Guest Review: UPDRAFT by Fran Wilde (Tor)

WildeF-B1-UpdraftUSPBWelcome to a world of wind and bone, songs and silence, betrayal and courage.

Kirit Densira cannot wait to pass her wingtest and begin flying as a trader by her mother’s side, being in service to her beloved home tower and exploring the skies beyond. When Kirit inadvertently breaks Tower Law, the city’s secretive governing body, the Singers, demand that she become one of them instead. In an attempt to save her family from greater censure, Kirit must give up her dreams to throw herself into the dangerous training at the Spire, the tallest, most forbidding tower, deep at the heart of the City.

As she grows in knowledge and power, she starts to uncover the depths of Spire secrets. Kirit begins to doubt her world and its unassailable Laws, setting in motion a chain of events that will lead to a haunting choice, and may well change the city forever-if it isn’t destroyed outright.

Reviewed by Ryan Frye

Upon its release, Updraft enjoyed a fair amount of positive buzz from SF/F critics and reviewers that I respect, and when it popped up on numerous “Best Books of 2015” lists, I knew I had to give it a read. When a book receives such widespread hype, my anticipation tends to ratchet up. First and foremost, I was very intrigued by the idea of a city made out of living bones, where humans live far above the ground and get around by flying. This set my imagination running, and I was excited to find out what exactly brought the situation into being. Furthermore, I tend to prefer books written in first person perspective, so this seemed like it would be a perfect read. Continue reading

Review: GUNS OF THE DAWN by Adrian Tchaikovsky (Tor)

TchaikovskyA-GunsOfTheDawnAn excellent stand-alone novel about war, family and sacrifice

Denland and Lascanne have been allies for generations, but now the Denlanders have assassinated their king, overthrown the monarchy and marched on their northern neighbour. At the border, the war rages; Lascanne’s brave redcoats against the revolutionaries of Denland.

Emily Marshwic has watched the war take her brother-in-law and now her young brother. Then comes the call for more soldiers, to a land already drained of husbands, fathers and sons. Every household must give up one woman to the army and Emily has no choice but to join the ranks of young women marching to the front.

In the midst of warfare, with just enough training to hold a musket, Emily comes face to face with the reality: the senseless slaughter; the weary cynicism of the Survivor’s Club; the swamp’s own natives hiding from the conflict.

As the war worsens, and Emily begins to have doubts about the justice of Lascanne’s cause, she finds herself in a position where her choices will make or destroy both her own future and that of her nation.

This is a superb novel. I haven’t read nearly as much of Tchaikovsky’s work as I would like, but this is a fantastic place to start. A fantasy war novel, but one that is focused on the impact of war more than battle itself. After a slightly slow start, this really grabbed hold of my attention and didn’t let up until the very end. Continue reading

Review: THE GAMESHOUSE Trilogy by Claire North (Orbit)

A magnificent, linked trilogy of novellas

It’s tricky to review these novellas without spoiling events across the series. So, I’m keeping these as brief as possible, which has meant the reviews are a bit more vague than I would usually like. Really, the take away should be: this is a fantastic series, and a must read.

NorthC-GH1-SerpentTHE SERPENT

In seventeenth century Venice exists a mysterious establishment known only as the Gameshouse.

There, fortunes are made and fortunes are broken over games of chess, backgammon and every other game under the sun.

But those whom fortune favours may be invited to compete in the higher league… a league where the games played are of politics and empires, of economics and kings. It is a league where Capture the Castle involves real castles, where hide and seek takes place on a scale as big as the British Isles.

Not everyone proves worthy of competing in the higher league. But one woman who is about to play may just exceed everyone’s expectations.

Though she must always remember: the higher the stakes, the more deadly the rules…

In this first novella, North introduces us to the Gameshouse, and offers a relatively small-scale game. We follow Thene, a woman trapped in an enforced marriage to a drunken waster. After a while frequenting the Gameshouse, and engaging in “standard” contests and games, she is eventually approached by the umpires and invited to play in the higher league. Rather than duelling with an opponent over a chessboard or other table-top game, Venice itself becomes the board, and its inhabitants the pieces. Each player is given a selection of… well, I suppose you could call them “trumps”: specific pieces who have become indebted to the Gameshouse for a variety of reasons.

The Serpent is a quick read, and follows an interesting protagonist — the story is told somewhat from afar, as if we are watching Thene’s play and the directed actions of her pieces from the audience. She’s an interesting character, made cold and emotionless by her difficult childhood and unhappy marriage, but given new life and focus by the Gameshouse.

Through Thene’s first higher league game, we learn of the various ways the Gameshouse operates, how the pieces work, and so forth. Along the way, North also gives us a few hints about the institution’s history — which, as it turned out, would be further elaborated on in the second and third books. The author never info-dumps on the reader, though, much to my relief. The momentum of the story never lets up, while never being rushed.

It’s an excellent introduction to the series. The only weird decision was using em-dashes to indicate dialogue, rather than quotation marks. The only other time I’ve seen this used was in Lavie Tidhar’s The Violent Century.

*

NorthC-GH2-ThiefTHE THIEF

The Gameshouse is an unusual institution.

Many know it as the place where fortunes can be made and lost though games of Chess, Backgammon — every game under the sun.

But a select few, who are picked to compete in the higher league, know that some games are played for higher stakes — those of politics and empires, of economics and kings…

In 1930s Bangkok, one higher league player has just been challenged to a game of hide and seek. The board is all of Thailand — and the seeker will use any means possible to hunt down his quarry — be it police, government, strangers or even spies…

This second instalment was even better than the first. Pre-Second World War Thailand is brought wonderfully to life on the page — since I was born there, I’m always interested to see how people recreate the city on the page (at any time), and I think North did a wonderful job of creating such a rich and colourful city, and also doing the wilder regions of the country justice.

