Tuesday 22 March 2016

Book Review | The Last Mortal Bond by Brian Staveley

The trilogy that began with The Emperor's Blades and continued in The Providence of Fire reaches its epic conclusion, as war engulfs the Annurian Empire in Brian Staveley's The Last Mortal Bond.

The ancient csestriim are back to finish their purge of humanity; armies march against the capital; leaches, solitary beings who draw power from the natural world to fuel their extraordinary abilities, maneuver on all sides to affect the outcome of the war; and capricious gods walk the earth in human guise with agendas of their own.

But the three imperial siblings at the heart of it all—Valyn, Adare, and Kaden—come to understand that even if they survive the holocaust unleashed on their world, there may be no reconciling their conflicting visions of the future.

One one thing is certain: the Chronicle of the Unhewn Throne will end as shockingly as it began.


The Chronicles of the Unhewn Throne has been a bunch of fun from word one, but just as the by-the-numbers beginning of the trilogy belied a book both longer and leaps and bounds more likeable than The Emperor's Blades, my problems with The Providence of Fire led me to believe that The Last Mortal Bond would be, at best, a good conclusion.

And it is that... for a start. The conflict between Annur and the Urghul, which has so long stalked the fringes of the fiction, finally takes centre stage, and it plays out exactly as impactfully as I had hoped; the setting, so boldly embiggened by Brian Staveley in book two, continues to sing; meanwhile most, if not all, of the central characters' arcs are resolved in reasonable and rewarding ways.

This much, and more, I expected from The Last Mortal Bond. What I didn't expect was that it would take my breath away. But it did.

This is the end, my friends, so spoilers about the previous novels are unavoidable.

Thursday 17 March 2016

Book Review | Those Below by Daniel Polansky

For centuries beyond counting, humanity has served the Others, god-like Eternals who rule from their cloud-capped mountain-city, building a civilization of unimaginable beauty and unchecked viciousness. But all that is about to change.

Bas Alyates, grizzled general of a thousand battles, has assembled a vast army with which to contend with the might of Those Above. Eudokia, Machiavellian matriarch and the power behind the Empty Throne, travels to the Roost, nominally to play peacemaker... but in fact to inspire the human population toward revolt. Deep in the dark byways of the mountain's lower tiers, the urchin Pyre leads a band of fanatical revolutionaries in acts of terrorism against their inhuman oppressors. 

Against them, Calla, handmaiden of the Eternals' king, fights desperately to stave off the rising tide of violence which threatens to destroy her beloved city.


The conflict between the privileged and the impoverished comes to a hell of a head in the concluding volume of Daniel Polansky's deterministic duology: an inconceivably bleak book about the inevitable effects of generations of oppression that makes the most of the fastidious foundation laid in the flat first half of The Empty Throne as a whole.

Happily, because the bulk of the busywork is behind us, Those Below is a far more satisfying work of fantasy than Those Above. Its world of bird-beings and the human beasts bound to them has been built, the backstories of its expansive cast of characters established, and as regards its narrative, all the pieces of Polansky's game are plainly in play. Be that as it may, some rearranging remains...

A handful of years have passed since the Aubade overpowered the previous Prime in single combat. Now, Calla's meditative master really does rule the Roost—the highest rung of the hollowed-out mountain Those Above call home—but his people are still struggling to accept that the Aelerian Commonwealth, under the Revered Mother and her infamous man-at-arms Bas, represents a real threat.

As one of the Eternal's pet people puts it to Pyre, a misbegotten boy become a symbol of the unrest rising from among the lower rungs, "the mote of grime you scrub from your eye in the morning is of more concern to you than you and all your people are to them." (p.126) The absolute arrogance of the Eternal could be their ultimate undoing, to be sure; equally, their unequivocal conviction that they are "superior in every fashion that one creature might be to another" (ibid.) could be something of a saving grace at the end of the day. Who can say?

One way or the other, war is coming.

