I love space opera. I particularly love post-colonial space opera of the kind that Ann Leckie and Yoon Ha Lee have been writing. So Arkady Martine‘s novel A Memory Called Empire (review copy from Tor) was always going to pique my interest. Add to that a main character who is a diplomat, and this is right in my wheelhouse. And I loved it.
Mahit Dzmare is sent from the tiny independent mining station of Lsel to be the new ambassador to the Teixcalaanli Empire. Lsel is tiny, and Mahit’s main mission is to prevent her home from being swallowed up by the Empire, whilst investigating the mysterious disappearance and murder of her predecessor. Mahit has been selected for her love of Teixcalaanli culture, and her knowledge of its society. That and her psychological compatibility with the last ambassador, as she will carry an embedded device with a download of his knowledge and memories, adding her own to the store.
These themes of identity run through the novel extremely strongly. Mahit is a product of her childhood on Lsel, and her study of Teixcalaanli culture, but she also carries the memories and reactions of her ambassador predecessor within her. These rise up at odd moments, to the point where she sometimes struggles to disentangle her thoughts and feelings from sense memories and the reactions of her predecessor. Much of that plays out through Mahit’s sexuality – she experiences flashes of her predecessor’s desire and his memories of sexual encounters, muddying Mahit’s own burgeoning feelings.
Mahit’s love for the Empire’s culture and her joy at being able to visit it and experience it at first hand wars with her mission to protect Lsel’s independence. This tension runs throughout the novel, as Mahit is confronted with the difference between her experience and the reality of Teixcalaanli culture for those born and raised within it. She regularly fails to appreciate the subtleties and nuances around her, never more so that when she is bewildered by the layering of sophistication of the Empire’s poetry.
Mahit finds herself plunged into the heart of a succession crisis for the Empire, as the aging Emperor’s health begins to fail and various rivals start jockeying for position. War seems inevitable, with Lsel one of the possible casualties as the various rivals seek to cement their claims. She has to navigate her way through this, brokering Lsel’s safety through political turmoil. In this she is assisted by ambitious young civil servant Three Seagrass, who has been appointed as her liaison to the Empire. Three Seagrass is herself walking a fine line between her loyalty to Teixcalaan, her own personal ambition, and her duties supporting Mahit.
It’s an incredibly satisfying novel that leaves me extremely excited about the next book in the series.
Goodreads rating: 5*
The Ruin of Kings is an exciting new debut from Jenn Lyons (review copy from Tor) and the first in her A Chorus of Dragons series. This is the story of Kihrin, an orphan raised in a brothel by a musician. A chance encounter with a demon on the streets of the city leads Kihrin to discover that he’s actually the bastard son of one of the city’s powerful ruling families. At the same time, the story follows a slightly older Kihrin who has been sold into slavery. Kihrin owns a mysterious necklace which was the only thing recovered from his mother’s body when she was murdered and Kihrin was rescued from her dying arms. Unbeknownst to Kihrin, the necklace is not just magical, but it holds the key to destroying and remaking the world.
This is a story told in braided narratives. Chapters of each phase of Kihrin’s life alternate, until at last the two storylines meet and the climax of the novel happens. It’s an ambitious approach, and one that would fail in the hands of a different writer. I was surprised that I enjoyed it as much as I did, as I really dislike authors artificially creating suspense by witholding relevant information from the reader that their characters know. But in this novel there are a pleasing series of reveals as Kihrin’s early life starts to fill in the context for things happening in his later time line.
The worldbuilding is extremely rich. There are gods, monsters, elder races, magical artifacts, death cults, powerful families, and other races. Lying behind and running through Kihrin’s story is a conflict between the gods that threatens to tear the world apart if it can’t be stopped. And it’s clear that Kihrin and his mother’s necklace will end up playing a key role in it.
Kihrin himself is cocky, charming and can be infuriating. He’s not always the most reliable of narrators in the first person sections of the book, but he’s a pleasure to spend time with. Lyons has developed a character with a strong voice and clear personality. I am really looking forward to the next books in this series.
Goodreads rating: 4*
I absolutely loved The City of Brass by S A Chakraborty (read that review before this one), so I was extremely excited to get a review copy (from Harper Voyager) of its sequel, The Kingdom of Copper. And I was not disappointed!
The Kingdom of Copper picks up Nahri’s story about five years after the climactic events that end The City of Brass. She is living in Daevabad, married to Prince Muntadhir and the effective prisoner of the king as a hostage for her people’s good behaviour. She is grieving the loss of her Afshin, Dara, and the betrayal of Prince Ali, a man she thought was a friend. But the king’s repressive policies are starting to have inevitable consequences, and rebellion is brewing, fomented by the mother Nahri believed to be dead.
