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*

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Blackwing – Ed McDonald and Godblind – Anna Stephens

It was fascinating reading Godblind (Anna Stephens, review copy from Harper Voyager) and Blackwing (Ed McDonald, Gollancz) closely together.  There are a lot of similiarities between both novels, but quite a few differences too.

Godblind features two warring civilisations.  Rilpor, a largely peaceful, but still militarised kingdom is bordered to the West by the Mireces, a blood-thirsty alliance of tribes.  Each worships two gods (one male, one female), but while one is peaceful and preaches redemption, the other thrives on violence and human sacrifice.  Centuries before, the gods were thrust behind the veil, but the red cultists are plotting to tear the veil through the blood-shed of war, enabling the Red Gods to walk the world again.

In Blackwing, the existential terror lies to the East.  The Misery is a warped and shifting landscape filled with mutated creatures and monsters that has been occupied by twelve evil immortals.  Set against it is a city-state that controls the Engine, the only weapon capable of damaging the Deep Kings and their twisted troops.  A weapon built by one of the twelve immortals set against them.  Although stalemate has reigned for many years, there are concerning signs that the Deep Kings are mustering for invasion.

Ryhalt Galharrow is the titular Blackwing, a soldier marked by one of his gods and regularly tasked to undertake mysterious quests for little reward.  As the novel progresses, his background as a battle-scarred noble who has turned his back on his heritage begins to emerge.  Godblind features Dom  Templeson, a warrior who is also a seer, with a portal in his head that he uses to communicate with his gods.  He works as a Watcher, guarding Rilpor’s Western border.  Galharrow is cynical and self-reflective, where Dom mostly reacts, perpetually seeking to escape his role as seer.

Chance encounters prompted by their gods are the jumping off points for both novels.  Galharrow is sent to one of the forts in the edge of the Misery which is shortly going to come under attack.  His job is to save a particular person, who turns out to be his former fiancee, now a powerful magic-wielder key to repelling the forthcoming invasion.  Dom receives a vision telling him to go to a particular place.  There he finds Rillirin, an escaped Mireces slave, and saves her from her pursuers.  She turns out to be the killer of the last Mireces king and the brother of the new one.

Both books are classic grimdark, featuring a high body count and lots of violence.  Both use it to illustrate the horror of the enemy, but where Blackwing uses it to show the horror and darkness of war, Godblind veers close to torture-porn at times, glorying in showing the full horrors of Mireces rites.

I would also give Blackwing the edge in its world-building.  The magic-system built on the use of light is fresh, but has a realistic industry supporting it.  An industry that is subject to corruption, relies on the exploitation of workers and ties the kingdom together in its focus on battling the Deep Kings.  McDonald’s gods are clearly playing a long game.  They are frequently absent and use humans as pawns in their centuries-long battles.  By contrast, it’s unclear to me how the largely agrarian country of Rilpor can manage to support a large standing army that doesn’t appear to do much most of the time, or why its small towns and cities remain loyal to the throne, beyond that it’s there.

While both are very enjoyable books, Blackwing just feels as if it has a bit more depth, more nuance and and greater maturity to it than Godblind.

Blackwing: 4*

Godblind: 3*

The Space Between The Stars – Anne Corlett

Every now and then a book comes along that confirms to you that it’s not that you’re struggling to get excited about reading.  It’s just that the books you’ve been reading recently, while perfectly competently written, have just been a bit meh.  Anne Corlett‘s The Space Between The Stars (review copy from Pan Macmillan) is one of those astonishing, game-changing books that reminds you what reading should be about.

Corlett’s novel is the story of a universe after a highly contagious virus has wiped out most of humanity.  A tiny number of survivors – each of them one in a million – are scattered across colony worlds across the universe.  They must deal with what has happened and find a way of moving forward. The story focuses on Jamie Allenby, who had fled to a remote outpost from the breakdown of her relationshp following a miscarriage. She wakes alone after the virus has burned itself out, and sets out on a journey home to the Northumberland coast.  Along the way she meets a failed priest, a religoius scientist, a ship’s captain and his gruff engineer, a prostitute and a boy with autism.  These become her unlikely travelling companions on her journey to Earth and a hoped-for reconciliation with her partner Daniel – if he has survived the virus.

