Luna: New Moon and Luna: Wolf Moon – Ian McDonald

Ian McDonald’s new series, Luna (review copies from Gollancz), has all the red-in-tooth-and-claw politics and excitement of I Claudius, the Borgias and the Medicis rolled into one glorious bundle of politics, wealth and violence.  Both of the first two books, Luna: New Moon, and Luna: Wolf Moon (just published) are fabulous.

In McDonald’s world, the Moon has been colonised, and it is controlled by five powerful families, known as the Dragons.  These families control resources that an increasingly fragile Earth is dependent on, but they are bitter rivals, jockeying for position.  Many of those families are now on their third generation, with the physical changes wrought by the Moon meaning that individuals are trapped within its environment.  After two years someone from Earth is no longer able to return, but those born there are unable to survive elsewhere.  The Dragons are fabulously wealthy, but the gap between rich and poor is wide, with other individuals eking out an existence, competing for contracts to make a life.  This is a place run by contract, where there is no other civil or criminal law and disputes can be settled by trial by combat.

Both books follow the fortunes of the Corta family.  Founded by Brazilian matriarch Adriana Corta, the family has a monopoly on the production of helium, essential to power a failing Earth’s fusion reactors.  But the Corta family are seen as upstarts by their chief rivals, the Mackenzie family, which dominates the mining of rare metals, but is jealous of the more profitable helium industry.  The rivalries between the five Dragons are kept in careful balance by the Eagle, the representative of the Lunar Development Corporation, the governing entity in charge of the Moon, but the collapse of a planned dynastic marriage between Corta and Mackenzie triggers a chain reaction of events and reprisals that threatens to destroy the fragile lunar society.  It’s difficult to say more without spoiling a complex plot that is a roller-coaster ride of violence, destruction, adventure and heroism.

In McDonald’s hands, the Luna books are a powerful exploration of frontier life.  There are chances for great wealth and opportunity for those with the wisdom and determination to spot an opportunity and take advantage of it.  But existence is fragile, and small events can wreak drastic changes in the circumstances of an individual.  The Moon does not discriminate in who it offers opportunities to, or how it punishes them for their missteps.

McDonald’s Moon is a real melting pot of Earth culture and nations, all interwoven and viewed through a lunar lens.  The five Dragons represent Australia, Russia, Ghana and China as well as the Cortas’ native Brazil.  Sexuality is free and fluid within lunar society, and diversity is embedded in society.  That leads to a broad range of fantastic characters, from powerful matriarchs, to playboy heirs straight from Made In Chelsea, to roughnecks out on the lunar surface.

Chief among that cast of characters is the fabulous Ariel Corta.  High-flying divorce lawyer and society darling, she is charismatic, arrogant, vain and an alcoholic with a Martini habit.  From her vintage Dior to her vertiginous heels she exudes sophistication, but underneath she is fragile.  Her attention-grabbing professional persona conceals emotional neediness underneath it all.  It’s wonderful to see such a fully-realised and flawed character taking such a leading role in a novel.

Goodreads rating: 5*

Miranda and Caliban – Jacqueline Carey

In Miranda and Caliban (review copy from Tor, through NetGalley), Jacqueline Carey gives us a thoughtful exploration of the backstory to one of Shakespeare’s most famous plays, The Tempest.  It’s a short book, but one packed with thoughtful insight and commentary on the source material.

Miranda and Caliban focuses on Miranda’s childhood, with the events of the play only covered briefly towards the end of the book.  For all that it’s a close rendering of the play it gives a radically different and fresh perspective on the story.  Carey’s retelling draws out the toxic impact of Prospero’s desire for revenge and the abusive relationship that has created with his daughter.  Miranda is a tool for his revenge, a person he controls and exploits to enable that revenge and return to power.  She is infantilised and denied information, but expected to perform services in pursuit of her father’s revenge agenda.  This is a Prospero who cares little of her wishes or feelings, playing his daughter as a card to engage the interest of those shipwrecked on the island.

