21 April 2023
Orbit, 13 April
Available as: HB, 438pp, e, audio
Source: Advance copy
I'm grateful to Orbit for an advance copy of Some Desperate Glory to consider for review.
"While Earth's children live, the enemy shall fear us".
This is a wonderful book.
Following Kyr, a young woman growing up in a remote space colony, Gaea, which has a very militaristic culture, we learn about a wider universe. About Earth, destroyed by alien attackers. About the humans - the last remnant living on that rock, and the aliens - all conquering, under the aegis of "the Wisdom", a mysterious force or intelligence that guides entire peoples, entire planets.
Kyr is one of the best warriors of her generation, genetically enhanced for warfare, trained remorselessly to avenge Earth, and now hoping for an assignment to one of the military wings of her people. Imagine her horror when instead she's assigned to the Nursery - facing a future bearing a child every two years to replenish Gaea's population. A future where she's offered as a privilege to the fighting men. Appalled at the prospect, Kyr takes her fate into her own hands and sets out on a self-defined mission to wage terror against those she perceives as traitors and collaborators. Because, no, the inhabitants of Gaea aren't actually the only humans left...
Emily Tesh produces a miracle of characterisation with Kyr. She is, frankly, a very unlikable charcetsr - the perfect little soldier, fanatical and devoted to the cause. She's disliked by her messmates, moody, committed, totally un self-aware. Yet you'd have to have a heart of stone not to sympathise with her, faced with a duty - the one duty - she simply can't bear. It seems she's been totally betrayed by the culture she hero-worships, and while the reader will soon spot just how rotten a culture that is, Kyr is conditioned, no radicalised, to serve it so the only way she can rationalise her rebellion is to commit to a higher cause, almost greedily seeking death for glory.
That's the jumping off point for a remarkable journey of self-discovery, change and growth, in which Kyr discovers far more about the truth behind Gaea, about the paradox of the Wisdom, and about the variety of people who occupy the universe. It's an affirming journey in which we can recognise and celebrate Kyr's true qualities (beyond simply the supersoldier thing). She will need those qualities as all she's ever known is thrown into the melting pot and strange new worlds emerge.
This is far from a simplistic tale of good vs bad (whether gentle, innocent aliens faced by human colonisers, or hapless humans menaced by monsters from space). It raises questions (on multiple levels) about the role of the individual vs the collective, about personal freedom, about just what constitutes personhood - and about giving up on long nurtured revenge. At heart, perhaps, it is about duty and about that moment when one is forced to think for onself and really, really consider what duty means.
All that, and this is a book of glorious prose with a driving, urgent pace in service of a rattling good story. Really a book you won't want to put down till you reach the last page.
For more information about Some Desperate Glory, see the publisher's website here.
19 April 2023
Simone Buchholtz (Trans Rachel Ward)
Orenda Books, date, 27 April 2023
Available as: PB, 243pp, audio, e
Source: Advance copy
I'm grateful to Orenda for sending me a copy of The Acapulco to consider for review, and to Anne Cater for inviting me to join the book's blogtour.
It's always good to catch up with Chastity Riley's life. We last saw the Hamburg based State prosecutor getting a measure of closure over her family history in a visit to Glasgow. In The Acapulco, though, we don't get the next story - we're back to the beginning and able to read, for the first time in English, the first book. So we perhaps see a slightly less moody Riley than we're used to and those around her aren't, as it were, quite in their familiar settings.
Hamburg is still, though, throwing grim mysteries Chastity's way. Young women - dancers from the Acapulco club - are being murdered and mutilated, and Riley finds that something about the case makes it difficult for her to get into the mind of the murderer, her usual approach in investigating crimes. That family history, which is hinted at here (though if you've been reading these books you'll know a bit more than is directly stated) may be messing with her. Or it may be something else...
The study of a Chastity coming apart at the seams, so to speak, is as brutal but also as touching as ever. Drinking too much, smoking too much, her personal and professional lives both muddled and decaying, it's impossible to say whether she is suffering because she is trying to box in and control desperate underlying pain and trauma, or because she's failing to do that, and it is overwhelming her.
Also as ever, salvation seems to come from that small circle of friends, some of whom seem to bring a modicum of normality and sanity (though others, not so much - I'm looking at you, Klatsche.)
These are books where the noir atmosphere almost seems to take tangible form, a neon-lit, smoky, netherworld that has substance and personality all of its own, breeding both monsters and moments of beauty. Reading them - The Acapulco, if anything, even more than the others - is like being bathed in silver nitrate then dyed monochrome and developing-lamp red and transported inside the silver screen to sit in a corner of that club, that bar, simultaneously in 2020s Hamburg and a 1940s Hollywood flick, close - indeed at times, almost too close - to the action.
