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 bête 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.

Wednesday, June 7, 2017

Senlin Ascends - Josiah Bancroft

Senlin Ascends is the first in Josiah Bancroft’s “Books of Babel”. If I had to summarise, I’d say it’s the novel of one man’s journey. That journey is, of course, geographical – he moves ever upward through the levels of the eponymous tower, being enveloped in the strange societies, cultures and politics which hold sway there. But it’s also personal. The Senlin who begins the journey up the tower – well, he changes, and grows as the narrative proceeds – and not always for the better.

Senlin Ascends has a baroque, imaginative world. Along with Senlin, I was often left somewhat flabbergasted by the people whom he encountered. There were the showmen and grifters at ground level, of course – small time thieves and hustlers, charmers and liars. They exist within the constantly stirring entrance of the Tower, a first level fuelled by tourists and victims. At the same time, there’s a sparkling, carnival atmosphere to it – one where the barkers have sharper teeth hidden behind their smiles. But things only get stranger the further up the tower one goes. Each step is increasingly surreal, each movement away from the base also a step further into the machinations, machineries, and villainies of the increasingly bizarre denizens. There’s a sense here of Alice in Wonderland, with a cutting edge. I can’t say much about the rest of the environs without touching on spoilers – but I will say this: the tower is a fresh, imaginative tapestry of diverse, colourful locales, and it successfully conveys a sense of energy and corruption in one word after another. This is a roaring, virile place, crackling with life – and at the same time, is shot through with rot, coiled serpents just waiting to fall upon the unwary visitor. In other words – it’s great.

The characters…well, they’re an odd bunch, that’s for sure. Senlin is the protagonist, and walks into the tower at least as baffled as the reader, if not more so. He’s a man who has been shaped by his circumstances – a teacher in a fishing village. In fact, the only teacher in the village. He’s intelligent, with an unconscious air of superiority. He cares about his pupils – though with a degree more enthusiasm for the intelligent ones. He feels like a prim, proper man, confined within his own expectations – a self-constrained avatar of social mores. Still, there’s a wit and an incisive intelligence there, and, it appears, a passion. Senlin is in love with his wife – and he’s a romantic and an idealist. His romance is one of the great backdrops to his life, a brilliant surprise he’s determined to hold onto with both hands. Here the flames of his personality peek out a little behind his enforced façade. Senlin walks with the reader, a narrator in the tower – and his passion and his restraints on it serve to make him feel very human.

Indeed, as the text progresses, Senlin’s internal geography shifts along with the external. Events force him to decide what sort of man he is, and exactly what he will do to accomplish his goals. The man who enters the ground floor of the tower for a honeymoon – well, let’s just say he may not be quite the same man that nears the top.

There’s a delightful crowd of assorted misfits alongside Senlin as he travels. They’re not all entirely trustworthy, and some of the antagonists are downright unpleasant. Still, when they’re given the time to shine, they do – be that in impassioned speeches on the human conditions, or in the odd brutal murder. In each case though, they’re imaginatively, convincingly portrayed – strange to us, but perhaps not strangers, in the broader sense. As the journey continues, they don’t become any less strange – but also become more familiar; it’s cleverly done, and left each of the supporting cast feeling memorable as I turned the pages.

The plot – well. As ever, no spoilers. Senlin is working his way through the tower hunting his wife. Along the way he’s exposed to the best and worst that the tower has to offer, from beer fountains to sky-ships, from loving families to murderous lunatics. The story is in the journey, in how Senlin adapts and changes in the face of challenges thrown up to him on each floor of the tower. There’s shades of Moby Dick, the protagonist driven to fulfil his heart’s desire, even with the associated costs. In any event, it’s a cracking read – there’s betrayals, firm friendships, battles, banter, and even true love. It’s a charming, fascinating piece, and I highly recommend it. 

Wednesday, May 31, 2017

Lock In - John Scalzi

Lock In is a near-future sci-fi mystery novel from John Scalzi. I’ve enjoyed Scalzi’s work for years, and he has a penchant for tightly plotted, compelling mysteries – as with this year’s excellent “The Dispatcher”.

