Tangle’s Game – Stewart Hotston

Tangle’s Game by Stewart Hotston (review copy from Rebellion) starts extremely strongly, with the experience of a mixed race woman detained at an airport for questioning.  Subjected to racist abuse and sexual harassment, Amanda Back, a successful banker, doesn’t know why she has been detained.  It is only when she is finally released and makes her way home that she finds out that her ex-boyfriend Tangle has involved her in a complex plot about blockchain and AI by sending her an encrypted USB key containing datafiles that are being sought by governments across the world.

On the one hand, Tangle’s Game is a very prescient novel that extends current issues in society.  Technological development is mixed up with global geo-politics and attempts by one nation state to undermine others.  Its conclusions and their impact on Amanda feel startlingly plausible.  And Hotston is to be applauded for his characterisation of Tangle as a charismatic but selfish and self-obsessed man.  Another, lazier writer would have romanticised Amanda’s toxic ex-boyfriend and tried to redeem him.

But this is a flawed novel.  The authorial voice is far too prominent for me, with a didactic tone that is determined to tell you how to interpret the events of the book and the issues it portrays.  This kind of “tell, not show” is intrusive, and throws me out of books.  The novel also relies on too many early coincidences – the arrival of two hired mercenaries in Amanda’s flat, and the presence of a helpful AI.  Neither is fully explained and feels clumsily done in order to move the plot along.  And while the story flows competently if predictably from thereon in, it’s hard to care about any of the characters.

Goodreads rating: 2*

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Celebrity Werewolf – Andrew Wallace

Imagine, if you will, if David Lynch and Stanley Kubrick got together to tell a story of human progress in the face of competing drivers.  Don’t be fooled by the title, or by the light, witty prose – Celebrity Werewolf by Andrew Wallace (NewCon Press) is a book with a lot to say.

Gig Danvers, the titular Celebrity Werewolf, pops into existence without warning one day.  He has no memory of his past or why he is here, but after a series of heroic acts he captures the public imagination.  Gig is “a lover, not a biter”, not your typical, violent werewolf.  Together with scientist Becky and businesswoman Helen, Gig sets out to make the world a better place with inventions based on his own biology.  But his efforts to solve some of the most pressing issues facing the world are repeatedly undermined by arch-rival Gavin Dergs.

This is a conflict between two competing views of the world.  Gavin is about profit, control and a narrow view of who should benefit.  By contrast, Gig is a humanitarian wanting to share his discoveries with everyone.  He advocates an inclusive approach based on love and compassion.  Yet he finds himself outflanked by Gavin at nearly every turn.

This is a love song to human progress, and the need for radical change to address the real problems facing humanity at the moment.  In order to develop, we must change and be willing to embrace the new and different, and overturn the old and existing orders.  We need to reconcile the duality of left and right, profit and public service, love and cynicism if we are to have any chance of succeeding in the longer term.

Wallace amps up the strangeness as the book progresses.  His creativity is fresh and exciting, particularly in the way he breaks down traditional sub-genre boundaries to tell this story.

Goodreads rating: 4*

Not For Use In Navigation – Iona Datt Sharma

One of the joys of reviewing books is coming across exciting, new writing.  Iona Datt Sharma was kind enough to send me a review copy of their short story collection Not For Use in Navigation.  It is full of wit, staggeringly subtle insight and exquisite prose. These are stories that foreground queer and genderfluid people, and focus on liminal spaces.

At EasterCon I was on a panel with Charlie Stross.  We were talking about how rarely stories deal with those behind the scenes people who in real life make change happen.  Charlie’s point was that in a Joseph Campbell-based tradition of story-telling, we want to read about heroes.  That mode of story-telling doesn’t lend itself well to ensemble casts or the acknowledgement of the necessity of collaborative effort.  But Datt Sharma puts that to the lie.  Every person is the hero of their own story, and Datt Sharma tells stories that elevate the mundane and use it to illustrate the profound.

The collection opens with Light, Like A Candle Flame.  This is the story of a woman whose job it is to persuade colonists on a new world that they all need to agree to build a sewage treatment plant, because their current arrangements will not support the growing colony.   Not the most exciting of topics, but in Datt Sharma’s hands this becomes a meditation on leaving home, the tension between past and future and how human beings living in communities work out how they live together.

The bathos is most present in Alnwick, the story of a civil servant working on the UK’s space programme.  Disturbed from a party by an accident that has left many people badly injured, Meg has to deal with the immediate aftermath and ensure the planned space launch will go ahead as intended.  I felt deeply seen by this novel.  Meg does radical work at the cutting edges of technological development, but is seen by her girlfriend Deepika’s activist friends as boring and conventional.  Meg’s story is the heroism of hard work and complex problem solving, and a competent woman doing her job well.  The image of her briefing her Minister in a party dress and snow boots sums this up for me: glamour mixed with practicality.  Meg is the ultimate public servant, quietly doing radical world-changing work that those around her underestimate.

