Beneath the Twisted Trees is the fourth in Bradley P. Beaulieu’s The Song of the Shattered Sands series. It’s filled with the intricate world-building, the emotional depth, the detailed characterisation we’ve come to expect; all of that wrapped up in a plot which has a constant roiling boil of tension, punctuated by explosive revelation, the narrative ground shifting underneath the reader’s feet. It is, in short, rather good. If you’re here after the first three books, and want to know if you should carry on – then here’s the unequivocal yes. There’s a lot going on here (it’s a rather thick book), but a strong, rewarding story is being told as a result.
So here we are, anyway with a city surrounded by a desert. The city is its own welter of political concerns, but the desert is no longer quiescent. And of course, there are third party actors. Those looking in from outside, seeing something they can exploit, a rival they can bring down, a threat that can be neutralised.
So lets talk about the desert. It’s at the hart of the text, an environment which surrounds and swallows characters whole. This is a space filled with baking sands, and with the occasional life-giving oasis. Fleets sail across it, with tough wheels to drive the sane and trim sails to take advantage of the win. Sailing the dunes is not for the faint hearted, but here we have the potential, crackling like lightning between the grains of sand. The silence, the life, the soaring birds of the desert are all there, an ecosystem which exists as a force much like the ocean, washing people upon it. As they struggle between themselves, the sands are always there, waiting to seize upon anything abandoned.
In the centre of this unrelenting seeming-emptiness sits Sharakai. Less a city on a hill than a city between the dunes. It has high walls, and pits for fighters, and markets, and kings, so many kings, and a resistance willing to fight and die for change. The city is ruled by the king,s, a rapidly diminishing number of immortal oligarchs. Their slow removal due to infighting and enem action, and their struggles with their children, desperate to rise to the power they see as their birthright, are brutal, vicious, and entirely believable. When rulers carry divinity and the gift of immortality, still one may rise up to claim what one things they are due. The city is a heartbeat, fast and brutal and bloody, unforgiving and certain. Until it skips a beat. Then, things may struggle out of control.
In this liminal space, between the Kigns and the desert, we find Ceda, once again. The kings are monsters, that’s undeniable. They use their immortality to suppress history, to hide atrocities behind what may be nominally considered lesser atrocities. But they keep the city safe, swathed in sorcery and ruthlessness. Though they do not accept internal opposition, still less are they willing to accept external power. But that’s changing here, in these pages. As Kings are eliminated, the populace fees their hand less on their shoulders. But external forces are poised to fill the vacuum, fleets from across the sea and beyond. The text does a good job of showing us Malasani, Qaimiri, as distinct cultures, with their own goals and loyalties, and with rulers whose decisions will make or break them. We spend more of our time amongst these powers in this book than we had previously, and by the end, they each feel like a living, complex culture with its own needs and mores.
As ever, Sharakai is alive, and the desert, perhaps more than previously, is alive; now those who step upon the sands in trepidation take their turn.
This hols true of the characters as well. Ceda remains the star, here. Her feral energy pours off the page, even when she’s lost in thought. She has to take a lot of decisions very quickly, and though some of them are difficult, still the text crackles with the choices she makes. Ceda, not to put a point on it, kicks arse She’s not afraid to get into a fight – indeed, quite the reverse. At the same time, she’s embracing the mysticism of her life, of the powers she’s having to embrace on her own course for revenge and for truth. And even more, she’s coming to terms with being a leader, not just a fighter. With having to make the hard choices which get people killed. While the kings will stand and make the argument that each sacrifice is necessary, Ceda’s evolution is in parallel. She’s not willing to sacrifice friends on the altar of power – or at least, not yet. The truth will out.
And in her search she’s supported by a fantastic interweaving of parallel tales. There are the blood mages on the run, desperate to avoid notice, but trying to break free nonetheless. And the aide to the Qaimiri queen, a man desperate to rescue his monarch from herself, and willing to take horrendous risks with body and soul to do so. And the pair of a man and a desert djinn, a warped love story whose truth has yet to be entirely realised, but lies mapped in desolation. And the fellow seeking to turn back the tide of Malasani, an old friend of Ceda’s whose compassion may be his greatest weakness.
They all live and breathe between the leaves of the book, and they each drive the plot in their own way. Fundamentally though, the people feel like people. The entities – desert ghosts, deities, immortal kings – are strange and real and terrible, but still you can eel something of their needs. Ceda is the heart, but every one else is a key to the text as well.
I won’t go too far with the plot, but if you’ve come this far, through the rich, detailed world and the convincing, heartfelt characters, you won’t be surprised by the emotional investment. The story pulls no punches here, building up and creatively detonating tension, and making you care about each of the maladjusted characters. There’s parts that are a slow boil conspiracy, parts that are a fast-paced adventure, and segments which are a sweeping, epic scene of combat. Each has emotional integrity, and will grab you until its work is done.
Its an absolute stormer of a text, given a pitch perfect fusion of characterisation, universe and plot; as such I would say that you should pick it up.
The Howling Dark is the second in Christopher Ruocchio’s “Sun Eater” series. The first was a thoroughly enjoyable blend of space-opera and military SF, with some thoughtful characterisation and exploration of philosophical themes. It gave us a fast-paced sci-fi adventure, the journey of a boy into a man, and a backdrop of imperialism and repression cloaked in the mantle of necessity. It gave us Hadrian, whose efforts to be a better person had a tendency to end badly for him – even as those hardships shaped him into a thoughtful man and a valiant commander, while leaving him an idealist, a believer still in himself and humanity. It was a lot of fun, too!
