The Easy Way Out – Steven Amsterdam

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*

Faller – Will McIntosh

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*

Foxlowe – Eleanor Wasserberg

Eleanor Wasserberg‘s debut, Foxlowe (Fourth Estate, review copy from NetGalley) is a chilling portrayal of physical and psychological abuse, and the legacy they can leave.  Set in a Utopian but poverty-stricken New Age commune of artists and bohemians, it follows the Family, and their shifting power dynamics and relationships, as people arrive and leave.

The story is told through the eyes of Green, a young girl growing up in the commune.  All she knows is Foxlowe, the Family, and its rules and customs.  She’s received no formal education, with her parents, Richard and Freya (two of the Founders of Foxlowe) firmly believing that it is better to raise Green and the other children off-grid and more closely in tune with nature.  Green’s existence is bounded by the seasons and rituals built around the local ley lines, standing stones and a strange phenomenon whereby at the solstice the sun appears to briefly rise again after setting behind the local hills.  Above all, Green has been raised to fear The Bad, an existential evil that contaminates and can only be driven out by the proper rituals.

As a child Green secretly puts Blue, the new baby, outside a supposedly protective salt circle, leading Green to believe she is responsible for infecting Blue with The Bad.  Green’s mother, Freya, is an abuser.  There is a truly horrifying description in Foxlowe of the time Freya makes Green take the ‘Spike Walk’: walking along a narrow passage lined with old, rusty picture nails that scratch and tear the flesh.  Freya is not satisfied until sufficient blood has been shed to punish, cause pain and supposedly hold The Bad at bay for a while.  Desperate for Freya’s love and approval, Green comes to believe she deserves the abuse she experiences, and becomes complicit in the abuse of others, with inevitable tragic consequences.

One of the strengths of the novel is the way Wasserberg conveys the horror of Foxlowe through the perspective of a limited first person narrator.  We see the horror, but Green does not comprehend it.  When Green eventually leaves Foxlowe she struggles to adjust to life in the outside world.  Her sheltered upbringing means she is ill equipped to navigate it, and, carrying extreme levels of guilt, she cannot see herself as victim, or her beloved Freya as abuser.  There are few things as taboo in our society as a mother who abuses her children, and we instinctively recoil from Freya, but Green forces us to see her creativity and compassion (albeit it manifests in a twisted way).  Rightly or wrongly, Green loves Freya.

Foxlowe is an accomplished and thought-provoking debut.

Goodreads rating: 4*

FO: Phyllis Socks

One of the first skeins of yarn I bought from Third Vault Yarns, at Nine Worlds in 2015, was in a colourway called Gallifreyan Sunset.  It’s a measure of how fabulous Lola’s dyeing is that she has me falling in love with colours and dyeing styles that I would normally never contemplate.  Orange is just one of those colours that doesn’t agree with, much as I love its perky cheerfulness.

img_2945But I fell in love with this subtle blend of orange and terracotta, with its flashes of bright yellow and the occasional dusty purple.  And not just for being based on Doctor Who.  Lola tells me that this is such a difficult colourway she can’t reproduce it.   I have one of the few skeins that will ever exist.

img_2947I’d been saving it for the right project, and these socks were the perfect project.  The pattern is Phyllis, by Rachel Coopey, one of the patterns from her collection Coop Knits Socks Volume 2.  I love the textured cabled diamonds, and the definition provided by the twisted stitches.   The long chart meant this wasn’t the quickest of knits.  And it wasn’t helped by a catastrophic case of yarn barf that meant I had to untangle and completely recake the yarn at least twice, once during the middle of one of the panels at this year’s Nine Worlds.

img_2946Hand-knitted socks are perfect for these cold, wintery days.  And it brings me a great deal of knitterly and geeky pleasure to know that under my sober work outfits with their sensible winter boots I’m flying the geek flag with bright and cheerful socks.

