One Way – S J Morden

S J Morden‘s One Way (review copy from Gollancz) is a serial killer murder mystery set on Mars – but with a strong socialist undercurrent running through it.

Xenosystems Operations has won a government contract to build a scientific research base on Mars.  Like every corporation, they are focused on the bottom line and their profit margin.  So they decide to crew the mission with convicted murderers taken from the prisons one of their sister companies own.  Cheap labour offered a deal, willing to take the risk of a one-way trip to Mars for some purposeful activity instead of a lifetime in solitary confinement.  Prisoners are hand-picked for relevant skills before they ended up in prison (construction, hydroponics, communications, medical skills etc).  They go through a gruelling final selection and training programme before the team is selected.

Frank Kittridge heads that team.  Imprisoned for the murder of his son’s drug dealer, he feels few regrets about the crime he committed, but wants to be a positive example for his son and the ex-wife that divorced him after his conviction.  With a background in construction he is perfectly placed to lead the team building the Mars base.  His nemesis is Brack, the prison guard sent with them to supervise the base construction and keep the team of prisoners in line throughout the build.  Brack is straight from the Gunnery Sergeant Hartman school of motivational leadership.  Brack offers Kittridge a chance to get home if he acts as his eyes and ears, reporting back on the rest of the team.

Kittridge’s team make it to Mars and start building the base.  But strange ‘accidents’ keep happening that end up killing the crew.  Funnily enough, each ‘accident’ happens just after that particular crew member has fulfilled their function, becoming surplus to requirements.  Kittridge realises there is a cold-blooded killer among them, and sets out to solve the mystery before the body count gets higher.

You don’t have to be Sherlock Holmes to solve this particular murder mystery.  One of the frustrations of One Way is just how predictable the plotting is, with relatively weak characterisation – barely enough to make one care about each victim of the killer.

What does lift One Way from the herd is the way that Kittridge’s story is intercut with material from Xenosystems Operations as they plan the mission and make choices about its design.  We see the very real consequences of decisions to trim costs: in one tense sequence in particular Kittridge barely makes it across the surface of Mars to retrieve equipment vital for the mission.  Where One Way is most compelling is in the way it shows the very real and very human consequences of those corporate decisions.  It acts as a strong warning about the risks of involving private corporations in high risk endeavours like space travel.  It comes as no surprise that the company has little regard for the human team it sends to Mars.

Goodreads rating: 3*

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The Poppy War – R F Kuang

The Poppy War by R F Kuang (review copy from Harper Voyager) is a stunning and gut-wrenching debut.  Kuang mixes up real historical events (such as the Rape of Nanjing) with bigotry and violence to tell a complex story of betrayal and revenge.

The novel opens as Fang Runin (Rin) – a war orphan – is studying for the entrance exam to earn a scholarship place at Sinegard, the foremost military academy in Nikara.  Education is Rin’s escape from her abusive foster parents and the prospect of an unwanted marriage.  It offers her the chance of independence and a career.  Successful, she finds herself one of a group of new students at Sinegard.  But her education is interrupted when the always strained relations with neighbouring country Mugen erupt into war.  Mugen and Nikara have a history of tit-for-tat conflict, with peace always uneasy and never lasting long.  Both countries have long memories and lists of the war crimes committed by the other.

The early parts of The Poppy War have the feel of Pat Rothfuss’s The Name of the Wind – student from the wrong side of the tracks enrols in school, makes enemies among the students and tutors, but catches the attention of the most eccentric and elusive of the school’s tutors, the Lore tutor Jiang. Rin learns that the stories of her childhood about gods and men able to summon them and their magic have truth in them.  Under Jiang’s supervision she begins to learn how to access her spiritual side and the Pantheon of the gods.  This is in sharp contrast to the rest of her training on military medicine, strategy and history.

The latter parts of the book are pure military fantasy, with shades of Steven Erikson’s Malazan Book of the Fallen.  Rin’s loyalty to her command structure and her patriotism to the Empress and Nikara is tested to the limits as the novel progresses.  This is a novel that asks us to choose between conflicting loyalties at every turn.

The Poppy War is strong on the horrors of war (particularly the sequence based on the Rape of Nanjing, where the invading Japanese army massacred the civilian population of the city) and the camaraderie between unit members.  It draws heavily on the contested history between China and Japan, particularly the Second Sino-Japanese War.  (Kuang’s academic background is in this period of history.) The military incidents in the book are modelled on that war, right down to the use of chemical and biological weapons.

This is a novel with a fantastic level of class-consciousness and awareness of inequality and prejudice.  Although the national examinations are supposed to be meritocratic, they inevitably favour the rich and privileged who can afford the classical education tested for.  Sinegard is the only college that offers a full scholarship – for all the others the student’s family must meet the costs of their education.  So, while superficially meritocratic, this education system acts as a tool to reinforce and embed the privilege and stratification in Nikara society.  Although Rin’s fellow Sinegard student Altan Trengsin, the last of the Speerlies (a nation of fearsome warriors with the reputation of being able to summon fire, who were wiped out in a brutal act of genocide in the last war), is idolised for his fighting skills, he is treated as a curiosity and freak: mocked for his dark skin and the target of all the other students.