The Howling Dark takes the series, and its hero, to new places; it retains the narrative details and complexity that help build a compelling story, and builds on Hadrian’s experience to paint a portrait of a protagonist on the cusp of revelation – though what form that will take is open to question. This is a text that holds a darker mood than its predecessor; the prose wrapped up in a gloriously Gothic panoply.
The first book showed us a central human empire, a mixture of high-technology and semi-feudal social structures, assured of its own greatness and role at the centre of things. While that came with a certain arrogance, and while we could see the fissures running through that social contract, still, this was the centre of the light in terms of galactic civilisation. Sometimes brutal, yes, but a space where people lived and worked and suffered and were content.
Now, however, we move to the liminal spaces. Hadrian moves across the page, hunting a way to communicate, to negotiate with the aliens that are slowly embroiling humanity in a war. That means working at the boundaries. The places where the writ of the greater part of humanity runs thin. These are strange places, dark places. Following our hero and his entourage into some very deep holes is problematic. Stealing through ships larger than cathedrals, unearthing the wonders and horrors therein, seeking an understanding cloaked beneath centuries of hidden realities and outright untruths.
The world is larger than Hadrian knew, and here we get to see a piece of it outside of the constraints of the Empire from the previous text. And yes, there are bio-technical wonders and horrors. And yes, there are secrets unearthed and hidden from view. But it’s cloaked in a baroque strangeness which can make the skin crawl. In the crafted bio-oddities whose mental adjustments are a skin-crawling horror. In the laser-sharp attitudes of those shaping lives for their own purposes. In the stiletto-thin puncture as those in roles of ancient power change the direction of the universe without a thought.
These are strange spaces, ones which challenge the perception and mentality of the reader. The crafted horrors which inhabit them also inhabit their own conceptual space. How far is humanity stretched once the freedom to choose, outside the realm of biochemical triggers, is removed? The text explores these questions alongside the idea of transhumanism. Hadrian, one of the Imperial aristocracy, is the recipient of gene coding which will let him age slowly, in good health, with speed and stamina to match. But other changes, forbidden by Imperial society, occur on the fringes. From weight-lifting to free will, everything is for sale on the fringes. The atmosphere of creeping dread is one that is masterfully spun, and difficult to dismiss. Each page carries the quiet signs of horror, ciphered in more mundane matters. It’s still a sprawling, thriving, complicated universe – but perhaps a less simple one. Those outside the borders of the Imperium are now people, not abstracts. Though their decisions may baffle us as much as they do Hadrian, this is a delightfully weird dip into a new, unusual culture.
Hadrian, speaking of which, is changing again. This is a story which isn’t afraid to carve away at the soul of tis protagonist, to see what they want and will and how they would ave it, and then flense away their choices, one at a time, until every option is the least-worst. Hadrian is a good lad. He’s willing to fight and kill and even damn himself for his beliefs He’s a tough person not to empathise with, even when making the sort of decisions which make you prone to shouting at a book. E’s a good lad, with a good heart, running full-tilt into a more obdurate universe. That said, Had is a thoughtful lead, one willing to consider his actions before leaping feet-first into the fray. As the story rolls on, his own ideological edges are being filed off, and it’s a joy to watch (albeit somewhat depressing). He’s joined by a circle of friends, mostly from the preceding book. The bonds of friendship, trust and loyalty are described in the subtext, but clearly enough that you can almost see them, glittering gold in the recycled ships air. Though we live Had’s point of view, his friends and colleagues are not ciphers; they live and love and fight beneath his gaze, and their conflicts, if ancillary, are just as absorbing as Had’s own.
So, alright, it’s a strong character piece, with a fantastic backdrop of sci-fi conflict within a universe with a rich history. But why do you care? Why are you turning pages? Because it kicks arse. Because Had moves from page to page with increasing amounts of blood on his hands, trying to do the best that he can for everyone. Because the aliens on the march are monsters, but understandable enough that understanding can be possible. Because the ancient history of this universe, with its Mericanii and AI is actually our moderate future. It’s a story of Had’s search for meaning, in is need to shape the universe to make sense – and the refusal of the universe to oblige.
It’s a philosophical treatise sneaked in between gunfire, immortality and immortal horrors. It’s a story which isn’t afraid to ask the questions around the heroism of its protagonist – though for now it leaves the final call up to the reader. There are space battles, no doubt. Bloody and dark with the scream of vacuum There are sword fights and banter and brutality and blood. In between, as our hero inches ever closer to a war they don’t want, there are mediations on the human condition, and exposure to a complicated universe, filled with powers perhaps best-left forgotten. This is the bottom of the lake, filled with darkness, dirt and tentacles as much as with the promised glint of silver.
So. What is it, in the end? It’s a cracking sequel, for one thing. A nuanced character study within a precision-crafted work of science fiction, one filled with passionate intensity. Once you’ve finished Empire of Silence, once you’re looking for something more, this is what you should pick up next.
Crowfall is the conclusion to Ed McDonald’s “Raven’s Mark” series. I’ve been a big fan of the series since the get-go. There’s something about the hard-bitten cynicism of (most of) the characters, the haut-feudal world run by gangs of squabbling, unknowable gods, and the twisted, broken border between them which makes for a compelling read. That compulsion is, of course, helped along by the well observed and convincing characterisation.
