Witchsign – Den Patrick

There are certain things you should expect from a Den Patrick book: principled, if hot-headed, young men taking up arms against tyranny and oppression, brilliantly written sibling relationships, and a load of brilliant adventurous fun.  Witchsign (Harper Voyager) has all of these in spades.  The elevator pitch for this book is simple: what if Harry Potter went to evil Hogwarts, but it turned out they’d made a mistake and he was a Muggle?

Steiner and his sister Kjellrunn are teenagers living in a small town called Cinderfell, which is pretty much at the end of the world.  Their father is a blacksmith, and their mother left many years before.  They aren’t well off, and spend a lot of their time scraping to make ends meet.  But their lives are disrupted when the mysterious masked Vigilants from the neighbouring and conquering Solmindre Empire arrive.  Each year Vigilants come to test young people for Witchsign.  Those with it are taken away on board ship and never heard of again.  Steiner is found to have Witchsign, and is taken away.  But it’s a mix up – he was protecting Kjellrunn, who it turns out has blossoming magical powers.  Steiner is taken away, but not to his death as he feared – instead he finds that children with Witchsign are taken by the Vigilants to a mysterious island housing a a magical school.  Kjellrunn and her father are left behind to cope with the fear and stigma of Witchsign having been discovered in their family.

One of the things I love about Den’s writing is that his protagonists aren’t your traditional royal heirs with magic powers/weapons/special destinies.  Steiner is an ordinary young man who sees that something is wrong and decides to do something about it.  He protects the weak and the vulnerable, stands up to bullies, and encourages people to work together to overcome obstacles.  Although hot-headed and rash at times, it’s because he cares about the wrongs he sees in the world around him, and wants to do something about it.  And his relationship with Kjellrunn is beautifully drawn.  He is a fiercely protective older brother, who nonetheless will bicker with his sister over trivia.

Above all, Witchsign is a thrilling adventure story full of escapades, heroics, adventure, magic and dragons.  It sets the scene perfectly for the second book in the series, as Steiner and his friends set out to overthrow the Solmindre Empire because of the suffering it has caused.  But it’s written with contemporary sensibilities about corrupt governments, the abuse of power and bigotry.

And Kjellrunn’s reaction to being told to smile once too often by a foreign soldier?  That had me punching the air in delight.

Goodreads rating: 4*

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Shadow Captain – Alastair Reynolds

Shadow Captain (review copy from Gollancz) is the sequel to last year’s Revenger by Alastair Reynolds.  Revenger is a cracking adventure story about teenage sisters who turn to a spot of space piracy in order to enact revenge on the infamous and evil Bosa Sennen.

Shadow Captain picks up the story immediately after the events of Revenger.  Arafura (“Fura”) and Adrana Ness are now the co-captains of Bosa Sennen’s ship, the Nightjammer, which they have renamed the Revenger.  Their crew is tiny and they are running low on supplies, but they have a hold full of currency.  They will need to make port soon to buy food and extra supplies, but that’s harder it could be when Bosa Sennen is the most wanted in the solar system and no-one knows she has been defeated.  There is a bounty on their heands, and that of their ship.  The sisters and their crew head for a backwater world run by Mister Glimmery, a cruel mob boss, desperately seeking medical treatment for one of the crew who was injured in mysterious circumstances.

Told from the perspective of Adrana Ness, this is a story about conspiracy, paranoia and distrust.  Adrana herself is battling to throw off the psychological conditioning she received while she was Bosa Senn’s prisoner.  And although she’s grateful to be rescued, the changes wrought in her sister Fura are hard to come to terms with.  This isn’t the sister she remembers.  Fura has her own agenda, determined to unravel Bosa Sennen’s secrets and the mystery of the banking collapse that took place at the end of the previous book.

Shadow Captain is a rollicking good adventure that continues the story from Revenger.  Some mysteries are solved.  New ones are added, setting up for an intriguing next instalment.  Sit back and enjoy the voyage.

