Heartland by Lucy Hounsom

Publisher - Pan

Price - £7.99 Paperback

 

WARNING - Spoilers follow if you've not yet read Starborn the first book in the Worldbreaker trilogy

Kyndra has saved and damned Mariar's people. Her Starborn powers healed the land, but destroyed the magic which concealed them from invaders. How Kyndra must head into enemy territory to secure peace. She finds the warring Sartyan Empire plagued by dissident factions. Yet its emperor still has the strength to crush her homeland.

The Khronostrians, assassins who dance through time could help Kyndra - or be her undoing. And deep in the forest Char Lesko struggles with his own emerging powers. He's been raised by a mercenary, and her secrets could change the future and the past. But when Kyndra and Char meet, will their goals align? Kyndra has to harness the glory of the stars and Char must channel his rage or two continents will be lost.

You may recall I was very warm in my review of the first novel in the Worldbreaker trilogy - Starborn is one of my favourite fantasy debuts in recent years and I’ve been eagerly awaiting to find out what happened next in the sequel Heartland.  Luckily both remaining parts of the trilogy are out in 2016 (final part next month).  I'm pleased to say that Heartland is a step up in terms of scale, character and quality which now makes me just need the final volume right now….right now…….anytime now…

In the previous novel we left Kyndra having finally inherited her powers as a Starborn – someone who can literally summon ALL of the cosmic forces of the sky at any time. As part of this transformation she had the power to stop the various enchanted apocalyptic storms wrecking havoc on the local population but by doing so made she removed the enchantment that made Raimar finally visible again to the Empire it has been at war with several centuries ago and nearly conquered by. This novel explores the consequences of that how the Sartyan Empire reacts to their ancient enemies returning.  Kyndra and a small group of Wielders (people able to harness the energy of the Moon or the Sun) go on a scouting mission to find out if the Empire may now be ready to talk.

One criticism of Starborn is that it took a while to move from Kyndra’s home town to reaching the wider world of the wielders but in this book with all the set-up to explain how the magic system works now completed means Hounsom can march straight into the action.  Cleverly the story this time is divided between four main groups.  Kyndra trying to work out if the Empire is a threat; back home with her former protector Bregenne trying to persuade her fellow Wielders that it may be time to shore up the defences and interestingly two new groups from the Empire itself.  We meet General Hagdon a noble army commander who the Emperor has ordered to battle a local sect of mysterious assassins and most intriguing Char Lesko a young man who has become a slaver in tandem with his tough as nails guardian known as Ma.  These welcome additions show the Sartyans as a divided group on the brink of civil war.  I love a bit of palace intrigue and seeing the Empire as more than a group of evil monsters is a welcome change to some fantasy series out there.  Char is an interesting character who seems to be full of pent up rage and while initially I was not that sympathetic slowly we saw the struggle this young man is having particularly as he too seems to have a very different type of power to Kyndra’s.

I really enjoyed the way the novel poses different kind of problems for Kyndra and her allies to face. Kyndra a relatively young woman from a small village is now thrust into a tense and dangerous world of politics and strategy – she is initially reluctant to demonstrate her power as Starborn energy seems to have an impact on her humanity but when she finally uses it the effects are devastating. Where she now goes with this rather tempting ability to destroy is a growing theme in the story. When you are the most powerful person in the room how do you stop yourself going too far?  There are also some gloriously staged set pieces of violence and battle in this story which give the book a lot of energy as it balances the plots but at the same time it points out violence has consequences and how the cast start reacting to Kyndra sets up some interesting thoughts for the rest of the series.

I also must mention the addition of the Kronostians – assassins wrapped in bandages who can battle you by moving insanely quick through time - both eerie and a key mystery to the book is how this group relates to everyone else.  Hounsom has a really nice way of making a battle scene be visualized which is something I like to see in fantasy.

Middle books of a trilogy are always tricky, but I think Heartland is a successful tale as it is different beats to its predecessor, but I think uses the foundations of the world to give me a much more epic feel and surprises such as time travelling assassins were not what I expected.  Strongly recommended if you like modern epic fantasy.  As you’d expect there is a lot to now get resolved in the final volume Firestorm but start reading this now as wintry evenings on the sofa with a good book are what epic fantasy while feeling toasty on the burnt remains of your enemies as you read is the best feeling ever!

 

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Fight Like A Girl - edited by Roz Clarke and Joanne Hall

Publisher - Kristell Ink

Price - Out Now £3.99 e-book £9.99 Paperback

What do you get when some of the best known women writers of genre fiction come together to tell tales of female strength? A powerful collection of science fiction and fantasy ranging from space operas and near future factional conflict to medieval warfare and urban fantasy. These are not pin-up girls fighting in heels; these warriors mean business. Whether keen combatants or reluctant fighters, each and every one of these characters was born and bred to Fight Like A Girl.

The title to this fascinating anthology was an insult I'd heard many times growing up. A gendered slur saying women don't know how to fight as that's the man's job. In fantasy there was for many years a belief that women could either be there to be rescued or just have a single woman (likely in armour made to shapely display breasts) who would be allowed to play with the boys provided that at certain moments all competence would vanish; to allow the male hero to win/woo. Happily the genre is waking up the reality that women can be just as brave, focused and as skilled in violence as any man and in this collection we have a vast array of interesting writers to tell some storiesexploring what the phrase really means..

For me several highlights were

Coins, Fights and Stories Always Have Two Sides by Juliet McKenna- A strong opening sequence where a wily warrior camp chef in the winter season attempts to make some money as various warriors try to work out who is best and who is leading which gang in the future. It feels dirty, grimy and an air of scheming behind tent walls abides but you should be careful about who gets under-estimated....

The Women's Song by Nadine Andie - A training school of warrior boys has selected the next worthy male to face the final task. Trained in both the art of magic and battle the young warrior believes all he has left is to spend the night in a room with a young woman to make himself a man. He finds she has far more to teach him than he expected. Andie does some impressive re-telling of the rite of passage myth and gives us a modern, refreshing and impressively choreographed story with a clever final scene that lingers in the memory.

Arrested Development by Joanne Hall - Moving into the far future of a conquered Earth Hall delivers a tale of an aging cage fighter putting everything on the line battling regularly super powerful alien races. Her desire is to win not just for the joy of battle but for the future of herself.  When you realise what the story title signifies you will understand how much some people are prepared to risk. A grim world of concrete and decay is painted too to make you understand why this life is chosen.

Asenath by Kim Lakin-Smith - Probably my joint favourite story in the pack.  Almost calling to mind Italy's warring city states we have a young Doctor trying to bring in one of a future city's best mercenary gangs to help protect her patients. The mercenary gang's leader is a fascinating woman who balances traditional belief with a love of life and violence. There is double-dealing; beautifully created fight scenes and some tender moments of regret.  Just a fascinating world that isn't quite SF nor fantasy but a pleasing mixture of both.

The Quality of Light by K T Davies - This is a gracefully told story of one warrior preparing for her next battle. It balances working out how to survive the first encounter with the enemy with flashbacks to a more gentler moment from her childhood. It's all about the emotions felt by the warrior where they go to in such times; a desire to survive against all else and you feel the mud suck at your shoes as you read it. There isn't any debate of which side you're on being right this is about your survival this day.

Fire and Ash by Gaie Sebold - My other favourite tale looks at consequences. We find a warrior who has won her final battle at the cost of losing all her friends. She has nothing left and we meet her broken, traumatised and drunk. It's a well told story giving you a glimpse of an amazing warrior troupe now defeated and a character who is in grief that they are no longer in her life. It asks the question many fantasy stories ignore - what is next? A fine way to end the collection.

A good collection must offer variety and I think explore a theme and this easily manages it. Any of these stories could be a novel and you appreciate how many variations on a lead woman in the story there can be and how many worlds there could be to explore. As someone who strongly pushes for a bit more open mindedness in genre I really think this is an excellent way to start exploring outside of the stereotypes plus some more great authors to find!

 

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The Murderbot Diaries - All Systems Red by Martha Wells

Publisher- Tor

Price - £2.22 ebook (out now) £8.99 paperback

In a corporate-dominated spacefaring future, planetary missions must be approved and supplied by the Company. Exploratory teams are accompanied by Company-supplied securirty androids, for their own safety. But in a society where contracts are awarded to the lowest bidder, safety isn't a primary concern.

On a distant planet, a team of scientists are conducting surface tests, shadowed by their Company-supplied 'droid a self-aware SecUnit that has hacked its own governor module, and refers to itself (though never out loud) as 'Murderbot'. Scornful of humans, all it really wants is to be left alone long enough to figure out who it is. But when a neighbouring mission goes dark, its up to the scientists and their Murderbot to get to them.

I'm sure you like I have never have an urge to watch our favourite TV shows rather than work in the office and interact with colleagues. Ahem....look who doesn't want to just finally tidy up their Netflix list...anyway...oh yes the book. Murderbot I think is one of the most enaging action SF novellas I've read in ages and presents you with a fascinating character while also dropping you into a dangerous planet where not just the wildlife is out to kill.

This is a first person tale told through the eyes of a security android a mesh of organic and robotic parts with internalised weapons, computer brain, super strength and an ability to take serious damage and all to protect whoever the Company assign to her. While she may have a human face she is part of a long production line of unemotional squads assigned throughout the galaxy. Except no one has realised that after a disaster involving Murderbot a few years ago she has vowed never to be under direct Company control again and as a consequence now has her own view on following orders combined with a desire to avoid humans and just watch all her stored episodes of a soap space opera.

The character of Murderbot is the major selling point of the story.  We are plunged immediately into her narrating a rescue attempt demonstrating both her abilities and apparent lack of humanity although not shy of throwing herself into the action she is equally loathe to give anything away about herself to her human partybut when needed can take charge in a crisis. She hides behind a securirty visor and anytime her human face is on display makes her feel vulnerable. As the story progresses we find more about her history and I wondered if we were seeing a person who's past trauma had led to a form of depression or PTSD that she is trying to overcome. That feeling of just wanting to lose yourself in an internal world to recover while you are also under demands from work and people around you to engage with the world. Murderbot feels lost after her past and as becoming self-aware is illegal telling people about it would lead to the wiping of her memory she can't tell anyone what she is thinking.  This makes her a lonely figure yet she is clearly the most experienced person to lead her party but she can't show them why

This causes issues as the scientists she is assigned to find a number of strange issues suggest their group and a rival team may be being targeted by som ething or someone. As Murderbot is seen as a corporate tool (and if you work for a SF Company known as The Company this must mean bad things) then she finds herself under suspicion. Is she even aware of what she is doing herself? 