The world of Lock In should be reasonably familiar. People are still bipeds. The political systems we’re familiar with are still holding sway. The US still has a President. People still drive from place to place. There’s still coffee, bars, and mega-corporations. Sure, the cars are now self-driving, and the coffee places have a well-targeted marketing mechanism, but the people are. In the end, still people.
But the world has also changed. A global epidemic has left a small significant proportion of the global population ‘locked in’; paralysed but cognisant, unable to communicate with the outside world. That’s where the sci-fi comes in. Scalzi gives us neural interfaces, virtual worlds, and bodies which the locked in can hop into. It’s a world where, at least in the US, there’s an awareness of a certain kind of disability, an amelioration, and a well portrayed cultural adaption to that fact. The locked in, by virtue of their numbers, have become a minority demographic – one that acts under assistance and prejudice in equal measure. There’s echoes of the civil rights struggle here, and stronger reverberations for the prejudice that the disabled face daily. This is a society which is handling seismic shift in how its population is structured – and stumbling, well meaning, toward an uncertain end goal. Quite what the status quo will be is not yet defined – and that liquidity, that lack of social definition, makes for an intriguing and compelling world.

The characters – well, our central duo are familiar in the tropes of the mystery genre – a rookie detective and his more experienced, emotionally wounded partner.

The former, Chris, is also locked-in. They’re relatively well off, earnest, and intellectually curious. There’s enough self-awareness of privilege there not to make Chris a chore to read, and their intelligence and focus means that the reader can follow along with their analysis easily enough. There’s some focus on getting through things by the book, a degree of caution at the start of the text, wrapped around a lack of confidence. What’s driving Chris, the need to be distinct from their family whilst also being a part of it, is sketches out in the emotional reactions within the text – the relationships are convincing, complicated, and occasionally startling – as with any family.

Chris’s partner is another matter. Older, a veteran of the FBI, she’s both familiar with how things work, and perhaps more than a little cynical about the fact that they work at all. She’s dry, wry, and obviously ferociously clever. That she’s also a survivor – well, that’s inherent in her attitude, from the first moment. Quite what experiences have transformed her – well, those we learn alongside Chris. But I can say that this is not a book which backs away from emotional heft for its characters. They have their issues, and those issues make sense within their own context – but they’re also raw and human.

There’s a slew of supporting cast of course, from Chris’s room-mates, to their family, from victims to suspects. What ties them together is that each gets enough depth to be convincing. We don’t see much of the room-mates say, or of the CEO of a large technology corporation – but when we do, their motives, their meanings, and their humanity are no less clear. The main cast have greater room to manoeuvre, but it’s nice to see the support given enough depth to be convincing.

The plot – well, no spoilers. It’s a techno-thriller, with additional sci-fi elements. It opens with a murder investigation, and suggests links to larger issues. The plotting is tight and convincing. If I wasn’t always a step ahead of our investigators, I was certainly looking at the evidence alongside of them. The central investigation is tense and well-paced – with sufficient evidence produced for the reader that they can work with the characters. There’s some marvellously explosive action as well, though it tends to come with undisguised consequences. Both the more explosive moments and the investigation work within the larger social tapestry of the world - with a consistent internal logic and a cracking conclusion.

If you’re in the market for an inventive, imaginative sci-fi mystery, then this is probably the book for you. 

Thursday, May 25, 2017

Schedule changes!

Morning all,

Due to circumstances outside this blog, we're moving to putting reviews out on a Wednesday. Mark your calendars for next week!

Tuesday, May 23, 2017

Tyrant's Throne - Sebastien De Castell

Tyrant’s Throne is the fourth and final entry in Sebastien De Castell’s “Greatcoats” quartet. I’ve been a big fan of the series. It combines an energetic and adventurous buccaneering style with moments of great emotional intensity and honesty. I’m desperately sad to see the series end – but can safely say it went out in style.

Following the previous instalment, Falcio and his band of Greatcoats are getting ready to put Aline, the daughter of their murdered king, onto the throne of Tristia. It’s not an easy process. We’re shown the political factions which swarm around Tristia, most of them seemingly motivated by self-interest. None of them are particularly keen on Aline – but they’re coming around to holding their noses and accepting her, because the alternative is even more civil unrest in a country which has been tormented by uprisings and other chaos for years. Still, politics isn’t the natural battleground for Greatcoats – they have a tendency to stab and/or shoot arrows at things. The atmosphere is febrile, to say the least.
Fortunately, in between the deal-making, another threat has raised its head.  Those outside the borders of Tristia are eyeing up the real estate. There’s a whole world outside the nation we’ve spent three books in, and if we only get to see a little of it this time around, I can safely say that as a culture, it’s excellently crafted. The traditions and society of the outside world are sympathetically and plausibly drawn – they are not a thoughtless antagonist, but one where the conflict is drawn out from cultural differences, and the social changes that we’ve seen in previous books in the series. If you can’t sympathise with the potential threat, you can certainly empathise with them.