At the centre of the series stands Galharrow, a captain of the Blackwing, a special-circumstances group thrown together by one of the horrifying Nameless, the sorcerous Powers that rule his part of the world. The Blackwing do all sorts of dirty jobs for their master, usually involving fighting against the encroachments of the Deep Kings, an entirely different, even more awful group of sorcerous horrors. Galharrow has always been hard-bitten and lethal, a person struggling under a cloud of internalised guilt and rage, whilst having enough self-awareness of his own flaws to keep moving forward. This Galharrow, however, is something new. Exposed to the influence of The Misery, the liminal land twisted by magical weaponry, Galharrow is becoming less and less human, seeming to be deliberately walking down the path ending in monstrosity and madness.
At the same time, his voice remains familiar on the page – acerbic, flensingly unforgiving, pragmatic, occasionally brutal. There’s a construction here of a person struggling to do what they believe is right, fighting against themselves as much as anyone else.
In this struggle – and the others throughout the text, Galharrow is aided by a wonderfully drawn cast. There’s the Nameless, whose otherworldly visits tend to end in an explosive demise. There’s those of Galharrow’s friends who remain – most of them in some way broken or twisted by the events of the past. And then there’s the enemies. Oh my, so many enemies. If you’re coming to Crowfall, you probably already know about the Deep Kings, the ancient monstrosities that want to take the already unpleasant world our cast lives in and make it worse – replacing individuality with a commonality of thought and purpose in every individual, that purpose being service and worship of those Kings. They’re unknowable and malevolent, and the fusion of the scale of their thoughts and designs with a very personal pettiness is done with pitch perfect precision.
They’re joined by a whole host of new awfulness, though, as horrors crawl out of the Misery which will make your skin crawl. The Misery itself is as artfully drawn as ever – a wasteland of constantly shifting norms, populated with creatures which tend to be, tactfully, less than benign. The ever-changing ground of the Misery is shaped by some truly psychedelic prose, and the mental and physical pressure it exerts on those within it is often felt by the reader as well. The Misery is a weird, terrible place, where weird, horrible things happen. But for all that, it feels like a living place, not just words on a page. Admittedly, it’s not somewhere you’d want to go on holiday (or ever, really), but it’s vividly described, even if the pictures it will paint in your mind are ones you’d rather not have seen in the first place.
And outside the Misery, the world continues. The soaring heights of the city of Valengrad still stand tall. At the same time, strange rains are falling, and beneath them the streets feel narrower, darker, more lethal than they did before. And it wasn’t exactly a high bar to start with. But in the slow-dripping desperation of Valengrad is wrapped the sensation of implacability, the sense of endings. As the Deep Kings once more look to the Misery, searching for ways to break through and end their Nameless rivals, with everyone else caught in the middle, it’s difficult to see the existing system as sustainable, even as those within it struggle to maintain it, struggle to declare its normality, struggle to survive. There’s a wonderful feeling of tension wired through the pages, each one carrying the feel of an indrawn breath as the ice beneath your feet begins to crack. Each page you’re listening for the creak a little more, and getting a little closer to the end. But there’s no safety there, no. This is a story which builds and builds and builds on the foundations laid by its predecessors, but isn’t afraid to tear down what it’s built, one brick at a time, to bring about an ending which feels right, feels true, and packs a serious emotional punch.
I won’t get into the plot, for fear of spoilers, but I will say this: this is the ending to a series filled with blood, grime and horror. It’s the end of a series of people facing up to darkness, in others and in themselves. It’s the end of a series where the heroes are people doing their jobs, and willing to do terrible things. It’s the end of a series which was never afraid to show emotional depth, or how easy it is to hide those emotions away. It’s the end of a series which has, in the past, blown up entire regions, laced in horror and washed down in gore. This is the climax of a series which has given us some genuinely impressive endings.
It. Does. Not. Disappoint.
Crowfall is, in sum, a wonderful end to a sequence that can be regarded as modern classics. If you’re wondering if it’s worth reading, then the answer is simple: Yes.
Hexarchate Stories is an anthology of tales from Yoon Ha Lee, set, as the title implies, in the Hexarchate universe that was made famous by Ninefox Gambitand its sequels. I was a big fan of the original trilogy of works, with its unexplainable super-technology driven by a mixture of ritualised torture, belief, and mathematics, and its searingly memorable characters. What I wasn’t sure of was whether an anthology was necessary, whether it would add something to the universe, whether it would tell us new things, add new perspectives, or just serve as an unnecessary addendum to a sequence which wrapped up on a high.
I’m happy to say that my fears were ill-founded, and that this is an absolutely cracking collection, which adds flavour to an already rich universe, and context to already vivid characters. If you’re coming here after enjoying the trilogy, wondering if you want to give this a shot – stop here, go and read it.
Structurally, this is an interesting collection. There’s a novella, a coda to The RevenantGun, which takes up the back half of the text. But before that are a diverse and fascinating sprinkling of short tales in the Hexarchate universe. They range from vignettes – lines of poetry and self examination – to character studies and full blown narratives, which manage to fit some serious weight of content into their short lengths. All the things I loved about the Hexarchate are in here. There’s the diverse, difficult, broken, argumentative, trusting, loving, emotionally valid cast, ranging from mathematically apologetic servitor bots through Kel before they got quite so uptight, all the way to Shuos with attitude problems. What they all have in common, these characters, is that their feelings matter, that their stories matter – that they stand out in sharp relief from the background, they seize your attention, they make you empathise with them, if not always sympathise. They’re living people, real people, and the stakes they play for are real too.
