SHATTERED MINDS by Laura Lam

Reviewed over at Tor.com:

Shattered Minds is Laura Lam’s second science fiction novel. It’s not a direct sequel to last year’s excellent False Hearts, although it’s set in the same continuity, and in the same region—and I think in many ways, it is a stronger, tighter book than False Hearts anyway.

Or maybe I just liked Shattered Minds protagonists better.

INTO THE BADLANDS: a weird wire-fu Western. A Patreon review

 The first three episodes of Into the Badlands were requested for review by Fade Manley.

Season 1 Episode 01: “The Fort.”

Season 1 Episode 02: “Fist Like a Bullet.”

Season 1 Episode 03: “White Stork Spreads Wings.”

I’m not sure this is a review, exactly: I’m not recapping any of the events, that’s for sure.

Before we begin, I’d like to note that Into the Badlands has an extremely striking main cast, and the first season counts five female characters in the main credits to four male ones. That, all by itself, was a positive sign.

I’d never heard of it before, but Into the Badlands began airing with a six-episode first season in 2015, and its second season is presently ongoing (and has been renewed, it seems, for a third season).

This show grabbed me a lot faster and harder than I expected. Into the Badlands feels very influenced by Hong King cinema, or by anime, or perhaps some combination of the two. It feels a little as though someone crossed a wire-fu epic with a teenage-focused anime and married the results to a Western.

This makes the experience of watching it both fascinating and weird as fuck. I don’t know which generic conventions it will use from moment to moment, much less which ones it will use for the narrative’s pivotal points. It is nonetheless immensely compelling.

What makes it compelling? Let’s start with how visually stunning it is. It’s saturated in colour (in a way that reminds me of this year’s The Great Wall) and its martial arts are clearly choreographed by people who take superhuman feats of martial arts skill seriously. (It uses wire-fu, but it doesn’t go too far overboard.) The fight sequences express character. Daniel Wu’s character Sunny and Emily Beecham’s character of The Widow (who are the two characters that, so far, I’ve seen fight the most) have different styles and approaches, but not so different as to appear to come from wholly distinct fighting traditions.

Daniel Wu (who is extraordinarily striking, I just want to point that out) plays a role more familiar in Japanese film than in American, that of a loyal and honourable retainer (Sunny by name) who serves a man not really worthy of his loyalty. In this paradox of honour, he’s torn between his loyalties to his Baron, and his loyalty to the woman he loves, who is carrying his child. Veil is a doctor and a maker of replacement limbs for the maimed. Madeleine Mantock, who plays her, has immense presence: she commands every scene she’s in.

Sunny’s Baron, Quinn, is caught up in a rivalry with a neighbouring Baron, the Widow. Quinn controls the production of opium poppy, but the Widow controls the oil which is needed to refine the poppy. Into this picture comes M.K., a boy with strange powers, whom the Widow wants to control and Sunny — sort of — tries to protect. With a cast of characters also including the Widow’s teenage daughter Tilda, the Baron’s wives Lydia and Jade, and the Baron’s ineffective son Ryder, this is very much an ensemble show — an ensemble show about power, loyalty, politics, and family.

The world of Into the Badlands bears mention. We are told at the outset that the Barons brought peace, long ago, and banished weapons like guns. In the narrow confines of the Barons’ holdings, the most common method of transport is by horse or afoot, but the privileged control some motor vehicles, like Sunny’s motorbike, or the car in which we first see the Widow. The houses of the wealthy have electricity, gramophones, other luxury conveniences — a doctor shows a Baron an x-ray image — but the rest of the world gets by with torchlight, candles, gaslamps. M.K. says that he originally comes from outside the world controlled by the Barons, which tells us that this world is bounded, and not by the nothing which various other characters claim. (One has the vague suspicion that the Barons’ lands are some kind of vast social experiment. But that might be a different genre altogether.)

Taken all together, this is a fascinatingly fun show, one that constantly surprises me. I want to see the rest.

 


This review is brought to you courtesy of my amazing Patreon backers. Onward to the next milestone, guys!

