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.

Good Omens, by Terry Pratchett and Neil Gaiman

With the Amazon series swiftly approaching I thought I had better, finally, pull my finger out and read Good Omens, by authors Terry Pratchett and Neil Gaiman. I admire both authors greatly, and I am, in retrospect, somewhat surprised at myself for not having read it earlier.

I picked the book off my ‘unread’ pile (a teetering stack as is only good and natural) somewhere shortly after Christmas, and it didn’t take me long to chew through to the end. My initial thoughts, after the first few pages, were ‘why did this take me so long?’, and for that I’m sorry to say, I have no good answer.

This is a book about the apocalypse, the biblical one, in case anyone was wondering about ancient Mayans and alien invasions (though they are all in there somewhere). It’s also about the apocalyptic bungling of the apocalypse, with the major players all stumbling (and sometimes reeling, staggering, fumbling, and doddering) from one catastrophic and unforeseen muck-up to the next.

As I read the first few pages, the combination of writing style, twists of imaginative force, humour, and humanity, all felt so familiar, I am a great lover of both author’s other works after all. Familiar and not in a tired way, the sort of familiarity that breeds bored disinterest, but the familiarity of relaxing with an old friend. The familiarity of wriggling into a well worn armchair with a favourite drink at hand. It was embracing, comfortable, and absolutely wonderful.

I really don’t want to spoil this book by giving away too much, though I seem to be one of the last people on Earth to have decided it’s finally time to crack the cover. So suffice to say only that Good Omens is a book full of humour (as we would expect), wisdom, and heart. All these are present in abundance.

It never ceases to amaze me the way these two authors manage to shine a light on, or otherwise highlight, the foibles of our all-too human selves. All our strengths masked as the fumbling and general intention to do right or the dogged stupidity of never giving up. All our weaknesses gently mocked and placed in contexts that reveal them as the absurdities they are. There are messages throughout this book, perhaps more relevant today than when it was first penned (Pollution replacing Pestilence in the Four Horsemen quartet of the end times, being the most obvious).

All in all Good Omens is a wonderful book, one I was glad to read and gently angry with myself for not having read sooner. I am looking forward to the Amazon series greatly. Though I believe they must have had a hell of a job (no joke intended) in getting all the aliens, Atlanteans, Tibetan Monks, Witch Hunters, Bikers of Apocalypse, hell-hounds, demons, and angels lined up for shooting-wrap cast photo.

It will be fun!

The Three Body Problem, by Liu Cixin

The Three Body Problem, by Liu Cixin and translated into English by Ken Liu*, is a science fiction book of enormous scope and stunning imagination. It’s a book that successfully manages to hypothesise fantastic technology and base it in believable science. The Three Body Problem is also frightening. Implications echoing from the revelatory chapters midway through the book had me pause, and made me think again of all of those warnings we read and hear when it comes to the exploration of the universe and the consequences we might unwittingly find there. I’m getting ahead of myself.

The Three Body Problem is the first book in the Remembrance of Earth’s Past series, and begins in the bloody and violent idealism of the Chinese Cultural Revolution. I loved the beginning of the book, and the chaos, violence, fear, and blind nationalism so succinctly and horrifically expressed lent a whole new dimension to everything else I had read about that period of Chinese history. It is also fundamental, because all those things; that mess of emotion and idealism, nationalism and fervour, drive the story through the wounds they leave on the heart and mind of one of the key characters Ye Wenji. Her own moral compass so inextricably linked to her experiences, and so brutally damaged by them that the decisions she makes and the chain of events she willingly initiates are both perfectly monstrous and perfectly understandable rolled into one.

As the book shifts from the Cultural Revolution to the modern day we are introduced to our main protagonist, Wang Miao, a nanomaterials researcher who becomes embroiled in an investigation that slowly peels back the layers of a threat to reveal the terrible truth: it is deeper, larger, and more dangerous than anyone could have believed. I struggled pushing on through the first part of the modern day setting, but as the layers were slowly revealed whatever was holding me at arm’s length relented and I ploughed through to the end.

On reflection it really is a stunning work, and the science fiction aspects are so thoroughly well imagined and imaginative that it really does capture the famous statement from Arthur C. Clarke: “Any technology sufficiently advanced is indistinguishable from magic.” It reads like magic, every technological reveal, every discovery, every revelation, feels like magic. Yet, it is also so grounded in scientific theory, in the concepts of quantum physics, that there is enough of an air about the magic of reality that it is believable. Frightening, and believable.

I don’t want to spoil any more of the story than I have, or give away key plot twists, because the uncovering of them throughout the book is a series of paradigm shifts that are enjoyable to discover. Yet, choosing not discuss the detail, which is where the devil is after all, limits my capacity to discuss the deeper aspects of The Three Body Problem. I will simply state what I believe to be one of the key themes in this book: humanity faces a threat of catastrophic proportions, and yet, the book seems to ask, are we our own biggest problem? Has our legacy sown the seeds of our own destruction?

