Tuesday, 15 August 2017

Children of Time, by Adrian Tchaikovsky

Children of Time is a stand alone science fiction novel by Adrian Tchaikovsky. I won't give too much away through the course of this review, rather I'll attempt to capture some of my thoughts on the book.



Children of Time is, first and foremost, a highly enjoyable read. It deals with the concept of uplift, something fans of science fiction will recognise, but it also deals with the fractious, destructive and violent tendencies of our own species.

The uplift story line (uplift being a process whereby an animal is lifted to consciousness through artificial means) follows the development of various types of invertebrates, specifically through the lens of the dominant species: the jumping spider, Portia. Each set of chapters that follows the uplift story thread leaps several generations, and through the course of the book, and over hundreds if not thousands of generations, the development of this species from humble beginnings to full civilisation is lovingly detailed, cleverly wrought and thoroughly fascinating. Explaining it here, or to a friend, feels somewhat absurd, so unlikely and alien that it sits in-congruent with the idea that it might make for a fascinating story; it is not. This evolving tale is engrossing, well detailed and believably carried through. In fact, as a reader I was far more well-disposed toward the spiders than I was toward our own species!

The development of technology, domestication, and civilisation in this arachnid species is brilliantly etched out. Over deep time we chart the rise and development of a nascent consciousness to a full blown civilisation, it is both identifiable and alien, familiar and strange, but most of all it is absolutely engaging.

Photo credit: Opo Terser/Wikipedia (CC BY 2.0)

Those who don't know history are doomed to repeat it; this is the refrain that sings through the human portion of the story. Tchaikovsky takes on the human condition, juxtaposed against the rise of the Portia civilisation we see a broken shadow of humanity, the last remnants of our species searching for a world to assert themselves on.

This is a dual story, we have the uplift component and the human component; two threads enmeshed that parallel and commentate on one another. We see the spiders reaching toward something we, as readers, would recognise as civilisation, and we see contrasted against them, our own, and the comparisons are a stark analysis of the human condition. Fractious, violent, factional, brilliant, creative, hungry problem solvers we are, and the struggles faced by the ark ship Gilgamesh (the same hero who sought immortality) and its crew paint an, at times, bleak picture of our potentials.

The inevitable conflict between the two species, as the story threads collide back together, is chilling, and I found myself, strangely, wishing the cold vacuum of space would extinguish the guttering candle of humanity. But the ending itself is better still.

I found Children of Time to be a fascinating story, for all the depth lovingly sown into Portia and her species, for all the base struggles that beset our own, Children of Time remains a rollicking good story. Through it we chart the rise of civilisation, great battles and discoveries, a desperate fight for survival carried through by sheer will and tenacity against all odds. I thoroughly enjoyed it...











Sunday, 13 August 2017

Trebuchet!

Kings of War is a fantasy table-top war game from Mantic Games. I wrote about it in a previous blog post, and noted that I had thoroughly enjoyed my first game. Using a mix of Perry Miniatures boxes I had sitting around from older projects, a Fireforge box given to me by a good friend, and some other Fireforge boxes I ordered, I am slowly going through the process of assembling a Kingdoms of Men army (which is short hand for a generic human fantasy army).

One of the pieces I required was a siege engine of some sort. Not content with any old cannon (my troops look far too early-medieval for that sort of shenanigans), I settled on a trebuchet... for who on all this Earth doesn't love a trebuchet!

I poked around the web for a while, and found some fairly disappointing approximations - sure they would fit on the recommended base size - but they weren't really trebuchet material. Then I stumbled upon Gripping Beast... Oh dear Gripping Beast! The sight of this fair machine of war had me a-slaver, I had to have it - consequences (and there are consequences) be damned!

Yesterday's post brought me the sweet embrace of this mighty machine, and I spent some time last night assembling the beast. I have to say - it is wonderful. Indeed, had I been patient and bothered, I could have made it functional with little effort.

The resin pieces washed...

