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  1. A Stranger in Olondria by Sofia Samatar

    18 October 2021 - 12:21 PM

    A Stranger in Olondria by Sofia Samatar


    Jevick of Tyom has grown up on an isolated island. He is given a tutor from the far-off empire of Olondria, who teaches him to read and fills his head with stories of that distant land. Circumstances lead Jevick to Bain, Olondria's cultured capital, where he fills his days with parties and books, but he is also haunted by an encounter with a dying girl from his own land. Soon civil war threatens the country and Jevick embarks on a journey to rid himself of his spiritual discomfort, unaware of the events that will be set in motion.

    First published in 2013, A Stranger in Olondria is the debut novel by the poet Sofia Samatar. An unusual book, the novel is not a traditional epic or secondary world fantasy, despite a vividly composed world with well thought-out histories, customs and geography, but a tone and mood piece hinging on themes such as learning, regret, language and the essence of story.

    The novel's writing reminded me in turn of Guy Gavriel Kay and Ursula K. Le Guin, but with a unique atmosphere that is the author's own. There are very occasional bursts of action (a brief brawl, a confused flight through the countryside) but the book reveals its story and intentions through dialogue, thoughts and smaller short stories which are inset through the narrative. Jevick's function is sometimes less that of a protagonist than a sounding board or sponge, soaking up other characters' stories. He does have his own character arc though: Jevick's status as an outsider to Olondria gives him a fresh perspective on the empire and its complex royal and religious politics, but also makes him a pawn in the game between the two sides, one of whom imprisons him for insanity and the other liberates him as a symbol of resistance.

    The book is also a love letter to the idea of reading stories and collecting books, which will no doubt warm the hearts of almost all book readers. Jevick's early distrust of books, which do not exist on his home island and where people do not read, gives way to almost drowning in the stories and ideas he finds on the pages of his tutor's collection. Later in the book he embarks on teaching his own community to read, and sharing the joy that comes from his experiences with them.

    The novel's quiet, thoughtful prose is erudite and at times beautiful. Characterisation is strong, I always had an excellent sense of Jevick's motivations and, through his eyes, those of the characters he meets. I did feel his initial relationship with Jissavet was a bit too slight given their later closeness, and the pacing is sometimes uneven. In particular, much of the last quarter or so of the book is given over to Jissavet's backstory which is intriguing and powerful, but feels almost like a self-contained novella within the book's larger narrative. Jevick's story feels somewhat rushed to a conclusion in the handful of pages left after Jissavet's story concludes. It may also be that Samatar is less successful than the likes of Le Guin and Kay in weaving beautiful prose and thoughtful themes around a central plot and advancing all well simultaneously.

    For that, A Stranger in Olondria is (****) is still an accomplished novel. More of a mood piece than a plot-driven book, it has a haunting quality that will stick with the reader long after it is finished. The novel is available now in the UK and USA. The author has a further novel set in the same world, The Winged Histories.
  2. Outlines for the next three Path to Ascendancy books

    23 September 2021 - 05:32 PM

    Ian Cameron Esslemont, the co-creator of the Malazan universe with Steven Erikson, is enjoying his own level of success. According to his UK publishers, Transworld, he has passed one million books sold, and according to the Edelweiss Catalogue, he has three new Path to Ascendancy novels under contract.

    The sale sheets for the next three Path to Ascendancy books - following on from Dancer's Lament, Deadhouse Landing and Kellanved's Reach - are as follows:

    Book 4: The Jhistal

    This volume develops and details the Malazan expansion into the Falari Peninsula region. Kellanved and Dancer, impatient with the slow and methodical consolidation of the continent of Quon Tali, are up to no good and embroil the Malazan forces in an uprising against the ruling Theocracy of Falar.

    These priests have maintained power over all the many islands through the threat of their terror-weapon: the dread 'Jhistal'...

    Here readers will discover just what this weapon is, meet a younger Mallick Rel and find out just how the Malazans took the region into their grip.

    Book 5: tbc

    Here we will be documenting and following the emerging Malazan Empire's first landings and foothold in the region of the Seven Cities. Central to this account will be the monumental and notorious attack on the Holy City of Aren.

    The emergence of Dassem Ultor, his rising influence and popularity among the military of the empire - together with Surly's growing wariness of it - is all suggestive of his death before the walls of Y'ghatan.

