Ancillary Justice (Imperial Radch, Book 1)

In the process of assembling my book list for this review blog, it occurred to me that very few of the sci-fi books on my list were written by women (that’s also true of my fantasy consumption, but to a lesser extent). Unfortunately, that experience seems to be all too common, as evidenced by the recent furor over the “sad puppy, rabid puppy, etc.” business related to the Hugo Awards.

When I mentioned this situation to a few friends, two immediately responded “you have to try Ann Leckie’s Ancillary Justice series.” And so I did! Typically I’ve been reviewing entire series at once, but I’ll make an exception and do individual book reviews for works that I’m currently in the process of reading. Hence, this review will be specific to book one of the Imperial Radch series, Ancillary Justice.

This is a difficult book to describe without giving away too many plot details, but I’ll give it my best shot. Our protagonist, Breq, is an AI within a human body, who had previously been one component of a many-bodied AI (i.e. a consciousness spread across multiple human hosts). Somewhat confusingly, the same AI existing in those human hosts also inhabited the spaceship that the hosts were stationed on, such that the ship’s name, Justice of Toren, could be used to refer either to the ship itself, or to the AI inhabiting both the ship and its android-esque crew.

As the story opens, Breq has been separated from her ship and fellow crew mates, for reasons that will become clear via flashbacks, and she is now engaged in a rather single-minded quest (here’s where I really can’t say more without giving away the plot). The first quarter of the book is a challenge, both because Leckie uses gender pronouns in an unorthodox way, and because the nature of Breq/Justice of Toren’s consciousness is quite foreign to how we typically conceive of individual identity. For instance, in describing Justice of Toren’s activities in the flashback sections, Leckie has to come up with creative ways to make it clear that the individual ancillaries who make up the ship consciousness are in fact doing various different things, but at the same time (e.g. “I stood watch in the concourse. I also patrolled the hallway.”).

There were definitely moments early in the book where I found myself re-reading sections multiple times, and I admit that I don’t think Leckie did herself any favors in coming up with somewhat complex naming/identifying conventions for the ships and their ancillaries. But with that said, after I had waded through the initial confusion, I really enjoyed this book. This is truly provocative stuff, and the story definitely picks up pace during the final half of the book. Stick with it, if you’ve tried it and given up!

While I mostly read for plot (I’m the kind of person who skips the songs in Tolkien, for instance), there are times when I catch myself thinking “wow, this is really interesting writing.” In Ancillary Justice, Leckie has come up with a central premise that is both potentially confusing and cumbersome, in the sense that she really has to contort her language in order to be able to accurately describe the identity and actions of Breq (and to a certain extent, all the ancillaries/ship AI’s). The fact that she is able to perform those contortions, and to do so within a fascinating and compelling story, is a true credit to her writing. A lesser author could very easily have been defeated by the complexity of her premise.

I have more thoughts on the books, but I’ll save them for my reviews of the next two books in the series. For now, I’ll leave it at this: if you like sci-fi, and you don’t mind a little complexity, then I highly recommend you give Ancillary Justice a try!

Rating: 3 – Highly Recommended

If you like this, you may enjoy: A Fire Upon the Deep, House of Suns

 

 

 

 

The Powder Mage Trilogy

By Brian McClellan

McClellan’s first book, Promise of Blood, begins in the middle of a coup, and as such, it takes a little while for the reader to sort out exactly what is going on (and who their sympathies should lie with). Stick with it. Soon it becomes clear that the reader’s perspective will follow Field Marshall Tamas (who initiated the coup), his son Taniel Two-shot, and a handful of other rebels-turned-rulers. Both Field Marshal Tamas and Taniel are what are known as “powder mages,” who are able to ingest and manipulate gun powder in order to trigger powerful abilities. But while magic (powder mage and otherwise) plays a vital role in the story, there is a fair bit of the mystery and war genres mixed in among the typical fantasy tropes.

The first book itself is certainly not perfect: the character development isn’t very strong, and there are a fair number of instances where putatively smart individuals make bone-headed decisions just to move the plot forward. But as a freshman attempt, this is solid work, and McClellan strums many of the notes I’m listening for. His magic system is novel, and conflicts between the powder mages and the more conventionally talented mages feel appropriately high-stakes. I’m also a sucker for a good story about military strategy, which comes to play frequently in the series.

By the end of book one, things really start to heat up, and if your taste is anything like mine, you’ll find yourself quickly reaching for books two and three, The Crimson Campaign, and The Autumn Republic. McClellan improves as he goes, and skillfully weaves multiple story lines together in ways that leave the reader craving more. I will admit, however, that like many authors of epic fantasy, McClellan struggles to resolve the trilogy, and as many before him, ends up relying on the trope of “main character somehow becomes super powerful just in time to defeat evil.” With that said, after completing the trilogy, was I immediately inclined to reach for McClellan’s next work, (Sins of Empire)? Yes, yes I was.

