Review: The Seven

Hopefully the last in my “god damnit, reviewing the last book in a trilogy without spoiling anything” series for a little bit, but I got a chance to chew through the final book in Peter Newman’s The Vagrant universe.

154643-FCX.jpgI’ve mentioned in my reviews of his previous books, but I really like Newman’s naming conventions. It reminds me a little bit of a less esoteric Gene Wolfe, and it gives you perfect mental pictures of these things that continue to exist in a post-apocalyptic, dying, war-wracked planet.

Throughout the rest of his trilogy, we’ve seen that turned on the demonic denizens of the setting. See, long, long before the books starts, a giant Breach opens up and infernal beings begin to pour out of it onto our world, an alien world for them. They can barely exist in our atmosphere, and they have to repurpose human beings and other living things as what amounts to space suits. They also leak Essence, a kind of soul-stuff that warps and changes anything it touches, turning some people into Tainted – an entirely new species, or several species loosely unified by their new, otherworldly heritage. I’ve mentioned the Knights of Jade and Ash before, and they’re joined by things like The Man-Shape, the Backwards Child, the living city-state of Wonderland, and many more.

The Seven, capping of the trilogy, finally explores the holy empire that has spent the series opposing these invaders. We’ve gotten glimpses of it before, usually as characters rush past it into the wilderness or return from that wilderness to rest, but here we get not only a tour of the place, but a deeper exploration of its religious practices, its leadership, and its history.

Now, admittedly, in-universe historical lore is a major weakness of mine. I’m the kind of broke-brained nerd who reads The Silmarillion on a yearly basis for fun and who used to sit around reading old D&D manuals for the fluff blurbs. So this feels like it was made for me, finally providing exposition in a setting that has only shown its past through the cracks.

We’ve gotten hints in the previous books that the empire is not necessarily a pleasant place to live, only looking like a shining city on the hill by sheer virtue of not being beset by infernal creatures from another world 24/7. But as the other two books in the trilogy started pointing out that while the world is dangerous, people are not only living but living in harmony with the invaders in a lot of places, I did start to wonder just how wholesome the empire was and how is was staying so “pure.”

Confirming my suspicions, this is very much a story about the concept of paladins and angels taken to their logical extreme. The forces of Order go far enough in one direction to become an authoritarian state governed by an absolute theological institution. But they’re not necessarily evil, or fascist, like I was expecting. They’re a lot deeper than that. Their history stretches further back than you’d ever guess, and the titular Seven have a backstory that is layered in tragedy and triumphs, making you feel sympathetic for the state as a whole even as it starts to perpetuate atrocities. This is not a setting that’s had particularly sympathetic villains before, and it fills a nice gap. Hell, they’re barely villains past a certain point. I’m not going to spoil it, but I went from rolling my eyes and going “oh good, Nazi angel robots” to taking that back very quickly as I read.

Villains obviously can’t push the whole story along themselves, so I should talk about our heroes here too, our protagonists. We finally, finally get to see Vesper and the Vagrant as equals, fighting alongside one another, uniting the disparate themes and narrative styles of the trilogy. Vesper’s chapters are chatty, and whimsical, and full of the optimism that defined The Malice, while the Vagrant’s chapters are a throwback to the first book – minimal dialogue as countless enemies fall before this dying earth Man with No Name and a big, fire-spurting, singing sword. They’re surrounded by a cast that balances their extremes out and provides a more human element to the place, given that at this point in the story they are basically immortal fighting machines that can carve through enemies by the dozen and withstand railgun blasts to the face.

Not to say that it ever gets boring or loses tension, because while those two are functionally immortal, the people around them and the communities they’re protecting may as well be made of wet tissue paper for how vulnerable they are to the predations of this very angry, righteous crusade.

I think that overall the first book of the trilogy remains my favorite, but I’m glad that Newman wrote the two followups to explore the world some more and fill in all the corners and the gaps. It never felt stretched out or padded, or just written for the sake of infodumps, and like the last book I reviewed it makes me want to go back and re-read the earlier stuff with a deeper understanding of why the different parts are moving as they do.