That internal battle between personalities is nicely balanced with some beautifully told action sequences where we get to see Murderbot's phycial strength and cunning comes into play. She takes damage and makes mistakes but she keeps on going and that's admirable.  A great force to be reckoned with which combined with a snarky narration makes for a fast-paced read.  My only issue is none of the other characters really do much more in the story than serve's Murderbot's own tale but as she is such an engaging voice that wasn't too bad a trade!

I'm very pleased to know more diary entries are coming out next year and I am hoping to find out a lot more about both where the Murderbot came from and where she is going to.  

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Raven Stratagem by Yoon Ha Lee

Publisher - Solaris

Price - £7.99 Paperback (Out Now)

Shuos Jedao is unleashed. The long-dead general, preserved with exotic technologies as a weapon, has possessed the body of gifted young captain Kel Cheris.

Now, General Kel Khiruev's fleet, racing to the Severed March to stop a fresh enemy incursion, has fallen under Jedao's sway. Only Khiruev's aide, Lieutenant Colonel Kel Brezan, is able to shake off the influence of the brilliant but psychotic Jedao.

The rogue general seems intent on defending the hexarchate, but can Khiruev-or Brezan-trust him? For that matter, can they trust Kel Command, or will their own rulers wipe out the whole swarm to destroy one man?

Last year Yoon Ha Lee created one of the most interesting SF stories I'd read in ages with Ninefox Gambit. A mix of military SF, dizzying ideas on technology and political intrigue. A corrupt and cruel empire had detected a threat to it's existence and bonded their ultimate strategist Judao (who is an insane AI/ghost consciousness) to a young disgraced Captain Cheris. At the end of the book the two escape an internal attack and we were not sure what would happen next. The answer in the sequel is a finely told political SF thriller matching action with revolution and asking some interesting questions about the nature of rebellion.

The Hexarchate that all these characters belong to has many groups and the main warrior group within the group is the Kel. They have created fledging instinct - soldierly will automatically obey the highest rankingn officer without question. Hence all Jedao has to do is turn up and the entire fleet he runs into will obey his orders. The question is then what does Judao who when human had killed millions and is no friend of the leadership of the Hexarchate going to do next? He claims to now be preparing to defend the entire Hexarchate against an invasion from the bordering rival Hafn group but can anyone trust him and how do you defeat a well armed ghost?

If Ninefox was a military SF battle combined with an almost Silence of the Lambs like interpay between the cyncical Juado and the kinder Charis then this is a more military SF and a political drama exploring loyalty. There are some beautiful and tense battles between the Hexarchate and the Hafn in space. This is epic scale - fleets of ships defending planets and space stations; battling fleets and hurling huge mysterious energy traps at one another. The Hafn don't really show themse;lves but when you do find out their attitude to their soldiers they make the Kel seem not so bad. Ha Lee has very good eye for exploring three dimensional space battles and the scenes on Judao's bridge while this goes on are tough. You feel characters stressed and on edge knowing their lives are on the line. It's a finely staged battle of tactics and you get very involved watching the characters working out how to battle this mysterious fleetand it really soars once the set pieces commence.

It is not however my favourite part of the story. That is the wider set of characters we are introduced to who I think help explore the book's themes. Judao is a mystery and seems on the edge of an internal battle between hoping to redeem himself or wanting to let rip at everything that has attempted to destroy him; in counterpoint as Charis is no more we have General Khiruev and Lieutenant Brezan and each of these has an internal battle against the Kel fledging instinct. Brezan is a 'crashhawk' a soldier who isn't able to just obey all orders but his larger loyalty to the Hexarchate means he sees Judao as a threat and a lot of the book explores how he has to try and infiltrate the fleet to get to him and stop his control. Khiruev is I think the more interesting character initially able to resist Judao's power she finds herself drawn to his cause and this sets her on a crisis between her nature.  Can she live with herself knowing she is a traitor or can she continue to serve an empire she knows is out of control?

Against all three we have the fascinating new character Mikodez a genius tactician in the Shuos faction within the Hexarchate - a group know for their tactical brilliance and ruthlessness. He is an interesting counterpoint to Judao - far more approachable, keen to eat sweets and tend to plants yet known for sacrificing cadets at the academy to win tactical games and is firmly embroiled in the battle for power withint he Hexarchate itself. Is he going to the one to finally end Judao's comeback or has he a greater goal in mind?

Powerplay in factions can be a hallmark of military SF but rather than use this to say the soliders are far more nobler than the generals we have amore interesting question posed to us. The Hexarchate is ultimately despite amazing technology that allows you to change your form; fly around space and colonise so many planets is now ultimately a dictatorship. It requires the mental belief of it's citizens to provide the power for the technologies it wields. Our soldiers here have all destroyed the uprisings (heresies) where some have tried to resist. No one is truly innocent and we see a chilling use of that power when the Hexarchate exact a brutal revenge on Charis' own people just for her becoming the vehicle Judao uses to be free. The book asks why do people allow terrible things to happen; is it fear or weariness that no one believes you can win?  Is it because if you are benefiting why would you disturb the status quo? Safe to say once again SF provides timely commentary on our own times and the answers make you think uncomfortably about our own internal battles.

I found very little that I thought needed improving and I'm fascinated where the larger story is now going. It often brings to mind Iain Bank's Culture series as here is a society that could do anything but here far more obsessed with power and control. Interestingly the AIs here are clever but purely serving staff but they do see everything....

So if you would like a tasty mix of SF battles and politics I would strongly recommend you try this book out but just be careful who you trust as you explore this darker patch of space opera.

 

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Blindspots

I like to think of myself as fair-minded and progressive. I love reading and been a fan of science fiction and fantasy for many years - it's all about the glorious future or strange new worlds and civilisations but around five or six years ago there was an online debate about blogs and representation.  A lot of the major blogs at the time were challenged over the lack of women being reviewed and I (at the time just a reader) decided to have a look at how many books I was reading by women and it was around 30%!!!    To put it bluntly I was acting in a sexist way.

Why am I raising this? Well for the last few months I've been lurking in a facebook fantasy forum - which is quite large and has members from around the world.  Over the months I spotted something interesting.  Every time someone asked for book recommendations - it would be books made by men.  Often books that hadn't been that recently released. I could easily guess after a few months they would quote - Sanderson, Rothfuss, Lawrence , Eriksson etc. Yes, all very big authors but I noticed a lot of my fellow male SF fans seemed...well not actually to have read that much fantasy certainly not it's more recent authors and in particular those by women.

Some more recent posts I would say have underlined this disparity and I got a sense many men didn't think there was an issue so I asked the group a simple question.  How many books have you read this year and how many were by women.  In a (totally unscientific) survey of around 50 responses the average number of books read was over 50; women read 53/47 in favour of women but men......only 25% of books were by women.  JUST A QUARTER!!!

That was bad enough but some of the responses were just tiresome

- I don't read books by women as I only read fantasy (Le SIGH)

- as a guy I largely read series (LE SIGH)

- male authors have the better covers (LE GRITTED TEETH)

- men wrote more books (WOMBLE STARE)

- women are too emotional and don't get men right (WOMBLE STARE OF DEATH)

- I don't see gender I just read a good story (even if in those cases women were hardly evident in their annual reads!) (WOMBLE SMASH)

Roughly speaking women make up approximately half the population of the planet so if you don't see gender I would think you'd manage the average wouldn't you?

 But amazingly the books they thought would be the best reads are by men in huge numbers. What a purely weird coincidence! Now I doubted most of the men had explicitly chosen this but I do think they were implicitly biased towards men; the reasons for this will be many - as kids many of us are told there are books for men and women; go into a bookshop and I'm always amazed how many tables in the SF section are vastly male and we have already discussed over years there have been a bias in some blogs towards male authors.  All of which creates an environment that unfortunately I think has influenced men to focus on men BUT ITS 2017 AND WE SHOULD KNOW BETTER BY NOW.

I've been following this debate for years. After I realised a few years ago that I was acting stupidly I made an effort to get to around 50/50 and these days it's norm for me.  Many women who have written books; write blogs or host podcasts have been calmly explaining the concept of bias and opening our eyes to a larger world so I'm quite disappointed when I see so many years later that many seemingly rational people who can engage in sensible discussion seem incapable of thinking they are at fault or need to change their behaviour. Our genre is supposed to be the imaginative one; the books that can create whole new countries and yet we default to a mythical white male-led cod-European setting as default that didn't even happen in our own middle ages. Our genre explores power structures all over the place yet we seem more than happy to ignore discussing and challenging gender roles preferring to instead default to 'the classics' be it insipid love interest or damsel or in some case sexually assaulted to  give our lantern jawed hero motivation.

If you believe the world should be a better place and I'd be scared if you thought this one was healthy at the moment then the obligation is on YOU to do better.  No one likes to admit they're in the wrong - it's hurtful; it's embarrassing and it casts an unwelcome glance into our characters and beliefs but this will not kill you.  I'm suggesting you are limiting yourself if you do this and by starting to look a little outside your comfort zones you're actually going to find MORE books; new authors to enjoy and new perspectives that I think might make you think about our world more; why it is the way it is and how it could change for better or worse. I think the likes of Frances Hardinge; VE Schwab, NK Jemisin, Kate Griffin, Nnedi Okorafor, Seanan McGuire, Alyssa Whiteley and so many more are equal to any man in the the task of telling you a great story in whatever segment of SF you're looking for. Can't find one? Then ask me and if I can't suggest one I bet I know someone who does.

And I'm going to be honest I don't think achieving parity is that much to ask of you - you've reached base camp when the books you read match one of the most basic splits in our society; you may also want to consider how many authors who are people of colour you read; LGBT etc. Some will say well this is quotas for reading but I think we ALL (and I know I need to do better too) should if we believe this is the genre that can change the world should be prepared to do our bit and make our choices representative of our own world and challenge the role many of us have in it.  To actually be as open minded as we like to think we are and you will have more books and all bookworms love more books.  Going into bookshop or library and missing out on half the books sounds horrific- why do that to yourself?

Finally while this issue was getting discussed on Twitter I would like to share a bingo card that my friend @lazyhedwig made that records all the standard clichés why men do not read books by women feel free to check them off next time you see this debate.

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Blood Bank by Zoe Markham

Publisher - Kristell Ink Books

Price- £4.99 Paperback £2.31 ebook

Benjamin is a programmer moonlighting as a security guard at Dystopia, a seedy club that caters to the down-and-outs, the desperate, the addicts. He's been building his reputation, saving for a way out - but when he rescues a young woman from the nearby estate, he may just have stepped too far out of line...

