31 October 2015

Review - Made to Kill by Adam Christopher

Made to Kill
Vol 1 of the LA Trilogy
Adam Christopher
Titan Books, 3 November 2015

I'm grateful to the publisher for letting me have an ebook copy of this via NetGalley.

This is the first volume of a projected trilogy featuring Raymond Electromatic, PI (ostensibly) and the last robot on Earth. Based in Los Angeles in an alternate 1960s full of shady nightclubs, dangerous dames and mean streets, Raymond is in reality an assassin (how this came about is summarised in the book, but told in more detail in Christopher's earlier ebook novella Brisk Money so if you plan to read this book you might want to try that one first). 

Working with his partner Ada the AI (there are lots of sly tech and SF and cultural references here - at one point Raymond has "a feeling somewhere in the diodes down my left side", at another a woman turns up who "had a tattoo of a dragon curling down her spine") Raymond uses his PI status as a cover for a profitable line in killings. Or so he's told - as his memory tape only lasts a day, he wakes afresh every morning with no recollections. 

So it's no surprise when a beautiful woman walks in wanting someone killed...

Full of noirish references and Cold War chicanery, this is a fast paced and action filled story though the plot doesn't perhaps bear too much examination. And given that Raymond weighs one ton and is built from steel plate, there's little sense of jeopardy, of danger, of Raymond running the risk that he'll be beaten up and left an an alley somewhere. Rather, I'd say the book is best seen as a framework for Raymond's deadpan dialogue ("I laughed. I'd been practicing. It sounded like two rocks going for a joyride in a clothes washer" "If I had an eyebrow I would have raised it, but I didn't, so i just kept on going down") and for the developing relationship between him and Ada. 

We never glimpse Ada. Her hardware is hidden in a computer room from which occasional sounds emerge (the clacking of reed relays sounding like a typewriter) but she only communicates by telephone, calling Raymond to offer advice or trade wisecracks. She is though firmly in control, giving Ray his orders - and it was her idea to go into the assassination business, strictly as a money raising venture (that brisk money again). Yet Raymond has his own ideas about her, hearing her as a femme fatale, feet up on her desk, wreathed in smoke. Can robots dream of electric girls? It seems so - especially in one episode towards the end of the book when we almost expect Ada to appear from behind the curtain. 

I would hope that the other books in this series will follow that relationship as it evolves (it already has, to a degree, from the earlier novella to this (still comparatively short) book as well as revealing more about Raymond and Ada, their mysterious maker, and exactly what they're up to (I don't quite buy the whole PI/ assassin step somehow...)

Entertaining, amoral and subtly different.

28 October 2015

The Traitor by Seth Dickinson

The Traitor
Seth Dickinson
Tor, September 2015
HB, 387pp

I bought my copy of this book from Wallingford Bookshop.

When The Traitor was recommended to me I was told it was dark and, gosh, is that true. It won't please the "I didn't like the central character" crowd at all. But it is a cracking read nonetheless.

Baru Cormorant, the traitor of the title (something made explicit in the US version which is called The Traitor Baru Cormorant) certainly grows and matures over the course of the story. We meet her first as a young girl on the island of Taranoke, living with her family - her mother, Pinion and her fathers Salm and Solit. Strangers have arrived on the island, merchants from Falcrest with their strange paper money and their tempting goods. "The Masquerade sent its favourite soldiers to conquer Taranoke: sailcloth, dyes, glazed ceramic, sealskin and oils..." The Masquerade is a strange Empire, funded on the overthrow of an apparently decadent aristocracy, alive with missionary zeal: it aims to not just to conquer but to rule and control, imposing a harsh, Puritanical system of morals (one certainly inimical to a family with two fathers) and ultimately controlling racial "bloodlines" as though people were no different to livestock.

Yet it is a strong Empire, and it rules intelligently, finding talent wherever it arises and pressing it into service. As with Baru, who turns out to be gifted, a savant who willingly enters the school of the Charitable Service and trains for the gruelling Civil Service exams. (This may be the first fantasy book I've read where the central character is an accountant!) Even though the Masquerade has murdered one of her fathers in the most horrible way imaginable.

