14 January 2018

Review - Iron Gold by Pierce Brown

Iron Gold (Red Rising 4)
Pierce Brown
Hodder & Stoughton, 16 January 2018
HB, 626pp

I'm SO grateful to Hodder for an advance proof of this book.

If you have been reading my reviews for a while (oh, who am I kidding...) you'll know that I simply adored Pierce Brown's Red Rising trilogy (Red Rising, Golden Son, Morning Star) which describe the career of Darrow (The Reaper), a downtrodden slave from the mines of Mars who joins the rebellion and helps to overthrow the rule of the hateful, oppressive Golds.

The earlier trilogy is notable for its visceral, brutal descriptions of battle; for the tension in Darrow, who is originally set on vengeance but is also more than half in love with the life he could have among the Golds (whose society he infiltrates in order to destroy); for its depiction of Darrow's dark side (he is, not to mince words, a war criminal) and for numerous betrayals, reversals of fortune and a mounting body count that sees many beloved characters murdered, assassinated or simply killed on the battlefields of Mars, Venus and Luna.

It is a magnificent achievement, ending only when the Society of the Golds was overthrown and a new world could arise. Iron Gold picks up the story ten years later, and I was at first nervous that a continuation could only be an anticlimax.

And, yes, this is in many ways a less romantic tale, infused with the compromises and failures of any demokratic* society seeking to replace a tyranny. (The copy I've been given contains a Howler Directive, forbidding any disclosure of plot details. I don't want the agents of the Republic to hunt me down, so I won't be more specific about these.) Darrow is haunted by what he's done, and hamstrung by the messy politics of a new Republic. Shadows of Julius Ceasar here, perhaps, as a military strongman clashes with the civilian order he has sworn to uphold - heightened by the fact that Darrow established that civilian order.

But "less romantic" doesn't mean "less readable". The heady stuff of rebellion, of "breaking the chains" may be absent but in its place is a more sober, perhaps more grown up, vibe. The story is of a whole with those earlier books. This is the same Darrow with the same drives and, as before, we feel for him, for his dilemmas, his shortcomings. More, knowing how Brown puts his characters - and Darrow especially - through the wringer, we fear for him: for what may become of him and for what he may become.

It's the same potent mix that Brown has served up before, yet still fresh and with a whole new cast of characters whose stories run parallel with Darrow's. An embittered ex soldier on Luna. A pair of exiled nobles in the Rim of the Solar system, caught up in politics of the exotic Golds who live out there. A Red woman, freed from the mines of Mars only to face new perils. All of these narratives are in first person, as is Darrow's, creating a very demokratic (as it were) picture of the new world Darrow has made rather than one focussed on a single viewpoint. And they allow Brown to experiment with slightly different styles: for example, the ex soldier inhabits a noirish world, popping pills to kill his empathy as he walks a narrow line between time bosses and his former comrades.

In short, my fears were proved wrong. Brown has avoided writing a mere potboiler, an equivalent of the Star Wars prequel trilogy, by widening his scope to address new issues, new complexities, and the torments of new characters. And all without jeopardising the raw power of the original trilogy, the feeling of almost playful violence, the sense of the Heroic (in a Beowulf or Homeric style) which infuses Brown's work at its best. It's that mode which shows us just how compelling the Gold myth is to Darrow and of course to the Golds themselves. Amidst the chaos and suffering of "democraky" who wouldn't yearn for order, for strength, for freedom from having to take decisions? I don't think I've read another recent author who shows us the insidious nature of authoritarianism - and the lessons are if anything more sharp here than in the first three books. I won't make facile comparisons with the current political situation but this does also give the book a sense of urgency, of relevance. (And indeed a couple of times Darrow's Howlers explicitly refer to the Society forces as "fascists").

In short: if you loved Red Rising/ Golden Sun/ Morning Star then Iron Gold is just as good, and benefits from a bit more philosophical and political oomph. If you haven't read those books yet, I'd strongly suggest you read them first since while this book is relatively self-contained, reading it first will spoil details of the plots of the others which develop in a nicely layered way and are worth discovering little by little. When you've done that you ought to read Iron Gold immediately though.

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*The spelling Brown uses throughout, embodying the sneering Gold view that they are made to rule and that a polity which consults the lower Colours is a thing to be crushed.

7 January 2018

Review - Dark State by Charles Stross

Dark State
Charles Stross
Macmillan 11 January 2018
HB, 349pp

I'm grateful to the publisher for an advance copy of Dark State.