Carey’s Caliban is a misunderstood creature.  Judged for his physical appearance and isolated upbringing he is seen by Prospero as ignorant and fit only for menial labour.  It is under Miranda’s help and care that he grows and blossoms and learns.  Caliban is as exploited by Prospero as Miranda, his potential and skills overlooked except where they can be used to advance Prospero’s agenda.  But unlike Miranda, Caliban isn’t family.  And his status as the child of a witch means he will never be able to transcend the strict class boundaries of that society.

Goodreads rating: 3* 

Dr Potter’s Medicine Show – Eric Scott Fischl

Dr Potter’s Medicine Show (Eric Scott Fischl, review copy from Angry Robot) is a dark and lush gothic horror set in frontier America.  The titular Dr Alexander Potter is a seller of snake-oil, taking his touring circus and freak show round the Western states of America.  But the mystery potion that Dr Potter is selling – The Chock-a-saw Sagwa Tonic – is not your usual concoction, part placebo, part laudanum.  This Tonic is an alchemical preparation, part of an experimental series designed to unlock the secrets of eternal life.

This is a novel populated by grotesques and monsters, none more so than the sadistic Lyman Rhoades, who has the whole medicine show under his control.  The venal and cowardly Dr Potter is dependent on his patronage to get access to the Sagwa Tonic that is keeping him and other key Medicine Show people alive.  But Rhoades himself is merely the roving agent of a reclusive chemist, Dr Morrison Hedwith.  He brews the Sagwa Tonic as part of his experiments, and sends the Medicine Show out on the road in the hopes that its travels will conceal some of the more horrific results of his experimentation.

This is not an easy read.  Expect lots of graphic violence and sadistic torture, including sexual violence and its threat.  There is no white hat hero for the reader to identify with.  But the darkness and violence fits the overall tenor and style of the novel.  It rattles along as a satisfying thriller, building to a climactic and horrific close.

Goodreads rating: 3*

Crossroads of Canopy – Thoraiya Dyer

Thoraiya Dyer’s  debut novel, Crossroads of Canopy (review copy from Tor) is a fresh take on the fantasy genre.  Set in a lush rainforest, Unar runs away from her parents, who want to sell her into slavery, and becomes a junior priestess to Audblayin, goddess of growth and fertility.  After Audblayin’s death, the ambitious and rebellious Unar is passed over for promotion, and leaves the temple, vowing to be the person to find the reincarnated Audblayin and become the god’s Bodyguard.  Unar leaves Canopy, the part of the forest protected by the gods and goddesses and descends to Understorey, where she discovers a new way of living and uncovers a plot to destroy Canopy.

There’s a lot to like about Crossroads of Canopy.  Unar’s growing realisation of the unfairness of the society that she lives in shows us the dark underbelly of privilege.  It depends on the exploitation of others.  In this case, the slaves sold into servitude and the outcasts living outside Canopy who don’t benefit from the protection of the gods and goddesses above.  This is a society of strict hierarchy where the privileged live close to the sun and the rest scrape a living on the edges of society.  Unar’s compassion for the slaves is what ultimately leads to her being cast out of her temple and ostracised.  Socialism and class awareness are still rare enough things in contemporary fantasy writing, that to see them is always a delight.

The treatment of female friendship and family loyalty is also a particular strength of the book.  Unar is close to her fellow initiate Oos, though the two come from widely different backgrounds.  Oos is a noblewoman, all grace and elegance next to the tomboyish Unar.  Their friendship suffers trials and is repeatedly tested, but it endures and strengthens.  But the real joy of the book is Unar’s relationship with her younger sister.  Lost as a baby, Unar’s life is shaped by the desire to find her and make restitution.  That guilt and drive is shamelessly exploited to Unar’s downfall.

Unfortunately, though, I struggled with Unar herself.  She is an angry and rebellious teenager who repeatedly does exceptionally stupid things.  That makes her a difficult protagonist to identify with for the whole of the narrative.  She does have a lot of growing up to do – and matures significantly over the course of the novel – but it disrupted the flow for me and frequently threw me out of the novel.

Goodreads rating: 3*

The Hangman’s Daughter – Gavin G Smith

Miska Storrow leads an unusual band of mercenaries in The Hangman’s Daughter, Gavin G Smith‘s latest novel (review copy from Gollancz).  Hers are pressed men, prisoners kept in suspended animation on a prison ship and fitted with collars that enable Miska to explosively decapitate them at will.  Miska and her mercenary legion have been retained to infiltrate a mining base that has been taken over by rebels, but she has few resources to back her beyond some ageing weapons and ammunition, and an AI version of her late father.