These themes continue in Flightcraft.  Talitha Cawthorne is a flight engineer scarred by the experience of war.  Trying to find a path for her future, Talitha finds herself drawn to a nearby airbase, and the friendship of a civilian flight engineer called Cat.  Talitha was someone forced to do things that others might find unethical during the war, but in the name of saving others.  These are hard and difficult choices that are not ones that most people have the ability to make.  Flightcraft asks who are we to judge from a position of partial knowledge when we are the unwitting beneficiaries.

The collection also includes a novella called Quarter Days.  It follows two magical practitioners, and their new apprentice, who are caught up in the reaction to a railway disaster.  One of them, Ned, is held responsible for the accident because he was one of those that worked on the railway signalling equipment.  But the investigation into the incident begins to show their may be another cause.  This is a story about the impact of migration on a city.    Datt Sharma doesn’t shy away from the bigotry and Othering of those migrant communities, but this is a story about how those people can enrich a place in unforeseen ways by what they bring with them from their homelands.

Interspersed throughout the collection are stories of Akbar and Birbal.  These are reimagined versions of popular folk stories about Akbar the Great, the third Mughal Emperor of India and his friend and principal adviser Raja Birbal.  Akbar struggles to be a good ruler, and it is often Birbal’s cleverness that helps him solve problems, grow and learn.  Datt Sharma’s genderflipped Akbar and Birbal are transported to a space-faring empire.  But the core heart of the stories remains – a strong friendship between two individuals who are not afraid to speak truth to one another.

This is a brilliant collection of fiction that deserves a wide audience.  Datt Sharma is a writer to watch.

Goodreads rating: 5*

Witchsign – Den Patrick

There are certain things you should expect from a Den Patrick book: principled, if hot-headed, young men taking up arms against tyranny and oppression, brilliantly written sibling relationships, and a load of brilliant adventurous fun.  Witchsign (Harper Voyager) has all of these in spades.  The elevator pitch for this book is simple: what if Harry Potter went to evil Hogwarts, but it turned out they’d made a mistake and he was a Muggle?

Steiner and his sister Kjellrunn are teenagers living in a small town called Cinderfell, which is pretty much at the end of the world.  Their father is a blacksmith, and their mother left many years before.  They aren’t well off, and spend a lot of their time scraping to make ends meet.  But their lives are disrupted when the mysterious masked Vigilants from the neighbouring and conquering Solmindre Empire arrive.  Each year Vigilants come to test young people for Witchsign.  Those with it are taken away on board ship and never heard of again.  Steiner is found to have Witchsign, and is taken away.  But it’s a mix up – he was protecting Kjellrunn, who it turns out has blossoming magical powers.  Steiner is taken away, but not to his death as he feared – instead he finds that children with Witchsign are taken by the Vigilants to a mysterious island housing a a magical school.  Kjellrunn and her father are left behind to cope with the fear and stigma of Witchsign having been discovered in their family.

One of the things I love about Den’s writing is that his protagonists aren’t your traditional royal heirs with magic powers/weapons/special destinies.  Steiner is an ordinary young man who sees that something is wrong and decides to do something about it.  He protects the weak and the vulnerable, stands up to bullies, and encourages people to work together to overcome obstacles.  Although hot-headed and rash at times, it’s because he cares about the wrongs he sees in the world around him, and wants to do something about it.  And his relationship with Kjellrunn is beautifully drawn.  He is a fiercely protective older brother, who nonetheless will bicker with his sister over trivia.

Above all, Witchsign is a thrilling adventure story full of escapades, heroics, adventure, magic and dragons.  It sets the scene perfectly for the second book in the series, as Steiner and his friends set out to overthrow the Solmindre Empire because of the suffering it has caused.  But it’s written with contemporary sensibilities about corrupt governments, the abuse of power and bigotry.

And Kjellrunn’s reaction to being told to smile once too often by a foreign soldier?  That had me punching the air in delight.

Goodreads rating: 4*

Shadow Captain – Alastair Reynolds

Shadow Captain (review copy from Gollancz) is the sequel to last year’s Revenger by Alastair Reynolds.  Revenger is a cracking adventure story about teenage sisters who turn to a spot of space piracy in order to enact revenge on the infamous and evil Bosa Sennen.

Shadow Captain picks up the story immediately after the events of Revenger.  Arafura (“Fura”) and Adrana Ness are now the co-captains of Bosa Sennen’s ship, the Nightjammer, which they have renamed the Revenger.  Their crew is tiny and they are running low on supplies, but they have a hold full of currency.  They will need to make port soon to buy food and extra supplies, but that’s harder it could be when Bosa Sennen is the most wanted in the solar system and no-one knows she has been defeated.  There is a bounty on their heands, and that of their ship.  The sisters and their crew head for a backwater world run by Mister Glimmery, a cruel mob boss, desperately seeking medical treatment for one of the crew who was injured in mysterious circumstances.

