Thursday, June 22, 2017

Raven Stratagem - Yoon Ha Lee

One of the most exciting novels I read last year was Yoon Ha Lee's Ninefox Gambit. It offered fast-paced space opera combined with a strange mathematical system that governs space travel, and society. Between the action, Lee has a thing or two to say about totalitarian states and oppression as well. Ninefox Gambit is the opening volume in his Machineries of Empire trilogy. The second book, Raven Stratagem, was released this month. This sequel pick up the story directly after the end of the first novel, but takes a slightly different approach. One would almost say a more conventional one.

General Jedao, long dead military genius and war criminal, has been set loose on the universe again. With the Hexarchie threatened by the Hafn, there is a job to do. But Jedao is dangerously unstable, unpredictable and not adverse to killing large numbers of people. When he takes over a fleet of spaceships, the Hexarchs get worried. Jedao is quickly outlawed but that doesn't break his command over the fleet. With an external enemy ready to strike, an internal conflict reaching a boiling point and a rogue general on the loose, it is hard to see how the conflict can be resolved without massive loss of life. Nevertheless, some parties are trying to achieve just that.

Raven Stratagem is not as heavy on space battles as its predecessor. There are a few to be sure, but most of the book deals with political manoeuvring. Where the reader gets thrown into the middle of the story in Ninefox Gambit, in this book we get to see much more of the political structure of the empire. It is a system everybody involved feels is rotten to the core. Every generation it becomes crueller, more violent and less tolerant. It takes more and more effort to keep within the narrow boundaries of calendrical orthodoxy. It is an empire rapidly approaching the breaking point.

One of the more interesting aspects of the novel is that most of the faction leaders seem to be perfectly aware of the weakness of the empire and its slow, long descent into madness. Most of them are not prepared to change the tiniest bit in face of this problem. Keeping their position is more important. To raise the stakes a bit further, the novel explores immortality. It is within reach for Hexarchy elite. The price for society as a whole, would be considerable though. Imagine having your leadership staying in place for centuries, slowly going mad, without even the possibility that at some point they will snuff it and let someone else have a go. The hexarchs are not a cheery bunch, that's for sure.

Most of the story was told from Cheris' point of view in the previous novel. In Raven Stratagem, Jedao/Cheris is not a point of view character. We get to see quite a lot of the general through the eyes of others though. Lee cleverly uses other points of view to show us what formation instinct, an effect of the calendrical system that ensures loyalty in the Kel soldiers, works on an individual scale. Loyalty, it would appear, is more complex than the mathematician who designed the calendar seems to have imagined.

What has remained constant in these books is the oppressive nature of the society Lee describes. The almost casual way in which populations are subjected to horrible violence for even the minutest deviation from the norm is terrifying. More than once characters mention how they do not relish having to kill large numbers of people, but do so anyway. They seem to think their actions are inevitable, even when faced with the evidence of the flaws in the system. Part of the machine that somehow robs them of initiative and absolves them of personal responsibility. Lee's parting shot in this novel is particularly poignant in that light.

The pace of the novel is perhaps a tad lower than the first book in the series. Apart from taking the time to show the reader a bit more of the hexarchate, Lee is also building up for the third volume. I wouldn't go so far as to say the novel suffers from middle book syndrome however, it has a strong story arc and definite climax of its own. It is clear that there is more to come though. One thing I wondered about at the end of the novel is the circular nature of the calendar, and what that implies for the future of the empire.

All things considered, Raven Stratagem is a worthy successor to Ninefox Gambit. It is fast and lean space opera. A dark and grim story. The kind of novel that does not coddle the reader, but challenges to look beyond the explosions and window dressing, and explore such themes as the dark side of human social structures, and the meaning of loyalty and humanity in the face of immortality. This trilogy is looking better and better. I already look forward to the third volume.

