The City of Brass – S A Chakraborty

Every once in a while you start a book by a debut author, and just know that you’ve come across something special.  I had exactly that moment of delight and surprise with S A Chakraborty‘s The City of Brass (review copy from Harper Voyager).  This is a novel with all the magic and wonder of the Arabian Nights, but with a contemporary sub-text.

Nahri lives in Cairo making a living as a healer, but hustling on the side to augment her income as much as she can.  She will con rich clients out of as much money as she can, sets them up for burglary and conducts fake rituals on the side for extra cash.  She even has an arrangement with her local apothecary to get a cut of the business she sends his way.  But as a lone woman with no formal training she struggles to make a living, even though Nahri’s secret is that she can diagnose and heal illness in a way that no normal healer can.

Nahri’s world is turned upside down when she uses a childhood song during one of her fake rituals.  She finds that she’s accidentally summoned djinn who are desperate to kill her – but also Dara, a warrior djinn sworn to protect her.  Nahri learns that she is the last of the Nahid, one of several races of djinn.  The Nahid specialise in healing, and were wiped out following a brutal civil war.  The ancestral home of the Nahid – Daevabad – is now controlled by another sect of djinn and there is a price on Dara’s head for the crimes he committed during that war.  But Daevabad is the only place Nahri can be safe from those seeking to kill her.

In Daevabad Nahri is thrust into djinn politics in a way she never expected.  This is a city of warring factions, and as the last Nahid she is welcomed as a saviour and Dara as a hero in some parts of the city.  Nahri must find her place in this city fast, and has to call on all her street smarts to survive.  She must also cope with her growing – but forbidden – attraction to the charming and heroic Dara.

It’s in Chakraborty’s world-building of Daevabad that The City of Brass really sings.  This is a complex, multi-layered city with a rich history and complex patterns of power and influence.  Everyone is flawed and has good motivations for what they do.  There is no clear sense of good versus bad here – even Dara has a very dark past.  Ghassan, the current ruler, oppresses certain djinn sects, and the humans who live in some parts of Daevabad, and is prone to cruel and arbitrary behaviour.  But his family’s rule has brought an unprecedented period of peace and stability to the city.  We see this most clearly through Ali, Ghassan’s second son.  He has been brought up to serve in the military,.  But his deeply ingrained religious faith and strong sense of right and wrong come under significant pressure as the book progresses.

And The City of Brass is a novel with a nod towards contemporary Middle Eastern politics.  This is a book of warring religious sects.  Peoples marginalised into ghettos and subject to discriminatory and oppressive laws.  Aid money used to buy weaponry.  Religious extremism used to justify violence.  Chakraborty asks us whether the ends can ever justify the means in messy, complicated world.  I can’t wait for the next books in the series.

Goodreads rating: 5*

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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*

The Feed – Nick Clark Windo

2018 is already shaping up to be a fantastic year for fiction.  The Feed by Nick Clark Windo (review copy from Headline) is a thought-provoking post-apocalyptic tale about social media, climate change and identity.  It masterfully blends themes with a lightness of touch and real emotional punch.

In Clark Windo’s near-future, we are all permanently connected to each other through brain implants and the Feed: a lightning fast social media link that connects us all at the speed of thought.  Privacy is no more as people increasingly live their lives digitally, storing their knowledge, memories and experiences on servers and backing themselves up each day.  But that safe, complex world collapses suddenly when the Feed goes down, shortly after the assassination of the President.  The shock kills many, leaving only a few left, trying to eke out life in the ruins. 

Tom, Kate and their young daughter Bea are among their number, living in a small community on a farm. Relying on the Feed has left them with little or no knowledge of how to survive.  They don’t know how to grow food, cook, build or repair things.  But with the help of a couple of older people who remember life pre-Feed, they are trying to rebuild knowledge and a life.  Until Bea is kidnapped one day, triggering Tom and Kate to search for her.  A search that inevitably takes them on a journey of understanding that reveals the real cause of the collapse.  

Clark Windo plays with some of the tropes of genre fiction, giving them a contemporary update.  This is a novel that nods towards classic horror staples with a Survivors-style post-apocalyptic vibe and a distinctly literary fiction interiority.  The immediate aftermath of the Feed collapsing creates zombies unable to function and unused to having to speak.  And pervasive throughout the novel is a body-snatchers horror of a person’s implant being used to have them taken over by an alien consciousness.  In a post-collapse world without the intimacy of directly-shared thoughts and where the ability to read body language and facial expressions is a skill that has ossified, people are forced to ask themselves how they know who a person close to them really is.

