Frivolous Waste of Time

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Archive for the tag “reading”

Touch by Claire North

Touch is the third Claire North book I’ve read and, whilst it is very good, it bears more than a little resemblance to The Sudden Appearance of Hope, the book which followed Touch but I read first. This similarity undermined it slightly for me, but nonetheless this is another exciting sci-fi tinged thriller from someone who seems to be a master of them.

Claire North’s books are about people with strange abilities, which are both a blessing and a curse, hidden within our world. Where The First Fifteen Lives of Harry August covered reincarnation, and The Sudden Appearance of Hope the idea of being forgotten, Touch is about a being (known as a ghost) that possesses different bodies but has no form left of its own, transferring through touch. The protagonist is known as Kepler and is around 300 years old, hopping from host to host, usually with the host’s consent in exchange for a large pay-out at the end of the possession. When Kepler, in her host Josephine, is gunned down in a Turkish train station, Kepler manages to escape before her host dies and goes on the run in the body of her would be assassin, pursued by the mysterious organisation to which he belongs.

Touch, similarly to her other books, is a globetrotting conspiracy story, as the protagonist moves through a vast range of locations, exploring what it means to be human. It does this very well, but by this point the three books have begun to blur into one. She’s chosen a particular thing that she is going to do and she does it really well, but an element of fatigue begun to slip in. I probably should have left a bigger gap between The Sudden Appearance of Hope and this. Where Harry August posits that humanity is tied to mortality, and Hope Arden suggests it is tied to connections we make to each other, Touch is about the physical body itself. The horror inherent in the concept is not shied away from; although Kepler herself is sympathetic, North never suggests that the experience of having your body stolen against your will is anything but terrible. One plot thread involving a body taken for decades is particularly harrowing. The flashback stuff is generally very good, with some great scenes set in the Ottoman Empire and 1950s Hollywood. The present day storyline stumbles slightly, with lots of scenes of Kepler travelling places and investigating things and generally moving the plot forward, but in a rambling and vague fashion. Touch, and to an extent all of North’s books I’ve read, seems to be at their best when simply wallowing in its own concept, with the core narrative holding it all together being somewhat less compelling.

You may have noticed that I’ve gendered Kepler as female when I refer to the character; her biological sex naturally varies depending on her host, but the voice that came through all of these I couldn’t help read as female. I could go through everything I’ve written and alter the pronouns to ‘it’ and I almost did exactly that, but I actually think it’s interesting how Touch ended up making me project gender onto a genderless entity. I wonder what in my own personal biases made me read Kepler as female, because I’ve read that many people have read the character as male. In Kepler, North provides an interesting cipher to examine our own thought processes and assumptions. An area I wish North had touched more upon was the racial element; Kepler refers to having marched as an African-American with Dr. King in the 1960s, but at the end she could jump into the skin of a white person and avoid any of the consequences of being black in America. North prods at the idea of appropriation, but never really jumps into it. Since the big conceptual stuff worked more for me than the core thriller narrative, I’d have liked to see Touch go further down this path.

All said however, Touch is a very good book. If you’ve read any of her other books recently, maybe give it a little break to keep things feeling a bit fresher, but it was nonetheless thought-provoking and intriguing. I don’t know what angle of humanity North is going to pursue next, but I do know it will be interesting.

 

This Census-Taker by China Miéville

I haven’t read a China Miéville book in ages, so this slim little novella seemed as good a place as any to jump back in. It’s a strange, unsettling story, with a tighter focus than Miéville normally shows. This is still a political book, everything Miéville writes is, but it perhaps has a greater focus on the personal.

This Census-Taker has a strange setting, a sort of desolate fantasy dystopia. There are hints that this world is not our own, but Miéville isn’t interested in world building here, with the setting being used primarily to create mood and atmosphere. There are a couple of hints that it may take place in the Bas-Lag setting seen in Perdido Street Station, but if that is the case it isn’t particularly important to the story. The protagonist is an unnamed young boy, who runs into his village screaming that his mother has killed his father. Lacking evidence, he is forced to return home to his terrifying and homicidal parent, living in constant fear, with his only allies being a group of street urchins.

