Space Unicorn Blues – T. J. Berry – 7/10

Space Unicorn Blues, by T. J. Berry, is a novel that defies genre boundaries, blending science fiction, fantasy, fairy tale and space opera together into a concoction that stands out as one of the more interesting science-fantasy novels to cross my path in recent years. The sensitivities of Becky Chambers meets a healthy dose of morally-ambiguous grit, a dysfunctionality reminiscent of Red Dwarf, and the absurdity of Douglas Adams.

SpaceUnicornBlues_144dpi-1-400x606Especially arresting is Berry’s world-building. The population of the galaxy being largely bala, faerie races drawn from folklore, is fun, and provides an opportunity for human self-reflection. The way that humanity responds to longer-lived, less adaptable creatures whose very bodies are exploitable resources (especially the semi-divine unicorns, whose horn is the only fuel that can power faster-than-light travel) is deeply uncomfortable. The parallels with the rise of modern-day fascism are clear, and though Berry’s treatment of this could be considered a tad black-and-white or heavy-handed, this is entirely consistent both with the folklore she draws from and, frankly, the ways we can observe mankind behaving when at its worst, and most self-obsessed. Berry is also capable at injecting lighter shades into an otherwise cynical picture, playing with fantastical and sci-fi tropes to comic effect. Singularity pie provides a memorable (if slightly stomach-churning) example of this, as do the

The greatest strength of Space Unicorn Blues, however, is the well-crafted characters. Ricky Tang, for example, is a lot of fun, all sass and wheeler-dealing, as well as being a sensitive depiction of a trans woman. She is someone who always manages to land on her feet, because she’s had to learn to do so to survive. In contrast, Cowboy Jim is, simply put, intensely unlikeable; a toxic man who has pushed everyone away with his own bitterness. His stubborn refusal to acknowledge his own failings, and to accept the differences of others, is perhaps a little overwrought, but is necessary to act as a counterpoint to the central relationship of the novel: that between Jenny and Gary Cobalt.

Jenny is a fantastic example of a disabled Maori woman who strives both to overcome her disadvantages and also, and crucially, to improve her own flaws. Hers is a journey of self-recognition and coming to accept the wrongs she has down others in the past. Gary, in contrast, is half-unicorn half-human, living a liminal existence attempting to hide his horn from those who would use him for it – as Jenny did in the past, leading to an incident that lands Gary in prison for ten years and the eternal enmity of Cowboy Jim. His release from prison at the beginning of the book, and his falling in with his former captors and enslavers for mutual benefit, forms the crux of the narrative. The journey of Jenny and Gary, both war heroes from different sides of the same conflict, former captor and captive, is a nuanced depiction of forgiveness. There is no great reconciliation, no hugging or emotional declarations. It is simply two people coming to a mutual recognition of their past wrongs and doing their best to move forward. This is given more poignancy by the backdrop of the lack of cooperation between human and bala, with the great summit of omniscient beings who have charged the two species to set aside their differences or face the consequences looming. While individuals are capable of setting aside differences, are races? Nations? Species? This is the uncomfortable question of Space Unicorn Blues, and its answer is not an easy one.

Ultimately, Space Unicorn Blues is a space opera with a great premise and a fresh new twist on the synthesis of fairy-tale fantasy and science fiction. It loses its way somewhat towards the end, in the way that great ideas often do, but this doesn’t mean that the ride is any less fun. The fact that the seeds of a sequel are shown makes the future of science-fantasy all the more exciting.

Nexhuman – Francesco Verso – 7/10

Francesco Verso’s Nexhuman (translated from Italian by Sally McCorry) is many things. It is gritty, it is uncomfortable and thought-provoking, and it is absorbing.

Nexhuman-Generic_776xIt is also a finely-crafted transhumanist dystopian tale with strong ecological and anti-capitalist themes; a society so overrun by its own waste that the entire economy seems dependent on it provides the backdrop to Verso’s characters. It is a theme that has unsettling parallels to the present day, especially with the implication that the world could be cleaned up, with improvements to the lives of many, if it wasn’t economically inconvenient to the companies that deal with humanity’s effluvia. The complex barter economy that builds around this situation, and which very much drives the characters, is an additional detail that makes Verso’s world-building so compelling.