Told from the perspective of Adrana Ness, this is a story about conspiracy, paranoia and distrust.  Adrana herself is battling to throw off the psychological conditioning she received while she was Bosa Senn’s prisoner.  And although she’s grateful to be rescued, the changes wrought in her sister Fura are hard to come to terms with.  This isn’t the sister she remembers.  Fura has her own agenda, determined to unravel Bosa Sennen’s secrets and the mystery of the banking collapse that took place at the end of the previous book.

Shadow Captain is a rollicking good adventure that continues the story from Revenger.  Some mysteries are solved.  New ones are added, setting up for an intriguing next instalment.  Sit back and enjoy the voyage.

Goodreads rating: 3*

The Psychology of Time Travel – Kate Mascarenhas

The Psychology of Time Travel by Kate Mascarenhas (review copy from Head of Zeus) is an exciting and fresh take on time travel.  It’s hard to tell a good time travel story.  It’s far too easy to get caught in grandfather paradoxes or the desire to change the course of world events.  But rather than focus on the impact of time travel on the world around us, Kate Mascarenhas shows us the impact of the technology on the time travellers themselves.  How are you affected when you know that events are fixed no matter what you seek to do?  This is the story of the four women who invented the technology enabling time travel, and the rivalries between them.

The wonderful Hidden Figures-style opening to the novel shows us four women in rural Cumbria in 1967 on the verge of inventing time travel.  They are close friends, working in an isolated spot with limited resources.  But the group starts to break apart when one of the four, Barbara, suffers a breakdown on live television as they announce their amazing invention.  She has suffered the temporal equivalent of jetlag, after spending too long time travelling in a way that has upset her circadian rhythms.  Fast-forward 50 years, and Barbara’s grand-daughter Ruby is sent a news clipping from the future about the mysterious death of an unidentified woman in the basement of London’s Toy Museum.  Ruby is intrigued and attempts to solve this curious locked-room mystery.

This novel is a novel of fantastic strengths.  The cast is almost-entirely women, with men pushed to the periphery in supporting parts or existing only as absences.  It features a wonderful queer romance.  There is art inspired by time travel, including anomalous items that only exist in time loops.  Time travellers create their own jargon.  And it is great on a very British style of bureaucracy.  Of course the Government would set up an agency to manage time travel, with its own currency, judicial system, the use of technology to help the future by preventing extinction events, and the exploration of marketing opportunities by selling goods from the future in the present.

But where this novel really shines is in the psychology its title foregrounds.  People behave differently when they know they can travel through time and their actions are largely irrelevant.  They become hardened to death because it is inevitable, and grief has less meaning when you can travel back in time to visit a person while they are still alive.  Risk-taking behaviours increase, because when one knows the date and time of one’s own death there is no peril.  And infidelity is common when a person is disconnected from their own timeline and the significance of those emotional connections decreases.

This is a fantastically intriguing puzzle box of a novel, with a very satisfying payoff.

Goodreads rating: 4* 

Stronger, Faster and More Beautiful – Arwen Elys Dayton

Normally I love a mosaic novel.  They can be a great way of telling a single story from multiple view points and they are excellent for stories that have to span multiple time periods.  But they are incredibly tricky things to pull off.  You have to weave together the narratives otherwise the reader is left with what feels like little more than a loosely connected collection of short stories shoved together to make a book.  And you are at risk of getting the reader engaged with a set of characters before moving away from them never to return.  Unfortunately, Stronger, Faster and More Beautiful by Arwen Elys Dayton (review copy from Harper Voyager) is in the category of mosaic novels that don’t succeed.

The premise is a great one.  Dayton is exploring the idea that humanity is capable of incredible scientific progress when it comes to genetic manipulation and body modification, but they are equally and simultaneously capable of using these new technologies in ways that mess things up royally.  The novel follows the stories of various generations of people living with the new technologies.  As time passes they become more advanced and more radical changes and transformations are possible, but that just increases the ways in which these technologies can be misused.

Each piece works well as an individual story exploring the different issues raised by this technology: ie all the ways humanity can mess things up through greed, bigotry, selfishness and general inhumanity towards other people.  But they don’t hang together well as a novel.  The equivocal nature of the technologies concerned ironically gets in the way of the work cohering.  And the pieces vary in quality.  Some are superb, but others are much weaker.

Stronger, Faster and More Beautiful is an ambitious book, but Dayton doesn’t quite manage to pull it off for me.

Goodreads rating: 2*