Saturday, 4 July 2020

The Red Queen's War trilogy, by Mark Lawrence

This trilogy (consisting of Prince of Fools, The Liar's Key and The Wheel of Osheim) was written after The Broken Empire reviewed here on 10th April. One interesting aspect of the story which is only gradually revealed is the connection with The Broken Empire, which it transpires is set in the same world at the same time. In fact, in one scene in Prince of Fools, the principal characters of both series (who are princes of different states) are in the same bar at the same time, but do not know each other. It also gradually becomes clear that that their world is our very own, a thousand years after a catastrophic thermonuclear war ("the Thousand Suns") has changed the landscape of Europe, our civilisation (remnants of which still remain) being known to them as the "Builders".

The Red Queen's War has another first-person narrator, this time Prince Jalan Kendeth of the Red March, but he could hardly form a greater contrast with the ruthless Prince Jorg of The Broken Empire. He is a self-acknowledged coward and liar whose main aim in life is to seduce as many women as possible. His title is useful in helping with these endeavours, even though he is only tenth in line for the throne. However, in Prince of Fools he gets caught up in lethal sorcery and has to flee his home in the company of Snorri ver Snagason, a giant Viking warrior. This ill-matched pair face various trials and tribulations as they travel northwards to try to rescue Snorri's family from renegade Vikings using evil magic, during which Jalan learns more about himself and his world than he really wanted to know.

This is one of the best traditional swords-and-sorcery fantasies I have read. The characterisation and plotting are both excellent, and the principal character is an engaging and often amusing rogue. The author allows himself the odd joke – a wooden viking ship they travel on is called the Ikea – and this is much more fun than Prince of Thorns. I can unreservedly recommend it to anyone who enjoys this kind of fantasy.

The Liar's Key follows straight on from the events in Prince of Fools. Jalan is happily living in a Viking bar, his main problem being trying to keep his three mistresses from knowing about each other.  However, Snorri is driven to search for the key to the door of the afterlife so he can recover his wife and children, murdered by Viking enemies. The key was made by Loki, and will open any lock. Locating it is only a part of the problem, however; many powerful people want it and Jalan and Snorri have many adventures as they try to fight off their enemies and find the right door to open. The book ends with a huge cliff-hanger.

This is well-written and engaging as usual. The main reservation I had is with the length: 650 pages is a lot for the middle of a trilogy and, thinking back over it, I find it hard to remember the sequence of events. A more focused tale with a clearer structure would I think have been better.

The Wheel of Osheim starts, somewhat unusually, with Jalan escaping from Hell and finding himself in a camel goods train in the desert of Liba. From the start, two plot threads run in parallel using alternating chapters: in one thread, we follow Jalan's adventures as he tries to return home; in the other, he recounts what happened to him in Hell. One notable event is the one and only (accidental) meeting between Jalan and King Jorg (from The Broken Empire trilogy), who spend an evening draining a flagon of whisky between them. A meeting which is to have significant consequences later. The tale is laced with the author's sardonic humour, as in: "The Broken Empire never had a big demand for slaves. We have peasants. Much the same thing, and they think they're free so they never run off."

Once back in his home city of Vermillion, Jalan is forced to take on a more important role as the city is besieged by a vast horde of zombies and other supernatural creatures, in a titanic struggle which goes on for nearly 100 pages. Despite his earnest wish to spend his life lazing around and fornicating, Jalan, reunited with Snorri, sets off on a quest to the fabled – and highly dangerous – Wheel of Osheim, a vast Builder machine which has the power to alter reality.  The story finishes with yet another unexpected twist as Jalan finds himself in a situation which he had never imagined.

That concludes the two trilogies set in the Broken Empire, and it is a landmark achievement. At something around 3,000 pages it makes The Lord of the Rings seem like a novella. However, I haven't finished with this author yet: as well as the third volume of the very different Impossible Times series, another trilogy awaits: The Book of the Ancestor.

Saturday, 13 June 2020

The Northworld Trilogy, by David Drake

This trilogy was first published as three individual novels: Northworld (published 1990), Northworld Vengeance (1991) and Northworld Justice (1992), although I have all three in one paperback omnibus, published by Baen in 1999. The first novel (but not the others) has the distinction of its own Wikipedia page, so if you want a thorough plot summary – complete with spoilers – you can look it up.

The principal character of the story is Nils Hansen, a classic SF hero; an intelligent and highly capable leader of a special police unit on the planet Annunciation, and exceptionally skilled in close combat.  His planet is one of 1,200 settled by humanity (alongside their androids), all joined in the all-powerful Consensus of Planets. Hansen has just successfully concluded an operation in which he managed to arrest the head of a major criminal organisation, when he is abruptly recruited by mysterious agents of the Consensus for a special mission.

