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Buffalo Soldier by Maurice Broaddus

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Having stumbled onto a plot within his homeland of Jamaica, former espionage agent, Desmond Coke, finds himself caught between warring religious and political factions, all vying for control of a mysterious boy named Lij Tafari. Wanting the boy to have a chance to live a free life, Desmond assumes responsibility for him and they flee. But a dogged enemy agent remains ever on their heels, desperate to obtain the secrets held within Lij for her employer alone.

Assassins, intrigue, and steammen stand between Desmond and Lij as they search for a place to call home in a North America that could have been.
~~~~~
Alternate history tends to focus in on a couple of lynchpins; the American Revolution, the Second World War, the collapse of the Roman Empire. It’s rarer to see an alternate history that doesn’t make its point(s) of divergence explicit, or that so strangely combines the alternative and the historical in its worldbuilding, as Buffalo Soldier.

Broaddus’ worldbuilding is key to the novella, after all. Set in a steampunk present where the British Empire, under the name Albion, never lost the North American colonies, but where Jamaica became a major world power and where Native American tribes successfully resisted British occupation beyond the original thirteen colonies, Buffalo Soldier has a lot of history and politics to convey. It’s unfortunate that most of this is done in the form of three separate infodumps; they’re very much “Here is the history of this world”, not so much from the point of view of a particular people on a set of events as simply the events themselves, since the infodumps don’t overlap.

This approach also infects the narrative of the novel in other ways; Buffalo Soldier repeatedly has clunky moments where things which are implied are then spelled out a line later, as if Broaddus doesn’t trust the reader to make the leap, or where things are restated repeatedly just to ensure they’re noticed. This isn’t helped by a narrative chronology that isn’t ever very clear: while the plot is strictly linear, how long certain things take is never made explicit, and the whole stretch of time over which the backstory to the plot and the plot itself, let alone the points at which it jumps in time, is terribly murky.

That plot is a relatively simple one, though Broaddus does make its political implications clear. Buffalo Soldier is a novella about colonialism, about power, about international relations, and about a peculiarly Anglophone approach to control; but it tells this story through a mix of industrial espionage, mutual suspicion, and Desmond’s quest to save Lij. The writing is at its best in action scenes; they have a blunt immediacy, and a really gripping sense of speed and violence, that grabs the mind, along with a quality that makes the reader feel it might have been written for the screen.

Where Buffalo Soldier really saves itself is with its characters. Broaddus gives us a very compact cast; Desmond, Lij, Cayt, and later Inteus and Kajika. Each of them is very distinct, and comes from a different cultural background, whether free Jamaica, Albion, or the Seminole. Desmond is our main character, and his whole narrative arc is really well conveyed, with his mix of internal moral turmoil, mixed feelings about what he’s doing, and sense of his lost home; Broaddus conveys both his angst and his need to push through it to protect Lij excellently. Lij’s own characterisation as someone with what we’d now probably describe as autism is a really sensitive, intelligent piece of writing that never lays the point on too thick but also doesn’t back down from that part of his character.

Buffalo Soldiers has a lot of interesting ideas, but Broaddus really needed a bigger canvas to lay them all out, rather than condensing them into a novella, and a smoother hand at setting up his world. Fantastic characters and great action scenes aren’t enough to hang a novella on when what comes between those scenes is so uneven.

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Brother’s Ruin by Emma Newman

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The year is 1850 and Great Britain is flourishing, thanks to the Royal Society of the Esoteric Arts. When a new mage is discovered, Royal Society elites descend like buzzards to snatch up a new apprentice. Talented mages are bought from their families at a tremendous price, while weak mages are snapped up for a pittance. For a lower middle class family like the Gunns, the loss of a son can be disastrous, so when seemingly magical incidents begin cropping up at home, they fear for their Ben’s life and their own livelihoods.

But Benjamin Gunn isn’t a talented mage. His sister Charlotte is, and to prevent her brother from being imprisoned for false reporting she combines her powers with his to make him seem a better prospect.

When she discovers a nefarious plot by the sinister Doctor Ledbetter, Charlotte must use all her cunning and guile to protect her family, her secret and her city.
~~~~~
Emma Newman has, alongside running the Hugo Award nominated Tea and Jeopardy podcast, written a portal fantasy fairy story series (with really dark fae and a strong Shakespearean influence) and a science fiction career starting with the publication of Planetfall in 2015 and After Atlas last year; now, she’s also making a play for gaspunk.

