From Darkest Skies – Sam Peters

From Darkest Skies is the debut novel from Sam Peters (review copy from Gollancz).  It’s a crime thriller set on a colony world in space.  Agent Keon Rause is newly returned home and investigating the deth from drug overdose of a celebrity, while on the side investigating the death of his wife in a terrorist attack several years previously.

This is solid and dependable stuff.  Think of a mismatched crew of investigators, led by Rause, all with different skills and mysterious backgrounds.  Think of a simple investigation that reveals a major conspiracy that threatens the world.  Think of signs that the wife’s death was not all it appeared to be.  You know what to expect with this kind of thing.

The book does have some interesting aspects to it.  Agent Rause has created an illegal android analogue of his late wife, Alysha, with a personality matrix built from everything that has been recorded of her life, opinions and what she did and believed.  Rause uses it as a comfort as he fails to come to terms with her death.  But it’s an imperfect copy, lacking Alysha’s inner life and deepest thoughts.  The android is unable to help him piece together what motivated Alysha to run away in her final hours of life and find herself on a train that was blown up by terrorists.  From Darkest Skies asks us how well we can ever know a person, even in a world of omni-present social media and surveillance.

Some interesting world-building is hinted at too.  Alien beings called The Masters were responsible for the destruction of large parts of Earth, and for dispersing its population throughout the universe on a number of colony worlds.  This piece of history is only mentioned in passing in this novel, but if offers some fascinating hints of where future books could go.

I will watch with interest to see what Peters comes up with next.  This is a promising debut.

Goodreads rating: 3*

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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*

Borne – Jeff VanderMeer

Borne is quintessential VanderMeer (review copy from 4th Estate).  It is a subtle, slippery, tricksy novel, expertly telling a small story against the backdrop of a big world.

Rachel is a scavenger, living in a post-apocalyptic world blighted by mutated, out of control products of bio-engineering from The Company.  Chief among them is Mord, a giant psychotic flying bear that terrorises the residents of the city.  Rachel picks out a living at the margins of society, finding enough recoverable materials to eke out an existence, or to trade for food, water and other goods.  She lives with her lover, Wick, a former Company bio-engineer who spends his time making and fixing products, trading on his expertise and skills.

One day Rachel finds a strange creature entangled in Mord’s fur.  It’s an amorphous lump resembling a sea anemone.  Rachel brings it home, and names it Borne.  As Borne consumes he learns and grows, becoming an integral part of Rachel and Wick’s family, as well as the cause of tension between them.  But Borne is also the key and the catalyst for Rachel and Wick to get to the heart of the Company’s secrets with a view to finding a way out of their marginal existence.

VanderMeer’s regular themes of environmental change and the indifference of nature to humanity are highly prevalent in Borne.  The landscape in which Rachel and Wick live is a product of humanity’s actions and the damage caused by industry and uncontrolled bio-engineering.  Humanity is no longer the apex predator, and the natural world is not something for it exploit in pursuit of a comfortable standard of living and convenience.  Humanity must instead scratch a living in amongst the pollution and scarcity that its actions have created.  Ultimately, it must learn to live in harmony with this changing world, rather than seeking to change it further or escape it.

But Borne is also a story about memory and communication and our relationships with one another.  The novel is characterised by moments of misunderstanding, and the gulfs created between people by their unique histories and the difference of meaning and interpretation those lead to.  Our memories are fallible and we conceal as much about ourselves as we reveal to one another, even those we are closest to.  But the way we relate to one another can have profound effects.  Rachel’s parenting and raising of Borne shapes his world-view.  The ultimate blank canvas, he absorbs his values and view of the world from her and those ultimately come to guide his actions.

Jeff VanderMeer is one of my favourite writers of speculative fiction and I’ve been following his career with interest, ever since I picked up City of Saints and Madmen many years ago.  Always with a literary touch, he reveals deep truths about people and our relationships with each other and the world we live in.  Borne is another jewel he has added to the crown of genre fiction.

Goodreads rating: 5*

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*