes all parties. It helps that in between all his drinking, Morgan is a sharp, witty individual, and his concerns are often valid, if poorly expressed. I’m really looking forward to seeing what he does next.

The plot – well, there’s rather a lot of world building. It’s necessary, and an interesting read. It helps establish the stakes, I think, when we see the high Ward at peace. But like a pot on the boil, simmering bubbles of conflict begin to appear. In many ways this feels like a book of groundwork, of foundation. It’s fascinating stuff, and there’s riots, murders and mysteries aplenty. The last hundred pages or so really steps up the pace, as the metaphorical pot starts to boil over.  I’m struggling to describe things without spoilers, but I’ll say this – if there’s a lot of up-front build up to the narrative, then the payoff by its close is absolutely worth hanging around for.

Is it any good then? Absolutely. If you’re a long term fan coming back for a new look at Osten Ard, you won’t be disappointed. The complex themes, the layered relationships, and the cool magic and swords are all still there, and there’s enough of the old faces mixed in with the new to make it interesting. If you’re coming to the series fresh – well, I’d suggest going back and reading the original first, but I don’t think that you have to; it remains an intriguing, cunningly worked fantasy, and one which will reward a deep reading. In either case, I’d give this one a wholehearted recommendation. 

Wednesday, July 12, 2017

Tomorrow's Kin - Nancy Kress

Tomorrow’s Kin is the first in a new sci-fi series by Nancy Kress. It opens with a mystery, of sorts – an alien spaceship sat at anchor near the United Nations. But there’s more than first contact at stake.

The world as we know it has changed. Well, a little, anyway. At the start of Tomorrow’s Kin, the social geography feels familiar. New York is still New York – a thriving city of millions, going about its business in a way that the reader is broadly acquainted with. Kress does show us snippets of urban life – there are quiet moments in city parks, and brash, gritty diners. These are contrasted neatly with the quieter, more remote rural areas. Again, this feels like the calm before the storm – the world is one we recognise instantly, and the concerns are similar, if sometimes a little esoteric – damage to the environment, debates over immigration and sovereignty, economic downturns, and who’s going to win the Superbowl. It’s all mostly in the background, but this is our world, the lives we live, and in that context, it’s very convincing.

Of course, in this case, there’s also aliens. Quite what they’re up to, why they’ll only talk to the United Nations, and even what they look like – it’s all something of a mystery. I was reminded of Clarke’s Childhood’s End; the aura of mystery and creeping concern is similar. But these aliens – whatever they may be – are a catalyst for exploring larger ideas. The text follows one family, that of Dr. Marianne Jenner.  Jenner is brought to speak with the aliens after making an unusual genetic discovery – and everything unravels thereafter. Marianne herself is an interesting protagonist – a sharp, smart professional, who is self-aware enough to be confident in her competence but not feel egotistically brilliant. Her two drivers appear to be professional progress, and, perhaps more importantly, her family. She’s convincing as the logical, perhaps slightly frosty scientist; but her internal monologue gives her a vulnerability in thoughts of her family which is equally substantial.

That family is multi-generational – children and grand children – and more than a little troubled. A daughter is a forceful immigration agent, given room to discuss immigration, the economy, and other bĂȘte noir. This usually leads to a clash with one of Marianne’s sons – an ecologist, concerned with invasive plant species, rather than with the movement of people. They’re both given the room to be opinionated, their arguments crashing together between the pages. This isn’t a political tract, mind you – but the discussions are engaging, and help indicate both the personalities of the characters, and the state of the world around them (or at least, those parts of it which they’re concerned with). Marianne does have another son, Noah – a wanderer, a wastrel, a man who feels the need to take drugs in an effort to define an identity for himself, lost in the shadow of his siblings.
This is a book which tries to meld the drama of one family – their smaller squabbles and relationships and concerns – into the larger narrative themes it’s wielding. It actually works rather well, letting the broader themes be illustrated in the effects on individual lives. As the story hots up, the focus draws tighter around Marianne, tracking her through decades of discovery, and charting her family and world at the same time.

