Shattered Minds, by Laura Lam [Pacifica #2]

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❧ Title: Shattered Minds (Pacifica #2)
❧ Author: Laura Lam
❧ Publisher: Pan MacMillan/Tor UK
❧ Publication date: 15th June 2017
❧ Rating: ✦✦✦✦✦
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She can uncover the truth, if she defeats her demons
Ex-neuroscientist Carina struggles with a drug problem, her conscience, and urges to kill. She satisfies her cravings in dreams, fuelled by the addictive drug ‘Zeal’. Now she’s heading for self-destruction – until she has a vision of a dead girl.
Sudice Inc. damaged Carina when she worked on their sinister brain-mapping project, causing her violent compulsions. And this girl was a similar experiment. When Carina realizes the vision was planted by her old colleague Mark, desperate for help to expose the company, she knows he’s probably dead. Her only hope is to unmask her nemesis – or she’s next.
To unlock the secrets Mark hid in her mind, she’ll need a group of specialist hackers. Dax is one of them, a doctor who can help Carina fight her addictions. If she holds on to her humanity, they might even have a future together. But first she must destroy her adversary – before it changes us and our society, forever.
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❝In A Nutshell❞
shattered minds✎ A female Dexter makes imaginary kills in a virtual world in order to quell the urges that tell her to spill blood outside of the Zealscapes and her dreams, whilst trying to both lose herself in a drug addiction and rewrite the code to take back control of her brain after she was programmed against her will and her life fell apart.
✎ A group of cyber hackers who are trying to bring down a corrupt corporation without getting caught or killed in the process.
✎ Brain-hacking scary funtimes and corrupt, evil scientists.

✎ Diverse ☒ (race, gender, queerness – not only there on the page with the main cast and surrounding, but literally normalised all over the page and everywhere)

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❝What I loved❞
✎ One of the things I love best about Lam’s Pacifica books is the technology. Sometimes sci-fi writers get stuck in our own century without thinking far enough or deep enough and the tech is completely wrong–it’s not been pushed far enough. Our tech is already pretty advanced; our sci-fi tech has to push that whilst still being something lived every day by the characters and cast and not tech that is solely relevant to the plot. Lam does this in her sleep and the effect is a world you can see and imagine existing in.
✎ Every character has a well-developed personality that shines through, even when Carina is involved. Someone like Carina could so easily have become the only character on the page, whilst those around her faded into the background. This absolutely does not happen. The Trust are richly-developed, diverse and readable. Carina’s changing relationship with them is expertly-rendered and not once does Lam bend Carina in one way or another to make her interactions with her companions less awkward and more “sociable”.
✎ Everything? Absolutely everything, from the diverse rep to the awkward-but-wonderful romance that builds throughout the book. If possible, I loved this book even more than False Hearts and that’s saying a lot. The writing is compelling, aided by the choice of narrative voice, and Shattered Minds is just impossible to put down. There are a thousand stories that could take place in Pacifica and I want to read them all. There’s so much potential in this setting and Lam has built a world in which she could spend her whole life exploring and still find a new story to tell, some new and terrifying technology or concept to twist and mess with. So far, each Pacifica book feels like a single episode to form part of an overarching saga, where some threads might weave and cross and tangle, but every story exists on its own page.
✎ I don’t read that much sci-fi–but it’s not for lack of trying/wanting to. I just find it very difficult to connect to a lot of sci-fi that I come across. If it’s YA it’s dystopia (which isn’t my thing) and if it’s regular SFF it usually feels like it’s trying to be Grimdark In Space (again, not my thing). Aside from that, sci-fi usually just seems to lack any of the things I look for in a book: relatable characters, diverse characters, character-driven plot. The Pacifica books are thrillers-dressed-as-scifi (or scifi-dressed-as-thrillers – whichever way you roll) and even in spite of how the plot is the driving force, they appear character driven.
✎ The prose of Shattered Minds was exciting and very fitting. It was my first outing with this tense of narrative–and it worked perfectly. It’s hard to imagine the book having been written any other way, fitting the book so easily and well that, even if I was a little surprised by it at first, since it read very differently to False Hearts, I’m excited to see if any further books in the Pacifica series will be similar. Shattered Minds is a clever and slick-as-hell novel that is every bit as thrilling as its predecessor.
✎ There was absolutely nothing to slow this book down; the pacing was on point, the characters were alive on the page and even the plot falls so close to something that could be in our own futures that we really feel the stakes.
✎ All in all, Shattered Minds is an absolutely stellar installment of the Pacific series, effortlessly blending sci-fi with thriller to deliver an unstoppable story that is every bit as gripping as it is awesome as hell (who doesn’t want to root for hackers against the cold-ass, evil scientists and the corporation they embody?). Absolutely one of my favourite books this year so far. Lam needs to write more of these books.

