Thin Air – Richard Morgan

It’s been eight years since Richard Morgan published a new book.  Thin Air (review copy from Gollancz) is his latest, and it takes no prisoners.   Hakan Veil is muscle for hire.  A human enhanced to be an Overrider, working for the corporates to deal with crises in deep space.  But an incident left his contract terminated, and him living from contract to contract in the frontier colonies of Mars.

Waking from one of his regular periods of hibernation, Veil is “running hot”: the crisis response he was engineered to deliver, pumped with adrenaline and super-fast reactions.  Within a very short space of time he finds himself arrested for murder in the aftermath of one of his contracts, but released on condition he provides security to Madison Madekwe, one of a team of investigators sent by the Earth authorities to investigate alleged corruption in the colonial administration.  Madekwe is kidnapped and Veil finds himself trying to protect his charge and unravel a conspiracy.

This is a thriller that travels at extreme break-neck speed.  So fast that you barely have time to draw breath and any weaknesses in the plot will pass you by.  As you would expect from Morgan, it is also incredibly violent with an extremely high body count and the fetishisation of firearms.  But if you want a fast-paced, high-concept thriller with lots of excitement and some fantastic twists and turns, this will deliver in spades.

Goodreads rating: 3*

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Rosewater – Tade Thompson

It’s always a treat to read books that give a fresh and new take on genre fiction.  Tade Thompson‘s Rosewater (review copy from Orbit books) is the first in his Wormwood trilogy, and unlike anything else out there at the moment.

The world changed when the Earth was invaded by first contact with an alien entity.  But this isn’t your traditional alien invasion.  An alien fungus has landed and is colonising the planet after sending its tendrils and spores everywhere.  The USA has gone dark, and Europe is cut off.  Rosewater is a town in Nigeria that has grown up around a dome-like structure grown by the fungus.  It provides free energy, and once a year the dome opens, healing the sick and bringing the recently dead back to life as zombies.  Rosewater has become a destination for the desperate seeking healing and for those studying the dome.  Over time it has grown into a thriving town full of graft and superstition.

Kaaro is one of those that has been changed by exposure to the fungus.  His symbiotic relationship with it gives him psychic powers.  It makes him a finder, able to use the connection between people and objects to find lost things.  By day Kaaro works with others of his kind as a psychic firewall for one of the major banks, working in shifts to stop people like him breaking the safeguards and stealing from the bank.  By night Kaaro is the unwilling employee of the security forces, interrogating suspects.  But people like Kaaro are slowly dying, and no-one knows why.

Kaaro is not your typical white hat hero.  He uses his powers to steal from the people around him.  He objectifies women and exploits them for sex.  He is rude and insubordinate to his bosses.  He is largely indifferent to his colleagues and it takes him a long time to notice or care about the fate of the other people with powers like his.

This is a fresh story with a pleasing sense of mystery that steadfastly refuses to comply with traditional genre tropes, and does so proudly.  At one stage one of the characters says to Kaaro, “I am tired of women and men of destiny.  The idea of a singular hero and a manifest destiny just makes us all lazy.  There is no destiny.  There is choice, there is action, and any other narrative perpetuates a myth that someone else out there will fix our problems with a magic sword and a blessing from the gods.”

We need more stories that get away from those over-used story-telling modes.  I can’t wait for the sequel.

Goodreads rating: 4*

Tempests and Slaughter – Tamora Pierce

Imagine if you will, a low-peril version of Harry Potter.  That is Tamora Pierce‘s Tempests and Slaughter (review copy from Harper Voyager).  This is a middle-grade story following three young friends at Carthak’s university for magicians.  Arram Draper is young and powerful, but lacks control over his magic.  He is fiercely intelligent, but naive and from a distant island.  Varice is a young woman with a bit more knowledge of how the world works.  Ozorne is a spare heir of the Emperor, being trained in war magic.  I understand that these are characters that play a significant part in the author’s other novels.  But as someone who hasn’t read any of the other books the beats here are predictable – Arram and Varice will end up together, and Ozorne will end up as Emperor.

