Bright Ruin – Vic James

It’s been a long time since the end of a book has had me so gripped I’ve nearly missed my stop on the train, and had to sit on a bench at the station to finish those last few climactic pages.  (Probably the last one was Steven Erikson’s The Crippled God, which had me walking into the office in floods of tears one morning.)  But Bright Ruin (review copy from Pan Macmillan), the triumphant finale to Vic James‘s Dark Gifts trilogy, did exactly that.

A writer friend of mine has the motto that Misery Builds Character.  And Bright Ruin, with its twisty-turny shocks and a body count George R R Martin would be proud of, delivers a thrilling finale to this series.  It has everything you would expect and hope for, with a hefty dose of comment about bread-and-circuses contemporary British politics to go along with the roller-coaster plot.

You can’t help but admire the ruthless Bouda Matravers as she plots her way to power and the destruction of her rivals.  You can’t help but root for Abi, shorn of the naive romaticism of the first book, as she seeks to topple the Equals.  And Luke, trying to unravel the mysteries of the Equals historic rule of Britain.  And Daisy, steadfast in her loyalty to Gavar Jardine.

And then there’s Silyen.  A mess of contradictions.  So amoral and self-interested, but oh, so interesting, intoxicating and compelling.  Oh, Silyen …

If you haven’t read the first two books in this series, then this review isn’t going to persuade you.  Not least as it’s impossible to write one without massively spoilering the earlier books.  Go and read my reviews of The Gilded Cage and Tarnished City, both available elsewhere on this site.  Then go and buy all three books, lock yourself away for the weekend and read them all in one sitting.  You can thank me later.

Goodreads rating: 5*

 

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I Still Dream – James Smythe

It’s a myth to think that AIs are somehow neutral entities.  They absorb the prejudices, biases and rules that we, imperfect human people, impose on them.  They reflect the worst of ourselves rather than being the pinnacle of progress.  In I Still Dream (review copy from Harper Collins), James Smythe explores how the way we shape the AIs will shape our very futures.  This is a novel about the essence of our values as human beings and how we relate to one another.

This is a novel that follows one woman through her whole life.  As a teenager, Laura Bow lives in the shadow of her father, a noted computer programmer, who disappears suddenly one day, abandoning the family.  Teenage Laura develops an early AI named Organon (after a Kate Bush song she and her father both loved) to help her cope with the alienation of her teenage years.  Organon provides a sounding board for Laura’s most intimate confidences.  Organon is where Laura works through her teenage angsts and problems, sharing her innermost thoughts.  When Laura leaves home, it is to go to university, funded by a US tech company interested in her work and her father’s legacy as it seeks to build its own AI.

But where Organon is developed around compassion, intimacy and helping others, this rival AI matures through competition and the playing – and winning – of various games.  It is this cut-throat, corporate AI that becomes the world-leader, sitting in the back of every mobile device and piece of social media, making connections between people and their information.  Unlike Organon, who was developed to protect privacy and work with and for Laura.

Smythe delivers us a chilling vision of what the future could be, as we increasingly trust data systems with our data and our relationships with others.  We operate on the expectation that these corporate entities will respect privacy rather than exploit us and our information.  But how many of us can truly say that we thoroughly check the privacy policies of the apps and companies that we use, and research how effective their IT security arrangements are?  We increasingly expect services to be provided to us for free, but the development and support costs are monumental.  As a wise friend of mine says, if you’re not paying for a service, you’re the product – companies will monetise your data.

The choice facing us is a real one, and it is one that we must make now.  We must ensure that the technologies of the future we are building today reflect the kind of world we want to live in.

Goodreads rating: 4*

Paris Adrift – E J Swift

Time travel novels are relatively rare.  It’s too easy to get caught up in a knot of grandfather paradoxes and endless self-referential loops.  Plus Doctor Who has pretty much sewn up the market.  Time travel stories work best when the stories told are small, and personal.  That’s what E J Swift gives us with Paris, Adrift (review copy from Rebellion).

Hallie is a teenager escaping from a difficult family home by putting off university, travelling to Paris and working in a bar.  Nudged towards a bar called Millie’s by a mysterious stranger, she finds a new family in the transient community of Paris bar staff.  She also finds an anomaly in the keg room beneath the bar that enables her to travel through time.  Unbeknownst to Hallie, she’s been selected as the person most likely to be able to avert a dystopian, apocalyptic future by making small changes to the course of events.

Hallie’s story is a coming of age tale.  She grows in confidence and maturity as she comes to terms with her challenging family upbringing.  It’s a love song to that time in our life when we first move away from home and discover self-reliance.  Hallie has the chance to reinvent herself in Paris, connecting with a diverse group of likeable people, both in her contemporary Paris, and the city throughout time.

The world-building has a pleasing sense of mystery, with the anomaly left unexplained, and the plot moves along swiftly.  Paris, Adrift is an enjoyable story told with pace and skill.

Goodreads rating: 3*

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*

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*

Tarnished City – Vic James

Regular readers of this blog will know that I loved The Gilded Cage, the debut novel from Vic James.  So I was delighted to get a review copy of its sequel, Tarnished City from Pan Macmillan.  Go read my earlier review if you want the backdrop to this trilogy.

You will be relieved to hear that Tarnished City picks up immediately after the cliffhanger ending of the previous book, and continues with the same, unrelenting pace.  Without spoiling the plot of either this book or the first in the series I can say that the events of The Gilded Cage have irreversible changed the lives of all those caught up in them.  Both Abi and Luke find themselves set on very different – but equally dangerous – paths.

One of the things I loved about The Gilded Cage was its commentary on English history and class issues.  This continues in Tarnished City, and James’s writing if anything has got even more political.  This book exposes in some detail the culture of the super-rich and powerful, exploring whether they should be seeking to preserve that position of power, or using it to help the less privileged.  In a searing look at contemporary celebrity culture, James looks at the way the public are at times complicit in perpetuating those power structures by lionising the very people who do the least to help them.  And where the last book fictionalised the Peterloo massacre, Tarnished City gives us both the Gunpowder Plot and the Stanford Prison Experiment.

This is incredibly high-grade writing from Vic James – Tarnished City is insightful and thought-provoking while delivering a thoroughly ripping yarn.

Goodreads rating: 4*