The Hangman’s Daughter – Gavin G Smith

Miska Storrow leads an unusual band of mercenaries in The Hangman’s Daughter, Gavin G Smith‘s latest novel (review copy from Gollancz).  Hers are pressed men, prisoners kept in suspended animation on a prison ship and fitted with collars that enable Miska to explosively decapitate them at will.  Miska and her mercenary legion have been retained to infiltrate a mining base that has been taken over by rebels, but she has few resources to back her beyond some ageing weapons and ammunition, and an AI version of her late father.

This is classic military science fiction – lots of running around, explosions and gory injuries and deaths.  In between, a conspiracy plot begins to be revealed.  Is Miska the rogue special forces operative turned cold-hearted and ruthless killer that she claims to be, or is there more going on under the surface?  Obviously there is, otherwise this wouldn’t be much of a story.

The plot rattles along fairly well, but the cast of supporting characters is pretty thin and straight from central casting – identikit gangsters and idealistic rebels plus a stereotyped drill sargeant for a father.  There is some disturbing fetishisation of a dangerous cohort of three high security prisoners held on Miska’s ship, including one particular serial killer that she is inexplicably attracted to.  But the biggest difficulty for me was Smith’s reliance on concealing information from the reader.  It jars me out of the story for a close third person narrator to not share information that would be known to the perspective character, particularly in a knowing way that is clearly designed to build suspense.

Goodreads rating: 2*


Empire Games – Charles Stross

Empire Games launches a new series of books by Charles Stross (review copy from Pan Macmillan), but it didn’t leave me wanting to read on.

I haven’t read the earlier Merchant Princes books that this series follows on from, but I don’t think reading the earlier books is necessary before reading these.  The story follows Rita, a drama graduate scraping a living as a booth babe, whose life is turned upside down when she is recruited by the NSA.  What Rita doesn’t realise is that she is the child of an experimental programme designed to breed the talent to walk between worlds, a talent limited to a small group of people who are believed to be responsible for a terrorist attack that destroyed the White House.  The NSA, fearful of further terrorist attacks, want to train Rita as a worldwalking agent, to infiltrate the terrorists.

In a parallel world, Rita’s biological mother, Miriam, is a refugee from the retaliation attack that destroyed the home of her family.  She has worked her way up to being a Commissioner in the Government, heading the Ministry of Intertemporal Research and Intelligence, an agency that mixes espionage with the securing of technology to help develop the world in which she is now living.  Rita’s mission is at risk of upsetting the delicate geopolitics of Miriam’s world, potentially triggering a worldwide nuclear war.

While there is a great Cold War espionage-style thriller in Empire Games, it was drowned out by an extremely polemical tone, reminiscent of Cory Doctorow.  It was far too prominent in the story, and regularly intruded into and distracted from the story.

Goodreads rating: 2*

Faller – Will McIntosh

A man wakes up in a strange world with no recollection of who he is.  All he has on his person is a toy paratrooper, a photograph of himself with a woman and some pictures scrawled in blood on a scrap of paper.  He must piece together what has happened to find out who he is and why the world appears to be broken.  Thus opens Faller, Will McIntosh‘s new thriller (Tor, review copy from NetGalley).

At its heart, Faller is a novel about arrogance, ambition and hubris.  Peter is a talented, Nobel-winning scientist, but he’s also reckless.  He’s invented a machine to duplicate living matter, to help heal the sick.  The Government want to use it to help heal soldiers fighting a global conflict.  But in a misguided attempt to help his terminally ill sister-in-law, Peter creates a rift with her husband, Ugo, his best friend and a talented bioscientist.  Ugo becomes hell bent on revenge.  Between them, Peter and Ugo break the world into fragments occupied by people with no memories.

Faller is a fun, well-paced thriller that rattles along with a lovely mix of action and plot revelation to carry you through to the end.  But it does little more than entertain and I struggled to connect with the two big egos at the heart of it.  Neither was terribly sympathetic, and the women in the book were largely relegated to supporting roles.  In the case of the many duplicates, they were literally interchangeable.

Goodreads rating: 3*

Waking Hell – Al Robertson

Al Robertson burst onto the scene with Crashing Heaven, a techno-thriller set on a space station orbiting Earth that is run by sentient corporations and is the last refuge of humanity.  We accompanied Jack Forster and Hugo Fist, a sociopathic AI in the form of a ventriloquist’s dummy, as they uncovered and took down a massive conspiracy threatening Station.  The sequel, Waking Hell (published by Gollancz, review copy from NetGalley) returns us to Station, but without either Forster or Fist.