Everything I loved about the first book is here in its sequel. But it has a much darker tone than the adventure/romance of the first book. Nahri is tougher and more cynical as she learns to operate effectively within the constraints of her role at court. Dara has fallen in with rebels and is being driven down a dark and violent path. The moral Prince Ali only wants to live in quiet peace, helping the people of his adopted community, but he finds himself dragged back into Daevabad politics against his will, and at risk of becoming a rallying point for those wanting to overthrow the king’s rule. Allegiances shift, and hidden agendas come to the surface.
This is a great book, and a worthy sequel. I can’t wait to see what the final volume has in store!
Goodreads rating: 4*
Sometimes a single, simple change can birth a brilliant and exquisite story. In The Binding (review copy from Harper Collins) Bridget Collins turns the magic of writing a story into literal magic. Books are the real memories of real people, and once written down, the subject has given up those memories forever unless and until the book is destroyed. They are left with no recollection of the events that they have given up to be bound. In Collins’s hands, this becomes a beautiful story of love and loss, cut through by a brilliant exploration of the dynamics of power.
After recovering from a long illness, Emmett Farmer discovers that he is a Bookbinder, one of the rare people with the talent to bind people’s memories into book form. Apprenticed to Seredith, he begins to learn the craft of making books while continuing his recovery. One day, Seredith is visited by a rich young man called Lucian, who is extremely distressed and troubled and wants his memories bound. Emmett has never met him before, but Lucian is intensely focused on Emmett. Seredith’s health is failing, and she dies before Emmett’s training is complete. He is taken on by another bookbinder who lacks Seredith’s prize for craft skills and her view that binding is a sacred calling that should be offered to all those that need it. Give up too many memories, or do it too frequently, and the person who is bound can be left as little more than a hollow zombie.
This is one of the real strengths of the book for me. Its exploration of power and how the wealthy exploit and commodify the experiences of the vulnerable and less fortunate is extremely contemporary, particularly in the #MeToo world. In Seredith’s hands, binding is a way of helping others to move on from tragedy, and is not something to be done lightly or without thought. But Collins shows how the powerful use the same mechanisms to silence others – including sexually abused servants. Others sell their life experiences for the titillation of others as a way of briefly escaping poverty. Books containing people’s experiences are bought and sold for entertainment, with a dark trade in the most horrific experiences. The books of people who are bound are used as tools for blackmail and extortion.
But the heart of The Binding is a beautiful queer love story. It unfolds throughout the second part of the book. Collins writes it with grace and a wonderful emotional intensity. It is joyful, evoking the tender fragility of a burgeoning love affair, but bitter sweet for its forbidden nature. It’s impossible not to be swept up in Collins’s lyrical prose as the romance unfolds.
This is a book to immerse yourself in, but prepare to be hit in the feels. Hard.
Goodreads rating: 5*
I’m always excited when people try to push the boundaries of SFF story-telling. Ambitious approaches are good, and we should encourage them. But they don’t always work. And Green Jay and Crow by D J Daniels (review copy from Rebellion) was a fail for me. It just doesn’t quite work.
There’s an interesting puzzle box story in there. Brom is hired by the local crime boss to collect a box and deliver it to a location. The box is “time-locked”, reflecting the value of its contents. Inevitably, the box goes astray and shenanigans ensue. The box contains mysterious medication that can help Eva. Eva is a 3D printed copy of a person that was designed to only live for a few days. But Eva is a girl on the run, desperate to live a separate life. As the story unfolds, Brom, Eva and his best friend Mac travel between parallel versions of the place they live in, meeting strange characters and trying to find a way to save Eva. That premise is incredibly engaging, but Daniels fails to deliver on it.
I was most frustrated by the characterisation of Brom, the point of view character for most of the book. Despite Mac being his best friend, Daniels writes Brom as having little or no knowledge of his friend’s past, motivations or their shared life in the place they live. Within the novel it is a technique to hide Mac’s motivations to enable a reveal later in the book. But it’s a lazy way of creating suspense that undermines the reader’s confidence in the writer and the work.
There are a lot of extremely intriguing things about the setting of the novel – particularly the alien Tenties that have arrived in the world; the 3D printing technology; the sentient robots; the parallel versions of the same place; the technology around travel between the parallel worlds; and strange cult-like figures. But the whole is put together in a way that feels chaotic and difficult to navigate. And Daniels doesn’t help you to find a coherent path through it.
It’s definitely an interesting work, but I don’t think it ultimately succeeds. I’ll keep an eye on Daniels as I suspect any future work – as she matures as a writer – has the potential to be extremely interesting.
Goodreads rating: 2*
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*
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*