The environmental catastrophe unfolding across the fifteen years that Nexhuman spans is evocative of the deeper, and central, theme: what is it to be human? This is clearest in the titular Nexhumans, the android bodies into which the consciousnesses of the rich and powerful are uploaded that their lives may be extended. Are they still human? And, if human, are they the same person? Is it right that personal finances are the only apparent measure of worth for the next best thing to immortality? Likewise the protagonist, Peter, is arguably semi-human in the eyes of some, having a prosthetic arm and leg; though these aid him in his work of upcycling the “kipple” from the gargantuan rubbish-pits, there is a sense that his incompleteness shames him.

And this idea of incomplete, or apparent lack of, inhumanity is key to the relationships in Nexhuman. In a world where refuse is the only resource open to most people, many have ceased to treat others as people. The domineering Charlie uses and abuses those around him, friend and family alike, first as gang-leader, later as family patriarch. Other members of Charlies gang, as representatives of wider society, (and this is a Big Content Warning) indulge in necrophilia, casual violence, even murder, especially of the rich and nebulously-alive Nexhumans. The refuse-gatherers whom society has cast aside must scratch a living, and this is especially true of Ion, whose memories of working for a major tech company are forcibly taken from him. Kiko, Peter’s eventual partner, appears to be using him only for the trappings and kudos of a relationship. There is no love or affection, and where there is, it appears to be another commodity.

This brings us to the central relationship of Nexhuman: Peter’s love for Alba, the Nexhuman woman whom he saw murdered when he was fifteen, whose head he salvages and whose body he makes it his quest to rebuild and resurrect. In a world where he has no purpose, Peter finds meaning in Alba. Whether this purpose, this obsession, is healthy is rarely explored; although it is difficult to see who a character who has never been shown affection (except by Alba, on occasion) can articulate love in a healthy way.

Ultimately, Nexhuman is a story about striving to create something out of nothingness, or out of discarded remnants of somethings. The central quest is framed uncomfortably in terms of the objectification of Alba’s body, but it is a world in which nothing is comfortable. Not all of the twists and turns hit home, but the overall story is compelling and leaves the reader with much to think about.

(This review was given in exchange for a free copy of the ebook)

Winterglass – Benjanun Sidruangkaew – 7.5/10

On the surface, Benjanun Sidruangkaew’s Winterglass is a neat new twist on the Snow Queen folktale, with prose that borders at times on the poetic. The take on a familiar tale truly is excellent, especially the transposition of a traditionally western European tale to a south Asian environment. For example, the representation of a civilisation used to warmer, more tropical climates adjusting to eternal winter brings a fresh perspective. Sidruangkaew is also sensitive to the atmosphere of the traditional fairytale – eschewing the Victorianised tweeness that Disney has popularised, Winterglass is gritty, grim and at times forbidding, with an ending that is entirely in the spirit of the traditional fairytale. But to see it only as a retelling would do both author and story a disservice. Sidruangkaew brings new elements to bear on the plot that elevate Winterglass beyond retreading old ground. The new take on the magic mirror is intriguing, while the macabre ghost kilns that use human spirits as an analogue for electricity are chilling in their cold pragmatism.

Winterglass-Generic_776x

While the plot is slightly uneven at times, the threads are tied together well with the underlying theme of loyalty, especially those which conflict. Both the protagonist Nuawa and the ambiguous Lussadh are fiercely loyal to their chosen paths, and in both cases it is their loyalty to their families which is tested. Nuawa and Lussadh provide mirror images of one another, both devoted, both hardened in their devotion. It is these dynamics which keep the reader invested in the story beyond the well-worked aesthetics.

Also worthy of note is Sidruangkaew’s command of characterisation. The Winter Queen is suitably cold, aloof and incomprehensible as her namesake. The protagonist, Nuawa, is likewise enigmatic; an insurgent who ought to be dead, forging herself into a weapon to defeat someone whom she must agree to serve if she is to get close to her. She is a practical woman, a gladiator who dislikes fighting, who deals in pragmatism and betrayal simply to survive. She is a character who could be unsympathetic, except that we are allowed to see just enough behind the walls she has raised that we do manage to get to know someone whose mission in life is to be unknowable. Similarly, Lussadh could very easily be a two-dimensional villain, in thrall to eldritch powers in the manner of a fairytale. But, despite her own ruthless pragmatism, she likewise becomes a sympathetic character, with her own motivations, fears and regrets. Also, as one of three characters in Winterglass who do not conform to traditional western models of sex and gender who are treated with skill and sensitivity, Lussadh is the kind of character I would love to see more of. Winterglass came to be as much about Lussadh as Nuawa, and this I was glad of.

