Review: The Tropic of Eternity (Amaranthine Spectrum #3), by Tom Toner

July 24, 2018

The Tropic of EternityWith the aid of Perception, the liberated AI now masterminding their plans to bring down Aaron the Long-Life, Hugo Maneker, Lycaste, and Huerepo are ready for war. They take to the skies with a mercenary army in the hopes of bringing down the scheming ancient before it can transfer from its decaying Caudipteryx body into something far more effective — Perception’s own remains. The Amaranthine have almost served their purpose for Aaron, and as he turns his gaze to more distant stars, he accelerates the slow-motion shattering of the Firmament. Ghaldezuel, the Lacaille knight turned traitor from Aaron’s service, allies with Cunctus and his gang of escaped Thrasm inmates to carve out a new future from the Lacaille-Vulgar conflict now the Vulgar can no longer rely on the patronage of the broken Amaranthine. Maril and his surviving crew, finding themselves on the fringes of the galaxy under the care of creatures with opaque intentions, seek a route back to known lands without raising the ire of their hosts or ending up back in the jaws of the Bult. And lost Sotiris continues to wander, in search of his sister, at the edges of remembrance, in a place beyond death…

So far I am a great fan of the Amaranthine Spectrum books, a demanding space opera series with deep, sprawling world-building. This newest entry is no disappointment. It picks up right where The Weight of the World left off and plunges us straight into high-intensity conflict, the sense of urgency compounded by rapidly switching POVs. I really enjoy seeing through the eyes of Perception, whose dry wit and occasional childlike caprice remind me of Banks’s loveable AI characters. We’re having a resurgence right now of stories about AI, from their perspective, perhaps reflective of our increasingly relevant fears over just what we might create in the next decade or two. I think Tom Toner really nails the voice of this kind of character, the extreme intelligence combined with the awkward attempts at understanding some of humanity’s more inscrutable qualities through deductive reasoning.

Although they are very different series in terms of topic and tone, I think fans of George R. R. Martin’s works will appreciate Toner’s similar ability to draw distinctive and compelling personalities out of such a vast cast. To some extent, the middle of The Tropic of Eternity does sideline Lycaste, Maneker, and Huerepo, who for me were the anchors of the first two books, but I found that unlike a lot of series where I end up resenting lengthy changes in POV, I was happy enough to spend a little while in a different part of the galaxy, a galaxy which is vastly different by the end of the book. After the rather breathless opening, the steadier pace of this middle section is not unappreciated either. Nonetheless, Lycaste and his companions are my favourites, and when we return to them, although it isn’t the last book in the series, several aspects of their story are brought full-circle in a rather touching way.

At the beginning of The Promise of the Child, the world of the Firmament and the Investiture seemed dizzyingly large, but The Tropic of Eternity suggests that the series will begin to draw the zoom out further, and that this now-familiar galaxy might be little more than a backwater to lands yet unknown, but tantalisingly glimpsed. These lands will take us to Aaron’s long game, it seems, and I’m excited by the setup for the next entry in this story.

If there’s one aspect of the book that didn’t land quite as solidly for me as the rest, it’s the story of Arabis’s kidnap and Jatropha, Eranthis and Pentas’s pursuit. I’m really interested in these characters as people, especially Jatropha with his intriguing background, so I was looking for a little more meat on the bone here, but it feels like there was a lot of buildup to something that was resolved in a rather pat way. I expect it was necessary to keep their thread in sync with the rest, but I would have preferred to see them work a little harder to reach the end result even if it had padded out an already meaty book.

If you enjoyed the first two, you’re in for a worthy successor here, and an angsty wait for the next volume. If you have yet to try this series, I strongly encourage you to check it out if you have the patience for sprawling stories with the dramatis personae to match, à la Erikson, Martin, and Hamilton, with the caveat that it will throw you in at the deep end, but richly reward your patience.