Waking Hell – Al Robertson

Al Robertson burst onto the scene with Crashing Heaven, a techno-thriller set on a space station orbiting Earth that is run by sentient corporations and is the last refuge of humanity.  We accompanied Jack Forster and Hugo Fist, a sociopathic AI in the form of a ventriloquist’s dummy, as they uncovered and took down a massive conspiracy threatening Station.  The sequel, Waking Hell (published by Gollancz, review copy from NetGalley) returns us to Station, but without either Forster or Fist.

Following on from Crashing Heaven was always going to be a challenge.  Sad as it is for the reader, both Fist and Forster are iconic characters, but by the end of Crashing Heaven were too powerful to carry a further novel by themselves.  Instead, Robertson introduces us to a new cast of characters.  Leila Fenech is a fetch: one of the dead who lives on thanks to the storage of personality and memories and a digital body that can manifest thanks to the ever-pervasive Weave that provides an AR overlay to life on Station.  Leila’s brother Dieter is also dead.  A digital whizz-kid who specialises in old Earth technology, his death occurs in strange circumstances, with his digital self sold to the Pressure Men – representatives of a mysterious corporation called Deodatus – in exchange for financial security for Leila.  Teaming up with Cassiel, a representative of the Totality, Leila sets out to rescue her brother’s fetch from Deodatus, unravelling a further conspiracy that, yet again, threatens the existence of Station.

This return to Station picks up from Crashing Heaven by adding more layers to the world.  With peace with the Totality (super-complex AI consciousnesses) now firmly established, the inhabitants of Station are forced to confront their previous prejudices and come to terms with their dead (the fetches) now freely living among them.  Waking Hell begins to delve into the history of Station, and the conflict-ridden, wasteland of Earth that it orbits.

As with its predecessor, Waking Hell asks us questions about the ethics of future technology, and what makes us people.  With our experience increasingly mediated through the digital, and the potential for increasingly complex AIs to learn, grow and be fused with digital storage of memory, “fetch rights” becomes a real issue.  Human memory is notoriously fallible, but the digital can be easily edited, changed and duplicated.  Robertson asks us not just what truth is, but which versions of ourselves have primacy.

Waking Hell is a thought-provoking thriller with real warmth at its heart.  Fans of Hugo Fist should embrace its richness, rather than be disappointed by his absence.

Goodreads rating: 4*

The Fifth Season – N K Jemisin

N K Jemisin‘s Hugo winning novel The Fifth Season (the first in the Broken Earth series) is a tour de force about the marginalised, the exploited and the abused.

In Jemisin’s world, humanity lives on a continent riven by regular geological events.  An earthquake, a volcanic eruption or something similar can result in a ‘Fifth Season’, where the natural flow of the seasons is disrupted for a period of time.   Humanity survives these episodes through rigid adherence to survivalist doctrine ( “stonelore”), the protection of communities and the stockpiling of supplies.

A Fifth Season can be civilisation-ending, returning humanity back to primitive subsistence living, surrounded by the relics of predecessor civilisations.  But the Sanzed Empire has survived a number of these seasons.  It has done so through the ruthless exploitation of orogones: a group of people with the skill to control and manipulate geological events.  Because of the threat they pose, those with the talent live apart in the Fulcrum.  Treated as a near-slave class and widely despised, they live a strictly controlled existence, their talents used to maintain and preserve the Sanzed Empire.

The Fifth Season is a braided novel, following three interconnecting storylines that slowly converge.  Essun is an orogene who lives in hiding in a remote village, concealing her power.  She sees her son murdered and her daughter stolen by her husband.  In the wake of a major geological event that is bringing on a new Fifth Season she goes in search of her daughter.  Syenite is a young orogene, still in training and working for the Empire.  She is sent on a mission to clear coral from a harbour with Alabaster, an older, more powerful and much more experienced orogene.  She is expected to conceive a child with him during that mission, as part of the Fulcrum’s breeding programme.  And Damaya is a young child.  As a newly discovered feral orogene she is taken from her family to the Fulcrum to begin her training.