I always look forward to Stross's books, and I've been following his stories of world walkers since the start of the Merchant Princes sequence (in its original, six volume, form). So this is the 8th book in that series I have read, and I'm glad to be able to say that Stross is successfully keeping the books fresh, while engaging with events whose seeds were sown right back at the start.

He's done this by successively widening the scope. We began with one woman, Miriam Beckstein (now Burgeson) who originates in what looked then like "our" timeline and her discovery of her place in the relatively parochial, parallel timeline kingdom called the Gruinmarkt as part of its "world-walking" Clan. Over the original series the story broadened from fantasy-like beginnings to a technothrillery narrative which took in nuclear terrorism, drug dealing and ultimately revolution (in a third, steampunkish timeline).

Empire Games, the first part of this new trilogywent further, into the world of superpower rivalries (both within and between timelines), revolutionary politics, and counter-espionage. Dark State develops that, while also bringing to the fore the possibility of conflict with a scarily advanced civilisation from yet another timeline - one which would make events so far look like neighbours arguing over an unruly hedge. That may come in book three, or be the focus of a future trilogy - let's wait and see.

So much for context. What is Dark State like? As with the previous volumes, it's an assured, well-written story about competent people playing for high stakes. Rita Douglas, the daughter Miriam put up for adoption and who was brought up by Franz and Emily Douglas, is proving a capable agent for Homeland Security although the clash between the personal and the political is about to hit her hard. She has an additional resource to draw on in being part, via her adoptive parents, of the Wolf Orchestra, an East German spy ring stranded after the end of the Cold War. In Empire Games Kurt put the Orchestra on standby and now it's tuning up to play a final symphony.

Rita's counterparts in the New American Commonwealth (across several factions) and the regime in exile of the pseudo British kings are equally effective, making this book a game of chess played between very high ranking players. Almost everything is on the board from the start (Stross does reserve a few pieces) and the way the games goes very much reflects the character of the protagonists. By that I mean that while one's first impression is that Stross is doing a lot of telling not showing, that isn't in fact the case - what these people do is who they are, so we are learning about how a well imagined and diverse set of characters see their world(s).

For example, we have Elizabeth Hanover, a doubly exiled princess brought up among emigres and dreamers in Europe, apparently a minor piece on the board but very much taking her fate in her own hands. By the end of this book we have a clear picture of her and Stross is obviously reserving a big part for her in Book 3. If Merchant Princes was in part about deconstructing the "exiled nobility" trope in fantasy, Dark State takes that to a whole new level since Elizabeth is, literally, exiled nobility - in fact royalty - but won't be defined by that. In what may be a two fingered gesture to SFF conservatives, Stross explicitly makes Elizabeth and Rita women of colour (and yes, the context of the story totally allows for that).

Given Dark State's focus on espionage, tradecraft and general chicanery, it's not surprising that a lot of space is dedicated to surveillance (and how to mitigate it). All of the protagonists are playing this game on different levels to such a degree that tiny advantages or disadvantages make a big difference in the outcomes. It's clever, engaging, well thought through and fun to read (as well as potentially useful - "every phone was, by definition, a wireless bugging device", "orient, observe, and decide before you act"). I do have a slight reservation which is that we get something close to a stalemate: it all rather cancels out and the resulting plot turns in a number of key places on essentially chance developments. But maybe that's just true to life! ("The race is not to the swift, nor the battle to the strong, but time and chance happeneth to all...")

There's a wider point beyond this. Dark State is a world - a universe - a set of universes - which make political points about such matters as democracy, economic development, and the surveillance society. Stress has thought long and hard about this stuff (as readers of his blog will be aware) and offers plausible, and often troubling, conclusions. For example, the New American Commonwealth is about to lose its First Man (its equivalent of its President, although it's more of a "guardian of the revolution" role). Will a newly established democracy manage this transition or will factional rivalry turn into civil war?

The author gives us few outright heroes or villains: I would have said "no" but there is Rita's boss Col Smith who seems to have been responsible for the nuking of the Gruinmarkt in Merchant Princes. We may sympathise with the survivors of the Clan because they're Miriam's people, but they are, as one sceptical figure here notes, an aristocratic-minded sect within an egalitarian society (in the same way as they formed a state-within-a-state in the Gruinmarkt). At the beginning of the book Stross illustrates, using the Wolf Orchestra as an example, how such a sect can survive and keep itself safe within a wider society. He's essentially set up a situation where an alternate timeline (the New American Commonwealth) introduced as an apparent refuge for the world-walkers when their own was nuked by the US becomes itself an active and interesting project which the reader will want to see survive, Clan or no. Given Col Smith's record that seems an iffy proposition and if I were one of the Clan's opponents in the Commonwealth, I'd be pointing out that the hostility from the US is primarily directed at the Clan and that they might be becoming dangerous guests...