4.5 stars

Review: A Natural History of Dragons (Memoirs by Lady Trent #1), by Marie Brennan

July 4, 2018

A Natural History of DragonsIsabella is born the only girl out of six children to a gentleman’s family in the unfortunately dragon-free country of Scirland. It’s unfortunate for Isabella, at least, who develops an obsession with the creatures from a young age, poring over books about them snuck from her father’s library. Aside from the little insect-sized sparklings she collects, and one carefully contrived and dangerous encounter with a wyvern, she seems unlikely ever to be able to study them the way she would like, and she tries to set aside her longing for the proper life of a gentleborn lady, a new marriage, and the prospect of motherhood. But when an opportunity arises, with a little nudging from Isabella, for her husband to join an expedition to study the rock-wyrms of Vystrana, she simply can’t be left behind…

A Natural History of Dragons is written as the first in a series of memoirs from Isabella in her old age, looking back over her life and her contribution to the study of dragons, which we know from the start will grow to be a substantial one. Elderly Isabella has a different tone from her younger self — a sense of self-prepossession, dry wit, and tinges of regret. She obviously has little remaining patience for the society that used to hem her in, and she sets out her memoirs in a style that is conversational and engaging. It requires a little suspension of disbelief, that she can so precisely record conversations held after so many years, and it does assure us that Isabella at least will survive to old age, but I do so enjoy this structure.

The world herein depicted is an obvious pastiche of our Victorian Earth, with Scirland standing in for England, Falchester for London, and so on. I am generally appreciative of the decision to use a secondary world instead of an alternate history when inserting large fantastical elements into one of our historical periods, at least if it’s done well such as by authors like Guy Gavriel Kay, because it frees the author from dealing with historical personages and allows the story to twist and wind in more unexpected directions. I am not so sure it’s done well here, as there’s little actual sense of world-building beyond the slapping on of new names, but I can appreciate that the author is limited in her presentation of this as one character’s memoirs, whereas Kay is usually dealing with multi-POV epics.

I enjoyed the approach to dragons as a scientific subject. Obviously, it still requires us to handwave the fantastical assumption that beasts like that could fly or breathe ice, but aside from that, these creatures are not magical or sapient, they are huge ecological unknowns in a world where devoting oneself to scientific discovery is a worthy lifelong gentlemanly pursuit. In a way, I wanted them to be a bigger part of the story than they actually are. They play a huge role in terms of the motivations of just about everyone we encounter, friendly and villainous, but I found myself rather strangely enraptured by the scientific nitty-gritty of examining them, rather than the human machinations that surround them.

Another thing that A Natural History of Dragons borrows from Victorian times is the paternalism. Happily, the man that Isabella marries, Jacob, is actually a good one, particularly by the standards of his time, but it still induced a bit of tooth-grinding every time Isabella sought her husband’s permission, or was pushed to do so. Still, while I am resistant to the idea that secondary world fantasies which borrow from our history must also borrow some of its worst attitudes, I didn’t mind seeing it here, because the glimpses we get of future Isabella through her writing of the memoirs suggests that being one of the many driving forces behind the gradual changing of those attitudes will be an important aspect of her story.

It’s not without a couple of issues, one of which is uneven pacing. I found the middle of the book quite slow, although I enjoyed the writing style so much it wasn’t particularly bothersome until reaching the comparatively hasty ending. Isabella’s emotional responses to things are front and centre for most of the story, with her doubts, her frustrations, and her love laid bare. But when a particularly emotional event occurs for which her emotional perspective should have dominated, it’s surprisingly underserved. I suppose one can handwave it away as the decision of older Isabella not to linger on that moment in her memoirs, because any writer detailing their own life will choose to emphasise some moments and sweep others under the carpet — but these aren’t really memoirs, and it was an authorial choice that doesn’t really serve the reader.

I also feel that one of the important things about mysteries in fiction is that of the multiple possible explanations, the one that’s true ought to be at least as interesting as the ones that aren’t. I felt a bit underwhelmed by the ultimate truth of the situation in Vystrana and of its rock-wyrms’ behaviour, because it just wasn’t as compelling as the other possibilities.

Overall, this was a really enjoyable light read which flew by for me despite some quibbles. It finished in a place which suggests the second book in the series will be even closer to my interests, and I’m excited to move on with the series.

