Charles Stross has been on quite the roll with the last two 'Laundry File' installments, and 'The Labyrinth Index' picks up the ball and runs with it in exhilarating style. Stross has become annoyed with the way in which events in the actual world had ended up seeming much more unbelievable that those in his imagined world, and so has thrown caution to the winds. It works uproariously well.
With the UK government in the reliable but non-human hands of PM Fabian Everyman, our heroes of the 'Laundry' must attend to an pressing external threat, inklings of which were apparent in the closing stages of 'The Delirium Brief'. It would appear that the great United States has forgotten that it had an Executive Office. Dark deeds are afoot in the land of the Free and the Home of the Brave. Enter the Vampires then, to save the world with the very best of British luck then. Mhari Murphy (a vampire), accompanied by Officer Friendly (a superhero) and a motley crew of irregulars are tasked with saving the day. Yes, there is a cunning plan in play to rescue the President. Concordes, skyhooks and elvish mages are mere bagatelles in this rich and meaty stew.
Stross manages to balance wry humour with existential horror in just the right proportions to make this a satisfying morsel.
Lillith Saintcrow takes the gritty realism of her more well known Urban Fantasies to that new popular trope - the next American Civil War. And uses it to excellent effect.
A broadly sketched backdrop of the causes of conflict is extrapolated from the wildest wet-dreams of the more deplorable America Firsters following the ignorant blowhard currently masquerading as POTUS. The postualted McCoombs regime is every bit as detestable as it needs to be, with its extermination kamps, religious repression and mandatory xenophobia, racism, sexism and misogyny.
And of course, destined to fail ignominiously, but not before racking up and enormous butchers bill.
The story opens as Swann's Riders, an irregular militia Free Company fighting against the Firsters on behalf of the remnant Federal Government are amongst the liberating forces which defeat the garrison of one of the Firsters Reklamation kamps, just prior to the surrender of the Firsters. The repetition of history should be obvious for all to understand. The company picks up a new member from the kamp survivors. Lana Newton, aka 'Spooky' is more than she seems to be, the product of the types of experimentation and research that all fascists need to conduct on their invented underclasses.
The focus of the story though, is of the consequences to the combatants of the necessary brutality of the fight, and of the bonding and support of soldiers under fire and duress. And so when 'Spooky' becomes the target of a desperate search by all competing parties for the spoils of war, a chaotic quest across the once United States takes place.
This is an angry and passionate book. It has some eloquent things to say about how weapons of war should be used. And most especially so when those weapons are human beings, wrought into monsters by their 'leadership'.
Chris Beckett's vision of North America a century on is unrelentingly grim, and depressingly plausible. Whilst the years of the 'Tyranny' are over, climate change has wrought havoc on both the east coast and on the arid southwest. Hordes of the USA's very own brand of Mexicans (storm trash from the battered East-coast and dust trash from the drought ravaged southwest) are flooding north, now housed into those great American institutions, the ubiquitous Trailer Parks, now repurposed as refugee camps. Real Mexicans are held back by the famous 'wall'. Those USAians resident in the northern regions are none too pleased to host their unfortunate fellow citizens. Why, property prices might fall, and they'd likely have to pay higher taxes to assist their countrymen. And as fine upstanding citizens, they have a sneaking suspicion that the refugees are somehow to blame for their own misfortune.
Cometh the hour then, cometh the man. Senator Steve Slaymaker, a self made billionaire trucking magnate has a dream to build a new America, in the northern states. New cities, new jobs, new opportunities. He is to run for the presidency (for the current iteration of the GOP) on this grand new deal. How to sell a notion so antithetical to his traditional constituency? Enter Holly Peacock, West coast liberal, PR maven and purveyor of 'fake news'. Slaymaker offers her the job of selling 'Reconfigure America' to the great unwashed masses. Whilst conflicted, it is an offer that Holly just cannot refuse.
The campaign she develops has at its heart the tried and true distraction 'Look Over There!' Divert your supporters from the things they dislike about your policy with someone else to blame. And the cunning plan? Blame Canada!
And so we remember how 'Lebensraum' came about, how the Sudetenland was absorbed, how Israel came to be, how Tibet became Han and how Crimea became once more Russian. All the time, history tells us that the strong will take what they wish from the weak.
Well written, and with many difficult questions to ask of the reader. Nobody gets off lightly. No matter what your views, you will find something in here to be ashamed about.
Robert Jackson Bennett is the author of the wonderful "Divine Cities" trilogy, so it is no surprise that this latest novel is replete with muscular worldbuilding, a fascinating system of magic and a cast of characters that we readers can root for enthusiastically.
