Stronger, Faster and More Beautiful – Arwen Elys Dayton

Normally I love a mosaic novel.  They can be a great way of telling a single story from multiple view points and they are excellent for stories that have to span multiple time periods.  But they are incredibly tricky things to pull off.  You have to weave together the narratives otherwise the reader is left with what feels like little more than a loosely connected collection of short stories shoved together to make a book.  And you are at risk of getting the reader engaged with a set of characters before moving away from them never to return.  Unfortunately, Stronger, Faster and More Beautiful by Arwen Elys Dayton (review copy from Harper Voyager) is in the category of mosaic novels that don’t succeed.

The premise is a great one.  Dayton is exploring the idea that humanity is capable of incredible scientific progress when it comes to genetic manipulation and body modification, but they are equally and simultaneously capable of using these new technologies in ways that mess things up royally.  The novel follows the stories of various generations of people living with the new technologies.  As time passes they become more advanced and more radical changes and transformations are possible, but that just increases the ways in which these technologies can be misused.

Each piece works well as an individual story exploring the different issues raised by this technology: ie all the ways humanity can mess things up through greed, bigotry, selfishness and general inhumanity towards other people.  But they don’t hang together well as a novel.  The equivocal nature of the technologies concerned ironically gets in the way of the work cohering.  And the pieces vary in quality.  Some are superb, but others are much weaker.

Stronger, Faster and More Beautiful is an ambitious book, but Dayton doesn’t quite manage to pull it off for me.

Goodreads rating: 2*

Thin Air – Richard Morgan

It’s been eight years since Richard Morgan published a new book.  Thin Air (review copy from Gollancz) is his latest, and it takes no prisoners.   Hakan Veil is muscle for hire.  A human enhanced to be an Overrider, working for the corporates to deal with crises in deep space.  But an incident left his contract terminated, and him living from contract to contract in the frontier colonies of Mars.

Waking from one of his regular periods of hibernation, Veil is “running hot”: the crisis response he was engineered to deliver, pumped with adrenaline and super-fast reactions.  Within a very short space of time he finds himself arrested for murder in the aftermath of one of his contracts, but released on condition he provides security to Madison Madekwe, one of a team of investigators sent by the Earth authorities to investigate alleged corruption in the colonial administration.  Madekwe is kidnapped and Veil finds himself trying to protect his charge and unravel a conspiracy.

This is a thriller that travels at extreme break-neck speed.  So fast that you barely have time to draw breath and any weaknesses in the plot will pass you by.  As you would expect from Morgan, it is also incredibly violent with an extremely high body count and the fetishisation of firearms.  But if you want a fast-paced, high-concept thriller with lots of excitement and some fantastic twists and turns, this will deliver in spades.

Goodreads rating: 3*

Rosewater – Tade Thompson

It’s always a treat to read books that give a fresh and new take on genre fiction.  Tade Thompson‘s Rosewater (review copy from Orbit books) is the first in his Wormwood trilogy, and unlike anything else out there at the moment.

The world changed when the Earth was invaded by first contact with an alien entity.  But this isn’t your traditional alien invasion.  An alien fungus has landed and is colonising the planet after sending its tendrils and spores everywhere.  The USA has gone dark, and Europe is cut off.  Rosewater is a town in Nigeria that has grown up around a dome-like structure grown by the fungus.  It provides free energy, and once a year the dome opens, healing the sick and bringing the recently dead back to life as zombies.  Rosewater has become a destination for the desperate seeking healing and for those studying the dome.  Over time it has grown into a thriving town full of graft and superstition.

Kaaro is one of those that has been changed by exposure to the fungus.  His symbiotic relationship with it gives him psychic powers.  It makes him a finder, able to use the connection between people and objects to find lost things.  By day Kaaro works with others of his kind as a psychic firewall for one of the major banks, working in shifts to stop people like him breaking the safeguards and stealing from the bank.  By night Kaaro is the unwilling employee of the security forces, interrogating suspects.  But people like Kaaro are slowly dying, and no-one knows why.

Kaaro is not your typical white hat hero.  He uses his powers to steal from the people around him.  He objectifies women and exploits them for sex.  He is rude and insubordinate to his bosses.  He is largely indifferent to his colleagues and it takes him a long time to notice or care about the fate of the other people with powers like his.