    Another path of this story will follow Kellanved and Dancer's exploration of Shadow and beyond, and further steps towards the former's ascension as Shadowthrone.

    Book 6: tbc

    Kellanved and Dancer and company have become ever more powerful and elevated, and are now distant players as we dig down to follow Bridgeburners themselves: Whiskeyjack, Fiddler, Hedge, Trotts, Mallet and others. Yes, the gang's all here and readers will relish being in their company once more!

    Battles and encounters in Mott Woods and Black Dog Forest abound and all of this leads readers up to to the point at which this extraordinary multi-faceted, multi-layered epic fantasy saga first began: Gardens of the Moon.
  3. Baking Bad: A Beaufort Scales Mystery by Kim M. Watt

    21 August 2021 - 03:53 PM

    Baking Bad: A Beaufort Scales Mystery by Kim M. Watt


    The quiet little village of Toot Hansell is a place where the rest of the world doesn't intrude. The locals are mainly concerned with bake sales, the summer fete and debating what to do about the garish new gastropub that's opened a few miles away. However, the murder of the local vicar results in the arrival of Detective Inspector Adams and her formidable analytical powers, which seem stymied by the local activities of the Women's Institute, formidably led by RAF Wing Commander Alice Martin (Ret.), who has her own ideas on how to handle the investigation. Oh, and there's also dragons hanging around.

    I must confess to a weakness for a good pun and a high concept, and Baking Bad certainly employs both features; the sequel titles splendidly continue the theme through Yule Be Sorry, A Manor of Life and Death and Game of Scones. The concept here is that a quaint little English village is about to become Murder Central (hopefully taking the pressure off Midsomer), with all the clever bits of misdirection, multiple suspects and conflicting motives that you'd expect, with the added complication that the last extant dragons in England are living in caves nearby.

    These aren't exactly Smaug and Balerion the Black Dread, though. It turns out that dragons are the size of very large dogs - maybe small ponies - and are somewhat less able to breathe torrents of fire than advertised. As the dragons note, Sir George exaggerated their size and formidability a tad after being embarrassed about killing the equivalent of a flying donkey. They are, however, sentient creatures capable of reason and speech, and also capable of projecting an illusion that - imperfectly - masks their presence. Beaufort Scales, High Lord of the Cloverly Dragons, and his assistant/squire Mortimer are known to the Women's Institute and are keen to help investigate the murder, despite their lack of knowledge about modern human life. Thus, much of the tension in the book arises from both the knowledge that the murderer might strike again and that mythical flying creatures are helping track them down, at the risk of discovery at any moment.

    The book adopts a rotating POV structure between DI Adams, Wing Commander Martin (Ret.), Women's Institute member and walking human mess Miriam, and the young dragon (and almost as hot a mess) Mortimer. Adams and Martin are hyper-capable, rational women with formidable analytical skills who can keep their head in a crisis, whilst Miriam has a tendency to fly to pieces if someone looks at her funny and Mortimer's useful features (like aerial recon and stealth) are curtailed by his inability to use phones or computers, a tendency to leave rather obvious signs of his passage (like claw-marks on pavements and carpets) and him being very easily distracted by food.

    Ah, food. Once you have read Baking Bad, you will never, ever complain about one of George R.R. Martin's feast descriptions again. The book is positively awash in scones, biscuits and flapjacks. Tense moments of putting clues together happen as the character exerts equal attention on their banana bread. Moments of existential terror as the dragons risk discovery and possible destruction whilst also pondering the greatness of the Victoria sponge. Moments of high drama take place over the distribution of lemon drizzle. The food descriptions in the book are accomplished and, frankly, obscene. I heavily advise against reading this book within temporal proximity of a trip to the supermarket or an English cafe because there is a nontrivial chance of putting on ten pounds per chapter.

    The book is relatively short (at 280 pages in paperback, though with a lengthy appendix featuring baking recipes) and a fast read. The characterisation is fine, and the author canny enough to leave room for more development on the table (Alice Martin gets a background mystery that I'm assuming will be developed in later books in the series, although this is very much a stand-alone volume). The worldbuilding about the dragons is a bit lacking - considering they're a key selling point of the book, the dragons are lower-key than you'd expect - and the prose can get a bit other enthusiastic, especially at the start of the novel where scenes and moments are exactingly over-described. After about fifty pages, though the prose calms down and the rest of the novel is more accomplished. As a short, focused novel it's a fast read, albeit one littered with baked good descriptions like cholesterol landmines, which some readers might find annoying and others find actively dangerous.