Winterglass is highly recommenders for fans of folklore and literary fantasy alike, with intriguing characters and skillful world-building. That the ending sets up for more to come makes it all the more exciting.

This review was given in exchange for a copy of the e-book courtesy of Apex Publications.

Convent of the Pure – Sara M. Harvey – 5/10

Sara M. Harvey’s Convent of the Pure is an imaginative gothic romp that draws on less-explored aspects of Judeo-Christian mythology to create a new twist on a Van Helsing-esque secret society devoted to protecting the world from the forces of darkness. The use of the Nephilim (the progeny of the angels that mated with mankind in Genesis 6:4) as the basis for her story lends a flavour to the resulting conflict that is suitably Biblical. The imagery is engaging and the worldbuilding is such that the various sects of Nephilim seem perfectly believable.

268_776x

It’s clear what Harvey intends to do with Convent of the Pure. Portia, the protagonist, is a corset-wearing, crossbow-wielding warrior of light, but with enough human vulnerabilities to prevent her becoming a two-dimensional badass. Her relationship with Imogen (the spirit of her deceased lover who remains attached to her even in death) forms the crux of her character and of the story as a whole. While the emotional bond between the two is well-written and genuine, it does lead to some frustrating aspects; Portia, for example, remains unquestioningly trusting and loyal, even when betrayed. At times it feels that, Portia, like the readers, is simply along for the ride; though she is the protagonist, she doesn’t feel as if she has a great deal of control over her actions. There’s also a clumsily-written scene involving a succubus where the emphatically lesbian Portia is seduced by an attractive young man to the verge of giving in to her desires, she before loudly declares that the succubus’ one mistake was not knowing her sexual preferences run solely to women. Given what we know of Portia’s sexuality, this scene doesn’t make initial sense, and then the only explanations for her attraction to the male succubus, (that she might be bisexual or that succubi might override sexual preferences) are immediately rejected. Though clearly unintentional, these oversights make for uncomfortable reading. The villain is also suitably pantomime (by no means a criticism – every gothic romp needs a larger-than-life antagonist), although the big reveal can be seen from some distance, while, given the limited time spent with secondary characters, it can be hard to feel a real sense of loss at their deaths as we don’t have time to get attached to them.

Certain quibbles aside, Convent of the Pure is an entertaining read. While it isn’t ground-breaking, it is far from by-the-numbers, and for readers who like their gothic, punky goodness with a Judeo-Christian veneer it is well worth picking up. Harvey has laid the foundations for a fun trilogy in a world that is definitely worth exploring further.

 

This review was given in exchange for a free copy of the ebook.

Stay Crazy – E. L. Satifka – 8.5/10

Erica Satifka’s Stay Crazy is an invasion story with a difference. It tells the story of Emmeline Kalberg, a paranoid schizophrenic with depressive tendencies (as she constantly reminds the world and the world constantly reminds her), as she is discharged from hospital and takes up a minimum wage job at the local Savertown USA megastore to try and rebuild her life. She finds herself at the centre of an interdimensional conflict; an entity is feeding off the life-energy of the employees, driving them to suicide in the process, to power itself into a higher plane, consequently destroying reality. Only she, the voice coming from the stock tells her, can prevent this. Only she, and her co-worker Roger, are able to hear the voice, because they are both recovering schizophrenics. But how can she convince the world that she isn’t deluded? And can she convince herself? This uncertain relationship with reality is maintained throughout Stay Crazy, as we see life through the uncertain eyes of Em; parallels can be drawn with the perspective of Chief in One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest, and the effect is much the same, albeit in a corporate, rather than medical, prison.

scprint003_776x

A major theme of Stay Crazy is that of exploitation and manipulation. Savertown USA itself is a caricature of banal corporate megacapitalism – everything is under one roof, highly affordable, mega convenient and, above all, proudly patriotic. No need for small businesses anymore; everything is done in service to the company, under the guise of service to the customer and, by extension, America itself. While Em is trying to save the world, the store is trying to rule it, one small town at a time. Within the store is Escodex, an interdimensional being instructing (and at times commanding) Em to do his will, with the promise of information about her missing father dangled tantalisingly before her. His enemy, the unnamed Entity, is clearly manipulating the workers, but what is it’s true purpose beyond being a metaphor for the soul-sucking drudgery of wage-slavery as it zombifies Em’s colleagues?