Sworn In Steel, by Douglas Hulick [A Tale of the Kin #2]

Title: Sworn In Steel (A Tale of the Kin #2)
Author: Douglas Hulick
Publisher: Tor (UK) Roc (US)
Publication date: May 8th 2014
Rating: ★★★★★

sworn_in_steel_UKWhen I realised that we were approaching the release date for Sworn in Steel, the second Tales of the Kin book by Douglas Hulick, I knew I had to beg, borrow or steel a copy to get it NOW. Because Among Thieves was one of the best books I’d read that year, without a doubt. I’ve been patiently (must read now!!!) waiting since, desperate to know how Drothe will adjust to his new, loftier existence. So, I scored an ARC, thinking I needed to read this as soon as possible (so thanks to Doug’s publicity department for arranging an ebook for me).

I wasn’t wrong.

At the end of Among Thieves, Hulick’s first Tales of the Kin novel, we left Drothe in a bit of a “situation”. Somehow, through circumstance, chance and dumb luck, he’s found himself a Grey Prince. Not only does that mean an entire organisation to run, people to protect, dodges to organise and cons to run, but it’s put a solid end to his days as a Nose.

Problem is, that’s what Drothe is good at: he lives the street, knows how to work it, play the game and shake down what he needs. It’s what he is.

Except it’s not, not any more. Drothe is the newest Grey Prince – and he’d better get used to it.

But there’s another thing Drothe is good at: trouble. They’re on first name terms and trouble is always looking to hook up, whether Drothe likes it or not. So when a sticky situation goes belly up and another Grey Prince is dusted, with Drothe’s knife stuck in his eye, everything looks set to crumble, unless he acts fast.

Drothe needs to shift the focus from him if he doesn’t want the other Grey Princes and the rest of the Kin knocking at his door. Basically everything is starting to slide already, and without Degan at his back – an absence he’s beginning to feel – Drothe doesn’t have many people to rely on. There’s Fowler, of course, always standing oak, but she’s still not forgiven him for playing the wide nose after he’d gone long for Kells. But she’s back and though things aren’t the same – what is? – it’s good to have the Oak mistress there.

Only, whilst Drothe still regrets what happened with Degan, another of the order comes knocking. It’s not a social call and soon Drothe learns that this Degan – Silver, though Wolf seems more apt – was the one who dusted this Grey Prince and he’s deliberately setting Drothe up. He wants something, does Silver. He wants Bronze Degan.

Before he knows it, Drothe is planning a trip to Djan, away from the Empire and into the reach of the Despot. This brings its own challenges and problems, but Drothe believes he can find a way into the old city, where the movement of foreigners is closely monitored, and somehow find Degan. Besides Wolf’s incentive, Drothe wants to find Degan and make amends. If he even can.

Only… In a city where he doesn’t have an organisation at his back or know the local talent, how can Drothe manage to stay ahead of the game? Never mind when that game changes. Before he knows it, everything has gone to hell. Suddenly he’s stuck in the middle of clan politics and something much darker. Whatever it is, it has to do with his unusual night vision and how he got it. But it’s hard to ask a dead man questions, so he won’t be quizzing his stepfather, Sebastian. Drothe only knows the ritual he underwent but that doesn’t mean he knows anything else.

But being Drothe, that’s just not enough trouble.  Having been asked to carry a package to Djan in return for the promise of aid, Drothe expects it’s contents are probably a slightly greyer shade of legal. Little does he know that what he carries is about to bring him a whole world of hurt.

There’s more to this package than Drothe imagined and when it comes to his expedition to Djan on the whole, far more tangled and overlapping intentions than it first seemed. As usual, Drothe is about to step into something huge and seem to the world far more calculating and unscrupulous than he really is.

Drothe has a lot on his mind, lots to do – but that’s okay, right? Since every second he spends entangled in the problems his coming to Djan has stirred, is a second less spent thinking about being a Grey Prince.

Sworn in Steel is a deliciously devious, perfectly plotted adventure that is heart-stoppingly tense and stuffed full of excitement. I got everything I expected, and more: more of Hulick’s incredibly addictive and colourful narrative, more twists and turns and “oh god, what now?”. There’s not a part of this second book that suffers for following after such a fantastic book as Among Thieves. In fact, however good Drothe’s first outing was, this is undeniably a thousand times better. It’s just better and offers more, demonstrating that Hulick is a writer worth waiting for. Yes, there’s been a wait between books: do I care? The hell I do. Now Sworn in Steel is all finished up and I’m already gnashing my nails in anticipation fro the next, every second of the wait was worth it. There isn’t another writer like Hulick; with all the personality of a Harry Dresden narrative and the day-to-day grind of being a Kin on the street, there is something that feels utterly unique to the Tales of the Kin. Something that kept me up late reading, night after night.