Told from the point of view of the orogenes, this is a story about the oppressed and what can happen when they are pushed beyond breaking point.  Normally in fantasy fiction the conflict is black and white, with a Great Evil being responsible for the world-threatening event our heroes are set to tackle.  But in Jemisin’s novel, the geological event Essun is fleeing was an act of terrorism triggered by one of their number to end the centuries of abuse the orogenes have suffered at the hands of the Sanzed Empire.  And for all that it is bringing armageddon to Sanzed we cannot but come to be sympathetic with that action.  The emotional and physical abuse that Damaya experiences as she leaves her fearful family is intensely chilling, as is the complicity of many orogenes in the self-governing structures of the Fulcrum that control and restrict orogenes.  Jemisin leaves the reader in no doubt about the risk and danger of the geological events threatening her world, but she is also clear that the threat does not justify the appalling treatment of those with the skill to neutralise it.

Jemisin builds a rich world and uses it to tell a genre-busting story that gives us a glimpse of how the world could be different if only we had the courage to stand against prejudice and value the talents and contribution of us all.

Goodreads rating: 5*

Fair Rebel – Steph Swainston

I’ve been a huge fan of Steph Swainston ever since her first Castle novel.  She’s one of the freshest and most interesting voices in contemporary fantasy fiction.  So I was hugely excited to receive a review copy of her newest novel, Fair Rebel from Gollancz.  And it exceeded all of my expectations, speaking to me in the way only a small and rare number of books do.  .

Fair Rebel is the fifth Castle novel, building on the stories told in the previous novels.  For all that it stands alone as a self-contained piece, I wouldn’t recommend reading it without having read the others.  For those of you not familiar with Swainston’s Castle novels, she’s created a multi-racial place called the Fourlands, peopled by diverse races.  The world faces a significant threat, from invading giant Insects.  For millenia they have been mindlessly eating and destroying, slowly expanding their territory.  But the Insects are just the backdrop  Swainston uses to explore what are normally much smaller stories , focused around a group of immortals: the Eszai.  Chosen by the Emperor San, they are each the best in their fifty fields, brought together to lead the battle against the Insects that has become the driving force and agenda for the Fourlands ever since the Insects first arrived.  An individual Eszai can be replaced if killed, or if beaten in a fair Challenge by another individual.  Swainston’s first person protagonist is Jant, who holds the title of Comet, the Emperor’s messenger.  He is not your traditional fantasy hero: he is a drug addict and an outsider.  The child of rape, his father was one of the privileged, winged (but flightless) Awians, his mother was one of the Rhydanne, a mountain people designed to live at high altitude.  That makes Jant the only person who can fly.

In Fair Rebel, terrorism comes to the Fourlands.  Swainston’s portrayal draws on a very British experience of terrorism (the terrorists use a cell structure and tactics familiar to anyone who has lived through the UK’s experience of Northern Ireland-related terrorism).  But the terrorism in this book is also startlingly contemporary, playing on the narrative of privilege, prejudice and inequality that Swainston has built into the Fourlands.  The bombers are drawn from a disenfranchised group who have suffered from social exclusion and poverty.  Fourlands society relies on the systematic exploitation of their labour, and there is significant prejudice against them.

Swainston’s depiction of terrorism feels real and authentic.  The violence is terrifying, horrific and arbitrary.  It is aimed at toppling the Castle and the structures that support it.  But it is a self-destructive backlash.  In its anger at the exploitative structures in society it risks destroying the only mechanisms in place to keep at bay the existential threat of the Insects, with their society-destroying potential.  In doing so, Fair Rebel asks whether those doing the right thing can ever do so with legitimacy if it is done without listening to or engaging with the concerns of the disenfranchised at the margins of society.

But Fair Rebel also asks us to reflect on the role of art and culture in society.  They can be used to inspire the best and the worst in people, showing the impact of the rejection of talented musician Swallow’s repeated requests to join the Eszai.  If we set aside the very things we are fighting to protect, is our struggle worthwhile at all?

Goodreads rating: 5*