The book follows the schooling of this trio.  There are lots of details of their lessons (Arram’s timetable for each term is set out in painstaking detail) and trips out, and some rivalries and fallings out with fellow students.  But it’s all pretty … bland.  All the teachers are sympathetic, including the grumpy ones.  There is little sense of peril or conflict in the book.  Even the ending was underwhelming, and I was left surprised that the book had finished.  Surely there was meant to be something more climactic.

Underwhelming, inoffensive fluff.

Goodreads rating: 2*

FOs: Wowligan, Wabbit and Whales

There was an outbreak of babies in the office late last year.  So true to form I pulled out my stash of Baby Cashmerino and got knitting some baby cardigans.  Because there were three babies on the way it gave me the chance to make a few things and give the parents a choice from multiple things for their new arrivals.

By accident or design, all three projects have ended up with a wildlife theme to them.

Wowligan is a baby sized version of Kate Davies’s iconic O w l s sweater.  Here I’ve made it in a cheerful toffee coloured yarn.  I left off buttons for the owl eyes on this version, to avoid choking hazards.

I fell in love with The Wabbit as soon as I saw the pattern, so I was really glad to have the excuse to make it.  Who wouldn’t love a parade of cute colourwork bunnies round the yoke of a cardigan?  This was a great project for using up scraps and leftovers from earlier projects.  (You may recognise some of the colours here from my previous baby projects – yes, that is the toffee from Wowligan for the bunnies.)

Finally, we have Save the Baby Whales.   This has a very cute set of colourwork whales running round the lower body.  They mirror, which makes it pleasingly symmetrical.

Much as I love knitting for babies, I’m hoping there won’t be another run of work pregnancies, as it’s been really great to be able to get back to knitting things for me.

Rejoice – Steven Erikson

Steven Erikson‘s Malazan Books of the Fallen is one of my favourite fantasy series.  It has rich, deep worldbuilding; strong emotional power; subtle interiority to a strong ensemble cast; world-shattering epic impact; and an emotional punch that regularly reduced me to tears.  I was really excited to see what Erikson could do with Rejoice (review copy from Gollancz) – a  first contact science fiction novel.

Oh dear, was I disappointed.

There is nothing in Rejoice of the Erikson I know and love from the Malazan books.  What he’s given us is painfully obvious polemic with thinly disguised self-insertion.

The main character in Rejoice is Samantha August, a reasonably famous science fiction writer who is kidnapped by aliens to be their interlocutor to humanity.  August is chosen because the aliens like her work.  She is well-known and her vlogging about climate change and associated issues has led the aliens to believe she will be sympathetic to their plans to save Earth’s biome from environmental collapse by taking drastic interventionist action.

What follows is a sequence of crudely written interventions by the aliens.  They render weapons ineffective, protect habitats and restore migratory routes, and tackle food and energy scarcity.  These are written with an aliens-know-best sensibility that minimises the impact of imposing solutions like these on the Earth’s population.  And interspersed with bits of woo-woo philosophy about Earth’s diverse biome containing all the solutions to humanity’s problems.  There is no subtlety here whatsoever.  At least not in the 20% I read before giving up.

Rejoice is a poor shadow of other books dealing with the same issues.  Instead of this, read Octavia Butler’s Lilith’s Brood, which relates similar alien intervention designed to heal the Earth with the experience of colonialism and the transatlantic slave trade.  Or Sherri S Tepper’s The Fresco, which writes the same scenario as a Swiftean satire.

Goodreads rating: 1*

Killer T – Robert Muchamore

Killer T by Robert Muchamore (review copy from Bonnier Zaffre) was a frustrating read. It promised much, but failed to deliver.

