Saturday, 26 September 2015

Review: 'Last Argument of Kings' by Joe Abercrombie


The end is coming. Logen Ninefingers might only have one more fight in him but it's going to be a big one. Battle rages across the North, the King of the Northmen still stands firm, and there's only one man who can stop him. His oldest friend, and his oldest enemy. It's past time for the Bloody-Nine to come home.

With too many masters and too little time, Superior Glokta is fighting a different kind of war. A secret struggle in which no one is safe, and no one can be trusted. His days with a sword are far behind him. It's a good thing blackmail, threats and torture still work well enough.

Jezal dan Luthar has decided that winning glory is far too painful, and turned his back on soldiering for a simple life with the woman he loves. But love can be painful too, and glory has a nasty habit of creeping up on a man when he least expects it.

While the King of the Union lies on his deathbed, the peasants revolt and the nobles scramble to steal his crown. No one believes that the shadow of war is falling across the very heart of the Union. The First of the Magi has a plan to save the world, as he always does. But there are risks. There is no risk more terrible, after all, than to break the First Law...

 I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again: Logen Ninefingers and Sand dan Glokta are two of my favourite fictional characters ever, and re-reading the third instalment of the First Law trilogy has firmly cemented my opinion. Glokta’s sardonic internal monologues are a continual source of entertainment, and he continues to shine as a despicable yet pitiable anti-hero; while Logen’s increasingly difficult struggle against his own nature provides a sympathetic and captivating counterpoint to Glokta’s dry wit. Almost as enthralling are Jezal dan Luthar and Major West, each of whom are interesting, sympathetic and likeable in different ways; and of course let’s not forget the jewel that is Ardee West. As always the dialogue is superb, totally engaging and frequently funny, and Abercrombie has an incredible knack of conveying a huge amount of character information through just one or two lines of conversation.
So, as far as characters go, Last Argument of Kings is almost faultless. But is the plot up to scratch? I said in my reviews of The Blade Itself and Before They Are Hanged that, although entertaining, both books were considerably lacking in action. Not so with Last Argument. Here, everything set up during the first two books finally – finally! – comes to a head. In short: stuff happens. And it’s awesome.
Gone is the endless travelling; gone is the continual bickering between characters. We’re no longer being prepared for huge events: we’re being thrust into the centre of them. Goodbye setup, hello payoff! Last Argument is full to the brim with spectacular set pieces, bloody battles and malevolent magic, not to mention a plot twist or three. Having read the book before, albeit several years ago, I was able to fully appreciate the way the final events were set up: the pacing is outstanding, and if anything I enjoyed the twists even more because this time I was able to spot all the little clues and hints leading up to them.
I’ve said before that Abercrombie is a master at pulling the rug out from beneath us, and has frequently shown a fondness for manipulating characters and events in ways that totally shock (and sometimes outrage) his readers; Last Argument is the first, and perhaps finest, example of his skill at doing this. Readers of the First Law trilogy will have known from the beginning that none of the protagonists are squeaky-clean (far from it!); in fact, pretty much every single character we meet is highly flawed in some way or another. However, we as readers like to believe that we know exactly who is a ‘goodie’ and who is a ‘baddie’ . . . and this is the point where Abercrombie kicks us where it really hurts. Last Argument makes it agonisingly obvious that the characters we all know, and love, and root for . . . are actually rather despicable. And vice versa: those characters we love to hate may indeed be better human beings than those we previously identified with the most. In short, our heroic protagonists are, in fact, pitiful wretches, with one or two who could accurately be labelled as villains.
Last Argument is where Abercrombie really begins to show his (rather gloomy) fascination with the futility of attempting to change one’s nature, a theme continued in Best Served Cold. It makes for a truly engaging and captivating read – as long as you’re not too bothered about happy endings, of course. Abercrombie characteristically ensures that not everyone gets what they deserve: he rewards the ruthless, screws over the virtuous, and even sends a fair few unlucky ones back to the mud.
Revisiting the original First Law trilogy has been insanely enjoyable. I actually felt kind of sad as I neared the end of this Last Argument re-read – as though I was saying farewell to old friends, despite knowing that a few of them reappear in later books. Abercrombie's latest project is a collection of short stories set in the world of First Law, which is bound to be completely awesome, and I already can't wait to be reacquainted with some of my old favourites.

