One of Us – Craig diLouie

Who are the monsters?  That is the question Craig diLouie asks us in his staggeringly powerful novel One of Us (review copy from Orbit).  Set in the 1980s, this is a novel that examines how society reacts to the Other.  In this case, a group of children who have suffered mutations as a result of an incurable sexually transmitted disease carried by their parents.  Ostracised and raised in special homes separate from polite society, these children are beginning to manifest special powers and as they approach adulthood that sparks questions about the future role they will play in society.

One of Us mixes up the moral panic of the 1980s AIDS epidemic with a healthy dose of racism and the consequences of the thalidomide scandal. People infected with the virus are ostracised, often hiding their infection and denying the mutated children they’ve borne.  Infection is associated with sexual promiscuity and immorality.  A new Puritanism has struck the country, with abstinence taught to young people in order to prevent the further spread of the virus and the creation of more mutated children.

Children who suffer from teratogenesis are kept apart in special institutions where they are fed, educated and used as slave labour in local businesses.  They are subjected to cruelty and poor conditions from staff who work there because they are not able to get jobs anywhere else.  Abuse and torture lead to injuries and death, with the authorities turning a blind eye.  The children are seen as a burden on society, and a drain on taxpayers, rather than as people deserving of life and respect.  They are taught that they are undeserving, with information strictly controlled and only the most basic education provided.  But when some of the children start to manifest interesting abilities the Government sees opportunity, and starts to look at how the children can be exploited for the good of the nation.

One of Us is a brilliant study of how people are Othered, and how prejudice manifests and perpetuates itself within communities through fear and peer pressure.  Focusing on a group of young people – both with and without teratogenesis – it shows how similar we all are.  The desire for a better, more compassionate, future can unite us.  diLouie also shows us how prejudice and mistreatment carries within it the seeds of revolution and rebellion.  If every action provokes an equal and opposite reaction, then we should not be surprised that systemic prejudice and abuse will eventually lead those who are marginalised to push back.

This is a powerful and disturbing morality tale about humanity’s capacity for darkness, but also its fortitude, compassion and willingness to push for change.

Goodreads rating: 5*

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Ravencry – Ed McDonald

One of my favourite debuts last year was Ed McDonald‘s Blackwing.  This dark and brooding tale of Ryhalt Galharrow, his lost lady love, and the horrible menace of the Deep Kings was fresh and compelling.  McDonald returns that world with the second book in his Raven’s Mark series, Ravencry (review copy from Gollancz).

In Ravencry, we pick up Galharrow’s story four years later.  The Deep Kings were driven back from Valengrad, but at huge cost.  Galharrow is now a hero, with his Blackwings well funded and resourced by a grateful city.  He uses his knowledge and skill to root out threats to the city, including spies and creatures of the Deep Kings.  The cult of the Bright Lady is taking root in the city, with people having visions of a beautiful woman they believe will save the city from its enemies, offering hope rather than the dark pragmatism of the city’s normal rulers.  One of Galharrow’s childhood friends has come to Valengrad, and he is thick with the leaders of the Bright Lady’s cult.

Second books are always tricky.  They need to advance the story, provide enough self-contained pay off in their own right without over-topping the series finale, and help to set up the final book.  McDonald pulls off that tricky second book in style.  We learn more about Galharrow and his world, with a trip to the Misery that shows us the measure of the Blackwing Captain.  The ending has real peril and high stakes.  We see how the hope offered by the Bright Lady’s cult is so attractive that it supplants all rational logic and sense.  And we see how the unscrupulous are willing to exploit situations for their own self-interest.

Fabulous.  I can’t wait for the series finale.

Goodreads rating: 3*

The Book of M – Peng Shepherd

There are a lot of post-apocalyptic books out there.  You know the drill: a mysterious happening brings civilisation to its knees.  People living in the aftermath scrabble around living on tinned food.  Our protagonist is the one who gets to the heart of what happens and (in the more optimistic ones) is able to fix it. See The Feed, Station Eleven and The Space Between The Stars – all of which are really excellent examples of the genre.

Where Peng Shepherd‘s The Book of M (review copy from Harper Voyager) differs is that the cause of the apocalypse is not a mysterious virus or act of terrorism.  This is a fantasy take on the apocalypse, rather than a science fictional one.  Starting in India, people start losing their shadows.  And the shadowless start to gain the ability to change reality, but at the price of losing their memories.  As the problem begins to spread, society starts to break down.

