28 January 2015

Review: Near Enemy by Adam Sternbergh

Near Enemy
Adam Sternbergh
Headline, 2015
Paperback, 306pp

I was sent a copy of this book through bookbridgr

I also bought a copy because I got a bit impatient. Such is life...

Following Shovel Ready, published last year, Sternbergh has returned to a wrecked near-future New York and his antihero Spademan.

Spademan is - and there's no evading this - a murderer.  He makes his living carrying out contract killings - no questions asked. Disposal of the bodies is easy: Spademan's an ex garbage collector for the city.

When did it all go wrong for him? Probably the same day it went very wrong for New York - when the dirty bomb took out Times Square, and Spademan's wife died.  Now the city is bankrupt and those who remain and who have any money use it renting the equipment they need to live in "the Limn" - a virtual reality which leaves their physical bodies decaying slowly in real life, tended only by nurses. Like the Nurse who features in this book, and whose clients seem to attract trouble in the Limn...

Add a subplot involving Persephone, the woman Spademan rescued in Shovel Ready but who's now being hunted by members of her father's corrupt church; a Mayoral election (even the corpse of New York provides rich pickings); the possibility that a terrorist attack in the Limn may be imminent, and you get a heady, if slightly bitter, mix, told in a laconic, noirish style - and we see here that Spademan may be consciously adopting that style, and why:

"Next morning. Sun comes knocking.
Check the clock again. 6 a.m.
I sit up. Bed's empty. Nurse is dressing in the doorway. Tugs her crepe-soled shoes on, over white stockings.
Morning, Spademan. You hungry?
I find my shirt. Tell Nurse.
I am. I know a place. You like waffles?
Who doesn't like waffles?
I have to admit. I'm really starting to warm up to this Nurse."

There's no shortage of graphic violence.  Spademan's New York is a dog-eat-dog place, and he's no saint.  But I think we do see a softer side here.  Not only has he a sort-of family to fight for, in place of seeking revenge for his wife's death, but we get some clues about his early life and the chances he missed - which now make him seek redemption by saving another.

An excellent sequel, easily as good as the original, and I think setting up the possibility of a further sequel.

Well worth a read, if you like alt-noir.

25 January 2015

Review: Golden Son by Pierce Brown

Golden Son
Pierce Brown
Hodder & Stoughton, 2015
Hardback, 464 pages

I bought this book from Wallingford Bookshop and I absolutely loved it to bits. I enjoyed every word, and read more and more slowly as I approached the end, because I didn't want it to finish. ('Morning Star', the third and final part of the series, is due next year).

But that doesn't make for an easy review. Not only is 300 word of gush offputting, but this is a big, meaty, complex book which deserves a decent discussion - I hope I can do it credit.

'Golden Son' picks up several years after 'Red Rising ends.  Darrow, the lowly born Red who, in the previous book, infiltrated the ranks of the privileged Golds and stormed to victory in the Institute, has signed up to serve Nero, tyrannical governor of Mars - and father to the Jackal, who attempted to cheat his way to success at the Institute.  Nero seems to bear no ill will to Darrow for beating.  In the Society of the Golds, power and victory are their own justification.  But woe betide Darrow if he stumbles for even a moment...

Alongside Darrow's need to demonstrate assurance and military prowess as a Gold, he is also part of a rebellion led by the enigmatic Ares, aiming at the overthrow of the Golds. But Darrow has heard nothing from Ares for years, and is left to do the best he can, unsure of what, if any, role he is meant to serve in the rebellion.

And as if that isn't complicated enough, there's Darrow's ambiguous relationship with Mustang, Nero's daughter, who helped him defeat her brother in Red Rising - who he won't let himself get close to because of the memory of his wife Eo, executed by order of Nero.

While the obvious comparator for Red Rising would be The Hunger Games, this book reminded me in many ways of Frank Herbert's Dune, which used a similar background of warring noble families under a Sovereign, of space, treachery and power plays and also a universe where pity, kindness, fellowship and liberty are frowned on.  But, just as Red Rising is a better, more complex book than Hunger Games, so I actually think that Golden Son is better than Dune*, because in the character of Darrow, Brown gives it such heart.