This is a fresh story with a pleasing sense of mystery that steadfastly refuses to comply with traditional genre tropes, and does so proudly.  At one stage one of the characters says to Kaaro, “I am tired of women and men of destiny.  The idea of a singular hero and a manifest destiny just makes us all lazy.  There is no destiny.  There is choice, there is action, and any other narrative perpetuates a myth that someone else out there will fix our problems with a magic sword and a blessing from the gods.”

We need more stories that get away from those over-used story-telling modes.  I can’t wait for the sequel.

Goodreads rating: 4*

Rejoice – Steven Erikson

Steven Erikson‘s Malazan Books of the Fallen is one of my favourite fantasy series.  It has rich, deep worldbuilding; strong emotional power; subtle interiority to a strong ensemble cast; world-shattering epic impact; and an emotional punch that regularly reduced me to tears.  I was really excited to see what Erikson could do with Rejoice (review copy from Gollancz) – a  first contact science fiction novel.

Oh dear, was I disappointed.

There is nothing in Rejoice of the Erikson I know and love from the Malazan books.  What he’s given us is painfully obvious polemic with thinly disguised self-insertion.

The main character in Rejoice is Samantha August, a reasonably famous science fiction writer who is kidnapped by aliens to be their interlocutor to humanity.  August is chosen because the aliens like her work.  She is well-known and her vlogging about climate change and associated issues has led the aliens to believe she will be sympathetic to their plans to save Earth’s biome from environmental collapse by taking drastic interventionist action.

What follows is a sequence of crudely written interventions by the aliens.  They render weapons ineffective, protect habitats and restore migratory routes, and tackle food and energy scarcity.  These are written with an aliens-know-best sensibility that minimises the impact of imposing solutions like these on the Earth’s population.  And interspersed with bits of woo-woo philosophy about Earth’s diverse biome containing all the solutions to humanity’s problems.  There is no subtlety here whatsoever.  At least not in the 20% I read before giving up.

Rejoice is a poor shadow of other books dealing with the same issues.  Instead of this, read Octavia Butler’s Lilith’s Brood, which relates similar alien intervention designed to heal the Earth with the experience of colonialism and the transatlantic slave trade.  Or Sherri S Tepper’s The Fresco, which writes the same scenario as a Swiftean satire.

Goodreads rating: 1*

Killer T – Robert Muchamore

Killer T by Robert Muchamore (review copy from Bonnier Zaffre) was a frustrating read. It promised much, but failed to deliver.

The novel opens with us meeting the teenaged Harry and Charlie in the wake of a bombing at Harry’s school.  Charlie is framed for the bombing by a local crime boss.  Harry is an aspiring journalist who sees the bombing as the chance to cover a major story.  The two become friends, with Harry nurturing a major crush on Charlie.  The novel jumps through various episodes in their lives as they grow up.  Harry runs a successful local news website.  Charlie works in illegal gene-editing. Running in the background of the story is the growth of gene-editing technologies, and the way they are used to create viruses that wipe out large proportions of the population, leaving Harry and Charlie trying to make a living in the aftermath.

The book is a bit of a mess.  It’s never clear what the story is, beyond following Harry and Charlie.  And just as we reach anything resembling an exciting event or development where we could see the role Harry and Charlie play and how they respond to the world-shaping events going on around them, the author jumps us forward in time.  At best we get a bit of restrospective recall from them about how the events played out.  This distances the reader from the events of the book, with the bulk of the narrative focusing on slice-of-life type interactions.

And the characters are horribly written, particularly the women.  Charlie is written as over-sexualised jailbait at the age of 13, and as an older teenager will sleep with the first boy to buy her booze.  Her sister is unrealistically selfish, narcissistic and evil.  Charlie’s employer is a stereotype of a counter-culture person who becomes a boringly mainstream business owner and suburban mom.  Harry’s aunt is a distant workaholic.  All of them are shallow and not very well formed.  It’s a real shame.

Disappointing.