Our protagonists are Max and Ory.  They were at the wedding of two friends in a remote location when the Forgetting starts to hit the USA.  Slowly the community at the wedding hotel starts to disperse, until only Max and Ory are left.  Max loses her shadow, and her husband Ory looks after her, in the knowledge that eventually she will forget even him.  Unable to bear it, Max eventually leaves, following mysterious graffiti and rumours that someone in the deep South may hold a cure for the Forgetting.

Unfortunately, The Book of M fails to add anything fresh to the post-apocalyptic genre beyond its new, fantastical premise.  The novel dwells on the importance of memories in how they shape and form the essence of a person.  But the Forgetting is never adequately explained and – although the story is competently told and Shepherd writes with a beautiful prose style – the novel lacks some of the deep insight into the human condition and how we cope with chaos and crisis that other sister books offer.

Goodreads rating: 2* 

Life, Honestly – The Pool

I’ve loved The Pool‘s journalism right from the start.  Funny, honest, intelligent writing about life, relationships, careers, family, beauty and fashion from some fantastic women writers, much of it with a strong feminist perspective. And an interesting business model too – founded by Sam Baker (journalist) and Lauren Laverne (broadcaster) and tapping into a lot of freelance writing talent.  This is a model that has supported women fitting their writing around family and other commitments, and has provided a brilliant platform for emerging voices.

To celebrate their third anniversary, the website has published Life, Honestly (review copy from Bluebird), a collection of some of their best writing.  If you’re a regular reader of The Pool you will recognise most of these pieces, and there won’t be much here for you.  But Life, Honestly stands well as a snapshot and collection of contemporary women’s writing.  Freed from some of the commercial constraints of women’s print journalism, which relies on puff pieces, advertorials, and pernicious body-shaming, The Pool has given us a better insight into what it’s like to be a modern, professional woman in the 21st century.

Witty, authentic and passionate in turns, reading Life, Honestly is like talking to your girlfriends over a glass of wine.

Goodreads rating: 4*

The Blue Sword – Robin McKinley

Growing up as a child, I always wanted to be Harry.  Harimad-sol – laprun minta and damalur-sol.  With a chestnut warhorse, a pet leopard, a magic sword and the ability to make desert kings fall hopelessly in love with me while I saved the world.

Robin McKinley‘s The Blue Sword is one of my all-time favourite novels, and a comfort book  that I pull out for regular re-reading.  First published in 1982 it tells the story of Harry Crewe, an orphan sent to the farthest reaches of the British Empire, where her brother, Richard, is serving in the military.  The tomboyish Harry slowly falls in love with the wilds of Daria (as the Empire calls it) and learns that she is not the only Homelander who feels that way.  She is kidnapped by Corlath, king of the Hillfolk, after his magic Gift prompts him to do it, trains as a warrior and ultimately saves the day by defeating the Northern demon-king.

So far, so typical for a YA novel: heroic young woman comes of age and saves the day when none of the adults will listen to her.  But there is much to lift The Blue Sword above the pack, despite its flaws.

This is a novel about colonialism.  It falls prey to Orientalism in the way that it romanticises Daria.  And Harry is a bit of a White Saviour (we learn Harry has mixed race ancestry late in the book, but culturally she is wholly British).  We see very little from or about the viewpoints of those living under colonial rule – they are nameless, faceless servants and tradespeople.

But McKinley shows us the fragility of colonial rule at the edges of Empire.  Authority is notional at best, based on lines drawn on maps and the presence of a small number of Empire administrators, diplomats and military, who live in a self-contained immigrant bubble.  There is little investment or interest in the place beyond the amount of the map that can be coloured pink, and the availability of natural resources (profitable mines in the area).

Language and miscommunication are key themes in The Blue Sword.  The colonial habit of renaming things and places out of arrogance or the inability to pronounce indigenous words.  Corlath is king of Damar, not of the Hillfolk.  The main town has been renamed Istan by the Empire in place of its real name Ihistan, and the pass known as Ritger’s Gap by the colonisers is the Madamer Gate to the people of Damar.  Miscommunication extends to cultural concepts and rituals: “those funny patched sashes the Hillfolk wear”.  The few translators struggle, emphasising the separation between Damarian and Homelander.

Harry is the bridge between Damar and Empire – an uncomfortable place to be, caught between two worlds.  And McKinley’s message is one that success happens when these cultures work together in a spirit of shared endeavour and mutual respect for different perspectives and traditions.  Diplomacy rather than colonisation is the right approach – but it is one that requires mutual respect and the ability to listen.