Our player is a more established player, with centuries of experience. A drunken evening has led him into a game of hide-and-seek against a rival with an unusual determination. As he first flees the city, Remy Burke ends up struggling through the jungle, occasionally benefiting form the kindness of strangers and sometimes suffering betrayals. North does a great job of showing us how difficult Remy’s ordeal is. The two sides of the game are interesting and very different. The solution and tactics of our hero are ingenious, and I gave a little cheer at the end.

We get a little bit more detail of the Gameshouse’s history and origins, while also hints at possible future events. Given a similar event in both The Serpent and The Thief, we’re led to clues for The Master, and after finishing this one I couldn’t wait to see how North brought it all together: the moments that seemed disconnected from the specific games in Venice and Thailand. Luckily, I didn’t have to wait, and dove right into the final novella…

*

NorthC-GH3-MasterTHE MASTER

The Gamehouse is an unusual institution. 

Many know it as the place where fortunes can be made and lost though games of Chess, Backgammon — every game under the sun.

But a select few, who are picked to compete in the higher league, know that some games are played for higher stakes — those of politics and empires, of economics and kings…

And now, the ultimate player is about to step forward.

The final novella in the series brings us up to the present, as the ultimate player decides its time to start the Great Game. The player in question (who I shall not name, in order to not spoil things), has appeared in each of the previous novellas. The Gameshouse has continued to evolve with the times, adjusting what it has to offer with each new generation and era in which it endures.

“New games too: Cluedo, Settlers of Catan, Age of Empires, Mario Kart, Mortal Kombat Whatever fought between a shrieking bishop and a deputy mayor. A judge, a police commissioner, a gangster, a congressman, a chief of staff, a general, a consulting doctor, a research fellow, a professor, a hit-man, a pharmaceutical king, an oil magnate, a seller of used cars and cheap cocaine – all the men and women who think they are someone, could be something more – they all come here as they have come through the centuries, across the world.”

As with the previous two books, The Master is a tightly-plotted action thriller, as the Great Game is writ larger than ever: where first it was a city, then a country, now it is the whole world, and North makes full use of the effectively-limitless resources the two players have to hand. The game, chess, is quite insane, as everything from the NSA and MI5 to entire national armies are deployed, not to mention hackers and assassins. It’s over-the-top, yes, but it never feels as ridiculous as it might in another author’s hands. I was completely hooked, and blitzed through. The ending was powerful, and only gradually was the truth revealed. The way one previous character is used was a great surprise. A superb conclusion to the trilogy. Absolutely magnificent.

Across all three novellas, North continues to show an incredibly gift for writing characters, dialogue and exposition: the people are three-dimensional, even when minor characters; the plots are tight and focused; the atmosphere and environs colourfully described and brought to life, while never in excess.

I’ve said it before in two previous reviews, but Claire North is fast becoming my favourite author.

Absolutely recommended to all, this are must-reads.

*

The SerpentThe Thief and The Master are all out now, published in the UK and US by Orbit Books.

Also on CR: Reviews of The First Fifteen Lives of Harry August and Touch

New STAR WARS: THE FORCE AWAKENS Poster

StarWars07-ForceAwakens-Poster1

I’m very much looking forward to this movie. Very, very much, in fact. I wonder why Luke isn’t in the image, though. Also, does anyone else wonder if John Boyega’s character, “Finn”, is Leia and Lando’s child…? Here’s the trailer (again):

And the Comic-Con 2015 Reel — an all-too-short making of clip, featuring a few cameos from the stars and crew:

Review: THE BUILDERS by Daniel Polansky (Tor.com)

PolanskyD-TheBuildersIf Quentin Tarantino and Brian Jacques got together, they might have come up with this must-read…

A missing eye.

A broken wing.

A stolen country.

The last job didn’t end well.

Years go by, and scars fade, but memories only fester. For the animals of the Captain’s company, survival has meant keeping a low profile, building a new life, and trying to forget the war they lost. But now the Captain’s whiskers are twitching at the idea of evening the score.

This is a brilliant novella. Polansky’s Low Town novels are among my favourites, of any genre, and so I was very interested to see what the author came up with in this novella. I’m happy to report that it includes gripping prose, fascinating characters and excellently-paced storytelling. I really enjoyed this. A must-read of the year. Continue reading

Review: KINSLAYER by David Guymer (Black Library)

GuymerD-DoG1-KinslayerThe Doom of Gotrek Gurnisson begins…

Once companions on the greatest of adventures, Gotrek and Felix have long since gone their separate ways. Felix, married and settled, secretly craves the excitment of his youth. And when the opportunity arises, Felix embarks upon what might be his final journey. As the chaos of the End Times engulfs Kislev, Gotrek and Felix are reunited, battling the hordes of the Troll King alongside Ulrika, Snorri and Max. But when long-hidden secrets are revealed, these old friends will be torn apart, and not all of them will leave Kislev alive…

Long-time readers of CR will know that I’m a huge fan of Warhammer heroes Gotrek Gurnisson and Felix Jaegar (because I mention this fact a lot). The characters and series were created by William King, back in the late 1980s, and the series has continued pretty much uninterrupted ever since, until March of this year, when David Guymer brought it to a close with Slayer. Kinslayer is an interesting first half of a finale, tied in nicely with the Warhammer End Times storyline. It is not without its weaknesses, but it is also a must-read for fans of the series. Continue reading