It’s a relatively straightforward story by Miéville standards, but thoroughly unsettling. Miéville has flirted with many different strands of horror, most effectively with Lovecraftian cosmic horror, but domestic horror may be some of the scariest, the fear of what lurks within your own home. Very few characters are named and they are generally thinly drawn, but this is more about creating an atmosphere than anything else. Hints to wider events are welcome and suggest that this is a world gone very wrong, expanding into the broader social commentary Miéville is so well regarded for. The titular census-taker doesn’t show up until close to the end, but he’s an intriguing figure with hints to complex motivations. Some have suggested that This Census-Taker could almost be a prologue to a larger work and I wouldn’t mind if that were the case. The novella asks some interesting questions I wouldn’t mind seeing answered.

This Census-Taker is a clever, unsettling slice of fiction I’d recommend to any Miéville fan. He hasn’t published a full novel since 2012s Railsea, so I hope there’s another one not too far away.

 

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Time of Contempt by Andrzej Sapkowski

I’m thoroughly enjoying my time ploughing through The Witcher saga, with Time of Contempt building on the successes of Blood of Elves and addressing some of its faults.

Time of Contempt picks up not too long after Blood of Elves. Ciri is now under the tutelage of Yennefer of Vengerberg. Yennefer is taking Ciri to the Island of Thanedd, a safe haven for mages and sorceresses where she plans to enrol Ciri in a school to hone her magical training. It is not long before Geralt is reunited with his surrogate family of Yennefer and Ciri, and the three arrive at Thanedd, for a gathering of the magical users of the Northern Kingdoms, known as the Chapter of Sorcerers. The politics of the North have become more unstable, with the Northern rulers desperate for a pretext to go back to war with Nilfgaard and regain Cintra.

Where Blood of Elves was a bit more unfocused, feeling like a series of connected novellas more than anything else, Time of Contempt is a bit more self-contained, dealing primarily with the internal affairs of the Chapter of Sorcerers and the role of the magical community. The sharper focus benefits the book massively and it moves the story forward in a range of interesting ways. A lengthy epilogue shifts focus for a while, but it leaves a lot of important character sin very interesting places for the next book.

The action scenes are good, but Time of Contempt may be the funniest book in the series so far. A wonderful scene where a proud Yennefer parades Geralt in front of a series of lustful sorceresses, each more ridiculously provocative than the last, is a lot of fun. I had thought that the games had over sexualised characters like Keira Metz and Phillipa Eilhart but…nope, they’re like that in the book too. Geralt struggling to keep composure is a joy to behold. When things get a bit darker it all works well too, particularly during a harrowing scene in a desert which ratchets up tension to almost unbearable levels.

A lot of my favourite characters from the games play large roles here, such as the brilliant Redanian spymaster Sigismund Djikstra and a range of sorceresses. Sapkowski does a brilliant job of making these characters feel distinct; we’re introduced to about 8 new sorceresses all at once, but they all feel distinct and memorable. Ciri seems to be taking over from Geralt in main protagonist duties, but this isn’t a problem because I love Ciri.

I always struggle to write about middle books in a series. It doesn’t shake things up, but Time of Contempt keeps the story ticking on at a nice pace and leaves me excited to get into the next one. What more could you ask?

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Caine Black Knife by Matthew Stover

The previous book in the Acts of Caine series was the ambitious, but frankly incoherent, Blade of Tyshalle. It drastically expanded in scope from the first book, but at the cost of what made Heroes Die so engaging to begin with. Caine Black Knife is a simpler, more straightforward return to form for the series. Where Blade of Tyshalle got bogged down in numerous sub plots and supporting characters, Caine Black Knife is all Caine, all the time. It is a shorter, leaner and more focused book and all the better for it.
Caine Black Knife follows two timelines; one takes place a couple of years after Blade of Tyshalle, with Caine heading to the Boedecken Wastes to save his Orgrillo friend Orbek, who has fallen into trouble. The other timeline tells the story of Caine’s most notable Adventure, and the one which propelled him to massive stardom; Retreat from the Boedecken. We’ve heard this story alluded to many times in the previous books, about how Caine destroyed the infamous Black Knife Orgrillo clan and earned his reputation for stunning competence and cruelty. Caine’s actions 25 years in the past are still influencing the present, as figures from his past come back to haunt him and the consequences of his actions finally catching up to him.