It’s surprisingly difficult to talk about Tomorrow’s Kin without spoilers, as you can probably tell from the above. But it pulls together some excellent science-fiction threads: it has a big idea, and it follows that idea to a logical conclusion. The story approaches its concepts logically and plausibly – and the trials and tribulations of the characters work, both because they make sense in context, and because we’re drawn into caring about the characters.  Alongside the big idea (or two), there’s a multigenerational family story, one with arcs of personal discovery to match the science happening elsewhere on the page, and with the ability to relate facets of larger debates into a smaller scale, convincingly and in such a way as to make for an interesting read.

It’s not perfect – it feels in some cases that the conceptual stuff, the clever ideas, the “sci-fi” bit, if you like, takes up the page at the expense of further depth of character, especially for some of Marianne’s family. This isn’t an entirely bad thing – the concepts on display are cool, and a lot of fun to read. I guess what I really wanted was a little more; we can care for Marianne, and sympathise with her tribulations, but it feels like there’s room here to tell more stories about her family, and give them a little more room to breathe.

That said, this is an undertaking of impressive scope – a mixture of multigenerational saga and hard science fiction, across geography and time periods, able to talk around some of the big issues of the day, and throw its own ideas into the mix. On those terms, it’s also a successful one – I kept turning pages to see where the story would take me next, and the ambitious and compelling narrative held up to the end. If you’re looking for a solid piece of hard SF, this looks like the start of an exciting new series.



Wednesday, July 5, 2017

Children of the Divide - Patrick S. Tomlinson

Patrick S. Tomlinson’s Children of the Divide is the third in his “Children of a Dead Earth” series. The first gave us a murder mystery on a generation ship. The second dealt with the crises and opportunities of first contact and the pitfalls of colonisation as an ethos.

This book takes pointers from both of its predecessors, like their snappy prose and desire to explore complex, contentious issues in a sci fi setting, and runs with them. There’s a lot going on here – from mining helium three, to kidnappings, local acts of violence backdropped against a larger, fearsome context. But to me, the thing that jumps out about this is this; it’s about consequences. Specifically, both for the characters and the world, it’s able to approach how decisions made decades ago are rippling into society today, and explore the results of those decisions – which are by no means all positive.

This is a world where humanity is starting again, its technology streaming down from orbit to spin up a fairy tale colonial city. There are those who remain orbit, keeping their eyes on the heavens, and those beneath, slowly expanding the settlement below. But there’s also the indigenous sentients, divided in cultural conflicts of their own. Some are happy to take the new arrival’s science, their miracle cures and agricultural tips, and otherwise let life carry on as it always has. Some stream into the city of humanity, building their own homes, their own lives, and their own dreams – becoming something new, escaping the social constraints of time immemorial. Some, of course, would rather do neither, and see humanity driven from their shores entirely. All of these are choices, and they come out of those made in earlier books.

But humanity are hardly the white knights of fiction here; their interactions with the indigenes seem, at best, like benign neglect. There’s a Native quarter, with echoes of the ghetto about it. There’s not enough law enforcement officers from the indigene population. The quarter is poorly supplied with electricity or running water, and there’s a simmering tension under the surface of inter-species interactions. These are big issues, but they also come out of those earlier decisions – where humans and indigenes decided on a non-confrontational relationship – and the unintended consequences, where a power dynamic has been left unexplored and unchallenged. It’s not the worst excesses of historical colonialism, but the parallels are there beneath the surface – the worst impulses of humanity and indigene loitering under their skins.

At the same time, there are some great symbols of the best of both species. Our long time hero, Benson, is now older, slower, more thoughtful. His adopted child, one of the indigenes, is coming of age – feisty, fearless, and ready to shape the world. Zer friends are, as well – sons, daughters and other-gendered entities, all stepping from the shadows of their parents. This is a new generation of protagonists, breaking away from the older traditions of their parents. Quite what they want to shape the world into – be it a multicultural society of tolerance, or something else entirely – well, that’s rather up in the air. It’s fantastic to see this sort of inter-generational handover though, and it’s very plausibly done. The teenagers, of any species, are about as insufferable and idealistic as one might expect; but they’re also a driving force for change, their white hot righteousness making them a pleasure to read, and their complex, conflicted relationships we’ve spent two books investing in giving them a depth and context that only deepens that experience.