Lucy is ordinary; a girl with a deadbeat boyfriend, a normal life Benjamin is a programmer moonlighting as a security guard at Dystopia, a seedy club that caters to the down-and-outs, the desperate, the addicts. He's been building his reputation, saving for a way out - but when he rescues a young woman from the nearby estate, he may just have stepped too far out of line...

Lucy is ordinary; a girl with a deadbeat boyfriend, a normal life and college studies. But when her world takes an odd twist, she starts to wonder about the people she's meeting, the situations she's in, the odd aversions and attacks happening around her. They're just coincidences...aren't they?

And Zack is in deep trouble. He's losing his girlfriend, drowning in debt, and has dwindling job prospects - and that's not the worst of it. His debt is to people who won't ever forget it, and who want the things closest to Zack's heart: his blood - and his life. In the heart of Swindon, an ancient order hides in plain sight, spreading their influence through the streets like a disease. But despite their widespread power they are catching up with the modern world: the vampires are going online, and the Order is about to become more powerful than even they would have dreamed...

When I think of the places where dread evil may be Swindon isn't I admit at the top of my list but in this novel despite the temptation to think this is a pastiche Zoe Markham actually plays this tale of Vampires and their victims straight and it's tale with some bite...(I'm sorry...I'm so sorry).

We are dropped into a spat between Zack and his girlfriend Lucy who have just been on an incrfedibly badly planned date. Zack is now broke; prone to vanishing and following an urgent call from a mystrrious job turfs Lucy out into the middle of nowhere. We quickly see that Zack has fallen into huge amount of debt and unfortunately slightly worse than your usual payday loan companies in his case he has found himself at the mercy of a local Vampire Group who cunningly are using their loan book for regular donations.  While this goes on Lucy is attacked by a local gang and is saved by Benjamin who is a complex mix of computer geek and aide to the head Vampire. The tale revolves around the three characters reacting to their various lives colliding.

Two major pluses for me on this.  Firstly Markham has made each character a little more nuanced than the initial premise suggests.  Lucy initially appears the damsel in distress but quickly gains depth as we see she is resourceful and actually strats to notice how certain odd events don't add up. Zack appears the boyfriend from hell but we soon see he is actually putting other people's lives ahead of his own and finally Benjamin is sitting between his better and worse natures as he tries to work out which side apart from his own he is on. There is a nice tension that grows between the characters and I wanted to see how this developed.

The other advantage is Markham really wrotes action and horror well.  Supernatural attacks are well choreographed and make you wince as bones are broken and bodies bled; a trip into a dark cellar is definitely eerie as you realise they are not alone and the Vampires are unsettling super fast and ruthless. The pace is fast and lots of plot strands start converging creating a much deeper world than I was expecting as we see Vampire groups appear to be in many cities.

This leads to my one caveat which is the book for me doesn't quite feel like I've read a full story more the end of part one of a really good pilot episode.  Lots of plot points are raised but I don't feel the initial story had fully landed.  I am aware the sequel is coming soon and I think I am very keen to find out where the series goes next.

Overall if you'd like to see a British take on a teen vampire action story that combines humour; adventure and horror with a very good ensemble cast I think this would be a good place to start.  I will definitely be loking forward to reading more from Markham in the future.  I also confirm roundabouts are mentioned....

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Starborn by Lucy Hounsom

Publisher- Pan MacMillan

Price - £8.99 (Out Now)

Death and Destruction will bar her way...

Kyndra's fate holds betrayal and salvation, but the journey starts in her small village. On the day she comes of age, she accidentally disrupts an ancient ceremony, ending centuries of tradition. So when an unnatural storm targets her superstitious community, Kyndra is blamed. She fears for her life until two strangers save her, by wielding powers not seen for an age - powers fuelled by the sun and the moon.

Together, they flee to the hidden citadel of Naris. And here, Kyndra experiences disturbing visions of the past, showing war and one man's terrifying response. She'll learn more in the city's subterranean chambers, amongst fanatics and rebels. But first Kyndra will be brutally tested in a bid to unlock her own magic.

If she survives the ordeal, she'll discover a force greater than she could ever have imagined. But could it create as well as destroy? And can she control it, to right an ancient wrong?

One of the most tired tropes in Fantasy can be the Chosen One that one individual (usually a teenage boy) who by luck magically over a trilogy gains expert knowledge to defeat The Dark Lord (TM) and bring in a new era of well.... usually the Divine Right of Kings (side-eyes to Tolkein). In this first part of a new trilogy (all parts of which will be out this year!) Hounsom gives us a refreshing take in a fascinatingly creative world that I am very much looking forward to exploring in future books.

We meet Kyndra the innkeeper's daughter in the small town of Brenwym on the day her fellow teens undergo a ceremony where they will touch The Relic and find out their true name and role in life. Kyndra who is hoping to find out she can do more than innkeeping is disturbed that when it is her turn The Relic....breaks. Unfortunately at the same time a magical destructive force that has been visitng all parts of Mariar (the continent they all live on).  This force known as the Breaking brings an amazingly destructive storm that kills and destroys randomly.  Villagers being villagers decide this must be Kyndra's fault despite her lack of any previous magical ability and a feel a good lynching is bound to clear things up.  Fortunately for Kyndra two hooded figures who do have magic intervene and then force Kyndra to choose to leave her home and travel with them to parts unknown.

What then follows is a quick journey across the land of Mariar that gives us time to find out that Kyndra has been saved by two Wielders - Breganne and Nediah who can individually use the magic of the Sun and the Moon to heal....or destroy.  They suspect Kyndra's brush with the Relic actually suggests that she too is a Wielder and so are taking her to the underground city of Naris where the Wielders are hiding. Kyndra finds herself then drawn into the murky politics of Wielders who make the current Conserative party seem positively open-minded, loyal and trustworthy. Kyndra though starts to fiund that she may have the far rarer power of the Starborn and if it doesn't materialise....she dies.

I love Starborn because it tweaks quite a few things we see in epic fantasy and reminds me a lot of Katherine Kerr's Devarry series in style. It does start in the traditional almost medieveal small town but we are quickly given a surprise as the main way of travel across the country is airship and people are starting to think engines may be useful!  Naris is no Hogwarts but instead an underground burrowing of dark tunnels whose residents rarely see the source of their powers. It's oppressive and claustrophobic with a sense that the Wielders are less Jedi but a sect that has started to lose their sense of humanity.

Kyndra I find a believable young woman. She is not blind fully choosing her destiny she wants to survive and go home.  She comes across three dimensional - takes time to build trust with strangers and not afraid to challenge them. Balancing her are the characters of Breganne who on the surface is reserved, super-powerful and a model Wielder yet this hides a lot of hurt from her past and Nediah who on the surface is the happier rebel but he is hiding a lot of hidden passions.  These two and their relationships led to a lot of flailing here and was nice to see two Wielders actually care about the wider world; I just want them to be happy (*reviewer wails*)

A criticism of the book is it takes a while to get moving as a good fifth of the book sets up the initial meeting of characters but for me this is important as you have to understand where Kyndra come from and why she would return. Once at Naris we move into darker territory (literally and metaphorically!) as we realise the Wielder honestly believe in causing their new entrants a huge amount of pain in order to see if they are worthy. This finally leads to a bloodthirsty conclusion that wouldn't be too far off a Game of Thrones finale and by then the pace of the book is flying.

By the end of the book our characters and world are significantly changed and I am eagerly awaiting later adventures. Hounsom I think really has done something interesting with a genre in need of reinvention and I'm looking forward to how her career develops.

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Acadie by Dave Hutchinson

Publisher - Tor

Price - £8.99 paperback (ebook circa £2)

The first humans still hunt their children across the stars. Dave Hutchinson brings far future science fiction on a grand scale in Acadie.

The Colony left Earth to find their utopia--a home on a new planet where their leader could fully explore the colonists’ genetic potential, unfettered by their homeworld's restrictions. They settled a new paradise, and have been evolving and adapting for centuries.

Earth has other plans.

The original humans have been tracking their descendants across the stars, bent on their annihilation. They won't stop until the new humans have been destroyed, their experimentation wiped out of the human gene pool.

Can't anybody let go of a grudge anymore?

This will be a mini review as it's a mini novella of just about 100 pages and I'm being careful as I type -  it's a exquisite little SF puzzle worth your time trying to solve before the final page is read.

We are in the far future and our lead character is Duke the rather laid back but rather pragmatic President of a an unusual break-off colony of runaway genetic scientists who fled from persecution on Earth and have been in hiding.  While doing so the scientists have advanced their science well into the realms of pure science fiction. The genetic code can be re-written at will; each generation beats the abilities of the last; amazing achievements in biology and space travel and a slightly anarchic existence where scientists can make themselves easily look like your favourite fantasy or SF film character (we all know geeky scientists would want to!).

Hutchinson makes the world ideal not just with it's nice level of democracy; a desire to beat the corporate overlords on earth but it's just a fascinating world to wander around in. Duke is an engaging everyman and while he isn't the smartest person in the room he is respected by the scientists for his pragmatism and ability to think outside the box.  A sense of humour helps and it's impressive that in this world we have a very full cast of women in key positions within the scientiific community and prepared to disagree with Duke's assessment and Duke agrees with them when logical argument is made!

And into every paradise a snake must come and in this instance we have a small earth probe entering the system the colony now resides.  Is it time to run or talk? This raises bot the tension of the story and at the end a battle for ideas that should make you revisit what you've been reading...

Can't say any more but it's smart slice of SF giving you a vibrant picture of the tomorrow and a reminder that all that glitters isn't gold.  Worth your time!

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Womblings on August

So the tree outside my flat is dropping conkers and leaves; the jumpers have been pulled out of storage and I'm thinking about putting the heating on! Summer is over so thought maybe time to think about reminding myself of what I did last month

 

Nineworlds

 

As recently blogged the Fifth Nineworlds was a huge success and for me a holiday that really enthused my brain.  Seeing a lot of my twitter feed and lots of interesting panels did my brain the world of good.  2018 ticket already bought

 

What have I been reading? 

 

It been a quiet month as ends to happen in summer but

 

Clean Room Vols 1 and 2 - This Gail Simone comic is an everyday tale of an investigative journalist entangled with a mysterious cult and demons.  Lovely bit of horror and mystery that reminds me of Sandman’s darker stories.  Definitely keen to read more and find out who I can trust!

 

Shattered Minds by Laura Lam - review already up.  I really enjoyed Lam’s second Pacifica thriller that posits an almost cyberpunk future where a beautiful society covers some darker motives exploring memories and power.  Extremely recommended.