So: Baru is a traitor to her people? Perhaps not. Se declares to herself that she will rise within the Falcresti civil service and bring liberty to Taranoke. So: is she a traitor to Falcrest? Both, seemingly - and she certainly harbours a secret that would bring punishment from her new masters: she loves women, not men. Such "tribadists, once discovered, are dragged to the Cold Cellars for surgery to correct the "defect".

Baru is sent to a distant, Northern province, the puzzling territory of Aurdwynn, newly conquered, divided between its quarrelsome Dukes (and Duchesses), fragmented by geography. Here she must prove herself to the Masquerade. Even as she learns that the name of her homeland has been changed, she must demonstrate both loyalty and ability. But here is a dilemma. Aurdwynn is on the verge of rebellion. Should Baru join the rebels - and should they succeed - she will indeed gain power. But can they succeed? At the heart of this dilemma is the so called "Traitor's Qualm": the lukewarm will only join a rebellion once they are convinced it can succeed, bit to succeed, it needs their support. Can Baru find a way to break the Qualm? And what will be the effect on her calculation of the - highly distracting - Duchess Vultjag, who begins as an enemy but could easily become something else.

And if she establishes herself in a freed Aurdwynn, what happens next? What will become of her family left on Taranoke? There is a strong focus on consequences, and nobody trusts to wishful thinking (or, indeed, trusts very much at all).  The book is written in grain, in coin, in the practicalities of transporting and feeding soldiers. It is not a story about a tiny band defending what is right against the dark forces of an evil empire - the revels do some truly awful things and many of them deliberately while the Falcresti saying, "Order is preferable to disorder" has much force.

Despite the moral ambiguity it's a highly engaging book, full of plots, gambits, strokes and counter-strokes. Baru navigates these deftly, and in Aurdwynn Dickinson has a developed a suitable theatre for politics and treachery both between the different Duchies and between them, Baru and the Falcresti authorities. There are wheels within wheels here: Baru's post is ostensibly that of Imperial Accountant but she is also involved with a shady cabal which she deduces is actually the real power behind the Falcresti throne - and their interests don't always seem to be aligned with those of the Imperial Governor.

Baru is increasingly isolated, turning to drink as she sacrifices more and more to her need for power and suppresses more and more of her true self. The transformation from the happy, bright girl of the early pages to the later Baru is expertly, if grimly, done: in summary this book does not make for light, escapist reading but is nevertheless an excellent read. I'd strongly recommend it.

21 October 2015

Review - Luna: New Moon by Ian McDonald

Ian McDonald
Gollancz, September 2015
PB, 382pp

I saw this book when it first came out and nearly bought it it but just didn't quite, as with so many books - my TBR pile is really a health and safety nightmare, and I'm trying to train myself not to buy so much. Typical that I should overcompensate and I want to thank Kate who pressed this book on me and made sure I'd read it.


What. A. Book.

The blurb basically describes this as "The Godfather on the Moon" and I can see that - and that's a pretty good description for a mainstream audience. For SFF readers, I'd say: No, it's Dune for the 21st century - but done much better.

Dune is a book about conflict and rivalry between wealthy dynasties competing for power and resources on an inhospitable, sparsely populated planet. So is Luna. But while Dune, a book of the 60s, has an epic, Lawrence of Arabia sweep to it - all those battles on the desert sands of Arrakis - Luna equally fits the 2010s. Instead of the grand sweep of history we get a close up story as perceived through gossip sheets and blogs ("Three days to the wedding of the year! What will the boys wear? Here are spreads of Lucashino Corta's latest looks...") Much of the action is underground in confined, or at least limited, spaces - sweaty tunnels and artificial habitats deep beneath the surface, excursions to which are rare and fraught with danger.

Five "Dragons" control trade on the Moon, five families, the Cortas, the Mackenzies, the Vorontsovs, the Suns  and the Asamoahs. The rivalry between the Cortas and the Mackenzies is especially fierce and plays out in this book, seen through the eyes, mainly of Corta siblings and Marina Calzaghe, an emigrant to the Moon. (Another parallel with Dune - that sense of exile from a blue, wet world - in both Marina and in Adriana Corta, matriarch of her dynasty: she's the only first person narrator here, telling the story of how she came to the Moon, what she gave up and what she gained). The Moon is a harsh world, with many ways to kill. There is little law, only contracts negotiated on the fly between "familiars" - holographic AIs that company every character. Nothing is owned, all id on loan from the Lunar Development Corporation with air, water, carbon and data paid for by use. (If you run low on funds your breathing is restricted).

