Sunday, 23 August 2015

Review: 'Ancillary Justice' by Ann Leckie

On a remote, icy planet, the soldier known as Breq is drawing closer to completing her quest.

Once, she was the Justice of Toren - a colossal starship with an artificial intelligence linking thousands of soldiers in the service of the Radch, the empire that conquered the galaxy.

Now, an act of treachery has ripped it all away, leaving her with one fragile human body, unanswered questions, and a burning desire for vengeance.


Ancillary Justice won about a million SFF awards last year; and while I haven’t read enough of the other contenders’ work to judge whether this one truly deserved all the top spots, I can say that it had me rooting for the unlikely protagonist throughout, and left me wanting more. Ancillary Justice plays with futuristic possibilities of science and technology, and subverts the way we think about concepts such as humanity, social inequality and gender.

In Leckie’s future, ancillaries are a common feature on many ships. Created by fusing the AI of a spaceship with the body of a human being, ancillaries are intelligent yet inhuman extensions of a ship’s consciousness. But although they are looked down upon by society and treated merely as pieces of equipment by those they serve, there is much more to some ancillaries than their creators could have anticipated: the protagonist of Ancillary Justice is (as the title suggests) an ancillary who is on a personal mission to exact revenge on the individual who betrayed her captain and destroyed her ship. Breq proves to be far more than simply a slave of the Radch, and is moulded yet not defined by her complicated interactions with those around her. As a protagonist she is unusual, intriguing and more than a little likeable.

I initially found the plot of Ancillary Justice to be slightly confusing, although this probably says more about my own lack of familiarity with the genre and its tropes than it does about the novel itself. However, I would have been prepared to endure even more confusion if it meant avoiding the infrequent yet unwarranted infodumps scattered throughout the beginning of the book. This doesn’t happen often enough to really detract from the story, but it has to be said that there are one or two awkward instances of the old ‘let’s have a detailed conversation about lots of things we as characters clearly already know about,’ where I would have preferred a gradual drip-feed of information instead. My usual diet of traditional fantasy doesn’t generally stretch my brain in these sorts of directions, and I find figuring things out for myself to be fun rather than frustrating.

The main thing I struggled to get my head around was the concept of the novel’s antagonist, largely due to the somewhat bewildering use of pronouns used by characters with multiple embodiments. Thankfully things became much clearer as the novel progressed, as did the subtle differences between the three different incarnations of the protagonist herself: I came to really appreciate the divergences in her behaviour between the past and the present. In fact, I would love to read Ancillary Justice again in the future having finally got my head around the way things work in the Radch.

A point of interest within Ancillary Justice is the lack of gender in the imperial language of the Radch. As a result the first person narrator Breq refers to everyone as ‘she’, regardless of their actual gender. While this does lead to some confusion – namely in the instances where Breq is speaking in another language and is forced to try and pinpoint others’ gender in order to correctly address them – eventually it becomes such a natural part of the narrative that you stop even trying to figure out whether a character is a man or a woman because, in Leckie’s world, it simply doesn’t matter.

I would probably never have bought this novel if not for a bored evening spent searching for potential new reads using Amazon’s ‘Look Inside’ feature. The beginning of Ancillary Justice – a chance meeting in suspicious circumstances with someone the protagonist has not seen in a thousand years – was sufficiently intriguing to hook me into buying, as was the clearly unconventional nature of the protagonist herself. The rest of the story is engaging and continues in a way that keeps the reader intrigued: it’s well-paced and nicely structured, with chapters that alternate between past and present to gradually reveal more and more about events leading up to the main plot. Furthermore the reader is made to care about secondary characters, including those not central to the main plot, despite the fact that we’re encountering them through the impassive filter of an ‘inhuman’ AI. And of course there’s the AI herself: she’s the main focus of the novel and I really came to care about her story, enough that I want to immediately grab the next book in the series to see what’s next for Breq. Bring on Ancillary Sword!


Sunday, 16 August 2015

Review: 'A Darker Shade of Magic' by V.E Schwab

 Kell is one of the last travellers — magicians with a rare ability to travel between parallel universes connected by one magical city. There’s Grey London, without magic and ruled by the mad King George III. Red London – where magic is revered, and where Kell was raised alongside the heir to the empire. White London – where people fight to control the remaining magic and magic fights back. And once there was Black London . . .