    If you've ever wanted to read a mash-up of Hot Fuzz, The Great British Bake-Off, Midsomer Murders, and freaking dragons, this will hit that weirdly specific spot. The literary equivalent of cotton candy - or, more appropriately, chocolate sponge cake - the book is a fun, disposable read, but one that poses a definitive threat to your waistline. Tread carefully. Baking Bad: A Beaufort Scales Mystery (***) is available now in the UK and USA.
  4. Book Review: The God is Not Willing by Steven Erikson

    11 June 2021 - 04:31 PM

    Witness #1: The God is Not Willing


    More than a decade of peace has passed since the fall of the Crippled God. The Malazan Empire, once an ever-expanding nation, has secured its borders and set about bringing stability and order to its holdings. One of the furthest-flung of its outposts is Silver Lake, an isolated town in the far north of Genabackis, still reeling from the events of many years earlier, when three Teblor descended from the mountains and brought chaos with them.

    The 2nd Company of the Malazan XIVth Legion - reduced to just three squads and eighteen soldiers - is bound for Silver Lake to reinforce the garrison there. To augment its strength, it has hired the very mercenary company they were recently fighting against, a practical measure that neither side likes very much. With redoubtable allies, the Malazans have to hold Silver Lake against an implacable foe. For the Teblor of the mountains, tiring of waiting for their Shattered God - Karsa Orlong - to return to them and motivated by a growing threat to the north, have made a decision to migrate south to seek out their reluctant deity. What else are a people to do, when their god is not willing?

    Well, this was a surprise. Steven Erikson's work has been called many things but "concise" and "focused" are not among them. All of Erikson's twelve previous novels in the Malazan universe are sprawling, brick-thick volumes you could use to stun a yak. The God is Not Willing, at a relatively breezy 473 pages, is easily his shortest fantasy novel to date. Erikson's work has also been called (sometimes fairly, often not) "obtuse" and "confusing." The in media res opening to the first book in the setting, Gardens of the Moon, remains fiercely debated on Reddit and fantasy message boards to this day. The God is Not Willing is instead pretty streamlined and comprehensible. The word - whisper it - "accessible" may be applicable.

    But if those terms are applicable, don't go thinking this is Erikson with the training wheels on, or restrained, or (grimace) going commercial. The God is Not Willing is packed with the philosophical musings and rich worldbuilding of his prior work, it is just paced here with discipline and vigor, and an undercurrent of Erikson's distinctly underrated humour. With the exception of the late, great Terry Pratchett and maybe Abercrombie in his more whimsical moments, Erikson may be one of the funniest writers in modern secondary world fantasy, something he usually keeps under check but here lets loose a little more. This is still a dramatic and sometimes tragic story, but it's also one balanced by the kind of comedic banter between soldiers-under-duress that we've seen before in earlier novels, but here taken up a notch.

    The God is Not Willing is set ten years after the events of The Crippled God, in north Genabackis. The events of the opening of House of Chains have left an ugly scar on the town of Silver Lake, with ex-slaves and ex-slavers having to find new roles after the Malazan Empire outlawed slavery. Rast, the half-Teblor son of Karsa Orlong, has been exiled from his home by his mother. The town's depleted garrison is reinforced by the Malazan XIVth Legion's 2nd Company, with the slight problem that the company has been almost destroyed in an engagement with a mercenary company, with heavy losses on both sides. Fighting the mercenaries to a standstill, Captain Gruff hits on the splendid - or barking mad - idea of hiring the mercenaries to augment his depleted forces, which is slightly undercut by the two sides disliking one another. Elsewhere, the Teblor tribes of the mountains have discovered that the fading of Jaghut sorcery from the world is about to have cataclysmic consequences, spurring a mass migration into the lands of the south, and a potential showdown with their reluctant deity Karsa Orlong, also known as Sir Not-Appearing-in-this-Novel.