Earth is a distant memory for some, a legend for others. Live long enough on the Moon and your bones change, you can't return. Your body becomes the property of the LDC, to be turned into comps when you die. One character here, recently arrived from Earth, talks of being scared every moment of every day - and that fear pervades this book, even as the characters try different ways to block it: power games in the boardroom, hedonism (designer drugs from the printer, two week binges in bars and nightclubs), sex.

There is though much, much more going on here. It's a powerful, character driven story. We feel for Adriana, for Ariel, her daughter, for Lucashino, her grandson, for Flavia, surrogate mother of three of Adriana's children. McDonald makes them into real people, fascinating people. It's a long book and - from a certain perspective - not a great deal happens much of the time but simply spending time with these characters in enthralling in itself. Yes, there is scheming, there are Machiavellian plots within plots - betrayals, daring coups and simple brutality (I lost count of the number of deaths in the book). But that is almost incidental to the developing relationship between Ariel and Marina, or between Marina and Carlinhos, or the baffled hurt between Wagner and Adriana or - even - the bluff and bluster among the Mackenzies. (Another Dune parallel: the Mackenzies may fill the same niche here as the Harkonnens. They may also have a paralysed, brutal patriarch.  But they are realer, better portrayed, more three dimensional).

This may not be an action filled book but, when it does happen, the action is also real, nail biting and high-stakes - from the opening, a barefoot moonrun through freezing/ boiling vacuum, to the final page.

Like its comparator this is a book full of ideas, portraying a credible world crowded with possibilities.

Above all it leaves you wanting more - and promises to be able to sustain more.

Strongly recommended.

9 October 2015

Review - Lost Girl by Adam Nevill

Adam Nevill
Lost Girl
Pan, 22 October 2015
PB, 448pp

I'm grateful to the publisher for an e-copy of this book via NetGalley.

"Lost Girl" is the story of a missing child, and a father. As the world goes to hell, he focusses on his search for her. At any cost, whoever dies, whatever pain he has to suffer, he will find her.

Two years ago, Penny disappeared. She was playing in the garden by herself: her father, who should have been watching her, was upstairs, flirting by email. Is that why he is so driven to trace her, get her back? Is it guilt? Is it an attempt to atone, to flee from the empty life that's left after she was taken? Nevill doesn't quite tell us, preferring instead to communicate the simple fact of the father's drivenness, amplified by the fact that we never learn his name: throughout the book he remains, simply, the father.

This singleminded hunt is heightened because of the background to the novel. It is 2051, and runaway global warming has taken hold. The summers become hotter every year, crops are failing even in relatively buffered Britain, forest fires and droughts sweep the globe and India and Pakistan are on the verge of war over the declining rivers. A mass movement of refugees crosses Europe ("more and more coming in every day in great noisy leviathans of motion and colour and tired faces") and the population of the UK stands at 90 million (or 100, or 120... the Emergency Government isn't sure). Nationalists, jihadists and crime syndicates strut their stuff. Disease sweeps the globe (it's like the Four Horsemen have found a new partner,and enabler in climate change). Nobody has time or attention for one missing four year old. Except the father. Has he the right, we wonder, to pursue his own crusade like this? But if he doesn't who, who will?

It turns out that there are few like-minded souls who are happy to cooperate - or perhaps, one might think, use the father for their own ends, threatening sex offenders and imposing a kind of wild justice. It's a murky area and he'll take any help he can get - from the woman he only ever hears on the phone (except once...) and who he calls Scarlett Johansson, from the man who becomes Gene Hackman. They support the father, arm him and supply information - but can they really control what they've created?

Nevill's two most recent books, No One Gets Out Alive and House of Small Shadows have been unequivocal horror, albeit of a special kind: not so much spooks and spirits as the despair to be found in a dusty, abandoned country house or a rundown inner city terrace full of rustling plastic sheets and sticky, unwashed crockery. Here he maintains the emphasis on the seedy - as the world winds down, the father inhabits a string of decaying B&Bs, living off processed soya and Welsh rum.  For normal people the world is going to rack and ruin. Only the super rich, or the criminal gangs, have any normality left. But the supernatural? The horror? Well, you'll have to decide, and you can call this a near future thriller or SF if you want, but for me, the horror (the horror!) is rather more stark because it is a credible portrait of what might actually happen, not a piece of fantasy. Perhaps we need more horror like this to shock us into action.