This is classic fantasy meat and potatoes. Approach with confidence if you enjoy battles, sleuthing and cliff-hangers.

Rating: 3 – Highly Recommended

If you like this, you may enjoy: The Thousand Names, The Last Kingdom.

 

The Player of Games

By Iain M. Banks

Fans of Iain M. Banks (or anyone with access to Google, I suppose), will be quick to note that The Player of Games is actually the second novel in the Culture Series, and so it may seem strange that I’m not first reviewing the series’ initial novel, Consider Phlebas. The answer to this conundrum is rather simple: I’d read that it’s best to start the series with book two! (Incidentally, I’ve heard, and agree, with the same recommendation for those tackling the Malazan Book of the Fallen series). Thus, The Player of Games is both my first and only experience with Banks’ work.

The book follows Jernau Gurgeh, a famous “game player” among the extremely advanced society known as The Culture (imagine someone who can compete competitively in chess, monopoly, and Pictionary- basically whatever game he puts his mind to). Beset by a vague sense of ennui, and manipulated by outside forces, Gurgeh is compelled to leave his comfortable surroundings and venture to the more primitive world of the empire of Azad, where he eventually competes in the highly complex game which dominates their culture.

While reading The Player of Games, my thoughts occasionally drifted back to Piers Anthony’s Split Infinity series, which I have fond memories of, despite not having read for a decade or two. The appeal of both works centers on our fascination with games and competition, and by the end of The Player of Games, I was very much invested in Gurgeh’s quest to defeat the best that the Azad had to offer. While Anthony’s work tends towards the more juvenile (and by that I mean no disrespect- as a juvenile, I enjoyed his books very much!), Banks’ work is definitely for adults. I wouldn’t consider this especially “hard” sci-fi, insofar as Banks doesn’t spend considerable time focused on technology or science, but this isn’t really a beach read either.

Overall, I enjoyed the book quite a bit, and look forward to reading more of Banks’ work. If you enjoy sci-fi generally, I have a hard time believing that you wouldn’t enjoy this. Read with confidence!

Rating: 3- Highly Recommended.

If you like this, you may enjoy: A Fire Upon the Deep, Old Man’s War

The Long Price Quartet

By Daniel Abraham

Loyal blog readers (“there are literally dozens of us!”) will know that I’ve given high praise to The Expanse series, which is co-authored by Daniel Abraham and Ty Franck. Among Abraham’s other works, I’ve also had a chance to read The Long Price Quartet, as well as his Dagger and Coin series (review TBD).

The first entry of the Long Price Quartet, A Shadow in Summer, was published in 2006, and the series had concluded by 2009, two years before Leviathan Wakes and The Dragon’s Path (the initial volumes of The Expanse and The Dagger and Coin) saw the light of day. The story centers on the nation of Khaeim, which is a confederation of mostly independent cities which rely on a caste known as the “poets” to ensure their safety and economic strength. The relationship between the poets and their Andat (elemental creatures which can be bound by a sufficiently powerful will) is the heart of the story’s appeal, and there is real innovation in how Abraham sets up the story.

For better or for worse, this is a story about the relationships between the characters. While there is some magic, some war, and a fair bit of conflict, this is a story about people (and Andat, I guess) more than it is about a system of magic, or about battles, etc. If you tend to prefer books that move at a rapid clip, and which don’t frequently get bogged down in the details of personal decision-making (e.g. “do I do what’s easy, or what’s right? Let me mull this over for a few weeks…”), this won’t be your cup of tea.

In general, I’ve found this series to be my least favorite of Abraham’s work, and by book four, The Price of Spring, my attention was definitely waning. People continued making poor decisions, and at times it felt like that was all that kept the plot progressing. Personally, I was much more taken with Abraham’s subsequent Dagger and Coin series, which retains some of his more languid pace, while injecting some additional conflict and scale to the story. So my advice to you is, try The Dagger and Coin first. If you love it, give his earlier stuff a read! If not, it may not be for you.

Rating: 2- Recommend with Reservations

If you like this, you may enjoy: Assassin’s Apprentice.

The Shadow of What Was Lost (Licanius Trilogy, Book One)

By James Islington

In my recent review of The Legends of Muirwood, I wrote that if one was looking for a classic and satisfying “orphan comes of age and develops magical powers” story, a better choice would be James Islington’s recent novel, The Shadow of What was Lost (which acts as the first entry in his Licanius Trilogy).

