Miska Storrow leads an unusual band of mercenaries in The Hangman’s Daughter, Gavin G Smith‘s latest novel (review copy from Gollancz). Hers are pressed men, prisoners kept in suspended animation on a prison ship and fitted with collars that enable Miska to explosively decapitate them at will. Miska and her mercenary legion have been retained to infiltrate a mining base that has been taken over by rebels, but she has few resources to back her beyond some ageing weapons and ammunition, and an AI version of her late father.
This is classic military science fiction – lots of running around, explosions and gory injuries and deaths. In between, a conspiracy plot begins to be revealed. Is Miska the rogue special forces operative turned cold-hearted and ruthless killer that she claims to be, or is there more going on under the surface? Obviously there is, otherwise this wouldn’t be much of a story.
The plot rattles along fairly well, but the cast of supporting characters is pretty thin and straight from central casting – identikit gangsters and idealistic rebels plus a stereotyped drill sargeant for a father. There is some disturbing fetishisation of a dangerous cohort of three high security prisoners held on Miska’s ship, including one particular serial killer that she is inexplicably attracted to. But the biggest difficulty for me was Smith’s reliance on concealing information from the reader. It jars me out of the story for a close third person narrator to not share information that would be known to the perspective character, particularly in a knowing way that is clearly designed to build suspense.
Goodreads rating: 2*
Empire Games launches a new series of books by Charles Stross (review copy from Pan Macmillan), but it didn’t leave me wanting to read on.
I haven’t read the earlier Merchant Princes books that this series follows on from, but I don’t think reading the earlier books is necessary before reading these. The story follows Rita, a drama graduate scraping a living as a booth babe, whose life is turned upside down when she is recruited by the NSA. What Rita doesn’t realise is that she is the child of an experimental programme designed to breed the talent to walk between worlds, a talent limited to a small group of people who are believed to be responsible for a terrorist attack that destroyed the White House. The NSA, fearful of further terrorist attacks, want to train Rita as a worldwalking agent, to infiltrate the terrorists.
In a parallel world, Rita’s biological mother, Miriam, is a refugee from the retaliation attack that destroyed the home of her family. She has worked her way up to being a Commissioner in the Government, heading the Ministry of Intertemporal Research and Intelligence, an agency that mixes espionage with the securing of technology to help develop the world in which she is now living. Rita’s mission is at risk of upsetting the delicate geopolitics of Miriam’s world, potentially triggering a worldwide nuclear war.
While there is a great Cold War espionage-style thriller in Empire Games, it was drowned out by an extremely polemical tone, reminiscent of Cory Doctorow. It was far too prominent in the story, and regularly intruded into and distracted from the story.
Goodreads rating: 2*
I have a weakness for well-told fairy tale, particularly stories out of the Western European tradition. And Katherine Arden gives us that in spades with The Bear and the Nightingale (Del Rey, review copy through NetGalley).
Vasilisa (Vasya) Petrovna is a child of the frozen, Russian countryside. A child with an interesting heritage: her mother was the daughter of a mysterious woman who walked out of the Russian countryside and captured the heart of a Russian prince, becoming his second wife. Vasya’s mother and grandmother were steeped in Russian magic, a heritage increasingly in conflict with the Orthodox church and its strict version of Christianity. The Bear and the Nightingale is part an exploration of that tension between religion and the world of Russian myth, and part a coming of age story.
Vasya herself grows up learning her folk heritage. In particular, she is fascinated by the stories of Frost, the winter-demon who takes the lives of the unwary, but occasionally rewards with riches brave young women who are offered to him as tribute. She feeds and nurtures the household and wild spirits of her village as she grows up, all unaware that she has already caught the attention of Frost himself. Vasya is thrown into conflict with her father’s second wife, a devout Christian who also sees the local spirits but dismisses them as hallucinations sent to tempt her, and a new local priest obsessed with Vasya and determined to convert the local population with his hellfire preaching.
The Bear and the Nightingale is a glorious story of growth and personal self-discovery. Vasya is an unconventional young woman, pushing against the boundaries of the community she lives in, for the sake of that community. Even if it means she is forced into a position of conflict with that community. Arden has a beautifully rich and evocative story-telling style. This is a fantastic and very readable piece of fiction.
Goodreads rating: 4*
I am an unashamed fan of Grayson Perry and his work as an artist and cultural commentator, so I was delighted to receive a copy of his latest book, The Descent of Man, from the publishers Allen Lane, a Penguin imprint.
Gender politics is a very live and current issue. Many of us who are passionate about equality are fearful of a mood in the world that seems determined to row back on much of the progress that has been made by successive waves of feminism. For some the battle appears to be won, and the struggles necessary to secure what has been achieved are forgotten and the results taken for granted. Those who continue to agitate for further progress to tackle the remaining hidden and cultural barriers can often be perceived as extremists, our accounts of the lived experience of being on the receiving end of sexism (personal or institutional) discounted or seen as hysterical exaggeration.