Sworn in Steel is funny, light as well as engaging easily with the gritter aspects of what is basically fantasy organised crime. But who doesn’t love a good mob story? And that’s what you get here, only with fantasy and the moreish culture of the Djanese, all tangled up with an incredibly complex and deep secret that lies not just close to the heart of the Empire, but smack bang in the middle of it. This book reveals surprising secrets, introduces completely unforgettable characters with their own unique agendas, and does so whilst maintaining a fast pace, a brilliant sense of humour, and incredibly gripping narrative. I’m a huge, huge Hulick fan, and Sworn in Steel just made me fanboy from here to the mountains of Tibet. Absolutely nothing whatsoever brings this book down from its pedestal. It is exactly what I was expected–and more. As the story deepens and we learn more, all I can say is that Hulick is the kind of writer I think everyone secretly wishes they could be–I know I do!

If Sworn in Steel isn’t way up there on your reading list, you’re missing out. It should be at the top. This was a completely unparalleled pleasure and as usual, Hulick certainly knows how to end a damn book! Now all there’s left to do it hole up and wait for book three. And I couldn’t care less how long that wait is, my tent is firmly pitched.

Awesome, just damn awesome.

Drakenfeld, by Mark Charan Newton [Drakenfeld #1]

Title: Drakenfeld (Lucan Drakenfeld #1)
Author: Mark Charan Newton
Publisher: Tor
Publication date: 1oth October 2013 (UK)
Rating: ★★★★★

Drakenfeld-Cover-Art-540x830Drakenfeld is a complete change-of-pace from what Mark Charan Newton exhibited with his Legends of the Red Sun series, which veered towards the New Weird and definitely played with darker plotlines. Instead, this classically-influenced fantasy is a crime hybrid that is set to be as much of a stellar success as the rest of Newton’s work. In fact, I’ve been hoping for something like this for a while and when I received this ARC before the summer I dived straight in.

I was hesitant at the setting in the first instance—I’m not a massive fan of the classical world and definitely not a fan of Rome and Greece and all that sort of stuff. But I was anticipating this because it’s a Newton and because, crime hybrid. That’s pretty much all I needed to hear.

I’m glad I forwent my ho-hum attitude towards the setting, because Drakenfeld is a complete success of a novel. I wish there were more hybrids, especially ones that merge the crime genre into fantasy and science fiction.

Essentially, Drakenfeld is a whodunit. My favourite kind.

Lucan Drakenfeld is the son of a renowned Officer of the Sun Chamber and his whole life he has lived in his father’s shadow. To this end, he has been working far from the city of his birth, avoiding elements of his past—and his father’s glowing reputation.

But upon receipt of news of his father’s death, Lucan is recalled to the ancient city of his birth, Tryum. Along with him goes his assistant, Leana. They travel to the city and soon find themselves completely entangled in what will prove to be his most difficult and complicated case to date. Along the way, as might be expected with Lucan returning to his home, he will have to confront elements of his past that he would rather forget. More than that, his father’s death is suspicious to Lucan, despite the Sun Chamber’s belief that it was a natural death.

With both the death of the King’s sister and the mystery of his father’s death hanging over the investigation, Lucan and Leana must delve into the heart of the city’s politics  to uncover the truth—which is far stranger and more complex than  either of them could have accounted for.

Everything in this fantasy crime hybrid is woven together perfectly and Newton demonstrates an aptitude for not only the complex fantasy of the Legends of the Red Sun series, but for the subtle twists and turns of a Romanesque mystery, too.

Following the slightly darker turns of his previous series, the final book of which I was incredibly disappointed by, I was expecting to love Drakenfeld off the bat after reading Newton’s blog on the subject, promising a completely different sort of protagonist and ideal.

Precisely this is delivered, in spades. Drakenfeld is a book that I devoured in a couple of days due to its addictive pace and moreish, compelling plot. As a protagonist, Lucan Drakenfeld is completely honourable and likeable and this manner of lead character is something of a fresh perspective amidst the darker natured, more anti-hero archetypes flooding the fantasy forum at the moment.

One of the best things to hope for from a series like this is the subsequent books come to and their potentially episodic nature. Like all good crime stories, which admittedly I only have experience of from TV, there promises to be a different plot thread in each accompanying novel, and throughout I expect to learn more of Lucan himself as the series develops.

I’d been hoping for a return to the level of enjoyment received from Newton’s earlier books and I wasn’t at all disappointed. It felt that whatever I perceived was missing from the writing of The Broken Isles was back in full force. The writing felt like “Newton” again. As a loyal and steadfast fan, this was immeasurably relieving. With this novel, I have a well-missed, well-loved author back at the top of my pile.