 

The Stone Sky by N. K. Jemisin - review to follow this week. A stunning conclusion to a fantasy series that I think is a new classic for this decade.  Fantastic characters, plot and view on society.  You need this and I now need to finish all remaining Jemisins in my TBR.

 

Cold Counsel by Chris Sharp - a grimdark tale of orc civil war.   Sadly not much for me as fight scenes overtook character 

 

Avi Cantor Has 6 Months to Live by Sasha Lamb - a beautiful short love story of two trans kids in school.  Mixes the horror working out who you are in school, love and dealing with demons. Really stunning story 

 

Wyrd Sisters by Terry Pratchett - this year I've started an in sequence Discworld re-read on twitter and been interesting to compare the early works with what is to come.  This one actually feels the start of the Pratchett I know.  Slapstick dialled down, characters like Granny Weatherwax and Nanny Ogg feel like you've met them down the shops in the way they behave and there is the start of that social commentary we know and love

 

What's Next?

 

Raven Stratagem and a lot of fantasy authors 

 

Oh and the Womblegariad ;)

 

Shattered Minds by Laura lam

Publisher - Macmillan

Published - Out Now

Price - £12.99 Hardback

Ex-neuroscientist Carina struggles with a drug problem, her conscience, and urges to kill. Shae satisfies her cravings in dreams, fuelled by the addictive drug 'Zeal'. Now she's heading for self-destruction - until she has a vision of a dead girl.

Sudice Inc. damaged Carina when she worked on their sinister brain-mapping project , causing her violent compulsions. And this girl was a similar experiment. When carina realises the vision was planted by her old colleague mark, desperate for help to expose the company, she knows he's probably dead. Her only hope is to unmask her nemesis - or she's next.

To unlock the secrets Mark hid in her mind, she'll need a group of specialist hackers. Dax is one of them, a doctor who can help carina fight her addictions if she holds on to her humanity, they might even have a future together. But first she must destroy her adversary - before it changes us and our society, forever.

Welcome to Pacifica. A nearish future world sites near San Francisco and LA. With the use of flesh parlours every one can look a movie star, everyone can obtain information by implants, the rich live in floating mansions and all seems right in the world. But in this gripping cyber-thriller from Laura Lam there is a darker side to the town that threatens to take it over very soon. While this is the second book lam has set in Pacifica there is no direct connection between the books and can be read separately.  I do how ever think like the first that this a book well worth investigating.

A key draw to the book is the fascinating character of Carina about whom the plot swirls. Carina is very hard to sympathise with initially. We meet her as a 'Zealot' a drug addict who uses a substance called zeal and all her money to buy time in VR joints across the city. There she can spend hours inside her own head living out violent fantasies...which she enjoys. Outside of the VR she is falling apart physically and mentally and barely containing her urge to commit violence. She's hardly the character you want to sit next to you on the bus.  You would not suspect a few months earlier she was known to be an excellent neuroscientist pushing the boundaries of brain science (although you may want to look more closely as to how much she 'enjoys' some of her work).

But the novel is not a tale of beating drug addiction. carina is unwillingly plunged into a mystery thanks to a former colleague that means she draws the attention of the Trust.  A team of cyber-hackers investigating Carina's old employer. Carina has been given both memories and information now hidden in her own implants that could explain what Sudice Inc. and in particular her old mentor Roz have been doing in the shadows. A great feature of the book is that we bounce between Carina's present and her past. We see a web of events that explains both her emotional distance and her desire for violence. Making an unlikeable character sympathetic is harder to do than some writers think (looking at you Grimdark!) you may not like Carina a lot of the time but you certainly understand her motivations.

A nice counter-point to this is Roz. A mirror image of Carina a slightly older but equally amoral scientist who sees their work and perhaps Carina as her finest achievements to date and nothing stands in her way. It's a tense game of cat and mouse being played through Roz's corporate army and Carina's not so trusting allies in The Trust. When your enemy has the resources of a major corporation, with major contacts in all parts of government and law enforcement oh and the ability to infiltrate implants it's not easy to hide or even trust anyone. Lam does excellent action and chase scenes that come across very cinematic; indeed the whole novel is extremely visual with use of flashbacks and memories as well as VR - a fascinating picture of the future is developed and she is bringing life to cyberpunk! A genre that I used to think was dead and buried!

My one niggle with the book was while Roz is a great and captivating villain there often seemed to be an inevitability that the Trust would escape various Sudice's clutches. This does become rectified in the final third when you realise exactly how powerful Sudice wants to be but it didn't immediately give that sense of jeopardy you might expect.

Overall I thought this was one of the best SF thrillers I've read in 2017 so far. It feels plausible and in Carina we have both a story and a character you find very hard not wanting to know both more about and what she will do next.  I very much hope we get more tales of Pacifica as I think this is abreath of fresh air in SF.

 

All the Birds in the Sky by Charlie Jane Anders

Publisher - Titan

Out Now - £7.99 paperback

Patricia is a witch who can communicate with animals. Laurence is a mad scientist and inventor of the two-second time machine. As teenagers they gravitate towards one another, sharing in the horrors of growing up weird, but their lives take different paths...

When they meet again as adults, Laurence is an engineering genius trying to save the world- and live up to his reputation - in near-future San Francisco. Meanwhile, Patricia is a graduate of Eltisley Maze, the hidden academy for the magically gifted, working hard to prove herself to her fellow magicians and secretly repair the earth's growing ailments.

As they attempt to save our future, Laurence and Patricia's shared past pulls them back together. And althoughthey come from different worlds, when they collide, the witch and the scientist will discover that maybe they understand each other better than anyone.

In the old days dear reader SF and F only ever met in the sign about the bookshelf but increasingly (possibly as shock horror most readers enjoy both) we are seeing books that take a little from both worlds. Adopts River Song pose - and very likely now that this reviewer is feeling better a few more to follow soon!!! Ahem Spoilers *blows kisses* Charlie Jane Anders previously well known for editing the geek website iO9 has shown a love of the two worlds and in this novel there is a bit of a love song to the best bits of geekdom as well as a reminder of it's darker sides.

The first section of the book examines that horror to many geeks- schooldays. Neither Laurence or Patricia fit into their more conventional schools and even scarier their parents have no interest and in some cases outright hostility towards the paths the children are taking. Anders captures that sense of helplessness and not being understood that all teens face. Both Laurence and Patricia find themselves distracted in and perhaps energised by the lure of magic and science and I suspect that's a story many of us may sympathise with.  On that alone it would appear a YA tale of finding yourself but Anders moves the tale along to that possibly more awkward phase - what happens after college when you ask those two questions key to any Babylon 5 fan - who are you and what do you want?

Laurence teams up with fellow mad scientists and there is a sense of male geek entitlement. As Laurence was bullied there is a dangerous feeling that now he can have some payback. Happily he steers to the side of the angels (mostly) but it's a reminder that just because you were bullied you are not entitled to pay that pain forward yourself. Patricia in many ways seems massively more comfortable in her own skin after her terms in the magical schools that in no way resembles Hogwarts but at the same time she often appears lonely and trying to keep pace with a similar crowd of cool kids and still working out how she can interact with her more conventional family who still don't understand her.  It's perhaps not surprising that Laurence and Patricia find themselves drawn together- each compliments the other. But at the same time their own 'tribe's' view on life would appear to set them on a collision course on an earth where environmental destruction appears ever closer.  Anders makes these two stories really intimate and has a very concise but warm writing style that makes little details about personalities come out.

Another plus for me is there is almost a Pratchett like melding of the funny and the sad that I think make some good comments about growing up as a genre fan. The characters can seem caricatures such as a very fair minded AI system; the strange billionaire leading mad scientist and the rather scary yet surprisingly daft assassin who gets embroiled with our leads during their schooldays but there is enough uniqueness to the way they are described that they felt real and solid rather than humorous parody stock characters.

I think the downside of the book may be that it is trying to do everything at once. For me that's a plus I always admire ambition but I could easily see some feel the story is cluttered with a debut author trying everything out. I see it more as a good indicator to what I hope will be a fascinating career but others may feel it's too much for one book.

But for me if you fancy something that can be dark and light but with a twinkle in it's eye then I think you'd be well rewarded with this story and remember why this genre is the best.

 

 

After Atlas by Emma Newman

Publisher - Roc

Publication Date - Out Now

Price - £12.99

Gov-Corp detective Carlos Moreno was only a baby when Atlas left Earth to seek truth amongst the stars. But in that moment, the course of Carlos' entire life changed. Atlas is what took his more away, what made his father lose hope, what led Alejandro Casales, leader of the religious cult known as The Circle, to his door. And now, on the eve of the fortieth anniversary of Atlas's departure, it's got something to do with why Casales was found dead in his hotel room - and why Carlos is the man in charge of the investigation.

To figure out who killed one of the most powerful men on Earth, Carlos is supposed to put aside his personal history. But the deeper he delves into the case, the more he realises that escaping the past isn't so easy. there is more to Casale's death than meets the eye, and something much more sinister to the legacy of Atlas than anyone realises....

As I recently blogged I find Emma Newman now one of my favourite authors.  Authors who do great work in both SF and Fantasy are rare these days but her books often use the genre as I believe it should be to explore current social issues. Her Split Worlds series merged fae worlds with a look at the patriarchy and in this excellent thriller she explores surveillance, loyalty and where we may be going...

It's a nearish future setting.  The world is teetering.  Only the rich can buy actual food and the rest of us make do on nutritional paste. Everyone is chipped and that doesn't just record our locations but what we can actually see. Tensions between countries are rising and trust is at an all time low.  The UK then is rather disturbed that a US cult leader appears to have been brutally murdered mere days after visiting.

Down these mean streets we meet Carlos who is an indentured slave/detective to the government.  His detection skills are excellent. However, at the same time, as a child he and his father actually lived within the cult that Casales led (although Carlos actually decided the life was not for him). Suspecting this gives Carolos an edge in identifying suspects he is allocated the case. Its set within a remote manor like all the best crime novels with a host of suspects who may all have an alibi. However detection is enhanced in this century with virtual reconstructions, AIs that are able to review suspect's histories and chips that can replay back key scenes.  Newman gives us a feel for where technology that exists now is going and it feels importantly matter of place.  You can feel this world while horrible is plausible.

A key element of this is Carlos as a character.  He's fascinating and while both incredibly repressed he is extremely sympathetic to the reader. His vice is real food (a luxury of his job) even if purely the misshapen vegetables. He carries the scars of being left behind by his parents and having to fight constant public scrutiny. As the story progresses more and more becomes apparent and he's a character you worry about if the tale will end badly for him as he gets embroiled into a web of intrigue. Any mistake could see Carlos lose his protection and be cast to the mercies of the crueller corporate world.  There is a creeping unease that much bigger forces are swirling around the investigation waiting to pounce on our detective.