Goodreads rating: 3*

The Psychology of Time Travel – Kate Mascarenhas

The Psychology of Time Travel by Kate Mascarenhas (review copy from Head of Zeus) is an exciting and fresh take on time travel.  It’s hard to tell a good time travel story.  It’s far too easy to get caught in grandfather paradoxes or the desire to change the course of world events.  But rather than focus on the impact of time travel on the world around us, Kate Mascarenhas shows us the impact of the technology on the time travellers themselves.  How are you affected when you know that events are fixed no matter what you seek to do?  This is the story of the four women who invented the technology enabling time travel, and the rivalries between them.

The wonderful Hidden Figures-style opening to the novel shows us four women in rural Cumbria in 1967 on the verge of inventing time travel.  They are close friends, working in an isolated spot with limited resources.  But the group starts to break apart when one of the four, Barbara, suffers a breakdown on live television as they announce their amazing invention.  She has suffered the temporal equivalent of jetlag, after spending too long time travelling in a way that has upset her circadian rhythms.  Fast-forward 50 years, and Barbara’s grand-daughter Ruby is sent a news clipping from the future about the mysterious death of an unidentified woman in the basement of London’s Toy Museum.  Ruby is intrigued and attempts to solve this curious locked-room mystery.

This novel is a novel of fantastic strengths.  The cast is almost-entirely women, with men pushed to the periphery in supporting parts or existing only as absences.  It features a wonderful queer romance.  There is art inspired by time travel, including anomalous items that only exist in time loops.  Time travellers create their own jargon.  And it is great on a very British style of bureaucracy.  Of course the Government would set up an agency to manage time travel, with its own currency, judicial system, the use of technology to help the future by preventing extinction events, and the exploration of marketing opportunities by selling goods from the future in the present.

But where this novel really shines is in the psychology its title foregrounds.  People behave differently when they know they can travel through time and their actions are largely irrelevant.  They become hardened to death because it is inevitable, and grief has less meaning when you can travel back in time to visit a person while they are still alive.  Risk-taking behaviours increase, because when one knows the date and time of one’s own death there is no peril.  And infidelity is common when a person is disconnected from their own timeline and the significance of those emotional connections decreases.

This is a fantastically intriguing puzzle box of a novel, with a very satisfying payoff.

Goodreads rating: 4* 

Stronger, Faster and More Beautiful – Arwen Elys Dayton

Normally I love a mosaic novel.  They can be a great way of telling a single story from multiple view points and they are excellent for stories that have to span multiple time periods.  But they are incredibly tricky things to pull off.  You have to weave together the narratives otherwise the reader is left with what feels like little more than a loosely connected collection of short stories shoved together to make a book.  And you are at risk of getting the reader engaged with a set of characters before moving away from them never to return.  Unfortunately, Stronger, Faster and More Beautiful by Arwen Elys Dayton (review copy from Harper Voyager) is in the category of mosaic novels that don’t succeed.

The premise is a great one.  Dayton is exploring the idea that humanity is capable of incredible scientific progress when it comes to genetic manipulation and body modification, but they are equally and simultaneously capable of using these new technologies in ways that mess things up royally.  The novel follows the stories of various generations of people living with the new technologies.  As time passes they become more advanced and more radical changes and transformations are possible, but that just increases the ways in which these technologies can be misused.

Each piece works well as an individual story exploring the different issues raised by this technology: ie all the ways humanity can mess things up through greed, bigotry, selfishness and general inhumanity towards other people.  But they don’t hang together well as a novel.  The equivocal nature of the technologies concerned ironically gets in the way of the work cohering.  And the pieces vary in quality.  Some are superb, but others are much weaker.

Stronger, Faster and More Beautiful is an ambitious book, but Dayton doesn’t quite manage to pull it off for me.

Goodreads rating: 2*

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*

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*