It isn’t all ideology and family drama either. For those of you that like your sci-fi with some explosions, I can safely say you will not be disappointed. There’s more than a bit of peril, and if there are moments of violent triumph, or jaw-dropping destruction, the story wants us to know about the consequences of that violence too. The broader issues are blended perfectly into some fast-paced action. There’s betrayals, murders, and, yes, explosions – wrapped around stories about how people treat each other, how things reached the state that they did, intergenerational conflict and, basically, what matters to people.

I’ve always said Tomlinson wrote imaginative, interesting books that more people should read. I’ll say it again now. This is intelligent science fiction, with interesting thoughts on the broader human condition, wrapped in an absolutely smashing story. Catch up with the earlier instalments, then give this a read. 

Wednesday, June 28, 2017

Golden Age and Other Stories - Naomi Novik

Golden Age and Other Stories is a short story collection from Naomi Novik, all set in her Temeraire universe – set in the Napoleonic period, with the inclusion of sentient dragons. I’ve really enjoyed Novik’s efforts recently – her Uprooted, which I reviewed last year, was brilliant. So this collection had me quite excited as I went into it.

The collection contains several short stories, and a set of ‘drabbles’, stories of exactly one hundred words. All have accompanying art, which both sets the mood for the associated story and, to be honest, look rather nice on the page.

The first story, Volly Gets a Cow is rather short, tracking Temeraire, the sentient dragon at the heart of the series, as he attempts to get the notoriously unfocused Volly to vote for a dragon member of parliament. Volly is uncooperative, mostly because his attention is focused on his own hunger, and the titular cow. There’s a warmth to this story, the gentle aggravation of Temeraire trying to nudge others into doing something they want to do. We only get quick strokes of Volly and his potential MP here – but enough that their personalities shine through; the dragon representative is a smidge arrogant and abrasive, Volly wooly-headed and, well, hungry. But it’s a cheerful comic tale, showcasing the sort of gentle warmth and humour that sits near the heart of the series, alongside more serious issues – that dragons should be politically represented is an interesting turn, and if it’s only lightly touched on here, still suggests an interesting larger tapestry of events at play.

But it’s not all Temeraire – or if it is, sometimes in a different context. Planting Season for example shows us a dragon in the hinterlands of America, after the convulsions of the Revolution. Here, the dragons acts a bridge between the Native American and European cultures – shuttling goods from one to the other, and stepping between the cultures of both. It’s sympathetic and sharply observed, giving us people on both ends of the trade simply trying their best – and left me wondering how the counterfactual Americas were getting on after the fact; the policy of careful integration suggested here is intriguing, and Novik’s talent for making both colonial-era Boston and the Native American wider spaces feel colourful and alive is in full force.

Then there’s Golden Age, which shows us an alternative meeting for Temeraire and his Captain – the latter sent out to investigate rumours of French piracy, the former, somewhat accidentally, the cause. The dialogue between Temeraire and the Captain here evoked something in the tradition of Aubrey Maturin; both coming to the table as equals, even if one is a naval officer, and the other a thirty-foot lizard which can breathe fire. Here, it seems like the theme is acceptance – as what would be Temeraire sleeps warmly on a beach, gathering treasure and food – and is shocked out of complacency by the arrival of a human with a loud voice, and a willingness to negotiate.

There’s a sense in which several of the stories work better if you’re aware of the larger series; it works as a stand-alone collection, but the context from the wider series helps give it more depth. It was great to see some of the genesis of Roland, for example – a woman with a fine career ahead of her, a forceful personality if ever there was one. As presented, the story of a young woman’s growing into her Captaincy of a dragon, refusing to back down into social expectations, and leading her crew by strength of will and main courage is inspiring and delightful. Knowing what she will go on to do in the broader series gives it the narrative a more complex (but no less pleasant) flavour.

