Monday, 24 June 2019

Review: The October Man by Ben Aaronovitch

The October Man is a short novel set in Ben Aaronovitch's Rivers of London / Peter Grant contemporary fantasy universe. Only it's not set in London and Peter Grant isn't in it...

When I first heard that Ben Aaronovitch was writing a novel set in Germany, I thought that meant Peter Grant was going on a bigger outing. So far, he's been to London, London, London, rural Hereford and London. I didn't realise it was going to be a spin-off about people who know of Peter Grant (thanks largely to spy agencies), but who have not appeared in any of the previous novels in the series. So I was quite intrigued when, some pages in, I finally realised that this book was going to be something different.

Tobias Winter, our protagonist and first person narrator, is a young German police officer specialising in the supernatural. He is apprenticed to Germany's number one (and only) police wizard. In The October Man, he gets sent to Trier to solve a gruesome murder in the German wine-growing region around the Mosel river, with the help of a local policewoman.

If that premise sounds a little... familiar... then it's because Tobias Winter is the German Peter Grant. The setup of the German magic police might not include a building like the Folly, but apart from that, it feels very, very familiar. There is even an enthusiastic forensic coroner of magic corpses who helps the team, and there are Rivers to talk to...

Tobias Winter also has a very similar narrative voice to Peter Grant. He might not comment about architecture (although he does comment about the history  of places a lot), but apart from that, he has the same sense of humour and wit, the same way of observing things, the same approach to modern policing. His parents might not be into jazz, but Tobias has the same bemused affection for them that Peter has for his...

After the conclusion of the faceless man arc in London, I can see why it must have been tempting for the author to escape to a different angle for a bit. However, it feels a tad disappointing that the different angle turns out to be not that different after all.

The October Man is a curious novel: it's fun and readable and has most of the things you love about the Rivers of London series. Except for the cast. But it has a cast of equivalents instead...

Its biggest advantage turned out not to be the different setting, but the more compact list of characters. Peter Grant's universe has grown to include a big crew of friends, colleagues and recurring characters: at times, Lies Sleeping had felt like an exercise in story logistics akin to pulling the entire Marvel Cinematic Universe together into a tentpole ensemble story. The October Man goes back to basics and echoes Rivers of London more than any other Peter Grant novel since. Its biggest weakness is that it manages to feel weirdly derivative of its own series. It's worth reading and good fun, even so.

Rating: 3.5/5


Thursday, 20 June 2019

Review: Queenslayer by Sebastien de Castell

There is something mildly unsettling about a title like "Queenslayer". Probably it's the fact that I am a bit of a sexist when it comes to matters of violence: male characters dying or suffering don't usually bother me (EXCEPT Wash in Serenity. Damn Whedon!), but female characters getting killed, even if they are Lady f***ing De Winter in the Three Musketeers or Ma-Ma in Dredd, that usually feels quite wrong. (The Spellslinger series has not been particularly soft on its female characters: the author has killed off a few ladies by now...)

Imagine my reaction when we meet the queen in this story and she turns out to be an 11-year-old girl:


via GIPHY

Queenslayer is the fifth novel in the highly entertaining Spellslinger series of YA fantasy Westerns. As I said in my review of Soulbinder, the Spellslinger series is fun. It's made of fun. Our hero may be a self-deprecating young man, but his companion is a fierce and murderous squirrell-cat, and his adventures are fast, swashbuckling and exciting. At the same time, the books do have high drama, pathos, tension and enough peril to ensure that boredom is never an option.

Apparently, Queenslayer was the original draft, and the previous four novels were written as sort of prequels that led up to a rewrite of this novel for the author. I wouldn't have guessed - it feels like a natural continuation of the story arc so far. Kellen continues to make his way through the world as itinerant gambler, he continues to bluster and bluff and occasionally fight his way out of trouble, and Reichis is still the best business partner anyone might have.