It is always satisfying to anticipate plot twists coming; it gives a certain sense of smugness, as if high-fiving or knuckle-bumping the author. It’s like being in on some kind of private joke. And it is definitely something that adds a layer of further enjoyment to a novel such as this. Maybe it’s just me; maybe other people like the “wow” or “holy crap!” factors when a plot twist comes to light. Either way, Drakenfeld was a complete success for me. (I do think a parental obsession with Saturday night instalments of Jonathan Creek taught a certain way of thinking in regards to the Locked Room puzzle, however, despite being a wee bairn at the time, likely sprawled on the floor with colouring books and staying up way past bedtime.)

I expect that Newton’s new series will be an immediate success, thanks partly to its depth of worldbuilding, managing to create a secondary classical world that is familiar enough to be so, yet still completely his own. Lucan Drakenfeld is a complex character with a good core—and this is just the kind of character I feel has been largely missing from certain veins of fantasy. There’s been too much darkness. It was about time that something lighter, yet still no more stereotyped or clichéd, should break through that darker branch of the genre.

Overall I loved Drakenfeld every bit as much as I expected to. It left me with a deep longing for more fantasy/genre hybrids. Romance has always been something of a part of SFF, way back through the decades, and so to find it in fantasy isn’t classed as anything unusual. But horror and crime and mystery as their own separate elements have not yet breached the hold. Drakenfeld is the first step, with the novel generally being accepted as having “crime” elements, so much so that Newton himself is a member of a crime writers association.

A deep and clever story focused around a man and his duties, with revelations along the way that make for an enjoyable start to a promising new series.

The Broken Isles, Mark Charan Newton (Legends of the Red Sun #4)

  • TITLE: The Broken Isles (Legends of the Red Sun #4)
  • AUTHOR: Mark Charan Newton
  • PUBLISHER: Tor (UK)
  • PUBLICATION DATE: 5th July 2012

When I first read Nights of Villjamur and City of Ruin a short few months later, I was swept away and amazed by a world of infinite promise and possibility. When I read The Book of Transformations last year, I was shown the scope of a writer’s imagination, whilst being introduced a subtle political agenda that was interwoven with a long-standing plot. In the interests of full disclosure, with a year to ruminate on the book—and its place in the series as a whole—I began to have doubts as to its place in regards to the series as a whole. (I gave it a five-star review last year and revisited it positively, but after a long year of discussion with my brother (my SFF debate partner in crime) I would probably give it a 4.5 if I read it from scratch now.)

Quite possibly the worst thing about The Broken Isles is that it seems to render the entirety of The Book of Transformations completely redundant. A single event occurs at the end of the previous book that has any bearing or relevance on the next. The whole book and its characters are swept under the carpet and it quite honestly feels as though it never existed. I had to keep catching myself from referring to the series as a trilogy, and not classing City of Ruin as the book that came before. This, in regards to a book I had previously given five-stars to.

There’s something up with that.

Having just read a book (Ashes of a Black Frost, Chris Evans) wherein a series comes to an end, and having finished Jon Sprunk’s Shadow Saga earlier this year, I feel I’m in the correct readerly mindset of how to end a book and what to expect. I did not get what I expected.

I’ll say now I’m giving this book a 2.75 and damn it it pains me to do that: to award the final book of an otherwise stellar series feels…awkward and wrong somehow. I wanted to award a 3.5 and then there were elements of the book that kept chipping away until we were left with the rating I’ve settled on. I didn’t hate the book and it doesn’t deserve a verbal flogging, and neither does the writer. But therein perhaps is the problem. I’ve seen writers bothered by “meh” reviews much more than angry ones. This is a meh review.

Having already said that it felt Broken Isles rendered its predecessor irrelevant, I’ll go on to say that I was disappointed to see that any remaining characters seemed to be shooed away and ditched at the earliest opportunity. One result of this was a totally absurd scene that seemed to have no purpose, no point and seemed to hover between comedic and melodramatic. I’m not sure what to make of it, or why it was there. I feel that if Newton didn’t know what to do with the characters he crafted in The Book of Transformations, then perhaps he shouldn’t have brought them into the final part with him. But then, they served a specific purpose. However, once that purpose is fulfilled, snap, gone. I didn’t understand this and in my honest opinion it quite literally served no purpose whatsoever.

The pacing seemed somewhat crooked and jarred and, as much as I warmed to Jeza, the newest PoV character, her inner monologue at times served only to convey the world, clinically, through the eyes of a type of character the reader hadn’t yet experienced throughout the series. She didn’t read internally like the age she was, or the type of girl she is made out to be. She jarred on every psychological level. She was, however, an interesting character and one of the better narrative points in the book, despite the issues. Overall, I did like Jeza—which made her falling short of hitting the mark all the harder to chew on.