My one reservation was pacing, At times for a thriller/mystery it took it's time to find a fifth gear but that's balanced with some nice character moments and the eventual pay-off as you find out where these secrets are headed is one of the most jaw-dropping moments of the story. The plotting here is extremely well done and makes great sense only in retrospect...

Overall if you enjoy a slow burn SF thriller and some interesting and pessimistic thoughts on where the world is going then this is a novel I definitely recommend.

 

 

Nineworlds - Where all the fandoms meet

Location – London Novotel (3/8-6/8)

Five years ago a good friend of mine and I attended a rather spectacularly bad con and she suggested to try a brand new con started by a kick-starter.  Off we went into unknown territory (London) and five years on Nineworlds is now my annual geek holiday and something I look forward to every year.

Friends often ask ‘ok so what exactly is Nineworlds?’ - this is the tricky bit! Nineworlds was started to be similar to the US Dragoncon (though much smaller!). A con run by fans for fans.  It basically covers...well everything. This is not a con where the TV stars will gather for autographs and loads of memorabilia is sold as you might find in LFCC nor is it purely author panels like an eastercon.  Instead it's a delicious buffet of fandoms ranging from books, film, craft, science, social theory, history etc. - if you have a niche interest there is a good chance you'll find someone here to discuss it and probably running a talk on it. At the same time some fantastic cosplay and a rather great disco! A distinguishing point is that a lot of the content ideas come from attendees (over 50% this year!) made into a series of 'tracks' linking ideas together.

The other major part of Nineworlds is that this aims to be the most inclusive and accessible con that respects everyone. Compared to cons known for very poor codes of conduct and lax approaches to incidents; in Nineworlds you are in a very safe environment. This is a place that really does love Infinite Diversity in Infinite Combinations (Trek references duly applied).

This is my experience of Nineworlds and yes I always gravitate towards books a lot of the time - so I can't tell you about the sword fighting, cosplay tips, Mars Missions and archaeology presentations but have a look around they are out there

Day 0 Aka I've not seen you in agggess

The Thursday is informal. Weary travellers arriving to find the bar..I mean hotel..and join up with friends. Highlight for me is the annual Ice Breaker quiz some friends of mine organise (Hail Becca, Lems, Jane, Dave and gloriously sequinned Phil!).  Again I was delighted with third place for my team and my Furry Lament Configuration car dice are a thing of beauty! It’s a good way to relax after a long day's travel; introduce yourself to new people and yell Khannnnnnnn with a room full of your people.

Day 1 aka Why have they not yet invented time-turners?

Friday we get down to business and there are around 9 things going on at once. Highlights for me where a Retrospective conducted with Megan Leigh (of the excellent Breaking the Glass Slipper podcast) interviewing the author Chris Wooding author of the Kitty Jay books. Really interesting to see how writing styles develop and how he got into publishing (and more importantly stayed in!).  After that a great panel on Policing and Urban Fantasy where three guests with experience of the Met and other related organisations (Sarah Groeneegen, Caroline Mersey and Laura Manuel) debated the pros and cons of Paul Cornell's Shadow Police and Ben Aaaronovitch's Rivers of London series.  Overall impression they have of the feel of the police right but have had to make some unlikely changes to suit the stories but also a feeling many geeks lurk in uniforms (I feel safer!)

There was a fascinating interview with Helen Armfield talking to Pat Cadigan - an author I've not yet read before but her intelligence and zest for life really has made me keen to read her books. After that I went to an actual recording of Breaking the Glass Slipper - a podcast keen to promote feminism in SF.  The three co-hosts were all in attendance (Megan Leigh, Charlotte Bond and Lucy Hounsom) with two new debut authors RJ Barker and Anna Smith Spark. The discussion was on what makes a good character and a nice contrast to see how authors respond in different ways to a subject.  Spark focused on getting the purity of the emotion for the scenes right while Barker (often very self-effacing) seemed to put a lot of his own experiences.  Great discussion and well worth the listen when it comes out! Cruelty to Unicorns notwithstanding

The evening became a quest for food and a mosey around (yes books were bought) and game playing with friends in the bar - bliss!

Day 2 - Ain't No Disco like a No-Face Disco

Saturday is even busier as the con also does day passes and this was the most full on day in the schedule. A discussion on Archetypes in Fantasy with Sarah Mussi, Melody Barron, Mike Carey and Ed McDonald moved quickly from the debate of using Jungian archetypes ad more into the future of them.  How they can both embed sexism and allow room with those of other cultures to show people in new lights.  I felt very optimistic that now most authors and readers understand that it's important and better for any world you read or create that it reflects the diversity of the actual world around us.

A bit of architecture followed with a discussion on Representations of the City in SFF. The architect Amy Butt moderated with Jared Shurin, Al Robertson and Verity Holloway as to how architecture influences stories. This ranges from the feeling of disconnection, the horror of the suburbs and also the knowledge that a city is itself watching you and expecting you to comply. A peculiar mesh of public and private spaces that I really enjoyed and a few more authors are in my to read pile (weeping commences). The discussion of ideas I found fascinating and will be watching out for in more novels.

A similar good and at times challenging discussion came out of Redemption in Sci-Fi with Mike Brooks, Ro Smith, Adrian Tchaikovsky and Jan Siegel. Quite a few views ranging from the love SF has for simple solutions and overlooking the vast amount of bad acts one person may have committed; it's love of self-sacrifice and why Vader killing his Boss for his son is not entirely selfless. A lot of fun but glad no one died!

I got to see my friend Ric Crossman actually teach maths for the first time in Sums of the Undead. In this the latest mathematical theories on disease modelling were applied to the ever-likely zombie threat in a really helpful-to-understand and often amusing way. Again demonstrating that Nineworlds bring all fandoms together in action here - the room had to turn people away and the crows actually sighed when Ric explained that this year he was no going to go into all the equations.  Next year a larger space and all the maths please!

Finally a searing and philosophical discussion about the agony of writing in ahem It's Research! (or, Why It's Totally Okay to Play Dragon Age For 100+ Hours When You Should Be Writing) the authors Vic James, Jen Williams, Lucy Hounsom and Taran Matharu all confessed/outlined their daily schedule as well as approach to research (or ju7st making things up). Really good panel often funny but a reminder authors are very human too.  I may have ordered Dragon Age...totes for reviewing purposes of course...

My evening got later with Space Opera! SF&F in Musicals where Charley Hasted played us clips of Repo Man, Little Shop of Horrors and a Japanese Opera version of Dracula I must track down. Finally I slid into the Bifrost disco listening to the Inspector Gadget theme tune followed by REM's It's the End of the World As We know it- a very relaxing evening watching No-Face from Spirited Away on the dance floor - all the geeks were dancing (I shuffled against a wall!)

Day 3 - Coffee oh please give me coffee

I saw only two panels all day. BookTube - Reviewing Books in the 21st Century with Claire Rousseau, Kaitlin Gray, Stevie Finegan and Elana Robertson talking about reviewing moving into YouTube ad while that's not where I'm currently I found their tips really helpful and energising for this blog! Finally I went to the Future of Nineworlds where essentially the Board of Nineworlds gets a chance to explain how the past year has been.  They are extremely honest - it's carrying a debt for a good few years to come; it may move to Birmingham next year for a several reasons but it's also starting to find its feet marshalling content together. Overall feedback was very very good!

At this point being awake for four days took hold; seeing friends and book buying and coffee was all I managed!!

I thought this year felt really relaxed and well organised. Plenty to do and so much I wished I could have attended at the same time. I was absolutely knackered after four days but at the same time my geek batteries were recharged and so good to be with your friends in a place that gets you! Over the years I've seen that many people who go to Nineworlds tend to come back so I would suggest f you're thinking about it give it a go.  And say hi

 

 

Occupy Me by Tricia Sullivan

Publisher - Gollancz

Release Date - Out Now

Price - £16.99 Paperback

Pearl is an angel. She works for the Resistance - an organisation dedicated to improving the world  by stealth; but tiny; incremental acts of kindness.

But Pearl also has wings. They blossom at moments of stress. And she is strong; an extraordinary terrifying strength capable of breaking the fabric of reality. The Resistance can't account for that, nor for Pearl's mysterious origins.  All anyone know is that she appeared in a New York junkyard in the early 21st Century. Truth is even Pearl doesn't know what she is, let alone who she is.

Now she is on a pell-mell chase across the world. In pursuit of a killer wearing another man's body .  This killer carries a briefcase that is a ragged hole in the Universe. A global conspiracy revolves around it. The nature of reality is determined by it. Pearl has got to get the briefcase back - no matter how shocking its contents turn out to be.

My physical copy of Occupy Me is quite thin (less than 300 pages) but a bit like the main character is is packed with beautiful depth. Reading this is taking a soaring dive out of a plane listening to fast beautiful music that has some pointed comments on our world. One of the most intriguing stories I've read this year.

In the near future we find a lot if the initial story contrasts Pearl's quest with Dr Sorle's (an African Dr trying to improve his world) interactions with Austen Stevens a cruel billionaire businessman.  We soon see all three characters are linked although none are quite too sure how and into the mix is a superpowered assassin who has his own agenda.  The story bounces across the world before a tight finale that matches the North Sea oil fields with the end of the universe.  

I love stories where the reader has to work and Sullivan doesn't fall into the trap of someone having to do pure exposition.  What appears a very confusing world and a mystery starts to make sense and you buy into the concept of hidden dimensions and the ability to lift yourself into them. At the same time this novel examines consequences both Pearl and Dr Sorle's working out who they are.  Products of their environment or do they have a greater ability to fight against their upbringing and those powerful enough to stop them? I love the concept of the Resistance a secret group that performs kind deeds with the the view that the overall small impacts of being nice to someone or helping them on a bad day prevents the nastier side of humanity wracking havoc. Capitalism and its ability to wreck countries and lives is the darker force serving empathy here and Stevens just wants to make money forever its s very moral battle.

The writing here is beautiful a villain is said to have a 'Death Star of a mind' and right at the end there is a wonderful passage where Pearl provides her thoughts on love. This book has a lot of passion and love for what people can do. Pearl is gentle, kind but easily frustrated and when you're very powerful that creates waves....or opens up planes you're travelling in! There is in the story a great Scottish vet Alison who brings some nice humour as well as grounds our more powerful leads. 

