Monday, 3 February 2014

Towers of Midnight

Robert Jordan and Brandon Sanderson
Orbit (

What more is there to say about the Wheel of Time? What purpose in reviewing Towers of Midnight –  the thirteenth in the series, a book almost as thick as it is wide? Surely anyone who’s got this far knows exactly what they’re getting, and anyone reading this review is either an incurable fan of the series or – more likely – looking for a mean-spirited chuckle as I say cutting, witty things about it.

Yet shockingly, Towers of Midnight isn’t that bad. Wait, readers, come back! I’m not saying it’s good, lest what little Internet credibility I might have built up over the years vanish with an inconsequential ‘pop’ – I’m simply saying that by the standards of the rest of the series, this is a solid – even occasionally exciting – novel.

It’s difficult to say where the root of this improvement lies – is it Brandon Sanderson, or is proximity to the series’ inevitably apocalyptic climax finally forcing stuff to happen? In my review of the previous book, I mentioned that Sanderson (the anointed perpetrator of the series’ final three novels following Robert Jordan’s death) seemed to be trying to balance the need to respect Jordan’s idiosyncratic style with his own awareness of the series’ appalling stagnation – and that balance seems to have slipped further away from the stagnant with Towers of Midnight, even though I feel perfectly comfortable reproducing the plot summary from my The Gathering Storm review verbatim:

Plotwise, it’s labyrinthine enough to defy any attempt at summary. Broadly – the end of the world is coming, and Dragon Reborn Rand al Thor is still trying to forge the various bickering nations of men into an army capable of staving off the darkness at the Final Battle.

The strongest part of The Gathering Storm was Sanderson’s examination of Rand al Thor’s disintegrating psyche, but having found some measure of psychological equilibrium at the end of the novel, Rand takes a back seat here as his friends get their chance to shine.

Perrin Aybara – blacksmith, wolf-friend and reluctant leader of armies – is forced to face up to both the consequences of his earlier actions and his future as a leader of men. Matrim Cauthon – ladies’ man, gambler and irrepressible jackass – resolves to rid himself of the monstrous gholam haunting his tracks, and to rescue the group’s former mentor Moiraine from the otherworldly Aelfinn and Eelfinn. Egwene al Vere, young leader of the newly united Aes Sedai, seeks to root out the spies, assassins and traitors that still haunt her city. And Elayne Trakand, recently crowned Queen of Andor, looks to bring neighbouring Cairhien under her protection.

Laying it all out like that makes them sound like a decisive bunch, but mostly they just drink tea and talk about their plans in endless repetition. This novel is eight hundred and forty-three pages long, and most of it is taken up with detail: details of plots and schemes and plans, details of food and costumes, and detailed descriptions of soft furnishings.

A more generous soul would call this world-building, a necessary side-effect of creating a realistic, intricate setting – but it’s not. It’s padding. This is not a novel which will show you something when it could describe it in mind-numbing detail:

Egwene gasped, came awake and sat upright. She was in her rooms at the White Tower. The bedchamber was nearly empty – she’d had Elaida’s things removed, but hadn’t completely furnished it again. She had only a washstand, a rug of thick-woven brown fibers, and a bed with posts and drapes. The window shutters were closed; morning sunlight peeked through.
  She breathed in and out. Rarely did dreams unsettle her as much as this one had.

Is it somehow vital to the plot that we know about the rug on Egwene’s floor? About her washstand? Is the reader not to be trusted to figure out that Egwene wasn’t holding her breath? Well apparently not, as we also can’t be trusted to work out that a guardsman might not look kindly on murder:

Chubain looked annoyed they hadn’t found the forced lock. The Tower Guard was not a policing force – the sisters had no need of that, and were more effective at this kind of investigation anyway. But Gawyn could tell that Chubain wished he could stop the murders. Protecting the Tower, and its occupants, was part of his duty.

This kind of relentless, all-encompassing exposition leaves the reader nothing – the words are empty calories, with nothing to make you think. But criticising the Wheel of Time for being padded-out is like criticising a cat for killing mice: it’s the nature of the thing. Let’s move on.

While most of the novel is text as a holding pattern, filling the pages as if the authors had a contractual quota of rainforest acreage felled, when the action does come it’s pretty pacy. One of the highlights of the novel comes as it breathlessly flicks back and forth between three major action setpieces, flurrying cliffhangers and never giving you time to settle back – there’s enough energy here to make a decent climax of a normal-length novel, and for the space of a few dozen pages Towers of Midnight hints at how good it could have been.

Matrim’s assault on the Tower of Ghenjei – home to the Aelfinn and Eelfinn – is another highlight, playing up the weird and otherworldly nature of the place and its inhabitants. For as long as the snakes and foxes stay hidden in the shadows, playing mind-games with the intruders and bending the rules, you’re gripped by something approaching genuine suspense.

But like a B-movie monster, the less you see of them the more effective they are; once they start boiling out of the walls and being cut down en masse like any other mook, it’s hard for them to retain their menace. A little too long in front of the camera, and you realise it’s just a guy in a rubber suit.

While these setpieces range from decent to good, they’re far too rare. As with The Gathering Storm, the very best of Towers of Midnight is a quieter, more introspective moment, removed from the merry-go-round of bland political wrangling and uninspiring battle scenes. Sent back to Rhuidean, the city where the Wise Ones of the nomadic Aiel complete their training and receive visions of their people’s ignoble beginning, the spearmaiden and apprentice Wise One Aviendha is the conduit for a thoughtful rumination on tradition and purpose that’s made all the more profound for its relative unexpectedness.

I’ve never found Aviendha a particularly interesting or engaging character – she’s always come across as a fairly typical embodiment of the Wheel of Time’s problematic treatment of women, veering between shrewish, belligerent and inscrutable. But just as The Gathering Storm gave the anodyne Rand some surprising depth, Towers of Midnight adds an extra dimension to Aviendha.