In regards to the pacing, it seemed to plod along slowly only to trip and present us with a scene that seemed to last a mere hundred words at times, and then skip ahead. It was jerky and mechanic and so very clinical. Where was the magic that swept me away in the first two books? Maybe I missed something, but no matter where I looked, it wasn’t there.

This seems to have been a book bent on shooing surplus characters leftover from The Book of Transformations, whilst plodding mechanically towards a great and climatic culmination—one that is never truly reached or realised in the end. For a book that tells the story of gang uprisings, the integration of new races (which brings with it issues of racism, equality and tolerance), and most importantly, the final battle that is quite literally fought to save a whole world… a whole lot of nothing seems to happen. There’s no urgency. The plodding pace perhaps is to blame for this, but it’s not entirely to blame when any pace or action or urgency that could have been built up was knocked down immediately by (seemingly) totally irrelevant plotlines.

A character’s madness seems a convenient plot device to remove them from the picture in lieu of who Newton must have wanted to lead the new Empire—else why would they have been removed in the first place? There seemed no logic to that particular thread of the plot, and much like the removal of surplus characters from The Book of Transformations, it seemed utterly convenient and half-hearted. In parts, it appeared to only paint a more vivid picture of the grimdark aspect, and nothing else besides.

The crux of the matter is that there was no sense of danger or panic or urgency and the writing seemed detached and clinical. Those are my major technical issues, which go hand in with the more technical plot issues I’ve touched on. There’s too much to say without spoilers, so I’ll refrain and address them more deeply and alongside the rest of the series when I post my revisit of the series as a whole.

But it wasn’t a bad book: there was nothing to hate about it, nothing to get angry or annoyed about, no reason to moan about it. It was in a sense, a “satisfying” ending of a sort in that it has a happy ending. Not going to dance around that as a spoiler; anyone who doesn’t want to know if a book ends happily has been reading too much death, death, pain, pain. It has a happy ending, an ending filled with promise and infinite possibility—and that’s precisely what I wanted.

The redeeming point of the book was Brynd. Of course the redeeming point was the homosexual, albino commander, who has, by far, been the strongest and most fleshed out and real character of the whole series. Brynd, forced to turn politician after the death of the Emperor and the battle in Viliren, put me in mind of Captain Sheridan from Babylon 5. This is a good comparison. I felt that the series had echoed the plot arc involving the Shadows and Vorlons for some time (“giants in the playground” – a quote from Sheridan illustrates this perfectly, and when we throw in the figure of Frater Mercury who echoes Lorien to an extent, the scene is very alike whilst maintaining its originality) and this developed further as Brynd waged war on two fronts: political and otherwise.

Brynd was the most enjoyable aspect of the whole book and it was a fantastic idea to end on his viewpoint, which allowed for a very enjoyable, satisfying and fairly light-hearted close to the book: Brynd’s off to get laid, and laid well, and without fear of persecution. It was a beautiful touch and possibly the highlight of the book. That single scene felt like a return to the personality and magic of Nights and City. So, it was a damn good place to end the book.

Overall, the book served the purpose of ending a series and little more besides. It felt like an awkward yet necessary read, and although I did get closure on the Legends of the Red Sun as I clicked Archimedes, my trusty Kindle, to the 100% bar, I was left wanting. I was left wanting so much more. All in all, it wasn’t a great end to a fantastic series: it was a slow plod towards the finale, which fell short of expectations, only then to soothe that annoyance with a delightful snippet of how the world might be remade in the wake of death and destruction that almost brought a civilization to its knees. It wasn’t what I wanted it to be, and maybe I missed something that made it superb, or maybe I’d grown weary of the belaboured weird and just wanted a slightly quirky fantasy novel that broke a few expectations and played with a few rules.

The Broken Isles didn’t deliver that, like its predecessors did, but it certainly died trying: the series’ vast imagination and bundles of potential seemed to just…get lost…somewhere along the way. Nevertheless, any fan of the Legends of the Red Sun series should and must read this, if only to breathe a slight sigh of relief at the end that everything can be okay. I’m a damn sucker for a happy ending, and this just about fits the bill, so I’ll take what I’m given and remember the series through its characters and the books that came before, instead of through one unlucky book that just didn’t quite work.

2.75/5

(For a review that paints The Broken Isles in a very different light to mine, you might want to check out fellow Fantasy Faction Dragon, Laura Graham’s review.)

The Book of Transformations: A revisit

Recently, I reviewed Mark Charan Newton’s The Book of Transformations, the penultimate book in the Legends of the Red Sun series. I don’t usually revisit books I’ve finished and reviewed, but something got me thinking.

My brother, Alek Cristea, had a very different view of The Book of Transformations to me. He reviewed it, and gave it just two stars out of five, where I gave it a full five stars. Now, this is a little odd to me, as we have unswervingly similar tastes in books: we read the same and pass books between us, knowing what the other will or will not like.