In Queenslayer, Kellen and Reichis find themselves in trouble (aren't they always?) in the Daroman empire. After very nearly being executed for treason, Kellen enters the service of the young Queen. Cue intrigue, conspiracies, and murder most foul.

While we meet a bunch of new characters, this time there isn't much risk of Kellen forming friendships with any of them. Kellen can't trust anyone in this place, and seemingly everyone is either younger or older than him, so he is pretty much on his own. The Queen is a child who has to put on a grownup persona (and who does so far better than I found credible as a reader), and everyone else is grown up. Kellen is the only youth /not yet settled person around.
 
Queenslayer is a novel of Kellen and Reichis versus the world - and the world still has a few nasty surprises up its sleeves. I enjoyed it, but there was altogether too much violence against women in the story, and the wrong women at that. (I'd make an exception for Shalla: her death would be quite a welcome plot development by this point). So, altogether, a good book, but I keep hoping for the Spellslinger series to lose some of its grit and become a little happier...

Rating: 4/5




Saturday, 15 June 2019

Review: The Steerswoman Series by Rosemary Kirstein


I've recently finishing the third and fourth novels in the Steerswoman series. Reading the books was joyful and wondrous, while finishing the fourth book felt rather sad: who knows if the series will ever be completed, and now I have no more Steerswoman books to read...

The Setting & Premise

Rowan is a Steerswoman. She belongs to a group of women who dedicate their life to knowledge and information. They have a code: anyone can ask them any question, and they will answer it to the best of their knowledge. In turn, if they ask someone a question and get a dishonest answer or a refusal to answer, they put a ban on that person and never answer their question again. Rowan travels the world, observing, researching, sharing information. Steerswomen are like Wikipedia and Google rolled into one, in a pseudo-Medieval fantasy(ish) world. And because they are so useful, people generally accommodate and feed them for free.

Their opposite are wizards. Wizards keep secrets and hoard power. In fact, a lot of the magic that wizards do looks suspiciously like it is based on secret knowledge, skills, technology, rather than inherently magical.

Most (but not all) wizards are men. They treat regular people with disdain, and they live in secret or not-so-secret strongholds, forming loose alliances, competing with each other for territory and power, and occasionally fighting entire wars. Wizards trust no one, least of all each other. They rely on fear and brute force to make their way in the world.

Most (but not all) steerswomen are women. They share knowledge, form a loose sisterhood that spans the world, and treat each other (and all people) with respect and openness (until someone acts against them). Steerswomen rely on each other and the power of cooperation.

The Mystery

In the first book, Rowan is curious about a kind of gemstone that is always found entangled with metal. The pieces look too patterned to be natural, but their spread is inexplicable.Soon, her investigation attracts the attention of the wizards, and a grand adventure stumbles into motion...

The Friends

Rowan meets Bel, a fierce warrior from the Outskirter tribes, in the first book, and mutual fascination quickly turns into a partnership, ultimately, a friendship that feels as solid and crucial as any I've ever seen in literature.

Bel is not the only friend: Rowan meets others along the road, spends time among communities, forms bonds with people. Not always automatically: she can be aloof and she can have tunnel vision, focusing on her ideas & research. Sometimes, people find it hard to trust her, especially when the knowledge she brings seems very far removed from people's everyday lives.

The Books

The Steerswoman (1989) is the story of how Rowan and Bel become friends, investigate the secrets of the blue gems, hunted by wizards while chasing after knowledge.

The Outskirter's Secret (1992) is the story of how Rowan journeys into the farthest reaches of the Outskirts, together with Bel, to find the place where a Guidestar has fallen, and to figure out why the wizards are so protective of this secret knowledge. At times it feels like a Western, set on a frontier, but the Outskirter cultures we meet defy expectations.

The Lost Steersman (2003) is the story of how Rowan takes over an outpost of the Steerswomen's organisation - a kind of library - to find clues about what's going on in historical records. It is also the story of her sometimes rocky relationship with the small community where that archive is based, and a big side quest that takes her well beyond the frontier, into the unknown, to places that no one has ever returned from (and reported about), a place where demons live...

