Friday, 18 April 2014

Review | The Copper Promise - Jen Williams

...and I'm back!

Jen Williams seems to have reinvented brevity in the epic fantasy. Okay, I exaggerate, but The Copper Promise easily works - and works brilliantly - as a standalone novel, something which in a genre of doorstoppers with "to be continued"'s affixed, I find entirely welcome! (I do love epic fantasy, and certain door and elephant stoppers are favourites of mine, but sometimes it's nice to reverse the trend. Don't worry, you'll get your Words of Radiance review soon enough...)
That said, it takes more than a few elements from the sword and sorcery subgenre, so fans there will likely find something in The Copper Promise as well.

The novel begins with our three protagonists breaking into the Citadel - a fortress where the long-dead mages imprisoned the old gods, as well as their choice treasures. ...And naturally, it's the latter that our heroes are in search of: Lord Frith searches for the key to retaking his family keep, whereas Wydrin and Sir Sebastian are more interested in being paid to help him out. But unfortunately, it's the former they inadvertently meddle with: releasing a god intent on destruction, and soon all three end up with roles to play in stopping her.

It's hard to give a plot summary without spoilers: The Copper Promise is an extremely fast-paced novel, and things change quickly. In fact, it's being released in three parts for the ebook edition, which is probably quite fitting, as it does read almost like a trilogy compressed into a single book. Whether you like this or not is another matter. I enjoyed it, as a refreshing change from the drawn-out epics that have dominated the subgenre recently (again, not that I dislike them, but variety is always preferable!), and also as a plot that gave us a great deal of resolution - if fewer sequel hooks, which leaves me wondering what aspects the following books will take up. However, the downside is: there is no status quo. Very little time is given to a single development, in fantasy terms, and while this makes for a fast paced novel, it does disadvantage some character development: Sebastian in particular changes very quickly, whereas Frith's character growth and regression becomes slightly frustrating if only due to their rapidity. Furthermore, one or two twists are a little too predictable. While in a book with many it's hard to balance when the reader realises an upcoming revelation, certain surprises were ruined by overly heavy hinting. That said, in a book with so many, a few early spoilers have little effect on the overall impression.

So let's talk about characters. Frith - well, another character describes him as a bit of a shit, and often this description is kind of apt. That's not to say he isn't a great character, though - he is. It's another good element of the book: we sympathise with Frith and his tragic past, but frequently disagree with his selfish actions. I rather like this aspect of the book, though it would be nice if his development was more stable, especially given the pace - expect frequent regression, which does provide the occasional moment of frustration. In general, though, he's a courageous decision on the author's part that plays off - not a loveable bastard, or a magnificent one, but simply a very flawed human being. Sebastian and Wydrin are more sympathetic and immediately likeable (Wydrin, the Copper Cat of Crosshaven, being my personal favourite - though maybe I just like thieves too much. Locke Lamora, Eli Monpress...), and I enjoyed the roles of both. Sebastian in particular pulls off a slightly Faustian plotline better than most - having solid reasons behind his actions. Williams also does a reasonable job on having a diverse cast, with at least Frith being a PoC, and also avoiding the all-straight part of the typical fantasyland - which is definitely welcome!

Next up, a favourite topic of mine: the magic. While I won't explain the system - what there is comes relatively late in the book - it generally falls on the mystical side, with enough rules explained that the protagonists' use is justified. With the recent trends in the genre towards firmly rule-based magic, it's nice to see that Jen Williams can so excellently preserve some mysticality in hers, proving that fantasy gods in particular can still remain... well, slightly terrifying.

In general, The Copper Promise fulfils its promises: a fun, fast-paced, sword and sorcery-esque epic that manages to provide a very satisfying resolution. Yes, it has flaws - but despite them, it remains a brilliant read, and one I'd highly recommend. While a very neat ending leaves me wondering where the sequel will pick up, I can't wait to see where Williams goes next. Rich, complex, and with a large dose of good S&S character-driven nature amidst the epic fantasy trappings, The Copper Promise is definitely a recommendation for anyone interested in exploring a traditionally-flavoured, but original epic without necessarily getting into a multi-book arc.