4 stars

Review: The City of Brass (Daevabad Trilogy #1), by S. A. Chakraborty

July 4, 2018

The City of BrassNahri is an orphaned con artist eking out a living on the fringes of 18th century Cairo, charming rich men into fake cures for illnesses they don’t have and relieving their estates of easily-missed trinkets and baubles. She has a side line in performing fake zars, ceremonies to cure those afflicted by djinn or at least temporarily relieve their spirits — but during one such fake zar, when she improvises with the nameless language she’s known all her life, she calls down something very real. Soon she and the ancient daeva warrior Dara will be fleeing Cairo, and the ifrit hunting Nahri for her ancestry, to the city of her djinn ancestors — Daevabad, where she will be valued as the last scion of a powerful bloodline. But Dara’s welcome is likely to be a lot less warm, and Daevabad is wrapped up in intrigues in which Nahri’s abilities and ancestry will prove a linchpin, if only she can come to terms with either of them.

I really love stories about djinn. I don’t know why they hold such fascination for me, but just seeing the word in a book’s description is enough to sell me on it, so I came into The City of Brass already favourably disposed since it was so deeply rooted in that mythology. And I’ll say one thing for this book: The research and world-building is really well done, and I was riveted by the way the author writes djinn society. Daevabad has an elaborate social background split between those who identify as djinn, and have embraced Islam, and those who still consider themselves to be part of the older society of daeva and their fire-based religion. Each side is split into multiple factions, tribes, and families, all with powerful motives, and they are all shrouded in moral ambiguity, with a balance of sympathetic aims and crimes that can’t be condoned. It’s impossible to point to one side and say ‘It would clearly be best for society if they won’ — as with most of these situations in real life, a true resolution would require a lengthy and delicate balance of compromises that’s unlikely to be achieved due to the strong personalities involved — and so the politics feel rich and alive.

I can forgive the book a lot for that incredibly compelling world-building, but there is a fair bit here in need of forgiving. Initially, I really took to Nahri as a character. She’s in a dangerous position in society, an Egyptian woman alone and without a support system in a city that’s changing hands from one foreign invader to another. She’s got ambitions for herself that society wouldn’t support even for a well-bred woman, which she is not — she wants to train as a physician. And she doesn’t bow to or complain about those limitations, but instead uses the society she’s trapped by against itself to escape her circumstances.

Unfortunately, Nahri changes into a very different character as the story progresses. Her wily nature and intellectual curiosity are lost, and she becomes a constant complainer with no respect for or interest in the new religion and cultures around her, or the people who could teach her so much. The only things she’s interested in are Dara and Alizayd, a prince of the now-ruling family who are traditionally her ancestors’ enemies, whom she befriends under somewhat false circumstances.

A lot of page count is spent on Dara and Ali, who are two of the least likeable of the secondary cast. Dara is demanding and controlling, with supremacist views about daeva that ought to render him incompatible with a partially-human woman like Nahri if she had the sense she were born with, and a hankering to restart old wars. Ali is a religious zealot who goes through an awful lot, including being torn between his family duties and his ties to a rebel group with more violent aims than he realised, and manages to grow from absolutely none of it, still convinced that he and his religion are in the ultimate right and observing few shades of grey in the massively complex political situation that surrounds him. His only redeeming feature is his sympathy for the shafit, the part-daeva and part-human underclass of Daevabad society.

Debut blues afflict the pacing, which takes an extraordinarily long time to get to Daevabad and the meat of the story, and therefore necessitates a rushed ending in which it can be hard to keep track of the action during one climactic battle. I didn’t mind the slow beginning as much, because Nahri was still an appealing character to follow then, Dara was still mostly an exposition fairy delivering sermons about daeva society, and I liked watching their relationship and her understanding of their world unfold. Towards the end, however, I was having to reread a section or two in order to understand things, such as the transition of a power that I thought only one person could hold.

Despite the problems, this was a page-turner, and Chakraborty’s take on djinn is so well-conceived that I would be compelled to read on if only for that. I do agree with some of my friends who concluded that the issues are not unexpected of an ambitious debut novel, and hopefully in the sequels the author will retain tighter control of her characters and their trajectory. I would still recommend this to anyone with an interest in seeing creative and well-researched Middle Eastern fantasies, if they are willing to be patient with first novel hiccups.

3.5 stars

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