This was my first Sullivan and I think I want to now read all her other books.  SF can I find lack humanity in favour of pure concepts and this novel rattling through time and space manages to shine with a positive look at fighting against empathy and the loss of hope. Having now read all the Clarkes (a few reviews to follow this week) this is my favourite.  If you want your mind widened and a reminder why we resist give it a go! 

 

All Good Things by Emma Newman

Publisher - Diversion Books

Price - £12.99 paperback

As the Iris family consolidates their hold on society within the secret world of the Nether, William Iris finds himself more powerful and yet more vulnerable than ever. His wife, Cathy, has left him, a fact that will destroy him if it becomes public. To keep his position―and survive―he needs to get her back, whatever the cost.

Cathy has finally escaped the Nether, but hates that she must rely so heavily on Sam’s protection. When the strange sorceress Beatrice offers her a chance to earn true freedom by joining the quest Sam has been bound to, Cathy agrees. But can she and Sam navigate Beatrice’s plans for the future without becoming two more of her victims?

And Beatrice, a self-taught and powerful killer, is not without her enemies. Rupert, the last sorcerer of Albion, is obsessed with finding and destroying her. He orders Max and his gargoyle to help him, pulling them away from protecting innocents. As the Arbiter and his partner face the ugly side of their responsibilities to Rupert, they begin to question where their loyalties should truly lie.

Amidst death, deceit, and the fight for freedom, friendships are tested, families are destroyed, and heroes are forged as the battle to control the Split Worlds rages to its climatic conclusion.

Emma Newman has rightly applauded for her SF novels Planetfall and After Atlas (review of which is a coming) but All Good Things is the final part to her Split Worlds series.  This sequence of five books is now firmly one of my favourite fantasy series and it's great to see the novels end with a strong and heartfelt conclusion.

 

But oh furry reviewer what is The Split Worlds sequence I hear you cry? The story began in Between Two Thorns and we meet Cathy Papaver living life in modern Manchester but this is swiftly disrupted by her brother kidnapping her to take her back to the magical parallel world of the Nether to be married against her will into one of the other ruling families.  The Nether is a land that looks like Victorian England but with magical twists of spells, charms and most importantly of all a patriarchal system that firmly placed men at the top of everything and sees women as property to look after households and create children.  Equality is a foreign concept as is consent, feminism and resistance.  In a land of magic a woman can be easily silenced if she's a problem. 

 

This use of fantasy to explore sexism is a running theme of the books.  Cathy initially just wants to run away but finding out more about the world and how it's run with sinister agencies and Fae Lords who control all ruling families; Cathy becomes a secret campaigner and working to change the system from the inside to ultimately an active campaigner for its destruction.  Mirroring her journey is Will Iris who initially seems keen to help Cathy and keen for her hand in marriage but as the books progressed it becomes clear his loyalty to family and power means he will use any means necessary to get what he wants.  In the previous book Cathy found she had been influenced by magic to find Will attractive for marriage without her consent.  

 

We find in All Good Things Cathy hiding away from The Nether once again and contemplating how Will tricked her and raped her.  Consent is a running theme in these novels and it's tempting based on the initial premise to think this is a twee secondary world fantasy but it's absolutely not.  It's a series that has created a gilded hell and it's examination of how a patriarchal society shapes people not simply how women should be treated but how it conditions men to act too.  Cathy and her friends discover an opportunity to finally break Nether Society but at the cost of destroying the entire realm and freeing dangerous powers.  What I love is that Cathy is not a Chosen One she is anxious, human and at her heart ready to help others.  As the reader you spend a lot of the time hoping she will survive as well as debating if she will do the right thing.

 

The characters in the story continue to be complex and we have interesting contrasts.  Will who justifies all his bad behaviour on his desire to protect his family and in particular his illegitimate sister gets an opportunity for ultimate power - can he finally turn a corner? At the same time Tom Papaver the brother who originally kidnapped Cathy gets an opportunity to either restore his family fortune or aid his sister.  How these two men shaped by this society react reminds us that while we can understand why certain behaviours are preferred they all have a choice as to whether to continue or break the cycle.  Cathy meanwhile is contrasted with her American cousin Lucy who equally supports greater equality but is also drawn to the benefits of the Nether's magic.  This novel asks what do you do when your Society is rotten - rebel or comply? Is it worth destroying something when innocents may be hurt? 

 

Action flows from our world, The Nether and Exilium home to the Fae themselves who also have their motives for conspiring against Will and Cathy.  Stakes are high and all main characters and families play a role.  It's never clear until the very end how things will pan out and who will survive.  All you can hope after five books.  

 

Ultimately this is a fitting end to one of my favourite series that is written beautifully but with a fury at the injustice of our world and a passion for changing it.  It's never felt more apt to see a book questioning a world to say is this all we can be and can nothing be changed.  If you want intelligent fantasy this is totally up your street!

 

 

The Arrival of the Missives by Aliya Whiteley

Author: Aliya Whiteley

Publisher: Unsung Stories

Published: Out Now

RRP: £6.99 ebook

 

The Arrival of the Missives is a genre-defying story of fate, free-will and the choices we make in life. In the aftermath of the Great War, Shirley Fearn dreams of challenging the conventions of rural England, where life is as predictable as the changing of the seasons. The scarred veteran Mr. Tiller, left disfigured by an impossible accident on the battlefields of France, brings with him a message part prophecy, part warning.  Will it prevent her mastering her own destiny? As the village prepares for the annual May Day celebrations, where a new queen will be crowned and the future will be reborn again, Shirley must choose: change or renewal?

 

I was led to this story by C of the themiddleshelf.org and also its recent place in the Clarke Shadow project (which I hope to talk about more in the near future) .  I went in pretty unaware of what the story was and to be frank was bowled over. A reminder that good stories can be found in the small press too and word of mouth really helps.

The story starts with Shelley a clever and very independent woman reaching the end of her school days and childhood. She feels the family pressing down on her regards future managing of the farm while her heart is set on training to be a teacher and also winning the heart of her teacher Mr. Tiller. You may think I’m setting the scene for a touching romance but this is a story that although slight (a little over a 100 pages) goes in amazing and surprising directions and has a lot to say about learning to understand yourself and the world you inhabit.

Mr. Tiller freshly returned from the WW1 battlefield has a secret to tell to Shirley; he has received a missive from the future and a calamity that could affect the fate of later generations needs her assistance to ensure things don’t happen. Shirley is convinced of the need to help Mr. Tiller and an unusual plan is in action centering around Daniel the son of the local blacksmith who somehow has a major impact on the future of humanity.

And that’s probably as much as I can give away. It’s a novel that touches on the war, time-travel, romance and emancipation. Shirley is a truly modern character starting to realize she has options beyond her village and at the same time find society and even Mr. Tiller have expectations of her playing only a certain role. For a small village we find some interesting relationships and realize many of the characters are all expecting certain roles to be played. A woman who defies the needs of her often male leaders can find herself in a very difficult position. Even acting on your impulses can get you into trouble where the village has its constant eyes on you. A big part of the enjoyment is Shirley’s reaction to this and how she starts to learn she too has power here.

As I read the story I kept guessing where it was leading and was always pleasantly surprised that the choices made were so much better. This is going to be one of those stories I am going to insist everyone has a read of so I get to squee about it later with you. It leaves you thinking about it for days after and I am definitely looking forward to Whiteley’s other tales.

 

The Ninth Rain by Jen Williams

Publisher: Headline

Published: Out Now

RRP: £14.99 Trade Paperback

 

The great city of Ebora once glittered with gold. Now its streets are stalked by wolves, Tormalin the Oathless has no taste for sitting around waiting to die while the realm of his storied ancestors falls to pieces – talk about a guilt trip. Better to be amongst the living, where there are taverns full of women and wine.

 

When eccentric explorer, Lady Vincenza ‘Vintage’ de Grazon, offers him employment, he sees an easy way out. Even when they are joined by a fugitive witch with a tendency to set things on fire, the prospect of facing down monsters and retrieving ancient artifacts is preferable to the abomination he left behind.

 

But not everyone is willing to let the Eboran empire collapse, and the adventurers are quickly drawn into a tangled conspiracy of magic and war. For the Jure’lia are coming and the Ninth Rain will fall

 

Jen Williams debuted in fantasy with the amazing Copper Cat trilogy.  A sword and sorcery tale fit for the twenty-first century with humour, scary monsters, diverse casts and three of the most fun and charming characters I’d read in ages.  Finding out the next series is set in a different world and has none of those characters always sends a worry that this time the magic I read won’t be there.  But I’m very pleased to report that Williams does an equally impressive turn at Epic Fantasy and I think we are looking at a treat in this novel and the ones to come.

One thing that I think sets the story apart from the first trilogy is the sense of scale and depth.  The Copper Cat series had a back story but here Wlliams has upped the ante to cover a wider world with action in many places and a great deal of history to it too for both its human and Eboran civilisations. The history of these two races and how they have repelled the Jure’lia over thousands of years is key to the main part of the story. The previous battle (The Eighth Rain) led to the death of their tree God who was responsible for their longevity and with his fall the Eborans realized human blood was an adequate substitute…yes imagine elves turning vampire! Since the fair to say relations broke down and now the Ebrorans themselves are falling to a deadly disease their ability to get support is limited.

A world though really needs to use characters to make these stories come alive and Williams gives us a new set of three leads to follow and be engaged with. Tormalin aka Tor is the Eboran swordsman bodyguard; super strong, breath-takingly handsome and has a nice line in sarcasm but slightly tormented that to stay young and eternally healthy he needs human blood to assist. Fortunately his employer is Vintage – a middle aged wealthy woman with a keen desire to find out everything she can about the Jure’lia and the mysterious sites of their last destruction. These two make a brilliant double act both bickering in the best of ways but also happily saving each other’s lives. Vintage is in no desire to just sit back and follow her family tradition of wine-making she has personally invested herself and her considerable wealth into investigating the Jure’lia and the mysterious lands where they have apparently crashed leaving behind horribly disfigured forests and jungles as well as eerie spirits/parasites who with one touch can split a person apart! 