Monday, 14 September 2015

Review: 'The Final Empire' by Brandon Sanderson

A thousand years ago evil came to the land and has ruled with an iron hand ever since. The sun shines fitfully under clouds of ash that float down endlessly from the constant eruption of volcanoes. A dark lord rules through the aristocratic families and ordinary folk are condemned to lives in servitude, sold as goods, labouring in the ash fields.

But now a troublemaker has arrived and there is rumour of revolt. A revolt that depends on a criminal that no-one can trust and a young girl who must master Allomancy - the magic that lies in all metals.


Sanderson’s Laws of Magic. Those four words right there are one of two main reasons I’ve shied away from reading anything by Brandon Sanderson until now (the other reason being a contrary streak in my nature that makes me resist recommendations of prolific, well-loved authors until I bloody well choose to read them – against all logic and good sense, I know). To me, the words ‘laws’ and ‘magic’ have no right being in such close proximity to one another: magic, by its very definition, is nebulous, mysterious and unknowable. Fair enough, most fantasy stories wouldn’t be very interesting if magic didn’t have limitations and consequences; however, imposing strict rules and providing detailed definitions turns magic . . . into science. And correct me if I’m wrong, but most people who read fantasy are drawn to its, well, fantastical nature. They want to read about what is possible, not what isn’t.

Anyway. The disgruntled part of me – the part that knows that amazing books such as Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell are awesome precisely because of magic’s vagueness and unpredictability – expected to dislike this first outing with Sanderson, and to feel fully justified in continuing my grumbles about ‘laws’ and ‘magic’ into the foreseeable future. However . . . I really, really enjoyed The Final Empire.

The first book in Sanderson’s bestselling Mistborn series, The Final Empire is of course based around a strongly defined magic system. ‘Allomancy’ is the practice of swallowing metal and then ‘burning’ it in order to access magical powers, with different types of metal granting different kinds of power. It sounds ridiculous (I myself spent much of the novel with a nagging voice in the back of my mind whispering, “that can’t be healthy!”) but it’s actually very innovative, though at times it feels as though we’re being lectured about it in place of seeing it in action. Indeed there are large parts of the beginning of the story that consist of pages of exposition regarding the finer points of allomancy, giving it the feel of a scientific journal rather than an exciting fantasy (there’s even a helpful table included as an appendix, in case readers want to brush up on internal vs. external metals, and which ‘group’ they fall into). There’s too much telling and not enough showing, at least at the beginning.

I found myself feeling similarly spoon-fed as the main characters first came together to discuss the ‘grand plan’ that is the focus of the story. Not only do characters repeat certain points over and over again, but the main character also writes the main points of this super-secret plan in clear bullet points on a big blackboard, as though spelling things out s-l-o-w-l-y for us dull-witted readers. I also found the first few demonstrations of allomancy in action to be similarly repetitive, with almost each new paragraph of a fight scene beginning with the phrase, “Kelsier burned [insert appropriate metal here] and then [insert appropriate action here],” which became somewhat tedious.

Happily, the novel improves vastly as it progresses, and as we become more involved with its main characters. The two protagonists of The Final Empire are radically different: one is a reckless, egotistical man, cocky and confident in his mastery of allomancy; the other is a young fearful street girl, struggling to accept that she too has powers, and fighting against her natural instinct to distrust everyone around her. Although I know plenty of people are huge fans of Kelsier I found him to be irritating and unsympathetic for the majority of the novel, despite his tragic background and supposed charisma. My favourite character by far is Vin, and I really liked the way her character is developed: she gradually comes into her own as a main character rather than being thrust into the limelight, and I enjoyed the way that Kelsier begins to take a narrative backseat to allow Vin to come to the forefront instead. The allomantic combat scenes also become much more complex and exciting as the story focuses more and more on Vin, who is discovering new and interesting ways to apply her myriad powers to any problem she encounters.