The Language of Power (2004) is the story of how Rowan and friends try to find out why one long-dead wizard tried to summon a long-forgotten steerswoman, not long after the Guidestar fell...

The Quality

The Steerswoman series is simply staggering in scope, quality, originality and the joyful reading experience it achieves. Rowan is an explorer-scientist who isn't out to exploit people or knowledge, but to share discoveries and wisdom. She wanders through a world that is interesting, mysterious, and imaginative, populated with people who are sometimes friendly, sometimes hostile, but rarely stupid or mean for the sake of being mean. Sometimes, she faces dangerous people working for wizards (or, rarely, wizards themselves), but not all peril is human or malicious. One of her most serious injuries is inflicted by some kind of dangerous lichen, at another time it is fever and illness that nearly kill her.

The books are well-written, with beautiful prose. The pace isn't always page-turning and breathless - in fact, Rowan sometimes spends a good portion of a book doing archival research or gumshoeing around, pestering lots of people with questions. However, there is from very early on an underlying tension. That tension stays taut throughout all four books, occasionally building up into set pieces of grandiose, nailbiting terror, but always staying in the background, even if Rowan is just having breakfast in an inn somewhere...

Each book is readable as an individual story, but reading the whole series in order is a fantastic experience. To name just one example: in the second book, in the Outskirts, Rowan and Bel encounter different creatures, one of which remains an unseen monster that even Bel is terrified of. So dangerous is the monster that all Bel and Rowan can do is cower in silence and hope they are not found by the creature. And then, in the third book, Rowan hears a sound that suggests one of these monsters - something she has not ever seen and which is so deadly that few who have survive to tell the tale - is in her village, at night, stalking people returning from the pub after a night out. To build up a monster not just within one story or one book, but over the course of two books... it was a heart stopping reading experience and a masterful example of writerly craftsmanship.

Surprisingly, the quality of the books does not really vary: they are all excellent. The price for this quality is the fact that the series is not finished yet. Between books two and three, eleven years passed in out world (but only some months in the story). It's been fifteen years since the fourth book was published - and volumes five and six are being worked on by the writer. To put it another way, the first book was published seven years before the first Game of Thrones novel, the books are shorter, there are only four of them so far (GoT had five volumes of the main story published so far), and it doesn't look like the Steerswoman books have turned their author into a billionnaire, so presumably she has to work on the remaining novels while having a day job and/or a life. Fortunately, these books are written in a way where the modern reader understands a lot more of what's going on than Rowan does, so while Rowan is still trying to unwrap an incomprehensible mystery, the reader isn't left in the dark to the same extent. Even if the series is never finished, you won't feel betrayed on a cliffhanger somewhere.

Still, I hope there are more books to come, and that the series will one day be complete.

The Verdict


If you haven't read this series, buy the books and read them. Now. This is SF/F at its very, very best.

Rating: 5/5, for all the books individually and for the series as a whole.



Monday, 20 May 2019

Review: The Outskirter's Secret by Rosemary Kirstein

The Outskirter's Secret is the second novel in the Steerswoman series. Rowan, the Steerswoman and Bel, her Outskirter / Barbarian companion, continue their quest where the first novel has left off. They are still trying to find out more about the mysterious blue gem & metal fragments that they nearly got killed over in the first book. Now, they are headed into the Outskirts, where life is much harder, civilisation a distant theory, and where the wreckage of a fallen star should be, if Rowan's reckoning is right...

The Outskirter's Secret is still a novel of adventure and questing, a novel about friendship, and a novel about two women taking on the world together while encountering different people and different cultures. However, it is not so much a novel of pursuit and intrigue: Rowan and Bel now know that a chief wizard exists, they know his name, and they know he is their enemy, but there are no more minions in pursuit, and aside from the natural environment, raiders, and vendettas, no one is trying to kill them. Well, no one apart from goblins and demons and lichen camouflaged as rocks and all the other perils of the lands they travel through. So, no chase, but much peril: it's an immensely readable adventure, always interesting and never boring.