Brother’s Ruin is an interesting little book; it’s got a couple of themes running through it, and Newman plays with each of them interestingly, and the way they intersect. It’s also a very quietly incredibly subversive book; putting the punk back into gaspunk, as it were, Newman uses the book to question the established order of the pseudoVictorian world she’s writing, and by unsubtle extension elements of our own world (the parallels between a noble class and the wealthy plutocrats is pretty clear, for instance). There’s also a wonderful theme of female independence despite men’s condescension running through the book; Brother’s Ruin is really about Charlotte Gunn, after all, who defies all manner of social convention, but only ever on the sly, and using her femininity and the expectations of others to get away with it.

Charlotte is in fact a fascinating character. In some ways, Newman has written an almost typical Austenian heroine; satisfied with her marriage to a man who will make her happy and financially secure, and not wanting to draw too much attention. However, Newman hasn’t let it be that simple; Brother’s Ruin consistently sees Charlotte bucking against convention and tradition, and pushing against the boundaries placed around her female existence, while also pushing against the class and wealth system that causes so much povery and misery. The rest of the cast are less well realised, although they do still have their interesting elements, from the sweet and slightly oblivious George to Charlotte’s own family, with their quirks, her mother ripped almost straight out of Pride and Prejudice (and then made middle-class).

The plot is perhaps the least satisfying thing about Brother’s Ruin, although not in a negative way. There are two plots which run, connectedly, in parallel; the attempt to get Ben into the Royal Society, and prove his abilities, with Charlotte’s help, and an attempt to deal with an extortionist lender with dark connections pressuring Charlotte’s father. The first is relatively resolved in the book, and Newman has some nice touches of explanation in there without it feeling like we’re being infodumped at; people have misapprehensions corrected, or are given propaganda in both directions, leaving the reader to make up their own minds. The other plot strand is wrapped up in the specific but leads to a much larger plot, resolved unsatisfactorily but with good reason, and one that allows Newman further social critique in the book itself; there’s a very unsubtle lead in to future books in the series.

Brother’s Ruin isn’t going anything new, but it is doing some old things much better than they are generally seen of late: not since The Difference Engine have I read a steampunk book that so actively goes out of its way to deconstruct Victorian class values and by very clear extension critique modern society too. I look forward to seeing what else Newman plans to do with the series.

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Amberlough by Lara Elena Donnelly

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From author Lara Elena Donnelly, a debut spy thriller as a gay double-agent schemes to protect his smuggler lover during the rise of a fascist government coup

Trust no one with anything – especially in Amberlough City.

Covert agent Cyril DePaul thinks he’s good at keeping secrets, especially from Aristide Makricosta. They suit each other: Aristide turns a blind eye to Cyril’s clandestine affairs, and Cyril keeps his lover’s moonlighting job as a smuggler under wraps.

Cyril participates on a mission that leads to disastrous results, leaving smoke from various political fires smoldering throughout the city. Shielding Aristide from the expected fallout isn’t easy, though, for he refuses to let anything – not the crooked city police or the mounting rage from radical conservatives – dictate his life.

Enter streetwise Cordelia Lehane, a top dancer at the Bumble Bee Cabaret and Aristide’s runner, who could be the key to Cyril’s plans—if she can be trusted. As the twinkling lights of nightclub marquees yield to the rising flames of a fascist revolution, these three will struggle to survive using whatever means — and people — necessary. Including each other.