Tom is particularly well-drawn.  As a son of the family responsible for the creation of the Feed technology, he has chosen to reject his place.  He is characterised by the desire to forget the past, to find ways to live on and to be self-sufficient.  The oblivion of forgetting and being forgotten is his first response to any trauma.  Yet he cherishes his memories of his relationship with Kate, clinging on to them through adversity.  
There is a climate change undertone to all this too.  The Feed consumes huge amounts of energy.  Our social media habits are putting increasing pressures on power supplies.  (All so we can share cat videos and photos of our lunch.)  Clark Windo asks if this is really worth the eventual price.  

Goodreads rating: 5*

Dogs of War – Adrian Tchaikovsky 

Fresh from Ironclads, Adrian Tchaikovsky gives us yet another fresh take on a classic.  Dogs of War (review copy from Head of Zeus) is a glorious updating of H G Wells classic The Island of Dr Moreau.  Told entirely from the viewpoint of bioengineered animal soldiers, this is a story of choices, ethics and overcoming our collecive limitations.

Rex is a dog soldier, and the leader of an experimental squad of similar bioengineered beings.  His squad-mates are Bees, an artificial intelligence distributed across a swarm of insects, Honey, a bear who is a heavy weapons specialist, and Dragon, a sniper lizard with chameleon-like powers to blend into the background.  The squad are under the direct control of their creator, Murray, with the control mechanisms plaing on Rex’s canine instincts to serve his human master, reinforced with a feedback chip that rewards and punishes.  

Rex’s squad are being trialled in a guerilla conflict in South America.  The use of bioengineered soldiers opens up new combat options, and the distance between commanding officer and battlefield changes judgements about risk and tactics.  It quickly becomes apparent that Murray has become involved in war crimes, including the illegal use of chemical weapons.  Rex’s squad are being used to cover up the evidence.  The issue is finally exposed when Rex’s unit become cut off from Murray’s command, and come to the aid of a village Murray is targeting to cover up a previous chemical attack.  Rex’s actions open up the question of Bioform autonomy, leading to a change in their legal status.
Dogs of War is a story of growth, change and evolution, as Rex and the other Bioforms transcend their limited beginnings.  Tchaikovsky’s strength as a writer shines through in the way he brings forward so much depth in a story told for the most part by a first person narrator with a very limited perspective.  Rex grows and changes over the novel, in large part as a result of his friendship with Honey, who forces him to stretch his thinking and understanding, first through making his own choices about right and wrong, and then as a leader of his Bioform people.  

For the most part this is an optimistic story about growth, change and the evolution of sentient beings.  But it is tempered with caution about the impact technological change canhave if not subject to proper regulation and control.  There is an element of body horror to Dogs of War, as Tchaikovsky shows us the potential of mis-using this technology in the novel’s climactic finale.

Most of all, it’s impossible not to warm to Rex and his squad-mates.  Good dog, Rex.

Goodreads rating: 5*

Gnomon – Nick Harkaway

Every novel by Nick Harkaway is different, and Gnomon (review copy from William Heinemann) is probably his most ambitious book yet.  This is a complex, multi-layered book that braids together a series of narratives to tell a story about society and our trust in its underlying structures.  Mielikki Neith is the key to piecing all this together.

Neith is the foremost Investigator for The System, the all-seeing and all-knowing system that governs society.  Part panopticon, part the ultimate in participatory direct democracy, it promises government by the people and in their best interests.  It’s the natural evolution of our current world, where we set out the details of our private lives in social media, and monitor our health and bodies with devices like Fitbits.  People today are choosing to self-monitor and share that data with large corporations, without ever questioning whether the offered benefits are worth the potential erosion of privacy.  Harkaway’s System is a society founded on the idea that if one has nothing to hide then one has nothing to fear.  And this is a system that works, for the most part.

Neith is tasked with investigating Diana Hunter.  Hunter is one of the few who has lived a life seeking to opt out of the all-pervasive surveillance of the System.  She has lived quietly on the margins of society, until one day her behaviour is flagged as worthy of concern.  She is brought in for questioning, which in the case of the Sytem means a full brain scan under laboratory conditions.  But Diana Hunter dies under interrogation.  Her brain print is given to Neith as part of the investigation, to find out what she was up to and why she died.

The scan reveals a series of hyper-real narratives that Hunter has used to block the interrogation by masking her own thoughts and memories.  Constantine Kyriakos, the wunderkind banker who escapes a shark attack.  Berihun Bekele, a once-feted pop artist who survived Haile Selassie’s fall in Ethiopia and is retained by his grand-daughter to design a computer game which bears a startling resemblance to elements of the System.  Athenaïs Karthagonensis, a medieval scholar and wise woman mourning her dead son.  Although each story is distinct, they are linked both thematically and in points of detail.  These are arechetypal stories of gods and monsters, drawing on the oldest myths and stories from human civilisation.