It is also no surprise that Bennett has a few things to say about the elements of freedom, about the way economic systems develop and evolve, and about who is able to benefit from economic advancement, and for what reasons. It is most eloquently shown in this story that without choices, freedom is a pretty meaningless thing to possess. Escaped slave and thief, Sancia Gordo is free enough to starve, living as she does on the chancy fringes of the Foundryside shantytown, itself clinging to the interstices between the grand compounds of the four great merchant houses of Tevanne. All of the benefits of economic advancement have accrued to these great merchant houses, not through their hard work alone, but through their ruthless application of power to crush their rivals. Gregor Dandolo, traumatised soldier is free to try to bring justice and order to the docks despite the disinterest of his family and virtually anyone else.
The system of magic which drives the economic wheels of the city is based on 'scrivings'. Elaborate sigils written onto inanimate objects serve to convince those objects that their reality has changed. A wheel is convinced to roll down an imagined hill. A gate believes that it must stay closed. These scrivings are designed and created by adepts in vast foundies, jealously guarded within the great merchant houses. And the origins of these strange devices, well these are lost in the mists of time, and in the rumour and legend of a vanished civilization of hierophants, who were as gods walking the earth. Rumours of lost artifacts brought to Tevanne's chaotic dockside provide Sancia Gordo with an opportunity to obtain the desires of her heart, and freedom from her afflictions of a sort. One daring heist would do it. Only of course, nothing could be that simple. And the attentions of Gregor Dandolo are the very least of her worries.
Eligible for the 2019 Hugo Award for Best Novel, and a very worthy candidate. The sequel (2nd of the planned trilogy) is titled 'Hierophant'
Mary Robinette Koval really hits a sweet spot with this re-imagining of the history of spaceflight. It is a coincidence that at the core of Koval's alternate history are female mathematicians, who, as dramatised in the novel and film 'Hidden Figures' were the providers of the equations and calculations which, hidden behind the curtain, contributed to the success of the US Space Program. Koval's novel was written before either of these works were made and published. At the centre of the story is the seminal outward urge, that quest for knowledge that swept so many of us who grew up with the excitement of the Space Race of the 1960s. And who, were disappointed and confused when the grand adventures came to a grinding halt in the 1970s, mired in budget constraints and a lack of an overarching existential purpose.
Koval provides the impetus for continuing the dream of space exploration by means of a meteor impact which obliterates the city of Washington DC and devastates much of the US east coast. It brings with it an Impact Winter, followed by the prospect of a runaway greenhouse warming, making the Earth potentially uninhabitable. No choice then, to find another basket for the earthly eggs.
It is the story of Elma York, pilot and math savant who yearns for the stars, and of her fellow computational workers who likewise dream of joining the program as astronauts. The forces of conservatism and discrimination are ranged against them, personified by the archetypal handsome cleft-chinned First Man in Space, Stetson Parker (great name!), who is determined that the womans shall remain grounded. All of the underlying and prevalent discriminations of our age get a decent hearing in these pages. Sex discrimination, racial and religious prejudice and the stigma of mental illness are factors in the narrative, as is the exploitation of celebrity by the media.
It is to Koval's credit that none of these characters is one dimensional or cardboard. Each is well rounded, with strengths and flaws which they bring to the table. The story rattles along at a page-turning pace, keeping the reader interested and engaged. If there is a flaw, it is that this book ends on a cliffhanger, awaiting the second half of the story in 'The Fated Sky'. Fortunately, it has already been published.
Eligible for the 2019 Hugo Award for Best Novel, and likely to be on my ballot.
Tim Pratt makes a very good fist of the difficult 'middle' book of a trilogy with the second of his 'Axiom' series. You do have to have read 'The Wrong Stars' to make much sense of the backstory though. This is not a standalone narrative. The key revelations about the activities of the Liars and the reasons for their hiding of the existence of the slumbering very bad indeed super-aliens of the Axiom are all covered in the last book, and are required for un understanding of the challenges of this new adventure.
The action takes quite some time to get going, and Pratt takes the time to flesh out more of the motivations and quirks of the crew of the 'White Raven', plus those collected during the rescue of the lost generation ship 'Anjou' in the last installment. All this occurs during a side trip from our merry crew's asteroid base to Ganymede, where the party crash Callie's 'funeral'. The Liars (the alien race who have saved humanity's bacon, but are absolutely Trumpian in their fabulism and disregard for the truth) take very much the back seat for the duration.
More is made of the relationship between Captain Callie Mechado and time stranded biologist Elena Oh, but the more important character developments are of the Raven's doctor Stephen, and his patient, the Axiom ravaged Anjou crewman Sebastien. They will have a key role in saving the White Raven's hide this time around. A very novel use is made of a VR system in monitoring the success or otherwise of Sebastien's rehabilitation.