Combining the espionage thrills of le Carré with the allure of an alternate vintage era, Amberlough will thoroughly seduce and enthrall you.
~~~~~
Lara Elena Donnelly’s Amberlough takes as its very obvious touchstone the musical Cabaret: the (ultimately resistible, if one would only try) rise of fascism as backdrop to a hedonistic foreground refusing to engage with politics. She goes a different direction in some regards, but how well does it work…?

Amberlough, from the start, runs three parallel plotlines. The first concerns Cyril DePaul, intelligence agent for the regionalist government of Amberlough turned, in the wake of being blown, into a double-agent for the nationalist, fascist One State Party (Ospies); his personal libertine lifestyle and his political acumen, as well as his abilities as an agent, all become both useful tools and liabilities across the course of his plot. The one problem with Donnelly’s portrayal of Cyril is that much as she tells us he used to be an excellent agent in the past, we never see any evidence of this in the present; no part of Cyril’s conduct in the novel gives us any hint of this excellent espionage that we’re told is part of his backstory.

The second major plotline is that of Aristide Makricosta, smuggler, libertine, drag queen and Cyril’s lover, at the start of Amberlough. He’s got an interesting plotline of his own, mostly revolving around dealing with the fallout of Cyril’s espionage work and the rise of the Ospies; we see a certain amount of ruthless illegal trade and dealing, and some excellent intelligence work, from Ari, and Donnelly really gives him a dark edge. He shines most brightly, though, on the stage and in the sections where he is dressing up, whether in drag or in civvies but designed to shine; Ari is a performer, and Amberlough gives him ample stages, large and small, intimate and personal or broad and general, and Donnelly relishes giving us his performances.

The third character through whose eyes we see this resistible, even if relatively unresisted, rise of fascism, is Cordelia Lehane, stripper at the same cabaret as Ari; indeed, their joint act, involving both dragging up, is the star of the show. Cordelia is an interesting character in Donnelly’s hands; through the course of Amberlough, she is by turns unfaithful lover, drug dealer, cabaret dancer, resistance runner, willing beard, and ends up… well, that would be spoiling things. Her character development is fascinating, as we see her realise how attached to certain people and places she really is, and as that affects her interactions with the world; Cordelia is where Donnelly really shows us what she can do in terms of taking a relatively simply character and then drawing them out to be so much more than that, and so much more interesting, in part by simply making clear to the readers her greater attachments.

The politics of writing a novel are often fraught, but one can only presume that was especially the case with Amberlough. This is very much a novel about the rise of fascism; all three characters’ plotlines are centred on the rise of the Ospies, whose very name is reminiscent of those fascists who cast their long shadow over all who came after, the Nazis. It’s unfortunate that much of the political machinations happen off-stage; Donnelly has a tendency to jump-cut past what one might regard as some of the more fascinating elements of the plot, tangles which the reader might enjoy moving through, rather than just seeing the consequences of. As it is, most of the political events happen off-stage, and inexplicably, and we see their consequences, instead of the events themselves; that’s not an entirely satisfactory way to write the book and ends up leaving Amberlough plot feeling a little empty and underbaked.

The setting deserves at least as much attention as the plot, since Donnelly clearly gave it at least as much lavishment. Amberlough is mainly set in the titular city, although it ranges outside that briefly to various places and refers to more; the city of Amberlough is a gloriously louche, corrupt, decadent place that really springs to life off the page, a kind of mash-up of Weimar Berlin with all the cliches of Prohibition-era Chicago, with an almost dieselpunk approach to technology. Brought to life by a mix of beautiful descriptions of the art deco and art nouveau architecture, the 1920s costuming, and the generous use of slang, Amberlough joins the ranks of settings which almost outshine the characters living in them, places like Peake’s Gormenghast or Tolkein’s Middle Earth; but rather than gothic or epic, the word that best describes Amberlough might be louche.

Amberlough is a very queer book; despite a relatively compact cast, of whom an even smaller number are actually depicted as queer, those characters are disproportionately on stage, and centred by the narrative. There are hints of more queerness around the edges of this plot – multiple-marriages and polyamory are part of the “old religion”, which the fascists oppose, and given the prominence of drag, hopefully there is more gender nonconformity to come in the auspices of the old religion in future books, necessary to tie up the fact that all three protagonists end their plots on very much cliffhangers.

Amberlough is, inevitably, not the perfect novel, if such a thing even exists; but Donnelly has produced a well-written and at times beautiful take on the themes of the rise of fascism and life under an oppressive government. The cliffhanger endings, and unresolved plots, will draw me into the sequel, but I’m hoping for slightly stronger plotting there.

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Karen Memory by Elizabeth Bear