Where Blade of Tyshalle covered a significant geographic range and focused heavily on metaphysics and mysticism, Caine Black Knife takes place mostly in one location and drops (to an extent) many of the elements which bogged down the previous book. It’s an exciting and tense book, with the stunning violence the series is known for still in full effect. Just when you think this series couldn’t shock you any more, Stover manages to conjure up something truly horrible. The crucial difference is that it feels less gratuitous, but also more honest. This series has long had a history of slyly satirising the fantasy industry’s propensity for grimdark violence whilst also acknowledging the undeniable visceral thrill this violence provides. The first book got the balance right and the second got it wrong, but the fine balancing act is pulled off here. Caine wasn’t so brutal against the Black Knife clan in the Boedecken because it was the clever or tactical thing to do, he did it because the audience back on Earth loved it.

There’s a sense of fun to Caine Black Knife, even in its grimmest moments. Caine is a relentlessly enjoyable protagonist, utterly loathsome but impossible not to like. There are odd cracks of sentimentality, which are usually punctuated by something unforgiveable. Removing Caine from the core of Blade of Tyshalle was a mistake, because he truly is a brilliant protagonist and this book benefits massively from keeping him as the key PoV at all times. Most of the previous supporting cast is absent, a handful of cameos aside, but the new cast is filled with interesting figures for Caine to murder or generally infuriate, both in the present day and flashback storyline.

Caine Black Knife is a fun, horrifying and deeply satisfying book. We know that Caine murdering his way through swaths of Orgrillos shouldn’t be as fun as it is and Stover never stops winking at the reader. He keeps escalating things further and further, seeing how far our sympathies will stick with Caine, with the answer being worryingly far. The sense of satire, as well as being just a damn good fantasy novel, makes Caine Black Knife a return to what made Heroes Die great.

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The Buried Giant by Kazuo Ishiguro

I found myself very wound up when this first book came out, because we got a lot of your obnoxious handwringing articles in the vein of ‘it’s fantasy but I like it so it’s not really fantasy’ that come about any time literary genre fiction gets published. The Guardian reviewer called this book ‘A Game of Thrones with a conscience’, literally one of the dumbest phrases I’ve ever seen in literary criticism. The Buried Giant is fantasy, but it wears the genre trappings loosely, creating a blurry dream of a mythic British past.

Axl and Beatrice are an elderly couple of an indistinct period of Britain’s past. King Arthur and Merlin are dead, but only recently, with their exploits beginning to blur from history into legend. The couple decide to visit their son in a nearby village after a lengthy estrangement and begin to make the perilous journey. A strange mist has cloaked the land, robbing the people of their memories. As Axl and Beatrice make their strange and fantastical journey, memories begin to reassert themselves with The Buried Giant asking one question; is it better to forget, rather than to pick at the scabs of the past?

The Buried Giant is a book which lends itself towards being read allegorically, rather than as a literal story. If properly broken down, the plot for The Buried Giant may seem thin, like a series of coincidences barely strung together, but that’s not really the point. Memory, and the odd mercy of forgetting, is the core theme of this book. The Buried Giant of the title refers both to a legendary figure referred to throughout, but also the hordes of painful memories lurking just beneath the surface, both as individuals and a society. Tory cabinet member Dr Liam Fox recently made the startling assertion that the UK has no reason to believe that it’s past is shameful. The brushing under the rug of British colonial atrocities, the wilful forgetting in the name of stability and comfort, is the unspoken metaphor which underlines much of The Buried Giant’s world of Saxons and Britons. Ishiguro is ambivalent and uncertain himself on memory; the book posits the thought that if peace can only be assured by forgetting the crimes of the past, surely it is better to forget, even if it leaves injustices unanswered. No easy answers are provided and an unsettling tone persists throughout.
The Britain Ishiguro conjures is itself indistinct and hazy; it never feels like a real place. Even the characters are vague and undefined. What are we if not a product of our memories? Without a clear past, there is nothing to define ourselves. As memories return, Axl and Beatrice don’t always like what they see; they fear that finding out what they were will alter who they are. This book works on a macro and micro level, both exploring societal forgetting but also the personal. Axl and Beatrice are uncommonly and utterly devoted to one another, but would such a pure love be possible if they could remember all the tiny hurts and grievances which build up over the course of any long relationship? However, is their love truly real if they cannot understand the foundations upon which it was built? Again, Ishiguro isn’t interested in answering the question, instead he simply presents the uneasy and uncomfortable thought to the reader.