Individuals may be in shades of grey but there is however a clear denunciation of the extent to which, in this timeline, Ubiquitously Surveilled America has descended into an authoritarian state: the Fourth Amendment is a dead letter, one character here is spirited away into "night and mist" (and may face "destructive debriefing and recycling), we're told that "everything is terrorism these days: downloading, uploading, jaywalking with intent to cause fear", a sinister sounding "Defense of Marriage Act" is in force. At one point, visiting a club with Angie,  Rita welcomes "the comfort of public affirmation, of having a lover whose hand she could openly hold (at least in safe spaces like this), of having someone she could get sweaty on the dance floor with and who would take her home afterwards..." It's an excellent flash of personal experience and anguish to juxtapose against the grand themes of politics and espionage, even if we suspect Angie may find herself used by the spooks as leverage to control Rita.

The US Administration here is also riddled with conspiracy theorists, adherents of fringe religions and so forth, so much so that Rita is tasked, alongside obtaining valuable intelligence about the Commonwealth, with verifying a whole range of bizarre beliefs and theories the need to pander to which hinder Col Smith's operation at times (contrary to popular belief, fascism is not "efficient", and Stross highlights this in passing).

Some of this is genuinely funny, and as ever, Stross also makes the reader smile knowingly at some of his references: in this world, Ruritania is apparently a real country (one can travel to Strelsau but Elizabeth would rather not), there's mention of the "game of Empires" which must go one better than one of thrones, a Slaveowners' Treasonous Rebellion which was NOT THE SAME AT ALL as the US Civil War (even if it it is an excellent description...), there's a warning against curiosity because it is "felicidal" (think about it!), we have Brilliant unironically echoing Bogart when she says "Play it again... Play it Sam". More soberingly, there's a description in the historical Appendix of what happened after the French invasion of Britain which placed customs barriers on the canal system, "breaking up what had hitherto been the largest free trade zone in Europe" and causing economic disaster. (Hmmm...)

To sum up: this is an intelligent, sharp SF-espionage-thriller which nails some dark tendencies in present day politics and use of tech while building up an even more nightmarish threat in the depths of the timelines. Strongly recommended.





4 January 2018

Review - Mad Hatters and March Hares ed by Ellen Datlow

Cover by Dave McKean
Mad Hatters and March Hares: All-New Stories from the World of Lewis Carroll's Alice in Wonderland
Edited by Ellen Datlow
Tor, 12 December 2017
PB, 332pp

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

The playground that is Lewis Carroll's Wonderland begs to be peopled by authors, filmmakers, comic makers, indeed anyone with a creative spark who can produce a fresh take on the adventures of Alice and the surreal, sinister crew that she encountered down the rabbit hole and through the looking glass.

And so we have in this book an abundance: dark Wonderlands, Wonderlands turned into theme parks or battle fields, imaginary Wonderlands, Wonderlands that have spilled over into the "real world". We have White Rabbits (literal and metaphorical), Red and White Queens, Cheshire Cats (and other Cheshires), Jabberwockies, wabes and much, much more.

Above all, we have Alices. Alices of all sorts: little girls who fell down that rabbit hole, older women who came out, the real Alice Liddell, missing daughters, wayward Alices, tough cookie Alices. Alices as victims, as manipulators, as surrogates, as avengers.

All read at once, it is perhaps rather overwhelming, like eating a whole box of Christmas chocs in one go, and I wouldn't advise that (apart from anything else, many if not all of the stories evoke - mostly with some success - the jargon and atmosphere of Carroll's books and that is something which is perhaps best not taken in large doses). No, I'd suggest rather that you come and go: read a story, ponder, return. Hop around the book, depending whether you want pastiche Alice, Alice-with-a-twist or - and these were my favourites - Alice inspired fiction, perhaps with no Wonderland, indeed even no Alice as such, but with a sense of something.

As you fall down that rabbit hole, passing shelves and volumes, I offer the following as a brief guide, to help you choose what to read and in what order.

My Own Invention (Delia Sherman) - An Alice meets the Red Knight in a wood. Or is she a not-Alice? In Wonderland you can never be sure.

Lily-White and Thief of Lesser Night (CSE Cooney) is a beguiling piece of fantasy, clearly set in a Wonderland but not, for once, featuring an Alice. It's a nice story of fantasy and adventure set among the vorpal roses.

Conjoined (Jane Yolen - some of whose Alice stories were included in her The Emerald Circus which I recently reviewed, although not those featured here) is a story of the Tweedle twins touring with Barnum's circus.