The novel opens with us meeting the teenaged Harry and Charlie in the wake of a bombing at Harry’s school.  Charlie is framed for the bombing by a local crime boss.  Harry is an aspiring journalist who sees the bombing as the chance to cover a major story.  The two become friends, with Harry nurturing a major crush on Charlie.  The novel jumps through various episodes in their lives as they grow up.  Harry runs a successful local news website.  Charlie works in illegal gene-editing. Running in the background of the story is the growth of gene-editing technologies, and the way they are used to create viruses that wipe out large proportions of the population, leaving Harry and Charlie trying to make a living in the aftermath.

The book is a bit of a mess.  It’s never clear what the story is, beyond following Harry and Charlie.  And just as we reach anything resembling an exciting event or development where we could see the role Harry and Charlie play and how they respond to the world-shaping events going on around them, the author jumps us forward in time.  At best we get a bit of restrospective recall from them about how the events played out.  This distances the reader from the events of the book, with the bulk of the narrative focusing on slice-of-life type interactions.

And the characters are horribly written, particularly the women.  Charlie is written as over-sexualised jailbait at the age of 13, and as an older teenager will sleep with the first boy to buy her booze.  Her sister is unrealistically selfish, narcissistic and evil.  Charlie’s employer is a stereotype of a counter-culture person who becomes a boringly mainstream business owner and suburban mom.  Harry’s aunt is a distant workaholic.  All of them are shallow and not very well formed.  It’s a real shame.

Disappointing.

Goodreads rating: 1* 

Foundryside – Robert Jackson Bennett

It’s always really exciting to see a fresh take on the fantasy genre that gets away from tired tropes and recycled plotlines.  Foundryside from Robert Jackson Bennett (review copy from Jo Fletcher books) does exactly that.  This is the story of Sancia, a talented thief with a very special set of skills, who is hired to steal a box.  She makes the mistake of looking inside, and what she finds inside – a sentient gold key that speaks to her telepathically – turns her life and world upside down, thrusting her into the midst of a conflict between the big artisan houses that control the city of Tevanne.

Each House jealously guards its intellectual property: a language that lets it build and sell magical artifacts.  But the Houses are desperate to track down ancient artifacts that might enable a step change in what they can design and build.  There are rumours of a secret language known by the ancients that would let them change the world, not just create localised effects that bend its rules.  An archaelogical dig on a remote island on the far side of the world has created rumours that ancient artifacts could be found, prompting a bidding war between the Houses desperate to lay their hands on any item that can be found.  Clef – the gold key that Sancia steals – is one of those items, with the ability to open any lock, however complicated.  Sancia finds herself pursued by people wanting to recover Clef, and Gregor, a police officer who wants to catch her for the original break in where she stole the box.

Sancia is a brilliantly written character.  A metal plate in her head has gifted with a talent that enables her to feel and understand the shape and size of anything she touches physically.  She can put her hand on the wall of a building and understand its full layout.  This makes breaking into buildings and stealing things remarkably easy for her.  But the talent comes with a price.  She can’t touch another human being and finds contact with people, clothes and objects overwhelming and painful.  She is saving up to have the plate removed, believing she has found a surgeon willing to do it.  The traumatic past that resulted in her acquiring the metal plate and living in the margins of Tevanne is slowly revealed as the book goes on.

The setting of Tevanne and its magic system is particularly fresh and interesting.  It imports concepts from computer programming into a fantasy magic system in a fascinating way.  The Houses control giant Lexicons defining detailed strings of magical instructions that can then be combined to make artifacts.  Each House has its own specialists responsible for maintaining and expanding the Lexicons and using the instructions to create new magical items.  Those specialists are fiercely intelligent and extremely protective of their work.  But each House’s language is also pirated by artisans living outside House walls, where there are no rules and no law to be enforced.  The divide between rich and poor is extreme, and the writer has a lot to say about the exploitation of people, and those who treat them as just one more asset.

This is a fun and pacy adventure with a rewarding reveal as the book progresses.  It sets up well for a sequel, which I will look forward to.

Goodreads rating: 4*