All the bits trimmed and laid out ready for assembly. It's worth noting that the reverse side of most of the pieces lacks any detail (in fact it's just the back of the cast resin), but it matters not a jot, for it is formidable and lovely once all together.
The instructions are fairly lacking, but I did my best to rig this machine to look like it could work. The brown string running off to the left is attached to the pin that holds the arm to the winch. I'm not sure how it's meant to be rigged, but this looks functional enough for me!
The set comes with three crew, and this fellow was holding a hammer. I removed said hammer and drilled his hands out to run the release thread through.
After cutting and rigging all the ropes, I painted them with PVA. This coil I made sure not to stick down - I can glue it once the basing is done properly.

Here we come to the key problem faced by such an enormous engine of eradication. The small square sitting on the larger one is the recommended base size for a trebuchet in Kings of War... There are rules for using larger base sizes (luckily), but I feel like I'm putting a terrain piece down. The base I used is some 21cm x 23 cm... 




Here the beast is, with some Perry 28mm archers and men-at-arms ranging in front of it...

A true behemoth...

Luckily it *just* fits onto the shelf. At this point I started wondering how'd I'd get to the club and around the place to game with... I could probably fire it from home. I think it has the range.




Friday, 11 August 2017

Uprooted, by Naomi Novik

Uprooted is a fairytale-esque fantasy novel by Naomi Novik, author of the Tememaire series. The book charts the story of Agnieszka, a young girl from an unremarkable village on the edge of a dark, mystical and terrifying forest. Unexpectedly chosen by the 'Dragon', she begins a journey of discovery, both of the world around her and within herself. 

I won't give away too much of the plot as a lot of it is wrapped up in the personal growth story of Agneiszka, and the discovery process is as important for the reader as for the character, but I will try and encapsulate what I particularly enjoyed about this book.



The setting of Uprooted is dark; edged with magic and corruption. The forest that dominates Agneiszka's world is a living thing, its agency laced with a malignant intent and is quite hauntingly carried through the use of motifs and scenes that vary between creeping dread and outright violent horror. This setting is quite fascinating in how limited it is in many ways - the valley, the towns, the river, the forest and the Dragon's tower. The story expands somewhat as it progresses, but the little valley, the world outside Agneiszka's village, is the hub around which all the world spins. The limited setting is welcome, as readers we identify with the locals, feel the distance to court, the threat is more imminent... I am reminded that to write a good fantasy story one does not need a continent of mighty kingdoms as the backdrop...

I wrote at the beginning that the story felt very much a fairytale-esque fantasy novel. With the limited pool of characters, the limited setting, the feel of the threat and particularly the style of the magic the book feels very much like it could comfortably sit within the cannon of the Brothers Grimm or similar. The world has a very Slavic feel to it, and the magic plays a great role in this. It is folk magic: turning a leaf into a boat, a mud sculpture into an ox, throwing sticks into the air for them to become arrows or spears, one of the characters in the history of the setting is even Baba Jaga herself...

It is charming, the magic is delightful and disarming inasmuch as the forest against which the story sets itself is dark and foul. The history of the setting, of this little world, is similarly interesting, and ties nicely to the circular themes in the plot. There were times with Agneiszka frustrated me, her perpetual self-doubt and indecision were annoying traits; but she does grow, and in the end it is worth remembering she is a girl of 17 when she is swept into the story. At its core Uprooted is a girl-to-woman story, a story of growing up, of stepping into the shoes of necessity and getting things done, despite my occasional frustration with Agneiszka, she is likable; she is determined and fearless; bolder than those around her.

All taken together Uprooted is a highly enjoyable read. It is rare enough to find a stand alone fantasy novel and this one, for me, is best described as charming. I enjoyed the characters, setting, and story all, but the forest and the magic were the well-layered elements I loved most.







Wednesday, 2 August 2017

Norse Mythology, by Neil Gaiman

Laughter and love, cunning and cruelty, the gods of the Norse myths are all the things that people are, but larger than life. For a long time I have loved the stories that have come down to us, mostly from Icelandic poets: the Prose Edda, the Poetic Edda, the many Sagas that tell of heroes such as Grettir the strong and Njal the wise. Along with other mythologies, like the Kalavala, and fantasy fiction such as Lord of the Rings, these books, characters and worlds were formative for me as a reader, and hold a special place in my heart.