Following on from Crashing Heaven was always going to be a challenge.  Sad as it is for the reader, both Fist and Forster are iconic characters, but by the end of Crashing Heaven were too powerful to carry a further novel by themselves.  Instead, Robertson introduces us to a new cast of characters.  Leila Fenech is a fetch: one of the dead who lives on thanks to the storage of personality and memories and a digital body that can manifest thanks to the ever-pervasive Weave that provides an AR overlay to life on Station.  Leila’s brother Dieter is also dead.  A digital whizz-kid who specialises in old Earth technology, his death occurs in strange circumstances, with his digital self sold to the Pressure Men – representatives of a mysterious corporation called Deodatus – in exchange for financial security for Leila.  Teaming up with Cassiel, a representative of the Totality, Leila sets out to rescue her brother’s fetch from Deodatus, unravelling a further conspiracy that, yet again, threatens the existence of Station.

This return to Station picks up from Crashing Heaven by adding more layers to the world.  With peace with the Totality (super-complex AI consciousnesses) now firmly established, the inhabitants of Station are forced to confront their previous prejudices and come to terms with their dead (the fetches) now freely living among them.  Waking Hell begins to delve into the history of Station, and the conflict-ridden, wasteland of Earth that it orbits.

As with its predecessor, Waking Hell asks us questions about the ethics of future technology, and what makes us people.  With our experience increasingly mediated through the digital, and the potential for increasingly complex AIs to learn, grow and be fused with digital storage of memory, “fetch rights” becomes a real issue.  Human memory is notoriously fallible, but the digital can be easily edited, changed and duplicated.  Robertson asks us not just what truth is, but which versions of ourselves have primacy.

Waking Hell is a thought-provoking thriller with real warmth at its heart.  Fans of Hugo Fist should embrace its richness, rather than be disappointed by his absence.

Goodreads rating: 4*

The Promise of the Child – Tom Toner

I tried really hard to love The Promise of the Child, Tom Toner’s debut novel from Gollancz (review copy from NetGalley).  I love space opera, and a braided novel that combines high politics with epic space battles ought to be right up my street.

There is a lot to like.  The world-building is complex and rich.  A wealthy, immortal elite (the Amaranthines) rule the galaxy, but their numbers are diminishing as individuals slip into madness over time, and they are increasingly turning away from the world, consumed by their own internal politics.  The immortals are ruled by the longest-lived among them, and an individual has appeared who claims to be even older than their current Emperor.  Meanwhile, the post-human diaspora across the galaxy is becoming increasingly restless and rebellion is brewing.  A new super-weapon has been created and there are those who will stop at nothing to get their hands on it.  The themes in the book of small, wealthy and distant elites becoming increasingly distanced from the people they rule are highly topical, and the persistance of bigotry and racism in the far future was dealt with sensitively.

But the novel suffers from a lot of first-novel flaws.  The three strands to the novel are so tonally distinct that it interferes with the flow of the story.  The plotting is choppy at times, and there is an over-reliance on explaining after the fact what characters have been seeking to achieve, which takes the reader out of the story and jars with the third person perspective.  The world-building is rich, but at times becomes intrusive.  At times the writer pushes particularly cool bits of world-building to the fore to show them off, but it interrupts the flow of the story.  It would be better to let them sit in the background, adding depth to the world-building.  And I really struggled to connect with Lycaste, the protagonist of one of the three strands of the story.  The most beautiful Melius on his world, he’s lived an isolated existence at the very edge of the world.  He’s lonely, naive and suffers unrequited love for a neighbour until a bureaucrat from elsewhere arrives and turns his world upside down.  I must confess I struggled to find his lack of knowledge about the world convincing, or to care much about such an angry, petulant teenager.

Goodreads rating: 2* 

Revenger – Alastair Reynolds

My brother and I have a rule: everything is made infinitely cooler by the addition of pirates.  (Or ninjas.  Or both, in the case of Nick Harkaway’s The Gone-Away World.)  Revenger, the new Alastair Reynolds novel (out next week, review copy from Gollancz) proves that rule.

Arafura Ness is a teenage girl growing up on the backwater planet of Mazarile, with her widowed father and her wayward older sister, Adrana.  At Adrana’s urging, Fura runs away from her father at a dull drinks party, kicking off a chain of events that finds her signing up to join the crew of the sunjammer Monetta’s Mourn.  Both Arafura and Adrana have the signs of being talented bone-readers, able to use the skulls of an ancient and extinct race for instantaneous communication across space.  It’s a rare talent, and one that only manifests in the young.