That the text can evoke as much emotional response from a few lines of delicate poetry and an action-packed, kinetic high tech brawl is…delightful. But know that when you pick it up, this is a text which comes to the reader from all angles, and doesn’t hold back from any of them.
I would perhaps sound a note of caution; it feels like a lot of these stories would land better if you were already steeped in the word of the Hexarchate; if you know about the travails of the Kel, delight in the games of the Shuos, have seen Jedao and Cheris work their way through three books trying to be better versions of themselves, and/or break or save the world. As vignettes, as stories, I think they still work in isolation – but there’s a connective tissue which informs these stories, and you might be missing out if you come to them before the trilogy – especially the final novella, which rather gives the game away for some of the larger trilogy if read first!
On the other hand, there are some delightful notes from the author scattered between stories, and a sense of wry whimsy permeates both these informative missives and the surrounding text. There’s love and lust and enmity and friendship on the page, and the people that feel those emotions will seem genuine and fragile and real. And what the stories say about the sprawling universe of the Hexarchate – well, it’s there in the undertones of poems, and the silent beats between words as the people on the page decide what they can say next.
These are good stories. Some will probably appeal more than others (and I suspect everyone who came out of The Revenant Gun hoping for more will want to dive into the novella), but it feels like there’s something for everyone here, and that the collection as a whole is a cohesive, thoughtful treatise not only on the Hexarchate, but on the human condition. If you’ve been wanting more of the Hexarchate, then this collection is a jewel, one you’ll want to pick up and examine closely, with more there the deeper into it you look.
Children Of Ruinis the sequel to Adrian Tchaikovsky’s superlative Children Of Time. It takes place in the same universe, a few (human) generations after the first book. As such, fair warning: This review may contain spoilers for Children of Time.
The story takes place across viewpoints and times, and switches between them with a sinuous ease. In one, we find a crew of terraformers, sent out to make something habitable from chunks of water ice and rock, waiting for the colony ships that will surely follow. Our central focus on this crew is Senkovi, a man who has very little time at all for other people. He’s quite good with machines though, and also with cephalopods. Much like the ill-starred Avra Kern from the first book, Senkovi is gently playing god; introducing a virus to his octopi which may make them more intelligent, more sentient, even, than before. Senkovi’s octopi are a triumph. Not only for him, but for us. Watching his struggles to teach them to deal with their new intellects over generations of breeding, watching him try and bridge a gap in understanding carries an impressive emotional weight and depth. The other terraformers think they’re just getting some handy creatures to maintain the terraforming systems on a water ball, but we know they can be something more than that. It’s an exploration of the alien, of the way humanity interacts with the strange, strives to make the unknowable knowable. At the same time, Senkovi is taking risks, and you may want to go through the pages and stop him before everything gets out of hand. There’s a skill to this kind of characterisation – giving us a fully realised person, whom we can empathise with, even sympathise with, even as we see them step down some very dangerous roads indeed. It’s a big idea, this – the idea of people creating new intelligence – and it’s approached respectfully and thoughtfully. Senkovi and his relationship with his children will make you think, even as they struggle to become less of an enigma to each other.
To put it mildly, the terraformer’s efforts to create a newly habitable world do not go entirely to plan.
I don’t want to get into it for fear of spoilers, but to skirt around it: this is a wonderful exploration of humanity, absolutely. Of the way it reaches out and tries to understand, and the way it reacts under pressure. The way small group environments are a few bad decisions and failed systems away from catastrophe The way we’re a voice in the wilderness, looking for something that answers back. It’s a story which, in some ways, is about hope. But it’s also a different kind of story– oh yes. A story of how quickly things can go wrong, a story of insidious loss, of escalating conflict, of desperate measures and hard choices. While we’re watching Senkovi try and match wills with his commander, and train his octopi into sentience, we’re also seeing how things could slide out of control. There’s a delightful slow burn horror here, one which kept me turning pages, albeit with the occasional shudder. The terraformers, deep in the past of Children of Time, are eminently human, and eminently fallible. It’s to Tchaikovsky’s credit that he approaches some big themes in this sequence – who we are, what we want, what were willing to do to survive, and what our legacy might be – and then wraps it around and throughout a compelling character drama, and one which had great success in evoking visceral emotional reactions. This is a book that doesn’t pull any punches, emotionally or narratively.
The other strand of the story occurs further in the future, a few generations after Children of Time. Our spiders and their humans are reaching out now, looking to see if they are really all there is in the universe. Hunting for meaning and communication from the stars. And when they find it, they’ll go and investigate, because that’s what they do.
What they find when they do – well, again, no spoilers. But Tchaikovsky has a talent for showing us an alien viewpoint, making it relatable but other, a lived experience very different from our own. This is a story about different kinds of intelligence trying to talk to each other, to stop talking past each other, and, preferably, to do so without everyone killing each other. The spiders are still the spiders – forthright, dealing with humanity on the one hand, and their own social dilemma’s on the other (the exploration of the struggle against sexism in a species where the females have been known to eat a disagreeable male was a spot of genius), and in the gripping hand, trying to handle whatever new thing the universe casts at them next. There’s people too, of course – complicated, slightly awkward people, doing their best to get by, to reach out to their colleagues, to bridge the gap between humanity and Other. Oh, and, well, there’s Kern. The AI that was once a god, like Senkovi, and is now something less than a person, and struggling so hard, wanting so much, to know what that’s like.