Mercury (Priya Sharma) is a dark tale set in a debtors' prison not so far from the village of Daresbury where the real CL Dodgson is commemorated in church window.  It features a hatter and his daughter and the mercury that causes hatters' madness. The ensemble of Wonderland turn up in wonderfully distorted ways - a Duchess who is the boss of the jail. An Alice who's taught "Be tiny. be giant. Adapt to the dictates of the situation". A cat called Dinah. A Knave... Here, it's all about escape.

Some Kind of Wonderland (Richard Bowes) reimagines the Alice stories as a film made in 1960s New York, which is revisited by its stars, now advanced in age. Again, the Wonderland motif bleeds through into mundane reality raising possibilities of escape but also of entrapment in that beguiling pocket universe.

Alis (Stephen Graham Jones) is towards the horrific end of the whimsy-horror spectrum that these stories define, taking a familiar trope - foolish students experimenting with things that should be left alone - and giving it a distinctly Carollian twist involving a mirror. "Inspired by" rather than "interpretation of", I think, but nevertheless a fine and chilling story.

All the King's Men (Jeffrey Ford) is one of the odder stories here. Again it features motifs from Carroll's books, but is not quite set in either Wonderland or in any real world. It is more a nursery rhyme kingdom, complete with an evil Humpty Dumpty. It's an inventive, twisty tale, hauntingly effective, portraying a world which could surely feature in a longer piece of fiction.

Run, Rabbit (Angela Slatter) is firmly set in the (a) real world but in a seamy, noirish version of it. The Rabbit (something of a dandy) is on the run from the Queen, and he's late. Then he encounters a girl in a bar. Her name is Pleasance and she works in a garden, with roses. Rabbit works in import-export: don't ask in what he traffics or for whom. A truly seamy, shudder-inducing take on that original encounter between innocent Alice and the distracted Rabbit.

In Memory of a Summer’s Day (Matthew Kressel) is another rather twisted story, its embittered narrator working as guide ("I've been leading tours of Wonderland for forty years...")  in a tawdry version of Wonderland that's now run as a theme park. It's still not a safe place, though, as some of the visitors - and our narrator - discover. Memorable for the collision between the essential Wonderland magic, the sheer sinisterness of the reality behind that, and the hustle of the carnival, this one will stay in your mind a long time.

Sentence Like a Saturday (Seanan McGuire) points out that "doors swing both ways" as do stories and then rather brilliantly inverts the logic (or illogic) of Wonderland to ask what happens if somebody - or something - comes up the rabbit hole? A rather tender story, in point of fact, this contains multitudes and shows how strange our world would be - it runs on logic! - to a befuddled Wonderlandian exiled here. And the price they might pay. After all "a mother was the door through which tomorrow passed".

Worrity, Worrity (Andy Duncan) is another that might almost be a classical horror - I was strongly reminded of MR James. It focuses on Sir John Tenniel, illustrator of Alice, and his problem with wasps. Eerie, chilling and a nice counterpoint to the stories which actually take us to Wonderland.

Eating the Alice Cake (Kaaron Warren) is another horror story (I think!) There's no overt Wonderland here, quite the opposite: but we have an Alice, who has a consuming passion for food and a painful secret, we meet a Mock Turtle... and there are some familiar names and a mirror. It is a grim little story, slightly nasty in the manner of the best horror.

The Queen of Hats (Ysabeau Wilce) is a little different from the other stories here in that it takes the Alice mythology and transposes it into a new cultural setting: it's about a "poor tamale girl", locating the story in South America but also evoking a meta fictional world which might contain "Ticonderoga, Arkham, Cibola, Porkopolis, Beleogost, Goblin Town, Eboracum, Sunnydale" as well as that most fictional of locations, "London". These names are found on labels on a theatrical trunk, a trunk that contains many marvels, indeed, wonders... here the Wonderland settings are transposed to disused backdrops as might be found in an old style theatre, complete with wardrobe room and auditions for something called (to avoid bad luck) "The Oxford Play". What might that be?

A Comfort, One Way (Genevieve Valentine) speculates on the very question of the identity of an Alice, seeming to suggest that despite all appearances, Wonderland has its own logic and that this may lead it to consume you...

The Flame After the Candle (Catherynne M Valente), a long story, indeed practically a novella, is very much set in this world, the real world, until it isn't. Again it seems to suggest that to its hero, Olive (not, for once, an Alice) real world events and people foreshadow or parallel another, richer place ("Father Dear had left them for that pale, rabbity little heiress in London"). Olive's story is interspersed with an the story of an encounter between who great literary figures, scarred by their visits - whether real or not, is never quite sure - to Wonderland and Neverland. The two tales complement each other well and there are echoes between them, as there are echoes between Olive's own life and the fantasy behind the mirror. A truly enchanting fairytale with a rather bitter edge to it - my favourite in this volume.