Under Captain Rackamore, the crew of the Monetta’s Mourn are treasure-hunters, making dangerous raids on so-called baubles.  These are worlds that are the remnants of previous civilisations, many thousands of years old, that are protected by force-fields that only open briefly every now and then.  Society depends on the technology that can be salvaged from the baubles by crews like Captain Rackamore’s.  It’s a business that has the potential to make a crew incredibly rich, but it’s also dangerous work.  Accidents are common and crews can be left injured or trapped on baubles whose force-fields close unexpectedly early.  During one such expedition, the ship is attacked by the near-mythical pirate captain Bosa Sennen and her ship the Nightjammer.  Adrana is captured, and most of the crew are massacred.  Only Arafura and the gruff Prozor survive.

Arafura is hell-bent on rescuing her sister and avenging the murdered crew.  With terrifyingly single-minded determination she hatches a plan to get her sister back.  It’s one that involves her getting a berth on a new ship, and putting the lives of the entire crew at risk.  One of the strengths of Revenger is seeing how Arafura changes from a naive teenage girl who is easily swayed by her strong-willed sister into a ruthless, hardened space-farer.  In many ways, she becomes just as corrupted as any member of Bosa Sennen’s brainwashed crew.

The picture Revenger paints of a civilisation living in the ruins and ashes of its predecessors, trying to piece together the past, is a compelling one.  One of my favourite sequences is early on in the novel, when Arafura is introduced to Captain Rack’s library, painstakingly assembled over his lifetime.  He pulls out a slab of opaque, milky glass which he tells her is a book, but nobody can read it or make it work.  But occasionally, during an electrical storm words flicker across its surface before disappearing again.

But most of all, Revenger is a cracking adventure story full of buried treasure, daring escapes and hard-won friendships. It’s glorious, unashamed fun.

Goodreads rating: 4*

The Sudden Appearance of Hope – Claire North

A new book from Claire North is always an exciting thing to see and read, and the lovely people at Orbit gave me a review copy through NetGalley.  And this is North’s best book yet.  In The Sudden Appearance of Hope, North introduces Hope Arden, a woman who no-one can remember.  Mere seconds after she passes from sight, every memory of seeing or interacting with Hope disappears, even though physical and digital evidence such as photographs and emails remains.

Hope makes her life as a thief.  Her forgettability enables her to case targets without arousing suspicion and to get away after a robbery by simply hiding for a while.  The novel opens with Hope planning to steal a famous necklace from around the neck of a Middle Eastern princess, in the middle of a reception to launch a new app called Perfection, which promises rewards for self-improvement.  Following the theft Hope finds herself in the middle of a feud between the makers of Perfection and a woman known as Byron who wants to bring down the company.  Hope is hired to steal the source code for Perfection, in exchange for research and treatment that might finally make her memorable.

The examination of identity is a recurring theme in North’s work.  In The First Fifteen Lives of Harry August, the title character gets to live his life over and over again, retaining the knowledge and skills of each lifetime.  In Touch, the being known as Kepler jumps from body to body, borrowing lives and leaving them changed.  But in The Sudden Appearance of Hope, North examines how we are defined by our relationships with others.

Hope’s life is an extremely lonely one.  Rejected by a family who don’t recognise her, she is forced to make her own way in life.  She has no friendships, living instead a series of first impressions from others.  She can get to know others, but she will always be a stranger to them.  Even the time Hope spends with Byron is dependent on Byron keeping thorough and detailed notes and recordings of all their conversations.  But even then, Byron’s interactions with Hope are necessarily informed by her own second-hand impressions.  But how truly can we know a person anyway?  North is externalising the fallibility of our own memories, which always give a partial (in both senses of the word) perspective on a person or events, filtered through a person’s own preconceptions.  And with Hope a person from an ethnic minority, there is a subtext here about the relative invisibility of some groups in society.

Perfection as an app also provides a biting commentary on contemporary celebrity culture and how much of our personal information we share with others and with corporations.  The app encourages people to aspire to and work towards an ideal.  The version of Perfection presented is based on a celebrity culture of carefully posed and filtered Instagram pictures and feel-good aphorisms that are ultimately pretty shallow.  Compliance with Perfection’s recommendations enables a person to earn points.  Points unlock rewards, from selected partners, and those who progress to the highest levels become an elite of beautiful and successful people living a Made In Chelsea-like existence of glamorous parties and holidays that is at its heart ultimately pretty unsubstantial.

But as a wise friend said once, “If you’re not paying for it, you’re the product.”  Perfection speaks to our world of big data, where corporations harvest information about us and our online habits, building profiles to sell us services and tailor the news that we see.  All in the name of profit, and with minimal regulation.  We consent to share our personal data for the quick thrill of an online personality quiz.  Perfection can’t be that far away.

The Sudden Appearance of Hope pulls off the perfect trick of being a taut, pacey thriller that critiques the contemporary world and explores the nature of identity.

Goodreads rating: 5*