Officially, Kell is the Red traveller, carrying letters between the monarchs of each London. Unofficially he is a smuggler, a defiant hobby with dangerous consequences. His escape to Grey London leads to a run-in with Delilah, a cutpurse with lofty aspirations, who forces Kell to take her on a proper adventure. But perilous magic is afoot, treachery lurks at every turn, and an adventure becomes a mission to save all of the worlds.

I’m a little bit embarrassed to admit that I bought this book solely because of its cover. It- Actually, no, I’m not embarrassed at all: that’s what covers are for, isn’t it? And that is one seriously gorgeous cover.

Luckily there’s an equally gorgeous story lying behind it. A Darker Shade of Magic is filled with beautiful settings and bloody magic, cross-dressing thieves and nefarious villains, magical utopias and fearsome dystopias, not to mention fun adventures and several heroic attempts to save the world. Or I should say worlds, of which there are four. Each of the four worlds – closed off from one another after terrible past events – are completely different, yet all have a single common point: the city of London. Each of these Londons (not all of which are actually called London) is vastly different from the others: Red London is a magic-infused paradise, Grey London is akin to early 19th century England, White London is dangerous and filled with half-starved cannibals, and the less said about Black London the better.

A Darker Shade of Magic focuses on two incredibly likeable characters: Kell, a powerful magician and adopted member of the Red London royal family; and Lila, a dirt-poor thief from Grey London who dreams of adventure. An unlikely pairing, but one which must work together to travel between Londons and thwart those trying to bring doom upon both their worlds. The relationship between Kell and Lila forms a large part of the story, and much of the novel’s humour arises from their interactions and the dry way in which they antagonise one another. However, their relationship is not the sole focus of the story – much to the author’s credit. A romance storyline between the two could easily have taken centre stage, and yet this particular element is remarkably downplayed and subtle. Instead it’s more about how Kell and Lila gradually come to trust one another, and how their initially antagonistic relationship becomes something stronger through their mutual desire to put things right and save the worlds. There’s just a hint or two that there may be more than just friendship on the horizon, which is both realistic and lovely at the same time.

No, the true focus of the novel is on its plot rather than its characters; and while I would have liked to have been given more insight into each of the characters as individuals, the author nonetheless does a credible job of developing them both whilst remaining focused on the events. The plot itself is relatively straightforward, but with enough twists and turns thrown in to keep the reader guessing; and the writing is flowing and engaging. In fact certain parts of the prose – not to mention the setting, as well as the somewhat nebulous nature of the magic itself – put me in mind of Susanna Clarke’s excellent novel Jonathan Strange and Mr Norrell. Schwab’s novel is not as accomplished nor as ambitious as Clarke’s behemoth – indeed, A Darker Shade of Magic’s strength is in its fast pacing and tightly-focused plot – but its spirit is much the same, as is its focus on magic’s darker, subtler side and its potential to bring out both the best and the worst in people.

While many aspects of the novel are somewhat dark and sinister (as the title suggests), the story itself is a whole lot of fun. The strong pacing and short chapters – as well as the likeable characters and compelling plot – conspired to make me finish the book in just two sittings, and I’m really happy to have discovered a new author as a result of my shallow over-appreciation of fine cover art. Even better, a look at the author’s website tells me that there’s a sequel due out next year. I’m confident it will be just as good, if not better, than book one . . . I can only cross my fingers and hope it looks just as pretty on my shelf!


Monday, 10 August 2015

Review: 'When the Heavens Fall' by Marc Turner

If you pick a fight with Shroud, Lord of the Dead, you had better ensure your victory, else death will mark only the beginning of your suffering.

A book giving its wielder power over the dead has been stolen from a fellowship of mages that has kept the powerful relic dormant for centuries. The thief, a crafty, power-hungry necromancer, intends to use the Book of Lost Souls to resurrect an ancient race and challenge Shroud for dominion of the underworld. Shroud counters by sending his most formidable servants to seize the artefact at all cost.

However, the god is not the only one interested in the Book, and a host of other forces converge, drawn by the powerful magic that has been unleashed. Among them is a reluctant Guardian commissioned by the Emperor to find the stolen Book, a troubled prince who battles enemies both personal and political, and a young girl of great power, whose past uniquely prepares her for an encounter with Shroud.