Step by step, generation by generation, the utter ruin of her people is visited on her – not merely their destruction but rather a slow decay of everything that ever defined them or gave their existence meaning. With style and patience, Sanderson allows layers of information to accumulate like desert sand slowly swallowing some ancient wonder – effectively evoking the slow, inevitable passage of time in a way which makes the passing of the Aiel genuinely affecting.

It’s a stand-out scene, and one which demonstrates that the improvement in the Wheel of Time since Sanderson took the reins can’t simply be ascribed to the series’ impending apocalypse. Towers of Midnight is the best of the series so far, and with some ruthless editing it could even have been called a genuinely good book in its own right. It’s just a shame about the four million words which preceded it.

This review was originally written for

Thursday, 17 October 2013


KJ Parker
Orbit (

As a sweeping generalisation, KJ Parker’s novels are intelligent, funny, brutal, thrilling and inaccessible. Parker’s gift – one of them, at least – is turning mundane, everyday activities into extended, perfect metaphors for life and human nature; genius when you read it, but tough to sell to friends or internet readerships. As you gushingly describe a Parker novel, you’re in danger of being tagged as the sort of person who finds logistics fun.

Sharps is a departure from that, at least on the surface. The story of a Scherian fencing team sent to neighbouring Permia at the end of a decades-long war between the two nations, it’s got politics, intrigue and sword-fighting. It’s got a hook you can safely describe at parties!

 Echoing the ping-pong diplomacy between the US and China in the seventies, the tour is a diplomatic tool designed to help secure the peace … or so the fencers are told. But if that’s the case, why send… them?

A traumatised veteran on the edge of snapping; an accidental murderer given the choice of this or the rope; the abrasive daughter of minor nobility; and the spare son of the general who drowned an entire Permian city. Four unlikely diplomats, managed by a retired former champion turned businessman.

None of them are entirely here by choice. Are they a sacrifice, sent to die and reignite the conflict? Or is one of their party responsible for the string of assassinations suddenly thinning the ranks of Permia’s rulers? Where does their slinky, suspicious political minder keep slipping off to whenever bad things happen? And just what the hell is actually going on?

Follow the money could be this novel’s guiding tenet. Scheria’s in hock to the financial institutions of the Western Empire; Permia’s hard-mined silver – while it lasted – went to hiring mercenary troops from the Eastern Empire and the ‘barbarian’ tribes of the Aram Chantat. With larger powers at play in the petty squabbles of two relatively insignificant countries, it’s hard not to see a of the Korean conflict’s cold-war proxying in Permia and Scheria.

There are echoes of more modern troubles, too, from the economic imbalances of the wealthy vs the other 99% through Permia’s slow-burning Arab Spring-style popular uprising and on to the political dissatisfaction of western youth. There’s an excerpt from a book – a comically dry treatise on political theory one of the fencers ends up reading, to stave off boredom on the long coach journey – which seems particularly telling:
The institution we commonly refer to as democracy would, properly speaking, be more aptly termed an elective, or even in many cases a sortative, oligarchy, where the democratic element consists merely of the selection, often by random, perverse or otherwise unsound procedures, of the membership of the personnel of the ruling elite.

But generally, this is a novel fascinated by the complexities of violence, both political and personal – and the effects it has on the wielders of that power. In fencing Parker’s once again found the perfect metaphor, where the civilised niceties of sport fencing – the etiquette, the rules, the blunted weapons – are like a silk handkerchief to hide a bloodstain.

When they get to Permia, the Scherian team are horrified to find that the Permians fence with sharps, not blunted foils – and one of the team will be fencing messer. Little more than a big curved knife, messer has no useful guards or wards – it’s a weapon of aggression and all-out attack. It’s fencing stripped of all its pretences. ‘Here they fight with messers. God help them’ is a quote from the fifteenth-century German swordmaster Hans Talhoffer, and it’s dropped again and again into the narrative of Sharps like some kind of catechism.

In the end, it comes down to what you’re willing to do. As one of the fencers says, “at least half the story’s always the reason why you do something. You can give me a whole string of things that normally you’d say were the most appalling crimes, and then I’ll give you cases where they’re not only justified, they’re absolutely the right thing to do.” (p.185)

Perspective is important in Sharps, how the place you’re standing affects your whole outlook. Again fencing proves itself an apt metaphor, as the Scherians’ style of stepping out of line – bringing a second dimension to a linear, shuffle-back-and-forth duel – dismays the Permians in an early match. Cultural differences, and so on. 

But this segues easily into more substantive divisions: me and him, us and them. The other. Suidas, the bitter, PTSDed veteran, loathes the Permians (and the mercenary Imperials and Aram Chantat, and pretty much everyone really) but ironically understands them better than anyone else in the coach.

The Aram Chantat might drink from skull cups, but they’re faintly horrified that the Permians and Scherians would wave swords at each other for fun. Time and time again Parker highlights the dividing lines of culture, class and skin colour, before cheerfully turning them upside down and highlighting the characters’ damning, inescapable preconceptions:
They talked about sizing up your opponent. That made him think of looking at girls, the way he used to. Turn people into objects and you can do any damn thing to them.

Speaking of girls, however, the lone woman among the fencers, Iseutz, marks a welcome answer to a criticism often levelled at Parker – that the author’s female characters tend to be shrewish, inscrutable background furniture rather than active participants in the story.

Iseutz still has a touch of the shrew, but she’s fiery and funny and gets as much agency as any of the other fencers do – which admittedly isn’t much, but at least she’s an equal player here rather than inconsequential set dressing. It’s nice to see what Parker can do with a female character, and I hope we’ll see more like Iseutz in novels to come.