The Buried Giant is a strange, wonderful book which leaves a lingering sense of unease in the reader. Ignore lazy comparisons to Game of Thrones or Lord of the Rings by fantasy illiterate critics, The Buried Giant can’t really be compared to anything else I’ve ever read.

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Snapshot by Brandon Sanderson

A new Brandon Sanderson novella is never a bad thing and Snapshot is a lot of fun, if a bit lightweight compared to some of his other efforts. Its high concept is a bit over reliant on exposition, compared to the relative elegance with which he creates entire worlds in stories like Shadows for Silence in the Forests of Hell or Sixth of Dusk, but it’s a fun bit of popcorn reading nonetheless.

Snapshot follows two detectives, Davis and Chaz, as they investigate inside a titular ‘Snapshot’, an entire recreation of a day in a city, used to investigate crimes in real time. This is set in the Reckoners universe, or multiverse, or whatever’s going on with that setting. During a routine investigation, Davis and Chaz stumble upon a crime they weren’t meant to know about and take it upon themselves to investigate.

The actual story itself, in terms of character and motivation, is fairly thin. What saves the experience is a playfulness with reality and perception, as well as Sanderson’s signature world building. The people within the Snapshot are, disturbingly, implied to be sentient and that every time the Snapshot is shut down they are essentially murdering thousands of conscious minds. Sanderson doesn’t shy away from this inherent darkness, with the most interesting element of the plot being a badge which, when shown to someone in the Snapshot, makes them aware that they are, essentially, not real. The differing reactions are very interesting; some laugh, some cry, some kill themselves and some kill others. Still, the actual story wrapping up the interesting ideas isn’t particularly memorable. It’s got a couple of twists, but without much of a reason to care about the characters they’re robbed of impact.

Snapshot is a decent enough read, but definitely doesn’t pack the punch of some of his other short fiction. If you fancy a sci-fi tinged detective story you could do worse, but there’s better out there too.

 

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The Sudden Appearance of Hope by Claire North

I really liked Claire North’s last book, The First Fifteen Lives of Harry August, and The Sudden Appearance of Hope does very much feel like a companion piece to her last book. As with Harry August, this book is about a person with a strange power (or curse) and the unique perspective this gives them on our world.

When Hope Arden turned sixteen, people began to forget her. About two minutes after the end of any conversation or contact, the person she is communicating with will forget the encounter ever happened, even her own parents. This leaves Hope unable to form relationships, get a job, buy a home or live any semblance of a normal life, so she has naturally become a thief of the rich and famous, more for the thrills than the material gain. Her next target is a leading member of Prometheus, a company known for creating the app Perfection, which has the aim of encouraging people to be their ‘perfect’ self. Of course, Perfection is based around an ideal of someone white, rich and American and the addictive quest for perfection is ruining lives. Hope discovers that Perfection is even more sinister than it first seems and sets about using her unique ability to take them down.

The core forgetting concept is so interesting that when the Perfection angle was introduced I felt a little put out; why have such a great concept being wasted on a standard social media = bad story? Perfection is fairly Black Mirror as a concept and not miles from sci-fi dystopias we’ve seen before. I think what makes it more interesting is the international angle seen in The Sudden Appearance of Hope. This book takes place all over the world and seeing people trapped into striving for a vapid Western ideal is interesting. The forgetting element in Hope ties in very nicely with Perfection. For a user of Perfection, their life is like a performance where being known to have experienced something is more important than the experience itself; for Hope this is impossible. The book regularly refers to her life being trapped in the present tense, with the implication that everyone else is trapped in the future. Hope is genuinely free in a way few people are, but it’s a freedom that comes at a terrible cost. Therefore, the two elements which make up this story reveal themselves to be utterly entwined and compelling.