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Set in the late 19th century—when the city we now call Seattle Underground was the whole town (and still on the surface), when airships plied the trade routes, would-be gold miners were heading to the gold fields of Alaska, and steam-powered mechanicals stalked the waterfront, Karen is a young woman on her own, is making the best of her orphaned state by working in Madame Damnable’s high-quality bordello. Through Karen’s eyes we get to know the other girls in the house—a resourceful group—and the poor and the powerful of the town. Trouble erupts one night when a badly injured girl arrives at their door, begging sanctuary, followed by the man who holds her indenture, and who has a machine that can take over anyone’s mind and control their actions. And as if that wasn’t bad enough, the next night brings a body dumped in their rubbish heap—a streetwalker who has been brutally murdered.

Bear brings alive this Jack-the-Ripper yarn of the old west with a light touch in Karen’s own memorable voice, and a mesmerizing evocation of classic steam-powered science.
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Elizabeth Bear swung by last week, before I had received my copy of Karen Memory, to talk to us about strong female characters; and what she said was brilliant, setting my expectations of the novel even higher than they had already been. So, how did it live up to those expectations…?

I’m going to talk a bit more personally about how I relate to Karen Memory, if the reader will indulge me. My copy arrived by post on Thursday morning of last week, and I read the first quarter or so of the novel between its arrival and four o’clock that afternoon. At that point, I received a phonecall from my mother, telling me my grandfather had died – suddenly and unexpectedly – the night before. Over the following few days, I had no fixed sleeping pattern, no real motivation, even no motivation at all – except to read Karen Memory, both so I could get this review up today, and because I wanted to. It afforded, by being first-person, escape into being someone else, someone with such different problems, and indeed a different life, to me, but with related problems; Karen is an orphan, and her processing of her grief for her father helped me process grief for my grandfather. It was also a book that took me away from the world; once I started reading, it was hard to drag myself out of the book, because Karen’s voice just drew me along, Bear keeping it smooth and consistent even while varying the pace, and making it very welcoming. The book provided a sort of haven from dealing with the reality of the world; when asked to think about saying something at my grandfather’s funeral, I wrote some brief thoughts and then retreated straight into Karen Memory, looking for the fun and joy that permeates the novel.

What I’m trying to say above is, I am hardly at my most objective when it comes to this novel; between the diversity of it, which I rejoiced in wholeheartedly for that first quarter, and the cloud hanging over me while reading the rest of Karen Memory and which it released me from, I have a huge love for this book, and am intensely grateful to Elizabeth Bear for writing it.

So frankly, Karen Memory surpassed all my expectations. This is an enormously fun book with enormous heart to it, even by the emotionally punishing standards of most of Bear’s output; helped no doubt by the very welcome return to first-person narration that we haven’t seen from Bear in some time. Indeed, the joy of the voice of Karen Memory is one of the best things about the book; our narrator-protagonist is Karen Memery, a seamstress (that article also gives some insight into the inspiration behind Bear’s fictional Rapid City, the setting of the novel) who speaks like a moderately-educated but by no means upper-class American of the 19th century, elided endings, dated terms (Bear doesn’t shy away from the racism of her time period), and a bawd’s sense of humour (innuendo abounds, and on at least one occasion is noted only to be taken back as actually literal). She’s a real delight to read, a joyous presence full of life, even in the darkest moments of Karen Memory; a sort of celebratory presence whose narration itself, by existing, reassures the reader that it will all work out in the end somehow.

Of course, Karen is also an animating presence in another way – it is largely her actions that drive Karen Memory, for better or worse, involving the rest of the cast in one another’s affairs in such a way as to cause the eventual explosion of chaos that concludes the novel. That chaos involves a Singer sewing machine pseudo-mecha reminiscent, intentionally, of Ripley’s xenomorph-slaying lifting suit; dynamite; explosions; a submarine with kraken-like tentacles for crushing ships; devious foreign plans; and US Marshal Bass Reeves as sidekick to Miss Memory, all coming together in the most pyrotechnic and cinematic scene you will ever read. This book, at times, reads like a James Bond film on speed, or run through the mind of a mad steampunk scientist; at others like the best kind of big stupid science fiction blockbuster; and at others, like a sort of steampunk Sex and the City; all the while sneaking in some very subversive messages.

And oh, does Bear ever bring in subversive messages to Karen Memory. This is a novel whose cast includes a number of people of colour, including the aforementioned historical figure of Bass Reeves and a fictional Native American posseman, Tomoatooah, filling the role of Tonto, but without the racism; a woman with disabilities, namely only one arm, and another old woman with movement difficulties; sex workers of various kinds (indeed, the disabled woman is a sex worker); and a trans woman, Francina, who is gendered female throughout, and on the one occasion when she drags up as a man, Karen as narrator is deeply confused. There are also blunt statements about privilege and about who we value (as for instance on p274), where Bear explicitly distances herself from some of the prejudices of her narrator by means of another character pointing them out, a very effective tactic.

Which leads to my summation; Karen Memory is a kick-ass, fun, diverse, and dare I say it spunky novel. It might not be Bear’s most cerebral work, but damned if I don’t think it might be her best to date. Indeed, it’s probably the best book I’m going to read all this year, and it’s barely even February…

