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Necrotech by K. C. Alexander

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Street thug Riko has some serious issues- memories wiped, reputation tanked, girlfriend turned into a tech-fueled zombie. And the only people who can help are the mercenaries who think she screwed them over. In an apathetic society devoid of ethics or regulation, where fusing tech and flesh can mean a killing edge or a killer conversion, a massive conspiracy is unfolding that will alter the course of the human condition forever.

With corporate meatheads on her ass and a necro-tech blight between her and salvation, Riko is going to have to fight meaner, work smarter, and push harder than she’s ever had to. And that’s just to make it through the day.
~~~~~
Sometimes, a reader is just in the mood for some fast-paced, face-punching fun; sometimes, all a reader wants is a thrilling ride through a novel which doesn’t require great intellectual or emotional engagement. A roller coaster, a thrill ride. That was my mood when I picked up Necrotech, at any rate.

Essentially, K. C. Alexander is playing in the 1980s cyberpunk swimming pool – the grimy chrome one, where corporations run everything, the world is fucked, and going merc is a pretty good option. Necrotech is a climate change driven disaster zone, although it feels like a 1980s climate crisis (not greenhouse gases but the ozone layer!), with Judge Dredd-like megacities full of crime and corruption; Alexander makes it incredibly clear this is a grimy, terrible place to live unless you’re corporate enough to be safely away from all the muck of the world she’s created. The biggest difference between most corporate dystopias and this one is how much glee Alexander seems to take in showing us the grimiest, most vice-ridden aspects of the world; throwing sex workers, in a vaguely whorephobic way, drugs, grunge and grime at the reader as if to drive home how debauched those outside-slash-below the law are.

That’s a trend that carries into the characterisation; Necrotech isn’t quite edgy-for-the-sake-of-edgy, but it pushes into that territory, especially in the vocabulary of the narrator. As someone not averse to swearing themselves, and who lives in Glasgow, I am used to the way swearing forms part of a vocabulary, but Riko seems to swear, occasionally in a repetitive manner, more than she breathes; she’s driven heavily by libido and anger, and singularly impulsive, and her character development is at times hampered by the way Alexander uses her sex drive almost as a replacement for character interaction. The rest of the cast aren’t, unfortunately, as interesting; they’re largely two dimensional or enigmatic to the point of being one-dimensional, and so don’t draw the sympathy they really need for the novel to have the emotional heft it might otherwise achieve.

Necrotech is also… sociopolitically interesting. Riko is bisexual and has a rapacious sex drive, to an almost comical level, while other characters are also sexual beings; the problem is that the book itself is quite heteronormative (gay marriage doesn’t appear to exist in this future, for instance) and the one queer relationship we see is a tragedy before the book even really gets going. The gender balance of the book is fantastic, and Alexander is absolutely unafraid of giving us badass combatative butch female characters, as well as very femme ones, sometimes the same people; and there’s a passing mention of nonbinary people as background, although no foregrounded characters are enby.

The plot is a mixed bag too. On the one hand, it doesn’t end. Necrotech falls into the trap so common to series of not really having a conclusion, just an ending, forcing the reader to go to the sequel; the problem is, I don’t know from this if Alexander can write an ending. On the other hand, while it lasts, it is pulse-poundingly action filled, with an approach to combat scenes which works brilliantly, putting one really into the fight the way the better class of video game does, making you feel not only the punches thrown but also the blows taken; Alexander is clearly aware of the toll fighting takes on one, and so makes it clear to the reader, too. The whole thing hangs together slimly – the plot is rather extended by the action scenes, but in a book like this, that works – as a kind of neo-noir mystery about what happened to Riko immediately as the book starts; it’s kept almost frustratingly mysterious, and Necrotech doesn’t really earn the lack of answers it gives, but that suggests that’s why we’re here.

It’s really not. In the end, Necrotech isn’t a sophisticated look at a dystopian corporate future interested in the complexities of life in a post-government climate-change-ridden world. It’s a throwback to 1980s cyberpunk, grimy, messy, action-packed, and problematic as hell, but fun with it.

DISCLOSURE: This review is based on a copy of the final novel provided by the publisher, Angry Robot Books.

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The Just City by Jo Walton

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One day, in a moment of philosophical puckishness, the time-travelling goddess Pallas Athene decides to put Plato to the test and create the Just City. She locates the City on a Mediterranean island and populates it with over ten thousand children and a few hundred adult from all eras of history . . . along with some handy robots from the far human future.

Meanwhile, Apollo – stunned by the realization that there are things that human beings understand better than he does – has decided to become a mortal child, head to Athene’s City and see what all the fuss is about.

Then Socrates arrives, and starts asking troublesome questions.

What happens next is a tale only the brilliant Jo Walton could tell.

This review will contain SPOILERS
~~~~~
I am a Classicist (well, ancient historian) by academic training, so when Tor said they were bringing out a book based on the idea of Plato’s Republic (perhaps his most famos dialogue) and featuring among other characters Sokrates, Athene and Apollo, I jumped at the chance to review Jo Walton’s The Just City.