I both love it and hate it when I enjoy the first book in a new series. I love it because I have the thrill of knowing that even when I reach the last page there’s still plenty more where that came from . . . and I hate it because what do you mean I have to wait until next year for the second one?!

After just a few pages I knew that the Chronicles of the Exile would be (yet another) series I’d be following. I’d seen this book reviewed on several blogs I follow, and was completely pulled in by the overwhelmingly positive comments as well as numerous comparisons to Steven Erikson (my favourite author) and Glen Cook. And I can totally see where these comparisons are coming from. For a start there’s a whole host of crazy-powerful supernatural beings, the understated yet chilling descriptions of which strongly reminded me of the Taken in Cook’s Black Company. Then there are the sort of quirky, rock-hard, darkly humorous characters you’d expect to find dwelling in Erikson’s Malazan series, not to mention long-lost ancient races and interfering gods using the world as their own personal chess board. And there’s also a dark, gritty undertone – the sort of grimdark sensation that none of the characters are ever going to catch a break – that put me in mind of Joe Abercrombie’s excellent First Law trilogy.

But, as easy as it is to say “fans of Cook/Erikson/Abercrombie will love this book,” When the Heavens Fall is not as easily pigeonholed as that. Turner has taken many much-loved aspects of these kinds of fantasy and has used them to embellish rather than define his own work; a sort of homage as opposed to a blueprint. While admittedly it was these kinds of parallels that drew me in from the beginning, the thing that actually kept me reading was the patient and gradual build-up to a final convergence which, while not quite as climactic as I’d hoped, was nonetheless well-done and satisfying. The climax itself and the form it will take is deliberately signposted right from the beginning, but the routes by which our characters arrive there are sufficiently twisted that, while we can guess what will happen, we’re entirely unable to predict how it will happen. Having the entire plot of the novel building up to a single moment is somewhat risky – especially with sequels on the horizon – but I found it refreshing, a bold change from the many sprawling fantasy epics I usually read. The author uses the alternating points-of-view of a small handful of characters to great effect, switching between them at varying points within each chapter to build momentum and create tension. I personally found all four point-of-view characters to be unfathomable and unpredictable: while this meant that I didn’t quite connect with the characters as much as I would have liked, it did keep me constantly guessing what they would do next, with many pleasant (and nasty!) surprises as a result.

Yes, When the Heavens Fall is somewhat slow to begin with. But once it gets going there’s no stopping it; and it really gets going once it hits the halfway point. There’s a notable change of pace at around the two-fifty page-mark, and the story shifts up several gears from the moment the characters’ stories first begin to overlap. The characters themselves are compelling if not always sympathetic: a particular favourite of mine is Romany, the self-indulgent-yet-badass high priestess whose witty and irreverent verbal exchanges are a constant source of entertainment. The big climax is enjoyable if slightly drawn out, and for every problem resolved there are another ten questions still needing answers: the author has done a great job of making his readers clamour for the next book without quite leaving us on a cliffhanger.

What do you mean I have to wait until next year for the second one?! 


Many thanks to Marc Turner and Titan for providing a copy of When the Heavens Fall for review.

Wednesday, 5 August 2015

Review: 'The Girl with All the Gifts' by M.R. Carey

Melanie is a very special girl. Dr Caldwell calls her "our little genius."

Every morning, Melanie waits in her cell to be collected for class. When they come for her, Sergeant Parks keeps his gun pointing at her while two of his people strap her into the wheelchair. She thinks they don't like her. She jokes that she won't bite, but they don't laugh.

Melanie loves school. She loves learning about spelling and sums and the world outside the classroom and the children's cells. She tells her favorite teacher all the things she'll do when she grows up. Melanie doesn't know why this makes Miss Justineau look sad.

The above blurb is as ominous as it is deliberately vague, and I’m not one for hedging and hinting; so if you haven’t read this book yet and don’t want to know any more details about its premise, then read no further. You have been warned.