Monday 14 March 2016

Book Review | Those Above by Daniel Polansky

They enslaved humanity three thousand years ago. Tall, strong, perfect, superhuman and near immortal, they rule from their glittering palaces in the eternal city in the centre of the world. They are called Those Above by their subjects. They enforce their will with fire and sword.

Twenty five years ago mankind mustered an army and rose up against them, only to be slaughtered in a terrible battle. Hope died that day, but hatred survived...

Now, whispers of another revolt are beginning to stir in the hearts of the oppressed: a woman, widowed in the war, who has dedicated her life to revenge; the general, the only man to ever defeat one of Those Above in single combat, summoned forth to raise a new legion; and a boy killer who rises from the gutter to lead an uprising in the capital.


They say money makes the world go round, and maybe it does—but for who? For me and for you, or only the few?

According to Oxfam, the wealthiest one percent of the people on planet Earth now have more moolah than the rest of the population put together. Redistributing said wealth would certainly solve a lot of problems; it would save a lot of lives, and set right a lot of wrongs. Sadly, it simply isn't in the one percent's interests to do what needs doing, basically because it would make money meaningless, and money is what gives the the moneyed meaning.

The bottom line is that to have haves, you have to have have-nots. Just as darkness makes daylight distinct, and summer would be insignificant without winter, the poor are a prerequisite of the existence of the rich, thus the latter need to keep the former at their feet—financially in the first instance, and factually in Daniel Polansky's devastating new duology.

Those Above, or else the Eternal, are the one percent of this manifestly metaphorical milieu, and they make their eminence altogether evident by literally lording it over the impoverished populace of the lower rungs of the Roost:
Since the Founding, when Those Above had forsworn the wandering of their ancestors to create and populate the Roost, to leave the summit of the City was considered, if not quite blasphemous, at the very least extremely distasteful. The Eternal lived in the sky, or as close to it as they could reach, and in general left the First Rung only to make war. (p.165)
The advantages of living on First Rung are near enough numberless. There, Those Above—and the few mere mortals who wait on them without question—are tended to with an excess of tenderness. Every meal is a feast, medical care means most mortal wounds are mere inconveniences, and advances in technologies unknown to Those Below have taken every difficulty out of the day-to-day. Theirs is a world, in a word, of wonder; such wonder that even indentured servants like Calla—one of the overarching narrative's four protagonists—cannot imagine anything eclipsing it.

Thursday 10 March 2016

Book Review | Radiance by Catherynne M. Valente

Severin Unck's father is a famous director of Gothic romances in an alternate 1986 in which talking movies are still a daring innovation due to the patent-hoarding Edison family. Rebelling against her father's films of passion, intrigue, and spirits from beyond, Severin starts making documentaries, traveling through space and investigating the levitator cults of Neptune and the lawless saloons of Mars. For this is not our solar system, but one drawn from classic science fiction in which all the planets are inhabited and we travel through space on beautiful rockets. Severin is a realist in a fantastic universe.

But her latest film, which investigates the disappearance of a diving colony on a watery Venus populated by island-sized alien creatures, will be her last. Though her crew limps home to earth and her story is preserved by the colony's last survivor, Severin will never return.

Told using techniques from reality TV, classic film, gossip magazines, and meta-fictional narrative, Radiance is a solar system-spanning story of love, exploration, family, loss, quantum physics, and silent film.


Is seeing the same as believing?

It used to be, for me. I can't tell you how many nights I spent lying in the long grass of the family garden, staring at stars as they twinked like fairylights hung from the heavens, wondering what in the world was out there. And wonder was the word, because whatever was out there—and I was sure there was something—it was awesome, obviously.

I absolutely believed that, then. These days, damn it all, I don't know that I do. My fantasies are much more mundane in nature now. I get a nasty neck when I look up for too long; lying in long grass leads, as like as not, to another load of washing to manhandle in the morning; and on those increasingly rare occasions when I am given to ask what more there might be, I think: maybe this is it.

