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 Wolf – Leo Carew

On paper, Leo Carew‘s The Wolf (review copy from Headline) ought to be right up my street.  It’s billed as “a thrilling, savagely visceral, politically nuanced and unexpectedly wry exploration of power and identity”, which is catnip for a reader of my taste.  But I bounced off it fairly on, and this one languished in the did-not-finish pile.

The premise is a good one.  War between the North and the South thrusts Roper, a young man, into power unexpectedly quickly when his father (the King of the Northern, Anakim people) is killed in battle, and he must struggle to gain authority early on or risk being deposed.  Meanwhile, Bellamus, a common-born upstart Sutherner who can run rings around most of the Suthern nobles, is fighting for renown, aided by the private patronage of his lover, the Queen.

Unfortunately, this book hit far too many of the buttons that turn me off a novel.  I even tried putting it down for a bit and coming back to it, to see if it would help.  It didn’t.

The problem was that I didn’t buy the fundamental premise.  Roper, the new King of the Anakim, is presented to us as a politically naive young man who finds himself having to fend off the ambitions of a wildly popular and successful soldier called Uvoren.  But it just didn’t ring true for me.  By rights, Roper should have been being groomed for his future role for his whole life, yet he acts like someone who’s never even thought about it and doesn’t have the first clue about his country, let alone running it.  This is someone who would have been raised in the highly political environment of his father’s court, yet he acts like someone who’s just arrived, doesn’t know anyone and doesn’t have the first clue how anything works.  I just don’t buy it.  And Roper shows little or no grief or reaction to the death of his father.  Which I also don’t buy.

The politics in the novel falls foul of one of my particular bug-bears.  It’s something that only Bad People do.  Not Roper, who is a Good Man.  Politicking becomes a lazy marker for someone the reader is meant to identify as a villain, so they can enjoy despising them.

There are issues with the world-building too.  This is yet another fantasy world where we are expected to believe that countries can field armies in the scale of hundreds of thousands of troops.  But the economies seem to be based on subsistence farming, and there is no convincing sense of how the landscape or the economies can support a military-industrial complex of that size, including all the support services and industries required to maintain it, and the logistics involved in moving armed forces of that scale around the country.

And there was just something in the prose style that grated too.  I couldn’t quite put my finger on it, but it was like nails down a blackboard.

All in all, too many things on my list of pet peeves, all in one place in The Wolf.  While this isn’t a book that’s actively bad, there was just too much that kept throwing me out of the story and if I can’t suspend my disbelief I can’t carry on reading a book.  I’m sure there is an interesting debut in there, and Leo Carew will continue to develop as a writer, but this isn’t the book for me.

Goodreads rating: 2*

On Politics in Speculative Fiction

I recently DNF-d a fantasy novel, in large part because of how poorly it dealt with the issue of politics within the author’s world.  Doing that got me reflecting on how politics is treated generally in speculative fiction, and how writers get it wrong so often.

The commonest trap I see – which is the one this author fell into – is where writers associate politics with villains.  It’s not something their noble hero/ine would dirty their hands with, because they are Pure and Noble and Fighting For Right.  Politics and the political becomes a lazy shorthand for self-interest and manipulative behaviour, which are qualities we like to associate with the bad guys.

That’s certainly one way of dealing with politics in fiction.  Done well, you get House of Cards (and here I am a hipster who prefers the original 1990 BBC version to the Netflix reboot).  Francis Urquhart back-stabs his way to power, but what makes it is the breaking of the fourth wall.  We can’t help but warm to Urquhart – his scathing critiques of his fellow politicians are incredibly funny and spot on.  The peek behind the curtain as he manipulates his way to power is what makes it such a joyous experience for the viewer: we are in on the game Urquhart is playing and therefore on the side of his rapacious ambition.