Aside from the numerous exposition scenes at the beginning there is never a dull moment in The Final Empire. The characters are always busy setting things in motion, and the settings they occupy are varied and vivid, whether it’s a dingy mine, a royal ballroom or a mist-shrouded city street. The steadily increasing pace makes for an especially climactic build-up to the final events, and there are a few surprises along the way that keep the momentum rolling along nicely. The last couple of hundred pages in particular are full of just one more chapter-type excitement – not at all the stuffy, rule-obsessed pedantry I thought it would be – and I can’t wait to get hold of the next Mistborn book, The Well of Ascension. Against all expectations I now openly declare myself a Sanderson convert, and highly recommend The Final Empire to anyone who hasn’t yet tried his books.


Monday, 7 September 2015

Review: 'Rivers of London' by Ben Aaronovitch

My name is Peter Grant. Until January I was just another probationary constable in that mighty army for justice known to all right-thinking people as the Metropolitan Police Service, and to everyone else as the Filth. My only concerns in life were how to avoid a transfer to the Case Progression Unit - we do paperwork so real coppers don't have to - and finding a way to climb into the panties of the outrageously perky WPC Leslie May. Then one night, in pursuance of a murder inquiry, I tried to take a witness statement from a man who was dead, but disturbingly voluble, and that brought me to the attention of Chief Inspector Nightingale, the last wizard in England. And that, as they say, is where the story begins.

Now I'm a Detective Constable and a trainee wizard, the first apprentice in fifty years, and my world has become somewhat more complicated. I'm dealing with nests of vampires in Purley, negotiating a truce between the warring god and goddess of the Thames, and digging up graves in Covent Garden - and that's just routine. There's something festering at the heart of the city I love, a malicious, vengeful spirit that takes ordinary Londoners and twists them into grotesque mannequins to act out its drama of violence and despair.

The spirit of riot and rebellion has awakened in the city, and it's falling to me to bring order out of chaos - or die trying. Which, I don't mind telling you, would involve a hell of a lot of paperwork.

As a born-and-bred northerner I’ll admit I had doubts about how much I’d enjoy a book centred entirely around the life and culture of London . . . but against all my natural instincts I found myself completely charmed by Rivers of London.

Actually, perhaps ‘charmed’ isn’t quite the right word; rather, being whisked along on this peculiar journey down unfamiliar streets has left me blinking and befuddled – in a good way. Rivers of London is refreshing in that it never pretends to be anything other than it is: a shamelessly daft, irreverent and slightly ridiculous story told through a funny and engaging first person narrator.

Peter Grant is a regular dogsbody in the London Met until, in the face of all probability, he’s informed that “yer a wizard, ‘arry!” and roped into joining the hidden arm of the police dealing with cases of supernatural lawbreaking. Grant’s first case as a real copper is to find out who – or what – is snatching bodies and forcing innocent people to do unspeakable things. One of the first things that stands out about the book is that Aaronovitch doesn’t shy away from violence and swearing: both are fairly prolific, yet fitting with the characters and circumstances, and the swearing never feels gratuitous despite being used largely for humorous effect.