Rin is the inevitable product of this society.  Abused and exploited as a child and the victim of racist and classist bullying at Sinegard, she is used to mistreatment.  That for her is normal.  She blackmails her childhood tutor to help her prepare for the exam.  She gets through her studying by self-harming.  Anger at her mistreatment and the fragility of her life and future are what keep her going and focused on her education.  When she does encounter kindness, from Jiang, she doesn’t quite know how to respond to it.  Ironically she ends up most comfortable in the strict hierarchy of the Militia, where she can rail against orders and authority, but within the familiar context of abusive and controlling power structures.

To that extent it is no wonder that The Poppy War ends where it does.  This is a book about what happens when you dehumanise people and push them to their limits of pain and endurance.  That this is a story rooted in real history makes this all the more chilling.  Anger and the desire for revenge are powerful motives, but they are inherently destructive ones.  Almost inevitably, the abuse victim lashes out in revenge, but the price is a terrible one.

Goodreads rating: 5*

Planetfall – Emma Newman

Emma Newman‘s Planetfall (newly republished by Gollancz, who provided a review copy) is a brilliant SF psychological thriller.  Renata Ghali is an engineer on a high-tech extra-terrestrial colony founded by the visionary Lee Suh-Mi who brought together a group of colonists to flee Earth and travel to a new planet.  The colony is small, but stable, living around the base of an alien structure part plant, part animal and part city.  Suh-Mi is inside, communing with an alien civilisation, and the colonists have been awaiting her return for more than 20 years.  But the colony’s peace is over-turned when Suh-Mi’s grandson walks out of the grassland and into their lives, claiming to be the only survivor of a group of colonists believed to have crashed on landing.

Renata is a troubled protagonist, and the novel slowly reveals both her mental illness and the likely cause of it.  She suffers from anxiety, struggles to connect with other people and hoards goods.  She fell for Suh-Mi, her former flatmate, and followed her across the stars to escape a troubled relationship with her parents, and an increasingly dystopian Europe of scarcity, diminishing opportunity and encroachment on freedom.  The colony project is a grand vision of escape she can throw herself behind, running away from the challenges of Earth.  Newman’s depiction of Renata famously draws on some of her own personal history of anxiety, and is one of the best and most sympathetic portrayals of a complex and flawed character I’ve come across recently.

The reader quickly realises that all is not as it seems within the colony.  The Machiavellian and manipulative figure of Mack looms large within the novel.  Known as the Ringmaster, his job was to bring the colonists together and help broker their departure from Earth, using his charisma and influencing skills to create a shared vision and manage the people dynamics.  After landing, he has turned those skills to keeping the colony going while it awaits Suh-Mi’s return.  Superficially jovial, charming and caring, the reader soon realises there is a much more sinister undercurrent.

Newman is an accomplished novelist, though Planetfall is her first foray into SF.  The plot unravels with a beautiful balance of twists, reveals and insights that never once feels like Newman is artificially witholding information from the reader for plot purposes.  We travel with Renata as she revisits traumatic events of the past that she has tried to bury and forget.  And Newman gives us a brilliantly diverse cast of all races, genders and sexualities.

I am delighted that Gollancz has picked up this series of books, enabling Newman to finish writing and publishing the sequels.  This is exciting and fresh fiction.

Goodreads rating: 4*

FO: Ella Funt

There’s another outbreak of babies in the office.  And I have a rule, as you, know, that anyone who works for me gets a baby cardigan knitted for their new arrival.

This is Ella Funt.  Because colourwork elephants are awesome.  The pattern is by Pamela Wynne, and I used Debbie Bliss Baby Cashmerino from stash.  Apart from the teal and the grey for the elephants, the remaining colours came from bits of leftovers from other projects.  The buttons were in stash, and probably from Textile Garden.

What’s interesting about this year’s crop of new fathers is that both of them have chosen to take Shared Parental Leave, as it’s the right thing for their families.  And I cannot be more excited to have two such trailblazing men working for me.

They’ve both been really thoughtful about their reasons for taking Shared Parental Leave, and the impact it has had on them personally.  The recipient of this cardigan has been open about how hard he has found it to do in the face of gendered social expectations and anxieties about the impact on his future career.  He hasn’t even felt able to tell his parents yet that he’s taking 5 months off to look after his son.  He explicitly mentioned that it isn’t lost on him that these are the choices and consequences that have historically faced women in the workplace.  The other expectant father in my team has said that one of the reasons he is taking Shared Parental Leave is to challenge assumptions about fatherhood, for the sake of his daughters.  He is frustrated by the teasing he gets for the time he already spends looking after his daughters, which devalues his role, and that of his wife.