But readers? Radiance by Catherynne M. Valente—"a decopunk alt-history Hollywood space opera mystery thriller [...] with space whales," according to the author—had me stargazing again.

The events Radiance revolves around take place in 1944, but not the 1944 we know, folks. This world is not at war—in part, perhaps, because its people have been exploring space for almost a century already, and colonising every scrap of land they can. "You weren't anybody at the imperial picnic if you didn't have a planet," (p.118) one of the many and various mums of our missing main character has it:
By the time I made my entrance, all the planets had their bustling baby shantytowns, each and every one with a flag slapped on it. [...] Moons, though lovely, just lovely, are consolation prizes. Sino-Russian Mars. Saturn split between Germany and Austria-Hungary. French Neptune. American Pluto. Spanish Mercury. Ottoman Jupiter. All present and accounted for—except Venus. Nobody owns that Bessie because everyone needs her. (p.118)
"Why, mummy? Why does everyone need Venus?" I imagine a young Severin Unck asking the latest lady on the arm of her famous filmmaker father.

"Because that's where the Callowhales are at!" she, whoever she may be, would answer.

"And Callowhales—what are they?"

"Well, they're these great big sleeping beasts whose milk we drink to stay strong in space!"

"But why do they make milk, mummy? And do you think they mind us drinking it?" Severin, even then, would need to know.

"Oh, my lovely little Rinny, you ask so many questions!" mummy number seven or eight would say. That, and only that, because even after using these creatures for so many years, nobody knows exactly what the Callowhales are, or why they produce the nutrient-rich fluid that's been a key part of humanity's expansion into the stars. Nobody's asked the questions because, at bottom, they're afraid of what the answers might mean for the species. Severin has no such vested interests. She's only interested in the truth, however embarrassing or hard-to-believe or indeed dangerous it may be.

Monday 7 March 2016

Book Review | The Devil You Know by K. J. Parker

The greatest philosopher of all time is offering to sell his soul to the Devil. All he wants is twenty more years to complete his life’s work. After that, he really doesn’t care.

But the assistant demon assigned to the case has his suspicions, because the philosopher is Saloninus—the greatest philosopher, yes, but also the greatest liar, trickster and cheat the world has yet known; the sort of man even the Father of Lies can’t trust.

He’s almost certainly up to something; but what?


If there's one thing you can say with certainty about the work of K. J. Parker, it's that there's always more to it than meets the eye, so the fact that the personage of K. J. Parker hid a similar mystery made more than a modicum of sense. Who was he really? What might his use of a pseudonym mean? Was he even a he?

For a decade these questions played a part in damn near every discussion of the aforementioned author, and factored, furthermore, into the mystique surrounding everything he'd written in addition. Then, late last April, the big secret was revealed: K. J. Parker was indeed a he, and his alter ego was Tom Holt. Of course.

In the wake of the stories surrounding the announcement, I found myself wondering whether we might not have lost some of the patented K. J. Parker magic in the course of getting to know the unknown. Well, if The Devil You Know is anything to go on, the answer to that question is a resounding no.

Tuesday 1 March 2016

Book Review | Down Station by Simon Morden

Mary. One slip, one weakness away from prison, fighting to build a future for herself out of so little.

Dalip. The gentle son of a Warrior tradition. A young man who must fight to be apart from his family.

Stanislav. Carrying the wounds of a brutal war.

They left London in flames and found a place where everything was different. A place that found you out. A place haunted by a man called Crows... 


Let's hear it for freedom.

Seriously: for freedom in all its forms—for the freedom to dream and the freedom to scream; for the freedom to be who we want to be, do what we want to do, love who we like and live the way we might—let's hear it!

Freedom isn't just fine, it's fundamental. We become who we become because of it. But in as much as the freedom to choose may shape us, our choices can come to contain us.

Down Station by Simon Morden is a book about breaking out of the frames we make of these freedoms, and it kicks off with a couple of Londoners losing everything they love—not least said city, which appears to burn to the ground around them in the beginning.

[Read more.]

