The Girl in the Tower – Katherine Arden

Last year’s The Bear and the Nightingale was one of my favourite reads of the year: a feel-good adventure story about a young girl overcoming a threat to her village with the help of the fairies and other mythical beings that live near her Russian home.  The Girl in the Tower (review copy from Penguin Random House) is the sequel, and second book in the trilogy.

The Girl in the Tower picks up straight after the events of the first book.  Mourning her family and lacking a place in the world, Vasya decides to try her luck in the world, riding out dressed as a boy and with a pocket full of silver.  She finds herself on the trail of bandits burning villages, before accidentally meeting up with her brother Sasha, travelling to Moscow and finding herself pitted against another of Morozko the frost demon’s bitter enemies.  

This is a classic – and winning – formula.  A tomboyish girl fighting against the gendered conventions of her time, a magical horse, adventure, peril and a happy ending.  Arden ups the stakes in this sequel, with Vasya also fighting to save her niece from a cloistered life as a Russian noblewoman within the even more constrained environment of the Moscow court.  Vasya continues to be impulsive, wilful and an utter delight.

Tremendous fun.

Goodreads rating: 4*

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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*

Dogs of War – Adrian Tchaikovsky 

Fresh from Ironclads, Adrian Tchaikovsky gives us yet another fresh take on a classic.  Dogs of War (review copy from Head of Zeus) is a glorious updating of H G Wells classic The Island of Dr Moreau.  Told entirely from the viewpoint of bioengineered animal soldiers, this is a story of choices, ethics and overcoming our collecive limitations.

Rex is a dog soldier, and the leader of an experimental squad of similar bioengineered beings.  His squad-mates are Bees, an artificial intelligence distributed across a swarm of insects, Honey, a bear who is a heavy weapons specialist, and Dragon, a sniper lizard with chameleon-like powers to blend into the background.  The squad are under the direct control of their creator, Murray, with the control mechanisms plaing on Rex’s canine instincts to serve his human master, reinforced with a feedback chip that rewards and punishes.  

Rex’s squad are being trialled in a guerilla conflict in South America.  The use of bioengineered soldiers opens up new combat options, and the distance between commanding officer and battlefield changes judgements about risk and tactics.  It quickly becomes apparent that Murray has become involved in war crimes, including the illegal use of chemical weapons.  Rex’s squad are being used to cover up the evidence.  The issue is finally exposed when Rex’s unit become cut off from Murray’s command, and come to the aid of a village Murray is targeting to cover up a previous chemical attack.  Rex’s actions open up the question of Bioform autonomy, leading to a change in their legal status.
Dogs of War is a story of growth, change and evolution, as Rex and the other Bioforms transcend their limited beginnings.  Tchaikovsky’s strength as a writer shines through in the way he brings forward so much depth in a story told for the most part by a first person narrator with a very limited perspective.  Rex grows and changes over the novel, in large part as a result of his friendship with Honey, who forces him to stretch his thinking and understanding, first through making his own choices about right and wrong, and then as a leader of his Bioform people.  

For the most part this is an optimistic story about growth, change and the evolution of sentient beings.  But it is tempered with caution about the impact technological change canhave if not subject to proper regulation and control.  There is an element of body horror to Dogs of War, as Tchaikovsky shows us the potential of mis-using this technology in the novel’s climactic finale.

Most of all, it’s impossible not to warm to Rex and his squad-mates.  Good dog, Rex.

Goodreads rating: 5*

Of Women – Shami Chakrabarti

I suppose it was inevitable that at some point renowned human rights campaigner Shami Chakrabarti would want to say her piece on gender issues.  Of Women (review copy from Penguin) is that book: a take on modern, intersectional feminism, grounded in the language of human rights.  

Of Women is a classic articulation of the principles of third-wave feminism, allowing for and embracing the ideals of diversity and individuality, in a way that accommodates differences of emphasis and culture.  As you would expect, this is a book that is very strong on the interaction between gender issues and other protected characteristics, and with a strong global focus.  The whole is backed up with a strong evidence base and good argument.  Although each chapter is focused on a particular theme (home, work etc), Chakrabarti draws out the inter-connections between these issues well.  

Where Of Women is weaker, though, is in its solution to many of these issues.  Chakrabarti identifies the way gender issues harm men as much as they do women, but offers little in the way of solution.  And apart from some brief reflections about her own family history of migration and her mother, there is little here that is personal.  And at times Chakrabarti descends into the party political in a way that serves to undermine the arguments that she is making.  

This is a book that articulates the arguments and evidence for third-wave feminism well, but adds little that is new to the public discourse.  

Goodreads rating: 3*

Sweet Dreams – Tricia Sullivan

I’ve had lucid dreams.  Dreams where you know you are dreaming, and can alter the events, rewinding and replaying for a different outcome.  Charlie does that for a living in Sweet Dreams by Tricia Sullivan (review copy from Gollancz).  She is a dreamhacker: paid to go into other people’s dreams to help them overcome phobias and anxiety.  It’s not a job with a big client list, and it doesn’t pay well, but it fits well round the narcolepsy Charlie was left with as a side-effect of a drug trial she participated in while penniless at university.

One of Charlie’s few clients is a famous musician who is suffering from extreme nightmares that are beginning to affect her career.  She is visited each night by The Creeper – a mysterious masked figure determined to cause harm.  When the musician dies one night, Charlie finds herself under investigation for the death, but also the the Creeper’s next target.  Desperate to deal with the Creeper and clear her name, Charlie finds herself uncovering a conspiracy.

Sweet Dreams is a great near-future thriller, looking at themes about the integration of technology in our lives, its increasing sophistication, and how we choose to approach it.

Goodreads rating: 3*

 

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*