If the world is being thrown open to broader horizons, the characters are their well established selves. Brasti, who can’t stop running his mouth, even whilst putting arrows into people, and Kest, the laconic, nigh undefeatable shieldman are here, backing Falcio, our long running protagonist. The relationship between the trip remains an absolute joy. The banter is sometimes caustic, often hilarious, and occasionally exposes the raw trust which they each have in the others. The dialogue thus remains fresh, funny, but often surprisingly affecting – these are people who have known each other a long time, faced men and gods together, and, in the end, aren’t inclined to lie to each other or to themselves. There’s some final threads that get resolved here, which have vexed loyal readers for years (how *did* Falcio beat Kest and become First Cantor in the first place?); but there’s also some refreshing revelations as well. If the wit helps mask the raw intensity of the emotional payload, that make it no less real – and the prose gives it strength and surprising clarity. As Falcio and his oldest friends work out who they are and where they stand, I was wrenched between delighted laughter and utter heartbreak in every other line.

In honesty, this was a book whose dialogue and relationships gave me more than one belly laugh, and also left me in tears. I can’t give a stronger recommendation than that.

The plot – well, it starts slowly, with the aforementioned politicking. It’s interesting stuff, and the tension builds to keep you turning pages. But there’s a lot more going on here. Without spoilers, I’d suggest that the stakes have never been higher for Falcio and his band. There’s some effectively, terrifyingly drawn battles, and duels that left me with my heart in my mouth. This is a story of resilience, and of friendship, of love and trust – and the consequences of those things. There’ blood and steel, but in the end, this is about shaping the world, and perhaps more importantly, the people we care about within it.


Would I recommend it? If you’ve not read the Greatcoats before now, I’d say you need to get on that first. If you’re wondering whether to finish it though, this is an unequivocal yes. Get on that. Get the book, read the book. It’s a conclusion which relies on what came before, but uses that emotional depth and connection to provide an absolutely brilliant payoff. Read it – you won’t be disappointed.

Thursday, May 18, 2017

Galileo's Dream - Kim Stanley Robinson

The original conceit of this book - Galileo interacting with indivduals from far in the future - does not seem that impressive at first blush. Indeed, a brief office poll produced a great deal of derision. However, first impressions are sometimes deceiving, as they proved in this case.

The characters are well realised, including the epynonymous Galileo. Many authors might have hesitated to personify such a huge historicla figure, but the author does so smoothly, and generates a believably flawed character whom the reader can quickly come to empathise with. The medieval settings are extremely well detailed, and clearly the result of some solid research. While some commentators may be upset at the modern linguistic turns which invest the narrative of these medieval characters, I found that it made the text more accessible, and certainly more engaging.

The plot itself is convoluted, with enough little twists and turns to keep the reader turning pages, though on occasion (particularly earlier in the book), the cryptic goings on are not given enough depth to really pull on the reader's intrigue.

Surprisingly, I found that the main failing of this text was in the portrayal of the 'future', which was given as much, if not more depth than the historical past with which it intersected. However, despite this effort, it often seemed unreal, and the characters harder to understand or empathise with. On the other hand, this may have been intentional.

Overall, the text is an intriguing and evocative read, and one which I believe I will return to more than once, as I'm sure there are pieces of the puzzle that I missed. Well worth the wait, and well worth the read.

Tuesday, May 16, 2017

Darien - C.F. Iggulden

Darien is the start of a new series by C.F. Iggulden. Iggulden is perhaps better known for writing several series of well received historical fiction, but this is his first foray into fantasy.

Darien is a feudal city-state in a low-magic world. That world seems to share a certain amount of history with our own – there’s the occasional mention of Romans, for example. But there was a divergence – a grand empire, the Empire of Salt, formed and fell – and Darien is one of its successor states. Most of the world-building is focused on the contemporary, though there’s scattered mentions and inferences one can make about the history of Darien to this point. Currently, however, Darien is an unequal society. It’s ruled by twelve noble families, each with their own heritage and rivalries. They sit beneath a monarch – in this case, a relatively tractable one. The people are a swirling morass, trying to get through their day to day without notice from their social superiors. There’s evidence of a slowly burgeoning middle-class though – merchants thriving in the main streets of Darien, and those with the wages to purchase their wares.