We’re in southern England. It’s twenty years on from the cataclysmic outbreak that devastated the world and turned all those it infected into mindless, unstoppable killing machines known as ‘hungries’. In one of the country’s last remaining military outposts a group of children are kept under armed guard; children who only need to eat once a week, are kept underground in steel cells, and who people are only able to approach after coating themselves in scent-blocking chemicals. The children have never thought to question why this might be. Every now and again a child will be wheeled away to the research laboratory, never to return. It’s only when the outpost is overrun that those inside realise the true dangers of the world they live in, and that not all the hungries are the monsters they’re presumed to be.

The Girl with All the Gifts is a wonderfully character-centred tale, set in a post-apocalyptic future and focusing on a rag-tag group of survivors with bucketloads of heart, conflict and chemistry. The main focus of the story is Melanie, a ‘hungry’ who retains her own personality and has a genius-level IQ, yet becomes a slavering monster at the barest scent of human flesh. The relationship between the girl Melanie and her former teacher Miss Justineau is the driving force behind much of the novel, and it’s a lovely thing to behold. In a novel filled with violence and despair – a novel that could just as easily have been written as an outright horror story – its focus on human relationships, particularly those based around children, makes it really compelling. It also creates a strong foundation of sympathy for the characters of Melanie and Miss Justineau, particularly when it becomes clear the astonishing lengths to which they will go to protect one another, and how determined they are to stay together against all odds. Almost as heartwarming is seeing how the other characters gradually come to change their outlook, all of which is based around little Melanie. That said, I would have liked a little more insight into the characters of Parks and Gallagher; their military background added a different perspective on the survivalist situation, but they remained very much supporting characters throughout.

Another aspect of The Girl with All the Gifts that makes it so absorbing is the fact that it’s written in the present tense. This creates a real sense of urgency and immediacy that keeps the reader constantly on their toes. It makes for a lot of tense moments, one or two in particular involving hungry-infested streets that had me literally holding my breath. Yet another thing I really liked, and that brought the story to life all the more, was how much time the author spent detailing the ‘how and why’ of the infection, most notably through the character of the psychopathic yet brilliant Dr Caldwell. Not only was all the conjecture fascinating, it also sounds totally believable: the cause of the infection has its roots in an existing natural phenomenon (I Googled it!) which sounds both plausible and terrifying.

Although I really enjoyed reading it, The Girl with All the Gifts was not what I expected, possibly because I had mixed signals about what to expect in the first place. I’ve heard it frequently described as a horror novel, yet the cover describes it as a thriller. I have to admit I was a little bit disappointed because, to me, it wasn’t quite either of these. Not that it isn’t thrilling (it is, frequently), and not that it isn’t frightening (it is, often), but there isn’t quite enough of either to give it that smack-in-the-gob impact I was expecting. In actuality it’s more of a post-apocalyptic road novel, philosophic and dystopian yet suffused with elements of horror. Which is absolutely fine (it’s actually incredibly effective) . . . it just doesn’t quite reflect the way it’s marketed.

This aside, I’d highly recommend The Girl with All the Gifts and really look forward to seeing the film adaptation when it’s released next year.


Saturday, 1 August 2015

100th Review! 'Ruin' by John Gwynne

The Banished Lands are engulfed in war and chaos. The cunning Queen Rhin has conquered the west and High King Nathair has the cauldron, most powerful of the seven treasures. At his back stands the scheming Calidus and a warband of the Kadoshim, dread demons of the Otherworld. They plan to bring Asroth and his host of the Fallen into the world of flesh, but to do so they need the seven treasures. Nathair has been deceived but now he knows the truth. He has choices to make, choices that will determine the fate of the Banished Lands.

Elsewhere the flame of resistance is growing - Queen Edana finds allies in the swamps of Ardan. Maquin is loose in Tenebral, hunted by Lykos and his corsairs. Here he will witness the birth of a rebellion in Nathair's own realm.

Corban has been swept along by the tide of war. He has suffered, lost loved ones, sought only safety from the darkness. But he will run no more. He has seen the face of evil and he has set his will to fight it. The question is, how? With a disparate band gathered about him - his family, friends, giants, fanatical warriors, an angel and a talking crow he begins the journey to Drassil, the fabled fortress hidden deep in the heart of Forn Forest. For in Drassil lies the spear of Skald, one of the seven treasures, and here it is prophesied that the Bright Star will stand against the Black Sun.

