The Kingdom of Copper – S A Chakraborty

I absolutely loved The City of Brass by S A Chakraborty (read that review before this one), so I was extremely excited to get a review copy (from Harper Voyager) of its sequel, The Kingdom of Copper.  And I was not disappointed!

The Kingdom of Copper picks up Nahri’s story about five years after the climactic events that end The City of Brass.  She is living in Daevabad, married to Prince Muntadhir and the effective prisoner of the king as a hostage for her people’s good behaviour.  She is grieving the loss of her Afshin, Dara, and the betrayal of Prince Ali, a man she thought was a friend.  But the king’s repressive policies are starting to have inevitable consequences, and rebellion is brewing, fomented by the mother Nahri believed to be dead.

Everything I loved about the first book is here in its sequel.  But it has a much darker tone than the adventure/romance of the first book.  Nahri is tougher and more cynical as she learns to operate effectively within the constraints of her role at court.  Dara has fallen in with rebels and is being driven down a dark and violent path.  The moral Prince Ali only wants to live in quiet peace, helping the people of his adopted community, but he finds himself dragged back into Daevabad politics against his will, and at risk of becoming a rallying point for those wanting to overthrow the king’s rule.  Allegiances shift, and hidden agendas come to the surface.

This is a great book, and a worthy sequel.  I can’t wait to see what the final volume has in store!

Goodreads rating: 4*

The Binding – Bridget Collins

Sometimes a single, simple change can birth a brilliant and exquisite story.  In The Binding (review copy from Harper Collins) Bridget Collins turns the magic of writing a story into literal magic.  Books are the real memories of real people, and once written down, the subject has given up those memories forever unless and until the book is destroyed.  They are left with no recollection of the events that they have given up to be bound.  In Collins’s hands, this becomes a beautiful story of love and loss, cut through by a brilliant exploration of the dynamics of power.

After recovering from a long illness, Emmett Farmer discovers that he is a Bookbinder, one of the rare people with the talent to bind people’s memories into book form.  Apprenticed to Seredith, he begins to learn the craft of making books while continuing his recovery.  One day, Seredith is visited by a rich young man called Lucian, who is extremely distressed and troubled and wants his memories bound.  Emmett has never met him before, but Lucian is intensely focused on Emmett.  Seredith’s health is failing, and she dies before Emmett’s training is complete.  He is taken on by another bookbinder who lacks Seredith’s prize for craft skills and her view that binding is a sacred calling that should be offered to all those that need it.  Give up too many memories, or do it too frequently, and the person who is bound can be left as little more than a hollow zombie.

This is one of the real strengths of the book for me.  Its exploration of power and how the wealthy exploit and commodify the experiences of the vulnerable and less fortunate is extremely contemporary, particularly in the #MeToo world.  In Seredith’s hands, binding is a way of helping others to move on from tragedy, and is not something to be done lightly or without thought.  But Collins shows how the powerful use the same mechanisms to silence others – including sexually abused servants.  Others sell their life experiences for the titillation of others as a way of briefly escaping poverty.  Books containing people’s experiences are bought and sold for entertainment, with a dark trade in the most horrific experiences.  The books of people who are bound are used as tools for blackmail and extortion.

But the heart of The Binding is a beautiful queer love story.  It unfolds throughout the second part of the book.  Collins writes it with grace and a wonderful emotional intensity.  It is joyful, evoking the tender fragility of a burgeoning love affair, but bitter sweet for its forbidden nature.  It’s impossible not to be swept up in Collins’s lyrical prose as the romance unfolds.

This is a book to immerse yourself in, but prepare to be hit in the feels.  Hard.

Goodreads rating: 5*

Green Jay and Crow – D J Daniels

I’m always excited when people try to push the boundaries of SFF story-telling.  Ambitious approaches are good, and we should encourage them.  But they don’t always work.  And Green Jay and Crow by D J Daniels (review copy from Rebellion) was a fail for me.  It just doesn’t quite work.

There’s an interesting puzzle box story in there.  Brom is hired by the local crime boss to collect a box and deliver it to a location.  The box is “time-locked”, reflecting the value of its contents.  Inevitably, the box goes astray and shenanigans ensue.  The box contains mysterious medication that can help Eva.  Eva is a 3D printed copy of a person that was designed to only live for a few days.  But Eva is a girl on the run, desperate to live a separate life.  As the story unfolds, Brom, Eva and his best friend Mac travel between parallel versions of the place they live in, meeting strange characters and trying to find a way to save Eva.  That premise is incredibly engaging, but Daniels fails to deliver on it.

I was most frustrated by the characterisation of Brom, the point of view character for most of the book.  Despite Mac being his best friend, Daniels writes Brom as having little or no knowledge of his friend’s past, motivations or their shared life in the place they live.  Within the novel it is a technique to hide Mac’s motivations to enable a reveal later in the book.  But it’s a lazy way of creating suspense that undermines the reader’s confidence in the writer and the work.

There are a lot of extremely intriguing things about the setting of the novel – particularly the alien Tenties that have arrived in the world; the 3D printing technology; the sentient robots; the parallel versions of the same place; the technology around travel between the parallel worlds; and strange cult-like figures.  But the whole is put together in a way that feels chaotic and difficult to navigate.  And Daniels doesn’t help you to find a coherent path through it.

It’s definitely an interesting work, but I don’t think it ultimately succeeds.  I’ll keep an eye on Daniels as I suspect any future work – as she matures as a writer – has the potential to be extremely interesting.

Goodreads rating: 2*

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*

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*