    And that's kind of it. The novel rotates between these three storylines with a laser-like focus, with Rast's growth from a confused and terrified youth into a character of moral courage, using his Kara-like, single-minded and utterly unbendable determination as a force for good (or what passes for it) getting a lot of focus. So too do the Malazan marines holding Silver Lake. There's only eighteen of them left after the clash with Balk's mercenary company (who also get some attention, though it's more of a subplot), allowing Erikson to explore most of their characters in a lot of detail. It's the splendidly-written Stillwater who emerges as the best character in the novel, a lethal assassin-mage who has been trying to effectively trademark the idea (and ignoring the various assassin-mage organisations we've already seen in the previous novels, not least the Claw) and whose facility with the warren of Shadow is slightly complicated by her relationship with the Hounds of Shadow. Stillwater entertains because of her determined lack of interest in the normal ongoings of the Malazan world, and her metacommentary on what is happening is the source of much of the book's humour.

    The book is relatively small in scale for most of its length, being concerned with very small groups of characters, until Erikson shifts things up a gear in the last hundred pages or so, when we suddenly pull back to a widescreen view of events and discover that things are about to go south very, very fast. Entire cultures and nations are caught up as Erikson finally delivers when he nearly did in The Bonehunters - a fantasy disaster novel! - and does so with spades.

    I was very surprised at this book. A dozen novels, half a dozen novellas and thirty years into writing this series (and almost forty since he and Ian Esslemont created it for gaming purposes in 1982), with the previous two-published books being commercial disappointments, you could have forgiven Erikson for writing a crowd-pleasing war story or a thousand-page recap of Malazan's greatest hits. Instead, he delivers a determined, focused, well-paced and immensely rich novel of war, peace, hubris, consequence, sorcery and compassion. He even finds time to right some wrongs from earlier in the series: the somewhat brushed-over consequences of Karsa's odyssey of destruction in House of Chains are here laid bare in full, and the logical (if long-in-unfolding) consequences of events in the main series which were outside the scope of that story are explored in depth by one of Erikson's finest casts of characters yet.

    The God is Not Willing (*****) is Steven Erikson bringing his A-game, turned up to 11, and delivering what is comfortably one of his three or four best novels to date. The book will be published in the UK on 1 July and on 9 November in the United States.
  5. BattleTech

    03 May 2021 - 03:08 PM

    The Warrior Trilogy Book 1: En Garde by Michael A. Stackpole


    The year 3027. Three hundred years ago, the great Star League, which united all the worlds of humanity in a peaceful, golden age of technology, fell into ruin. From the chaos emerged the five Successor States: the Lyran Commonwealth, the Draconis Combine, the Federated Suns, the Free Worlds League and the Capellan Confederation, each ruled by a Great House. At the centre of them all and controlling ancient, holy Terra is ComStar, a mercantile consortium turned religious institution and the arbiters of interstellar communications. Political intrigue is rife, and warfare is conducted by vast, towering war machines called BattleMechs. The period of chaos known as the Third Succession War has come to an end and the Great Houses are rebuilding, but stability is no guarantee of safety. The Allard family, in noble service to House Davion of the Federated Suns, is placed in the centre of huge events when one scion is disgraced and sent into exile on the game world of Solaris VII and another joins the legendary mercenary army known as the Kell Hounds.

    BattleTech is the franchise that stubbornly won't die. Starting life in 1984 as a tabletop miniatures game, it quickly spun off a series of over one hundred novels and more than a dozen popular video games (most famously, the MechWarrior and MechCommander series) before petering out in the late 2000s after an ill-advised reboot (the Dark Age setting). After a few years in the doldrums, it suddenly spun back into life with a new edition of the tabletop game and two well-received video games: 2018's turn-based BattleTech and 2019's real-time simulator MechWarrior 5 (which is getting a wider release this month on Steam and Xbox). Capitalising on the moment, franchise-holders Catalyst Game Labs have started making the immense backlog of novels available again vie ebook and Amazon's print-on-demand service.

    Arguably the best-known and regarded of the BattleTech authors is Michael A. Stackpole, whom in later years would gain much greater fame and success as a Star Wars author (particularly of the X-Wing series, alongside the late, great Aaron Allston). Stackpole has built a career on writing fast-paced but also character-based military SF and fantasy. Like Dan Abnett (his Warhammer 40,000 counterpart, or the nearest equivalent), Stackpole knows that writing good military SF isn't just about the action and explosions, but creating interesting characters and telling the story through their eyes.

    En Garde, the first book in the Warrior Trilogy, was the fifth-published novel in the BattleTech line but is widely regarded as the best novel to start with. The earlier books were published when the details of the setting were still being worked out and are prone to bouts of early-installment weirdness. They were also not as well-written as Stackpole's work, and tended to be smaller in scale. In contrast, En Garde is a book at times so epic it becomes dizzying.