The theme continues outside the store. Em’s sister Jackie has fallen under the sway of a local charismatic evangelical pastor, while her mother binge-watches self-help DVDs which Em is convinced contain hidden messages keeping the would-be patients depressed so they keep buying them. And then there’s her uncle, who throws his money and success around to belittle others around him. Stay Crazy is as much about the dangers of those who feed on the needs of others (be they financial, psychological or social) as it is about mental health.

In the later stages of the book especially, family comes to the fore. Em’s family life is fractured – her father is missing, she is a recovering mental health patient, her sister has been taken un by what can only be called a cult, and her mother is depressed and at a loss of how to help those she loves. The whole family yearns to help one another – either through therapy, God or Em’s quest to find her family that drives her actions, but none of them know quite how to do so. Yet as conflicts grow and wane, and as Em especially gives up trying to pretend to her former friends and family that her life is normal, that they begin to heal. Again, Stay Crazy is about healing, about coming to terms with difficulties and overcoming them, but without any platitudes about the journey being easy.

Stay Crazy is a unique and perceptive novel with rounded, believable characters and a plot that perfectly wracks up the tension to draw the reader in. It’s nomination for the 2017 British Fantasy Award is well deserved, and I highly recommend it.

Freeze/Thaw – Chris Bucholz – 7/10

Chris Bucholz’s Freeze/Thaw is many things. It is, of course, an entertaining near-future dystopian thriller, but it is also an exploration of how humanity reacts to adversity – both in terms of an ecological disaster and disability.

Pageflex Persona [document: PRS0000040_00006]

Freeze/Thaw takes place on Earth thirty years after the Shade, a semi-intelligent wall of discs blocking the light of the sun, was sent into space by a group of eco-terrorists. This drastic attempt to reverse global warming led to the reverse danger – the United States are now an ice-bound wasteland, Mexico occupied by fleeing Americans, while no one has heard from Europe in years. The human population has drastically fallen, and the majority of survivors scrape an existence scavenging America’s former cities.

When we meet the protagonist, Gabriel Alfil, he has been paralysed since a hiking accident over a decade previously. The only reason he is still alive is due to his rich and influential mother; a mere scavenger in a similar position would have been given up on as a “mouth” to feed. He has spent his time living on the internet, earning several degrees in computing and physics. This knowledge leads to him being approached by the military with a state-of-the-art exoskeleton to allow him to walk again – in exchange for his participation in a mission to shut down the Shade from a long-buried laboratory in Iowa.

Gabe, in short, is meant to save the world. But the complexity of his character is drawn from how the world he aims to save reacts to him, and his worth. The soldiers tasked with protecting him regard him as a burden, nicknaming him “Luggage”. Many see him solely as a numbers game – how much is that exo-skeleton worth? Could the money be put to better use elsewhere? Why waste resources on a “mouth”? And to many scavengers on the ice, he is nothing but something to be bought, sold or stolen. This lack of regard for Gabe as a person is reflected in his own self-worth. He frequently criticises himself throughout the novel, but as the story progresses his own confidence grows as he, in many ways, takes his life back and proves himself to his companions.

Gabe is, however, not entirely a victim. He makes mistakes, and puts his companions in danger. He also gained the exoskeleton by manipulating information to convince the military to give it to him rather than the wheelchair-bound veteran it was intended for. He himself acknowledges that this is despicable, but remains a sympathetic character because, overall, his motives are not altogether selfish. He does his best, but to be human is to err.

One of the strengths of Freeze/Thaw is this exploring of grey areas or, rather, the grey areas in which humanity now lives. With the effective breakdown of society, America is now a network of fractured, distrustful communities, who do what they can to survive. Over the course of the novel several unsavoury characters are encountered, but given their circumstances no one is entirely unsympathetic. The order of the day seems to be “it’s not personal; it’s business”, from scavengers double-crossing one another whenever possible to the highest ranks of the army running sidelines in looting. All characters are nuanced, rounded and believable and, above all, damaged by their environment – both ecological and social. This is most evident in attitudes directed towards Gabe. Even within his escort there is a range of attitudes – from grudging acceptance to indifference to eventual friendship to – in the case of Mason – utter hatred based on what he is rather than who he is, both because he is a disabled burden and from a rich and pampered background while others starve. Indeed, Gabriel “Luggage” Alfil spends much of the novel transitioning from a “what” to a “who” in the eyes of those around him in a parable of acceptance, and self-acceptance, under extreme circumstances.