The Sudden Appearance of Hope is, much like The First Fifteen Lives of Harry August, told in a relatively non-linear fashion. It can feel a bit vague and directionless at times. I appreciate that the sense of displacement is intentional, being fairly central to the main character, but it’s a bit too easy to lose the thread of the actual story running throughout. Where Harry August was more impersonal in tone, The Sudden Appearance of Hope is much more internally focused, with more than a few lapses into stream of consciousness. North is a bit more risk taking in her prose here, which feels less controlled and more chaotic. It’s never less than compelling though, allowing us to empathise with a figure who is, in many ways, very alien.

Hope is an interesting character, but doesn’t feel like a fully-fledged person. This is undeniably intentional and perhaps a reflection that we can only truly be defined against other people. If you cannot form relationships, you are incomplete. Hope seems, at least to some extent, aware of her lack of identity and desperately seeks one. She’s a fascinating character and, similarly to Harry August before her, a bit of an enigma. The supporting cast are interesting in this one, such as Luca Everard, an investigator for Interpol who has pieced together Hope’s existence from her crimes and the gaps in memory she leaves. I really liked Byron, a mysterious online figure with a grudge against Perfection. In her own way, Hope does make some connections to people, but the hurdle of forgetting creates some fascinating dynamics. The characterisation in this book is a lot better than its predecessor.

The Sudden Appearance of Hope is another great book from Claire North. She reminds me a bit of David Mitchell, one of my favourite authors, although she dips more thoroughly into science fiction than he does. I’m looking forward to going back and reading Touch, which was published before Harry August. This is another piece of genre fiction which I would recommend to anyone, regardless of tastes.

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Blood of Elves by Andrzej Sapkowski

Blood of Elves is the first full novel in The Witcher series, with the previous two being linked short story collections. Sapkowski’s origin as a writer of short fiction is apparent in this book, since if taken as a novel, Blood of Elves doesn’t quite work. However, each lengthy chapter feels fairly stand alone, so if taken as a series of short stories closely linked by a core narrative, Blood of Elves works much better.

Blood of Elves picks up not long after the concluding story of The Sword of Destiny. Nilfgaard’s invasion has been repelled, but not before the brutal sacking of Cintra and the death of its formidable Queen Calanthe. Calanthe’s granddaughter, Ciri, is thought dead, but has in reality been rescued by Geralt and taken to the witcher stronghold of Kaer Morhen. Geralt and Ciri are linked by destiny and Geralt makes it his sworn vow to protect Ciri above all else. Rumours of her survival spread, and malevolent forces gather to find her and use her for their own nefarious purposes. Meanwhile, tension between humans and non-humans reach a boiling point and the Scoia’tel, an anti-human guerrilla army, is formed.

This book is oddly structured and not a whole lot happens; it lacks a satisfying conclusion in its own right and is focused towards building towards the sequels. If taken as a series of separate short stories it works much better. There are some delightful chapters, such as the arrival of Triss Merrigold at Kaer Morhen, where she promptly takes the gathered witchers to task for their bungled handling of Ciri’s ongoing puberty. Another involves Ciri training with Yennefer and the bond that builds between them. In fact, any scene involving Ciri is pretty much delightful. Geralt himself takes a bit of a backseat in this one, with Triss, Ciri and Dandelion covering well over half of the novel between them. Sapkoswki relies a bit too much on exposition, with one lengthy scene following the meeting towards the gathered rulers of the North feeling particularly egregious. The thing is, his actual writing is light and buoyant enough than it never feels boring. These pacing issues are ones which I found myself more observing objectively rather than being actively bothered by. There’s a whimsy, tempered by darkness, which is more than little reminiscent of Neil Gaiman. Blood of Elves is just very bloody readable and a testament both to Sapkoswki and the translators from the original Polish.

As mentioned above, characterisation is arguably Sapkowski’s greatest skill. Geralt, Ciri, Triss, Yennefer, Dandelion, all are a joy to spend time with. The bond between Geralt and Ciri is very moving; the well of feeling and love behind the grizzled exterior of Geralt is the reason he’s one of my favourite protagonists in fiction. There’s a lot of humour in Blood of Elves and I’m still amazed by how well CD Projekt captured the tone of the books in the games.

Blood of Elves is an undeniably flawed book, but I enjoyed it a hell of a lot anyway. The characterisation and dialogue are so strong that I could forgive almost anything. It feels like it’s saving the big stuff for later; a table setter it may be, but you’d be hard pressed to find a more enjoyably set table than this.