It feels like an insular society, one which holds on to old feuds and older grudges. At the same time, it has a familiarity to it – the twisting alleys of Darien evoke those of the medieval period. Darien and its outlying environs do have some differences though – mostly in their magic. There’s old sorcery sitting with vicious quiet in ancient tombs, and powerful artifacts horded by families. Some people seem to have knacks, as well – peculiar skills and talents which may exceed or defy the norm.
I wanted to see more of Darien – of the people in it, f the customs and habits which defined them, and of the strange and familiar world in which they find themselves. What’s there is intriguing, suggestive, and builds a solid foundation, but left me hungry for more.

The characters – well, this is a narrative from multiple points of view. So we range from hunters to thieves, from martial troubleshooters to troubled duellists. The main cast get enough elbow room to differentiate themselves, though as with the world, I ended up wanting more. Standouts include Elias Post – a hunter, he begins the story as an unremarkable and pleasant man. As matters progress, though, he is offered some exceedingly difficult choices. The text doesn’t back away from this; in fact it embraces it, which is marvellous. Post grows quickly, and in different directions than we might otherwise have expected. There’s echoes of Monte Cristo there, as Post struggles to fulfil his overriding purpose, with no regard to the cost to himself – or what the struggle to reach his goals will turn him into.

I also thoroughly enjoyed following Tellius. An old soldier, and not from Darien, he has a sharp intelligence which made following his thoughts enjoyable and a wry cynicism which made me chuckle more than once. Tellius is a pragmatist, with some moral constraints. He’s learned to look out for number one, but struggles against that lesson. Tellius’ dry wit and focus made walking alongside him amusing. The hints of a complex past that were thrown out, and his own efforts to be something better, despite himself, made the journey a pleasure.

There were other points of view here for example the vulpine Vic Deeds, the ultimate guiltless problem solver, is charming and ruthless in equal measure, I won’t approach the others, for fear of spoilers – but I will say that even if I wanted more time with these characters, I still felt they had sufficient depth to encourage emotional investment, and to keep me turning pages alongside them.
The plot – well, there’s certainly a lot going on. There’s assassination attempts, some very fast-paced and visceral duels, and even a battle or two. Those are choreographed masterfully, and Iggulden brings the movements of large masses of troops, and the dangers and chaos which they face, to life brilliantly. In between the murders, the politicking and the struggles for the life of the city, there’s some touchingly genuine emotional moments as well. It’s epic fantasy at its most literal – the fate of empires settled with fire, sword and pistol shot. In this case, there’s some rather explosive magic thrown in as well.

Is it any good though? I’d say so. It approaches the form of epic fantasy with care, and constructs a story which kept me interested and unwilling to put the book down. I want to see more of the world and the people in it, but that’s less a criticism than a hope for future instalments. If you’re looking for something new to fill your next epic fantasy fix, then this will see you right. 

Thursday, May 11, 2017

Age of Swords - Michael J. Sullivan

Age of Swords is the second in Michael J. Sullivan’s “The Legends of the First Empire” series. It has a historical connection to his popular Riyria series, taking place in the same world, but seemingly several thousand years before. Here are the women and men who shaped the world that the other series is embedded in – and they’re up to their own adventures.

The world of Age of Swords is one of conflict, and also one of hope. The conflict – well, that exists between the species of men, and the Fhrey. The latter are long lived, and relatively technologically advanced. They see humanity as somewhere between pets and vermin. At the centre of Fhrey society are the Mirialith, sorcerers beyond compare. They can shatter bones with a thought, rip the earth asunder, or, less often, produce a rather nice bouquet of flowers. The other Fhrey respect the Miriliath, even as they fear them. It’s great to see some intra-cultural tension, as the Mirilaith begin thinking of themselves as the natural leaders of the Fhrey, or even as gods – as far above their brethren as above the rising tide of humanity. It’s interesting to explore how this long-lived people have set out to govern themselves, to prevent violence amongst each other. Their institutions are sometimes familiar – a council hall of governing consensus, overseen by an absolute ruler whose final word is law evokes the Roman senate, for example. At other times, they’re distinct and plausible – the border posts that some of the Fhrey guard prevent humanity from entering their lands; but those manning the walls are not allowed to return to the centre of their civilisation. Predictably, this breeds mistrust and resentment.