The blurb that convinced me to give this one a try indicated that the book compared favorable to The Wheel of Time, so readers of my WOT review will understand why I jumped at giving the book a try. Indeed, TSWWL owes a great debt to WOT- both stories start with a relatively obscure protagonist, surrounded by his friends and mentors. Shortly, their peaceful environments are disrupted, forcing them to flee in the company of old friends, and new, possibly untrustworthy acquaintances. Islington takes, what seems to me to be great pleasure in riffing on some of the tropes of WOT, including the novel’s prologue, which mirrors Robert Jordan’s classic teaser of Lews Therin Telamon, wandering among the wreckage of his home and family, not knowing that he himself was responsible for their destruction.

Things I liked:

  • Cool magic system, and one which seems like it will lend itself to further “reveals” over time
  • It’s clear Islington is drawing from authors I love, like Jordan, Sanderson and Rothfuss
  • The story is morally complex, and even by the end of the book, it’s not entirely clear to us who “the good guys” are, and what the “bad guys” motivation is.
  • Islington’s writing is really solid, especially for a debut novel

By the end of the book, I was wholly committed, and the sequels have risen to the top of my list of forthcoming books. Islington has created a prototypical epic fantasy world, and while he may not be breaking new ground, he’s shown that he can world-build with the best of them. I eagerly await the rest of the trilogy, as well as whatever he decides to do next!

Rating: 4- Mandatory Reading

If you liked this, you may enjoy: The Wheel of Time, The Way of Kings

Legends of Muirwood

By Jeff Wheeler

Jeff Wheeler’s trilogy centers on the young character of Lia, in the classic role of “young servant with mysterious parentage who will grow up to be someone important.” Book one, The Wretched of Muirwood, focuses on her emergence from obscurity, and the sequels, The Blight of Muirwood and The Scourge of Muirwood, chronicle her quest to master magical powers, etc.

In a way, these books were part of the inspiration for this blog, but unfortunately not in the manner that the author would presumably hope. Instead, it’s because at a certain point in book three, I remember looking up and thinking, “why am I still reading this?”

In fantasy more than other genres, I’d argue, there’s a certain occupational hazard in assuming that any given story will continue to mature and evolve. Something like 90% of the fantasy books I pick up (I’m only half-kidding) rely on the trope of “orphan who is meant for greater things,” so I’m typically okay with cutting the author some slack while the story finds its footing and develops into something more interesting. Sometimes, however, that just doesn’t happen, and I’d argue that it doesn’t really happen here.

So if you’re in the mood for a classic “coming of age fantasy” story, I’d argue there are much better options out there (a recent example of which is The Shadow of What Was Lost, review TBD).

Rating: 1 – Skip it.

 

Chronicles of the Black Company

By Glen Cook

Ok, first, an admission: I’m not quite finished with Cook’s Chronicles of the Black Company, so I reserve the right to edit this review if the final chapters turn out to be absolute dreck. (Editor’s note: they didn’t.)

With that said, I’m pretty confident that won’t happen, because I’ve LOVED these books so far. Cook’s work first came onto my radar a few years ago, as I was looking for some “dark and gritty” fantasy. I ended up opting for Joe Abercrombie’s series The First Law instead. It did indeed satisfy my dark urge, but I ultimately found Abercrombie’s work a little dispiriting- I love a good anti-hero, but when entire books are made up of them, it can become a bit of a slog (full review of The First Law, forthcoming).

Despite writing in the same sub-genre, Cook’s work never left me with quite the same feeling. Sure, the members of the Black Company aren’t angels, but they demonstrate camaraderie towards each other, and when they do commit foul acts, it’s typically under duress. I think the story is well-served by being grounded in the generally morally acceptable character of Croaker, the Black Company’s physician and our protagonist. It also benefits from Cook’s magnificent vision of “The Lady” and her “Ten Who Were Taken,” whose dastardly desires keep the plot progressing in satisfying fashion.

In terms of writing, Cook’s style tends towards the short and choppy. He’s not prone to over-description, and tends to get straight to the dialogue/action, which I appreciate (as detailed in the “About Me” section, I’ll take plot over prose any time). With that said, if you’re looking for fantasy with a more “literary” feel, there are plenty of more appropriate options out there (for instance, The Name of the Wind, or The Dragonbone Chair).

However, if you’re into grittier, war-based fantasy, then I can’t recommend these books highly enough. They may not be for everyone, but Croaker and his merry band will stick in my memory for a long time to come.

Rating: 3- Highly Recommended

If you like this, you may enjoy: The First Law, The Broken Empire