Catabasis and apocatastasis are the two recurring themes in Gnomon, featuring in all of the narratives Harkaway sets before us.  They are the primal roots of so many of our stories.  Catabasis: the journey into darkness on a quest for an object, a loved one, or meaning.  Apocatastasis: the ending of a cycle that acts as a reconstitution of the world, often enabling its rebirth in a new direction.

This is not a perfect book.  It’s choppy in parts, and slow to get going.  Like one of Bekele’s painting series you need to stand back and view the whole by layering its component parts.  Harkaway is clearly conscious of the complex task he is putting before the reader, and at times is, if anything, a little too eager to lead the reader by the hand, laying out the trail of breadcrumbs to help understand what he is trying to say.  And there could have been a much easier story to tell.  Harkaway could have used his setting for a lazy polemic about the surveillance society.  But Gnomon reaches for much deeper truths about ourselves, about society, and about the impact of technology upon us all.

Goodreads rating: 5*

Ironclads – Adrian Tchaikovsky

Continuing the theme of interesting novellas by established authors, Solaris have just published a limited edition novella by Clarke Award-winning novelist Adrian TchaikovskyIronclads is the story of a mission behind enemy lines to track down the missing son from a high-profile, corporate family.  A mission into a war-torn Sweden populated with genetically-engineered warriors, drones and robots.

Tchaikovsky’s setting is a near-future Europe.  Ravaged by climate change, the world has been changed significantly.  But this is also a post-Brexit Europe, where the UK is in thrall to the USA, and corporate interests dominate.  US cultural imperialism now dominates, and the UK is a beach head in a war between US corporations and those of Europe.  Any pretence that warfare is driven by politics and the nation state has vanished – these are wars between corporations, fought over markets, opportunities and technologies.  Those corporations are owned by the super-rich, in a world where there is an ever-starker gap between rich and poor.  In this new feudalism, the poor enlist in the armed forces because they have few other options, but the officer class is drawn from the new corporate aristocracy.

This is a story that draws heavily on both Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness, and its famous film adaptation, Apocalypse Now.  Conrad’s meditation on imperialism and racism is given a fresh, contemporary twist by Tchaikovsky, that brings its relevance bang up to date.

Goodreads rating: 5*

The Space Between The Stars – Anne Corlett

Every now and then a book comes along that confirms to you that it’s not that you’re struggling to get excited about reading.  It’s just that the books you’ve been reading recently, while perfectly competently written, have just been a bit meh.  Anne Corlett‘s The Space Between The Stars (review copy from Pan Macmillan) is one of those astonishing, game-changing books that reminds you what reading should be about.

Corlett’s novel is the story of a universe after a highly contagious virus has wiped out most of humanity.  A tiny number of survivors – each of them one in a million – are scattered across colony worlds across the universe.  They must deal with what has happened and find a way of moving forward. The story focuses on Jamie Allenby, who had fled to a remote outpost from the breakdown of her relationshp following a miscarriage. She wakes alone after the virus has burned itself out, and sets out on a journey home to the Northumberland coast.  Along the way she meets a failed priest, a religoius scientist, a ship’s captain and his gruff engineer, a prostitute and a boy with autism.  These become her unlikely travelling companions on her journey to Earth and a hoped-for reconciliation with her partner Daniel – if he has survived the virus.

So far so Station Eleven.  But what sets The Space Between The Stars apart is its focus on the personal.  The small stories of the survivors and how they deal with the consequences of what has happened: grief and anger are real and there are no easy ways forward.  Let me be clear: this is not a big, galaxy spanning story of rebuilding civilisation or a Survivors-style tale of people banding together for protection against feral raiders in the ruins of our world.  Civilisation has ended with a whimper rather than a bang.

This is a story about humanity in all its chaotic glory.  Don’t expect the relentlessly saccharine positivity of The Long Way To A Small Angry Planet.  And that makes it a much better piece.  This is a book about how imperfectly we live together with one another.  It’s about the tension between our striving for privacy and independence, and our basic need for community and contact with one another.  It’s about the imperfect communications between us all.  It’s about the messy business of life and survival, and the way it does not fit neatly into the stories we tell one another, with their clarity of purpose and happy ever after endings.  Like the sea glass that Jamie collects on the beach, we are all unique: shaped and made beautiful by the pounding tides that rub us up against one another and the grit between us.

Goodreads rating: 5*