That may have been a mistake; that training is the only prism through which it was possible for me to read the novel, and that resulted in a certain level of cognitive dissonance at times.

The Just City is a novel about consent, about – as it puts it – equal significance and volition; choice, and the importance of equal weight being placed on the choices of all parties. It opens with Apollo asking Athene why Daphne would prefer to become a tree to having sex with him; when her response is “volition and equal significance”, he decides to incarnate to learn about these things – and is sold to the Just City, founded by Athene with people taken from history who had prayed to Athene to live in Plato’s Republic. Of course, Plato’s blueprint being rather incomplete, there are areas around the edge where things have been changed, and it is founded on Santorini so that no evidence will be left of Athene’s experiment except stories of Atlantis.

So far, so good; the problem comes when actually looking at the Just City. Built and maintained by robots brought back from the future, it is full of such anachronisms to Plato – the Republic was written before, among other things, antibiotics and safe birth, yet Walton treats both of these as a given, and no woman appears, in the three clusters of births in the novel, to die in childbirth, despite the reality of the ancient world; similarly, Santorini is presented as a haven where all resources are present, from marble (without any apparent quarries) to cotton and wool, despite the reality of the uneven resource distribution across the Mediterranean and, indeed, the lack of certain resources completely. The Just City could be forgiven those problems, perhaps, if it even acknowledged them and simply allowed Athene to smooth them out; as it is, instead, Walton simply pretends these issues do not exist and are not a problem.

A further, and significant, issue is anachronism of attitudes. It is perhaps inevitable in a novel like this that some characters will have anachronistic beliefs and attitudes but at the same time, the extent to which Walton engages in such practices is extreme. The Sokrates of The Just City is perfectly willing to debate with, and consider as intellectual equals, women, and believes in the standard understanding of the Greek gods; given the attitudes of his time and culture towards women – which we have no evidence he did not share – and the very reason he was sentenced to death, this seems to be a significant break with any meaningful sense of history. Meanwhile, later Romans – including, in fact, Cicero himself – are presented as having absolutely no time for the opinions of women; as if Athens in the fifth century had more respect for women and their views than Rome in the first century. The Just City takes this to further levels of anachronistic attitudes in its discussion about slavery; while obviously a novel about consent, it still seems inappropriate and unseemly to suggest that slavery in Athens was less common a status than that of freedmen, and that it was really rather liberal (p240). The way The Just City constantly backs away from the brutal reality of ancient slavery is rather horrifying, and while it is good to note that Walton does not do so with American slavery, erasing the awful history of slavery in the slave societies of the Classical world is rather more than distasteful, it is horrendous.

Walton also appears to have failed to have done some basic anthropological research; in response to Plato’s model of marriage and childbirth, she treats random assignation as abhorrent and doomed to fail, and the idea of raising children in common as incredibly hurtful to women. The Just City treats it as if there is some mystical bond that has been true in all societies and cultures across history between mother and child that requires personal raising; this is troubling given historical communities that have engaged in perfectly healthy common-rearing policies and societies where the mother had no engagement with their children until their later years, and Walton is erasing that reality completely.