This is a story that weaves beautifully across these two strands of time, two voices of humanity working to understand the Other, and the rewards and perils that can be presented thereby. . I’m not sure I can usefully articulate how well done this book is, but…it is. The prose is tight, pragmatic, and utterly engrossing, drawing you into the creaking octopus tanks, the recycled air of the terraformers ships, before dropping you into strange worlds, with people struggling to convince each other that they’re people.
It’s a big story, which examines some really big ideas – the nature of intelligence, the nature of personhood, the sense of self – but within an immediate context. We feel for Senkovi and his struggle, we feel the excitement and terror of the terraforming team. We see our spider-human expeditionary force bicker over academic credit, and throw their lives to the wind to help each other, and face the strange, the unknown, together. This is a story which will let you know its characters, possibly better than you might like, will get them to feel alive, will have their choices and their decisions become things you feel in your heart, in your gut. That combination, of a vivid, detailed, innovative universe, populated by strange, wonderful, terrifying people and a story which will grab hold of you and not let go until it’s done…that combination, blended up with some really clever exploration of Big Idea’s, makes for a fantastic story, which is what this is.
Coming from Children Of Time you may be wondering – can this be as good as its predecessor? Is it worth the wait? And I would say yes and yes again. Children of Ruin is top-notch sci-fi, thoughtful and action-packed in equal measure, and you owe it to yourself to go and read it, right now.
The Deathless is the start of a new fantasy series from Peter Newman, whose Vagrant trilogy has been very well received. The Deathless, though, is something else – bringing us a new world, filled with unknown horrors and immortals on the edge of righteousness, exploring the price people are willing to pay for their goals, the bonds of family and friendship, and the way a society can be both more or less than it is thought to be.
The Deathless, you see, are the perfect aristocracy. Living in castles in the air, they justify their wealth, their extravagance, their very existence, by their ability to defeat The Wild. What is the Wild? It is horror. It is dark woods on a day full of spilled noonday sun. It is creeping horrors in the corner of your eye. It is monstrosities creeping behind you. It is transformation wished and unwished for, decisions made incorrectly. It is the risk taken and betrayed. But at a more immediate point, it’s a massive dark wood, filled with psychotic monsters whose most immediate goal in life is devouring people alive, at best.
The Wild, as the hostile environment surrounding and enveloping both flying castles and mystically warded roads, is wonderfully portrayed. Each breath is a gift, each step the suggestion of ominous intent. This is a place, a darkly shrouded wood, which see’s humanity ad an interloper, and is willing to reach out and cut throats before draining their blood into its roots. But it’s also corruption, a slow game. Because the strange creatures of the wilds will make details. Maybe they want your hair, or your fingernails, or your face, and maybe the dreams you have of murder can be quieted, perhaps your other goals assured. The wood knows. It scents desecration and draws it out, adding to its store of poison. And there is always a price. This is a space of madness and magic, where everything hinges on the knife-edge, on a gesture, on a word, on a decision made moments before.
The Wild is a horror, twisting and breaking the people seeking to drive it back with a road. And so the houses exist, in soaring castles, insulated from the horrors of those suffering below. But the castles do provide champions – armed and armoured, with the strength of ten and speed to match – and other magic besides – the immortals are the heads of houses fighting back the Wild/ Of course, being immortal, they have their own effect on society. Where immortality is a limited gift, it is covered – the book asks questions of worth (or otherwise) to see if our immortals should hold their thrones. Even as they murder the demon before them, there is the issue of hereditary right, the subversion of heredity and bloodline as a positive. Where these people fight demons, where they fight back the Wild, it is because it advances their own interests. Which isn’t to say they aren’t glorious – angel-winged leading a hunt into the Wild, to defeat the existential threat to civilisation, one might think them civilised. But outside those castles are the poor and wretched and indigent, living this way to keep themselves alive. The book isn’t afraid to talk about The Wild, about the creeping horror, and the price of deals, but nor does it build a hagiography of those hacking back the roots. They have suffered and will continue to do so. But they continue to do so believable and we also see the vicious, focused, effective side of the house. Yes, they are immortal slavemasters, but they must protect their own – and if that own is not sufficiently noble, still they can be made so,
I suppose what I’m saying is, the world is a rich one, with layered interweaving of character and context. The sort of interconnection which makes characters see like people, and narratives feel real.
This is a rich, living world, albeit a horrifying one. The people within it slay demons, yes, they fight a creeping horror with their own hands and wake up at night screaming. There’s the politics of family and of immortality, of feudal obligation and enlightenment values, of blood as an oath and blood on the sword. This is a world to evoke wonder and horror, with characters whose very depth allows both sympathy and vilification. The story is there, sure enough, and heart-pumping, adrenaline soaked stuff it is, too. This is a text which rewards closer reading, and also one which rewards reading at all.
Walking to Aldebaran is a sci-fi novella from Adrian Tchaikovsky, whose other sci-fi works, including the seminal Children of Time have a very strong reputation. This one is an intriguing blend of stone cold horror, a well-voiced, convincingly characterised protagonist, and some Big Ideas which I’d like to see looked into a little more.
