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*

Want You Gone – Chris Brookmyre

Want You Gone is a pitch-perfect thriller from Chris Broomyre (review copy from Little Brown).  In this latest instalment of Brookmyre’s Parlabane novels, Jack is forced to address the twin challenges of cyber crime and online journalism, teaming up with a teenage hacker to uncover a plot to steal a new invention from a major biotechnology company.  Parlabane, increasingly feeling like a dinosaur in the digital age, is under pressure to deliver a big scoop for his new employers, but finds himself an unwitting victim when his hacker collaborator blackmails him into assisting them to break into that company and steal a prototype and plans for an unknown person.

The first thing to say is that this is an impeccably researched novel  Brookmyre really knows his stuff – or has some great research contacts – when it comes to writing about the threat and opportunity posed by the online world.  This is not a Stross or Doctorow style polemic.  It’s an authentic depiction of what is possible and the opportunities created by human folly and social engineering.

There is something wonderful about the odd couple team of Parlabane and Sam Morpeth coming together to solve the case.  Different generations, but both operating on the margins of the law.  Parlabane is more used to physically breaking into buildings to search for evidence for his stories, but Sam is a whizz at breaking into systems to achieve the same thing, without ever needing to pick a lock.  She is an incredibly convincing character: the shy, bullied teenager who escapes from a life of poverty into an online world where her alter ego is a renowned and super-confident hacker.  There are some lovely moments of humour in the novel where one has a solution to a problem the other has been wrestling with for ages.

The plot is full of twists and turns that will completely blindside you, and there are moments of real page-turning peril.  Want You Gone is one of Brookmyre’s best recent works.

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*

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* 

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*