So why was this book different?

Well, I think our approaches were very different.

I think readers need to be aware of something when they embark upon a Mark Charan Newton novel: you’re not going to get regular fantasy. Newton doesn’t deal in sword and sorcery, and I’d even go as far as saying he shirks the regular tropes of epic and high fantasy, too. If anything, if you’ll go with my line of thought momentarily, I think “low fantasy” is closer to what Newton writes than any other fantasy subgenre.

Why?

Well, as far as I see it—and let’s face it, the definitions we could offer to all the fantasy subgenres out there will be as differing and subjective as the books themselves—low fantasy offers a different, fantastical world that’s not too fantastic. Instead, we get a world that could be our own—or at least a social, political or religious (sometimes all three) backdrop that mimics our own world and cultures very closely. Newton uses the essence of low fantasy as a stage upon which to air his voice—he’s concerned with character and message (or thought, and the provocation of thought). He has less concern for worldbuilding, and instead, crafts only what is necessary upon which his own philosophies can play out.

It’s like a set for a film: why build a city, when you can build the single street, two houses and a walkway that will feature in the film the most? I’m not saying Newton doesn’t worldbuild—of course he does; he gives us cities teeming with life, and chains of islands that stretch out into the ice—but I am saying it’s not his primary concern. The characters and their stories are what Newton seems to write for.

Reading Newton’s work requires the same awareness at the back of your head that I imagine delving into China Miévile novel demands: you know you’re not going to get something normal, so you have to switch the way in which you read accordingly.

In the end, I thoroughly enjoyed The Book of Transformations—yes, I had my problems with it, I just didn’t mention them in the review, because they felt irrelevant overall. Part of the reason I enjoyed it so much, I think, were the parallels I drew with it, in relation to my favourite science-fiction series.

Babylon 5.

I’ve often heard people scoffing, or sneering and turning their noses up at this series, and can’t for the life of me think why. It’s a fantastic lesson in both general storytelling, as well as a great instructor for how to weave a story across many, many seasons, or, in this case, books. If Babylon 5 had been a regular SFF book, it would have been longer (and more exciting, but hey, I’m not a fan) than A Song of Ice and Fire. It would have been an SFF epic.

Because it was just that: epic.

Now, maybe fans out there have seen these parallels too, and know where I’m going with this. Maybe it’s just me and how I’ve viewed things—who knows? Regardless, people who haven’t read The Book of Transformations (or any of the Red Sun series for that matter) will encounter massive spoilers hereafter.

We have two different races—maybe we’ll see them as old races, it’s what they appear, advanced as they are—and one singular collective of people. I won’t call them a “race”, because that gets complicated when we think of the Rumel. However, let’s liken them to the younger races in Babylon 5.

See where this is going?

I propose that the race Artemisia represents be dubbed the Vorlons, and the other side, the Shadows. Tell me that doesn’t at least resonate just a little bit? Jumping back a little to City of Ruin, take Rika and tell me that she couldn’t—with a little imagination, entirely based on her role in the story—make for a convincing likeness to Delenn? Of course, even for me that’s a little stretch, however, less of a stretch is the comparison between John Sheridan and Brynd Lathraea—their placements in both stories, the responsibilities that pile up on them, and the measures they take all echo each other, especially as we consider seasons three and four of Babylon 5 as the Shadow War develops.

I’m not saying all this is exact, that’s not the point, but I am saying I was reminded of these things. Plus, I didn’t say this was a bad thing. Did I say how much I adored this series?

And, on the other side, let’s not forget about Morden. Yes, yes, I’m going to compare him with Dartun, and yes, there are many, many differences between their characters, and yet, many, many similarities, too. Perhaps Dartun didn’t have a choice in becoming what he did, and even if Morden wasn’t changed by the Shadows, he certainly became their servant in a strikingly similar way.

I got very excited during The Book of Transformations when these thoughts popped to mind, and far, far more excited for the forthcoming final book. I want to see if any of my theories will play out; I want to see the equivalent of the Shadow War play on in the wreckage of this world. If we take it as a game of chess, then—just like Babylon 5—game-pieces have been put down, we had a check or two in Nights, more in City and a very near miss for checkmate in the penultimate instalment. The checkmate is coming… and it’s just a matter of seeing how the two sides station their pieces, which side might feint, which might sacrifice a pawn, and which will topple the king on the very last square.

It’ll be a good show, and all this resonance has just made me all the more eager to read the final stage in this grandiose war. That, and I’d be an extremely happy fanboy if, at the end, Brynd Lathraea were able to cry “Get the hell outta our galaxy (well, world…)” at some point. In fact, that would be glorious.