You’ll note I said funny a little way back. Did I mention already that Parker’s novels were funny? Sharps is absolutely no exception, dry and delightful, and populated by intelligent, witty characters with a tendency to savage each other without mercy. It’s hard to pull any particular quote out as overtly funny, but Parker’s sustained, almost aggressive deadpan just seems to build and build:
  “It means I don’t know,” the doctor repeated. “I happen to be one of the three best doctors in Scheria, but if medical science is geography, then mankind as a species has a map with three towns marked on it and a lot of blank space with drawings of sea serpents. I think it’s your heart, but there’s about a dozen other things it could be, half of which are trivial and the rest almost certainly fatal. How old did you say you are?”
  “The doctor nodded. “If you’ve got any money saved up, I’d spend it.”
  “I’ve taken a vow of poverty.”
  “That’s all right, then.”


At its best, the depth of the humour approaches a sublime kind of farce – particularly where each of the characters is desperately trying to keep above water and figure out what’s going on. Only the reader, by benefit of seeing the goings-on from a variety of different angles, is privileged enough to have all the pieces – but they’re jumbled up good and proper.

Sharps is Parker’s most complex work so far – no small feat – and it never panders to its audience. All the information is there, you just need to be able to extract it from what’s essentially a story of five people going crazy from claustrophobia on a long coach journey. Needless to say, this is a novel which rewards re-reading.

Because for all its epic, fate-of-nations sweep, Sharps is primarily a character study. The fencing team are fuck-ups and failures, but they’re fascinating ones – and none of them stupid. Which means they spend half their time squinting at each other suspiciously, and the other half making mistakes they know they’re making even as they make them.
The first imperative of war, his father always insisted, was to define victory; to work out exactly what you wanted to achieve. … His father was, of course, notoriously bad at chess. He always lost when playing against promising junior officers or enemy generals. But of course, in losing, he gained valuable information about their strengths, whereas if he won, all he’d have demonstrated was that he was more clever than them, which he knew already.

As Parker says in an interview over at pornokitsch, ‘Smart characters are more fun. You can do more with them, and to them. They tend to be articulate enough to say stuff that needs saying (so I don’t have to); they’ve got the ingenuity and resourcefulness to get things done; they get themselves into better and deeper scrapes.’

The scrapes here are pretty deep, and where they’re not entirely character-driven then the foibles of the characters involved certainly don’t help. It’s as though the fencers are on a kind of treadmill, where the more they try to change their essential natures the faster they’re drawn back to them.

Fate casts a long shadow over most of Parker’s novels, but I’ve never sensed it looming so strongly as in Sharps. Every swordfight feels as though it has horrendous weight – and this is a novel about a fencing tour, after all, so there are plenty of them, each impeccably accurate in the specifics and thrillingly described.

Because this is also a novel about history – its inescapability and, contradictorily, its mutability. As one of the fencers puts it:
A memory was property, after all. When there were no other witnesses to claim title to it, the memory belonged to you. It was no crime to bend it a little, to dull the edges, put a button on the point so it was no longer sharp. Only a fool would carry an unsheathed knife in his pocket.

This is history being written by the winners, how posterity transforms folly into heroism and buries any inconvenient fact that don’t fit neatly into the conquering narrative. A brutal aside in the closing pages emphasises just how insignificant all of this is, in the long run; how the inexorable passage of time wears down even the most dramatic of personal stories into barely a footnote on the annals of history.

If there’s any justice, KJ Parker will be more than just a footnote in the annals of fantasy. But you can probably do something about that. So out you go. Buy Sharps.

This review was originally written for

Thursday, 1 August 2013

The Fractal Prince

Hannu Rajaniemi
Gollancz (

Hannu Rajaniemi is a magnificent bastard of a novelist, who – to echo a line I used it reviewing his previous novel – manages to both have his cake and eat it. (There’s probably a quantum physics joke in there, but let’s leave it and move on.) The universe of The Fractal Prince is literally littered with hard science concepts, or at least enough hints and plausible techno-jargon that you can’t really tell the difference. At the same time, it’s high-action space opera of the very best kind, full of stunning set pieces and future-powered superhumanisms that seem specifically tailored to drill straight into the still-teenaged hindbrain of your average SF geek and make it squee with delight.

 It’s hard to balance cleverness and credibility with awesome fun, but Rajaniemi appear to do it effortlessly. And speaking of magnificent bastards, protagonist Jean le Flambeur – already a wonderful character, combining various parts of a dozen criminal archetypes from the witty gentleman conman to the nerdy hacker/safecracker – here gets a chance to develop in interesting ways. In The Quantum Thief le Flambeur’s charm made him effortlessly likeable, but the hints of the older, nastier Jean he’d left behind made him deeply compelling. The Fractal Prince puts a hunter on his trail and raises the stakes, forcing le Flambeur to reveal a little more of himself – even as he cloaks himself in other people’s stories.

He’s not the only one who’s roleplaying, either, because at its heart this is a story about stories. le Flambeur and his partner-captors have left Mars behind for the ruins of Earth, and the majority of the novel takes place in the unashamedly Arabian days of the city of Sirr, which appears to be the only surviving bastion of flesh-and-blood humanity left on Earth.

That it has withstood the relentless all-consumption of the Sobornost minds is thanks to its stories – the self-replicating memes and body thieves of the wildcode desert are enough to make even the godlike uploaded intelligences of the Sobornost founders think twice.

Like the Martian Oubliette of The Quantum Thief, Sirr is an astonishingly imaginative and well-realised place. To tell you much about it would be to spoil the joy of discovery, but it’s a place of jinn and spices, of palaces and minarets built out sideways from the kilometre-long Shards of a fallen orbital.