This is classic military science fiction – lots of running around, explosions and gory injuries and deaths.  In between, a conspiracy plot begins to be revealed.  Is Miska the rogue special forces operative turned cold-hearted and ruthless killer that she claims to be, or is there more going on under the surface?  Obviously there is, otherwise this wouldn’t be much of a story.

The plot rattles along fairly well, but the cast of supporting characters is pretty thin and straight from central casting – identikit gangsters and idealistic rebels plus a stereotyped drill sargeant for a father.  There is some disturbing fetishisation of a dangerous cohort of three high security prisoners held on Miska’s ship, including one particular serial killer that she is inexplicably attracted to.  But the biggest difficulty for me was Smith’s reliance on concealing information from the reader.  It jars me out of the story for a close third person narrator to not share information that would be known to the perspective character, particularly in a knowing way that is clearly designed to build suspense.

Goodreads rating: 2*

 

Empire Games – Charles Stross

Empire Games launches a new series of books by Charles Stross (review copy from Pan Macmillan), but it didn’t leave me wanting to read on.

I haven’t read the earlier Merchant Princes books that this series follows on from, but I don’t think reading the earlier books is necessary before reading these.  The story follows Rita, a drama graduate scraping a living as a booth babe, whose life is turned upside down when she is recruited by the NSA.  What Rita doesn’t realise is that she is the child of an experimental programme designed to breed the talent to walk between worlds, a talent limited to a small group of people who are believed to be responsible for a terrorist attack that destroyed the White House.  The NSA, fearful of further terrorist attacks, want to train Rita as a worldwalking agent, to infiltrate the terrorists.

In a parallel world, Rita’s biological mother, Miriam, is a refugee from the retaliation attack that destroyed the home of her family.  She has worked her way up to being a Commissioner in the Government, heading the Ministry of Intertemporal Research and Intelligence, an agency that mixes espionage with the securing of technology to help develop the world in which she is now living.  Rita’s mission is at risk of upsetting the delicate geopolitics of Miriam’s world, potentially triggering a worldwide nuclear war.

While there is a great Cold War espionage-style thriller in Empire Games, it was drowned out by an extremely polemical tone, reminiscent of Cory Doctorow.  It was far too prominent in the story, and regularly intruded into and distracted from the story.

Goodreads rating: 2*

The Bear and the Nightingale – Katherine Arden

I have a weakness for well-told fairy tale, particularly stories out of the Western European tradition.  And Katherine Arden gives us that in spades with The Bear and the Nightingale (Del Rey, review copy through NetGalley).

Vasilisa (Vasya) Petrovna is a child of the frozen, Russian countryside.  A child with an interesting heritage: her mother was the daughter of a mysterious woman who walked out of the Russian countryside and captured the heart of a Russian prince, becoming his second wife.  Vasya’s mother and grandmother were steeped in Russian magic, a heritage increasingly in conflict with the Orthodox church and its strict version of Christianity.  The Bear and the Nightingale is part an exploration of that tension between religion and the world of Russian myth, and part a coming of age story.

Vasya herself grows up learning her folk heritage.  In particular, she is fascinated by the stories of Frost, the winter-demon who takes the lives of the unwary, but occasionally  rewards with riches brave young women who are offered to him as tribute.  She feeds and nurtures the household and wild spirits of her village as she grows up, all unaware that she has already caught the attention of Frost himself.  Vasya is thrown into conflict with her father’s second wife, a devout Christian who also sees the local spirits but dismisses them as hallucinations sent to tempt her, and a new local priest obsessed with Vasya and determined to convert the local population with his hellfire preaching.

The Bear and the Nightingale is a glorious story of growth and personal self-discovery.  Vasya is an unconventional young woman, pushing against the boundaries of the community she lives in, for the sake of that community.  Even if it means she is forced into a position of conflict with that community.  Arden has a beautifully rich and evocative story-telling style.  This is a fantastic and very readable piece of fiction.

Goodreads rating: 4*