Book Details
Title: Raven Stratagem
Author: Yoon Ha Lee
Publisher: Solaris
Pages: unknown
Year: 2017
Language: English
Format: E-ARC
ISBN: 978-1-78618-046-9
First published: 2017

Monday, June 12, 2017

Tempo - Steph Swainston

Note: this text is only available in Dutch translation. I am not aware of any plans to publish it in English.

In September 2016, I read Het Rad van Fortuin, the first story written by Steph Swainston of the Splinters series. Splinters are thin paperbacks published by Dutch publisher Quasis one can read in an hour or so. Most of them are written by local talent but some are translations. They are just long enough to give the reader a good impression of an author's style and talent, and evoke a sense of curiosity in the reader about the author's other work. In Swainston's case it worked quite well. Het Rad van Fortuin was the first piece I read by Swainston. Since picking it up, I read four of her novels. When I heard a second Splinter from Swainston was about to be released, I just had to go fishing for a review copy. The publisher kindly provided me with one.

In Het Rad van Fortuin, we are shown a young Jant, one of the main characters in Swainston's Castle series. For this story she chooses a different character. Saker is the immortal Archer, serving emperor San in his fight against the insects. He is scarred by battle, but perhaps even more by his turbulent love life. In this story, he looks back fifteen centuries, on his first major romance, and on the day his jealous older brother tried to put him in his place during a high stakes chariot race.

Games, in some shape or other, are a staple of fantasy. The climax of Raymond E. Feist's first novel Magician is set during elaborate gladiatorial combat, and George R.R. Martin describes jousting tournaments frequently in his ongoing A Song of Ice and Fire series. Chariot races, the subject Swainston tackles here, are also well trodden territory. In The Birthgrave, the novel that would be her breakthrough, Tannish Lee describes a particularly hazardous variety. Guy Gavriel Kay even wrote a duology massively influenced by the culture surrounding the chariot races in Byzantium.

There is a good reason chariot races keep coming back in fantasy. They make for very exciting action scenes. Tempo is no exception to that. The young Saker is a bit of a hothead and he is in love on top of that. It is easy to manipulate him into a situation where he might easily lose his life. Swainston is not just aiming for an exciting scene though. What the story really is about is accepting the consequences of immortality. The love he pursues is one with a huge social taboo attached to it. Do you want to carry that with you for eternity? Is living forever worth losing a lover over?  They are facing hard choices indeed.

Saker as the main character is the perfect choice for this story. In the books we get to see him as a bit of a tragic figure, bent by the burden of his immortality. In this story, he is young, rash, stubborn and a bit cocky. We can already see the outline of his larger than life presence in the Castle though. His tendency to get himself involved in all sorts of dramatic events is clearly present. It fits perfectly with what we know of him from the novels.

Like Het Rad van Fortuin, Tempo can be read on its own, but it clearly invites the reader to dig further into Swainston's work. The dilemma Saker faces is the centre of a nicely contained story. For the reader who is more familiar with Swainston's writing, there are plenty of details that link the story to the wider world of Castle. Given the idea behind the Splinters series, Tempo is a success. It reminded me that I really ought to dig up a copy of Above the Snowline, the only novel Swainston has published I haven't read yet.

Book Details
Title: Tempo
Author: Steph Swainston
Publisher: Quasis
Pages: 42
Year: 2017
Language: Dutch
Translation: Jasper Polane and Pen Stewart
Format: Paperback
ISBN: 978-94-92099-26-6
First published: 2017

Monday, June 5, 2017

After Atlas - Emma Newman

Emma Newman's After Atlas (2016) is set in the same universe as Planetfall (2015). That book turned out to be one of the top reads of 2016 (I got to it late) and so the sequel jumped right to the top of my to read list. A position it held for an unreasonable length of time. Once again I am late in reading this book. The novel is set in the same universe, but the connection with the first book is minimal. They can be read independently of each other just fine. Although the novel is quite different from Planetfall, it has the same attention the characterization and psychology as the previous book. If you liked that one, After Atlas is a must read.