The Fhrey now contemplate a march to war, humans having done the unthinkable and actually killed several Fhrey. Theirs is a society in turmoil, social assumptions upended. That said, they’re dealing with a human society which is less than prepared for them.
In the society of humanity, there are echoes of our own bronze age. Groupings are familial, tribal, organised by clan. Bronze weapons are rare, the height of the science of war is the warrior charge. The gods are numerous, tied to places and clans. Though humanity thrives and outnumbers the Fhrey, they know better than to act against a people who are effectively immortal, well fed, and tactically trained. Still, like the Fhrey, this is a society on the cusp of something else. There’s a potential for consolidation, for groups coming together as part of a greater whole, under pressure from externalities.

In both cases, the societies constructed are clearly constructed on a sound footing. They’re plausible, carefully constructed, and presents a rich background for the characters to act within.
The first book was something of an ensemble piece, and that hasn’t changed here. There’s some standouts though. Suri, the young seeress, whose view of reality seems to be about forty-five degrees from everyone else, is one example. She begins with a certain naivety, but it’s tied to the ability to look outside or around limitations – and occasionally to set things on fire with her mind. As the text progresses though, she grows into something more, tying into her friends, being moulded externally as the plot rumbles on, but drawing her own personality together as she reacts to the trials and tribulations she endures.

Persephone is similar in this way – beginning as a part-time leader of one clan, already preparing to face the wrath of the Fhrey, Persephone is stubborn, loyal, clever, and reluctantly willing to make hard choices. It’s the latter which change her here, or at the least help to accentuate her dominant characteristics.

Raife, the God Killer is always an interesting read. He’s often angry, with an upbringing in hardship which his copmapnions may not quite understand. This predicates him away from people – so his gradual integration into the group is fascinating to watch. He remains as prickly as ever, but seems willing, perhaps, to accept others into his life.

There’s a swathe more here, from the occasionally malevolent adolescent Fhrey prince, to the mysterious dwarf-ish types, through the collective leaders of the different human clans. Sometimes they felt like they had a basket of traits to hand to drive the plot, but typically this wasn’t the case; watching the conflicted Fhrey work through the implications of his actions, or the clan heads bicker over which of them should be in charge, the sense is of complex, flawed people in a demanding world. This is certainly true of the major actors, whose lives carry a convincing depth and a true complexity of sorrows and joys. Feeling their trials and tribulations as reality, no matter which ‘side’ of the narrative they were on, is indicative of the skilful characterisation and emotional weight that has been used here.

The plot – well, I won’t spoil it. I will say that there are several wonderful kinetic duels, the narrative evoking heart-in-mouth tension. There’s a swathe of epic magic as well, lightning from the sky being the very least of it. Politics is at play, if you like that sort of thin g- both humanity and the Fhrey attempting to organise themselves in a tumultuous time. There’s betrayal and love, and some electric dialogue which alternately tore a hole of sorrows into my gut, and left me shaking with laughter. There’s battles, and costs, triumphs and consequences. In summary, it’s a fast-paced, compelling read. So pick it up, if you enjoyed Age of Myth, and give it a try – you won’t regret it. 

Tuesday, May 9, 2017

Wrath - John Gwynne

So, lets talk about Wrath. Wrath is the last in a series of doorstop fantasy novels by John Gwynne. I’m a bit late to the party on this series, having picked the first one up relatively recently – but it’s impressed me with a combination of subtle politics, genuine and complex personal dynamics, and, well, rather a lot of blood.

Each of the books has compounded on these themes, giving us a complex world, one where the alliances always felt fragile, and where hidden agendas always set the board for later betrayal. The nations of men have had a long history of greed, cruelty and turning on each other. Thematically, there’s always been an issue of individual good versus the larger, “greater good” as well. I think broadly the narrative backs the idea that the larger good can be compromised too easily, in that the desire to achieve it leads to self-justifying evil. That said, it’s also been a theme of the series – which continues in Wrath – that nobody thinks that they are the villain of the piece. If there is an army of darkness, and an army of light, then it’s still possible for each of the participants to argue that they are the latter. There’s a certain moral ambiguity, a sense of grey areas floating around the characters, even now.