LOTUS BLUE by Cat Sparks: a Patreon review

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Lotus Blue by Cat Sparks. Talos Press. March 2017. TPB, 388 pp. ISBN-13: 978-1940456706

Cat Sparks is an award-winning Australian author. With Lotus Blue, her debut novel published by American imprint Talos Press (and with a gorgeous cover by Lauren Saint-Onge), she’s making the leap to international exposure.

Lotus Blue is post-apocalyptic science fiction with a very Australian feel. Seventeen-year-old Star and her ten-years-older sister Nene are part of a caravan of nomadic traders who travel the Sand   Road, a route that cuts through a ravaged landscape, on the edge of a desert where semi-sentient war machines roam. These, half-human soldiers called Templars, and sealed fortress cities, are among the leftovers from a time before the present age.

Deep in the desert, an ancient and mostly mad AI is stirring, one of the generals that prosecuted the war that ruined the world. When a relic satellite falls to Earth, events are set in motion that lead Star very far from her sister and the life she knew, on a journey across a desert sea. Her journey, and her discovery of secrets about herself that she never knew, intersects with the journey of a Templar called Quarrel — half-broken, his memories confused, his people skills non-existent — who is determined to stop the mad AI general before it can destroy the world even further.

In this world, we see through Star’s eyes, through Quarrel’s and through the eyes of a young thief called Grieve. As well, we have the viewpoints of an old Templar called Marianthe, who controls a small community of outcasts on the edge of habitable land; two young men from a fortress city, one of whom really wants to make their mark and doesn’t give a shit about anyone else; and a handful of other people, including the AI general himself. This diffusion of viewpoints at times gives the novel a rather scattered feel, with some initial plot threads that appear important — such as Star’s relationship with her sister, who kept secrets regarding Star’s origin from her; or such as the role of the fortress cities within the landscape and social ecosystem of this particular post-apocalyptic world — not taken up or developed in any significant way. Sparks creates a vivid world with an interesting post-apocalyptic ecology and some very entertaining Cool Shit, but, while Lotus Blue offers a broad canvas and some really striking potential, it ends up sprawling out on its way to its conclusion, and not quite successfully drawing back in to form a unified whole. It finds its thematic arguments late, and does not press them in a way that brings together all the novel’s threads. There is adventure here, and incident; high stakes and intense emotion. But it feels as though Sparks is setting out the opening volume of a longer work — although nowhere on Lotus Blue‘s cover copy is this suggested — in which the threads of this novel might be taken up and developed further.

Lest I mislead you on this point: there is a conclusion, and an explosive one at that. But it leaves several questions still open and unresolved.

Lotus Blue‘s concern with ecological apocalypse and desert wasteland recalls the Mad Max movies. Its oddball concern with hunting strange things — semi-sentient war machines, in this case — from strange vehicles — ships that sail on sand — brings China Miéville’s Railsea a little to mind. And its concern with technology and a civilisation degraded from a former age recalls any number of science fictional post-apocalypses, but for me reminds me rather strikingly of Ankaret Wells’ self-published duology Maker’s Mask and The Hawkwood War. But Lotus Blue is very much its own thing, and working very much to Australian paradigms, I think — structurally, it reminds me of Australian epic fantasy along the lines of Karen Miller and Jennifer Fallon.

It’s engaging and readable. I found it fun, but I don’t feel as though it really did enough right by me to have me find it compelling — or to encourage me to pick up a sequel, if one should emerge.

(I might have felt differently if it had been a bit queerer. I make a lot of exceptions for work that sets out a better welcoming mat in terms of inclusion.)


This review is brought to you courtesy of my amazing Patreon backers. $3 to the next milestone, guys!

Sleeps With Monsters: Science Fictional Democracy in Malka Older’s Infomocracy

A new column over at Tor.com:

I’m really late to the party when it comes to Malka Older’s astonishing debut Infomocracy. It came out last year to no small degree of fanfare and acclaim. It was a finalist on the Locus Best First Novel list as well as featuring in several “Best of 2016” lists.