The Book of Transformations (Legends of the Red Sun #3), by Mark Charan Newton

The penultimate book of the Legends of the Red Sunseries, by Mark Charan Newton—The Book of Transformations—is set to make the same kind of waves as the previous two instalments, but in entirely different areas. Whilst Newton’s work still exhibits a subtle political flavour and raises questions about life, humanity and the world view, The Book of Transformations delves even deeper than his previous work, boldly addressing issues that are too often ignored.

Firstly, though, I’ll start by saying just how much more fun than the other two books The Book of Transformations is: whilst Nights of Villjamur rocked that “city noir” vibe, tossing in mystery and political machinations, and City of Ruin brought to the table all the tension and atmosphere of a ruined and corrupt city and its inner cogs, readying to face the onslaught of an advancing war, The Book of Transformations brings superheroes to the table.

Fitting, really, that with a summer of comic-book adapted movies ahead, we should be treated to a very new kind of fantasy. It’s been said before that new genre labels may well need to be created for Newton’s work, and this latest offering does nothing to quieten that thought. Describing The Book of Transformations as “superhero fantasy” perfectly conveys the flavour of the book: a team of super-human citizens of Villjamur become the blurb-mentioned Villjamur Knights.

But, as this is Newton we’re talking about, there is so much more.

It’s no secret that Newton decided to write about a transsexual lead. There was much speculation (alright…I know I speculated) as to which “way” the transsexual lead would be changing. I got what I hoped for: Lan is an MtF transsexual. She essentially used to be a man. She now is not a man. It’s as simple as that. (And it really is that simple.) I hoped it would be this sort of change, for two reasons: 1) because the notion of a woman binding her chest and passing herself as a man is a little too close to cliché in the realms of fantasy literature (I believe there’s even a Terry Pratchett joke about this in one of his novels, where a whole regiment turns out to be women in disguise?), and 2) because it would be far, far more interesting to read about.

Simply put, Lan was one of my favourite characters. Not only was she fascinating, but she was also exceedingly normal. That was the point. Newton had to force the issue that Lan is a normal character, and he does this remarkably well. Her transition features briefly, and following this, Lan is Lan. Her change is not the focus of the story. It’s not important. What is important is her new life and her role in the events transpiring in the city—a city facing destruction from inside and out.

Following the loss of Rumex Jeryd in Villiren, Investigator Fulcrom takes up the Inquisitor medallion for this instalment. His role in The Book of Transformations is a pivotal one, as much of the plot unfolds around him and his actions. Placed in an awkward position of direct service to the Emperor—the same Emperor he knows to be corrupt, and responsible for the wrongful arrest and subsequent fleeing of the Empress Rika—Fulcrom must conduct himself carefully under the order of a man he knows to be untrustworthy and excessively ruthless. In addition, the freshly formed and enhanced Villjamur Knights are placed under his jurisdiction. The Emperor expects results, and if these are not produced, Fulcrom’s life may well be forfeit.

At the heart of The Book of Transformations is change: Villjamur is changing; characters undergo changes; the world itself it set to change, should the wishes of one fugitive priest come to pass; the pressure of power weighs heavily; and forces from other worlds set the game-pieces in play, preparing for something even bigger than war.

As a standalone novel, The Book of Transformations works better than Nights of Villjamur, or City of Ruin, neither of which I think work as well independently. Of course, being part of a series, there are strands which link all three books. However, there are more new plot points and characters introduced here, and the way in which the story returns to Villjamur simply flows well enough to be considered in isolation.

Still, as I’ve maintained throughout, the books work far better as a series.

As a whole, the Legends of the Red Sun series becomes more powerful with each book. Showcasing science-fiction, science-fantasy, and ‘new weird’ as well as classic fantasy ideas, the final book is shaping up to be something entirely unique again. The way in which the war between the two factions revealed in City of Ruin is developing very much reminds me of the Vorlon-Shadow war in Babylon 5: this isn’t a bad thing, as the series is my favourite science-fiction series of all time, and as well as being politically and philosophically deep, it was incredibly original and boasted unique methods of storytelling.

The Book of Transformations isn’t my favourite of the series—entirely because I am an unashamed Brynd Lathraea fanboy and he’s obviously absent, busy in Villiren as he is—but it is definitely my second favourite. It’s an extremely fun and exciting read, filled with all the political awareness you expect from Newton. In fact, The Book of Transformations is one of the most thrilling, fun books you’ll read this summer: its excellence is surpassed only by its sheer scope and imagination. Once again, Villjamur comes to life in the pages of this book.

A winner. Read it.

5/5

City of Ruin (Legends of the Red Sun #2), by Mark Charan Newton

Following the thrilling first instalment of the Legends of the Red Sun series, Mark Charan Newton presents us with a second adventure. Laced with all the subtle politics of Nights of Villjamur, alongside an even defter approach to the “new weird”, City of Ruin is an exciting, thought-provoking, and extremely politically relevant continuation of the series.