It’s not often that I care enough about a book to feel physically sick with nerves as I turn the pages, waiting to see what will happen to a beloved character. It’s also not often that a book makes me cry like a baby. Ruin drove me to both of these, leaving me a sobbing wreck after reading the final line. But I won’t hold that against it, seeing as it’s also an awesomely epic and ambitious tale that delivered everything it promised and more.

Ruin is the third book in John Gwynne’s fantastic The Faithful and the Fallen fantasy quartet, a series which has so far woven an incredibly dense, complex and engaging story. Although the books appear to be getting longer and longer they are also becoming easier and easier to read, a testament to the author’s flowing style and continually improving writing skills. Ruin boasts a cast of no less than fourteen point-of-view characters – FOURTEEN!! – reflecting the epic scale of the series. Far from being confusing, this actually enables us to see the events of the story from conflicting perspectives; and while it’s clear who the true ‘baddies’ are, many characters are formed in shades of grey and it’s fascinating to see their internal conflicts and motivations. Ruin is also notably populated with strong female characters – such as Cywen, Coralen, Fidele, Laith, Brina, and Kulla – who serve important roles even when relegated to the background. Although there are so many characters to keep track of, and although it’s been over a year since reading Valour, I found that I immediately remembered most characters from previous books, which just goes to show how much I’ve become invested in them during the many hundreds of pages of their story so far.

While I’m still not overly-fond of the A Song of Ice and Fire-style ‘named chapters’ in general, I have to admit that it really, really works here. Many chapters are fairly short and rapidly alternating, creating a sense of adrenaline and setting a breathless pace that had me fumbling to turn the pages faster and mumbling to myself, “just one more chapter”. Other chapters are longer and more detailed explorations of individual characters’ motives and emotions, providing intriguing insights into nearly every aspect of the overarching conflict. With so many disparate groups of characters to keep track of, each chapter becomes a keyhole through which we glean hints of what might happen, and through which we gain numerous perspectives on events. Viewing a battle – along with its associated victories, losses and deaths – from different sides of the conflict brings humanity to each and every character, whether ‘good’, ‘evil’, or in-between.

I said in my review of Malice that I’d like to see future battle scenes to be more personal and character-driven, and wow has that wish been granted. The prophesied God-War has finally begun in earnest, but Ruin shows the true face of what this kind of war would entail. Gwynne tells an incredible story of unlikely heroes, well-meaning villains and tired refugees; a story packed with messy skirmishes and small-scale ambushes; a story of confusing conflicts, with people on both sides getting lost and making mistakes, with losses slowly adding up and constant fighting taking its toll both physically and mentally. The action comes thick and fast and it feels as though the reader is there in the midst of it all, sweating and bleeding and dodging attacks from every quarter. The character-driven narratives and their focus on the immediacy of each situation makes it feel a lot less glorious, but a lot more real.

Needless to say Ruin is much grimmer and gorier than its predecessors. The Banished Lands are at war: no longer charmingly rural, the Celtic settings have become wild and threatening, with large parts of the novel set in uncharted forests, treacherous marshes and daunting giant ruins. This makes for some weird and wonderful imagery, and creates a tangible atmosphere of threat and tension. In fact there’s a real gritty feel to the entire story, and I think the point the author is making here with Ruin is: shit just got real. Despite this, Gwynne manages to create a sense of grimness and overwhelming odds without resorting to the George R R Martin method of mass-murdering every character in sight. Ruin’s underlying tone is, surprisingly, one of optimism: its characters are strong and determined, working together to cope with their losses and continue their attempts to achieve the impossible. Although bleak in places and sickeningly violent in others, grimdark this ain’t. And I like that.

It’s dark, thrilling and bloody. But Ruin’s strongest point is, for me, its characters. The author takes character relationships crafted throughout the first two novels – between friends, family, loved ones and, especially, animals – and brings them beautifully to the fore without overstating them, whilst also forging new ones along the way. He never lets us forget that this entire series is a sprawling net comprised of a thousand little strands of humanity, and that’s what makes it such an engaging and sometimes emotional read. Gwynne has really, really upped his writing game with Ruin, and I have every confidence that the final instalment of The Faithful and the Fallen will continue to thrill, continue to astound . . . and, of course, continue to make me cry like a baby.