Goodreads rating: 5*

The Quantum Magician – Derek Kunsken

Don’t be fooled by the title – Derek Kunsken‘s The Quantum Magician (review copy from Solaris) isn’t a rip off of Hannu Rajaniemi’s bonkers space opera The Quantum Thief.  It may feature a similarly charming con-man protagonist, but instead is a delightfully engaging heist story.  This is Ocean’s 11 in space.

Belisarius (Bel) Arjona is the titular Quantum Magician – genetically engineered to be able to enter various altered mental states in order to examine the fabric of the universe.  One of those states involves complete suppression of identity, in order to avoid the phenomenon of the observer collapsing quantum states.  But something has gone wrong in Bel’s breeding – entering these states is likely to lead to his death, and he spends his life as a con-man because the challenge is the only thing that will distract him from the addictive pull of his training.  Living in a complex, multi-cultural society dealing with the mix of messy emotions and complexity that make up most sentient beings is a much greater intellectual challenge than studying physics in a laboratory.

Bel is approached with the job of a lifetime – smuggle some military spaceships through a wormhole.  The wormhole is the main route from one part of the galaxy to another, and access is tightly controlled.  These military ships belong to a colony civilisation desperate to make a strike for independence.  Moving the warships will put them in the right place to make a surprise military strike.  Bel’s fee for this work is two small ships equipped with a brand new drive technology that will be worth a fortune.  But the real prize for him is the chance to observe wormhole physics from the inside – data he would never have been able to gather if he’d stayed on his home planet.

What lifts The Quantum Magician above the usual run of heist stories is the characterisation and world-building.  Whether he is willing to acknowledge it or not, Bel is using this job as a chance to reconnect with old friends and colleagues – including his old lover Cassandra; Saint Matthew, the most advanced AI ever created; an explosives expert; Bel’s former con-man mentor; and a genetically engineered sea creature who is an expert pilot able to operate a high pressure and high g.  Bel has personal debts to pay to some of these people, and wants to work with people he trusts, but this for him is mostly about the chance to connect with people he knows as part of a team in order to address his fundamental loneliness.  Much of the early part of the book is Bel pulling his team together and planning the elaborate heist.  The actual heist itself delivers on tension and unexpected developments, bringing an exciting climax to the story.

Goodreads rating: 4*

Redemption’s Blade – Adrian Tchaikovsky

Adrian Tchaikovsky has knocked it out the park once again with Redemption’s Blade (review copy from Solaris).  This is the post-Dark Lord novel I have been waiting for all my life.

Celestaine is one of a group of heroes who managed to defeat the evil demigod known as the Kinslayer, at the end of a Lord of the Rings-style titanic conflict that managed to – briefly – unite humanity in common cause.  But with the war now over, Celestaine is struggling to find purpose and meaning.  Adventuring and demigod-killing skills aren’t really much in demand these days, and all the heroic ballads in the world won’t help someone who is feeling out of place in the world.  So she takes a commission to help undo some of the damage caused by the Kinslayer – to find a magic item that might be able to heal a race of winged people who literally had their wings pulled off by the Kinslayer.

Redemption’s Blade is the first in a series of novels set in a shared world.  As the first one released, Tchaikovsky gets to set much of the world-building, which he has clearly relished doing.  This is a world filled with races, places, gods and monsters – and an awful lot of magical relics about the place.  It’s a great set-up for other writers to explore, and Tchaikovsky uses Celestaine’s quest to help set the scene.

It’s a novel written with great wit, by someone with a deep knowledge of fantasy tropes.  For example, Celestaine owns a magic sword of infinite sharpness, that she was given by another demigod and used to kill the Kinslayer.  But it’s a pain to carry around, because of the risk you might accidentally cut your own leg off, wears through scabbards incredibly quickly (even ones made from dragon skin) and needs a whole different fighting style (parries don’t really work if your sword cuts through everything).

But it’s also refreshingly believable about what happens next after an epic fantasy conflict.  There are refugees, attempts to rebuild in the rubble, famine and shortages, polluted land and people seeking to profit from the misfortune of others.  The human races have fallen back into their usual suspicion and bickering.  And Tchaikovsky addresses the problem of what you do with the orcs after the Battle of the Black Gate.  Prejudice is rife, but even the Yorughan exploited by the Kinslayer deserve the chance to move on and find a way to live productive lives.

Brilliant fun.

Goodreads rating: 4*