And again like Oubliette, Sirr has its particular theme – a theme which, like that of Oubliette, informs the structure of its novel’s narrative. About halfway through the novel comes a line of apparently throwaway dialogue – ‘Sometimes it is more important to hear how a story is told than what the story is’ (p.154) – but it’s more telling than its circumstances suggest. The Fractal Prince wears the conceit gleefully, looping threads of narrative round and round itself in such a way that any attempt to describe their tangled skein would probably require a flipchart.

In lesser hands you’d end up with a confusing web, and in truth it’s a more sophisticated reader than me who can join all the dots on a single read-through – particularly what motivations the villain and even whether his plot makes any damn sense at all. But as with The Quantum Thief it just about ties together on re-reading, and while I might have hoped that in his second novel Rajaniemi’s might have found a way to tighten up one of the few flaws of his debut, the plot is (as that line I mentioned earlier suggests) almost irrelevant.

The same logic applies to the ideas. Rajaniemi’s science bears the stamp of authenticity, as you’d probably expect from a chap with a Ph.D in Mathematic Physics, but unlike a lot of hard science authors he manages to fold the technical aspects into the ongoing narrative in such a way that they enhance, rather than distracting from, the tale being told. Mainly this is thanks to Rajaniemi’s extreme aversion to the expositionary infodump; where we learn about the background details of his setting it’s organically, through the interaction of the characters rather than some intrusive narrator bringing the story to a crashing halt.

It’s slightly less subtly handled here than in the preceding novel – particularly an interlude regarding what feels like a Macguffin-to-be, the Kaminari Jewel  – but one of the many blessings of The Fractal Prince’s layered, self-referential narrative is that it makes the scene-breaking nature of the various flashbacks, flashsidewayses, and flashvirtuals a virtue rather than a flaw.

Nonetheless, you do get a better idea of what drives the various factions – particularly the Sobornost, who (while relatively incidental) were fairly inscrutable in The Quantum Thief. What you learn is genuinely original, and fairly mind-boggling at that. The Sobornost are making war on death, on the inherent unpredictability of quantum principles: ‘the taming of physics… taking the dice from God’s hand, the creation of a new Universe with new rules… where all those who died can live again, turning away from the laws written down by a mad god’ (p.142). It’s like the solar system’s most epic temper tantrum ever, railing against the unfairness of a random universe by retreating into a virtuality which follows more rational, classical rules. It’s genius.

About the only place the novel falls down – or stumbles, at least – is in the way it handles the payoff from the conclusion of The Quantum Thief. It feels a little too lightweight after all the drama and shenanigans back on Mars, though it does lead to an excellent virtual face-off in a forest full of menace and tigers, oh my. I think the likely cause of the problem is The Fractal Prince’s circular structure, again – by the time this last thread from the last novel is tied up, we’ve already moved on in triplicate.

But if the worst thing you can say about a book is that it hasn’t quite managed 0% plot fat, it does tend to suggest a reviewer struggling to find points of criticism. So go, reader – run to your local book emporium and buy The Fractal Prince. Read it now.

I’ll wait.

This review was originally written for

Saturday, 22 June 2013

Jack Glass

Adam Roberts
Gollancz (

I’ve been staring at Jack Glass for over an hour, trying to find the best way to start this review. There’s little point in summarising the plot, because the plot is just another postmodern cog in the cunning little machine that Adam Roberts has so intricately assembled. This is a clever book, but it’s a little too distanced and mechanical in its cleverness to ever quite manage to qualify as enjoyable.

Jack Glass is science fiction, I can say that much; SF of the old fashioned kind. In its author’s own words, the novel is a collision of ‘the conventions of ‘Golden Age’ science fiction and ‘Golden Age’ detective fiction, with the emphasis more on the latter’ (Acknowledgements, p.372).

Perhaps you’re curious about the precise definition of ‘Golden Age’ science fiction. Perhaps you’ll visit the Wikipedia article, and find it described by the author of The History of Science Fiction as valorising ‘a particular sort of writing: ‘hard SF’ linear narratives, heroes solving problems or countering threats in a space-opera or technological-adventure idiom’.

The author of The History of Science Fiction is Adam Roberts.

Roberts clearly knows a lot more about Golden Age SF than most; his novel seems to be assembled of oblique nods to genre classics, and if I got a quarter of the references I’d be surprised – leaving me with a vague sense that the author is sticking his tongue out at me from just beyond my field of vision.

Nonetheless, it broadly conforms to its author’s own definition – strange, that. The setting is a plausible-seeming space opera, and Roberts pays scrupulous attention to keeping his science as hard as possible. He does a good job of extrapolating the sociological implications, too, and the hints we’re given of Roberts’ future society are interesting.

From the brutal extrapolation of privatised prison labour which sets the scene for the first act, to the countless philosophies and religions and pathetic rebellions among the scattered sumpolloi that make up the bulk of oppressed humanity, Jack Glass’ setting is all too easily believable, and painted on occasion with a delicately warped sense of humour. Take this hard-done-by merchant complaining of society’s binding laws, the Lex Ulanova:

“That’s the thing about the Lex – it even regulates the bounds of illegality. So: we are taxed not from 100% of our gross, but from 143%. To take into account our supposed involvement in the black market.” (p.283)

But for all that the third of the novel’s parts draws back to consider large-scale social problems, from humanity’s potential self-destruction, the injustice of the ruling Ulanov dynasty and questions of moral relativity (as well as special relativity), the primary focus of Jack Glass is on the narrative mechanics of the traditional mystery.

Because before it’s an homage to Golden Age SF, Jack Glass is first a deconstruction of detective fiction – which combines nicely with the ‘problem-solving’ aspect of that definition I mentioned earlier.