So while this book is not quite what I'd come to expect from Nevill, it is, I'd say, quite properly a horror story and the writing is superb (perhaps a little info-dumpy in places, maybe a few too many lists) but haunting, eloquent and deeply troubling: "...a never-ending carousel of flame, black smoke, glass-strewn streets, bodies under tarpaulins, riot shields glittering in sunlight, placards, aerial footage of felled buildings in other countries, churning brown water moving too fast through places where people had once lived, trees bent in half, tents and tents and tents stretching into forever..."

And that's before we even get to the nihilistic criminal cult of King Death, which is rooted in the decay of our civilization and seems to want nothing but darkness and chaos, but also to be a symbol of it. While the climate change is human caused, the book seems to say, it is still assailing our civilization from outside - and we can, with concerted effort, repel it, plan, allocate, rebuild, confront it. But the enemy we can't defeat, because it is internal, is the human will to death, the selfishness, stuff-you-I'm-alright which is at its purest form in the crime syndicates and the gated communities of the rich, hoarding, thieving, fencing out, killing - a microcosm of what went wrong to cause the disaster in the first place, carrying on as normal, learning nothing.

This is a chilling vision of the future. And normally one might gain some relief from a horror story when the book closes and the bad things end, on closing this, my thoughts were rather that they might only be starting.

2 October 2015

Review: Sorcerer to the Crown by Zen Cho

Sorcerer to the Crown
Zen Cho
Macmillan, 2015
HB, 371 pp

I bought my copy from Blackwell's in Oxford.

This is a book that's attracted a lot of interest, and in my opinion, rightly so.

It is the story of two outsiders - the Sorcerer of the title, the self-contained, somewhat shy Zacharias Wythe and the somewhat impetuous Prunella Gentleman, orphan and would-be magician.

With the Napoleonic wars at their height, Britain is not a society to welcome outsiders.

Zacharias is an outsider because he is an ex-slave and African, Prunella because, as a woman, she's not supposed to practice "proper" magic, the domain of the Society of Unnatural Philosophers (basically a nasty social club full of snobs and bigots). The tension between these two and the Society (and... Society) is what gives this book its drive and zest.

Zacharias thinks only of his duty - to a nation and a class that would rather he didn't exist (and the book reveals what that cost him) - and has a job to do: English magic is draining away, and he needs to find out why. Of course his opponents only see this as an excuse to be rid of him, and are prepared to resort to the most horrible means to do so. They do, though, seem to have latched on to a dark secret: what really happened to Zacharias' predecessor, who die in strange circumstances, and his fairt familiar, Leofric? Zacharias doesn't want to talk about is but unless he can find a plausible explanation his time as Sorcerer to the Crown may be ended in a most unpleasant way.

Prunella wants a husband, not because she's particularly romantically inclined, but simply to give her a place, an income so that she can survive in Society, there being few roles for a single woman in the complicated hierarchy of the ton. So despite being a talented magicienne she aims first for an introduction to the right circles - despite the feelings that she starts to develop for Zacharias.

In doing justice to her characters Cho shows a great sensitivity, especially, to language, giving all of them - from a flustered schoolmistress to a young buck about town to a pompous Government flunky - a convincing Regency voice. But she also wraps up the racial and gender aspects with a good dose of post Colonial home truths for a complacent age (the country's magical difficulties are not helped by an inept far eastern imperial adventures) and shows how fantasy, whether or not in an actual historical setting, only benefits from diverse characters and from engaging with identity and history.

I apologise if that last bit makes the book sound preachy. It's really not. Above all it is well written, the characters credible and well portrayed, the story pacey and convincing (and at times very funny, with moments of pseudo Wodehouse absurdity in a proto Drones Club as a young man tries to avoid his fearsome Aunt's orders to give a speech at a girls' school).

And the denouement is genuinely... shocking.  I'll just say that behind the Jane Austen-esque manners, Prunella has real steel in her soul and a streak of ruthlessness that left me gasping.

So, as I said above, I think this book is deserving of the praise and attention it has received. For once, this is a story that lives up to the hype.

Finally, and not least, the UK hardback is simply a beautifully designed object.