Many years ago the Atlas project left Earth in search of a new home. Only a few people managed to secure a place on board, to escape the overcrowded, hyper-commercialized planet. Carlos' mother was one of them. His father, who did not manage to beat the last round of the selection procedure, is left a broken man. He seeks refuge with an American religious cult. Many years later Carlos has escaped the clutches of the cult and has become a detective with a European government/corporation. When the leader of the cult he fled those many years ago is found dead and butchered in a hotel room in England, Carlos is put on the case. The investigation will bring up a lot of old hurts, and take him far beyond catching a regular murderer.

The setting of Newman's second Atlas novel is a future Earth. It is something of a dystopia. The distinction between governments and corporations has faded, and just about everything is turned into a commercial transaction. Information technology is employed to achieve a staggering level of surveillance on the general population. The only thing that can get you away from that is money. Huge sums of it. Information technology is integrated into society in a way that makes living without it almost inconceivable. Every aspect of the story is drenched with the possibilities of big data, how to use and abuse it, and how to avoid it. Even labour contracts are enforced 24/7 by employers, creating what amounts to a new form of slavery in the eyes of Carlos. The depiction of how technology might develop is depressingly realistic considering how much data is already being collected over the Internet. Once it is integrated into our bodies, privacy will only become harder to come by.

Even in this Big Brother future, it is possible to be murdered without a camera observing it though. Carlos still employs techniques to research the murder that a detective from a hundred years ago would recognize. Interrogation and looking for a motive are still key to the investigation. Perhaps it is because of the huge quantity of data available to him, that Carlos first needs a lead, an idea of where to look for the needle in the haystack. To him, knowing which questions to ask is critical to a successful investigation. His intuition and reasoning guide him more than all the technology at his disposal. It is this intuition that will get him in trouble eventually. Carlos can't stand loose ends. He keeps digging, even when he is told to stop.

Carlos is a man with more than a few issues. His job has made him a minor celebrity and the media often portray him as abandoned by his mother, the ultimate sin for a woman if they are to be believed. His anger is directed at his father however. A man who couldn't handle his failure. He neglected Carlos for years before entering the sect. When confronted with people from his past, the anger and resentment threaten to boil over on several occasions. Newman carefully reveals bits of his past to gradually expose his psyche to the reader. Through his problematic relationship with his father, his issues with food, and his problems forming social ties, a picture emerges of a man badly scarred by life, but with a strong sense of justice and self-preservation. He is at times desperate, and at the point of giving up, but always manages to make himself ask the next question. Just like Ren in the previous novel, Carlos is a well developed character. One that can carry the story.

The plot, in my opinion, was not as strong as the one in the previous novel. The investigation keeps things moving along nicely, but Carlos is forced to wrap that up with quite a bit of the book still to go. There are unanswered questions of course, questions Carlos' boss would rather not ask. But with a case that is as personal as this one, Carlos can't let go even if he wanted to. The section of the novel that follows feels rushed. Where the investigation is methodical and well-paced, the climax of the novel stuffs in a highly emotional reunion and a worldwide conspiracy. Carlos has to make some cognitive leaps that seem at odds with the steady progress of checking and eliminating he does early on in the novel. Maybe the contrast is intentional. The novel moves from all business to strictly personal after all. I didn't think it was quite convincing though.

Despite the rushed ending, After Atlas is a very good read. Newman creates another marvelously developed character with this novel. At the end of it, she also creates some interesting options for further stories in this universe. I have no idea if she intends to write a third novel, but the potential is certainly there. After Atlas is perhaps not the most uplifting novel, but it is one that is intelligently written and on the character level deeply moving. Planetfall is probably my favourite by a minimal margin, but After Atlas is a worthy sequel.

Title: After Atlas
Author: Emma Newman
Publisher: Roc
Pages: 365
Year: 2016
Language: English
Format: Paperback
ISBN: 978-0-425-28240-3
First published: 2016