Frivolous Waste of Time

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Archive for the tag “science fiction”

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.

 

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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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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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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Ready Player One by Ernest Cline

Ready Player One is only five years old but already feels like something of a relic. It’s an optimistic and uplifting book with an unshakable belief in the power of nerds to do good. Events since 2011 have shaken my belief that being a nerd or a geek makes you more likely to be a good person, with events like Gamergate or the Sad Puppies unfortunately suggesting that ‘nerd culture’ isn’t what I thought it was. In this sense, Ready Player One feels like a sort of nerd utopia, where everyone is egalitarian and inclusive in their shared love of pop culture, as opposed to the polarised and exclusionary narratives which so often surround issues of diversity in ‘nerdy’ pop culture.

Ready Player One takes place in a not too distant future which has become dominated by the ‘Oasis’, a virtual reality experience where much of the Earth’s population spend all their time. Where the real world is riven with poverty, over-population, environmental collapse and massive inequality, the Oasis is a genuinely egalitarian place where anyone can live an exciting or creative life. The creator of the Oasis, James Halliday, had died five years before the start of the book, but in his will had set forth the hunt for the Egg. Somewhere in the Oasis, hidden behind three walls requiring three keys, in the greatest Easter Egg known to man and the discoverer of this Egg will bestow the finder with Halliday’s fortune and control of his company. This announcement changes the world, with many foregoing all else and hunting for the Egg full time, known as gunters. Halliday was obsessed with 1980s pop culture and so all the gunters become experts in 80s movies, TV shows, videogames and music in the hope that they will provide a clue. Our protagonist, Wade, is one of these gunters, although a fairly insignificant one, who stumbles upon the first clue for the Egg five years after the competition was first announced.

Your enjoyment of Ready Player One is largely going to be tied to your tolerance for reference based writing. Almost every major moment is a call back to some piece of 80s arcana or the other. Now, I’m not a child of the 80s. I’m a 90s kid baby. Re-write this with Pokémon, Tarantino and Nirvana and it’d be more my era, but I ended up spending a fair bit of this book feeling quite lost.  I have mixed feelings about all the references. I usually don’t like them; I found them really annoying in Charlie Jane Anders’ All The Birds in the Sky, but Ready Player One is a bit different because it’s entire plot is about references. It’s about nostalgia, so it doesn’t feel as calculated and cringeworthy here as it does elsewhere. I was expecting this to end up as a comment on the toxicity of nostalgia, of living in the past and refusing to embrace the new, but that never comes.

The main cast are a likeable, if straightforward bunch. There aren’t any standout characters, but they’re all enjoyable enough that you’re rooting for the good buys and booing the bad guys. The ‘adorable nerd’ thing doesn’t feel quite as relevant these days in a post Gamergate world. No one in the Oasis is whining about SJWs or posting Pepe memes, officially making it a vastly superior place than the real internet we have to inhabit. This isn’t a criticism of Ready Player One, far from it, but it definitely made me quite sad to see that genuine optimism and enthusiasm for ‘nerd culture’, which recent events have revealed to be, at best, non-existent, or at worst toxic and hateful.

Ready Player One is a likeable enough book, certainly the genre fiction version of a beach read. I read the vast majority of it across two lengthy train journeys, which seems like the right way to absorb something like this. I’m not sure that there’s much substance here, but it’s a fun enough ride regardless.

 

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Heroes Die by Matthew Stover

I’ve been wanting to read this series for a while and now I have a Kindle I finally can. The Acts of Caine series has been out of print for a very long time (and with cover art like the one seen below it’s hardly surprising) but has had a resurgence of attention of late. I’m shocked it wasn’t a bigger success because it really is very good, perhaps somewhat ahead of its time. As a wonderful example, and critique of, grimdark fantasy, the current fantasy market is a very sensible place for this series to do very well.

Acts of Caine takes place in two parallel worlds; one is the future Earth, which has become a rigidly caste based society controlled by the Social Police who keep the populace in line. The opiate of the masses are Adventures put out by a series of studios. Many years before the beginning of the book, an ability to travel between parallel universes was discovered. Most are too hostile and alien to support human life, but one, known as Overworld, resembles a world out of fantasy, complete with a form of magic known as flow. The studios send Actors from Earth to Overworld where they livestream their Adventures to a rapt audience. Overworld is a real place and the actions of the Actors on Earth have real consequences.