That said, as the series moves toward a conclusion, there’s a sense of imminent closure. Some of my favourite characters finally met up, and I can’t say the meetings all went the way I’d thought they would. In some cases, there was well, rather a lot of blood. Wrath certainly doesn’t pull any punches – there’s more than one unexpected or well deserved demise, and I have to admit, some of them came with an emotional weight that hit like a blacksmiths hammer. Wrath is a book unflinching in its endings, and it shows, in the terse descriptive prose, in the decisions characters make, not expecting to survive, and in the brutal, final-feeling battles.

Speaking of the battles – the series has always waded in gore, though served appropriately. That’s still the case here. The combat is grim, daunting, and explicit – and that combination is what makes it feel real. You can feel the crunch of a war hammer against armour, the thundering synchronised march of a shield wall, the screams of the dying, and the silence of the dead. There’s a raw energy to the fighting as well, our viewpoints surging around the contesting armies, the individual combats given detail and room to grow – tension in duels so thick that the swords seem to cut through it.
The fighting is tied up with the character development; our protagonists seem to be settling into themselves, becoming, if not any more or less sure of their agendas, at least accepting of their positions. We’ve watched them grow and change, scarred by events and broken by the deaths of family and friends – and now they’re familiar, but different, even as they square off to end each other’s lives.


In the end, Wrath promises a great deal, and it delivers. The writing is smooth and draws out tension, leaving you turning page after page to see what happens next. The characters are those we’ve invested so much time in over the course of the series, and seeing their endings – or new beginnings – is heart-wrenching and bloody marvellous at once. The overarching plot, the epic war, the end of all things – well, Wrath wraps all this up with a bang. I’d say if you’re looking for a new series to try, one which approaches traditional fantasy tropes, and polishes them until they shine, then going back and starting with Malice is probably a good choice. If you’ve been on this ride for a while, and are wondering if it’s worth picking the book up to see how it comes out – then I can say yes, absolutely, this one’s worth the time. 

Thursday, May 4, 2017

Raven Stratagem - Yoon Ha Lee

Raven Stratagem is the second in Yoon Ha Lee’s “The Machineries of Empire” series. The first, Ninefox Gambit, was a really well done character piece, with some beautifully tense moments in an inventively imagined universe – so I was quite excited to get my hands on the sequel.

The universe will be very familiar to readers of the first book in the sequence. An interstellar polity rules what appears to be a fairly large segment of humanity. Government is shared across seven factions, including the militarised Kel and the terminally sneaky Shuos. Each of the groups fulfils a role within their society, having been engineered, to one extent or another, to fill their niche. The Shuos, for example, have a tendency to think several moves ahead, and indeed to play several games at once – whilst also having a tendency to promotion-by-assasination. The Kel, by contrast, are utterly loyal to their commanding officer, whoever that might be – and governed by a hive-mind of senior generals. This is a government which systematically oppresses its people; in fact, the existence of the polity depends upon it. This is a universe which holds exotic technologies, which seemingly defy the laws of physics – ghost terrain, cast around astral fortresses, or faster-than-light drives. Quite what some of these esoteric technologies do is difficult to say – indeed may be impossibe to describe within our vernacular. But this is a calendrical government – the technologies work because the populace keeps to a particular calendar, and there are regular rituals and observances embedded in that calendar to make sure the exotic tech keeps working. Unfortunately, these tend to involve the torture, murder or outright genocide of citizens within the polity. This is an empire which thrives on misery – and would be unable to exist without it.  

This polity struggles, not only internally, but with external foes as well. There’s other coalitions out there which make one with institutionalised calendrical torture look positively benign. If we don’t empathise with the society that Lee shows us, we can certainly see the pressures that shape it, in the unknown and unknowable craft which can sweep in from borders and devour worlds. This is a society on a war footing, and on a knife edge.

Into this whirling maelstrom steps Shuos Jedao. He featured heavily in the first book, and is back again as one of the protagonists for the sequel. Jedao is saturnine, charming, and obviously ferociously intelligent. He is also rather dead. Fortunately, as a result of events in the last book, he has a body to roam around in – or perhaps less fortunately, depending on how you look at it. The Shuos are typically several moves ahead of everyone else, with their penchant for intrigue and politicking. Jedao is talented, even for a Shuos, and has something of a military mind as well. Jedao scintillates on the page, and even if you don’t know what he’s doing, or exactly why, the force of personality is likely to keep you turning pages. Jedao is something of an inscrutable snake for those around him – talented, amiable, perhaps the best hope for defeating an incursion from another government – but also dangerous, irreverent, and known for a psychotic break which ended with everyone around him dead. Where all of these parts meet is a complex character, occluded from both the reader and the external audience. Perhaps even Jedao doesn’t know who he is. But the hints we get, the visible edges in the narrative, make for a fascinating read.