The final member of the trio who adds conflict as new dynamics in the group form is the Fell-witch Noon. In Sarn women with magical ability are tracked down and imprisoned to protect the world from their explosive powers. Noon escapes their island prison but then has to ask herself what next and Vintage immediately sees magic as a potential aid. But it also brings potential dangers…

Hopefully you will get already a sense of just how much is going on in this story but in William’s hands it really soars with multiple plotlines criss-crossing and by the end coming together to explain a lot more about what the aftermath of the Eight Rain has led to and where the rest of the novel will go. But in itself it’s a great tale of the cast coming together and a impressive conclusion explaining many of the book’s mysteries. The reader is never entirely sure where the story is going and that is always a welcome development in any new series

Two small aspects I think also deserve note. Williams adds a touch of genre mixing as we find the Jure’lia appear to travel in ships from off-world.  There appears to be a subtle SF hint which I’m fascinated by. Finally it’s done with little fanfare and feels totally natural but the vast majority of the main characters and those in positions of power are women.  Nothing feels forced it’s just that these are the competent characters in those positions. It’s a diverse world with sexuality and race making this a totally believable world

Reading the novel from the prison island for the Fell Witches to the various scenes of ancient death and destruction the Jure’lia left behind the reader gets a sense of something interesting and fascinating to see around each corner. It’s not faux medieval it’s a much more interesting world and one moving into more modern times – there is even a developing magic-powered rail road!

Jen Williams has rapidly become one of my favourite authors in Fantasy and I found this a confident and beautifully weighted first part of her new trilogy. It feels fresh, modern and yet has a huge love of fantasy and strange world s to explore (sometimes on back of giant bats). I’m looking forward to seeing where the story takes us in future volumes.

The White Road by Sarah Lotz

Publisher: Hodder & Stoughton

Published: Out Now

RRP: £16.99 Hardback

 

Adrenaline-junky Simon Newman sneaks into private land to explore a dangerous cave in Wales with a strange man he’s met online. But Simon gets more than he bargained for when the expedition goes horribly wrong. He emerges, the only survivor, after a rainstorm traps the two in the cave. Simon thinks he’s had a lucky escape

 

And then the video of his near death experience goes viral

 

Suddenly Simon finds himself more famous than he could ever have imagined. Now he’s faced with an impossible task: he’s got to defy death once again, and film the entire thing. The whole world will be watching. There’s only one place on earth for him to pit himself against the elements: Everest, the tallest mountain in the world.

 

But Everest is also one of the deadliest spots on the planet. Two hundred and eighty people have died trying to reach its peak,

 

And Simon’s luck is about to run out

 

Human beings seem to have a desire to out ourselves into the most dangerous places often because they are just there. The drive to visit the unknown, to possibly become famous or just to prove to yourself you are not afraid can drive us into fascinating places but it can also place us in great danger. In Sarah Lotz’s latest novel we travel from the darkest and deepest caves to the top of the world and find that there are some things you really cannot escape from easily.

Our main character is Simon who when we first meet him is a coffee shop barista and in his spare time trying to create with a friend a pop culture website (it’s initially set in the early days of the net when Buzzfeed was unheard of…..cries with nostalgia). The would be media magnates have discovered that people’s love of the macabre and creepy is always a hit with the ratings so Simon is sent to investigate an abandoned cave system where three young men lost their lives ; using only a camcorder and a strange, drunk and bad-tempered guide.

What follows is an absolutely terrifying trip into caves, tunnels and underground rivers where you feel each slip, squeeze and jam in the darkest of places where death is literally waiting for one mistake. Lotz brings to life the sensations of cold, isolation and panic when Simon finds himself in a nightmare once the rain starts to flood the system. It’s paced extremely well and we follow his decsent into the earth and without spoilers his escape becoming a changed man. Now Simon is a media sensation as his video tape moves the small site into the big league but now his company needs a literally bigger mountain to climb to keep those webpage hits coming.

Alongside this story we meet Juliet a successful mountaineer recently recovering from a disastrous expedition the previous year to climb Everest. Julia is one of the rare mountaineers who scales mountains without oxygen packs and is seeking a successful climb that can restore her reputation and give her family a future but as we see she finds herself increasingly feeling to be climbing the mountain with unexpected company.

Simon and Juliet’s stories cross in the land of Nepal in an unexpected way which I will lead for you to uncover. But Lotz gives us a small supporting cast of Everest Mountaineers who have varied reasons to climb with Simon. There is an interesting split almost along class lines with many of the team members being wealthy people who are doing this as an accomplishment yet seem to ignore that their sherpas are doing all the heavy lifting and that the mountain these days is almost a conveyor belt (albeit still a deadly one if mistakes are made). There is an exploration of sexism. Juliet is pilloried in the press for daring to have a career and a child while a younger woman named Wanda is getting ogled and leered yet is easily the most technically gifted of the group. You get the sense of a pressure cooker as personalities rub against each other, secrets start to spill and bodies start to effectively die in extreme cold yet all are being pushed towards the summit. 

Simon who is an interesting mix of a lost child and dreadful website guru who would sell his soul for fame yet also recognizes his flaws. He realizes the similar terrifying experiences he and Juliet share which both gives him some sense of humanity and also a drive to make money. The consequences of this being an increasing sense of no longer being alone at any time and the final third of the book ratchets the tension as he feels his mental strength wearing down and making him follow some desperate paths to be free. Lotz ability to make us feel Simon’s hidden vulnerability ismakes you want to encourage him to make the right decisions and also be terrified of the consequences if he cannot find a way out of these extreme environments he finds himself in.

As with any horror tale the journey and atmosphere are key and Lotz has a unique ability to make these far off or well hidden places come alive but also add a human dimension (who sometimes can be even scarier than anything else). It’s a very intimate tale but still with mysteries to uncover and you will find yourself feeling cold and dark even in spring time so I’d really recommend this trip…just don’t forget to bring a light.

 

 

A Coversation on the Clarke Award

 

Time for another award shortlist conversation (not detailed book review ahem) about the Clarkes.  Again I got chatting to C from themiddleshelf.org

 

C - Here comes the Clarke! I may have mentioned (oh, just once or twice...) that this is my favourite scifi award. I always discover some great stories and authors thanks to it. I may not always agree with the winners, but that doesn't happen often. So it's always very eagerly that I'm waiting for the shortlist. And this year... Oh boy, this year... Well, it was not what I expected!

I had decided to read a few novels from the submission list (I ended up reading 23 out of the 87 submitted) and I made some amazing discoveries: The Arrival of Missives by Aliya Whiteley, The Power by Naomi Alderman ; This Census-Taker by Miéville which was a fascinating read and also a challenge, Hunters and Collectors by M. Suddain was fun and I spent an enjoyable moment reading it ; also books I had read before the submission list and loved: After Atlas, Azanian Bridges, Mother of Eden... So let's say that I was a bit disappointed when I saw that almost none of my favourites made it to the shortlist! For some novels, it wasn't a surprise, for others, yes, it was a real disappointment. On the other hand, this shortlist challenges my expectations and my preferences, and that, in itself, is very interesting too.

When the shortlist was published, I had read all bar one novels on it.

M - The Clarkes recently feel reborn and purposed.  A few years ago it was in serious danger of disappearing but it feels like a full and warmly received award that actually likes to have a conversation with the genre.  It provokes debate as to what SF is and what books should represent the field.  I really like the look of this year's list.  I've currently got two left to read but it's an impressive list that adds a bit of everything.  It feels to be like pointing to where the type of SF we are going towards. We can discuss more for me a theme of today's writers taking old ideas and retooling them to work for today.  I am just finishing off one book but otherwise read all others (more by luck than design!)

 

A Closed and Common Orbit – Becky Chambers (Hodder & Stoughton)

 

C – A Closed and Common Orbit, we meet again! Since I always make a point of reading all of the Clarke shortlist, I had engaged myself to read at least two chapters of it despite having strongly disliked the first volume. It is now done. Guess what? I still don't get the hype. I'm honestly happy that Chambers' novels are so well loved because I can feel free to say that I really dislike her writing even if felt less awkward than in A Long Way to a Small Angry Planet. If she stumbles upon this post, I hope she'll be able to shrug off my comment by knowing that her novels are loved by many many others. As far as I'm concerned, I won't read further than those two chapters.

 

M - Well not all books work for everyone my friend but I have I say I thought this was excellent.  Long Way for me is a perfect beautiful look at an idea future and a warm bath in positivity as well as a look at relationships and found family.  But I was really impressed here that Chambers didn't take the easy option but went off into a really well plotted focused story looking at just two peripheral characters.  On top of which has weaving narratives from two different periods.  I'm not sure how far you got into the book but the tales of how various clones re enslaved I found quite disturbing.  I loved the theme of gender identity not simply the old plot of is an AI alive but how you get to live the life you want to and not that which society demands you take.  I read this in November and I find thoughts come back to it quite a lot.  An author I am totally ready to read their next book.

 

C - I honestly feel as if I'm missing out something. I'll probably come back to her stories in a few years when her writing, which is the main sore point for me, will have evolved (because each and every writer's style change over the years, whether readers like it or not).

Ninefox Gambit – Yoon Ha Lee (Solaris)

 

C - Miltary scifi isn't my cup of tea. Right, so now having said that, I also have to recognise that I nonetheless enjoyed reading The Expanse and that I love The Culture and the early Vorkosigan Saga novels which are, very often, military scifi. But I laboured through most of Ninefox Gambit: I couldn't engage with the plot nor with the characters that felt too stereotypical to me. While the world building was quite interesting, the pace was awry at times. Nonetheless I kept on with it and the ending redeemed that. In the end, I would say that Ninefox Gambit does less well what The Culture novels did better but it has its own voice and its own strong points.

 

M - I think one I find the best things about SF is that all the sub genres themselves allow a lot of flexibility as you note.  For me the military aspects of Gambit aren't the bits that I latched into.  What I loved in our uncertain times is the way it questions society, loyalty and truth.  The idea of a civil war based around calendars isn't the weirdest thing in the book and at the heart is the fascinating relationship between the upcoming new officer Cheris and her undead potentially insane military genius Jedeo.  Is there just an agenda of revenge, rebellion or just insanity? This book didn't give me a gentle learning curve to understand the universe; it means the reader has to work to understand it.  Tricky to do and Lee does it brilliantly.  Totally deserving of the acclaim and I'm looking forward to see where this series goes next.

 

C - I find it interesting that you liked the themes. To me they were ok. I've preferred how they were done in the City series by Robert Jackson Bennett for instance or in After Atlas which did a great job tackling truth and loyalty themes.

 

 

 

After Atlas – Emma Newman (Roc)

 

C - I've read both Planetfall and After Atlas earlier this year. To me, the fact that Planetfall wasn't shortlisted last year was a real shame as it is a novel that's powerfully written, that tackles mental health issues - something which isn't tackled often enough in scifi - and that linked wonderfully to 2001. I feel less enthusiasm for After Atlas because it's mainly a scifi noir novel, something I'm less keen on, and I engaged with its main character less than with Planetfall's main character. But I loved it nonetheless and I'm really happy to see it on this shortlist. I loved the world building, I loved the political ideas and the ending left me gobsmacked, precisely because I also know what happens in Planetfall. Emma Newman has recently announced that there would be a third novel set in this universe and I can't wait to read it even if I'm not sure that it will show us how After Atlas and Planetfall's threads meet.