The novel itself is the puzzle – less a whodunit than a whydunnit, or a how. All of which the narrator makes clear in the introduction, as they lay out a challenge for the reader:
In each case the murderer is the same individual – of course, Jack Glass himself. How could it be otherwise? Has there ever been a more celebrated murderer?
That’s fair, I hope?
Your task is to read these accounts, and solve the mysteries and identify the murderer. Even though I have already told you the solution, the solution will surprise you. (pp.1-2)

The tone of that introduction is superior, condescending; it’s like being set a test by a teacher who thinks you’ll fail, and the natural reflex is to jerk against it and solve whatever it is we’re supposed to solve, dammit. That’ll show them.

But Jack Glass is, I think, primarily an intellectual exercise. It’s a little too pleased with itself, and a little too pleased with its clockwork mysteries, to the point where it forgets to provide a beating heart beneath the artifice. And it’s hard to care about the characters, particular when they’re presented in a faux-naïve style which quickly becomes maddening: 
“’It would require someone of great strength to lift such a thing,’ was Deño’s opinion. ‘Even assuming they were acclimatized to the gravity.’
This was self-evidently true. So do you know what Diana thought? She thought: since that suggests that the murderer is a person of great physical strength, the murderer will actually be a very weak individual. Diana knew murder mysteries, you see. She had played a thousand Ideal Palace whodunits. A thousand, at least! (p.109)

The conceit waxes particularly strong in ‘The FTL Murders’, the second and longest part of the book and the part of which Diana is the focal character. That seems sensible enough, given the protagonist’s lack of worldly experience, but even in the most horrific sections of the first act – and it gets plenty dark – there’s a touch of that same mad childishness.

It’s a necessary omission, though, in order to keep the eponymous Jack even slightly sympathetic – the naivety of the narrative voice renders even the most horrific actions almost quaint. Murdering, de-boning and hollowing out your fellow man so you can wear him like a skin-suit is more the stuff of video nasties than of your typical protagonist, but Jack’s actions are presented in such a clinical, unjudgemental fashion that they seem almost reasonable. A man’s gotta do what a man’s gotta do.
Besides, as the structure of the novel makes clear, this version of events is potentially doubly sanitised: by Jack himself, though it’s possible he’s not the type; and by his faithful chronicler, who has made it their mission ‘to tell his story. To tell his story to you.’ (p.367)

Whether you’ll care to hear it is debatable. You can only tease your readers for so long before they’ll grow tired, as becomes readily apparent in the third part of the novel. Roberts departs from the linear narrative his own definition of ‘golden-age’ SF requires, in order to start playing around with chronology – appropriate, given the nature (and the solution) of the mystery.

And while the structure and solution of the mystery is a genuine dash of genius, our heroine Diana’s talent for intellectual problem-solving manifests itself in an unfortunate, frustrating fashion – as a prolonged series of interrogatives. Diana primarily, but all the characters ask themselves the same couple of questions over and over. How? Why? How? Why? It’s all to little avail, until Diana’s ability to decode a heavily allusive dream finally allows her (but probably not the reader) to figure it all out – by which time the point has become rather moot anyway.

Jack Glass is endlessly inventive and undoubtedly clever, with some interesting things to say about the nature of crime and punishment, but in its incessant game-playing it tippy-toes across the line between amusing and annoying. I imagine it was more fun to write than it is to read; certainly it’s more fun to write about.

This review was originally written for

Monday, 6 May 2013

The Outcast Blade

Jon Courtenay Grimwood
Orbit (

The Outcast Blade is the second ‘act’ of The Assassini, an alt-historic fantasy focusing on the political and romantic intrigues of 15th-century Venice; it follows on from The Fallen Blade, which I didn’t really enjoy, and is considerably more assured than its predecessor.

The Venice of the time was Europe’s richest city, grown fat on the trade between east and west. Grimwood’s version is equally well-off, if significantly more vulnerable militarily. Venice’s navy has been all but wiped out defending Cyprus against Egypt’s Malmuk Sultanate in the previous book; that the Sultanate was equally mauled in the exchange is little comfort to Venice’s ruling Council of Ten, because now it finds itself caught between two rival powers, the inheritors of ancient Rome.

To the north, the Holy Roman Empire of Sigusmund; and out of Constantinople to the east, the waning but still formidable Byzantine Empire. As The Outcast Blade begins, both empires lay claim to the recently-widowed Giulietta Millioni and her son Leo; Guilietta is cousin of Venice’s childless, unmarried and imbecilic Duke, and her son will most likely be his heir.

Both empires dispatch prospective husbands to Venice, to vie for Guiletta’s hand and secure the Ducal throne; that both princes come with a sizeable army for escort is not lost on the city state’s warring Regents, though their plans to turn the situation to their advantage have little in common.

Little, that is, but the instrument of those plans: Tycho, the eponymous ‘blade’ of the title. Newly knighted following his tide-turning intervention in the naval battle off Cyprus, the former slave and trained assassin is more concerned with wooing Guilletta for himself. But the Millioni princess wants nothing to do with him, having convinced herself he let her husband die at sea.

That’s five paragraphs and 300 words or so to set the scene, and I haven’t even touched on the fantastic aspects of the series. This is detailed, complicated stuff – as you might expect from a novel so concerned with intrigue, and sometimes it can be a little hard to keep together in your head, but Grimwood does an excellent job of folding the details into his tightly-wound plot so the action rarely suffers an expository emergency stop. With alternative histories you never know quite how much is fact and how much fiction until you knuckle down and hit Wikipedia yourself, but the novel appears thoroughly researched and well-grounded in the complex realpolitik of the period.