If you want to play an innocent into a situation like that, then you get something like my personal favourite, Borgen.  After a freak election result, Birgitte Nyborg finds herself as the first female Prime Minister of Denmark, and has to learn very quickly how to navigate the halls of power and get business done.  The vision and idealism that got her elected are not the skills she needs to run the country.  Principles are no use when the choice you are faced with is a pragmatic one between least-worst options.  Nyborg learns fast (the gloriously cut-throat episode about the constitutional status of Greenland, that ends with Nyborg effectively telling a politician he is dead to her, is a particular favourite), but at great personal cost to her family and her principles.  Or else you get Secret State.  The drama here comes from a man of integrity suddenly thrust into a position and world he was not expecting.  Tom Dawkins is the Deputy Prime Minister no-one expected would wield real power until the sudden death of the Prime Minister leaves him running the country.  The interesting conflict is the internal one: how far is Dawkins willing to compromise his integrity in order to tackle the corruption he has stumbled across?

And if you want to go full ingenue, then the joy comes from the player being played.  Step forward Les Liaisons Dangereuses, where Madame de Tourvel is the one to bring down the notorious rake the Vicomte de Valmont.  His bet with the Marquise de Merteuil to seduce Madame de Tourvel backfires when he falls in love with her.

Politics at its most fundamental is about people.  It’s about understanding what makes them tick, what they care about, and how to get things done.  Yes, that can be done in a manipulative way, to box people into corners and dispose of rivals.  But it can also be done with integrity, in a way that builds alliances and energy towards tackling a common goal.  The kind of approach seen in something like The West Wing, if you will.

It’s probably no accident that all of the examples I’ve given of the political done well fall outside of speculative fiction. Within the genre, it’s much harder to think of good writing about the sphere of politics.  (Though I would gleefully suggest that Joe Abercrombie‘s Sand dan Glokta is the Francis Urquhart of SFF.)  Which is a shame, because the genre lends itself so well to the exploration of conflicting aims and ambitions and the consequences of those choices.

Guy Gavriel Kay writes about the political incredibly well.  As I said in my review of The Lions of Al-Rassan, one of the strengths of the novel is the way it depicts the choices and actions that ultimately lead to war, conflict and the collapse of Al-Rassan. Good people are forced into making decisions in difficult circumstances. Those choices are often pragmatic, political ones, where the hands of the powerful are tied or forced. In many cases those choices are underpinned by some toxic religious and nationalist ideologies that the powerful ironically find themselves unable to challenge.  As events take choices away from people, the powerful are forced down particular courses of action.  There are two particular moments in the book that underpin this for me – the first is when one of the Jaddite kings in the north realises that his indulgence of his wife’s strong religious faith has made it impossible for him not to declare a Crusade; the other is when ibn Khairan acknowledges that the events of the Day of the Moat forced his hand into the assassination of King Almalik.  In Kay’s novel, the powerful are all trying to act in their own best interests, but their interests are in conflict.

This is the approach taken in The Expanse, where the interests of Earth, Mars and the Belt collide.  War is never far away, and the discovery and development of the protomolecule is the disruptive element threatening a fragile balance.  Senior UN figure Chrisjen Avarsarala (who I want to be when I grow up) is forced to make hard choices to protect her own position and defuse conflict.  The path to her goal is never a straight one, but this is a woman who is undeniably using all her political skills in pursuit of the right aims, even if that is not something that she is always able to admit without compromising what she is trying to achieve.

Another writer who nails it is Michelle West.  The premise of her Sun Sword books is that demons are trying to take over the mortal world, and one of the only things that can defeat them is a magic sword that can only be wielded by someone from a particular lineage.  So, of course the demons conspire to have that entire ruling family wiped out in a coup.  Except for one remaining son, who is held hostage in a different country.  The discussions about whether or not, and on what terms, to go to war to restore this heir to his throne are beautifully written.  The cause at issue is not the demon world-domination plot, but the geo-politics of West’s world, and the risk-reward judgement about getting involved in a foreign coup.  The work done to carefully align big power blocks behind action needs painstaking work, and ultimately action only happens when they are directly affected themselves.  This is the right war, fought for the wrong reasons.