If you enjoyed Bucholz’s debut, Severance, then this is a must-read. In Freeze/Thaw Bucholz again displays his skill with twists and maintaining a cynical, honest perspective on human relations, albeit in a slightly more serious manner than its predecessor. It displays frontier man in all his gritty, rough-around-the-edges glory, and it is a ride well worth taking.

 

 

Shine Your Light On Me – Lee Thompson – 5.5/10

Lee Thompson’s horror-noir Shine Your Light On Me certainly shines light into the dark places of the human spirit. Set in small-town America, amidst a seething mass of family feud, infidelity, domestic abuse and resentment, it tells the story of a single night in which the miraculous happens and changes the town for ever.

One would have thought that a bar full of people being miraculously healed of all their ills would lead to joy and jubilation, and for some it does. But the joy soon turns sour as those who were not present become bitter that they were not there, and demands for the young protagonist, Aiden, to repeat a feat he wasn’t even aware of performing turn predictably nasty.

shineyourlightonme_776x

There are many horror tropes at play here. We have a hostage situation, when Aiden and his crippled father are taken hostage by Mitch, his father’s greatest enemy, to force him to cure his daughter; a zombie-esque siege as the locals become desperate enough for salvation that they will kill anyone in their path; the unhinged psychopath, Pine, used as an enforcer by his brother but who ultimately ends up out of control. All of this is highlighted with a multitude of Biblical references that ultimately pitches the tone of the tale into one of Messiah against Anti-Christ, but with little redemption for the bystanders. Likewise, the darkness of the material runs deep. Pine molests the child whom Aiden is forced to cure, another youth, driven by an abusive father and the apathy of his peers, plots to blow up his school as a final suicidal act, Aiden’s father is crippled after being crucified by Pine and Mitch to punish him for his affair with their step-mother, locals become mindless as mass hysteria grips them, whipped up by an almost-literally born-again pastor… the list goes on (although one wonders, given the events leading up to the story, why police aren’t crawling all over the town; Mitch and Pine’s mock-crucifixion seems to have had precious few consequences).

And this, perhaps, is where Shine Your Light On Me falls down. There is an awful lot happening in a relatively short book, and while the gore and the horror are impactful and the depths of depravity in the small town are hard-hitting, perhaps a little more time to develop characters before they are dispatched would increase the power of this book. The themes of redemption, and missed opportunities for it, and the light and dark shades of life and the meaning of it, are bubbling away beneath the surface, but the novel comes to the boil too soon, and while the closing scenes are certainly impressive, the reader’s lack of engagement with the characters themselves leads to the events feeling somewhat hollow, but nonetheless sensational.

Overall, a quick and fun read for fans of horror and gore.

Sins of Empire – Brian McClellan – 9/10

This review is technically for one book, but in actuality it covers an entire preceding trilogy. Brian McClellan’s latest effort, Sins of Empire, is a real treat, and one of the best fantasies I have read this year. Moving on from the revolutions of the Powder Mage trilogy with its country-spanning conflicts involving revolutionaries, imperialists and gods, Sins of Empire expands its scope to an entirely new continent, hinted at in the previous trilogy, with a few old friends to guide us on our way.

C7mdRxmX0AAlYZw

Perfect reading for a day-long train journey

McClellan’s world is a traditional fantasy setting of cunning mages and vying gods, but one that is undergoing its industrial revolution, as well as the political upheaval of the rise of republicanism and colonialization – think the French Revolution and the colonisation of North America but with magic as well as muskets. The Powder Mage trilogy (which I highly recommend) focuses more on the former, where Sins of Empire moves its attention to the latter.