And it’s politics which drives the action here – intrigue and romance, and the blurry line that divides the two. Medieval Venice is where the philosophy of vendetta* was first dreamed up, and it sometimes seems as if everyone in the city must be walking around with their hand on the hilt of a hidden blade. Nobody trusts anyone, sex is cheap and life cheaper, and arguments over the former seem often to shorten the latter – at least for one of the parties involved.

Which brings us neatly back to Tycho, the point at which politics, sex and violence collide. The young knight is… well, he doesn’t know what he is, but his aversion to sunlight and hankering for the lifeblood of young women makes it pretty clear to the reader. Grimwood never writes the word, however, and does a decent job of keeping the hoary old clichés of vampire lore relatively fresh. In Venice, a city half underwater, old of the older and more commonly neglected tropes – that vampires are loath to cross running water – has a major impact on Tycho’s existence, but his supernatural speed and strength makes him one of Venice’s most powerful assets… if he can be controlled.

Not least of all by himself.

Tycho aside, the novel’s third pillar – fantasy – is played down nicely. While the vampire knight/assassin seems a walking nexus of the weird, outside of his personal twilight zone the fantasy is as grounded and gritty as its politics - and well-integrated with same.

Alexa, mother and Regent to Venice’s Duke, has a little power herself which she mostly uses to keep track of political rivals, and she knows more about Tycho than she’s telling; her brother-in-law and fellow Regent Alonzo relies on his hired alchemist for support. The Byzantines have their magi, meanwhile, and Emperor Sigusmund has his Krieghund: a brotherhood of werewolves more in the American Werewolf in London vein – grotesque, agonising transformations and all – than the neutered puppies of Twilight.

The difficulty of the Krieghund’s transformation is emblematic: magic in the Assassini series does not come without difficulty, without pain. The relative rarity of the fantastic, and its high cost for all involved, goes some way to explaining why the setting hasn’t diverged too significantly into unicorns and magic missiles; together with the Pope’s** traditional dislike for witches and ‘demons’, it’s a cost which has kept ensured even Venice’s rulers keep their magical dabbling to a minimum.

The Fallen Blade suffered somewhat from having to lay the groundwork for its setting. Its sequel is able to build on that foundation, giving it a little more freedom to breathe, and the novel is much the better for it. I’m still not massively enamoured of Grimwood’s style, however. He has a tendency to plonk ugly, broken fragments of sentence down on the page with little grace, almost as if they occurred to him as an afterthought:
A visit from Lady Giulietta followed by a summons from her uncle. Both in their way his self-declared enemies. And Alexa had not been in touch since he admitted to Giulietta that she’d asked him to watch out for her. (p.111)

It’s a stylistic choice you might expect from someone writing a Chandler pastiche, all quick cuts and short, unvarnished sentences, and what works for 40s noir doesn’t necessarily work for medieval pseudohistory. It feels too modern, and every time I stumbled across another fragment it took me abruptly out of the book.

Grimwood’s Venice would make a fine noir setting, however; for all its surface beauty the city is dirty, dangerous, amoral and utterly corrupt. It features less than in the first novel, but city’s darkness is made more apparent by being thrown into contrast against an extended, idyllic pastoral sequence which resembles nothing so much as the Sicillian interlude in The Godfather. Tycho’s exile is rural, peaceful and blissful; and Grimwood does well to keep it engaging, playing off the fact that we know it cannot last.

Sure enough, Tycho’s back in Venice before too long and on a collision course with the powers threatening the city. The final climactic confrontation is pretty awesome, outdoing The Fallen Blade’s naval engagement in tension and coherence, if not in scale. The final resolution feels like something of a cheat, however; while it’s a long way from the overblown deus ex machina which destroyed the Mamluk fleet in the series’ first book, The Outcast Blade again confirms that Tycho’s not so much playing with a stacked deck as making up the rules as he goes along.

Characterisation is good, particularly of the story’s women, and the interplay between the characters feeds through nicely into the various intrigues, giving them extra depth and heft. The novel can sometimes be frustratingly opaque, however. There’s a fairly blurred boundary between subtlety and incomprehensibility, between delighted surprise and its frustrated counterpart, and The Outcast Blade often falls the wrong side of the line – particularly in the big dramatic moments, when violent reversals can leave you blinking, unable to shake a sense of ‘where the hell did that come from…?’

While The Outcast Blade‘s refusal to play fair with its readers is a pretty damaging flaw, the rich, inky-black atmosphere and scrupulously well thought-out blend of historic and fantastic elements makes it worth the read. I’ll definitely pick up the third (and presumably final) book in the series when that emerges, in the hope that this time the storytelling can live up to the setting Grimwood has created. Third time’s the charm, they say.

* Although I didn’t get that far down Wikipedia’s ‘History of Venice’ page, so this may not be true. The Godfather would certainly seem to disagree.
** Popes plural, actually; at this point in history there are two, and ‘magic is bad’ seems to be about the only thing they agree on.

This review was originally written for

Sunday, 7 April 2013

Salvage and Demolition

Tim Powers
Subterranean Press (

Salvage and Demolition, the latest novella from Tim Powers, is a classic. I don’t mean it’s necessarily an enduring work of genius (though it’s pretty damn good); rather that it’s written in such a way, and about such things, as to instantly hurl its reader back in time to the (or at least ‘a’) golden age of science fiction.

Which is undeniably the point. Because this is a story about a) time travel and b) stories, and because the author is Tim Powers, the note-perfect echoing of fifties/sixties SF seems unlikely to be a coincidence. Not for nothing is the last line of the novella ‘He turned to the first page and began to read.’ (p.155)

And sure enough, our hero is soon thrown back to 1957 as he becomes inadvertently caught in a ‘discontinuity circuit’. Round and round he goes: Richard Blanzac, a rare book dealer and functional alcoholic in the traditional mould. Not quite an anti-hero, but rough enough around the edges to make for a richly human – and powerfully sympathetic – protagonist.