Hari Michaelson is the most popular actor in the world, known in Overworld as Caine. He is loved for his brutality and propensity for sudden, shocking violence. He has been in semi-retirement since his assassination of the ruler of Ankhara destabilised the Empire and plunged it into a bloody war of succession. When Hari is told that his estranged ex-wife Shanna, another actor known in Overworld as Pallas Ril, is in danger, he agrees to head back into Overworld to save her. The studio wants him to assassinate Mael’koth, the new ruler of Ankhara, a hugely powerful magician and charismatic leader. The studio wants to do so as he has launched a pogrom against Aktir, demons who invade from another world to disrupt theirs. Sound familiar? Caine’s motivations diverge further and further from the studio as he makes enemies in both worlds.

The whole science fiction/fantasy crossover thing is something I’m very fond of. A good example would be Anne McCaffery’s Dragonriders of Pern books, which gradually revealed that what looked like fantasy was actually science fiction. I also loved the old adventure game The Longest Journey, which saw its heroine travel between the sci-fi dystopia of Stark and the magical realm of Arcadia. Hell, Iain Banks played with this concept more than a few times! Heroes Die is possibly the best expression of this idea I’ve ever read. I was worried that the framing narrative of our Earth would make the Overworld adventures feel inconsequential, but Stover sidesteps this by making it very clear that there are real consequences for the residents of this world by giving us a handful of Overworld natives’ PoVs. Heroes Die is a fast paced, action packed story which takes place in a tight time frame, only six days, and pretty much entirely in one setting. This limited focus is a good idea; presenting us a sci-fi future and a whole new fantasy realm could have been overwhelming but this is, fundamentally, an intimate story with a relatively small cast of characters. The grudges are personal, not lofty. In fact, the more epic moments towards the conclusion are arguably far less engaging than the closer relationships within. It also has one of the most satisfying and breathtakingly exciting conclusions I’ve ever read.

Heroes Die is a violent, unpleasant book, but that’s sort of the point. Caine’s audience back on Earth are bloodthirsty; when he attempts to use non-violent means early on his bosses at the Studio are furious. Caine is the most popular Actor in the world because of his brutality. There’s a grim humour to much of the violence; it’s so ridiculously horrible sometimes you can’t help but laugh. Joe Abercrombie is good at the same trick. The book is mostly in the third person, with Caine/Hari as the lead but with several other PoVs as well. However, there are several 1st person passages which represent Caine’s ‘soliloquy’, his internal monologue which is beamed back to the audiences on Earth. Watching him get more and more subversive, much to the fury of the social police back on Earth, is a joy, as is his growing contempt for his bloodthirsty audience.

Hari/Caine is a brilliant protagonist, brutal and horrifying but hard not to like. The supporting cast in general is a lot of fun, such as Count Berne, an old enemy of Caine’s who is so utterly and irredeemably awful it’s hard not to kind of like him. The hatred between Berne and Caine is one of my favourite parts of the book. My favourite character was Mael’koth, the all-powerful Emperor of Ankhara, who despite a fair bit of brutality is actually a rather good Emperor with the best interests of his subjects at heart. We’ve seen egotistical sorcerers seeking to ascend to Godhood before, but seeing one actually doing a pretty good job is a nice twist. He’s an intimidating, frightening and bizarrely likeable figure. A good mirror to the impressive majesty of Mael’koth is the simpering and pathetic Administrator Kollberg over on Earth, Caine’s boss who has tired of his insubordination.

Heroes Die is a tremendously fun, witty and self-aware bit of genre fiction. It’s not self-aware in an irritating ‘winking at the audience’ sort of way, but explores the tropes of its genres whilst also exemplifying them. Even without the frame Earth narrative, Caine’s adventures in Overworld would still be pretty fun. I’m very much looking forward to continuing with the series.

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The Vital Abyss by James S A Corey

The Vital Abyss is the most recently published instalment in The Expanse, another novella and possibly one of my favourite bits of writing in the setting. The authors try something a bit different here and explore the backstories of a group of characters who had seen pretty much irredeemably evil.

The Vital Abyss is told, unlike anything else in the series, in the first person, from the point of view of Cortazar, a researcher for Protogen who was partially responsible for the protomolecule test on Eros all the way back in Leviathan Wakes. After their capture by the OPA, they have been held for years in a small dormitory, entirely cut off from the outside world, desperate for any change of scenery and dangerously competitive for any potential opportunity. Alongside the main narrative, flashbacks fill in Cortazar’s backstory and explain how a seemingly affable young man reached the point of being able to slaughter an entire space station in the most horrific manner imaginable.

