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*

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*

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*