The book does recap things from the first novel, but to be honest, I would not want to read it on its own. This is a series where reading the books in order is worth it: both books I've read so far were excellent, and the second builds on the events of the first. It delivers a satisfyingly dramatic climax, and even though the quest is not at an end, we learn more and get a stronger sense of what the wizards' secret might be.

Fantasy literature at its very best - and still ahead of its time (first published in 1992, it feels like it was written in the 2010s...).

Rating: 5/5

Sunday, 12 May 2019

Review: The Steerswoman by Rosemary Kirstein

The Steerswoman is a women-centric fantasy novel, first published in 1989. It seems to have been way ahead of its time, and it feels very contemporary.

Rowan is a Steerswoman. She belongs to a group of women who dedicate their life to knowledge and information. They have a code: anyone can ask them any question, and they will answer it to the best of their knowledge. In turn, if they ask someone a question and get a dishonest answer or a refusal to answer, they put a ban on that person and never answer their question again. Rowan travels the world, observing, researching, trading information. Steerswomen are like Wikipedia and Google rolled into one, in a pseudo-Medieval fantasy world.

Their opposite are wizards. Wizards keep secrets. In fact, a lot of the magic that wizards do looks suspiciously like it is based on secret knowledge, skills, technology, rather than inherently magical.

Most (but not all) wizards are men. They treat regular people with disdain, and they live in secret or not-so-secret strongholds, forming loose alliances, competing with each other for territory and power, and occasionally fighting entire wars. Wizards trust no one, least of all each other.

Most (but not all) steerswomen are women. They share knowledge, form a loose sisterhood that spans the world, and treat each other (and all people) with respect and openness (until someone acts against their interests). Steerswomen rely on each other and the power of cooperation.

So yes, this novel feels contemporary and absolutely relevant. It does not feel like a book written before the internet was even invented.

But enough about the setting. This is really a novel about Rowan, a Steerswoman, and Bel, a warrior women from the Outskirter tribes (barbarians...), travelling together and going on a quest. When they meet, Rowan is trying to find out about a certain kind of blue gemstones, which seem to have mysteriously appeared in the world about 35 years ago. Rowan asks a lot of questions of an Innkeeper, and Bel is there with a few people from her clan. Intrigued by the Steerswoman (and curious about the rest of the world), Bel offers to join Rowan on her travels, and curious about the Outskirter, Rowan agrees. Not long after, they are attacked. Then, things get worse, and Rowan starts to suspect that someone does not want her to find out about those blue gemstones...

It's a novel about two women who are instantly intrigued by each other, and about a friendship that forms even though they are very different in personality, in strengths and weaknesses, in world view. It's a novel about traveling and adventure and facing great dangers, but it's the friendship that gives the novel strength and joy.

I loved the book, from the start to the end. The novel is not all fluffy and cuddly: people die, even children. Tragedies and atrocities occur, and moral ambiguities, too. But our heroes don't mope and wallow: they know how to move on, and do. It's swashbuckling adventure at its best.

The Steerswoman is a brilliant start to a series. It's satisfying on its own, and the friendship at its heart feels stronger and more interesting than other buddy/bromance fantasy quest novels (such as Lankhmar or The Elephant and Macaw Banner).

Highly recommended

Rating: 5/5

Review: Empire of Sand by Tasha Suri

Empire of Sand is a debut novel set in a fantasy empire of deserts and djinn-like spirits. Mehr, the daughter of the Governor of a city near the edge of the Empire, lives a life both pampered and persecuted. Her stepmother hates her and tries to keep her away from her little sister, while her father is a largely distant figure, indulging and protecting her through his station, but barely part of her life. She has no peers and only two loved ones in her life: her little sister, and a courtesan who teaches her ritual dancing.