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Blade of Tyshalle by Matthew Stover

This is a weird, weird book. It is the sequel to the outstanding Heroes Die, the first in Matthew Stover’s Acts of Caine series. It abandons a lot of what worked well in the first book and doubles down on things that didn’t, but it’s sheer ambition is giddying. Stover goes all out here and it results in a book which is a structural mess and becomes borderline incoherent, but is an undeniably fascinating read. I don’t think I’ve ever read a fantasy novel like this.

Blade of Tyshalle takes place seven years after Heroes Die: Hari Michaelson, famed as the Actor for Caine, has been left crippled after the conclusion of the previous book and is now living his ‘happy ending’ as the Administrator for the Studio for which he used to work. Things are far from perfect, with a tense marriage to his wife Shanna and a dangerous nostalgia for his violent past as Caine. His purest joy is his adopted daughter Faith, child of Shanna and Lamorak. His closest companion is former nemesis Ma’elkoth, the former Emperor of Ankhana who was dragged along with Hari when he last left Overworld and unable to return, now known as Tan’elkoth. Hari’s quiet life is interrupted when he discovers an outbreak of HRPV in Overworld, a mutated and more deadly form of rabies which had swept the Earth decades prior. With no immunity or vaccination, the people of Overworld are defenceless from a hideous death and so Hari sets about to get to the bottom of the outbreak, dragging him back into the habits of the past and re-awakening the dormant Caine within him.

Heroes Die was a relatively focused novel, taking place over six days and primarily within one city. Blade of Tyshalle has no such structure, or seemingly any structure at all. The frustrating thing is just how frequently brilliant this book is; there are isolated chapters which are as good as anything else you’ll read in the genre, but there are a lot which descend into endless mythological and metaphysical mumbo-jumbo. I loved the opening, which shows us Hari’s early days training to be an Actor through the eyes of Kris Hansen, who wants nothing more than to live in Overworld as an elf-like Primal. The biggest issue is the emergence of the true villain, a figure whose presence doesn’t gel at all with the previous book and is too abstract to truly fear. The core of humanity which made the previous book so good is still there, but there’s an unbelievable amount of time spent on conflicts which involve one demi-God communicating with another demi-God in an incomprehensible manner. When Blade of Tyshalle brings itself back down to Earth the book soars, but much of the climax is robbed of impact. It seeks to be too epic, with a villain who is essentially a manifestation of the worst vices of human nature, but this is a story which works best when it is about scrapping in the streets.

From a prose standpoint though, Blade of Tyshalle is seriously great. The action scenes are still pretty much the best I’ve read. I may not have thought it possible to crank up the violence any further from Heroes Die but, well, here it is. This time though…I think he went a too far. The violence in Heroes Die felt like a winking allusion towards a shift in fantasy tastes at the time but Blade of Tyshalle doesn’t function as a commentary on the fantasy genre as well as Heroes Die. The violence, and some of it really is stomach churning, feels like shock for shocks sake. Rape, both physical but also mental, shows up time and again in the story. The victims are denied any real voice, both before or after and once again it feels like it was deployed for shock value. The world building and dialogue are top notch, but it feels like Stover descends into self-indulgence here and without the defence of being a satire that could be claimed by Heroes Die.

Caine/Hari continues to be so much more interesting than he sounds, with new character such as Hari’s academy friend Kris and the vengeance driven monastic warrior Raithe being well and fully drawn. As I said before, the main villain is the weakest link and never manages to match up to the brilliant trio of antagonists from Heroes Die: Ma’elkoth, Count Berne and Arturo Kollberg. One of the most interesting themes of this novel is that of friendship. Caine has a lot of odd friendships, forged in strange ways, which arise throughout the novel. One of the chief joys of Blade of Tyshalle is the bizarre love/hate relationship between Caine and Tan’elkoth, former nemeses who, by circumstance, have become best friends, but it’s far from the only relationship like this. Betrayal is the mirror theme of friendship and is also core to the narrative and it’s these complex, shifting relationships which kept me most engaged in the book.