Finally, Walton’s portrayal of Sokrates is almost Platonic in its hero-worship of him. Sokrates is portrayed as incredibly wise, knowledgeable on every subject, able to pick up anything – including Arabic numerals (called zeroic numerals here, for some reason) and the idea of artificial intelligence – in mere moments, and always able to talk to anyone and convince anyone to let him do what he wishes. While some of that makes sense in the context of a society of Platonists, The Just City treats Plato’s portrayal of Socrates as an incredible human being as unquestionable truth, made most clear at the close of the novel where Sokrates debates Athene on the Just City and the idea of justice itself; Sokrates, as in Plato, lays rhetorical traps, but for the reader they are obvious and poor, and that Walton’s Athene cannot engage with him seems to be suggesting that Sokrates is a better debater than the goddess of wisdom herself, a rather ridiculous assertion.

I have mostly argued with this book, and that’s for good reason; it’s a book begging to be argued with – but on the evidence provided in The Just City, Jo Walton has no time for anyone who argues with her views in it, and that’s a real problem. This is an interesting book, but it’s seriously let down by Walton’s inability to hold to the problems of history and reality.

DoI: Review based on an ARC received on request from the publisher, Tor Books. The Just City is released in the US & UK on January 13th.

Deep Secret by Diana Wynne Jones

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All over the multiverse the Magids, powerful magicians, are at work to maintain the balance between positive and negative magic, for the good of all.

Rupert Venables is the junior Magid assigned to Earth and to the troublesome planets of the Koyrfonic Empire. When the Emperor dies without a known heir, Rupert is called into service to help prevent the descent of the Empire into chaos. At the same time, the senior Magid on Earth dies, making Rupert a new senior desperately in need of a junior. Rupert thinks his problems are partially solved when he discovers he can meet all five of the potential Magids on Earth by attending one SF convention in England. However, the convention hotel sits on a node, a nexus of the universes. Rupert soon finds that other forces, some of them completely out of control, are there too….
~~~~~
Deep Secret is, perhaps, a book that this is not the most auspicious time to rerelease; in the midst of serial dramas in fandom, a novel that is very much about fandom is a risky choice. On the other hand in the wake of the first UK WorldCon in nearly a decade, a novel that has an awful lot of its action take place at a UK convention (modelled closely on EasterCon) is perhaps not all that bad a choice after all…

Jones’ novel is nearly two decades old now, written in the dying years of the Major government, when fanzines were still largely paper affairs and the modern idea of social media not even a glimmer in anyone’s eye. Deep Secret is, in some ways, dated by that; its description of convention running, and how that functions, is surprisingly accurate to Satellite4, though, right down to the rather confusing (although thankfully not ratty-looking) schedule. Indeed, the portrayal of gophers, of casual and well meaning chaos, of unexpected feuds appearing mid-con all seems to line up with my own limited convention experience. But this isn’t really the core of the novel; more an aside before we delve into Deep Secret‘s own secrets.

The plot of Deep Secret is a slightly messy one. Rupert is assigned to oversee the transition of power – and, theoretically, downfall – of an inter-universal empire where magic is accepted much more readily than on Earth, whilst also, on Earth itself, searching for the replacement for his now-deceased mentor. Inevitably, the two jobs have a lot more interaction and entanglement than expected, and complications ensue. Some of these complications and really well written and, indeed, are foreshadowed interestingly or make sense of earlier elements of the book in hindsight; the way Jones conveys the intention of the Magids to allow the empire to flounder, for instance, is there right from the start with Rupert. However, Deep Secret also uses fate as a deus ex machina an awful lot at the end of the novel; indeed, the resolution is almost literally a god from the machine, played in such a blunt way as to bring the reader – up to that point greatly enjoying the tension and invested in the way Jones builds it – to a screeching halt in the face of “Suddenly, resolution!”

On the other hand Deep Secret‘s romance plot works much better than the main plot, even while ticking off any number of the stereotypes of the romance, especially the one of disdain becoming attraction. Mind you, a romance plot of reliant on strong character-work, and it is here that Jones delivers in spades; Deep Secret has a wonderful, and incredibly human, cast. From the increasingly shaky arrogance and self-assurance of Rupert, and his relationship with the ghostly and down-to-Earth Stan, to the student Malee Mallory with her heartbreak and stereotypical teenage self-absorption (a little odd in a 20-year-old, granted), each member of the core cast has a unique voice and brings something different and individual to the ensemble; and the supporting cast do the same, with their different relationships to the various protagonists and their simpler but still unique styles.

Deep Secret is a fantastic novel of character, and a wonderful portrayal and send up of fandom; it is simply a shame that Jones’ plot relies so heavily on deus ex machina to solve its problems at the close of the novel.

DoI: Review based on an ARC requested from the publisher, Tor Books. The new, paperback edition of Deep Secret will be released 16th December.

The Time Roads by Beth Bernobich

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Éire is one of the most powerful empires in the world. The Anglian Dependencies are a dusty backwater filled with resentful colonial subjects, Europe is a disjointed mess, and many look to Éire for stability and peace. In a series of braided stories, Beth Bernobich has created a tale about the brilliant Éireann scientists who have already bent the laws of nature for Man’s benefit. And who now are striving to conquer the nature of time.

The Golden Octopus: Áine Lasairíona Devereaux, the young Queen of Éire, balances Court politics while pursing the Crown’s goals of furthering scientific discovery. When those discoveries lead to the death and madness of those she loves, Áine must choose between her heart and her duty to her kingdom.

A Flight of Numbers Fantastique Strange: Síomón Madóc is desperately trying to discover who is killing the brightest of Éire’s mathematicians. The key to saving lives lies in the future…and Síomón must figure out a way to get there.

Ars Memoriae: Éireann spymaster Aidrean Ó Deághaidh goes to the kingdom of Montenegro to investigate rumors of great unrest. But Ó Deághaidh is tormented by visions of a different timeline and suspects that someone in his own government is playing a double game….

The Time Roads: Éire stands on the brink of the modern age, but old troubles still plague the kingdom. An encounter with a mysterious stranger near death holds the clue to both the past and the future of the nation.
~~~~~
The Time Roads is part-novel, part-collection. Its four stories – varying in length from long short story through to average novella – could each be read in isolation, in theory, but the way Bernobich links them and makes each rely on the events of the others means one would get a lot less out of the book, and this review will therefore be treating the whole rather than the individual parts.