Of course, West’s Sun Sword books are at their heart about the Serra Diora di Marano, and her quest for revenge against the people who slaughtered her family.  The Serra Diora uses soft power and politics to her advantage.  She turns herself into a highly politicised weapon to bring down an entire country and its regime without shedding blood.  She uses cultural norms and symbolism in her favour to make herself the untouchable emblem of a nation.  And they are also books about Jewel Markess a’Terafin, who learns how to lead and make painful choices, transforming from a street child to a woman of power and influence.

Famously, Katherine Addison‘s The Goblin Emperor examines the question of whether it’s possible to rule with kindness and integrity.  Maia’s position is a fragile one, but like Birgitte Nyborg he seizes the opportunity unexpectedly thrust his way (though in his case the alternative is exile or assassination) and tries to rule in line with his principles.  He learns to pull the levers of power effectively, identifying the key influencers and opinion-formers within his Parliament, and structuring choices to lead to the outcome he is seeking to achieve.  The sequence where they debate and agree his choice of bride shows his growing skill and understanding of the shifting power dynamics of his kingdom.

But these books still feel like the exceptions.

Speculative fiction – and in particular epic fantasy – too often focuses on the cause.  It assumes that its inherent rightness is so obvious that all good and right-thinking people will throw their weight behind it.  Anyone who doesn’t must be a self-interested fool who deserves what’s coming to them.  But politics is how you get people on that right side.  It’s about creating shared visions and coalitions of the willing.  It’s about appealing to people’s better natures, their self-interest, their hopes and fears, and their images of themselves. To some that may feel like manipulation, but it’s just how you get things done.

An inspirational leader with a compelling cause can be a powerful thing, but it’s not enough by itself to effect change.  Assuming that it is – and ignoring the work that goes into persuading and influencing people towards a particular course of action, with all the messy deal-making that involves – may comfort our sense of idealism, but it is lazy writing.

A Hero Born – Jin Yong

Sometimes you read a book and you realise that you don’t have the right frame of reference to appreciate it fully.  Jin Yong‘s A Hero Born (review copy from Quercus) is just such a book.  This is the first time that this classic of Wuxia fiction has been translated into English.  Anna Holmwood has done a fantastic job of translating the text, but I suspect there are whole layers of meaning and allegory that are invisible to a Western reader without further explanation.

A Hero Born is the first in the Condor trilogy, following two boys in 13th century China.  Before their birth they were bonded to each other by their fathers, who were best friends and comrades in arms.  The boys also become the subject of a rash bet about which school of martial arts can raise the best fighter, with each school pledging to train one of the boys ahead of a competition when they are older.  But an attack on their village saw their fathers killed and their mothers separated.  One flees north and raises her son amongst Genghis Khan’s Mongolian Empire.  The other’s beauty catches the eye of a nobleman who lures her away with the promise of helping her get revenge on her husband’s killer.

It’s easy to see why this is regarded as a literary classic.  It is woven through with Chinese history and it extols the principal Confucian virtues of benevolence, kindness, loyalty, courage and righteousness.  The story principally follows Guo Jing as he grows up in Genghis Khan’s tribe.  He is trained by the Seven Freaks of the South in various aspects of martial arts and weapons, and the novel is riddled through with the names of various moves and techniques.  They aspire to teach him the almost supernatural levels of skill familiar to Western audiences from wuxia films.

The Seven Freaks was where I struggled most with this book.  To a Western reader they appear as grotesques and caricatures, and it is difficult to take them seriously as experts and teachers in their field.  They are easily duped, and spend a lot of time fighting and arguing amongst themselves.  They are not good teachers, and frequently get frustrated with the rather pedestrian Guo Jing.  Yet we are apparently meant to revere and admire them.

Lying at the heart of this book is a story about a kind boy growing up far away from home and trying to make his way in a confusing world.  The book is strongest in its critique of corruption and unfettered power, and the importance of the Confucian values.

Goodreads rating: 3*

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*

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*