While I found myself flagging at one point while reading The Three Body Problem, the book really is a wonderful read. The science fiction is stunning, and it asks some big and quite believably relevant questions of us today. I would recommend this book, and for myself, I will be reading the next two. I, for one, welcome our new dehydratable overlords.

*It’s worth noting the translator, Ken Liu, because scattered throughout the book are footnotes and explanations that really add depth and context to the little details that readers not immersed in Chinese history or culture (as I am not) could easily otherwise miss. I imagine there are whole layers in there that for those familiar enough with the period and cultural motifs, would add more diamond sparkle to this gem of a book. Ken Liu is also a highly successful author in his own right, and I plan on picking up his fantasy novel Grace of Kings in my next book order.

Revenger, by Alastair Reynolds

Revenger, by Alastair Reynolds, is a story about sail ships and pirates, about gauging the wind and mutinous talk, about being stranded, and about islands full of buried treasure. What makes this tale of adventure and danger so interesting however, is that it is science fiction. The ships are space ships and the sails are light sails, capturing momentum from the solar winds. The treasure islands are baubles, habitations and space stations, small worlds built around tiny black-holes which provide them gravity, shielded and dangerous to enter, but holding the remnants of civilisations passed by.

 

Revenger

 

Everything in this book screams the piratical theme, the beats and tropes, the events and character, even the lilt and pattern of speech. There were times when I felt this would be a disharmonious partnership, a mismatch between the spirit and the reality of the book’s internal setting, a fractious pairing that didn’t quite work, but I was wrong. I’m sure that some people will read this book and feel the setting doesn’t quite manage to pull of what it sets out to, but I am not one of them. For me Reynolds leans into the setting’s nautical spirit with such gusto that everything just works.

 

In many ways Revenger reminded me of the Treasure Island movie that Disney released some years ago – a sort of steam-punk/sci-fi revision of Robert Louie Stevenson’s seminal work. I remember thinking at the time that the movie just didn’t manage to realise the setting, perhaps a product of the visual nature of the medium. Revenger, on the other hand, works.

 

The characters in Revenger are all larger than life and pulled straight from the pages or screen of every pirate book and movie you will have had chance to read or watch. Despite this they are likable and dislike-able in equal measure, heroes and heroines you care for, villains you despise, and fools you feel sorry for. The main character Fura Ness, and her sister Adrana are the main protagonists, and in full genre style it’s not long before you, as reader, are cheering on their successes and scowling at those who seek to bring them low.

 

This is the second ‘mash-up’ novel I have read by Alastair Reynolds, in both these novels the settings step beyond the traditional tropes of science-fiction, and mash together two or more sub-genres to create something curious and involving. The first I read was Terminal World, which I reviewed here, and Revenger feels very much in the same sort of vein. Taking the tropes and expectations of one sub-genre (pirate tales), and embedding it in another (science fiction). I’m confident that this is a risky endeavour for any author, assuming the risk that they will have to juggle the weights and expectations of two different audiences (or at least what an audience might expect of a specific genre), but Reynolds has managed magnificently.

 

Revenger is a story of sailing the high seas and looting treasure, it’s a story about rascals and devils, salt of the earth sailors and tough and ready brawlers, it’s a tale of gentlemen and nobles and a tale of a dread pirate. It is also a tale of science fiction, ancient and full of technological marvels, self-aware robots and the dangers of space-walking. Somehow, against all odds, like a ship hell bent on riding out a deadly storm in a race to claim buried treasure, Revenger manages to brave the choppy waters and triumph.

 

I enjoyed this book a lot, the setting is engaging and the genre mash-up is two worlds woven together in a way that is fascinating and thrilling. Revenger is engaging, full of adventure and a whole lot of fun.

Binti: Home, and Binti: The Night Masquerade

Binti, Home, and The Night Masquerade together form the Binti trilogy of novellas written by Nnedi Okorafor. This blog post will focus on Binti: Home and Binti: The Night Masquerade, both of these novellas continue on from the original, Binti. In Binti the eponymous hero suffers and survives through a horrendous assault on the ship taking her to university, and is transformed in the process. I wrote previously about my thoughts on Binti, but needless to say I enjoyed it.

Binti-Home

Binti: Home begins a year after the events in the first novella, and sees Binti longing for home and family, finally making the choice to go back with her companion Okwu, a Meduse alien. I don’t plan on getting into the specifics of either Home or The Night Masquerade, but suffice to say that the themes of both struck me as being about change and acceptance of change, racism, and inheritance.

Binti left her people and her family for a life, offworld, at Oomza University. Her experiences en route, described in ‘Binti’, as well as her time among the eclectic melange of cultures at Oozma University, change her. These changes are emotional, psychological, and most dramatically, physical. Binti: Home spends some time exploring how those changes, forced upon Binti by cruel circumstance, affect her personally. Binti is scarred, angry, and to some extent self-loathing, or at least ashamed of what she has become.