The writing - magnificently translated by Rachel Ward - is punchy, allusive, knowing, done in broken sentences and rueful, suggestive lines. Fittingly for the book that kicked it all off, unlike in some of the others, the point of view is all Riley's (apart from some interspersed sections which I'm not commenting on for spoiler related reasons) giving this story a very narrated quality - you can almost imagine her voice as a commentary to the film, sorry, the book. That also means there is little sense of what is happening out of view, with the atrocities committed by the serial killer coming as increasingly jarring, unpredictable shocks.
It is a short book but powerful, punchy and very dark. I found it hard to put down, even sitting reading it in the cinema in the gloom before the films started.
A magnificent addition to this sequence.
For more information about The Acapulco, see the publisher's website here - and of course the other stops on the blogtour which you can see listed on the poster below.
18 April 2023
Juliet E. McKenna
Angry Robot, 11 April 2023
Available as: PB, 400pp, e
Source: Advance copy
I'm grateful to Angry Robot for sending me a copy of The Cleaving via NetGalley to consider for review.
Arthurian retellings broadly seem to adopt one of two approaches. The first is to ditch the fantastical elements and look for a foothold in history, however tenuous, typically casting Arthur as the military leader of the native Britons against the invading Saxons. This is the approach I remember from innumerable documentaries when I was growing up in the 70s and the 80s.
McKenna's reimagining follows other approach - taking the familiar medieval sources but adapting their framework. She makes a nod towards the historical approach by drawing a linguistic distinction between the Cornish language and the "English" spoken in Winchester. But when "Saxons" come raiding the "English" she doesn't worry too much about trying to explain the distinction. Similarly, this story accepts noblemen with elaborate plate armour, all called Sir Somebody, riding the countryside of Southern Britain and retiring periodically to the court at Camelot. They are often about business driven by magical interference, although (not least, I'd imagine, to keep the book to manageable proportions) many of the incidents are left out.
That all works very well with what we expect of an Arthurian tale ("Arthurian" isn't quite the right term here, but I'll come back to that) from Mallory himself to TH White. But don't be deceived by the surface impression, this retelling is actually very different.
To begin with, I felt that here there is a much clearer overall narrative, rather than a procession of wonders. And that isn't a narrative about Arthur, indeed in some ways he's almost incidental, or the Holy Grail. Yes, Arthur desires to be High King of Britain, and strives to achieve that, but behind him, there is a desperate - and actually more interesting - conflict over the role of magic. Nimue, one of the Hidden People, from whose viewpoint the story is told, sees magic as dangerous to mortals and seeks to limit its role (in line with the principles of the Hidden People). Merlin, and some others of the People, want to use it to establish Arthur's throne, allegedly so he can be a bulwark against magic running wild although sheer desire for power may also figure here.
The various eruptions of magic into the courtly business of Camelot then feature as overspills from this contest, with the balance of advantage swaying to and fro throughout the book, rather than a series of discrete, if dramatic, incidents. That gives the book a coherence, a drive, which keeps the reader turning the pages - and worrying about what will come next.
And there's a lot to worry about. The other difference here is the telling of the story from the point of view of Nimue, a character who does feature in the canonical stories, as the enchantress who seduces and imprisons Merlin. Here though we see Nimue's perspective throughout, from the early sections set at Tintagel Castle, dealing with Uther's rape of Ygraine, to her struggles with Merlin, to an endgame in which Nimue together with other powers is forced to take responsibility for the future of Britain rather than allowing warfare and anarchy to continue.
It's a very anti-heroic book - in the sense both that it explicitly disavows the simplistic "Arthur is the foretold King so anyone standing against him is evil" but also in the way that it acknowledges, indeed celebrates, the complexity of life: all those feats of arms, for example, don't just happen, the provisioning and cooking must be organised. Camelot - and the other fortresses - need to be managed and operated, a task falling on the women here, not helped by the tendency of Arthur and his ilk to announce tournaments or depart on quixotic quests at the drop of a gauntlet. Or by their proclivity for decreeing the marrying-off of the chatelaine on a whim. Napoleon Bonaparte may have understood that an army marches on its stomach, but is twelve hundred years earlier and the men haven't yet learned that lesson.