Friday, 11 April 2014

Blog | Meet Algernon (and a Quick Absence!)

Meet Algernon. He is possibly an eldritch abomination, and also kind of fluffy on the inside. His existence and name are due to two separate friends*, both entirely awesome.

Anyhow, now I've distracted you with the cute mini-Cthulhu - news! I'm off on a quick holiday from this morning, and will probably not be able to post/have internet til next Wednesday, though am bringing many books (you'll get a fresh batch of reviews). Hope you all have fun without me!

*Yes, I probably owe them a baked goods-debt as well! :)

Thursday, 10 April 2014

Music | High Noon Over Camelot (and the Mechanisms)

At the weekend, I went to see CN Lester and the Mechanisms in Oxford - and while both were entirely awesome, the latter is something I can talk about in an SFF way. (And yes, this is the first time I've used the music heading. Heresy!) For those who haven't encountered them before, the Mechanisms are a band of - as their website puts it - "immortal space pirates roaming the universe in the starship Aurora. Some say they’re from a steampunk future, others claim they’re from a cyberpunk past, a few even whisper that they may be from a dieselpunk alternate now. They are all correct.". And their musical storytelling is similarly varied! So far, they've written three sets, as well as assorted individual songs: Once Upon a Time in Space, Ulysses Dies at Dawn, and their most recent, which debuted in December (which performance I sadly missed, but thankfully am now all caught up!), High Noon Over Camelot. The first two can be streamed/purchased via their Bandcamp, while they've just completed a Kickstarter to record the third, which should be released this summer. You can listen to a live recording here.

I first ran into a selection of the Mechanisms performing, as I recall, at Catweazle - or at least I remember the words immortal, space pirates, and steampunk, which tend to be a rare combination. Much later, some friends to whom I will be forever indebted (so long as that debt is payable solely in baked goods*) suggested I come along to a performance of their second set - and it was appropriately enough, amazing.

Each member has their own persona, with the fictional crew usually participating to some small extent in the set stories - as well as telling it musically (in fact, they've even elaborated beyond the songs in some short fiction here). While not any full sets, there are also songs about the crew members themselves, some of which are featured in the Tales to Be Told album, but most of which are sadly unrecorded as yet. At any rate, said personas are generally extremely violent, have their own odd canon (involving the creation of their mechanical parts by their former collaborator, Dr Carmilla, as well as octokittens. I haven't really asked about them. I'm a little afraid to. Afraid and fascinated.), and of course, costumes.

The sets, meanwhile, each tell an overarching story - each with a unique setting. Once Upon a Time in Space is based on fairy tales (in space!), with a brutal King Cole facing rebellion after kidnapping a skilled soldier from her wedding to a princess, Cinders. It's a lovely mashup, with a unique take on every figure - and of course, some spectacularly creepy ones. I will never look at the three little pigs the same way again. Ulysses Dies at Dawn crosses genres again - a dark (cyberpunk?) retelling of Greek mythology in a planetwide urban sprawl, where those rich enough gain immortality as Olympians, and the brains of the dead are harvested to provide computing power in the Acheron. The most recent, High Noon Over Camelot (which I saw performed on Saturday) is a western-inspired version of Arthurian legend set on a space station. As someone who loves a little genre bending (it's one of many reasons the Vorkosigan series is a favourite), it's great to see so much here. They're also frequently tragic... the suggestion of a possible happy ending got a laugh from other audience members.

I shouldn't spoil too much for High Noon - after all, you can listen to it yourself. That said, bear in mind that the live recording doesn't yet compare to actually hearing it: you'll have to wait for the proper recording for that! What can I say? It's a fun twist on the Arthurian legends, an inventive setting, some stunning twists, and of course some horrendously catchy songs. Seriously. I still can't root Skin and Bone out of my head. It's been a week, dammit.