Binti’s return home is fraught with how she, changed, is accepted by her family. In Binti’s mind the image and memory she had of her home was one of love and acceptance, something that was the very core of who she was, but in the intervening year Binti was not the only thing to change. Time, as the saying goes, changes all. Binti and her family now both belong to different contexts, with different shared experiences, different perspectives and different aspirations.

The Binti Trilogy resonated for me with this theme, of change and how that change is denied, rejected and accepted. How the people and places we hold in our hearts do, after some time apart, grow stranger, and the bridge to understanding and accepting can be hard to find.

Racism is a key theme through the trilogy, with the alien Meduse; the arrogant ruling culture of Binti’s homeland, the Khoush; and finally with her own people, the Himba, and their attitude toward the desert people they know so little of. The realisation that dawns on Binti that her own people, repressed and treated as second class citizens by the Khoush, are guilty of classifying and dismissing the desert people in just the same manner. This realisation brings the theme of racism full circle, of how all of us, comfortable in that which is familiar and ‘like-us’ are all too prone to rejecting what isn’t.

Binti-NightMasquerade

Inheritance is another theme, it may not be the right term, but I choose it for a number of reasons. Binti’s cultural inheritance defines her, early on, and as she changes this recedes somewhat, but remains a core component of her being. The slings and arrows of outrageous fortune is another form of inheritance, something she did not choose, but which was hers to burden nonetheless, and which changed her in ways she had to grow to accept. The inheritance, last of all, of circumstance, like so many reluctant heroes, Binti did not choose to be caught in the mechanisms of culture and politics, of war and peace, but through circumstance it was something she inherited. As the saying goes, it is not what happens to us that defines us, but rather, how we choose to act in response.

The Binti trilogy is imaginative and expressive, alluring and dramatic, it deals with some powerful themes, and does so in a way that demands an emotional response. I thoroughly enjoyed the series, and have Akata Witch, also by Nnedi Okorafor, on my shelf waiting for me.

Jonathan Strange and Mr Norrell

Jonathan Strange and Mr Norrell, by Susanna Clarke, is a story of soaked in the tropes, language and culture of early-eighteenth century England, intermingled with a sense of the wild nature of magic and faerie. It is an odd setting, on one hand all fussing gentlemen, elegant ladies, and all manner of social niceties, and on the other hand, beneath it all, lies a reminiscence of English legends like those of Merlin or Nimue, or a deeper heritage drawn from Celtic tales such as the Mabinogion, or the myths and legends of Scotland and Ireland.

Jonathan Strange and Mr Norrell

Jonathan Strange and Mr Norrell is a book of florid prose, heavy with description and littered with footnotes. I found all of this wonderful, the book was written beautifully, and reading it, I felt throughout, an absolute delight in and love of language. Quips and rejoinders were there aplenty, as were witty observations and carefully concealed snide remarks. If you are a fan of speculative fiction, this book is a thoroughly enjoyable read. For the main, the characters, setting and interactions would not be out of place in an Austen novel, but what really separates Jonathan Strange and Mr Norrell from other well written period dramas is the magic.

Magic in this book is the sort of magic you can only see if you look sideways, a magic where mirrors are doors and shadows might be leaning the wrong way, a magic where things are not quite as they seem, where words are slippery, and trickery is only surpassed by mystery. It is, in a nutshell, very faerie. This world that Clarke has envisaged, where the working of magic is as carefully employed by our two main protagonists as the early sciences were by their practitioners, is rich and involving. Norrell, the methodical and well learnèd, jealous of his knowledge and careful in his applications, is neatly counterpointed by Strange. Strange is the wilder of the two, willing to take risks, more naturally gifted but less inclined to care and planning, more willing to chase down the mysteries than allow them to reveal themselves through study.

The plot takes us across the English countryside, replete with hidden nooks, secret clearings, barrows and burghs rich in faerie, to Spain for the Peninsula War, Venice, and a number of other locations. We encounter some of the major events of the period, including the Battle of Waterloo. Against this backdrop is the continual struggle between Norrell and Strange, both great admirers of one another and haters too in measure, both opposite faces of the same coin, drawn to each other and yet pulling in different directions. Both also facing the same dire threat, a component of the magic that helped Norrell first rise to prominence, fickle and perilous, careless and uncaring and yet deeply moved by the things that catch its attention. This key foe is childlike with tremendous power, capable of obsessive kindness and also unsettlingly cruel.

Jonathan Strange and Mr Norrell is a long book, but it by no means felt it. I thoroughly enjoyed the story, and the many footnotes that were aptly used to help give flesh and life to the setting. It’s a book that has long intrigued me, and I read it recently on recommendation, and immediately regretting not having read it sooner. All in all Jonathan Strange and Mr Norrell is excellent reading.