Hansen is told about the discovery of a planet suitable for occupation, but successive colonisation missions have disappeared without trace – and now the planet (named Northworld after an expedition leader) has vanished also. Hansen's mission is to travel to the last known location of Northworld to try and find out what is going on, the hope being that one man in a small vessel might attract less attention.

At this point the scene switches to Northworld itself, where Hansen's arrival is expected by the expedition members. They have discovered a strange energy field called the Matrix, which when entered (a difficult and dangerous move) gives them immortality and apparently limitless power – in effect, they have become gods (not really a spoiler – this all comes out in the first 30 or so pages and is just the background to the action). The Matrix consists of eight coterminous worlds, separate planes of existence, each of which has its own geography and climate – and life. The gods can instantly move from one to the other at will. There are also two bubble universes created by the gods, called Diamond and Ruby – the first being entirely peaceful, balanced by Ruby which is organised for perpetual warfare.

Hansen duly arrives and, after an initial visit to Diamond, he finds himself on Northworld (all of this being managed by the gods, led by North, who has plans for Hansen). The culture Hansen discovers is strange, to put it mildly: it is essentially based on the world and society of the Icelandic sagas (in which the author is clearly an authority), with small settlements constantly at war with each other. The difference is that the fighters wear battlesuits – suits of armour, powered by the Matrix, each with built-in electrical defences and weapons, advanced sensors and an AI to manage the systems. Much of the rest of the first volume alternates between Hansen using his battle skills to work his way up in the society, and the various machinations of the gods.

The description of the other two volumes necessarily involves a major spoiler for the ending of the first one – you have been warned!

Vengeance, the second volume, is a sequel but does not follow straight on from the first – some fifty years have passed, with the gods – who now include Hansen – remaining unchanged. New elements are introduced, including "smiths" who have a limited form of access to the Matrix, enabling them to create magical objects. Meanwhile, Hansen has a different task to undertake, although still in the same cultural plane of Northworld.

Justice is the final volume – and we have moved on another century. Hansen and North are now opposed in their desires for the future of Northworld, and find themselves fighting on opposite sides. There are also threats to the Matrix as the nature of Northworld becomes clearer, so Hansen must in effect be in two places at once – alternating between different planes in order to keep his various plates spinning. The ending explains the secret of Northworld, and how the humans become gods.

Northworld is an unusual and intriguing story, a blend of fantasy and SF which is a cut above the usual militaristic SF. There is a lot about battle tactics and brutal hand-to-hand fighting which not everyone will enjoy, but is probably quite realistic in its depiction of the world of the Icelandic sagas (which Drake also plundered for the plot lines, as he explains in more detail the author's notes at the end of each volume). I can't say that I am a fan of plots which include long time gaps – the longer the gaps, the greater the feeling of disconnect, and 100 years is rather long – but the author uses this to show the development of society as a result of the machinations of the gods. Overall, I think that this is an original and ambitious story which is worth reading, unless the military aspect turns you off.

Saturday, 23 May 2020

Leviathan Wakes, by James S. A. Corey

I came to this book in a rather backwards sort of way, in that I first heard of The Expanse TV series which sounded interesting (but I don't subscribe to SyFy or Amazon) then learned that it was based on a book series – so I found that instead. Also called The Expanse, the book series (eight novels and counting) is written by Daniel Abraham and Ty Franck under the pseudonym James S. A. Corey. The first book in the series is Leviathan Wakes (published 2011), so this is where I began.

The setting is remarkably like that of Charles Sheffield's Proteus trilogy, reviewed here last time. In both, it is a few centuries into the future and mankind has spread throughout the Solar System (but no further) with sizeable colonies on Mars (which is undergoing terraforming) and on various asteroids and moons. There is permanent political tension between the Earth, Mars and the OPA (the rest). Those born and brought up in the low gravity of the Outer Planets are taller and thinner, but (unlike Proteus) that's through natural causes rather than deliberate body-forming.

The story structure features two principal characters: Miller, a cynical over-the-hill detective on – or rather in – Ceres; and Holden, an idealistic officer serving on board a transport spacecraft. There are several plot threads: Miller is trying to locate Julie, the estranged daughter of a powerful Martian family with whom he is becoming obssessed; Holden sees his ship destroyed by unknown assailants and is determined to find out why; and Julie stumbles across something truly horrific in an abandoned spacecraft. These threads spiral around each other, gradually revealing a system-wide conspiracy as they all connect up in the latter part of the story. The ending is intriguing and sets up the next volume, so this one should be read first.

The writing is of a high standard. The environments in which the story takes place are well thought through and the writing conveys the atmosphere of the various places strongly. The main characters seem very real and both have significant flaws, which makes identifying with either of them a bit more difficult than usual. In parallel with this, the plot contains some real dilemmas, with strong issues of law and morality prompting intense arguments. This is very much SF for adults, and the review extract on the cover ("As close as you'll get to a Hollywood blockbuster in book form") does the story no favours in my view, since I generally regard "blockbuster" as implying "appeals to the lowest common denominator" and this story is much better than that.