So, lets talk about the world. It’s a rock. An inhospitable rock, floating in a less-than salubrious neighbourhood of the solar system. A rock without much going for it at all. Except that once you’ve walked into the hoes in this rock, once you’ve left behind the world you know – there are rooms. Some of them are lethal. Some of them are decrepit. Some are filled with treasures. It’s like a lucky dip, where half the prizes are bear traps. And why would you want to go in there? Because some of these chambers empty out into somewhere else. You can walk a day or two through a rock that wasn’t two days across when you entered it, dodging horrifying creatures and environmental hazards – and come out in Alpha Centauri. Or…somewhere else, anyway. But the place is a maze, and a puzzle, and it’s not at all unlikely to stick something sharp in your ribcage. It also has a penchant for darkness, for tunnels you want to creep along very carefully, in case you run into something with more teeth and tentacles than thumbs. And for darkness, because if what you’re likely to see is teeth and tentacles, why would you want to.
All of this is realised in the protagonist’s monologue, a person who’s been trapped in this somewhat-deadly environment for a while. Their chatty, colloquial style overlays the bedrock tunnels, the sinuous tentacles, the bloodied claws, the necessary blood and murder and isolation and death with a folksy charm that manages to both lighten and accentuate the mood of creeping horror.
This is not a place for people. It’s a wilderness, with a razor under every rock, and a rattlesnake under every razor. The quiet, uncaring lethality is evoked with precision, and you can’t deny the emotional impact – the creeping horror, the disgust and terror that moves inexorably from the page to the reader.
Speaking of disgust and terror – the protagonist is our voice, our eyes in an absolute darkness. He is Gary, a human astronaut, from a mission dragged halfway across the solar system to investigate this rock that leads to elsewhere. And he is alone. As the text progresses, we discover more of the context around his isolation, about how Gary ended up wandering the halls. In the meantime, his voice is relentlessly, worryingly calm. It digs at the past with forensic razors, and it approaches the present with concern and a blend of enthusiasm and fatigue which is worryingly familiar. Gary is tired. Gary has been walking for a long time. Gary wants to see other people again, to see something other than the rock again. And we see some of the past with Gary, in his memory – in the mission to the rock, in the way that people interact with him then, in the stories he tells of friends and antagonists. At the same time, there’s a slow, crawling sense that Gary is telling a story, in a place where any mis-step can be monstrous, in order to stay sane. There are changes, movements in the dark. The reader is following their narrator down a rabbit-hole of terror and transition. Gary in the world is a person, a person you’d be more than happy to take out to dinner -a hero. Gary in the rock is, perhaps, something else. There’s a sublime artistry to the prose, making Gary at once sympathetic and troubling; the reader can feel his pain and loneliness and despair, and the madness creeping along at the edge of vision. We can see the golden idol, and we can see the feet of clay. This is Gary’s story, and we’re along for the ride – and for that, it feels real – often horrifyingly so.
The plot? Well, it’s the story of Gary trying to find his way home. Of walking through fire and water to find his people. Of defeating death-traps, and making friends (or making enemies). It’s the tory of how the walk changes Gary, how it takes what he wants and what he expects, and who he is, and gets inside him, changes his perspective. It’s a story of change, of the horrors and wonders of exploration and the horrors and wonders of humanity. There’s a lot there – the normal, the cold coffee and banter between astronauts on a mission, the strange - the crushing rocks and strange entities beneath the earth – and the liminal barrier between the two, as Gary tries to find his way home.
Is it any good? Oh my yes. It’s sharp, thoughtful and tightly plotted. The dialogue is pitch-perfect and the story will have you hanging on every word. It’s a clever story, too, with some high-concept ideas to play with which will reward curiosity. And it’s a multi-layered character-piece, in a story which demands character from both those in the story and those reading it. It’s a great story, and one I thoroughly recommend picking up.
Luna: Moon Rising is the third in McDonald’s Luna trilogy. The first two stories, set on a moon where everything is for sale, even the law, were tightly plotted sci-fi thrillers, packed with byzantine politics and some genuinely heart-pumping action, alongside interesting big ideas. The conclusion of the trilogy has the same notes, but turned all the way up to eleven. The short version, before we get into it below, is that in a time when it seems difficult to end a series well, this one concludes pretty much perfectly. If you’ve been reading the series, you’ll want to see how it ends – it delivers on all the promises made by the earlier instalments.
Getting into the grit, then. As with previous books, this one largely takes place on the Moon. The Moon is a free place, in the sense that everything is up for sale, or at least for negotiation, including the law. Every citizen has their balance of credit, and that credit pays for air, for water, for a roof over their heads. Without credit, they’ll literally draw their last breath. Fiercely independent, this is a culture where everything is believed to be earned. At the same time, there are several key families which own most of the infrastructure for the moon – from orbital transport to mining equipment. Those families act in an almost feudal relationship to their clients, keeping people in jobs – and therefore food and air – in return for loyalty. Of course that loyalty is also negotiable.
But the Moon is going through changes, and we get to see that here. After a massacre removed most of the Corta family from play, their counterstroke has delivered them into high office on the Moon, even though the survivors are scattered. But their new victory comes at the price of increased interest from Earth in what’s going on above their heads. Corporations have arrived, with rules, regulations, and a different way of doing things. They’re rapacious predators in their own right, the wolf at the door, and they aim to change the face of the moon.
That clash of corporate cultures is something the story does well, giving us clashing viewpoints, and a sense of the cut-throat nature of corporate maneuverings, as the Earthers start trying to extract value from the moon, and the Corta family (and their allies) try to fend them off whilst also stabilising the Moon’s politics. It must be said that in this case, cut-throat can also be taken literally. Corporate assassination is a way of life, and these are people playing for high stakes. There are a lot of negotiations, a lot of words spoken softly carrying big decisions with blades sliding under them. That’s the Moon for you, this one anyway – sharp suits and sharper knives.