Possibly I was a bit quick earlier to place this book in the "non historical" group of retellings. Amidst all the controversy about British history in the late-antique period and about "Saxon" invasions and the evolution of "England" one point that is easily missed is the daily routine that must have continued - growing food, mending fences, preparing food, spinning and weaving, caring for children and the old - things without which the land would have soon been a desert. That activity finds its place in The Cleaving where its importance is fully acknowledged, making this book - for all its magic and wonders and mounted knights - historical at a much more fundamental level. Instead of working to find a slot for an Arthur in British history, McKenna is I think restoring a place for women and women's activity. This book is perhaps not Arthurian so much as Nimuean - celebrating the making of an ointment, the planning of a feast or care for an orphaned child, all things that belong in history as much as swordplay and marching.
So I think this is something rather different - as well, of course, as being a thoroughly good read, the pared-back story keeping up a good pace and relying on excellent characterisation and a real sense of moral ambiguity (the mess of prophecy and manipulation that Merlin has created being deeply inimical to any clear sense of right and wrong). Rather than the triumph of good, in The Cleaving the reader is just left hoping that the women we meet will avoid their possible awful fates, come through and win some peace for themselves and their country.
All in all, a masterpiece.
For more information about The Cleaving, see the publisher's website here.
13 April 2023
Orbit, 30 March 2023
Available as: HB, 512pp, e, audio
Source: Advance copy
I'm grateful to Orbit for sending me a copy of Infinity Gate to consider for review, and to Tracy for inviting me to join the book's blogtour.
It feels a long time since the last new book by MR Carey, but Infinity Gate was certainly worth waiting for. Set across multiple Earths, and mainly in various instances of Lagos, the book delves into the many-worlds interpretation of quantum mechanics - that every time something can go two ways, it goes both, splitting the universe into a structure with countless branches. The twist here is that on some of those worlds at least, that reality is understood, and travel between universes - or at least Earths - is regular.
In contrast, we're introduced to Hadiz Tambuwal, a scientist on our Earth (or at least one very like our own) where climate change, pollution, and warfare are close to destroying civilisation. Working at a research institue which has brought together the best minds on the planet to find a solution, she stumbles on something that may well help - but is it too late?
I loved this book's bold, very classically SF approach to the possibility of other Earths, other worlds, first hitting us with a Big Idea then dismantling it by showing the consequences. The stars themselves may be massively out of rich - but given the prospect of boundless resources less than an atom's breadth away, surely all our problem are solved? If the problem is shortage of stuff, rather than its distribution and management, everything will be alright, won't it?
No it won't, is the answer that Infinity Gate provides. Behind the veil of the many worlds, we see a society plagued by the same problems as our own - in particular, a colonialist, grasping perspective that sees anything strange as Other and to be overcome. The Pandominion, a network of parallel Earths that have discovered one another and more or less federated, miscalculates spectacularly when it meets a society that is very Other indeed. That is a special irony when its "humanity" is composed of multiple species, from multiple worlds, many of them with a different evolutionary history than H. Sapiens. The Pando thinks of itself as the ideal, most evolved society there can be but it still relies on a massive armed force to secure its ends, it fights endless wars, and oh, when you have a big hammer, what does every problem look like?
We are led from Hadiz's very particular, very personal difficulties to a wider perspective. She is first presented as a sort of Robinson Crusoe figure, left marooned on a dying world, albeit provided with an abundance of resources (abundance and scarcity are central concepts in this book) and with an inkling of how to build a life-raft. As a somewhat introverted scientist who's already more or less cut herself off from friends and family, she doesn't have too much problem with being solitary, but then, as one can see coming, she will also have to cope with the multiverse being less solitary than she expects.
How she copes with that is one strand in this book but Carey follows other characters too - there's also Essien, a rogue (so-called here) who grew up in the harsh Lagos slums and bears their scars, and Topaz, a schoolgirl from a planet populated by rabbit descendents. Much of this story shows how the chain of events that Hadiz sets going influences all three. It's a story of intelligence and adaptability set against crushing forces, of cross and double-cross, of desperate combat and last-moment escapes. On the way we see the brutality of the military, grinding poverty, and bureaucratic cruelty as well as courage and solidarity.
I particularly enjoyed how the story juxtaposes "big" themes - politics and the futures of worlds - and petty, self-serving ones. Also, human frailty and stupidity.
It is a gripping and imaginatively bold novel, a magnificent start to a series and I hope I can read the next part soon!
For more information about Infinity Gate, see the publisher's website here - and of course the other stops on the blogtour which you can see listed on the poster below.
11 April 2023
Kjell Ola Dahl (trans Don Bartlett)
Orenda Books, 27 April 2023
Available as: PB, 295pp, e, audio
Source: Advance copy
I'm grateful to Anne Cater at Random Things Tours for sending me a copy of The Lazarus Solution to consider for review, and for inviting me to join the book's blogtour.