Darrow is an outsider, not a noble: if his secret became known his 'friends' would turn on him at once. He is driven by hate - for those who killed his wife - and love - of her, and of what she taught him.  In the course of the book he learns of things that will make him both hate more, and love more and that puts pressure on him, as if his dual life wasn't enough. The book makes no bones about the fact that part of Darrow enjoys the strength he's got, the power and the glory that he earns. Part of him would make a good Gold. At the same time, he only has this power and glory because of Ares and the wars he fights for Nero, against other Golds, the sacrifices he demands of both Gold friends (there is a high body count) and of lower born Blues, Greys and Obsidians are really a sham, directed at a cause he doesn't believe in and intends to betray.  Out of such crooked timber, how can anything true be made?

Not only is this situation fascinating and Darrow a compelling protagonist, but the book is also very well written, Brown using language easily and naturally but to great effect - for example, describing an individual Gold in words that seem to echo the heroic cadences of Beowulf:

'With them, shorter than the rest but more glorious, is the Protean Knight in her golden gear'

or evoking the chaos and destruction of a space battle:

Fire and lightning rule space. Behemoths of metal belch missiles back and forth, silently pounding one another with all the weapons of man. The silence of it, so eerie, so strange. Great veils of flak explode around the ships, cloaking them in fury, almost like raw cotton tossed into the wind...'

Here he is making sly references to contemporary SF, thereby heightening the sense of reality of his universe:

'"He's hiding. Unless he teleported." He spits that bit of science fiction.'

'Railgun ordnance smashes into our hull, though we do not feel the reverberations here on the bridge. Our equipment does not spark. Wiring does not fall from overhead compartments...'

It isn't perfect.  At times I found myself wondering just how Darrow, raised at the bottom of the heap as a miner, would have been able to learn so much, so quickly.  (At one point he recognises, tattooed on the arms of a starship captain 'the Larmor formula. Maxwell's equations in curved space-time. Wheeler-Feynman absorber theory...')  More fundamentally, I still don't understand why all those Red miners are need to extract 'Helium 3' from under Mars - one would have thought that surface drill-rigs could do the job...?

But that's to quibble, and possibly to miss something deeper about the universe that Brown has created.  This future isn't a necessary or likely evolution of the society we live in. The books make very clear - Golden Son gives more details - that this is a very deliberately constructed Society, designed to afford its rulers particular advantages but at the same time trapping them in a cycle of rivalry and conflict.  All of the lesser roles in that world are as deliberately planned, with Red society, for example, designed to be very patriarchal and the soldier Obsidians manipulated via their shamans.  It is this that Darrow sets himself against - and one fears that the designers have foreseen and even require rebellion, as an essential part of the whole.  What Darrow is heading into with the third book, I can't even imagine, but I'm waiting eagerly for it...


*Publicists - there's your headline: "Better than Dune" - David, @bluebookballoon

11 January 2015

Review: The Liar's Chair by Rebecca Whitney

The Liar's Chair
Rebecca Whitney
Mantle, 2015
Hardback, 224 pages

I was sent this book by Amazon as part of their Vine programme.

The chair belonged to teenage Rachel. When things got too bad, she'd hide in the airing cupboard in the corner of her bedroom, padlock the door form the inside, and sit on her chair.

Years later, as an adult, Rachel has her fears under control. She's married to David. They have worked hard, their TV production company is successful, and they have all they could want. Yet all of this is fragile.

Driving home one morning, Rachel does something terrible, something she tries to cover up. The stress of this, however, undermines her hard won self assurance and she begins to fall apart... or at least, that's how David might put it.

This book is in many ways a painful one to read. We're firmly with Rachel all the way, despite what she's done, and it's harrowing to see her begin to lose herself to guilt, fear and bullying. Whitney includes just enough backstory to help the reader understand how Rachel came to be as she is - it's less about specific events than about the atmosphere, the situation that surrounded her childhood.

The reader - any decent reader anyway - will want Rachel to turn around and defy her tormentors (whether in the 1970s flashbacks or the "now" parts of the story) - but that would be untrue to the reality of the mess she's in, I think.

Not that Rachel is a mere passive victim. She knows what's going on, and does what she can to protect herself, but she's under attack not only from her own past and actions but from her husband, whose behaviour in the present is pretty monstrous.

This was the only point where I felt that Whitney lost her touch slightly - we understand why Rachel is like she is, but David appears as something of a caricature of an abusive husband, with very little insight given about his past. And his rapid development from tyrannical husband and TV producer to local crime boss was a bit hard to swallow.

Setting that aside, this is an extremely readable and tension- laced psychological study with a real and developing sense of menace. Not a happy book, but a thrilling one.