I was excited to see Neil Gaiman, an author whose works I much admire, turn out a book on the subject. I'm not sure what I was expecting, a story perhaps, told in the modern sense? A cohesive plot winding through the adventures of the Aesir?

Norse Mythology is exactly what it states on the cover, episodic and written in a playful tone, as if meant to be told: it is a collection of the stories about the Norse gods. Each episode tracks the adventures of some of the gods, usually Thor and Loki, as they battle Frost Giants, fish for the Midgard Serpent, trick the Dwarfs and match wit and strength with strength and wit.

It is written as if to be spoken, it's prose simple and light and enjoyable throughout. Most of all though, the character is there. Reading Norse Mythology was like putting on an old favourite jumper, comfortable in its warm familiarity. Reading Gaiman's version of these myths made me chuckle at the brazenness of Thor, marvel at the wicked cunning of Loki, mourn for the slaying of Baldur, but most of all it made me smile. I've long been a lover of these myths, and was thrilled again by them, in this new retelling.





Tuesday, 1 August 2017

The Imperial Radch Series, by Anne Lecke

The Imperial Radch Series, by Anne Leckie, is a trilogy comprised of Ancillary Justice, Ancillary Sword and Ancillary Mercy. I won’t go into too many details on the characters or plotting, as the twists and turns of fate that trace the steps of the main character spin around short but vital bursts of action that are integral to the whole.



To be honest, I only finished the series a day ago, and while I started the first book a long while back, I still feel like the series requires some digestion before I know exactly how I feel about it. What I can say is that I enjoyed reading the books immensely, and am glad that I did, but they are different and interesting, which is why I walk away my full opinion as yet unformed.

I found the first quarter to third of Ancillary Justice to be rather impenetrable to begin with. First, the main character is gestalt – many bodies with one mind. Second, the culture to which this character belongs (perhaps observes is a better term) is quite separate from more traditional sci-fi staples; it is bound by traditions and observances, by ritual and belief. Third, the first portion of the book takes place on a world in the throes of having being conquered, which in itself provides a dichotomy of cultures to comprehend. Fourth and last, there is a back and forth between the present of the story and a vital past which expounds the whys and wherefores of the present.





So we have an unusual main character and several alien cultures, with their complex politics beating, arrhythmic, beneath the relatively calm surface. I found it a lot to contend with to be honest, but it was interesting, and Leckie provides us with secondary characters who act as something of anchor points from which to hang. As Ancillary Justice wound on, a crucial tipping point occurred, unfolding as ground shifting for us as readers as for the main character, and the story spun in a new arc; previous elements suddenly clarified.

The climax of Ancillary Justice felt short and almost hurried, but as I read through the series I felt that this was the pace of things that Leckie had intended. The pendulum of events in the Imperial Radch series feels like a gradual build-up of pressures released explosively in short bursts of action.

I think one of the things Leckie manages masterfully is the way in which she is able to capture what is being said that is not being said; the implication, suggestion, intention, the compliment and insult... what is communicated through a widening of eyes, a tightening of lips, a straightening of shoulders. Much of the dialog between characters is not what is said, but what is not, at least explicitly.

The Imperial Radch series is an interesting read. I think some will find it endlessly impenetrable, others slow paced and bogged in relationships. For me though, the series is interesting because of those things, it is somewhat impenetrable because of the detail Leckie builds into her worlds and characters, it isn't bogged in relationships, but relationships are fundamental - these are the fulcrums around which everything pivots and all meaning is lost without them.

The story, overall, is about relationships, the pressures are personal and political more than anything else, it is about identity and agency, and about the violation of those things.



The pacing is different, with its build ups and explosive reliefs, but as much as a flurry of action might pass in an instant the story does not feel slow. Having read the three books of the series, I find it difficult to disentangle them. I like the setting, there is much that is different and unique about it that could be mentioned, but as much as they are interesting, what I think rings strongest for me revolves around the themes of agency and ownership. Themes I can’t help but to relate to our own developing understanding of other animals on this planet, and of the technology we are developing.


I’m still not sure exactly how I feel about these books, but I am glad to have read them, and will be looking forward to whatever else Leckie pens.