I’m not sure how much more than that I should say. It’s a sign of a good book that you don’t really want to talk about the plot, for fear of spoiling not the twists and turns but the simple joy of experiencing the way the whole thing unravels – or curls around itself, more accurately. Suffice to say that Salvage and Demolition – and the neat little time-loop which gives it structure – orbits around the esoteric contents of a box brought to Blanzac for valuation and resale. A signed copy of Howl and some letters from Jack Kerouac, a TV guide from 1957, a double-decker science fiction novel, the contents of an ashtray… and the handwritten manuscript of a long and remarkable poem.

Some of these things are more significant than others.

If you’ve read much post-war science fiction, particularly out of America in the late fifties or early sixties, the style of Salvage and Demolition is like a warm bath of nostalgia. Its language is plain and direct, its sentences short and straightforward. There’s a sincerity to the storytelling you don’t often see these days, and little attempt at overt irony. Like a tale told by the man on the barstool next to you, it has no interest in convincing you of its own cleverness but allows its narrative to stand or fall on its own merits.

There’s no doubting either the merits or the cleverness of Salvage and Demolition, however; that unassuming style conceals an intricately constructed piece of narrative clockwork.

While the complexities of the time loop are what drives the story forward, it spends most of its time on Blanzac and the girl he meets in 1957, Sophie Greenwald. The relationship is given an interesting spin by the out-of-joint circumstances of their meeting, but it’s hampered by the dense exposition Sophie often spouts in place of dialogue. Perhaps this is something forced on Powers by the novella-length of the story, or perhaps it’s another gesture towards old-style SF verisimilitude, but either way it can be a little jarring on occasion. Nonetheless, the banter back and forth between the two has just enough spark to hold the reader’s interest.

Slight wobble aside, Salvage and Demolition is an elegant, well-crafted tale, and complex enough to both reward re-reading and have your thoughts returning to it long after the event. Its dramatic conflicts manage quite cleverly to feel both epic and everyday in scope, and it delights in its own contradictions. It’s perfectly self-contained in narrative terms, and yet manages to hint at whole vast conspiracies beyond the bounds of Blanzac’s mobius-strip time-hopping.

The art which heads each chapter is a little hit-and-miss, with what looks like manipulated photos illustrating the characters or events of the chapter to come. While some are quite cleverly conceived, others feel cluttered and overworked. On balance I think the novel might be better off without them, but they’re an unusual and distinctive extra touch to an already worthy story. Whether they’re worth the extra cost of the Deluxe Hardcover Edition my advance proof paperback is threatening to turn into, I’m less sure.

Regardless, whatever the format you find it, Salvage and Demolition is a fast and exciting read that punches above its weight. It’s worth reading any way you can.

This review was originally written for

Tuesday, 20 November 2012

The Quantum Thief

Hannu Rajaniemi
Gollancz (

Every now and then an authorial début attracts the kind of attention usually reserved for the second coming of Christ, the launch of a new iPhone or some equally monumental happening. The Quantum Thief was one of these, appearing on the shelves with the ringing endorsement of various stars of the SF pantheon. And it’s almost, almost as good as they say it is.

To start at the start, the opening line is an absolute gem:
As always, before the warmind and I shoot each other, I try to make small talk. (p.1)

It’s a great hook, throwing open a dozen intriguing questions, and its dust-dry wit speaks volumes about the man narrating it. Jean le Flambeur: posthuman, mind-thief, trickster and wag, the prisoner of the Axelrod Archons. 

And prisoner is the operative part of that description, at least as far as the first chapter is concerned, because Jean is an inmate of the Dilemma Prison, forced to play endless iterative games of the Prisoner’s Dilemma – a classic example of game theory, in which combinations of cooperation and defection between the two participants prompt various patterns of reward and punishment – against his fellow inmates. Over thousands and thousands of iterations, the inescapable logic of the system will burn away the selfish, sociopathic inclination to betray, turning career criminals into cooperative, productive citizens.

It’s a fascinating idea, barely given time to breathe before Jean is broken out of the prison – and perhaps that’s just as well, because there’s only so many times you can replay the Prisoner’s Dilemma before it becomes a kind of prison for the reader, too. But the swiftness of the pace in this opening chapter is brutally unforgiving, hurling concepts and terminology at the reader and expecting them to keep up.

It’s a risky strategy which could easily intimidate and overwhelm, but Rajaniemi tempers the information overload with a snappy, stylish delivery which just about manages to keep the novel from capsizing.

Things stabilise quickly after the breakout, once Jean and his rescuer – and her sentient spaceship – evade their pursuers and come to a delicate truce, and the novel settles into a comfortable, slower (but by no means sedate) rhythm as they head to Oubliette, the moving Martian city which is the main setting for most of the novel.

That’s not to say that the flow of ideas slows to a trickle, however. Oubliette has a time-based economy where the population are eventually, once their allocated time runs out, re-uploaded into beings called Quiet to carry out various necessary public functions until they’ve earned back the right to exist as themselves.