The plot of Rivers of London is enjoyably bizarre and for the most part very entertaining. There are moments of disjointedness where it feels as though the story may be losing its thread, but it always picks up again and for the most part skips along smoothly. The novel’s irreverent tone and down-to-earth characters go a long way towards combating stereotypes, as does the author’s self-awareness of the clichés he is drawing on (cue sarcastic comments and humorous Harry Potter references). To his credit, though, Aaronovitch mostly steers clear of clichés and tends instead to go for the unexpected. Ghosts? Yep, they’re real, only they’re a lot chattier and, well, cockney-er than you’ve ever seen them before. The goddess of the river Thames? She’s a Nigerian woman with a huge family and a fondness for custard creams. And the villain? Well, I won’t say anything about them, except that I never saw that coming. The way the protagonist just goes along with it all, resigning himself to his fate with a sigh, actually makes the magical aspects feel normal and totally credible: every time something new happens, be it a nest of vampires or a time-travelling ghost, instead of rolling their eyes the reader just shrugs and thinks, ‘oh, okay, cool.’

Rivers of London is a lot of fun. I can already tell the books in this series are going to be the sort of fast, fun reads that I can turn to whenever I need rescuing from a reading slump, or as a reprieve after reading something tome-ish. I get the impression that Rivers of London has barely scratched the surface of Aaronovitch’s crazy world, and I’m really, really excited to get my hands on book two, Moon Over Soho.


Tuesday, 1 September 2015

Review: 'Abaddon's Gate' by James S.A. Corey

For generations, the solar system -- Mars, the Moon, the Asteroid Belt -- was humanity's great frontier. Until now. The alien artifact working through its program under the clouds of Venus has appeared in Uranus's orbit, where it has built a massive gate that leads to a starless dark.

Jim Holden and the crew of the Rocinante a
re part of a vast flotilla of scientific and military ships going out to examine the artifact. But behind the scenes, a complex plot is unfolding, with the destruction of Holden at its core. As the emissaries of the human race try to find whether the gate is an opportunity or a threat, the greatest danger is the one they brought with them.


I’m starting to feel like a stuck record when it comes to The Expanse. Having just finished the third instalment, Abaddon’s Gate, I can do little but repeat what I’ve said about the other books in the series: I described both Leviathan Wakes and Caliban’s War as fun, fast-paced and accessible SF adventures, and that’s exactly what Abaddon’s Gate is as well.

The mysterious protomolecule has been busy since we last saw it at the end of Caliban’s War. After spending a year lurking beneath the gas clouds of Venus it has now emerged in full force and established an eerie manifestation near Uranus referred to by scientists only as ‘the Ring’. Anyone stupid enough to enter the Ring either disappears or is killed instantly. In a fragile alliance the three major forces of the solar system – Earth, Mars and the Outer Planets Alliance – embark on a research mission to try and determine what the protomolecule is really up to. But when hostilities break out once more between the allied forces the research mission becomes a race against time: figure out what the protomolecule wants, or be trapped inside the Ring forever.

The physical scale of the story in Abaddon’s Gate is larger than ever before, both in terms of the space travelled and the settings. Much of the book is set on a colossal starship known as the Behemoth – formerly the Nauvoo, a generation ship built to sustain human life for hundreds of years with the aim of colonising the far side of the solar system. However, there’s also plenty of the dizzying vacuum and stifling tunnel-crawling we’ve become accustomed to throughout the first two books, which is once again effectively used to create scenes of both claustrophobic desperation and pulse-pounding excitement.

On the whole I felt that Abaddon’s Gate suffered ever-so-slightly slightly in comparison to its awesome predecessor, Caliban’s War, though this is largely due to the absence of my two favourite characters from that book. Once again the only recurring POV character here is Jim Holden – who is thankfully just as likeable as ever, as are the trusty crew members of his ship the Rocinante. Although the other three main characters are also very engaging and sympathetic (albeit to vastly different extents) I just didn’t quite connect with any of them as much as I did with the characters from the first two books, although I have to admit that the way the relationship between Anna and Melba played out was fantastic.

That said, Abaddon’s Gate captured my interest totally from beginning to end. It’s a fast, fun, exciting, slightly OTT space adventure and once again I look forward to devouring the next book in the series, Cibola Burn.