Grayson Perry’s The Descent of Man looks at the impact of this changing social dynamic on men. He rightly points out that men have been as much the victim of narrow gender stereotypes as women have. A macho culture that prizes men as dominant bread winners, sexually promiscuous but emotionally repressed is just as damaging as the one that limits to domestic caring roles as wives and mothers, denies them career opportunities and judges them primarily by their sexual attractiveness. That impact is there if you look for it, present in indicators such as the high rates of suicide among men. But it is not widely talked about, particularly by men themselves. Instead, perversely, a small group of men seek to cling on to those outdated and narrow roles, railing against the loss of power and privilege that inevitably comes from a rebalancing and opening up of gender roles. As always, for a rebalancing to occur, some of those who have historically had power and privilege will lose it in favour of others, so it is in many ways unsurprising that so much anger can be directed against women and other groups seen to be benefitting.
Perry’s central premise is that rather than engaging in blaming others, men should acknowledge the problems of the past and articulate a new, more inclusive identity that embraces contemporary society and exploits the opportunities of the contemporary world. It’s a laudable aim, but Perry himself never quite manages to lay down the essentials of what that identity might be, or how to persuade people to buy into a more positive view of masculinity. Regardless, this is a powerful and timely book, excoriating in its criticism of aspects of contemporary masculinity and the damage that a narrow patriarchal view has on us all, men and women.
Goodreads rating: 5*
Victor Pelevin’s Empire V (English translation published by Gollancz, review copy from NetGalley) aspires to be a 21st Century The Master and Margarita. It follows a young man called Ram, who is drifting through life in modern Russia. He follows chalk marks on the floor to an apartment where he is offered a bright future. He is transformed into the vampire Rama, and is gradually educated about vampires and the controlling role they play in the world economy.
Pelevin paints a harsh and nihilistic view of contemporary Russian society. It’s a very cynical view of commercialisation: the vampires are a literal parasitic class exploiting the labour and hopes and dreams of ordinary people. They are not productive in themselves, but instead create a culture of discontent, ambition and greed that fuels the economic activity that creates the conditions for the vampires to thrive. Strange rituals link the vampires to a secret society of the rich and powerful in society, as if the Bilderberg group were participating in scenes from Stanley Kubrick’s film Eyes Wide Shut. The theatre the vampires create preserves their position of dominance.
The reader follows the naive Rama as he learns more about the new world and society he finds himself in. Like the worst social climbers out of water, he over-compensates in order to convince that he belongs as a member of the group. Pelevin contrasts Rama with another new vampire, the worldly-wise Hera. Achingly cool and very well-informed, Hera navigates vampire society with an ease and facility that Rama envies. Although regularly humiliated by her, it only fuels his attraction and desperation to please and impress her: a microcosm of vampire society’s control over the rest of the world.
Empire V is a cynical and disturbing read, but thought-provoking.
Goodreads rating: 3*
Assisted suicide is not everyone’s cup of tea, but Steven Amsterdam‘s The Easy Way Out (review copy from Quercus through NetGalley) is warm, darkly comic and very life-affirming.
Evan is a nurse who has drifted through life and relationships without ever putting down roots. His mother’s diagnosis with Parkinson’s and her increasingly frail health force him to settle to look after her and help cover her medical bills. He takes a job as a nurse in a new pilot hospital programme that takes advantage of the recent legalisation of assisted suicide. His role is to help with the assessment and treatment of participants, assisting them and their loved ones to make decisions about end of life within the confines of the law, and to help them to carry out their wishes. As his mother’s health declines, Evan is forced to confront the question of whether he would be willing to help his mother end her life when the time comes.
At its heart this is a novel about compassion and the human spirit. Evan is found to be unsuitable for his role in assisting the dying because he seeks to make emotional connections with patients and their families, showing compassion and engaging with them as people rather than patients. The hospital’s programme is motivated as much by the desire to save money on end life care costs as it is by the desire to give people control over the timing and manner of their deaths. The zest and passion for life shown by Evan’s mother as she enjoys a temporary reprieve from her degenerative illness illustrates the importance of autonomy and control over one’s destiny. Her individuality manifests itself in surprising and delightful ways, in ways that the healthcare system would otherwise stifle.
For all its dark subject matter, The Easy Way Out is a sweet and warm book.
Goodreads rating: 3*
A man wakes up in a strange world with no recollection of who he is. All he has on his person is a toy paratrooper, a photograph of himself with a woman and some pictures scrawled in blood on a scrap of paper. He must piece together what has happened to find out who he is and why the world appears to be broken. Thus opens Faller, Will McIntosh‘s new thriller (Tor, review copy from NetGalley).
At its heart, Faller is a novel about arrogance, ambition and hubris. Peter is a talented, Nobel-winning scientist, but he’s also reckless. He’s invented a machine to duplicate living matter, to help heal the sick. The Government want to use it to help heal soldiers fighting a global conflict. But in a misguided attempt to help his terminally ill sister-in-law, Peter creates a rift with her husband, Ugo, his best friend and a talented bioscientist. Ugo becomes hell bent on revenge. Between them, Peter and Ugo break the world into fragments occupied by people with no memories.
Faller is a fun, well-paced thriller that rattles along with a lovely mix of action and plot revelation to carry you through to the end. But it does little more than entertain and I struggled to connect with the two big egos at the heart of it. Neither was terribly sympathetic, and the women in the book were largely relegated to supporting roles. In the case of the many duplicates, they were literally interchangeable.
Goodreads rating: 3*