So far so Station Eleven.  But what sets The Space Between The Stars apart is its focus on the personal.  The small stories of the survivors and how they deal with the consequences of what has happened: grief and anger are real and there are no easy ways forward.  Let me be clear: this is not a big, galaxy spanning story of rebuilding civilisation or a Survivors-style tale of people banding together for protection against feral raiders in the ruins of our world.  Civilisation has ended with a whimper rather than a bang.

This is a story about humanity in all its chaotic glory.  Don’t expect the relentlessly saccharine positivity of The Long Way To A Small Angry Planet.  And that makes it a much better piece.  This is a book about how imperfectly we live together with one another.  It’s about the tension between our striving for privacy and independence, and our basic need for community and contact with one another.  It’s about the imperfect communications between us all.  It’s about the messy business of life and survival, and the way it does not fit neatly into the stories we tell one another, with their clarity of purpose and happy ever after endings.  Like the sea glass that Jamie collects on the beach, we are all unique: shaped and made beautiful by the pounding tides that rub us up against one another and the grit between us.

Goodreads rating: 5*

The Ice – Laline Paull

Laline Paull spung to fame with her novel The Bees.  Her follow up, The Ice (review copy from 4th Estate) is an interesting but ultimately flawed near-future story about friendship and betrayal, set in the harsh environment of the Arctic.

Sean Cawson is a businessman who has had a life-long fascination with the Arctic and with the great explorers of the past.  Together with his oldest friend, a famous environmentalist called Tom Harding, he purchases an old whaling station in the Arctic Circle and converts it into a boutique hotel and retreat for the super-rich.  But tragedy occurs almost as soon as the project is finished and open for businss: Harding is killed in a freak accident.  Cawson is seriously injured, but survives.  Three years on, Harding’s body is recovered, and the ensuing inquest is the frame for the novel to explore Cawson and Harding’s friendship and the circumstances that led to the accident.

There is a strong thread running through the book of climate change and its impacts.  The melting of the Arctic sea ice has opened up new trade routes and opportunities for tourism, but at an ecological price.  The tensions between Cawson and Harding come from the right way to respond to that.  To Harding, the need to protect the environment and prevent further damage is paramount.  To Cawson it is an inevitability that society must change and adapt to, albeit in a sensitive way.  There was the scope here for an interesting and nuanced exploration of this dilemma in the book, but unfortunately Paull dodges this, choosing a fairly simplistic environmental message.

Paull’s novel is a story of Great Men doing Great Things.  She is trying to draw linkages between the big beasts of the corporate world and the explorers of the past (and Paull’s research into the history of Arctic exploration is one of the real strengths of the book, shining through strongly).  In both cases ambition, resolve and resilience are required in order to thrive and prosper.  To Paull, the world of business is no less harsh and unforgiving than the Arctic.  One mis-step or poor judgement can lead to ruin, and only the boldest will succeed.

But this approach makes the novel feel tired.  Ulitmately, The Ice is the story of Cawson’s mid-life crisis, as he comes to question his assumptions and path in life.  The female characters in the novel are particularly poorly served, fulfilling little more than stereotypical set dressing: the hysterical ex-wife, the rebellious teenage daughter, the femme fatale, the kooky Chinese business partner.  Much of this is down to Paull’s close narrative focus on Cawson.  We see the world and the people in it through his eyes.  While some of those judgements change as Cawson changes, Paull doesn’t (as some other writers might) clearly show us that these are his perceptions of more sophisticated and fully-formed characters.

The Ice is interesting and ambitious, but just doesn’t quite succeed for me.

Goodreads rating: 3*

All The Birds In The Sky – Charlie Jane Anders

There’s been a lot of buzz about the debut novel from Charlie Jane Anders, All The Birds In The Sky.  This seems to be largely driven by the author’s status as a recognisable ‘name’ in online pop culture journalism: she is one of the co-founders of io9.  The book has been nominated for the 2017 Best Novel award at the Hugos, and won the 2017 Nebula, so I was particularly interested to read it.

This is a charming novel about the relationship between Patricia and Laurence.  We first meet them both at school, where they band together as outsiders from the normal school culture.  He is a maths and science geek, she is a bookish and rather fey girl with a love of the outdoors who discovers a talent for magic.  The casual cruelties of school bullying and the expectations of their parents push Patricia and Laurence together, but their friendship suffers the tensions of a science v magic divide and they go their separate ways.  Of course, life throws them into one another’s paths once more as adults, where they find themselves on opposite sides of a debate about how to save the world from a global crisis induced by climate change and scarce resources.