I firmly believe one of the best ways we can smash the patriarchy is by changing these assumptions that damage people of all genders.  It brought a tear to my angry feminist eye talking to them both, but I feel more optimistic about the future.

Between The Blade And The Heart – Amanda Hocking

There are a whole bunch of cliches about urban fantasy.  About ‘strong’ female protagonists with the ability to kick demon butt and a taste for form-fitting black leather, tattoos, piercings and edgy haircuts.  About irresistibly sexy Fae creatures that capture the hearts of said strong female protagonists, often after stories involving love triangles.  And plots centring on conspiracies, world-threatening catastrophe and hidden pasts.  So much so that when I picked up Amanda Hocking‘s Between the Blade and the Heart (review copy from Pan Macmillan) I took it for parody to begin with.  But apparently it’s meant to be serious, and Hocking’s popularity suggests her writing is the source for a lot of these tropes and cliches.

This was a book I didn’t finish.  There are holes in the plot and the world-building you could drive the main character Malin’s luft-bike through.  And the prose was so eye-rollingly facile and over-sexualised that I struggled.  This is pure chick-lit – romance with the slight gloss of a supernatural mystery to solve as Malin gets involved in correcting a mistake her mother once made that arguably puts the world at risk.  It aspires to being ‘edgy’ with Malin’s bisexuality, strained relationship with her mother, references to drink and drugs, and her status as a professional slayer of immortals, but this is as derivative a work of fiction as they come.

The characters are unlikeable stereotypes, yet with Hocking making a point of telling us exactly how attractive they all are.  Malin is a standard issue strong-female-protagonist, who aspires to being a rebellious outsider (by not taking her college classes seriously, by ignoring instructions and advice, and partying hard).  Her flatmate Oona is a put-upon doormat.  And there is a classic Mean Girl at college, who is no doubt destined to become Malin’s BFF.  Add to that mix a Sexy Ex, a hot Friend With Benefits, and a Sexy Yet Mysterious Stranger and I noped my way out fast.

Hocking’s popularity and sales suggest she has a devoted readership and following of fans.  I am glad they are reading work they enjoy.  But this is not my cup of tea.  I prefer books with a bit more substance.

Goodreads rating: 1*

Clockwork City – Paul Crilley

I loved Paul Crilley‘s Poison City last year.  Its irreverent take on the supernatural police procedural was a breath of fresh air.  Crilley has followed it up with Clockwork City (review copy from Hodderscape), a direct sequel picking up on Gideon ‘London’ Tau’s work with the Delphic Division and his search for his missing daughter.

One of the strengths of Poison City was its South African setting, and the wide range of gods, monsters and orisha that setting enables Crilley to draw on for the book.  That felt fresh and new compared to the run of urban fantasy and supernatural police procedural clogging the shelves.  So setting Clockwork City in London was a bold move. I’m not sure it completely works, as it loses the USP of these books.

Dealing with the aftermath of the events of Poison City, Tau finds himself sent to London to investigate the disappearance of two Delphic Division agents.  But this is a London full of Fae, walking brazenly and openly through the streets.  Four competing Fae gangs between them control London and its organised crime, but the Blessed are seeking to take over.  And they seem to have some connection with the disappearance of Tau’s daughter.

Clockwork City is a proper romp of a crime thriller, as Tau and his foul-mouthed dog spirit guide continue to unravel the mystery of the disappearance of Tau’s daughter.  It’s an adventure that takes them to the heart of ancient London and the alternate world of the Fae.  There’s a host of new characters and a glorious heist that is the supernatural equivalent of Ocean’s 11.  This is fantastic fun, and  a worthy sequel, even if not – quite – on a par with the first book.

Goodreads rating: 4*

In Calabria – Peter S Beagle

It’s become a cliche that literary fiction tends to centre on a middle-aged man having a mid-life crisis and getting together with a much younger woman who helps him resolve his emotional crisis.  Peter S Beagle’s In Calabria (review copy from Tachyon press) is exactly that.  With extra unicorns.

Claudio Bianchi lives on his own on a farm in Calabria.  The farm provides his refuge from his past, and in particular from the break up of his marriage following the stillbirth of his daughter.  The trauma divided Bianchi and his wife, and their emotional distance grew from that point.  A simple life of complete isolation reflects the emotional pause in his life.  But the arrival of a pregnant unicorn on Bianchi’s farm becomes the catalyst for himto come to terms with his loss and the end of his marriage.  Caring for the unicorn and midwiving her through a difficult birth gives Bianchi a measure of redemption and emotional closure.  All this is, of course, aided by his new love, Giovanna, the postman’s sister (and a classic Manic Pixie Dream Girl).

Although competently told, there is nothing new or insightful about In Calabria.  There are thousands of other stories telling this tale.

Goodreads rating: 2*