Mehr is mixed race, her natural mother having belonged to a nomadic people who have a different religion. Having been brought up with the beliefs and rituals of those nomads, Mehr doesn't really fit in the Empire, which persecutes her mother's people. Then, things come to a head: a magical storm sweeps over the city,  oppressors arrive to round up  and slaughter the people of nomadic origin, and Mehr's loved ones are endangered.

Blood is shed. Mehr uses her inherited magic. And then the mystics arrive to take her away...

Empire of Sand has a beautiful cover. It was written by a smart, likeable author (who happens to be a librarian in one of my alma maters). It promises an intriguing setting, being inspired by Mughal India. Unfortunately, it's also one of those novels that's utterly joyless.

Mehr's lot in life is to be privileged and persecuted. Oppressed, violated, exploited, but a princess. The novel features a sort-of-romance that is especially rape-y and icky, but then, pretty much every "tortured bad boy" character and every Stockholm-Syndrome romance fills me with disgust, so this may be one thing that some lady-readers might feel differently about.

Add some villains who are hateful and sadistic but not really enjoying themselves, a good sprinkling of genocide, and a heavy dose of self-pity (and/or self-loathing) in all the vaguely good guys, and you end up with a novel that just drags itself on hands and knees through its desert scenery, bereft of life-giving water, humour and joy. It's a bit like grinding one's face against a cheesegrater: it flakes away little strands of happiness without ever getting boring enough to give up or exciting enough for me to really want to know what happens next.

It's one of those everything-is-bleak, people-are-shit novels, with an exotic setting. Not quite grimdark (because grimdark novels have less self-pitying and more cynically ruthless heroes), but not exactly the right book to read to escape from a crappy reality.

Rating: 3/5

Thursday, 21 March 2019

Review: Semiosis by Sue Burke

Semiosis tells the story of a small colony of humans, settling on a new planet. They have left Earth and mankind behind: to them, Earth stood for ecological disasters, war, strife, and failure. Now, on a new planet, they hope that a fresh start will let them make a good job of it. They went looking for a way to live peacefully, productively, in equilibrium with nature, on a blank slate green planet.

The book follows the first six generations of the colony, each faced with different problems. The first generation discovers that local plantlife is not the passive background scenery that they know from Earth: plants on this planet are changeable, perhaps sentient, while animals seem... domesticated. By plants.

With a premise like that, I had high hopes for Semiosis. Alien plants versus humans? I hoped for a book about a totally different way of being, a totally alien world.

Unfortunately, Semiosis is really a book about an isolated colony of idealists / ideologues, trying to make a utopia but mostly just bickering and struggling.

They name their world / civilization "Pax", and they are convinced that they are better than the people they left behind on Earth. Pretty soon, we get an inkling that these people were not just hippie idealists, they were also immensely rich, and they chose to use a huge wealth to run away to their ideal, perfect, gated community on a virgin planet. They did not try to make anything better on Earth, did not use their wealth for a common good, but to create a new version of "common" without the hoi polloi. Perhaps unsurprisingly, it turns out they aren't inherently  wonderfully nice people...

I'd hoped for new, original, alien ideas. Instead, the book was a fairly bleak "small community of people being frequently shitty" tale. Sure, there were some decent folk among the characters in the book, but there was also an overabundance of arseholes in the text, and lots of general shittyness. I get it, there's no hope, people are people and even a self-selecting group of 50 will soon include conflict and shittyness that festers and grows, but still. I had been sold a book about alien plants, and it turned out to be a book about petty politicking, weaponised rape, a serial killer, xenophobia, and the pros and cons of genocide.

The plants were more interesting when we didn't get one of them as a narrator / viewpoint character: once we get that perspective, any alien-ness disappears and we're just dealing with a human narrator wearing a plant costume, not a real plant...

Semiosis was readable and not boring. It just wasn't the book I'd been sold, and it wasn't nearly as original or interesting as I'd hoped. It was cynical and bleak in its view of human nature, and it had no real overarching plot.

Rating: 3/5