Even more complex and fascinating is Oubliette’s social structure, which takes the currently-raging privacy debate to an extreme but logically solid conclusion; every citizen has a ‘privacy sense’ or gevulot which allows them to limit how much of themselves they share – including memories, names, faces and even their physical presence:
‘Let’s have a look at the agora memory – like this.’ The sensation is sudden, like finally finding the word that was at the tip of your tongue. Mieli remembers seeing the agora from high up, in incredible detail, knowing that she can recall every face in the crowd. She has a clear memory of the thief running across the agora.
  “Oh,” the Gentleman says. There is a sudden gevulot request from him asking her to forget his reaction. She accepts…(p.103)

The concept is fresh and fascinating, and impeccably well thought-through, from its effects on Oubliette’s social mores to the inevitable ways people find to get around it – ‘analogue holes’ such as newspapers, for example, which are technically illegal but tolerated:
There are pictures; a black-and-white shot of him… The awareness that people he has not shared gevulot with now know who he is and what he has done makes him feel dirty. The gentleman at the next table is looking at him sharply now. He pays quickly, wraps himself in privacy and makes his way home. (p.121)

The way Rajaniemi presents this and other ideas – as fragments and passing asides, building up a sensation of depth through an organic layering of information – can be a little intimidating, but it’s a technique which comes with its own rewards. The barrage of ideas and unfamiliar words grant the world they inhabit a bewildering, complexity, at once filled with alien concepts and strangely familiar in its richness and variation. Every concept and location reveals itself as just another small cog, meshing with what’s come before and hinting at the shape of a larger, interlocking machine. And it gives The Quantum Thief longevity as a novel, as well; terms and events you took on faith the first time round develop an additional richness on re-reading, granted additional context by your foreknowledge.

This is fractal worldbuilding, a whole made up of little details which are themselves comprised of smaller parts within, and down and down the rabbit hole. It’s not always perfect, unfortunately, and certain aspects of the setting start to look a little shaky when you focus on them too hard. For example, how is the Martian space elevator anchored to a moving city without centrifugal forces plucking the scuttling settlement off the face of the planet? And what are the exact mechanics of Oubliette’s time economy – one character, a ‘millenniaire’ possessed of thousands of years, dies like any other man as his Watch winds down – so are time (money) and time (remaining until Quiet) not the same thing? Everyone in Oubliette acts as though they are, and yet.

But for the most part the setting is well thought-through, and rewarding to think about. This is the sort of novel which isn’t just great entertainment. Its refusal to condescend is an education, in that it makes you want to go away and look things up you didn’t understand – the Prisoner’s Dilemma, in my case – and rewards you when you do, with little in-jokes and nuggets of deeper insight.

It’s worth taking a moment to talk about the Shakespearean flair of the language, too. The Quantum Thief has a vocabulary all its own, mixing quirky neologisms with re-purposed words from across the globe: zoku, gogol, qupt, q-dots, archons, Sobornost, spime, tzaddik, gevulot, exomemory, vasilev and guberniya, among others.

Again, there’s little in the way of hand-holding – the words are allowed to glitter and tantalise un-exposited, building a sense of both the alien-ness of the setting and its complexity. Yet it’s astonishing how the reader’s assimilation of the novel’s vocabulary subtly aids suspension of disbelief, easing them into a living, breathing world.

For all that this is a glimpse of a far-future, truly posthuman society – and handles its posthumanism seriously, with talk of requiring ‘permissions’ to access a body’s full superhuman capabilities, and discussion of body designers’ taste in movie star – The Quantum Thief wears its science lightly. As in other areas, the novel prefers to skip lightly across the surface of its concepts, rather than getting bogged down in the dense technicalities which are a common danger of ‘hard’ SF.

Content to let the science tick away in the background, the plot calls on older, pulpier forms, hinted at in the belle époque flavour of Oubliette society and architecture, and outright waved in your face when one character is gifted a genetically engineered Cthuloid monstrosity as a pet and names it ‘Sherlock’.

Because both main threads of the plot are detective fiction of sorts, with Jean le Flambeur trying to hunt down whatever parts of himself he left on Mars, and a teenage super-sleuth becoming mixed up in a cryptographic conspiracy that goes to the heart of Oubliette society. In this way The Quantum Thief gets to both have its cake and eat it, wrapping an intelligent, challenging piece of SF in the slick and entertaining tropes of a space-opera detective novel.

Even the action is first-class, drawing on high-tech superhumanism to create thrilling and sensational set pieces. Rajaniemi does indulge in the overused trick of winding time down to a crawl, but here it’s a necessary evil; on one occasion we see the action from an unenhanced participant’s perspective, and it’s a nightmarish blur of impossibly fast sound and fury.

The action isn’t frivolous, either, but given the weight of consequence. A particularly exciting knock-down drag-out faceoff between two augmented characters comes to a screeching halt when both, having temporarily shut down each other’s techno-superpowers, realise the third person in the room is pointing an antique (ie 20th-century tech) revolver in their direction. Even when death is mostly temporary, it doesn’t seem to be taken lightly.

So. The novel’s first and second acts are brilliant, effortlessly balancing the interweaving plot lines with a perfect evocation of a living, breathing – and very alien – society. If The Quantum Thief falls down anywhere, however, it’s in the climax. The pace picks up as it’s supposed to, and the stakes are suitably elevated, but the brilliantly-evoked setting begins to get a little motion-blurred.

Too much happening, too fast – for the first time you’re reminded that this is Rajaniemi’s début novel, as the climax teeters on the edge of incoherence. It just about holds together, but it takes a close re-reading before all the motivations which drive it start to make sense – and having to stop and puzzle out what exactly is going on isn’t terribly compatible with the last act’s breakneck flow.

Nonetheless, it’s to The Quantum Thief’s credit that the plot is completely driven by character motivation rather than the other way around. And there’s a lot more to recommend, from the novel’s sly wit and superb characterisation to the hints at how this world links back to our own. The zoku, for example, appear to be an evolution of twentieth-century gaming clans into a sort of quantum-entangled socialist collective, swapping and reshaping their virtual and physical presences with casual indifference and gamifying everything from relationships to war.

But it feels like going into any further detail would be to spoil the pleasure of discovery. While some of the ideas might not be all that new, it’s the way they’re realised that is The Quantum Thief’s real joy. And now this review is finished, I’m off to read the sequel.