Goodreads rating: 1* 

One of Us – Craig diLouie

Who are the monsters?  That is the question Craig diLouie asks us in his staggeringly powerful novel One of Us (review copy from Orbit).  Set in the 1980s, this is a novel that examines how society reacts to the Other.  In this case, a group of children who have suffered mutations as a result of an incurable sexually transmitted disease carried by their parents.  Ostracised and raised in special homes separate from polite society, these children are beginning to manifest special powers and as they approach adulthood that sparks questions about the future role they will play in society.

One of Us mixes up the moral panic of the 1980s AIDS epidemic with a healthy dose of racism and the consequences of the thalidomide scandal. People infected with the virus are ostracised, often hiding their infection and denying the mutated children they’ve borne.  Infection is associated with sexual promiscuity and immorality.  A new Puritanism has struck the country, with abstinence taught to young people in order to prevent the further spread of the virus and the creation of more mutated children.

Children who suffer from teratogenesis are kept apart in special institutions where they are fed, educated and used as slave labour in local businesses.  They are subjected to cruelty and poor conditions from staff who work there because they are not able to get jobs anywhere else.  Abuse and torture lead to injuries and death, with the authorities turning a blind eye.  The children are seen as a burden on society, and a drain on taxpayers, rather than as people deserving of life and respect.  They are taught that they are undeserving, with information strictly controlled and only the most basic education provided.  But when some of the children start to manifest interesting abilities the Government sees opportunity, and starts to look at how the children can be exploited for the good of the nation.

One of Us is a brilliant study of how people are Othered, and how prejudice manifests and perpetuates itself within communities through fear and peer pressure.  Focusing on a group of young people – both with and without teratogenesis – it shows how similar we all are.  The desire for a better, more compassionate, future can unite us.  diLouie also shows us how prejudice and mistreatment carries within it the seeds of revolution and rebellion.  If every action provokes an equal and opposite reaction, then we should not be surprised that systemic prejudice and abuse will eventually lead those who are marginalised to push back.

This is a powerful and disturbing morality tale about humanity’s capacity for darkness, but also its fortitude, compassion and willingness to push for change.

Goodreads rating: 5*

The Quantum Magician – Derek Kunsken

Don’t be fooled by the title – Derek Kunsken‘s The Quantum Magician (review copy from Solaris) isn’t a rip off of Hannu Rajaniemi’s bonkers space opera The Quantum Thief.  It may feature a similarly charming con-man protagonist, but instead is a delightfully engaging heist story.  This is Ocean’s 11 in space.

Belisarius (Bel) Arjona is the titular Quantum Magician – genetically engineered to be able to enter various altered mental states in order to examine the fabric of the universe.  One of those states involves complete suppression of identity, in order to avoid the phenomenon of the observer collapsing quantum states.  But something has gone wrong in Bel’s breeding – entering these states is likely to lead to his death, and he spends his life as a con-man because the challenge is the only thing that will distract him from the addictive pull of his training.  Living in a complex, multi-cultural society dealing with the mix of messy emotions and complexity that make up most sentient beings is a much greater intellectual challenge than studying physics in a laboratory.

Bel is approached with the job of a lifetime – smuggle some military spaceships through a wormhole.  The wormhole is the main route from one part of the galaxy to another, and access is tightly controlled.  These military ships belong to a colony civilisation desperate to make a strike for independence.  Moving the warships will put them in the right place to make a surprise military strike.  Bel’s fee for this work is two small ships equipped with a brand new drive technology that will be worth a fortune.  But the real prize for him is the chance to observe wormhole physics from the inside – data he would never have been able to gather if he’d stayed on his home planet.

What lifts The Quantum Magician above the usual run of heist stories is the characterisation and world-building.  Whether he is willing to acknowledge it or not, Bel is using this job as a chance to reconnect with old friends and colleagues – including his old lover Cassandra; Saint Matthew, the most advanced AI ever created; an explosives expert; Bel’s former con-man mentor; and a genetically engineered sea creature who is an expert pilot able to operate a high pressure and high g.  Bel has personal debts to pay to some of these people, and wants to work with people he trusts, but this for him is mostly about the chance to connect with people he knows as part of a team in order to address his fundamental loneliness.  Much of the early part of the book is Bel pulling his team together and planning the elaborate heist.  The actual heist itself delivers on tension and unexpected developments, bringing an exciting climax to the story.

Goodreads rating: 4*