Attendant to this “flintlock fantasy” setting is the most unique and, in my opinion, exciting aspect of McClellan’s world-building – the powder mages. While his general magic system of Privileged mages having extensive elemental powers and Knacked having minor skills (such as not having to sleep or having a perfect memory), the powder mages are unique – individuals who can manipulate the explosive power of gunpowder to shot across several miles, round corners or without a gun, as well as detonating powder from a distance, which is especially effective against a mass infantry charge. It would work well on the big screen, and McClellan manages to get the cinematic nature of the power across without losing any literary merit, as some authors can. His battle scenes are excellent, and carry the right amount of pathos and dry humour. His style is reminiscent of Steven Erikson, if Erikson was given the chance to write a Sharpe script.

mudHand_01_large_zoom.jpg

While Jonathan Strange losing his temper at Waterloo is impressive, it’s just a taster of the fun Powder Mages provide (Credit: BBC)

In Sins of Empire, all the elements that fans of McClellan will expect are there. World-weary military leaders? Check. A spy or investigator out of his depth? Check. War heroes caught up in networks of loyalty? Check. Mysterious antagonist? Check. Yet McClellan takes the elements of his former work and spins them out in a way that leaves the reader who thinks they know what to expect very much on their toes. The characters McClellan writes are all engaging and relatable, and Mikel in particular is a favourite of mine. The necessity of an informer to have multiple personalities to hand makes for a wonderful character study, especially one where his position forces amorality on a man who is ultimately so sympathetic.

Sins of Empire builds on earlier events, but in a different way. Where revolution was bloody, organised and guillotine-based in his first trilogy, now it is subtler, underground and involving information and propaganda. Class divides become ethnic, and here is the strength of McClellan’s work – the themes are strong and clear but not heavy-handed. The treatment of the native Palo under those settling Fatrastra has clear parallels in our own history and our contemporary world. The analogues with European colonialism are clear, but also focus on the give and take – there are things to be gained from the cultural contact as well as inevitable and regrettable strife. This is especially true when characters from both sides end up embroiled in their own connections and sympathies that aren’t always compatible with those of their putative friends and allies.

Loyalty is certainly the main theme of Sins of Empire. While many of these are religious, ethnic and political, there are many personal conflicts. Does General Vlora follow coin or principle? Can she overcome old wounds to form alliances with those who have hurt her? Can Ben Styke put his country before his thirst for revenge against those who incarcerated him in a prison camp? And who can he trust when he becomes free – and who will he risk putting in danger by coming back into their lives? Which of Mikel’s many personas is really him, and which is he most loyal to?

Sins of Empire is a rip-roaring page turner brimming with political intrigue and pseudo-Napoleonic magical warfare, but its true strength is the intricacies and realism of the world and its characters. While you probably need to read the Powder Mage trilogy before embarking on this new trilogy, “Gods of Blood and Powder”, this is no bad thing – it means I am recommending four books to you instead of one!

Rosewater – Tade Thompson – 7.5/10

Tade Thompson’s Rosewater is a thought-provoking and refreshing novel, taking many tropes from science-fiction, especially alien invasion and telepath movies, and gently moulding them into a gripping multilayered and multifaceted story.

Apex_Rosewater_cover_frontlowres_776x

Set in Nigeria between the 2032 and 2066, Rosewater focuses on the eponymous shanty-town-turned-city that has sprung up around the Utopicity, an alien formation that bestows annual healing on those in the vicinity, with results that are rather mixed; some mutilate themselves in the interests of “reconstructive surgery” to get wings and extra limbs, while uncontrolled healing in a land with shallow graves can lead to unfortunate consequences: the soul is a harder thing to fix than the body. In this way, Thompson manages to blend the best bits of Torchwood’s “Miracle Day”, Doctor Who’s “The Empty Child/The Doctor Dances” and District 9, without seeming derivative, and injecting the realism and grit of the latter into the former. Thompson even manages to use an idea similar to the infamous midichlorians of Star Wars without them seeming daft or senseless.

s1_09_aud_02

(When it comes to healing, be careful what you wish for [taken from bbc.co.uk])

The narrative is told by Kaaro, a “sensitive”, whose “finding” abilities which allow him to seek out objects that belong to people, read minds and walk a shared hive-mind he calls the xenosphere. A youth of petty crime, drugs, alcohol, sex and near-lynchings have drawn the attention of Nigeria’s special forces, and Kaaro leads a double life of a bank-clerk and secret police agent. Kaaro is an interesting character; a classic, self-serving anti-hero who begins to learn that there is more to life than himself over the course of the novel. His story is told in a non-linear fashion – we flit between the present of 2066, his criminal youth in the 2040s and his self-discovery as a criminal psychic, recruitment as a spy and his experience of the rise of the world-changing Utopicity in 2055 that made Nigeria one of the most important countries in the world. This structure can be slightly confusing at times, but the threads are easy to drop and pick up, and Thompson is adept at hinting at the past and the future in a way that draws the reader in with just enough information to tantalise, but not enough to provide spoilers, both on a macro-plot level, and a micro-level of interesting nuggets about the make-up of the world in 2066. It is most impressive world-building, and this is one of those reviews where I am especially afraid to give away too much plot information in case the delicate web is torn.