But the result of this non-funeral is that Callie and crew get a much needed gig investigating the mysterious disappearances of colonists and asteroid miners in the newly colonised Taliesyn system. On arrival in system, the cause of the disappearances proves to be a massive Axiom base which is progressively turning any mass in the system into Computronium, the better to run a galaxy-spanning VR simulation. Full of deadly Axiom and their minions! If our brave crew cannot stop it, well everyone is going to die!
It is a light and enjoyable read. Pratt maintains the jocular humour and might I say Scalziesque tone of the previous installment, but I thought better switched up the tension in the quite well set up and delivered ending than was the case in the predecessor. There is a predictable way that this could have been resolved. To the author's credit, he finds a much better and more satisfying way to bring it home.
'Rogue Protocol' takes the ball from 'Artificial Condition' and runs with it. More of the backstory behind the nefarious GreyCris company is revealed (they are bad, mmkay). Murderbot must up the ante on deception of pesky humans (and indeed of other bot-kind) in order to further its quest.
Which events prove to be hand-wringingly tense, full of cliffhangers, tragedy and conflicted situations.
But Murderbot is learning and growing as a sentient being. The adventure continues, and this is reason enough to seek out the resolution, which is to be found in the concluding volume ' Exit Condition'.
Martha Wells continues the story of the most depressed 'robot' in the SF since Marvin the Paranoid Android in the novella 'Artificial Condition'. Since the first volume of the Murderbot Diaries ('All Systems Red') won the 2018 Hugo and 2018 Nebula awards for best novella, this sequel has big boots to fill. 'All System's Red' ended with our titular Murderbot rejecting the offer of 'FREEDOM' from her grateful clients, instead seeking to discover the truth behind its perception that it might have indulged in practices not conducive to client confidence during its contract just prior to the one which is the subject of 'All Systems Red'. A contract which had resulted in some rather dead clients.
And I thought it carried the tale on in very successful style.
Our Murderbot's unfortunate tendency to pick up and protect lost sheep almost causes disaster as it proceeds with its investigations. It is very fortunate that it has some convenient AI assistance, and can draw on the experience that it has deduced about the behaviour of those pesky humans from the 'entertainment' media to which it is addicted.
The story though is incomplete, and ends with the lead in to the next installment ' Rogue Protocol'
RF Kuang's debut novel has been the subject of many fine reviews. And I find that the excitement is indeed justified. This is a very accomplished work, with useful and interesting things to say about the role of choice and consequences in all our lives. Kuang takes as her template the geography and recent history of China for her worldbuilding. The contest for supremacy between the empire of Nikata, and the island nation of Mugin has its obvious parallels with historical events in our own world.
The story is that of Fang Runin (Rin), a war orphan, brought up in oppressive circumstances in Tikany, a small rural town in one of 12 provinces of Nikata. Rin wants only to escape her fate, and through cunning, sacrifice and hard slog, succeeds in acing the empire wide Keju examination, qualifying for tuition at the renowned military Academy of Sinegard.
The events of Rin's time at Sinegard, the story takes on elements which might be described as 'Harry Potter with Chinese Characteristics'. Rin's low born origins make her persona non-grata with many of her fellows (the scions of the Warlords or rich merchants), and she struggles to find herself a 'tribe'. Her choice to study the rarely chosen discipline of Lore isolates her further from her peers, and even though she progresses in her studies with her very eccentric Master Jiang, his aims and advice often conflict with Jin's own desires. The adept of Lore is able to commune with the gods, and bring their powers back to the world. Jiang advises Rin to resist this temptation, lest disaster and madness follow.
But when the long feared resumption of hostilities between Mugan and Nikata occurs, Rin's lot is thrown in with the Cike, those others who preceded her in treading the perilous path between channeling the gods and madness. No one is in control, and everyone is a pawn in a very brutal game. It is only quite late in the piece that one is shown why the reader should choose one side over another. Rin observes when encountering a Muganese soldier, that her opponent looks just like her. Not a monster, not a monstrosity, but just another human in an inhuman circumstance.
There is very much violence and horror for Rin to endure before she comes to live out her destiny. When it comes there is a heavy price to be paid. 'The Poppy War' is honest and true when it tells of the suffering caused by warfare. Neither the fighters nor the non-combatants are immune from the horrors. Those of a sensitive nature should be warned that drug use, self-harm, rape and sexual assault, in addition to graphic descriptions of war crimes are part and parcel of this package.
The consequences of 'The Poppy War' are no doubt to be addressed in the upcoming sequel 'The Dragon Republic'. I will be looking forward to reading it too.