Blade of Tyshalle is hugely ambitious book which falls short of the mark. It’s too long and self-indulgent and could have done with a pretty brutal editing. There’s so much potential in this book, so many interesting ideas and characters toyed with, which are abandoned in favour of a fuzzy and vague message about humans being better as individuals and more flawed as a collective…or something? I don’t really know what this book is trying to say. Heroes Die was a relatively straight forward satire of the fantasy market and the human lust for violence and it worked so much better than whatever this is. Blade of Tyshalle is a very interesting book and one which I think I’m going to think about for a while, but it’s too unfocused to be the genuine classic Heroes Die is.

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Babylon’s Ashes by James S A Corey

I spent about a year working through The Expanse books and to be honest I don’t really mind the break before the next one. Babylon’s Ashes is very much Nemesis Games 2. All the other Expanse books have been fairly self-contained in setting and story, whilst building towards the larger whole. For example, Abaddon’s Gate concerned itself with Medina Station and the Slow Zone and Cibola Burn with the colony of Ilus, but, for better or for worse, Babylon’s Ashes follows on pretty much directly from Nemesis Games.

Earth is still reeling from the devastating attack from Marco Inaros and his Free Navy, who now seek to consolidate their hold on the Belt and Medina Station, to ensure that the colony gates cannot be used. There are a lot of PoV characters in this one, but the core story lines converge around about three. One is Filip Inaros, son of Marco and Naomi Nagata and orchestrator of the attack on Earth, who now finds himself questioning the competence of his father and his place in the Free Navy, whilst burdened with the unimaginable loss of life he has caused. Next is Michio Pa, returning form Abaddon’s Gate, now a Free Navy captain who goes rogue after Marco’s decisions become more and more erratic. Finally, obviously, we have Holden, desperately trying to hold the system together and re-unite the Inners and the Belters.

Where previous books were strict about numbers of PoV characters, Babylon’s Ashes relaxes this significantly. There are still a few who dominate, but there are also a handful of chapters from characters like Bobbie Draper, Clarissa Mao, Avasarala and Prax Meng, as well as all of the Rocinante crew. There’s a looseness to the structure which feels intentional but not quite successful. For example, the events on Medina Station are shown through four different one-off PoVs, which only has the effect of not allowing us to get particularly attached to any of them. Don’t get me wrong, it was nice to return to so many fan favourite characters, but a lot of the time (with the notable exception of Prax who gets a decent subplot of his own) it feels superfluous. This is a book where it felt like a lot was happening, but when it came to actually running through the complete events of the book I realised it was a bit lacking. It also, as with Nemesis Games, pretty much entirely ignores to protomolecule/ancient alien civilisation plot. I have full confidence that following books will return to it, but that’s two books now which lack the most interesting part of the series.

The role of these two books, Nemesis Games and Babylon’s Ashes are clear, to overturn the status quo and install a new one as the series enters its final stretch. I see the narrative necessity, but it doesn’t make it any more interesting to read. They remind me a fair bit of Martin’s A Feast for Crows and A Dance with Dragons, books which have also been criticised for pacing and existing largely for place setting. The thing is though, I’m a defender of those books as Martin’s characterisation is so good that following a wonderful character like Brienne of Tarth wandering around for 8 chapters doesn’t bore me. Abraham and Franck aren’t quite in the same league, but who is?

The characterisation is still solid enough, although some character moves are unconvincing. I like Clarissa Mao but her redemption arc feels a bit rushed. Marco didn’t really work for me as a villain; I see what they were going for, he’s like Che Guevara crossed with Osama Bin Laden, but he ends up feeling more like Donald Trump, a blow-hard appealing to populist idiots and fuelling anger to power his own rise. He’s going to Make the Belt Great Again, but the details for exactly how that will work are sketchy at best. Holden is pretty much static as a character by this point, but that’s fine, I quite like him existing as a paragon of ridiculous goodness. I miss proto-Miller though; a bitchy ghost commenting on everything he does certainly livened up his chapters.

Babylon’s Ashes isn’t awful by any stretch, but I’m certainly glad that this subplot is over now. My hope is that the final trilogy of books double down on the protomolecule stuff after its two book absence. As underwhelmed as I was, this wasn’t enough to put me off the series. If I can power through the middle Wheel of Time books I can power through anything. Hopefully, as with Wheel of Time, the conclusion is worth it.

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