One aspect you should be aware of is an element of horror which becomes stronger as the story develops. I don't much like stories about zombies and suchlike, although I find them rather more tolerable in fantasies like Mark Lawrence's, perhaps because these are less real. The setting of Leviathan Wakes is realistic enough, and sufficiently close in time to the present day, to be believable, and that makes the horror seem all the more intense.

This book was nominated for a Hugo award and deservedly so – it is one of the best SF stories I've read in a while, if not quite as enjoyable as I would prefer.

Sunday, 3 May 2020

The Proteus trilogy, by Charles Sheffield

 Charles Sheffield (1935-2002) was not your average SF writer, in that he left Cambridge University with a Double First in Mathematics and Physics. Born and brought up in the UK, he emigrated to the USA and became Chief Scientist of Earth Satellite Corporation, plus a consultant to various organisations including NASA. He started writing SF in 1977, being most active in the 1980s and 1990s. He won Hugo, Nebula and John W. Campbell Memorial awards and became President of the Science Fiction and Fantasy Writers of America, and of the American Astronautical Society.

I recently unearthed several of his books on my shelves, of which I recalled nothing, so decided to refresh my memory. Three of them form a trilogy which is generally called the Behrooz Wolf series after the principal character, although I think of them as the Proteus trilogy because that name features in the titles of all three volumes. In fact the history of the first volume, Sight of Proteus, is complicated in that it was originally published as three linked stories; Sight of Proteus, Legacy and The Grooves of Change. Furthermore, the book was first published in 1978 but was revised in 1989 (my copy is the revised version). Of the two sequels (Proteus Unbound and Proteus in the Underworld), the first was also serialised before appearing in book form in 1989; the last volume appeared in 1995.

The Proteus stories are set in a future world in which mankind has spread throughout the Solar System (in the form of an independent United Space Federation with a population of around 3 million) but no further. Earth is suffering under a population of 14 billion and is close to social breakdown. The most significant scientific and social innovation has been that of "form change", which takes a bit of explaining. Developed by the Biological Equipment Corporation (BEC), it is a process which combines biological feedback and real-time computer control to enable people to change themselves physically; a process which requires many hours spent in a nutrient tank. At first used for medical purposes – it enabled the regrowth of a lost arm, for instance – it is later extended to cosmetic developments, with people changing their forms in accordance with fashion. Particular "forms" (computer programmes) have to be exhaustively tested before approval, and that is monitored by the Office of Form Control of which Behrooz Wolf is the head.

In Sight of Proteus, a problem arrives on Wolf's desk: three bodies have been found in the ocean, and they do not look at all human – they appear to be aliens. It becomes clear that illegal experimentation with new forms is going on and Wolf requires all of his considerable intellect to unravel what is happening. His search takes him to the outer reaches of the Solar System and revolves around a shattered planet which used to have an orbit in between Mars and Jupiter, and was apparently the home of intelligent life.

In this first volume it is already evident that Sheffield's writing is unusual. His hero is notable for his intelligence, not any kind of macho abilities (in fact, I don't recall any violence at all – not even the threat of it). There are effectively no women characters (Wolf anyway being too absorbed in his work to be interested in relationships), and what action there is, is relatively slow. The science is convincing, hardly a surprise given the author's background. There is a flavour of the strange about the story: I was reminded of Charles Harness (The Paradox Men etc), while the climax was very reminiscent of Simak's City.

Proteus Unbound begins several years later, during which rather a lot has happened to Wolf: he found the love of his life, lost her to a rebel leader living somewhere in the "Kernal Ring" (a zone of the outer Solar System, containing a vast number of small black holes which were harnessed to generate power), and lost the will to live, ending up wired to a dream machine and dismissed by the Office of Form Control which he had formerly led. He is rescued from this fate by a representative of the Outer System who wants some problems with their BEC form change machines resolved. The trail leads to the notorious Black Ransome, the rebel leader, who appears to have access to some amazing technology far beyond the norm – from an astonishing source. This story does at least contain some women among the principal characters, including the most powerful individual in the Outer System.

There is another gap of several years before the events of the final volume: Proteus in the Underworld. Wolf has now retired and gone to live on a remote private island. The principal viewpoint character is not Wolf, however, but a distant relative – a young woman called Sondra Dearborn. She is a junior member of the Office of Form Control and has been given the job of resolving a different set of problems which appear to be occuring with form change equipment in the Outer System. She tries to involve a reluctant Wolf who isn't interested in her problem – or in a rival bid for his expertise by Trudy Melford, who owns BEC and is thereby the richest individual in the Solar System. She lives on (or rather, inside) Mars where there is conflict between those who want to terraform the planet for ordinary humans to live on, and those who prefer to use form control to change humanity to live on the surface as it is. The Underworld refers to a complex of vast Martian caverns and tunnels which have been occupied by humanity and provide an Earth-normal environment. The outcome again contains an unexpected twist.

