Revenger, by Alastair Reynolds

28962452Alastair Reynolds is one of my favourite SF writers, so I was very happy to receive a copy of his new novel via NetGalley. But once I started reading it, a few things didn’t quite add up. The lead characters were a pair of teenage girls just finding their way in the universe, there was a description early on of something simple like how acceleration affected gravity…hang on, this is a YA book! I wasn’t best pleased with that realisation.

That was stupid of me.

Turns out Revenger is one of Alastair Reynolds’ very best books. We’re in the far far future. Civilisations have risen and fallen many times, alien interventions have been weathered, and humanity is spread amongst the stars. Sisters Arafura and Adrana have led a sheltered and privileged life on a backwater planet. That’s not enough for them, and, having discovered a talent for bone reading (a mysterious tech that allows for cross space communication), they sign on with Captain Rackamore and his crew to hunt baubles, tiny worldlets that are protected and booby trapped but which can contain lost and very valuable technology inside (this idea of searching through ancient relics to subsist while hoping for a life changing score put me in mind of Gateway, which is not bad company for any SF novel). As you might have guessed from the title of the book, things go badly wrong. Arafura barely survives a bloody encounter outside one bauble, and finds herself alone, left on mission and revenge….

This is an exciting, involving and very fast moving story. Arafura’s consuming need to right wrongs is at the forefront, driving her story forward with the propulsion of a supersonic jet. There are many shades of grey throughout the book. Arafura has to make some hard decisions and do some unpleasant things to further her goal. Come the end, even the villain is perhaps not the vicious psychopath she appeared to be initially. YA or not, it’s also a very violent book, with a high body count and no flinching from blood and gore. It’s never gratuitous though, just a natural extension of the dark and chaotic universe Arafura finds herself in. Space here is hostile and uncaring, and Arafura has to make herself that way to survive.

There’s some lovely writing throughout, especially this passage when Arafura finds herself in space for the first time:

…it was a hazy circle of shimmering, scintillating light, with the Old Sun at its focus, masked and gauzed by all the intervening worlds, so that the Old Sun’s weary light was filtered by its passage through the skyshells of sphereworlds, the glassy windows of tubeworlds, the photon- shifting fields of baubles themselves, sometimes pushing that light from red to blue, sometimes from blue to red. And I’d go on to say the cumulative effect of all those worlds floating between us and the Old Sun was to create a constant twinkling granularity, an unending dance of glints, from ruby-red to white, from white to indigo, and an almost impossibly deep purple-blue.

If that doesn’t thrill you just a little bit, then you have no business reading science fiction. Throw in an ending that goes up and on and out in the best SF tradition, and you have an excellent book. I don’t know if Reynolds intends to return to this universe or not, but I’ll be first in the queue if he does.

Oh, and at the very end, when you realise exactly what you’ve been reading…well, a Kindle suddenly seems a lot more attractive.

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Fight Like A Girl, by many and various

fight-like-a-girl-v2-400ppiWomen in conflict is the theme of this anthology. Edited by Bristolians Joanne Hall and Roz Clarke, it features fifteen stories, all by female authors, spanning fantasy and SF. The overriding flavour is one of gritty combat. There’s no cheesecake fluff here – think Ellen Ripley, not a screaming 1970s Doctor Who companion. Of course, the nature of anthologies is that you’re going to like some stories more than others, but there are no real duffers here. I’ll highlight a few that stood out for me. My favourite was probably Lou Morgan‘s “Archer 57”, a tale of loss, revenge and desperation in a dystopian future. Joanne Hall‘s “Arrested Development” has a nasty sting in the tail that makes you reassess the protagonist and ponder the ethics of what she’s doing. KT Davies‘ “The Quality Of Light” is more a vignette than a full story, but it’s an evocative piece that conjures the sensations of medieval battle very effectively (like I would know). Danie Ware‘s “Unnatural History” is a bughunt, not a stand up fight, a gothic monster movie with hints of Lovecraft and Mieville. “Fire And Ash” by Gaie Sebold is rightly placed at the end of the book. It’s about aftermath, surviving the wars and what comes next.
Overall, it’s a good collection, with some really strong pieces in. My only caveat would be that reading all the stories in one splurge means the theme becomes a bit repetitive and restricting, but that’s an issue with all themed anthologies, and one easily avoided by pacing yourself (if you can) and parcelling the stories out. You can order it from the publisher: http://www.kristell-ink.com

Europe In Autumn, by Dave Hutchinson

18143945Today seems like a good day to post this one…

Europe In Autumn is set in a near future Europe, where in the aftermath of pandemic and economic collapse nations are splitting and fracturing into smaller states and entities. Devolution is the order of the day, from a bunch of organised football hooligans who have commandeered an ageing tower block estate, to an entire transcontinental railway line that runs from Portugal to Siberia. As countries spin off ever more republics, duchies and polities, like glaciers calving icebergs, border crossings and controls have become very tightly enforced, which in turn leads to a black market in couriers who can transport data, documents and even people across lines the local authorities would prefer them not to. The lead players in this market are Les Coureurs Du Bois, a cloak and dagger organisation dedicated to an idealistic vision of a world without borders and complete freedom to move – the Schengen dream revived.