They are Mary, a contrary teenager with anger management issues, and Dalip, a twentysomething Sikh with dreams of being an engineer. Both are working in the tunnels of the subway when the aforementioned catastrophe happens; a catastrophe that would have claimed their lives, in all likelihood, if they hadn't discovered a door that almost certainly wasn't there before. "A door that [...] more or less disappeared as soon as they closed it," (p.40) promptly depositing them in a landscape that looks absolutely natural—except, I suppose, for the sea-serpent, the wyvern in the sky, and the massive moon Mary and Dalip see it silhouetted against.

"Whoever first named it, named it right. Down is where we are," a man called Crows—another escapee from the world as we know it—explains a little later. "It is both a destination and a direction, it is how we fall and where we land." (p.126) And in Down, our everyman protagonists must discover themselves all over again if they're to stand a chance of surviving in a world which in a real way responds to their behaviour.

For Mary, an urban girl entirely out of her element, that's scary: "There were no rules. No one telling her what to do. No one to make her do anything. [...] What she was feeling was fear." (p.74) For Dalip, it's a little different:
Almost his every waking moment had been planned, since he'd been old enough to remember. This school, that club, a friend's house, the gurdwara, plays and concerts and recitals and family, so much family: brothers and sisters and cousins and second cousins and uncles and aunts. The thought that he might be free of all that was... intoxicating. Even if it was just for a while, before someone was able to show him the way home. (p.64)
Alas, there are no someones coming. There's just Mary, Dalip, a few disappointingly underdeveloped supporting characters—here's looking at you, Mama and Stanislav—and the diabolical denizens of Down, one of whom generously tells our gang about the geomancer. Apparently, maps are the currency of this world most weird, and the geomancer makes them, so if anyone hereabouts can help them get home, it's her.

That's what a man made of wolves says, anyway. Me, I'd struggle to trust a man made of wolves, but this lot are desperate, I guess. And they only grow more so when—what do you know?—they're attacked on the path to the geomancer's castle. By, ah... a man made of wolves.

Down Station is a little predictable, at points, but the Philip K. Dick Award-winning author of the marvelous Metrozone novels and late of the greatly underrated Arcanum keeps the pace at such a brisk pitch that you only notice the lows when they're over. In the intervening period, you've had such fantastic fun—think The Wizard of Oz with lashings of Lost—that it's easy to overlook the telegraphed turns the tale takes on the way to its eventual destination: a cracking battle between a much-changed Mary and a certain skyborn beast.

To wit, in terms of plot and pace, Morden's ninth novel is tight and taut—and I'd argue that its relative brevity is a boon to boot. At approximately 300 pages, Down Station is a ways off wearing out its welcome when the literary kitchen closes its doors; though the portion sizes might be on the slight side, chef serves up a satisfying three-course meal here, leaving readers stuffed enough, but not so full that they won't have an appetite for more when it's over. And in case you weren't aware, there will be more, folks: The White City beckons, and after that... why, this whimsical world is Morden's oyster.

Fingers crossed that he cracks the surviving secondary characters in The Books of Down yet ahead. Mary and Dalip ably showcase the transformative nature of choice and change I touched on at the top, but Dalip's impromptu instructor is so secretive he's hard to get a handle on, Mary's guardian angel is wasted in spite of a strong start, and although he shines sometimes, I expected much more of Crows, not least because he's such a central element of Blacksheep's exceptional cover art.

Then again, the Londoners above aren't friends or enemies yet—they're "just a bunch of people thrown together by the fact that [they] didn't die," (p.100) so there's hope for these folks, especially here, where they're free of "their hopes and dreams, their fears and nightmares, the past they'd lived and the future they were destined to live." (p.254) To paraphrase what might as well be the mantra of this narrative, it's what they do now that counts. Similarly, what Simon Morden does with The White City, now that he's introduced it so succinctly, will be what matters when The Books of Down are done.


Down Station
by Simon Morden

US Publication: February 2016, Gollancz

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