Jedao is the centrepiece of the narrative, I think – but ably backed by others. There’s Genera; Khiruev, for example. A Kel, she is fiercely loyal to her commanding officer – indeed, is genetically incapable of being otherwise. She’s also clearly an intelligent woman, able to read signs and portents, to decide what she wants from the situations in which she finds herself – and decide fi she’s willing to pay the price. Khiruev, with her own fierce sense of ethics and fiery cleverness, is an excellent foil to Jedao; more brusque, but feeling at least as real.

There’s others here as well – the leaders of the Empire make an appearance, as do some entities from outside of the Empire. There’s enforcers of doctrine, and Kel deciding where to strike, and where to abandon. There’s a sense here of an Empire, of a thriving, bustling society, even where I is caught up in atrocities. The people within it are similar – constrained by their systems, but recognisable as human, even beneath their layers of cultural and social change. This is an imaginative piece, and one where every facet has been polished beautifully to keep the reader engaged.

The plot – well, no spoilers, as ever. But lets say that whatever Jedao is planning it’s likely to be big. There’s grand space battles here, wrapped in the obfuscated language of the calendar, the exotic weaponry made even more so with its less than explicit uses. But the struggle is no less affecting for that. There’s political manoeuvring at the heart of the Empire, and some genuinely crackling dialogue. There’s personal instants, characters bearing their souls in genuinely moving moments. With the Empire on a knife edge, Jedao is willing to give it a shove, one way or the other – and it makes for an absolutely cracking read.

If you’ve not read the first in the series, I’d suggest going back and starting there. If you’ve been waiting on this sequel though – it’s definitely one to pick up.


Thursday, April 27, 2017

Back next week!

Hello all
Just a note to say that due to a long weekend, we'll be back on Thursday next week.
Thanks for reading!

Monday, April 24, 2017

The Seven - Peter Newman

The Seven is the third in Peter Newman’s “Vagrant” series. I thought the first, “The Vagrant” was a great story, told in an interesting way, and the second was a great piece of fantasy in its own right. That meant that The Seven had some pretty big narrative boots to fill, as it moved the series toward its conclusion.

Set years after the end of the previous book, the world of The Seven is equal parts familiar and strange. In the north, the sclerotic empire of the Winged Eye is now resting under the somewhat benevolent hand of Vesper. An idealist, with a penchant for trusting people and making unlikely friends, Vesper is determined to shake things up in the Empire of the Eye. As the Empire is learning to live with the disintegration of its greatest threat, the Breach which spewed otherworldly influences into the more familiar realm, it’s in something of a state of flux. Vesper closed the breach. Vesper has the sword of one of the Seven, the divine leaders of the Empire, most of whom haven’t been seen for years. Newman shows us an Empire terrified of change, one which has been in stasis alongside its leaders, perhaps for too long – and now has no idea how to cope with change. The rituals and habits that have pushed society through millennia are taking a long time to change. Still, Vesper is making a go of it, using her assumed authority. It’s interesting to see the institutions of the Empire slowly drifting apart at the seams, as it copes with no longer having an external threat to define itself against.

At the same time, there’s still the issue of the Infernals, those otherworldy essences which arrived in the world before the closure of the Breach. They, and the half-breeds, a fusion of humanity and Infernal essence, are having to redefine themselves as well. Without the Breach as a constant source of reinforcements, they’re having to consider a longer term perspective. The half –breeds have formed communities, and they’re learning to live in the twisted version of land that’s available in the south, over the sea from the Empire of the Eye. This is no longer a world of eternal war, of expansion, defeat and conquest – but a world that exists afterwards, where the survivors have to learn how to live with each other.  As one might expect after years of conflict, this is…rather difficult. As with the Eye, the fragmented domains of the Infernals are under pressure to change, to adapt to their new situation. As with the Empire, there’s always the danger that they’ll self-immolate whilst doing so.