So, if I haven't persuaded you so far, what else can I say about the Mechanisms? Well, they're good at telling stories with a diverse cast, which is always welcome in SFF, and particularly in the steampunk/dieselpunk/cyberpunk blend (whichever they are right now!): lesbian romance, trans characters, and just a good range of stereotype-defying - all feature. Secondly, you can stream their music before buying, so it's well worth a go. Thirdly, those octokittens are really cute.

Anyhow, that's my brief take on the Mechanisms - you can find their website here.



*Okay, I pay all my debts in baked goods.

Wednesday, 9 April 2014

Best Of | Necromancers, Resurrection, and General Botheration of the Dead

...And as always, for those new to the blog, my Best Of posts are where I pick a few favourite examples of my own of a topic from the genre, before asking you your own picks in the comments below. This time, the frequent villains of the piece: necromancers.

1. Matthew Swift and Magicals Anonymous series - Kate Griffin
She's been one of my favourite authors for a while - in fact, ever since the beginning of A Madness of Angels, which has one of the most engaging openings I've read (but I've ranted about that plenty elsewhere, so let's move swiftly on!) - but her brilliantly creepy necromancers, while a minor part of the series so far, definitely make my list. Combining part of the golem legend with the typical resurrection, in an attempt to preserve themselves, they eventually swallow paper upon which they write the aspirations and qualities they wish to retain in their new undead life - which they then choke on. Their dying breath empowers the paper, and they return. It's mostly the determination which is terrifying here, but it's an original combination - and as with all my favourite magic systems, has a suitably high price.

2. Johannes Cabal - Jonathan L Howard
Sarcastic, cold, and very occasionally possessed of a redeeming quality (maybe), the Johannes Cabal series' titular necromancer is scientifically minded and frustrated with the vagaries of necromancy. After making a Faustian deal for said powers, he decides that the magical effects of - well, not having a soul - make experimentation difficult: so he sets out to win it back. Okay, so he's a little bit of a terrible person. Nevertheless, as a character, he's wonderful: amoral, ruthless, and so pragmatic - with a few hints of humanity - that you can't help but root for him. Plus, taking shortcuts through wordy magicians with the help of a ridiculously bulky gun is the kind of genre-parodying fun which is so enjoyable in the Cabal series.

His necromancy itself leans towards the scientific (if vague) end, and not in the technobabble sense, but in the sense that he's actively researching better methods. His various solutions so far all have various side effects (brain-eating may or may not feature), but I do like his attempts to force scientific observations on magic, necromancy, and even the Lovecraftian Dreamlands (which are understandably resistant to them!)

3.Vlad Taltos series - Steven Brust
There are some necromancers in Dragaera - most notably the Necromancer, who as godlike demons go, seems rather friendly - but these aren't who I'm talking about today. No, I find the pure resurrection system of the novels interesting. Revivification isn't cheap, but it is available. And the consequences on Dragaeran society are extreme: in one novel, Vlad even mentions assassination being used as a warning. And this has meant modern-style consequences for murder (that said, their society is rather more bloodthirsty than our own as a baseline) have been elevated to the more permanent deaths. Damaging the brain beyond repair, for example, or worse, killing with a soul-devouring Morganti weapon (as reincarnation is pretty much a fact). It's seeing the integration of high magic levels into a fictional society, and its consequences, which makes worldbuilding interesting - and something that sadly, many novels miss out on. Much as I like certain Erikson books... well, much as I like Memories of Ice, magic seems to be relegated to war and not much else - and nobody is prepared for the frequency of character resurrections that occur throughout the series.

So these are mine - what about yours? Feel free to leave your choices in the comments below!