It’s a whole that works rather well. Bernobich’s alternate history isn’t actually interested in how it is alternate history, only in how the present of the world – a turn of the century present, granted – works; we’re not treated to long historical digressions on when the world of The Time Roads departed from the world we live in, to stories of how Éire not only broke free from but came to rule Anglia, how the whole face of Europe and the world is changed from that we know. Instead, this is all just taken for granted, revealed piecemeal as and when it becomes necessary without any infodumping. It’s an interesting handling, especially since the period is such a contentious one historically speaking; to release a book which goes right up to alternate-1943, and has stories specifically focused on alternate-1914, is a bold move this year.

It’s also bold to treat the Anglian Dominions the way Bernobich does; but not necessarily a good one – The Time Roads never really challenges whether Éireann rule over the Anglian territories is benevolent, rather than simply unjustified, and thus fails to really engage with some of the issues it raises. Any novel inverting the power involved in the history of Anglo-Irish relations should not simply valourise the Irish it empowers, and The Time Roads does exactly that; it feels like the worst kind of British self-delusion about our treatment of the Irish and Northern Irish populations over the centuries we have ruled there, especially when the Anglians start committing terrorist attacks in a seemingly unprovoked manner.

Of course, The Time Roads is not really concerned with this, which is part of why the problem arises. Instead, it is concerned more with playing with the idea of time and time-travel as tools and weaponry. Hence, the stories have an internal chronology that is absolutely rigid despite subsequent events, in some cases, stopping previous stories from having happened by the time of later stories; keeping clear what happened and what was subsequently erased from history is a challenge the reader must grapple with as much as the characters, and it works extraordinarily well at conveying some of the complexities and paradoxes of time travel, while remaining an incredibly readable novel.

The Time Roads‘ biggest strength is its characters. They are all interestingly human, from the royal Áine, concerned with status and the safety of her people (an almost dully ideal monarch in the first story, more interesting but still rather frustratingly idealised by the end of the collection) and trying to do what she believes is right through to the scientifically-focused Síomón Madóc and his sister Gwen, who have little care for the outside world other than a refusal to see their ideas weaponised. Each character is interestingly painted with their own idiosyncracies and desires, but the best of the set is Aidrean Ó Deághaidh, also the only character to play a major role in every story; conflicted about his country and ideals, driven but not always confident, Aidrean is the most relatable character because he is the most human, and seeing his development is fascinating.