All parts of this world are beautifully detailed and inventively realised – the straight-backed legions of the eye, led by knights with singing swords are a stark contrast to the Infernals that can inhabit multiple bodies, or graft extra limbs to themselves, or the half-breeds whose brush with Infernals has left them fearsome giants. You can believe in the Eye, its searching, wavering gaze, and in the demons, with their energy and desire to exist, and the half-breeds and their plans to build better lives. They’re all internally consistent, cohesive, and rich with meaning.

As the world teeters on the brink between the hope of change and the old certainty of war, none of them are quite prepared for the Seven.

The characters – well, there’s a great many old favourites here, but the stars of the show are, I think, Vesper and the Vagrant, along with Vesper’s daughter, Reela.  Vesper is a little taller now than she was in The Malice, a leader struggling to work out how to draw people together, to get them to build something new, and put down old grudges. She’s given her own weaknesses – a need, in particular, to do everything she can, a refusal to make time for her own emotional connections in the sea of larger things. As ever, the consequences of these flaws are explored alongside the benefits that they bring; even as Vesper is building a newer, happier world, her own relationships have a sense of fragility about them, the energy that would sustain them pushed out into the world. Watching Vesper, whom we last saw as a child, struggling to speak with her own young daughter, is heartbreaking. She’s away for too long, and disconnected from her own life to the extent that her daughter is, if not afraid of her, then hurt by her, suffering the consequences of her absence.

Into that void steps The Vagrant, a father to Vesper and a figure to emulate for Reela (which causes some complex conflicts within the heart of her own father). The Vagrant is older than we may remember, but willing to put on armour and help his daughter change the world. Still silent, and like Vesper, still stubbornly unwilling to accept injustice, he moves through the narrative like a tide of obsidian – obdurate and unstoppable, with a sharp edge. Father and daughter together are a delight – their emotional connection obvious and their conflicts believable and human.  

Reela is the third of this tripod, and clearly idolises The Vagrant. Her feelings for Vesper are more complex; you can sense the anger at abandonment there in the prose, along with the yearning for acceptance and love that sits alongside it. This is a story about family, amongst other things, and this one – The Vagrant, Vesper and Reela – is under strain. That said, it’s also still clearly a family – occasionally fraught and argumentative, but tied together by bonds of affection nonetheless.
Other returning favourites include Samael – a man who became part of an Infernal knight, now struggling to determine who exactly he is, and what he’d like to be. Samael’s discussions with Vesper verge on the philosophical, and his stoic search for a sense of self is deeply compelling reading. In this search he’s matched by the mysterious First, an Infernal that holds its essence across multiple bodies, a distributed consciousness, which struggles to understand humanity and the world in which it exists. Their separate journeys toward understanding are fascinating.

Perhaps the characters who loom largest are the titular Seven, and their creator. We get some understanding of the drivers behind the creation of the Seven within flashbacks, watching a woman determined to save the world ruthlessly take the steps she feels are required to do so. The Seven are visible in both timelines – as the end product of the past, the long term wardens of the Empire of the Eye. In the present, they’re somewhat more complex. If the world is not to their liking, they have the capacity to unmake it, and hold in their hands an Empire which regards them as divinities. They’re mythical figures, as the book begins. Each becomes distinguishable from the others though, the stories of their pasts being revealed, and the decisions they make in the face of the present setting them apart from each other. The Seven are the ultimate authority for the older vision of the world, stepping into the new society which Vesper is struggling to construct. Seeing them as individuals, they seem complicated, driven, forbidding - and at least as strange as the Infernals they were meant to oppose. 

The main strand of the narrative is centred around Vesper’s efforts to create a new world in the aftermath of the old – but there’s a lot going on there. There’s some politics, as disparate factions are dragged together. There’s the social changes going on in the Empire and in the south. There’s some absolutely storming battle scenes, kinetically, gracefully, bloodily and uncompromisingly written. There’s scenes of love and affection to warm the heart, and some betrayals which threaten to break it.  This is a story of a world being brought together, and of different visions for the way that world will rebuild. It’s complicated, captivating stuff – but Newman’s liquid prose makes it a great read.

Also, and I feel I have to mention this – there’s a goat. Several goats, in fact.

If you’re new to Newman’s world, I’d suggest picking up The Vagrant and working forward from there. If, on the other hand, you were left on tenterhooks after The Malice, if you wanted to know what happened next, if you’ve wondered about The Seven, and the fates of Vesper, the Vagrant and their goats – then you owe it to yourself to pick up this absolutely excellent conclusion to the series.