The titular ‘Vital Abyss’ is the necessary ability to separate yourself from other people to be capable of the kind of horrors Cortazar and his group are guilty of creating. They may have ambitions to save humanity from all future illness and suffering, but to put even a single human through the agony they do requires a mental re-adjustment and a sacrifice of basic empathy; the abyss of the title. The backstory for Cortazar is unlike anything else we’ve really seen in the series and is movingly told, although the actual jump from the sensitive young man seem in the flashbacks to the calculated and cold scientist in the present is done in a rather clunky and convenient manner.

There are some gorgeous turns of phrases in The Vital Abyss, which certainly feels like an experiment and a deviation from the usual formula. It’s the most floridly written piece in the entire series and this is actually done very well. With the main series tending very much towards being stale, it was a breath of fresh air to read Abraham and Franck doing something so different.

The Vital Abyss is joint with Gods of Risk four my favourite Expanse novella and one I definitely wouldn’t recommend skipping. Arguably the series has never really topped the horror of Eros Station so seeing this event returned to is a macabre pleasure.

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Nemesis Games by James S A Corey

There was a lot to like about the fifth book in The Expanse, but ultimately it repeated the structural flaws of the previous book pretty much exactly. It is saved by strong characterisation and a breezy writing style, as many of these later books in the series have been. As I have felt previously with this series, I liked it enough to keep going but not enough that I’m massively enthused about it.

Nemesis Games picks up not long after the Ilus incident, with Holden and the crew of the Rocinante unwinding on Tycho Station. Personal issues pull the crew of the Rocinante apart, with this book rather excitingly following all four crew members of the Rocinante, allowing us to get in their minds (apart from James Holden), for the first time. Alex Kamal returns to Mars to try to patch things up with his ex-wife, but finds himself dragged into a conspiracy involving missing Martian warships. Amos Burton heads back down to Earth following the death of a woman close to him in his previous life as a Baltimore gangster (see short story The Churn for details) to either pay his respects or set out a bloody swath of revenge if her death is unnatural. Naomi Nagata is summoned by an old OPA connection back to Ceres Station, pulled by a deeply personal connection as her mysterious past is finally unveiled. Finally, a bored and lonely Holden on Tycho is asked to investigate colony ships which appear to be vanishing at the gates to the other worlds.

It is a proper treat to finally follow these core figures of Alex, Amos and Naomi as full point of view characters, which means that this book is not too worried about throwing lots of new characters our way; we already know them pretty well from the previous four books. Digging inside their heads is interesting, particularly in the case of Naomi who has held the most back so far. Cibola Burn has a major issue where the first half was very slow but the book was saved by a major event at the half way point; unfortunately, Nemesis Games has pretty much the exact same problem. There are pages upon pages in the first half which are almost immediately rendered pointless by a game changing moment in the second half. I don’t mind slow build characterisation stuff, but we don’t really gain anything from these scenes. For example, Amos’ storyline in the first half is essentially a mini-sequel to The Churn with very little to do with the rest of the book, which feels a little self-indulgent. When things get going they really get going and there are lots of moments towards the end which are breathlessly exciting.

The book suffers slightly for the lack of development of the protomolecule/ancient alien civilisation storyline, focusing almost entirely in the politics of the Sol system and the delicate power balance between Earth, Mars and the OPA. It’s not that this stuff is bad necessarily, but the balance between the two seems to be fairly key to this series. The first two books, Leviathan Wakes and Caliban’s War struck this balance best and they are the two strongest books in the series. There are some hugely exciting action scenes and some which are a bit incoherent as has long been both the boon and curse of this series.

Naomi probably had the strongest storyline as we see a very different side to the Rocinante’s XO than anything we’ve seen before. Bobbie Draper and Chrisjen Avasarala play slightly bigger roles in this book, which is nice as they really were two of the best protagonists that this series has had. With the exception of Holden, we’ve yet to have a single repeat PoV between books, but I can’t help but hope that these two come back in a big way. Holden is a bit static in this book, largely reacting to everything else going on, which is a bit of a change of pace from his usually position at the centre of every major event in the system.

Nemesis Games is definitely enjoyable, Abraham and Franck are too talented as writers for it to be anything but, however it has not quite succeeded in pulling this series out of the slight rut it has found itself in. The next book, Babylon’s Ashes, is actually coming out pretty soon. I’m sure I’ll enjoy it and I hope I love it.

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