I can’t believe I missed it. On the other hand, this does mean I don’t have nearly as long to wait for the sequel. (Null States, forthcoming in September.)

Sleeps With Monsters: Teeth and Gods and Hearts

A new column over at Tor.com:

Nicky Drayden’s The Prey of Gods is an interesting debut. Part science fiction, part fantasy, it situates itself in Port Elizabeth, South Africa. Its cast involves one teenage boy in love with his best (male) friend, one sort-of demigoddess who wants to rule the world and who feeds on pain and suffering, one child demigoddess whose township tries to lynch her and who (mostly not on purpose) kills them all trying to protect herself, one pop diva with serious issues, one pretty effective mayor who wants to be a performer and whose mother is a bit on the smothering-controlling side of things (but with a magical twist to the controlling element), and one robot/robot collective that’s gained sentience and has a split of opinion on whether or not humans should be preserved or exterminated. Its climax includes giant robots fighting giant genetically-modified animals as part of a battle in which godly powers are involved.

 

Space Opera and the Question of Empire: From David Weber to Yoon Ha Lee

A new post over at Tor.com!

When I set out to write this piece, I had a grand vision for what I was going to say. Then I realised that in order to achieve that vision, I’d need to write myself a book’s worth of words. So instead of having an incisive and cutting post looking at approaches to imperialism and gender in space opera, you’re getting the shorter version: a sketch towards an argument comparing the space opera novels of Ann Leckie, Yoon Ha Lee, David Drake, and David Weber, and how they treat empire.

PAWN by Timothy Zahn

Reviewed over at Tor.com:

I’ve read quite a lot of Zahn’s work, and I’ve come to the conclusion that he’s at his best when he can play in other people’s sandboxes. His original work often feels shallow by comparison, the details of the worldbuilding barely sketched, and the characters not so much shaped by their environments as floating through them.

This is unfortunately true of Pawn, too

Sleeps With Monsters: Tanya Huff’s A PEACE DIVIDED

A new column over at Tor.com:

Tanya Huff’s A Peace Divided is the second novel in her new space opera series, set in the same universe as her Valor novels, and starring former Marine Gunnery Sergeant Torin Kerr. The war is over, but that’s just released a lot of well-trained, battle-scarred survivors back into the general population. Someone with the appropriate training and mindset to deal with violence needs to be part of civilian law enforcement, and as it turns out, Torin Kerr and her crew of (mostly) former Marine misfits are reasonably well-suited to the demands of the job.

Sleeps With Monsters: Roses and Portals

A new column over at Tor.com:

One of the delightful things about Kingfisher’s protagonists is just how practical they are. Bryony and Roses is the story of a very practical gardener, the titular Bryony, who stumbles into a magical manor house in the middle of an unexpected snowstorm. This brings her face to face with its Beast, labouring—though Bryony doesn’t yet know it—under a curse. Matters proceed in fairytale fashion from there, albeit with Kingfisher’s own unique twists on fairytale matters.

 

THE STRANGE CASE OF THE ALCHEMIST’S DAUGHTER by Theodora Goss

The Strange Case of the Alchemist’s Daughter

 

The Strange Case of the Alchemist’s Daughter by Theodora Goss.

June 2017, Saga Press, HC, 416pp. ISBN 978-1-4814-6650-9. $24.99 US/$33.99 CAN. Cover illustration by Kate Forrester. Art direction by Krista Vossen.

Theodora Goss is an award-winning writer of short stories. It should not be surprising, then, that her debut novel, The Strange Case of the Alchemist’s Daughter, is an enormously accomplished delight of a book. Playful, serious, possessed of great affection for the works with which it is in dialogue even as it critiques them, its deft prose and amused self-awareness of itself as a narrative — its meta-narrative properties — create an extraordinary reading experience.

(I suppose this is as good a place as any to admit I was pretty much blown away.)