Sunday, 6 April 2014

Review | Rags and Bones - Melissa Marr and Tim Pratt

Rags and Bones promises "New Twists on Timeless Tales" (and delivers), but sadly, this review offers no such twist. Spoiler for the ending: it's unsurprisingly excellent! An anthology retelling classic stories - which range from classic SF to Spenser's The Faerie Queene, Rags and Bones provides a variety of twists and turns to keep modern readers satisfied, and to its credit, does well on the diversity  front (including one of the few bi protagonists I've read recently in fantasy) as well: I particularly liked Saladin Ahmed's retelling of Spenser from the point of view of the caricatured Saracens in the original work (who aren't at all happy with their roles - and seek to escape their imprisonment in a morality tale).While I felt this idea could have had a longer tale with more of an arc attached, it's this sort of concept that makes Rags and Bones special.

Of course, it's hard to review an anthology except as an overall impression, but I will mention a few other favourite stories. Neil Gaiman's adventure of a queen to find the source of a sleeping plague is, as always, wonderful - his signature writing combined with the Snow White/Sleeping Beauty mashup, plus some rather awesome female characters (and protagonist) really made this for me. Plus, of course, the obligatory twist. Holly Black's retelling of Joseph Sheridan Le Fanu's Carmilla from the vampire's perspective is one of the best - and most unsettling - vampire stories I've read, finding the vampire's allure not in the cliched romance, but in the dreams of children: an eternal child falling for a favourite playmate. It managed to get me right in the emotions, that one.

It's easy to overreach in a short story - aim for a grand plot and end up rushed. That's why I particularly liked that seemingly, every one of those included chose their scope well: sometimes just a quick exploration of a concept and setting to evoke the needed response was fine! Stories like Tim Pratt's The Cold Corner, in which a recently fired chef returns home for a family reunion only to encounter seeming visions of himself in very different careers encapsulate this beautifully - I won't spoil it for you, but the feel of the town (conveyed perfectly) and its familiarity and half the story, and it's a very welcome half.

Of course, as with all anthologies, there are a few stories that don't hit their targets. Sirocco, the story of a death during filming at the Castle of Otranto, misses for me - this may be due to my unfamiliarity with the source, but the two teenage protagonists with brief introductions, briefer attraction, and then argument failed to enthrall. Overall, however, Rags and Bones succeeds beyond almost all other anthologies I've read: providing an intriguing and captivating mix of tales. And mix should definitely be emphasised - they vary wildly, and that's a good thing! Of course, familiarity with the sources will likely get you more out, but I can only recommend this to any fantasy reader looking for something - or twelve somethings - short, snappy, and entirely original.

Monday, 23 December 2013

Article | When the Present Catches Up

...Inspired by reading a near-future SF novel where the near is becoming progressively "nearer". I can easily imagine that soon, the technology of "Halting State" won't be so far from our own. But what happens when the present does catch up with the imagined future, with the date of that future... or simply with a date at which that future itself looks  outdated?

It's clear that some novels are still successful despite (and some even partly -because- of) this, whereas others prove easily dated. 1984 is long gone, 2001 saw very few space odysseys (to say nothing of 2010), but neither Orwell nor Clarke will fall off our reading lists any time soon! Part of this, I think, is generality, and in this I think softer SF tends to persist better. It latches more onto the fantasy end of the market: views of technology might be easily outdated, but we still want to explore views of humanity - or even just views of a particularly interesting character. The Handmaid's Tale, for instance (though I don't recall whether its epilogue ever set an exact year), I can imagine being read for a long time to come. Regardless of if we use credit cards (which the text mentions), or - I don't know - chips embedded in our fingers (wait, that's horrible, but still), her dystopian vision will still be relevant. While the worldbuilding is always interesting, if a tale doesn't stand as something other than exposition, there isn't much to it - I can imagine a lot of the near future crime SF sticking around.

What about the view of technology itself? Well, it seems to help to defy the current aesthetic: if a novel is just one of hundreds of 70s SF novels all espousing the same vision of the future, it'll date quickly, especially when we reach the set date of said future, and it's completely wrong (meanwhile, there's always room for a quirkily different vision, even if wrong!). As always, it's the different ideas which stand out - whether socially or scientifically. Lois McMaster Bujold's Vorkosigan series will be around for a while: plenty have thought up similarly space-operatic futures, but the societies she places in these futures are endlessly inventive. Neal Stephenson's Snow Crash (which popularised the word 'avatar') easily stands out from its cyberpunk lookalikes with the franchised USA setting (plus a hefty dose of amazingness. Protagonist as pizza deliverer for the Mob, anyone?).