We are introduced to Les Coureurs through Rudi, an peripatetic Estonian chef working in a Krakow restaurant. An encounter with some drunken rowdy Hungarians ends with him being inducted into their ranks, and embarking on a series of training missions where we see him build his operational knowledge, from a bumbling beginner to someone who can assess a situation and work out all the angles in a matter of minutes. Ultimately things go catastrophically wrong, pitching him into an unknown world of shifting loyalties and double crosses straight out of the finest espionage fiction, as he travels across a fractured continent trying to discover exactly who wants him dead. The novel reads more like Le CarrĂ© than it does SF, along with a heavy dose of Kafka’s Eastern European paranoia, before it opens out in the final few chapters.

This is a tremendous novel. Hutchison‘s writing is deft enough to keep the pages turning no matter how complex the plot gets (and boy, does it get complex), the espionage tradecraft is fascinating, and the evocation of a broken Europe seething with thousands of different cultural grudges is outstanding. I’ve just finished reading it for a second time, and it’s still of the most invigorating, unputdownable books I’ve read in recent years.

The Fireman, by Joe Hill

downloadWhen news broke that Joe Hill’s new book was about a disease-inspired end of the world, it was hard not to think of his dad’s epic The Stand. I dismissed that as a hopelessly lazy comparison, at least to begin with (more on this later). The Fireman is a very different book in scale and mood. Civilisation may be collapsing across the world, as populations fall prey to Dragonscale, a spore that infects its victims, paints beautiful patterns on their skin, and then causes them to combust, but this book focuses entirely on New England, and the story of school nurse Harper Grayson, pregnant and infected. It’s one small story in a global catastrophe, which keeps the stakes low but very personal. Harper’s unhinged husband (wrongly) blames her for infecting him and is bent on carrying out a suicide pact he thinks they’d agreed on. She is determined to live and bear her child, and so escapes, whereupon she falls in with a small community of infected people who may have found a way to live with Dragonscale. One of these people is the titular Fireman, a mysterious fellow with an English accent and a dirty fireman’s jacket. He is notable for being able to somehow control the Dragonscale fires, and he starts a slow burning romance with Harper. Life in the colony is peaceful and safe, but there are serpents in this particular Eden, and it won’t be long before they rear their heads. Because, let’s face it, it would otherwise be a pretty boring 700 pages, wouldn’t it?

Beyond the immediate narrative, there’s plenty to get your teeth into here.The workings of the disease are not unlike social media, with strong parallels with the behaviour of Twitter mobs. It’s interesting to read the book as a fictional counterpart to Jon Ronson’s So You’ve Been Publicly Shamed as an examination of how people can become lost in groupthink and chasing the approval of their peers with no regard for right or wrong.
This is also a celebration of the power of story. It’s full of references to Harry Potter, Mary Poppins, Doctor Who, Fahrenheit 451 and more. A key family name throughout the book is even Storey, for heaven’s sake, which leads to the wonderful line: “All the rest of us flutter round you Storeys like moths around candles”. Of all stories though, the one that looms biggest behind this one is The Stand. As I said up above, it seems lazy to say that just because of the author’s genes, but the parallels are too many to be anything other than deliberate. A world ending disease, a deaf mute called Nick, an obnoxious teen called Harold, a quasi-religious leader going by the title Mother….I’m not quite sure what Hill means by this. Respect for his parent? A cheeky proclamation that a baton has been passed on? At any rate, it’s safe to say he has not forgotten the face of his father.

Above all, it’s a hopeful book. In the midst of disaster there are many small moments of humanity, people helping each other out, trying to form new societies and just being decent. We are a long way from Cormac McCarthy’s The Road here, as is acknowledged in another literary nod. It’s no Wyndhamesque cosy catastrophe though (and I only just twigged that the Camp Wyndham in the book must be named for John Wyndham!). There’s no flinching from the reality of mass death, the villains are pretty unpleasant and there’s some fairly graphic gore. But this is a book about engagement with the world, about love, and about the need to survive in the worst of circumstances. Hill has been well known in the genre community for a while now, but I’d love to see him break out with this one. It’s a terrific book, one which deserves to be read.

Central Station, by Lavie Tidhar

25986774Central Station is a middle Eastern border city, a huge spaceport between Israeli Tel Aviv and Arab Jaffa. Space travel is but a tiny element of the book, and Tidhar is more interested in those scrabbling to survive at the foot of the gleaming towers. If there’s a throughline to the novel, it’s the Chong family and their affiliates – the book follows various Chongs, with the most pagetime given to Boris, recently returned to Earth from space. His lovers, father, cousins and various other connections (an artist who makes and kills gods, a rag and bone man who may well be immortal, a young woman infected with a disease akin to vampirism that makes her thirst for data) all take centre stage for a while before fading back into the mass of humanity that makes up Central Station. And that’s really my only gripe with this book. You can throw around phrases like “mosaic novel”, or “collage fiction”, but there is no escaping that this book is a collection of short stories loosely lashed together. There’s no overarching plot (well, there are hints of something in the background), several dangling threads and not a great deal of action. But what you do get is an outstanding depiction of this new society. Tidhar has created something recognisably human, yet quite alien at the same time. It reminds me in some ways of Ian MacDonald’s great SF novels set in the world’s emerging economies where the shock of the new is multiplied by our Western unfamiliarity with existing cultures and mores. The writing is tremendously evocative of this future culture. You will taste the dust of Central Station in the back of your throat by the time you finish. It’s a book that has lingered in my mind, probably one of the best SF novels that will be published in 2016, but not one to be read for quick thrills.