M - I’m just in the process of finishing it off.  The world it's created is excellently thought out and chillingly possible.  Newman I think has been getting stronger and stronger over recent years.  The Split Worlds series I think is an excellent use of fantasy to show up the horrors of sexism while all the time giving you an amazing world of quite quite evil fae.  Her skills in SF were then demonstrated in the SF colony mystery Planetfall which as well as being a great puzzle had a fascinating lead character with one of the best looks at grief and anxiety I've read.  Intrigued how this story uses the same universe

C - I'm really looking forward to reading her Split World series. It sounds like my cup of tea and the last volume being due soon, I'm looking forward to it.

 

Occupy Me – Tricia Sullivan (Gollancz)

C - Occupy Me was a frustrating read to me for many reasons. On paper, it had everything I love in a scifi novel: folded universes, intriguing characters and a strong plot. But reading it didn't deliver what I was expecting. At times, I felt as if I had missed a chapter somehow (I checked and no I didn't). At others, I felt as if I was reading something that kept repeating itself with slight variations without ever bringing anything new to further the plot. I had loved Dreaming in Smoke which had won the Clarke in 1999, but since then, I've been less enthused by Sullivan's subsequent novels. They've felt to me as if something, somehow, was missing. And, sadly, this latest is no exception. But I'm happy to accept that it's just a matter of personal taste.

M - This was my first Sullivan and I am now going to be looking for her back catalogue.  For me the plot was good but the way the story is told was beautiful.  Some stunning imagery and a section on an angel thinking about the meaning of love was one of the best sections of writing I've read this year.  SF can be criticised for ignoring emotion but this felt wonderfully heartfelt.  A 270 page novel that goes from far past to end of the universe is like the lead character packed with hidden depth.  

 

Central Station – Lavie Tidhar (PS Publishing)

C - Central Station felt to me like when I'm in a modern art museum. I appreciate the artistic performance, I can see where the artist is going, the technique they used, often with great talent, and... it leaves me completely cold. The concept of Central Station, marginalised people left in the shadow of a space station while the rest of humanity goes exploring and colonising space was in itself something I could have loved; the form used, a collection of sketches, to observe different aspects of these marginalised lives, including new forms of life, and their pleas or dilemmas, was a brilliant idea. But, as I said, it left me completely cold. I recognise the literary achievement, I recognise it is to be praised as it observes aspects of society rarely seen in scifi and that shouldn't be forgotten especially as we move always faster towards the future while still having a highly in egalitarian society.

M - I went that extra mile then as it chimed with me a lot.  It's a great setting and the use of characters weaving in and out of each other's stories was for me beautiful.  The tale of the space vampire really stood out but we have sentient religious AI, lost lives reunited, potentially immortal rag and bone men.  It's constantly inventive and took a lot of golden age SF ideas and gave then an emotional punch they'd not had previously.  My only quibble is sometimes it felt like short stories collected rather than a pure novel in its own right but I think it deserves recognition.

C - I completely agree with everything you've just said. It's awful because I perfectly see why I should love it and... No, it didn't work. But regarding what you said above about the future of scifi, I think Central Station is to me the most modern novel there is on this list. It has, to me, faults. But it's definitely leading the way into a very interesting direction and from what I've read lately (novellas and/or stories about disenfranchised people who and/or golden age SF tropes revisited) it's a direction that many are taking. 

When we were talking about the Hugos, I was complaining that most titles on the shortlist didn't bring anything new to our favourite genre, but I think this novel in particular does.

 

The Underground Railroad – Colson Whitehead (Fleet)

C - The Underground Railroad is wonderfully told. The Underground Railroad has great characters, a strong plot, political ideas I enjoyed, makes us dive into the characters' pleas and the awful unfairness of their lives. The Underground Railroad is a remarkable novel. But I didn't read it as scifi. It may be because I know next to nothing to 19th century American History: I had to use Wikipedia after having read it to check where the novel was diverging from the actual U.S. History. It's a novel that blur the genres, which is something I'm not averse to, some sort of scifi realism rather than the usual magical realism, but in that case its presence in an unabashed scifi shortlist, for an award that usually crowns unabashed scifi novels is surprising to say the least. I've loved it and recommended it since reading it, usually along with I, Tituba, by Maryse Condé. But if I were a member of a jury for a scifi award, I wouldn't vote for it.

 

M - I agree a great book for me it's using an old fantasy style similar of leads wandering through a magical set of worlds but here it's cities or towns each of which studies racism and how it can be manifested.  I think it therefore deserves a place of recognition and that does make me wonder if future political fantasy could be allowed.  It's haunting and casts a very honest eye on a period I don't think many here in the UK fully understand the scale and horror of.  

 

C - What seems interesting to me in this shortlist is that they are all, with the exception of The Underground Railroad, stories with strong, sometimes even worn, scifi concepts. Space features heavily in Ninefox Gambit and A Closed and Common Orbit. It is also a very important background of Central Station that deals with marginalised people left in the shadow of the gate to space. It's also the case of After Atlas, that focuses on the people left behind by the spaceship Atlas. Finally, Occupy Me uses the concept of folded universes.

It's pretty ironic considering that when publishing my own shortlist I had said of it "It lacks big space ships going vroooom". The actual shortlist has its fair share of them.

M - Yes I think that's a very good point.  This last year or so the genre has been debating whether it's abandoned the theme of the alleged golden age of pure adventure.  I thought that was rather simplistic and ignored those tales also explored society and politics.  Here we have Novels all using existing ideas to explore 21st century humanity but all in different ways.  That they all do this in do this in different styles and in different sub genres I think suggests a genre still relevant to people.

C - Another thing that seems interesting to me is that four of these novels have a strong political theme. The Clarke has never shied from this. But this year After Atlas, Central Station, The Underground Railroad but also Ninefox Gambit have all four explicit political stances. After a quick look at the past shortlists, I usually find one, sometimes two, novels that are politically engaged. Of course, 2016 and 2017 justify that all persons of good will should engage to avoid further disasters. So it seems the jury took it upon themselves too to offer visibility to novels that would make people think, something I cannot fault.

M - I would again agree and argue Occupy Me also has a theme of people taking on the evil Corporations and actually the power of doing the right thing.  But I do think again after the recent debates as to the purpose of SF this is a reminder that it can be one of the most political of areas and exploring societies and how they tick is for me a key reason I keep reading.

C - If I had to pick a winner, I would ask you if you want me to tell you who's my winner of this shortlist or who do I think will win. Because, this year, it's for me two different things, whereas last year I was pretty sure Children of Time, which was also my favourite, would win even if there were some really strong contenders. So, I think Central Station will win. But my winner from this shortlist is After Atlas.

M - So if you ask me I go arghhhh.  I've enjoyed each book a lot and all differently (which is the best of dilemmas).  I'd be tempted that Tidhar would win but for me if you twist my arm it's Chambers....or Sullivan.....ok Newman......

A Closed and Common Orbit by Becky Chambers

 

Author: Becky Chambers

Publisher: Hodder & Stoughton

Published: Out Now

RRP: £14.99 hardcover

 

Lovelace was once merely a ship's artificial intelligence. When she wakes up in an new body, following a total system shut-down and reboot, she has to start over in a synthetic body, in a world where her kind are illegal. She's never felt so alone.

 

But she's not alone, not really. Pepper, one of the engineers who risked life and limb to reinstall Lovelace, is determined to help her adjust to her new world. Because Pepper knows a thing or two about starting over.

 

Together, Pepper and Lovey will discover that, huge as the galaxy may be, it's anything but empty.

 

NB – an earlier version of this review appeared at ww.geekplanetonline.com

One of my favourite novels last year was Chamber's debut SF story A Long Way to a Small, Angry Planet.  That was a wonderful story about a crew of wormhole miners on a deep space mission; less constant space battles but a great examination of other cultures, lifestyles and relationships.  A reminder that SF can talk about our culture in ways other genres struggle. I was really intrigued as to what the second novel from her would be like.  I'm pleased to find that this story is just as fascinating and heartfelt.

A major point to highlight is that this is in many ways not a direct sequel to Angry Planet.  The Wayfarer crew are absent bar Lovey the ship's former AI who decided she needed to leave the crew and Pepper a repair specialist who has taken on responsibility for Lovey, who has reluctantly agreed to be now housed in a synthetic human kit (completely illegal in their part of the galaxy).  It's still however a story of people working with others to find out who they are and equally less action focused but instead of how aliens would interact.

In this story Chambers has also used a different structure.  We have the main plot of Lovey struggling to find out how she fits in the world and then the book pairs these chapters with Pepper's early life.  We find out that Pepper was originally Jane 23 a clone one of many on a world where clone children are created to sort through a planet's rubbish and any attempt tofind out more about the world can have painful consequences at the hands of the robotic Mothers guarding them. These two stories compliment each other and eventually combine into a satisfying and nerve biting conclusion as Pepper's two worlds meet.

Two supporting characters are worth noting too.  Owl the sentient AI that finds Pepper as a child and seeks to protect her.  Very nicely there is a sense throughout that Owl is protecting the young girl from certain truths from the world until she is ready.  My favourite though is Taq an alien tattoo artist.  Taq is from a race with four genders and shifts throughout the book from male to female; no major point of this is made in the book but it's accepted.  Like Small Angry Planet this book just puts these ideas across to show that sexuality is not a big deal.  Taq's growing friendship with Lovely is a highlight as the artist's view of the body differs from Lovely's stance that the body is just kit.

I think it’s tempting to say Orbit is a simple ‘feel-good’ novel.  But actually Orbit is not as ree-assuring as Small Angry Planet.  The clone world Pepper runs from is cruel, heartless and we see children treated as tools.  Lovey has to hide because if she is found out for who she is the sentence will be death. It’s a world with good people in it but the wider world is not nearly enlightened – and it does not take too much thought to see this mirror our own world.

I have to say I that a book that explores gender and sexual identity is something most SF is not covering. SF should hold a mirror to our world and let us re-asses how we ourselves behave.  That Chambers melds those themes with a fantastic SF universe and gives us characters and dilemmas to think about.  I would love to see more books like this tackling the current world.

In conclusion I think Common Orbit shows no sign of that difficult second album feeling.  It's for me an even stronger story with the structure and characters delving deeper into those themes of friendship/family and identity.  There is darkness but this story also carries hope that with the support of those in our own circle of people we can grow and take on what the universe throws us.  An absolute delight.  It is completely deserving of it’s place in the awards lists for 2017.