One story that works as a genuine standalone, and which I thought was the highlight of the collection, was Dragons and Decorum. Blending the fictional world of Temeraire with that of Austen, it gives us an Elizabeth Bennett who is a naval officer, leading a dragon crew. Novik scrupulously matches Austen’s prose style, but injects her own energy and enthusiasm. Watching an Elizabeth Bennet with agency approach a nervous Darcy, both still constrained by the customs of manners embedded in society of the period – well, it’s an absolute delight. I laughed, several times, and was transported by the evident genuine emotion growing between the two. Bennett is an active participant here, and all the better for it. If other stories in the collection are love letters to fans, then I’d say this one is a paean to the regency novel genre – one which plays with the conventions of that genre, and produces a fine alloy as a consequence.

The drabbles are fun, leaping across time and space equally, and providing more insight into the Temerire universe. They’re like short mood paintings, and after the main repast that is the collection, make an excellent dessert.

Is it worth buying? Well, if you’re a fan of Temeraire, this may be the last fiction available in that universe. It’s a diverse collection of stories, and there’s something for every fan here – it’ll probably reward your time. If you’ve never read the series before, I’d say it works as a stand alone – but you owe it to yourself to give the other books a try, as they’ll make this collection a richer, more complex experience. 

Wednesday, June 21, 2017

Fearsome Journeys - Jonathan Strahan (Ed.)

Fearsome Journeys is a fantasy anthology from Solaris, edited by the remarkably prolific Jonathan Strahan. I’ve enjoyed some of the other Solaris anthologies, and this one looked to have a good mix of authors I knew, and those I hadn’t previously heard of. As ever, I enjoyed some of the stories more than others – but I don’t think there was a bad one in the bunch.

There were several standouts. “The Effigy Engine” from Scott Lynch, combined his sharply charming prose with a vivid world. There’s a certain amount of humour here as well, as a small unit of wizards attempt to help win a seemingly unwinnable war. The banter is familiar for a close knit team, and their personalities are large enough that they step off the page. There’s pyrotechnic thaumaturgy, snark, and a whisper of something deeper. This is a space I’d quite happily explore more of.

I also really enjoyed K.J. Parker’s entry, “The Dragonslayer of Merebarton”. This is probably no surprise to long term readers, who know I’m a massive fan of Parker’s work. Still, the tone here is pitch perfect – a pragmatic, tired knight, a man well past the point of his previous glories, dealing with something unusual. Admittedly, dealing with it with a sort of put upon disappointment, and a fairly deserved expectation that everything will go horribly wrong. There’s some heroics here, of a sort, and meditations on mortality and the virtues of duty. It’s a multi-layered piece, and one with something of a sting in the tail.

Glen Cook’s Black Company short, “Shaggy Dog Bridge” is probably the other main event in this collection, and it’s really rather well done. This is Croaker and his gang of miscreants in their early days, on the run from the Lady and her Taken. It’s a grim story in some ways, with rogue wizards and otherworldy monstrosities. There’s the seeping tone of noir that infuses a lot of Cook’s work, and the troops-eye-view of epic events which has always been the Black Company trademark. It’s a good story, too – occasionally funny, often deadly serious, and always very compelling.

I could go on – as I say, each of the stories inside of the collection is enjoyable. I will say that it feels like there’s something here for everyone. Low fantasy. High fantasy. Grimdark. If it’s got a label, you could probably apply it to one of the stories available here. The diversity of material on offer is impressive – from Kate Eliot’s insightful, nuanced, fairytale-esque story, through Daniel Abraham’s darker tale of an undying king, a narrative in vignettes where the subtext is as valuable as what’s on the page. Elizabeth Bear’s “The Ghost Makers” gives us character driven fantasy, driven by an automaton and a dead man – both of whom stroll off the page, large as life, in between hunting a killer.

In any event, there’s something for everyone here – it’s a collection whose imaginative breadth is its soul. Every tale may not be for you, but they’re all interesting takes on imaginative worlds, and worth investing your time in. (At time of review, it was also all of 99p on Kindle - give it a try!)