Speaking of Earthers, while they’re trying to get a foothold on the Moon, we do get to dip below the atmosphere, to keep an eye on Marina, Ariel Corta’s one-time bodyguard, who gave up on the Moon to go home, before the physiological changes wrought by Moon living became too great. The perspective allows us to see the social problems of Earth as well – the seething overcrowding, the decaying infrastructure, and the governments turning to blaming the Moon for the woes of their citizens. Exploring these systemic issues happens in the background, as our bodyguard struggles to reintegrate with her family and a society which views her as a traitor for leaving, and for coming back. The personal story, as with that of the families as a whole, has an honesty to it; McDonald’s characters are, as a whole, complex and thoughtful beings who appear more than able to step off the page at a moment’s notice.
If the vivid and intricate worldbuilding makes the book seem real, it’s the characters which really make it come alive. Lucas Corta, now Eagle of the Moon, and very aware that he’s riding the back of a tiger in the form of the Earth Corps, is at once ruthless and tender, a man doing the best he can for himself and his family, while also carrying around a grudge so large it has its own gravity well. At the same time as Lucas is consolidating power, we see Ariel, whose relationship with Marina grounded her in the previous books, exercise a razor mind to try and extricate the Moon, and her family, from the consequences of her brother’s plotting. They’re the centrepiece, a loving, bladed, broken relationship, the mechanism which kept the pages turning in my hands like a metronome. But they’re surrounded by a vast cast – the other Corta family members, and individuals from the other corporate families, whose own agendas have been simmering, coming to a head somewhat explosively over these pages – and changing the face of the moon forever. But again, the heart is in the characters – in the nuance, in the small gestures, in the callbacks to events in previous books. In sweet words and quiet murders.
It’s not all clandestine meetings in smoky back rooms and family drama, though. There’s enough fast-paced action here to keep anyone happy. Indeed, there are moments here which will leave you heart in mouth, waiting to see what happens next – and this is a book which isn’t afraid to give the catharsis you need, as consequences fall heavily across the board. We’ve seen the wind sown, and Moon Rising is the reaping of the whirlwind.
This is a great end to a fantastic series, filled with real, complicated, human people, in a society which lives and breathes, with a story which will grip you from start to finish. If you were wondering how the Luna series turned out, you should go out right now and pick up a copy of Luna: Moon Rising. You will not be disappointed.
Seven Blades in Black is the start of a new fantasy series from Sam Sykes, who has form in the area of smart, character focused fantasy. Well, this book takes that form, and turns it up to eleven.
Sal the Cacophany is a bounty hunter, and a killer, and a woman with quite a lot on her mind. Mostly where to get the next drink from, and who, in her personal list of targets, to hunt down next. Sal is a fast hand with a gun, which is just as well, because her enemies – of which there are a great, great many – are powerful, magical, fierce, and deadly. Which, given she’s a woman with a gun and a bad attitude, means she has to be at least twice as quick as they are, just to stay alive.
Sal is an absolute wonder, and a horror. She’s obviously intelligent, masking behind a quietly folksy demeanour a determination and focus that could cut through steel like warm butter. But at the same time, there’s a lot that’s human in there. Sal is seeking revenge, and she has a list of people whom she has to kill to put things right. Quite what that revenge is for? Well, it’ll come out over the course of the text. What also comes out is Sal’s humanity. Sure, as we find ourselves observing a weapon of a woman, with a gun that fires shells with some very interesting properties, and a willingness to do almost anything to get the job done – we thing we know that woman. Sal the Cacophany, who bestrides her world as a rumour, a quiet voice, a silence in your skull. A myth, and a killer. But she’s also a woman who is able to feel friendship, to feel love, to feel connection to everything around her. The story gives her room to express that pain in the present, to let us feel for a woman living with some of her choices, and maybe making new, possibly worse ones. But another strand of the narrative takes us into her past, shows us a woman shaping herself, and the choices that brought her where she is now – in a wasteland, tracking down a cabal of lunatic wizards, one by one.
This is Sal’s story, and I won’t spoil it by telling it her. But I will say this.. Sal the Cacophany is a fractured, lethal bundle of smarting-off and fragile razor edges. A person who thinks they have nothing to lose, and is willing to give up on having anything else to feel like they can make that loss end.
It’s not all doom, gloom and revenge though. Did I mention the folksy charm? Sal has a wonderful voice, which is just as well, as the framing device lets her tell her own story. It has a slow drawl to it, and an immediacy and honesty of emotion and motive which leaves her feeling unflinching and real. But in that story, Sal is also her façade – a woman with a brain, not afraid to use it, willing to take any advantage, and unwilling to apologise for being herself. Also she’s fun. The refusal to bow in the face fo fear, sure. The almost anti-nobility of purpose, sure. But In between, there are the human moments – a cracked joke, a hug, a burgeoning friendship – which kept me turning pages, and which keep Sal grounded in her world.
Sal is a lot of fun to watch, running around, casting aspersions on the baddies, and trying to kill them. She does, no doubt, kick arse. And the action, when it comes, is frenetic and kinetic. But because of the human links, because of the way that the author has made Sal come alive, along with her friends, her loves and her losses – because of those human stakes, we care about the woman spitting epithets in the face of a magical storm, we care about the woman trying to drop the hammer on those she wants to see dead. We even care about those enemies, when they get up close and personal. This is a book which will give you all the intrigue and explosions you could wish for, but it’s Sal’s book, a book about people, and about the way they feel.