In The Lazarus Solution, Kjell Ola Dahl gives us a satisfyingly murky, noir-infused thriller set in Stockholm in 1943. The characters are exiles from the Nazi occupation of Norway, spies of various nations, patriots, collaborators. (There's even a femme fatale). Some of the people we meet are several of these things at once.
Our hero, Jomar Kraby, seems an unlikely participant in all this. A writer (whose works have been censored by the Swedish government, anxious to place the Germans and not be drawn into the war) he's asked by the Norwegian government-in-exile to investigate the killing of one of its couriers on occupied soil. Kraby, whose daily business seems to be drinking and failing to write, proves an unexpectedly skilful, resourceful and determined investigator, so much so that one feels there is more to him than we are being told.
Indeed that's one of the pleasures of this book - while comparatively short, it gives the impression of a peek into a larger world, whether through the presence of the Soviet embassy (which is clearly up to something) under its grizzled spymistress, Kraby's messy unfinished business with his ex back in Norway or the administrative rivalries between various branches of the Norwegian legation. Romantic, professional and ideological motives become confounded - and that's even before we learn more about the dead man, Daniel Berkåk, and his connections to refugee Kai Fredly and his Nazi-supporting brother.
Kai's history and that of his brother provide the opportunity for a bit of necessary exposition, detailing both Marxist and Nazi ideologies and showing the events that might have shaped young men and women in Norway before the invasion. Again, it's complex, and Kjell Ola Dahl illustrates how divided loyalties can become - this isn't a book that deals in moral absolutes at all. For a crime novel, that is of course wonderful as it makes absolutely everybody suspect, but it also drives a story in which what matters is less who was where at a given time, or what the condition of a body tells us about a death, but rather, how each character stands in relation to all of the others.
As such, a writer like Kraby, used to dealing in motivations and weighing characters, is perhaps just the right figure to be investigating what happened. Less a sleuth, perhaps, than the author of a story, he moves through the shadows of wartime Stockholm - as well as Norway itself - to dark corners where all manner of mischief is going on with surprising bedfellows (in both senses of the word) up to a world of chicanery.
I loved Kraby as a central figure, recognisably walking the mean streets yet keeping his humanity, a witness to what happens in the dark without consenting to it. A witness, one feels, who will be ready to give evidence when the war ends and the reckoning - which many here, on all sides, hope for or fear - finally comes.
Simply a brilliant, compelling novel of humanity and collusion, ably translated by Don Bartlett into flowing English.
I would definitely recommend this one!
For more information about The Lazarus Solution, see the publisher's website here - and of course the other stops on the blogtour which you can see listed on the poster below.
6 April 2023
Recorded Books, 13 September 2022
Available as: HB, 477pp, audio, 17 hours 46min, e
Source: Audio subscription
Nona the Ninth is the third part of the Locked Tomb sequence, after Gideon the Ninth and Harrow the Ninth.
It is very hard to describe the relationship between this book and the previous because, first, that requires both of the other books to be thoroughly spoiled and secondly, the relationship is pretty obscure. (If you like things neat, cut, and dried, you'll find the progression infuriating).
On the other hand, as a self-contained story, it's s bit easier to describe what is going on, and I think Nona can be read perfectly well at that level (though you will then miss some allusions to the others).
Nona is a young woman living on a planet or colony world that is either itself in rebellion against the Galactic Empire or part of a wider uprising (details are not exactly clear). The rebellion is driven by a faction called the Sons of Eden who are themselves riven into cliques will to fight each other. The Sons of Eden object to the Emperor's necromantic power (necromancy is the fundamental fact of all the books). Nona is cared for by three adults called Camilla Heat, Palamedes and Pyrrha who are either sheltering from the conflict among other refugees, or outright lying low. The four, and Nona in particular, are of interest to the Sons of Eden (which features members with names like We Suffer and We Suffer, and Crown Him With Many Crowns). Nona is either attending or working at a school for refugees kids, at which she becomes entwined with Hot Sauce and her gang.
There is a lot more going on here of course. Key issues in the book include Nona's identity - both the nature of the strong, kind and resourceful girl we see stepping off the page here, and who she might really be (whatever that means - if you've read the other books you may have a hint of the issues but no spoilers!)
Camilla and Palamedes do seem to be the same characters as their namesakes in early books, although there is a wrinkle on that which is never directly stated but which you'll work out.
I should add that it's actually a lot easier to follow all this if you read the audio. As ever, Moira Quirk performs miracles in bringing the various characters to vivid life and she gives them distinct voices which makes it much more straightforward to follow what is going on when some of the more, er, obscure things happen. If you can I'd strongly recommend reading the book that way.