The Invisible Library by Genevieve Cogman

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Irene must be at the top of her game or she’ll be off the case – permanently…

Irene is a professional spy for the mysterious Library, which harvests fiction from different realities. And along with her enigmatic assistant Kai, she’s posted to an alternative London. Their mission – to retrieve a dangerous book. But when they arrive, it’s already been stolen. London’s underground factions seem prepared to fight to the very death to find her book.

Adding to the jeopardy, this world is chaos-infested – the laws of nature bent to allow supernatural creatures and unpredictable magic. Irene’s new assistant is also hiding secrets of his own.

Soon, she’s up to her eyebrows in a heady mix of danger, clues and secret societies. Yet failure is not an option – the nature of reality itself is at stake.
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The pulicity for The Invisible Library describes it as Doctor Who meets librarian spies; a better comparison might be Sherlock Holmes meets Multiversity, but even that doesn’t quite capture Genevieve Cogman’s debut.

This is an unusual novel, in that its protagonist is not a hero. That is, she is in some senses a hero – she does her job, she tries to save people while doing that job, and she is dedicated to her job – but the Library of the title is not interested in heroism, and nor is she; Irene is a character many of the readers of Cogman’s debut will recognise in themselves, someone driven primarily not by altruism but by curiosity and a desire for books. The Invisible Library doesn’t flinch from this, and Cogman even uses it as a point of conflict between our “heroic” team; the primary ally Irene finds in the alternate London questions her motives and those of the Library, and this leads to Irene having an ongoing internal conflict about her reasons for action, about what the right thing to do is. It’s fascinatingly played out across the novel, and Cogman resists the urge to easy conclusions; The Invisible Library neither rewards nor condemns Irene for her quandary, nor suggests her actions on either side are right or wrong, leaving it up to the reader to draw their own conclusions.

There’s also an interesting thread of argument about power differentials and responsibilities running through the novel. The Invisible Library has discussions about the ethics of taking a book from a culture, even if it is only a copy, to add to a “universal library”; Cogman doesn’t explicitly draw the link but there is a clear continuity here between the actions of the Library in taking unique works away from worlds, and storing them where they can’t be accessed, and antiques collectors or even museums buying treasures from different cultures, and removing them from their cultural context for display and the edification of a completely different group of people. Again, The Invisible Library never gets preachy about this, but it does engage in the discussion quite strongly; and I suspect Cogman intends to do so, and she does so interestingly.

The Invisible Library is also praiseworthy for avoiding falling into one of the most significant traps of steampunk; it both acknowledges and averts the limits Victorian society put on women. Cogman has Irene discuss the problems of dresses versus trousers, especially for a woman of action; talk about how different roles in society – maid, society woman, et cetera – allow her different possibilities and accesses; and how she can use the expectations of a society against it. Throughout, Irene is a kickass heroine, who isn’t without weakness, nor is she invulnerable; but she is someone with her own agency, her own beliefs and opinions, and who acts in a way that is excellently human, frustrations and all.

This isn’t all high-concept intellectual discussion, though; The Invisible Library is primarily a steampunk romp, a heist-cum-Great Detective tale, with a primal conflict between Order and Chaos (not good and evil, though seen from Irene’s point of view it becomes so somewhat) thrown in for good measure. Cogman balances these elements rather well, and throws in a good bit of suspense and even some body-horror for good measure; we have people being skinned and their skin being worn at one point, whereas at another mind-controlled crocodiles attack a party. These disparate elements, which sound like they should have a completely different feel, are managed excellently by Cogman to create a unified whole that fairly zips along, with a sense of fun underlying the whole thing, the sense of a swashbuckling romp that, even in the darkest moments of the novel (and The Invisible Library does have its darkness), pervades everything.

The place where The Invisible Library falls down a bit is in some of its plotting. Cogman has thrown a whole lot of elements together and, while stylistically they work, it makes for a plot that is incredibly busy, with all sorts of false trails laid and red herrings thrown in for little benefit; there are any number of unresolved plot strands at the end of the novel that feel as if they have just been rather abandoned, such as the role of the Fae Lord Silver in affairs or the hatred between the British and the Fae of Liechtenstein. The Invisible Library does end with a sort of conclusion, in tying up its main plotline and indeed feeling as if it has finished, but so much remains unresolved, despite the promise of resolution earlier in the novel, that the conclusion is a little unsatisfying, as if things have been simply forgotten by Cogman.

In the end, though, I strongly come down in favour of The Invisible Library; Cogman asks some interesting questions, and discusses them well, through the lens of an enjoyable, readable, fun and fast-paced steampunk romp.

DoI: Review based on an ARC solicited from the publisher, Tor Books. The Invisible Library is currently out in ebook form, and will be released in paperback on 15th January.