Thirdly, a lot of the novels which stick around are simply lucky. Nobody can avoid being influenced by their time, and their contemporaries. Just look at the parade of fiction which used nuclear physics as a general do-anything tool, just because it was new! But exactly which of these similar novels or stories ends up defining that time period in the present day is often due to luck, or popularity (I guess there's also an element of which best fits current values as well).

...don't worry, I don't have any particular point in bringing this up - I just think it's interesting to think about which SF novels have stuck around, even when their technological predictions are hopelessly outdated. Any you particularly think will stand the test of time?

Thursday, 19 December 2013

Review | Halting State - Charles Stross

I've always enjoyed Charles Stross' novels - though admittedly, mainly those involving Bob Howard facing more Lovecraftian spywork/the threat of paperclip audits - so I thought it was past time to pick up the first of this series. Halting State is a near-future SF novel, set in a Scotland post secession from the UK, and one in which a puzzling digital crime has been committed. Hayek Associates, economists for online games, have been robbed - ingame, and impossibly, suggesting that somebody has leaked cryptographic keys. Now the local police are involved, and Sergeant Sue Smith has to investigate a virtual robbery. Meanwhile, the insurers are panicking, and so Elaine Barnaby is sent in to gather evidence - paying Jack Reed, an ex game developer, an obscene sum as consultant. In other words, our three protagonists! But nothing's quite that simple: the robbery seems only the start of a larger crime, Jack's relatives are being threatened, and a Hayek programmer has apparently disappeared...

The most unusual thing about Halting State is the way it's told: second person, from three perspectives. I did eventually adjust, but it took longer than I thought it would - it's a little hard to simply drop in and out of. It's also a slow start from a technobabble perspective - as expected from a novel about a technical crime, and one in which the protagonists are experts in their fields, it's a little heavy (overly heavy?) on the jargon to start with, sometimes needlessly. That said, past the first third, the pace accelerated rapidly and I found myself quickly absorbed.

The technothriller aspects of the novel - particularly later - are wonderful, and the way in which the initial crime fits into the larger picture is perfect: as always, Stross' worldbuilding (even in the near future) is both inventive and compelling. But what about characterisation? Despite enjoying Halting State, that's where my second gripe comes in: while both Elaine and Jack's plotlines had clear structures, Sue Smith's perspectives seemed simply there to keep an eye on the police side of things, and tie the others together. In other words, her role seemed far smaller than expected, and I was occasionally left wondering why such a large chunk of the novel was devoted to her viewpoints - while I liked her as a character, it would be nice to have seen her have a more active effect on the plot. That said, all three characters worked well in the setting, and I found Elaine particularly engaging: a businesswomen essentially hung out to dry on a troublesome case by her partners, she's nonetheless determined to make sense of the situation, and definitely manages to take charge. There's also a nice revelation with Jack's character that I didn't see coming, and succeeds - as all good twists should - in really turning things around.

The pacing, meanwhile - post the first third - is well tuned: we're left just enough time to accustom ourselves to a new mystery before the whole issue deepens. And it's just just investigation, don't worry - there's some... inventive (no spoilers, I promise!) action as well. I especially liked how parts of it are set up from the beginning in the worldbuilding: it's not gratuitous, it fits, and more, it clicks (or at least gives you the "I should have seen that coming, but I really couldn't!" feeling, which is the best feeling).

Overall though, Halting State is well worth reading. If you want a fun, well-developed mystery - with some unusual and interesting protagonists thrown in - I'd advise checking it out, with the caveats that it has a slow start, an odd point of view structure, and Sue's plotline meanders a little. While I'd never recommend it over the Laundry series (so far my favourite of Stross' - though I'm looking forward to the Mo book), it'll definitely pass the time enjoyably.