In the end, The Time Roads works for me because it is written compellingly and does some fascinating things with character; but Bernobich also fails in some pretty spectacular ways, not least of which is her failure to engage with colonial politics while attempting to portray them. Tread warily!

DoI: Review based a copy of the novel solicited from the publisher, Tor Books.

The Three-Body Problem by Liu Cixin (trans Ken Liu)

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Three-Body Problem is the first chance for English-speaking readers to experience this multiple award winning phenomenon from China’s most beloved science fiction author, Liu Cixin.

Set against the backdrop of China’s Cultural Revolution, a secret military project sends signals into space to establish contact with aliens. An alien civilization on the brink of destruction captures the signal and plans to invade Earth. Meanwhile, on Earth, different camps start forming, planning to either welcome the superior beings and help them take over a world seen as corrupt, or to fight against the invasion. The result is a science fiction masterpiece of enormous scope and vision.
~~~~~
Liu Cixin is a phenomenon in China, but somehow, hasn’t reached the Anglosphere in translation… until now. The Three-Body Problem is Tor’s attempt to change this, with the aid of the award-winning short story writer Ken Liu in the role of translator. When a multiawardwinning author’s work is transmitted through the efforts of another, what kind of novel results?

Well, the first thing to comment on, perhaps, is the translation. Inevitably, The Three-Body Problem loses a little in translation, as all works taken from their original language do; but in this case it feels almost intentional, in a very interesting way – like Ken Liu is leaving Liu Cixin’s work as much as it was in Chinese as possible, rather than replacing idioms with English ones, reworking puns to work in English, or changing cultural references. Indeed, Ken Liu provides 42 footnotes across the course of the novel to explain translation choices and cultural references rather than simplifying or eliding them, which really keeps clear that this is a translation, rather than the smoothness of some works which attempt to wholly convert their original text into English, culturally and idiomatically.

Liu Cixin’s novel is a fascinating one, culturally, though. While being centred on Chinese culture, Chinese characters, and Chinese history, there is also a very Western sensibility to it in one particular respect; The Three-Body Problem feels like something incredibly steeped in the science fiction of the so-called Golden Age. In terms of style, of characters, of plot, Golden Age SF sensibilities pervade the novel; indeed, one of the protagonists,Ye Wenjie, feels like Asimov’s Susan Calvin in her emotionless disconnection from the human race and her base rationality. Liu Cixin also shares the problem-centric narrative of an Asimovian story; Three-Body Problem is focused very heavily on the solution to a mathematical problem and on the proper response to extraterrestrial communication.

This should make the book feel dated but somehow, through more interesting characterisation than Asimov especially ever managed, Liu Cixin keeps Three-Body Problem feeling like modern-day Golden Age SF; Wang Miao especially is a rounded character, driven by the rational problem and the desire for a solution to it but also with human feelings – panic, amusement, fear, shock, and so on. He grounds the novel in a way Ye Wenjie never could; that is, he grounds the novel with a character with whom the reader can easily empathise, rather one who seems almost totally closed off from human connection. It’s an interesting contrast to see, especially as Liu Cixin then subverts that at the close of the novel by revealing another side of Ye Wenjie, a more sentimental side, that The Three-Body Problem has largely concealed. That isn’t to say charicature doesn’t enter into The Three-Body Problem; the rogue, disrespectful police officer appears to be a cultural universal, given the character of Da Shi, who would fit right in with the protagonists of Dirty Harry, Luther and Life On Mars.

As far as plot goes, this is perhaps the strongest and also the weakest area of The Three-Body Problem. In some ways, Wang Miao’s simultaneous investigation of the Frontiers of Science, implicated in a series of suicides by scientists, and his playing of the game Three Body, are rather obviously linked and formulaic, with elements of surprise managing to shift things up but being comparatively minor, and things that seem to be intended to be reveals or twists failing to surprise. The nonlinearity of the plot fails to actually keep surprises back, although it does avoid giving too much away, but still, it seems a rather straightforward novel. On the other hand, Liu Cixin’s playing with narrative, with chronology, with stories within stories and the importance of stories all make the plot more interesting, and his approach to linking the different subplots and elements in The Three-Body Problem works really very well.

The Three-Body Problem, then, feels like a combination of the best bits of the Golden Age combined with modern sensibilities; it’s a tremendous work on the part of Liu Cixin, and an amazing achievement of Ken Liu’s translation to have captured so well the *feel* of the novel (or at least, to have seemed to have done so!)

DoI: Review based on an ARC requested from the publisher, Tor Books. The Three-Body Problem is released in North America on November 11th.

Ancillary Sword by Ann Leckie

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Breq is a soldier who used to be a warship. Once a weapon of conquest controlling thousands of minds, now she only has a single body and serves the emperor she swore to destroy.

Given a new ship and a troublesome crew, Breq is ordered to the only place in the galaxy she will agree to go: Athoek station, to protect the family of a lieutenant she once knew – a lieutenant she murdered in cold blood.
~~~~~
Ancillary Sword, as the cover says, is the sequel to the Nebula Award winning, BSFA Award winning, Clarke Award winning, Hugo Award winning Locus Award winning, Kitschie winnning debut novel (yes, really) Ancillary Justice. Leckie’s sophomore outing, therefore, has a lot to live up to.

