City of Last Chances – A Review

Ilmar, City of Last Chances, a city occupied, on the brink of revolt, divided by factions, riven by agendas, where necessity makes for strange and shifting bedfellows.

City of Last Chances is a stand-alone fantasy novel by Adrian Tchaikovsky. A fantasy novel set in an industrial city, where magic and the arcane isn’t just some mysterious power understood by a cabal of masters, but the lifeblood of industry, a tool to be harnessed. Magic, like snaking vines, wraps and infiltrates every aspect of the city itself, from the demons who’s infernal contracts bind them to power the factories, to the ‘firearms’ loaded with tablethi, primed to go off with at the touch of the right spoken word.

Stunning cover art by Joe Wilson

Ilmar is the setting, and while a whole world beyond this city of last chances is hinted at, rich and varied, it is the city itself that provides the backdrop for the novel. It is a city built from ancient stones, aging wood, fading paint, and new veneers. It is full of factions, suburbs, streets and alleys. It is lived in, populated by lively characters riven by agendas.

Ilmar is the product of vivid imagination; around every corner the reader encounters some new detail, a detail that in itself would provide enough backdrop for a full story on its own, and which is stacked, one among many. All of them some strange twist on the expected, some wonder, or curio. The city is a melting pot of furious imaginings. The city of Ilmar feels like one of those antique shops that sells odds and ends. The sort that has existed for as long as anyone can remember, in which every inch of space is teetering shelves packed with every more curious items, grouped in a fashion that on logical examination might make no sense, but which feels right, lived in, curated, loved, built up over time and yet timeless.

Equally appealing are the characters: jaded, idealistic, hopeful, bitter, naive, impassioned, melancholy, changing and changed… faced by circumstances beyond control; each trying desperately to steer their raft as the white water rapids of time dash them inevitably against the rocks the events they are involved with have cast into the waters ahead.

All of it makes for a mysterious and fascinating backdrop to a story of the tumult of unfolding events, of causes and effects, of spiraling chaos, the hoped for but unexpected wins, all of it colliding together like a Guy Ritchie movie. Increasingly frenetic as the pages between your thumb and back cover dwindle. Increasingly explosive as events collide, victories are won, losses are taken, and the unexpected twists of circumstance conspire to muddy the way.

City of Last Chances, by Adrian Tchaikovsky, is a vivid and rich book, and one that, in my view, is well worth checking out.

As a role player, I just can’t help but note, it is also a book that cries out for a Forged in the Dark adaptation – the Blades in the Dark system just feels like the right sort of bones upon which to build a game for this setting…

Dogs of War, by Adrian Tchaikovsky

Dogs of War is a science fiction novel by Adrian Tchaikovsky…

Ok. So, here’s the thing. I have wanted to write this review since I turned the last page and sat back in breathless marvel at the work I had just experienced. In equal measure I have dreaded writing this review too, there is so much I want to say that I’m not confident I’ll be able to articulate.

I loved this book, conceptually it is stunning, it is characterful, it is harrowing, it is all too real, and it makes you ask questions… It is also written in a number of voices that lift the characters from the page. If a book can achieve all those things, and Dogs of War does, it is an exemplary book, a work of art, and I thoroughly suggest you stop reading this and just get hold of a copy.

If I had to guess, I would suggest that this book is set in the not-too-distant future, maybe 50-80 years from now. It could even be closer. The main protagonists in the story are bioforms, genetically modified hybrid creatures, part human, part animal, part manipulation, and part technology. They are intelligent, enough to serve their function in a warzone, and integrated with a range of technologies. Rex, Honey, Dragon and Bees are wonderful, each an individual fascinating in their own right, and bound together by circumstance.

It is a curious book, staccato, the action begins in a warzone and moves, moves, and moves again. Each time the tempo and pace, the focus and problems, shift significantly. Nonetheless it is one whole story, a Frankenstein’s tale for the modern age that poses some very real and very frightening questions that are relevant now, today.

The first chapter sent me reeling, what was unsaid and implied made what was said that much more powerful and impactful. The space carefully carved out between the words instigated a chain of concepts, themes, and implications that would echo through the book.

Dogs of War begins in a warzone, gonzo action that throws up moral and ethical quandaries like leaves tumbling in an Autumn gale. It moves to the International Criminal Court and questions of identity and person-hood, of rights and obligations come thick and fast. There are questions raised of independence, morality, free-will and concerns for the future all intertwined. It is a world and a story that is within believable reach of where we sit today.

Making choices is the price of being free.

– Rex

Freedom of choice brings with it a shackling to consequence and ownership; the role of actor also brings an acceptance of responsibility. This feels to me the central fulcrum around which the wonderful character of Rex pivots. Each of the characters is artfully set-out, but Rex is the one we share the most time with, who we share point of view with. This realisation grows, as he does, and defines the journey to self-identity, and beyond.

Humanity, just as it is not constrained by skin colour, gender, or nation, is not a condition penned into any one shape.

-Dogs of War

This is a book that asks deep questions, and one where we, as readers, struggle along with the characters trying to resolve them. It is about morality and ethics, technology and the use and misuse of it, person-hood and artificial intelligence. It is a book that takes a stunning look at the coming and inevitable event horizon, and pauses a moment to really think, and to really feel.

I have skirted mapping out the plot and have avoided revealing too much (I hope). I have opted instead to sketch out my thoughts and impressions, and I hope that is enough. There is much more to be said… Honey, beautiful architect of hope that she is. Dragon, as cold as one would expect, yet not. Bees… oh yes Bees. Cloud computing in physical form and masterfully rendered. George, a perfect bastard. So much more…

When I started Dogs of War I met a monster, by the end I was bleeding in sympathy with the same. What a magnificent story, and for Rex, what a beautiful character arc…

I have failed, I think, to capture the intelligence and brilliance of this book, managing instead only the echoes of the thoughts and feelings it caused. All I can say in the end, I suppose, is that Dogs of War really is a wonderful book.