    The novel packs more storylines and characters into its modest 320 pages than some 1,000-page epic fantasy novels. At the start of the book it appears that we'll be following Justin Allard as he tries to clear his name after being wrongfully exiled as a traitor. However, Allard's experiences rapidly turn him into an apparently rage-fuelled antihero as he murders and backstabs his way through the crime-ridden underbelly of the gladiatorial world of Solaris VII. His much more sympathetic brother Daniel, a member of the Kell Hounds, finds himself on the front lines when his mercenary company is targeted for extermination by the ruthless intelligence agency of the Draconis Combine. Elsewhere, very high-level political intrigue unfolds when Princess Melissa Steiner of the Lyran Commonwealth has to travel incognito to the Federated Suns to discuss an alliance with Prince Hanse Davion, a prospect bitterly opposed by the other three Great Houses and many factions within their own empires. Yet another subplot follows a dishonored MechWarrior of the Draconis Combine who is offered the chance at redemption by forming and training an elite new military cadre (a fascinating idea which, unfortunately, mostly happens off-page). On top of all that, there is a framing story revolving around the priest-businessmen of ComStar, who preach neutrality and serving all of mankind's needs but, predictably, are up to their elbows in everyone else's business and trying to pull everyone's strings.

    Stuffed to the gills with political intrigue and crunchy, mech-on-mech action, En Garde moves fast. As Stackpole's first novel and written under an unholy deadline (the entire trilogy, totalling north of 300,000 words, was written in under ten months), the novel lacks the polish of his later works. There's a noted prevalence of exclamation marks, especially in Justin's storyline: Justin is a big fan of making threatening speeches to his enemies, which are sometimes icily effective and sometimes feel like a five-year-old on the playground explaining why he's so tough and about as intimidating. Dialogue favours exposition, which is often clunky but at least does a good job of explaining what the hell is going on. I do feel like an appendix of in-universe terms and maybe some head-of-chapter preambles explaining the factions (like those in Frank Herbert's Dune) could have been a more elegant way of getting this information across to the audience, rather than a few too many "As you already know but I will explain anyway..." style conversations.

    But Stackpole makes many of the characters complex and interesting: Gray Noton is initially presented as an antagonist but becomes a much richer character as the novel progresses, whilst expertly flipping Justin's storyline from a predictable "clearing his name" narrative to a more elemental story of utter vengeance makes for a much more morally murky storyline. A few characters do get short shrift, but hopefully they will rise more to the fore in the succeeding volumes of the trilogy.

    There are a couple of other issues stemming from the background material more than Stackpole's writing. The Capellan Confederation and Draconis Combine are fairly obviously based on China and Japan, and a few wince-inducing stereotypes ensue, such as House Kurita's warriors being obsessed with honour, relaxing in tea houses and sometimes inexplicably wielding katanas against enemies with assault rifles. To be fair this actually plays a key role in the storyline, with Justin's half-Capellan heritage marking him out for racist abuse, but it's unsurprising that later iterations of the BattleTech franchise beat a retreat from these kind of stereotypes, with the Confederation and Combine receiving a great deal more nuance. It doesn't help that they are presented as the "bad guys" at this stage, whilst Houses Davion and Steiner, more European-American in inspiration, are the "good guys." Very fortunately, Stackpole upends this idea as soon as the very next book in favour of the setting's more familiar equal-opportunities moral murkiness, with all the factions having good and bad elements to them.

    Warrior: En Garde (***) is a slightly dated but still readable slice of pulp military SF, with interesting characters and a fascinating universe (very much Game of Thrones meets Pacific Rim, with a light dusting of Dune). Some clumsy exposition and iffy dialogue are offset by a relentlessly readable pace and some very enjoyable action set-pieces.



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    22 Jan 2021 - 09:19
    Whoa ... meaning of life. Happy birthday
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    05 Mar 2020 - 09:29
    Sorry, missed your birthday this year. Hope it was a good one.
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    22 Jan 2019 - 11:51
    Dun dun dunnnnn ...
    Have a good one.
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    22 Jan 2018 - 08:24
    Same as below. Better make it a good one because it's 40 next year.
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    22 Jan 2010 - 15:32
    Happy Birthday, now go out and get wrecked :)
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