And boy, does Leckie deliver. In serious, glorious style. I went into Ancillary Sword nervous; having championed Ancillary Justice, having represented Ann Leckie at one of the many awards ceremonies she has triumphed at, having been so blown away by the first book, my fear that the follow-up would fall short was less about it not being good, and more about it not reaching the heights of its predecessor. Reader, I am happy to reiterate: it doesn’t. The linguistic idea of using female pronouns and nouns for everyone – mother and daughter, never parent or father or son – is not a trick that gets less interesting as we see it more; Ancillary Sword is more concerned with civilians and with interpersonal relationships among a broader spectrum of individuals, and therefore it has a different impact. The primary force is that gender, and hence sexuality, are irrelevant; it doesn’t matter what gender two characters who feel attraction are, they just feel attraction. That’s a really powerful and important thing to see, and Ancillary Sword showcases it excellently.

Of course, Ancillary Sword is far more than just that one element. Leckie, in this novel, has Breq captaining a Ship, AI and all; that Ship, Mercy of Kalr, hasn’t got ancillaries, but its previous captain ordered the crew to behave as if they were ancillaries. Leckie paints beautifully the various results of this for Breq, herself an ex-ancillary, ex-Ship; not only the relationship between a Ship-in-human-body and a Ship-as-Ship, but also the strange combination of discomfort and reassurance Breq takes from her false ancillaries, and the damage the loss of the hive-self has done. Ancillary Sword is a beautiful first-person portrait of Breq’s recovery, but isn’t just concerned with her; Lieutenant Tisarwat, a character introduced in this novel, has a not wholly dissimilar experience, and seeing the different ways each incorporates and deals with that experience is fascinating.

This isn’t a book focused wholly on relationships, though. Ancillary Sword feels like a response to On Basilisk Station; in each case a new commander is sent to take control of the defences of a station and the planets surrounding it. While David Weber’s Honor Harrington is concerned only with the military and logistical sides of this, Leckie has Breq take a far wider view of “defence”: and that gives Leckie a chance to delve into some of the socal fabric underlying the Radch empire. Socio-economic injustices and the way conveniently-invisible-but-vital groups come in for a serious critique and the idea of how to deal with the fallout of that, in the long term, is discussed as a problem, rather than being solved. The long-term impact of serfdom or slavery is discussed directly and seems to be an entry into discussions of how to deal with the US’s problematic history of oppression in the South; Ancillary Sword doesn’t just not seek to give answers, it actively demands we don’t look for easy answers or to simple saviours. Leckie goes so far as to include a power-imbalance rape, although it is never called that; but it is made abundantly clear that consent is impossible between two people with a major power imbalance (p282). The extent to which this book takes on social issues and the construction of, and underpinning of, society, is really glorious.

So far I’ve not actually really talked about the plot of the novel, but I don’t think that’s really necessary. Suffice to say that where Ancillary Justice was a brilliant, crunchy science fiction yarn with some hints of Iain M. Banks, Ancillary Sword completely strikes its own path; Leckie, here, is like no other author, and amazing with it. I don’t expect lightning to strike twice, but Ancillary Sword deserves – no, demands! –  the same level of recognition as that received by Ancillary Justice.

DoI: ARC received from Orbit, the publisher of Ancillary Justice & Ancillary Sword, on request. I accepted the BSFA Award for Best Novel, won by Ancillary Justice, on Ann Leckie’s behalf at EasterCon. Ancillary Sword will be released on October 7th.