The novel opens with Mary Jekyll, daughter of the (supposed) late Dr. Jekyll, at the funeral of her recently-deceased mother, her last surviving parent. With Mary’s mother’s death, Mary is left without income, and must not only let her servants go, but try to figure out how to earn some money. When an item among her mother’s papers leads her to believe she might be able to find the location of Hyde — wanted as a murderer, for whom a significant reward was once offered — she sets out to discover him, and instead finds herself in the middle of a set of interlocking mysteries, and in the orbit of Dr. Watson and Sherlock Holmes. Who is murdering prostitutes in London and taking their bodyparts? What is the mysterious SA? What did become of Hyde, and did Jekyll really die?

In the course of her quest, she discovers a younger half-sister, the unself-conscious, rude, and strangely endearing Diana Hyde. She also finds more women, all of whose “fathers” were involved in experimenting upon them: Beatrice Rappaccini, a young woman whose very breath is poison; Catherine Moreau, a young woman who is part cat, created by Dr. Moreau’s experiments; and Justine Frankenstein, a woman who looks young but who, reanimated after her first death by Dr. Frankenstein, has lived for nearly a century without ageing. Together, they learn that their putative fathers all belonged to an organisation calling itself the Société des Alchimistes, an organisation devoted to the transmutation of human life into more “advanced” forms. Members of the Société des Alchimistes are involved in the London murders. And their investigations bring danger to their doorstep…

The Strange Case of the Alchemist’s Daughter really loves its inspirations. It is delightedly invested in playing with, reworking and re-interpreting, the fantastic literature of the 19th century, and interested in 19th-century London and rookeries. Its murders echo the most infamous unsolved murders of history, and it’s easy to see that Goss is playing with ideas of memory and narrative, myth and monstrousness. This concern with memory and narrative is brought to the fore in the device that makes the novel an innovative delight: the novel is being written by one of the characters as a novelisation of “true events,” while every so often others interject to correct her. Thus the narrative’s reliability (or lack of it) and objectivity (or lack of it) is constantly before the reader’s attention. Goss is playing with constructed nature of narrative, with the idea of narrator as agent. The Strange Case of the Alchemist’s Daughter is directly in dialogue with its inspirations in both structural terms as well as in terms of the characters that Goss is reworking here.

And what characters they are! Goss gives each a vivid life and personality, vivid histories: they are all complete individuals, distinct in themselves, from devoutly religious Justine to relatively amoral Diana, and from practical Mary to Catherine, who has a flair for the dramatic. (I think my favourite may be the very pragmatic housekeeper Mrs Poole, whose concern for the proprieties stops short entirely when the proprieties get in the way of something important, like a rescue.)

The Strange Case of the Alchemist’s Daughter is an energetic book, elegantly written, with a twisty structure that is nonetheless easy to follow. It’s also a novel that makes me want to chew on its themes, and to read the works by which it has been directly influenced — I feel as though I missed at least half the references. But despite that, I thoroughly enjoyed myself: it’s a brilliant novel. You should definitely read it.

 


This review comes to you thanks to my generous Patreon supporters. If you enjoy my work, please drop a penny in the jar.

Sleeps With Monsters: Thorns and Wings and Dragons

A new column over at Tor.com:

Aliette de Bodard’s The House of Binding Thorns and Michelle Sagara’s Cast in Flight don’t, on the surface, have much in common. One is a gothic, atmospheric novel of treachery and politics set in a decaying Paris, deeply interested in the politics of family and community and colonialism; while the other is a second-world urban fantasy novel starring a beat cop whose fun, light voice conceals some deeper thematic concerns with class and privilege, growing up and belonging.

WITHIN THE SANCTUARY OF WINGS by Marie Brennan

A new review over at Tor.com:

Within the Sanctuary of Wings is the fifth and final novel in Marie Brennan’s acclaimed Memoirs of Lady Trent series, following last year’s Labyrinth of Drakes. And if you thought Labyrinth of Drakes was good, Within the Sanctuary of Wings is a pure treat: I think I can say that at least as far as I’m concerned, Brennan definitely saved the best till last.