The stories are notable for the emphasis on science and the ever-increasing importance of the female characters in this trilogy (although Sheffield would never have been able to earn his living as a writer of romance). There is also a strong mystery element; in effect, they are detective stories, with the characters having to collect the evidence and look for clues to aid in solving the problems. All in all, I found the Proteus series to be high quality SF in its concepts and ideas, as well as very enjoyable.

Friday, 10 April 2020

The Broken Empire trilogy, by Mark Lawrence

Last year I reviewed the first two volumes of Impossible Times, a contemporary urban fantasy series by Mark Lawrence: One Word Kill (24 August) and Limited Wish (7 December). These impressed me considerably, so I decided to explore some of his other work, starting with Prince of Thorns, the first of The Broken Empire trilogy published 2012-2014.  This is a more conventional fantasy set in the usual medieval-like world plus some magic (it gradually becomes clear that the world is our own in a far, post-apocalyptic, future). The plot features Prince Jorg Ancrath, the heir to the throne of one of the states which make up this land. At the start of the story he is just 13 years old but leading a group of bandits on a trail of death and destruction, part of his long-term plan to take revenge on the ruler of a neighbouring state who was responsible for the deaths of his mother and younger brother. Jorg is a phenomenal fighter and leader of men, and over the next two years achieves his ambition in dramatic style.  The story is well-written enough for me to finish it, but it did not fully engage me as much as Lawrence's other work as it is relentlessly dark and brutal, and despite being narrated in the first person by Jorg, he is too murderous a character for me to empathise with.

On to the sequel,  King of Thorns. I was impressed by the high quality of writing in the first volume but I found it difficult to relate to the ruthless brutality of the hero. Fewer reservations with the sequel, as Jorg has grown up and matured into a more reasonable person (relatively!). The action begins four years after the first volume, although a lot of the chapters jump back four years to the immediate aftermath of Jorg's elevation to kingship after a ferocious campaign. Fortunately the throwback chapters are signalled in the heading. However, understanding the sequence of events is made harder by the inclusion of many pages from the diary of one of the other characters (which is one way of working in a different viewpoint) plus some magical dreams which seem to concern events which might happen. At any rate, by the end of this volume Jorg has overcome colossal odds to further advance his ambition, by a mixture of forward planning, the recruitment of key allies, and his usual ruthless ferocity; a single-minded determination which compels a certain reluctant admiration.

The finale of The Broken Empire trilogy is (inevitably) Emperor of Thorns, which continues the author's practice of switching between different timelines; one thread picks up soon after the conclusion of the previous volume, the other looks back five years to the key events which have shaped Jorg's life. This volume also features a third thread running in parallel with the main one: Chella's story, giving the viewpoint of one of Jorg's enemies, a necromancer.  Jorg's violent adventures continue as he aims to achieve the height of his ambition and reunite the broken empire – under his leadership, of course.

All credit to the author for getting his hero into impossible situations from which his bloody-minded ingenuity extracts him – most of the time. At the cost of a minor spoiler, an illustration of how Jorg manages this is given in an altercation he has with a massively muscled blacksmith. He challenges the man to a competition, and gives him a free choice of contest. The blacksmith chooses lifting his massive anvil over his head, something which Jorg could never manage, and instantly agrees that there would be no rules. Jorg waits until the man has the anvil over his head, then picks up a hammer and brains him – no rules, right?

These books are packed full of appealing writing. To pick just one example:

The road led like a causeway through a sea of flooded pasture, the waters broken only by half-drowned hedgerows. Hours later, the rain failed and the sky cracked open along a bright fault line. The still waters all around became mirrors, every lone tree reflected, bare fingers reaching below as well as above. So much of the world is about surfaces, the eye deceived, with the truth in the unknown and unknowable depths beneath.

Lawrence's writing strongly reminds me of Michael J Sullivan's Riyria Chronicles. We are fortunate to be able to enjoy two such excellent fantasy writers at this time, both developing their imagined worlds over many volumes. The main point of difference between the authors (at least, as far as I can see) is that Sullivan writes in the third person - no choice, really, given that he has two heroes - so there is an impersonal narrator filling in the gaps between the speech. Lawrence writes in the first person, his hero (or occasionally other characters) providing the narration, which I think encourages greater involvement with the character. 

One word of warning: the trilogy runs to nearly 1,600 pages, requiring the commitment of a substantial chunk of time to read (I hate to think how long an audio version might take).