I mean, also it’s about mages blowing the living crap out of each other. And about politics. And about lost love and lost innocence and lost illusions, and about the crafting of emotional armour and about the lies we tell ourselves to stay sane, to stay alive. Sure, it’s all of those things. But at its heart is Sal the Cacophany, whose humanity makes it all work, and makes us care.
Sal lives in a broken world, a world where mages were once kings of everything they saw before them. A world where their servants rose up to overthrow their masters. And where those servants aligned themselves with powers and morals which might be even worse. While Sal is the individual face of loss and the cost of struggle, and of the necessity, sometimes, that drives us forward – around her, a war is playing out. It’s a hopeless, total war, whose only result seems to be the slow, grinding destruction of everything in grudges and blood. But as a backdrop, it’s a very compelling one. There’s a universe at play here, and we only see fragments of it – the alchemists who live for knowledge and construct devices and desires of their own devising. The blind priests and their hounds looking for wizards. The bargain every mage makes for his power, and the cost they pay. The rumbling mechanisms of the revolution, and the ethical dilemmas that people who don’t make decisions have to decide if they can live with.
It’s a vividly broken world, sure enough. One with the dry dust feel of a western, with Sal the Cacophany, legend, mage-killer, slouching along within it, with a magical six-iron on her hip, and a rather nice hat. It’s a world which you’ll live and breathe, as Sal kicks in doors, fights for herself, fights for others. As she tosses the dice between her revenge and the connections she’s made, the love she feels. As she tries to save the world and herself, one bullet at a time.
So what is it? It’s a fast-paced, arse-kicking magical western, with bullets that spit fire, and demons that will break your soul. It’s the story of wizards and revolutions, ad the way that conflicts spiralling out of control will affect those who just want to stay alive, and those who don’t know the cost of the choices they’ll be asked to make until it’s too late. It’s Sal’s story, a human story of life and love, possible redemption and possible revenge. It’s a compelling page turner which will keep your eyes on the page wanting to know what happens next.
It’s really rather a good book, is what I’m saying. I, for one, look forward to hearing more. In the meantime, I recommend you give Seven Blades in Black a try.
I want to give you a quick reaction, which I put together a few minutes after finishing this book - hopefully that will convince you to give it your attention. If not, there's more below. But this was my first, unfiltered thoughts:
This is numinous, illuminating work. Expectations high, expectations surpassed. Very emotional. Going to be thinking about it for a while.
Not convinced? OK. Let's get into it a little more:
A Brightness Long Ago is a fantasy novel from Guy Gavriel Kay. It’s also a remarkably hard novel to talk about. That’s to its credit; the reason it’s hard to talk about is that there’s so much going on, so many layers, so many personalities, so much story, that getting a handle on it to explain why it’s so great has proven a bit difficult. So, lets start with this: This is a fantastic book, which explores life, death, sacrifice, age, the role of chance in history, and the role of people in the world. And that’s only a narrow sampling.
This is a book with a lot to say. But it’s not just that, not just a pick-up-and-play philosophy text. It has characters whose lives feel as real as the reader’s own, whose loves and hatreds, dreams and duties, whose enmities and hopes all shape them, and the people around them. These are living, breathing people, with a rich inner life to match the political machinations and world events they find themselves entangled by. The world? The story’s set in the world of one of the parallel, almost-histories that Kay does so well, and I drew parallels with the renaissance Republic of Venice, which we’ve seen once before in another work of Kay’s.
So that’s the elevator pitch. Deep, complex, believable characterisation. Vividly realised, semi-historical setting. A story that draws you in and won’t let go, through all its tides of hope and torment. The narrative is about people, first – about the way their personalities, their ambitions their affections and enmities shape the world around them.
The world is classic Kay, in both senses. It feels like a lightly shifted version of Europe in the 1400’s, with a focus in a peninsula of warring city states with more than a passing similarity to Italy of that period. Regular Kay readers will have seen this world before – and even this small part of it, which was also heavily featured in his last novel, Children of Earth and Sky. New and old readers alike can delight in the lyrical prose, which builds a world up brick by brick, a world which feels instantly familiar, but with flashes of strangeness woven through it – a dream of sea-foam in the mortar. It’s a mark of Kay’s skill that every tree, every leaf, every stone, every wall feels alive, a luxuriant tapestry for his characters to run through. And while the detail is there, the wider aspect doesn’t suffer. There’s feuding cities, driven toward conflict by politics negotiated on a knife’s edge. There’s mercenary armies on the march, with all the destructive potential that implies. And there’s joys, as well – horses running their hearts out, and unexpected friendships found between cups of wine.
This is a sprawling epic, engaging with difficult questions about ethics and systemic and personal morality, while also getting up close and personal – be that romance, individual crises of conscience, duels or any other of the plethora of human experience. This is such a densely packed story, and throughout, is absolutely captivating.
I normally go on about the plot and the characters a little more – here, I wanted to give impressions of the breadth and scope of the work, of the way it made me feel, of the depth and emotional integrity of it because getting into the detail quickly got a bit spoilery.
Suffice to say, if you’ve picked up a Kay novel before, this is another masterclass in fantasy from him; smart, emotionally raw, incredibly well characterised, wrapped in some truly beautiful prose. If this is your first step into this world – it’s fantastic. That simple. Pick it up and you won’t want to put it back down. It’s an ambitious, compelling story whose ambitions are realised, and which it’s a genuine pleasure to read.
If you need to know whether it’s worth buying? Yes. Stop reading this, and go pick it up instead. You won’t regret it.