Wednesday, June 14, 2017

The Court Of Broken Knives - Anna Smith Spark

The Court Of Broken Knives is a strong fantasy debut by Anna Smith Spark. It’s got absolute gads of cynicism, characters who range from the pragmatic through conflicted and into monstrous, and a world which encourages and rewards that sort of approach.

Speaking of the world – well, it’s complicated. There’s the remnants of a global empire – reminiscent of Rome in the late medieval period. They assert sovereignty over the world at large, and have a degree of social and cultural capital – but don’t control almost anything outside of their capital city. Still, that city is a monstrosity of wealth, still gilded by centuries of ruling the world. The street urchins dress in silk, and the decay is, whilst obvious, still masked by the urban grandeur. The mood of sorrowful decline is, I suspect, intentional – as is the feeling of self-inflicted wounds, of coiled vipers, of personal politics poisoning an imperial perspective. Of course, this is an empire in a desert, which doesn’t seem to have much of a sanding army – but does have a religion requiring the sacrifice of children. The cultural attitudes are expertly played here – saddened, but accepting of the necessity.
The empire is surrounded by its more vibrant successor states, which seem to have a more medieval mindset. There’s a fair amount of fortifications and stone walls – and a royal family put in place by a historical ruler who may also have been a demon. They’re prone to bouts of ecstatic madness, entwined with violence – and their people fear and love them for it. This is a tumultuous, often nihilistic world – but also one where there is potential for great beauty, and for the realisation of the better traits of humanity.

There’s a rough quartet of protagonists. Two of them sit within the remaining Imperial city. One is the High Priestess of their somewhat brutal god – a woman circumscribed by circumstance, with the potential to be more, restricted by her own power and position. She’s clever, observant, and, for someone who sacrifices children on a regular basis, surprisingly sane – but there’s twinges of visible damage there, and a recognition that perhaps the world isn’t limited to the walls of her temple. The contrast between her and one of the others, a hardened politician, a noble of the empire, is, I suspect, intentional. He’s wry, jaded, and not at all surprised by the worst in people – but at the same time, driven by the dream that was once his home, in an effort to sustain and create something better. There’s a vivid characterisation here, of a man in power, who has no interest in his wife sexually, but cares for her; who is prepared to enact horrors on old friends in the service of an ideal; who can be tormented by their own success, and justify it as failure being the worst option. Both of the imperials are vividly, cleverly portrayed – they certainly feel like people, if perhaps not people you would want to take out to dinner.

The others – well, I have great affection for Tobias. A mercenary squad leader, he’s thoughtful, always has an eye on the main chance, and is not at all afraid to turn his reflections into brutality if that’s what’s required. He’s ever-so-slightly conflicted, a everyman with more than an edge of darkness about him – surviving in a world which caters to and demands the use of his worst instincts. For all that he makes abhorrent choices, they are plausible, logical ones – and his tarnished view of the world is at once strange and familiar.

Then there’s another – one of Tobias’s band of mercenaries, he’s an enigma at first. Tormented by unknown demons, driven by unknown curses. If there’s a space here, it’s one of emotional distance or connection, switching from a need to escape the world to being bathed in it – usually in blood. This is a man who is sure of what he could be, but trying to escape it – through drugs, through drink, through murder. This last is one that is more difficult to sympathise with – but a complex, believable character, one whose emotional intensity and validity rises out of the prose, and makes it into something special.

The plot – well, there’s all sorts. Here are high politics, and low murder, often in one. Political assassinations as knife fights, gutters and blood, coarse language and red in the gutters. There’s also magic – explosive, typically, unpleasant, almost always. There’s plots, counterplots, and appallingly visceral battles. There’s something for everyone here, if you’re not squeamish about how you get it. The dialogue is typically snappy, with moments of emotional transcendence; the pacing is spot on, and I had to keep on turning pages to see what happens next. There are highs and lows here – the latter perhaps moving to contempt or to tears, the former transporting to joy.

I guess what I’m saying is, it’s good stuff. This is smart, self-aware fantasy. The characters make sense, are easy to invest in, and reward that investment. The world is complex and believable. I’m really looking forward to seeing where this series goes, and I urge you to give it a try.