Away from Villjamur, we are taken to the city ofVilliren: a city of gangs, corruption and the bizarre—a city soon to be on the front lines of a terrible and imminent war. Brynd Lathraea—commander of the Night Guard—takes centre stage, and it is around him the events unfold. Inspector Jeryd returns, having fled Villjamur after uncovering plans for the mass murder of hundreds of the refugees clamouring at the city walls, and endeavours to make a difference in a city even darker than Villjamur.

As war advances, Brynd must prepare both a militant force and fortify the city as well as possible in what time is given. With a corrupt Portreeve and violent underworld gangs, the task will be difficult—especially when he must liaise with Malum, a cleverly presented character who offers an original spin on a classic horror archetype, whose underground and criminal reputation controls enough muscle to help sway the tides in the coming war.

Malum has his own agenda—as do all of the characters—and whilst he isn’t especially villainous, he becomes an antagonist at times through his actions—especially his treatment and nature towards Brynd. He adheres entirely to his own views and refuses to be swayed by any tide. Instead, with a troubled private life, and difficulties of his own, Malum remains an angst-fuelled, strong character who provides glimpses into an extremely masculine mentality, and yet, beneath the surface Newton shows a sad core, afflicted by both his past and present. It’s a suggestion as to what lies beneath an overtly masculine (and often homophobic) façade.

With hints of external blackmail, and his own Night Guards’ individual loyalties called into question, Brynd must tread carefully as he attempts to protect Villiren. Then, when a member of the Night Guard goes missing, Brynd is forced to call upon the Inquisition—upon Inspector Jeryd.

With Jeryd comes the noir: throughout Nights of Villjamur he served as a gritty, darker and moodier counterpart to much of the cast, and although his spirits lift here and there—largely thanks to a reunion with his wife and a rekindling of their relationship—his oddly melancholic determination coupled with his refreshed role as an investigator keeps the noir atmosphere fresh and present.

Jeryd and his new aide, Nanzi, must uncover the details behind bizarre murders, and scattered glimpses here and there of an extremely large arachnid, which supposedly moves through the darkness of Villiren, its motives unknown and its actions untraceable.

Loaded with subtle feminine strength, Newton has created the strong female presence he felt Nights of Villjamur lacked. Nanzi has a strong role of her own, but for her part, she becomes the suggestion that a woman can be both dependant on, and independent from a man. Nanzi’s subplot takes City of Ruin deep into the “new weird”, and although elements surrounding her did not work entirely for me, what Newton attempted as a character was a success.

As we came to expect from Newton following Nights of Villjamur, the book is loaded with politics. The most awkward and difficult of these is a radical new solution to food shortages. It is a sharp shock to the system and it irks the reader—which is exactly what it intended. Nanzi’s involvement at the behest of the man upon whom she relies further demonstrates the idea of a strong woman, acting on her own.

More gripping, is the growing homophobic atmosphere.

Malum, along with a member of the Night Guard—his actions fuelled further by a member of the church—demonstrate strong homophobia, to the point where murder and irradiation is the only option for these “wrongdoers”. It’s very clever of Newton, to further develop these ideas in the second instalment, after the reader has grown attached to Brynd, regardless of his skin colour (he’s an albino) or who he takes to bed.

That, whilst a city faces war, individuals would rather dispose of their best hope for the salvation of their city based on his sexual preference, is poignantly allegoric of issues regarding gender and sexuality in our world, and thus a clever play by Newton.

Whilst we do revisit those who fled Villjamur at the close of Nights, what interests most about Randur and the Jamur girls in this novel, is who they meet. A strange encounter leads onto a journey to Villiren in order to help the city, whilst the “woman” they meet begins to slowly explain the nature of current events in their world—knowledge she has attained and brought from her world. She may well just hold information that could give Brynd what he needs to save Villiren.

Having let the confines of Villjamur, we glimpse Newton’s world up close, and though much of the story does take place in Villiren, we see the outside starkly during Randur’s journey to the city. The world is more fleshed, deeper, and just as well-crafted as the city of Villjamur was, demonstrating Newton’s excellent world-building prowess.

The prose is just as slick, descriptive and smooth as the first book and the pacing is seamless: there is always something happening, all pressed by the urgency the ice age brings with it.

Whilst I missed the streets of Villjamur—and will be excited to return to them in The Book of Transformations—the streets of Villiren are just as dark and interesting—perhaps, with what stalks them, darker.

City of Ruin is a slick, engaging fantasy that borders on—at times—“new weird” and even speculative science fiction. It is a well-constructed and relevant read. It’s also a great deal of fun, and will merely whet the appetite for the third book, penultimate novel. Brilliant, outstanding, and imaginative.

5/5