Moon, Memory, and Muchness (Katherine Vaz) is another "real world" story. It invokes the tropes of Wonderland ("Everything screams, Eat Me, Drink Me") to tell a very sad story, set in present-day New York, about a mother's loss ("I turned my back, and the earth swallowed her.") A story about appearances, and hurting, and what comes afterwards. Very moving.

The book closes with Run, Rabbit, Run (Jane Yolen), a short poem and perhaps a warning that the childish delights of Wonderland will only carry you so far.

If there is a preoccupation that these authors return to time and gain it is perhaps, "afterwards". We see both the effect on the Alices (and others) of that time in Wonderland - a kind of theme of the effect on survivors of what was a very weird experience, whether treated as real or imagined. But we also see the effect on "real" people of their encounter with an author who, literally, wrote them into immortality. How does it change you to have your life defined at an early age like that?

Overall, a very strong collection of stories. Recommended.

2 January 2018

Blogtour Review - Dark Pines by Will Dean

Cover design by Kid-Ethic
Dark Pines
Will Dean
Point Blank, 4 January 2018
PB, 328pp

Happy New Year!

Today I'm joining the blogtour for Dark Pines by Will Dean. I'm grateful to the publisher for an advance copy of this book and for inviting me to take part.

I'm in the bullseye of a fucking murder forest and there are no lights on anywhere.

Dark Pines is a tensely compulsive thriller set in the gloom of a Swedish forest as the autumn shadows gather.

Tuva Moodyson returned from her life as a rising journalist in London - and from the weekends lost to drink - to be near her mother, who's terminally ill. Even though Moodyson hates the wilds and the forests and just wants bright lights, shops, restaurants and roads. But in the place she sneeringly calls Toytown, everyone's a hunter and the dark woods can't be ignored.

When, however, hunters begin to turn up dead in the woods, eyes gouged out, this also means everyone's a target. Suppressing her distrust of the outdoors and grabbing the chance to make her name through a career-defining story, Moodyson throws herself into the case, riling both natives (why can't she just write nice things about their town?) and the police. She also, however, begins to get close to the suspects in the remote hamlet where the bodies keep turning up.

A reclusive ghost writer.

Two sisters who make a living carving grotesque troll dolls for collectors - which they furnish with their own hair.

A taxi driver who seems to take a reciprocal interest in her.

Hannes and Frida who have, we are told "a good economy" (a phrase that recurs thought this book) and are well connected in the town. But Hannes is leader of the local hunters. Might he know more than he lets on about what is happening?

I was impressed by how Dean built tension, particularly through Moodyson's repeated excursions, alone, into Mossen village and its surrounding woods. The woods themselves seem like nothing more than a playground, an arena, for the strutting menfolk of the district who just seem obsessed with shooting things (and their right to do so). As the town slides into ruin about them - we are told of plenty of closed shops and failed businesses - they can only complain about a hunting ban imposed due to the murders. So it takes some considerable courage for a lone woman - especially one already resented and who actively fears the wilds - to go into those woods in pursuit of a story.

Moodyson is though a resourceful protagonist, who won't take "no" for an answer. Dean hints at some darkness in the past - not only her mother's illness and her father's death, but something in those London days suggests a shadow on her life. In addition, she has hearing loss and depends on hearing aids. Dean integrates the details of maintaining these - battery replacements, keeping them dry, problems with feedback and picking up background noise - into his story, showing her resentment at being patronised or at the ignorance of some. He also shows how helpful the aids are to Tuva, as when she wants to get her head down and do some work.

It's skilfully put together, not least in the way that the speech is made just "different" enough for the English to appear slightly foreign - as it might if it had been translated - without that obscuring the story. Dean also uses food to suggest contrasts between his characters: Tuva's hastily snatched McDonalds from the drive-through, her Thai friend Tammy's delicious street food served from her van, and the delicious sounding, but perhaps overreach, traditional Swedish food served up to Tuva in some of the homes she visits.

I felt there were a couple of loose ends - some threatening incidents that are explained but not fully - but this is an elegant and tautly written story, with a great sense of place, a likeable protagonist and a thrilling climax. I hope we hear a lot more of Tuva Moodyson in future.

For more info on the book see the publisher's page here.

You can buy Dark Pines from your local independent bookshop, including via Hive, or here, or here.