Thompson has chosen his setting well, and made it completely immersive. The intersection of humanity and the alien lifeforms that have partially colonised the planet (a thread interwoven throughout the novel wonders what on earth happened to the USA in the 2040s) are compared at times very uncomfortably to the European colonisations of Africa in the 19th century; although interestingly the effects upon the Africans by the Europeans are occasionally portrayed as benevolent and positive, though the overall action was terrible. In the same way, parallels are drawn with the alien entities on Earth; they may heal the sick, but what is their true purpose?

While on the surface Rosewater is an entertaining and gritty gangland-cum-spy thriller with the added spice of aliens and telepaths, at its heart are several central questions. What is it to be alive? Is Kaaro most alive in his youth, when he has all the women and money he could want? Or is that only a false life that he is growing out of? Why do we wait until it is too late to show regret? Is the body meant to be healed constantly? And what is the point of healing the body without the soul?

Even more, Rosewater is a grey moral tale about apathy. Much of the internal dialogue of Kaaro is about how he doesn’t care, how he has no thought for anything outside himself, that he is not a hero. Yet he consistently does things that could be seen as heroic, even if he tells himself that his motives are entirely selfish, be it nursing a wounded stray dog, saving strangers from reanimated corpses, or neutralising suicide bombers. People come into Kaaro’s life that lead him on a journey of self-discovery and an awareness that he need not be alone, and that he is able to care.

This exploration of apathy, appropriately for a novel that is half set in a communal mind-palace, spreads outwards from Kaaro. Many of the characters, be they criminals or spies, have built walls around themselves. The government is indifferent to its agents and its people, the people are indifferent to their politicians and, more importantly, humanity has become apathetic to the alien nestled in the earth beneath their feet and what it might be doing. But while this message is largely bleak and cynical, there are glimmers of hope seeded. If Kaaro can learn to come outside himself, surely others can?

 

The Kraken Sea – E. Catherine Tobler – 7/10

In The Kraken Sea, Tobler has crafted a unique take on a coming-of-age-story. Set in San Francisco in the early 1890s, the tale follows Jackson, a young orphan sent to a new city from his orphanage to be adopted; and who is not what he seems. Indeed, Jackson himself seems uncertain of what he is – all he knows is that at times scales appear under his skin, and when he loses self-control other children are known to disappear without a trace.

kraken200_large

It is a story of self-discovery, then, that is told, and one tinged with exploitation, crime and mythology. Jackson is adopted into a “family” of people – or half-people – like him, who take advantage of their shape-shifting capabilities to further their interests against the other fey-tinged gangs of San Fransisco. Jackson proves a believable and sympathetic protagonist, who sometimes walks the line of the anti-hero – he is a youth with powers that are perhaps beyond his control, in a new city, with all the temptations open to an adolescent indulged by his peers. He sometimes does bad things, and wrong things, but there is no sense of evil, but rather a sense of moral complexity, of naïvety and of redemption. It is Jackson’s discovery of his own nature and the direction of his moral compass that drives The Kraken Sea.

Tobler has also successfully imbued an alternate-history America with artfully-used Classical (and some Norse) mythology and has managed to make the world believable, where it could so easily have been self-aware and self-indulgent in its own references. The atmosphere is dark and gritty, but not oppressively so, with enough wonder to lift the The Kraken Sea into a pleasantly speculative vein beyond a simple alternate-history thriller. While the descriptions are sometimes vague and confusing, bordering on the psychedelic, but this rather reflects the confusion of Jackson, thrown into a new and confusing world of which he is, by blood, a part, and faced with countless wonders (and horrors).

If you enjoy mythologically-tinged speculative fiction, alternate histories, or gang-land thrillers, then The Kraken Sea is well worth a read.

For more on Tobler’s work, follow her on Twitter: @ECthetwit