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Gleam by Tom Fletcher

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The gargantuan Factory of Gleam is an ancient, hulking edifice of stone, metal and glass ruled over by chaste alchemists and astronomer priests.

As millennia have passed, the population has decreased, and now only the central district is fully inhabited and operational; the outskirts have been left for the wilderness to reclaim. This decaying, lawless zone is the Discard; the home of Wild Alan.

Clever, arrogant, and perpetually angry, Wild Alan is both loved and loathed by the Discard’s misfits. He’s convinced that the Gleam authorities were behind the disaster that killed his parents and his ambition is to prove it. But he’s about to uncover more than he bargained for.
~~~~~
Tom Fletcher’s first foray into fantasy, Gleam, is a departure from his previous works of horror fiction; and that heritage has obviously had some kind of impact on the novel, the start of a trilogy from Jo Fletcher Books.

This is a book with an intensely visual, somewhat cinematic approach to writing; the prologue sees a focussing in on the Black Pyramid at the centre of the Gleam, through a degree of detail and in a writing style reminiscent of Miéville in Perdido Street Station. This sets the tone for the rest of the book; Fletcher takes an approach to style that is reminiscent of Lovecraft’s overwritten, purple prose but under much better control and to far greater effect. Gleam is full of intensely visual, detailed, vivid description, throughout the novel; while having a number of concerns beyond the purely aesthetic, it’s clearly a very strong prominent element and essential for the feel created by the novel.

That feel is one of estrangement; Gleam really goes for the jugular with its fictionalisation of current events (whether intended or not, Fletcher’s novel is an attack on Western responses to terrorism and to exploitative global labour relations), but through the use of the mundane seen through a filter of the strange – caravans of riding-snails, mushroom-based commercial empires, the rituals of the Black Pyramid – he makes these things less obviously analogous. That extends into the world itself; Gleam is a novel that very much conforms to what is referred to as “grimdark”, in a number of ways, chiefly its willingness to show the awfulness of the underbelly of the world and its violence. However, it avoids the misogyny that is commonly the lot of grimdark fantasy; no rape, women who have agency, independence, and martial prowess, and more than one female character amongst the central cast of five, all features to appreciate. With the vividity of his aesthetics and his grimdark sensibilities, a lot of anger comes through Gleam, especially in some of his characters.

Those characters are an interesting cast. Gleam tends towards the postapocalyptic grimdark fantasy end of the spectrum; each and every character is out for their own ends, many of which are quite dark, such as Eyes’ desire for revenge against the Pyramidders who tortured him. The different characters are all wonderfully painted, from the fey and deadly Bloody Nora (a cartographer; the clan of the Mapmakers is a hilarious, darkly brilliant piece of writing) to the obsessive Wild Alan and including the shaman-like tattoo artist Spider and mercenary Churr. But the smaller parts, such as Alan’s wife and son, or Daunt the Mushroom Queen, are also written to be far more than simple characters; while falling back at times on stereotypes and the expected – conservative wife more worried about not upsetting the status quo than her husband; libertine drug dealer with a streak of dark sadism; corrupt cop – they remain interesting characters in their own right.

Gleam weaves them into a plot that should be, but isn’t, the standard fodder of epic fantasy; Alan needs to find a MacGuffin, and this involves peril. He collects a group of friends and allies around him for the task, undertakes a long trek overcoming numerous dangers and risking friends along the way, successfully collects his MacGuffin and returns. Fletcher subverts a number of expectations of that classic plot model, though; albeit that subversion is the kind of subversion “grimdark” delights in – inevitably, there is unhappy sex, the deaths of various party members, and a few betrayals. Gleam also functions as a typical bildungsroman, albeit for the middle-aged Alan rather than a young adult; the plot of the novel revolves around Alan maturing as a person, coming to terms with the world – something we’ve seen all too often in fantasy, and Fletcher brings little new to it.

Gleam, then, is a dark, aesthetically beautiful fantasy that, while not altogether original in its plot, Tom Fletcher can be proud of; a Weird, angry, grimdark bildungsroman. Thanks Tom!

DoI: Review based on ARC solicited from Jo Fletcher Books. Gleam is released today.