Where this novel is strongest is in the exploration of Patricia and Laurence’s friendship.  The shared experience of growing up weird and misunderstood is a tough one.  It throws the two together and has lasting effects on their friendships and relationships throughout their lives.  To that extent it’s reminiscent of books like Jo Walton’s Among Others.  But the novel suffers from a thinly drawn supporting cast, and the doomsday device v magical apocalypse plotline is resolved unsatisfactorily, with a rather predictable ‘you need both’ conclusion.

All The Birds In The Sky is zeitgeisty, but ultimately pretty forgettable.

Goodreads rating: 3*

The House of Binding Thorns – Aliette de Bodard

The House of Binding Thorns is the sequel to Aliette de Bodard’s debut novel, The House of Shattered WingsBinding Thorns (review copy from Gollancz) picks up immediately after the cataclysmic events of Shattered Wings.

In de Bodard’s post-apocalyptic Paris, wealthy Houses are ruled by the Fallen, angels ejected from Heaven, but with no memory of why they were cast out, or their former lives.  The major houses provide a measure of protection for them, and a way of using their magical talents.  But as Shattered Wings showed, there are dark forces at play seeking to undermine the House structures.

But Binding Thorns takes a different tack to its predecessor, focusing on the much story of a strategic alliance House Hawthorn is seeking to make with the Annamite dragon kingdom under the Seine.  The existence of the dragons is known to very few and the product of France’s colonial past.  Paris has a substantial Annamite minority, living on the margins of society, many of them migrants or the descendants of migrants unable to return home.  It is natural that they would have brought their beliefs and supernatural beings to their new home.

It’s always exciting to find a work of speculative fiction that deals with post-colonialism, let alone one that does it so well.  As de Bodard makes clear in her Afterword, this is a novel that draws on the experience of colonial control through things like the Opium Wars.  Except the drug of choice that is slowly destroying the Paris dragon kingdom is angel essence, not opium.  And just like China, the trade in angel essence is a deliberate attempt to weaken and undermine the kingdom, making it ripe for a takeover.  The dissonance between Fallen and Annamite culture is portrayed incredibly well throughout the novel, whether through the starkest incompatibilities in the two magic systems, or the subtleties of cultural constructs.

The chance to explore another House is an exciting one.  House Hawthorn is an interesting contrast to Silverspires in the first novel.  We learn much more about its enigmatic leader Asmodeus.  Cruel and self-serving he may be, but he turns out to be much more complex than the pantomime villain of the first novel, and an incredibly sympathetic character.

The overall cast of characters remains strong and diverse.  It’s good to see motherhood portrayed, along with older women in positions of power and influence.  There are gay, lesbian and bisexual characters, as well as the obvious racial diversity of the Annamite and Fallen characters.

With the groundwork laid in its predecessor, The House of Binding Thorns is a much more interesting and powerful novel.  de Bodard’s series is shaping up to be extremely interesting indeed.

Goodreads rating: 4*

Birds Art Life Death – Kyo Maclear

This is probably going to be a pretty short review, because it’s hard to encapsulate the spare beauty of Kyo Maclear’s Birds Art Life Death (review copy from Harper 4th Estate).  But the striking insightfulness of this memoir is utterly joyous.

Birds Art Life Death is a memoir about a year spent birdwatching, as Maclear learns about birds and birding from a musician.  It follows the rhythm of the year, from chicks in spring to seasonal migrations.  But Maclear’s genius is the way she draws out those moments of connection and deep insight from the smallest of incidents.  This is a book packed full of those moments when one will want to pause and reflect on a particular insight.  My Kindle copy is stuffed full of sentences I’ve highlighted for their power and insight.  To an extent, birding feels almost irrelevant.  One cannot but be left with the sense that Maclear would draw deep insight from almost any subject.

Let me be clear.  This is not a book full of trite Hallmark Card-type aphorisms, or the kinds of phrases to be put across a photograph of a beach at sunset and shared onFacebook.  There is a deep truthiness to Maclear’s work and Birds Art Life Death is all the more powerful for it.

Goodreads rating: 5*