In terms of plot development within the Locked Tombiverse, at one level there are few surprises here - the rebellion, and the Empire's difficulties, were already established - but at another, there is a lot of detail about the deep origins of the Emperor, making clear that, yes, this is our universe, and sort-of showing what the original sin was that led to the Locked Tomb.
On the other hand, Nona the Ninth is an absolutely brilliant episode in the wider story, Nona herself being a gloriously character who is absolutely having a great time in her life, despite the variety of weird and creepy things going on around her. Muir allows her a much more uncomplicated network of relationships and friendships that anyone in the earlier books did (even if we suspect there are some ulterior motives going on) and that gives the book a much lighter atmosphere than its predecessors. Away from the gothicism of the Nine Houses, it seems that humans can still breathe a bit and that is good to see.
All in all, a delightful story which I'd highly recommend. It seems this trilogy has now stretched to four books and I won't argue with that, not one bit, if Muir keeps delivering such sharp, engaging episodes.
4 April 2023
Orbit, 9 March 2023
Available as: PB, 470pp, audio, e
Source: Advance copy
I'm grateful to Orbit for an advance copy of The Faithless to consider for review.
The Faithless is CL Clark's followup to The Unbroken, returning to the colonial setting of the Balladairean Empire and its recently self-liberated colony Qazāl. In this one, the focus is much more on Balladaire itself. Touraine, our massively moody and knife-y heroine, ex soldier in the colonial battalions of Balladaire, lately a revolutionary and member of the ruling council of Qazāl, travels to Balladaire to pursue independence negotiations with Crown Princess Luca. The problem is that Luca's being denied the throne by her uncle Nicolas whose attitude to the former colony is distinctly unenlightened - he sees it as a land of savages who should be grateful for the "benefits" the Empire brought them. Luca herself is under suspicion because of her dalliance with Touraine - a dalliance which didn't prevent her seeing the rebel leader condemned to death. (It's complicated). While there is a subplot taking place back home in Qazāl, it gets little space in the book and the divisions between the various figures on the Council - including Touraine's mother - left smouldering. Rather, The Faithless focuses on Luca and Touraine.
In discussing this book, it is worth starting with the title, I think. Often the title of a book and its content have a straightforward connection. In other cases the relationship between the two is hard to work out. Either way, the title adds little insight to the book. But then, as with The Faithless, there are books where the title really illuminates the story. Here, it is meaningful on so many levels. First, Balladaire is a polity that has outlawed religion. Like a post 1789 French Republic dialled up to 11, religion is seen as a barbaric institution - we learn a little here about why - and one of the chief policies of the Empire is to destroy it in every colony that it takes. We saw the effects of this on Qazāl in The Unbroken. In The Faithless the impact on Balladaire is explored - including the idea that having cut itself off from its own magical roots the Empire is now greedy for those of its conquests, a sort of orientalism made more keen by the presence of actual supernatural abilities such as healing, crop protection or the ability to communicate with animals. The faithless, then are those who lack an essential grounding, who have traded away their true nature.
Of course another meaning of "faithless" is a relationship between friends, lovers, or would-be lovers where trust is lacking. The complicated relationship between Luca and Touraine (and, boy, does it get complicated) is an excellent example, the evolution of their love, or lust, or whatever it is, stepping out a dance at times delicate and nuanced, at times loud and menacing. It's interwoven with the relationship between their nations, a relationship that's very unequal and which has a violent history and a gloomy future. It's impossible to separate the desires and fantasies of the two women from the politics here, leading to violent swings in their perception of one another as duty, intention and desire continually trip each other up and these two mercurial, gifted individuals lose themselves in attempts to resolve their multiple dilemmas. The resulting narrative, driven both by passion and by politics, is deeply thrilling even as one feels their frustration.
But we still haven't exhausted the meanings of "faithless" that are relevant here. There's also faith in oneself to be considered, something that both Luca and Touraine have cause to doubt given their histories. There's faith in institutions - nations, rulers and religion (or lack of it) as constituent parts of a society, distinct from an aspect of belief. All of these have their place in The Faithless, drenched as it is in the cruelties and contradictions of a post-colonial (well, partly post-colonial) situation.
I feel I am at risk of treating this book as primarily a philosophical object. Really, nothing could be further from the truth. This is a book of passion and action, one with a rattling good plot which takes forward the desperate situation that held at the end of The Unbroken, blending politics, magic and warfare to produce something utterly compelling.
For more information about The Faithless, see the publisher's website here.