Review: City of Miracles


This is the third book of a trilogy. It’s loosely connected to events in the second book, and is a direct sequel to the first book, and to those of you who haven’t read either of them, I’m going to try really hard not to spoil anything from the series as a whole.

The Divine Cities novels have become one of my favorite ongoing series, and I consider them doubly impressive for having not been planned as a series. City of Stairs was a great standalone that got expanded into the foundation for further stories, and I think it’s a testament to the author’s skill that he was able to go back and retroactively turn one-offs from that first novel into foreshadowing for future books. It’s like the inverse of the usual tragic genre tale of the author who ends up sucked into an endless, plodding doorstopper machine and starts churning out books where the cast of characters you once loved now spend 600 pages walking three miles to pad space between the “event” stories.

City-of-Miracles_Final.jpgI digress, though. I like the Divine Cities because they present a world that isn’t heavily rooted in any real world mythology, but takes disparate elements of pantheons from Hindu, Slavic and a variety of other stories and uses them to craft a surprisingly delicate tale about colonialism, revenge, family and more.

If City of Stairs was about the ethical fallout of a successful coup and just how far the once-oppressed could push things before they became actual oppressors (can you be morally justified in wiping out another culture if that very culture contained actual magical spells and miracles that once wiped out your people by the thousands and could do so in the future?), and City of Blades dealt with what amounts to veterans of a literal holy war left with no support after their god has been slain and their afterlife sucked into oblivion, City of Miracles is about children and different kinds of familial ties.

Something I like about the world of this series is that it is actually allowed to advance. Stairs presented a world that had elements of late 19th and early 20th century technology and cultural baggage, and by the time of this third book we have a roaring 1930s-40s metropolis and a place where technology has nearly outpaced the miraculous magic that once shaped the world. The City of Stairs itself feels much less impressive and downright dull compared to a place of gleaming skyscrapers and air-trams. You don’t see magic in direct competition with it, but attempting to coexist with it, which is a nice break from the everpresent fantasy versus technology that dominates much of the genre.

Speaking of nice breaks from the norm, something I love about these books is that the protagonists are very rarely good at fighting. You’ve got a cast of the young and inexperienced or the old and aching. Even in this book, arguably the one with the most battle-hardened protagonist of the lot, most of the fights are handled cleverly. There’s not bareknuckle brawling, there’s a lot of setting traps, creeping around, playing the odds, and bemoaning that the best laid plans often end with something blowing up and hoping that the shrapnel doesn’t fly the wrong way.

I think my only complaint about the book is that it’s so action-heavy compared to the prior mysteries. It’s filtered through the lens of someone who solves his problems through violence, and that makes the writing rather blunt and brutal. It’s not necessarily a bad thing, and I still enjoyed it, but it was a bit of a departure from the more measured investigations of the first two novels. That’s not to say he’s some kind of berserker, it’s just that his particular skillset is lacking what added tension to the struggles of his predecessors. Even with that niggling issue, it pays off in the end with a series of rapid-fire revelations that make me certain I’ll enjoy it much more on re-reads. Hell, it makes me want to re-read the entire trilogy from start to finish and see what other foreshadowing I can find, which is pretty damn good for a novel that was the result of the author’s agent essentially talking him into continuing within the setting when he’d only planned out one book set there to begin with.

It’s the kind of trilogy where I’m perfectly okay with it ending where it ended, but I wouldn’t feel like he was trying to milk it dry if he continued with another few books. The cool thing about tackling elements of classical mythology from the angle of “what if the gods got brutally murdered a few generations back” is that there are so many of those elements floating around to experiment with. We’ve seen magical beasts, afterlives, covenants, demigods and more, and there’s a boundless expanse to continue mining before you ever start to repeat the same themes.

Review: The Malice

First of all, apologies for being scarce on the reviews lately. I have actually been churning through a ton of books I want to talk about, but it’s been a fairly hectic month and in what little free time I have outside of reading, I’ve been prioritizing my writing. I’ll do a life blog thing later on to go into some detail.

But the most recent book I read, I really want to talk about and hopefully get some people interested in.

26160162.jpgI am talking about Peter Newman’s The Malice. It is the second book in his The Vagrant trilogy, and a wonderful book. I read and reviewed The Vagrant earlier this year and a lot of what I said about that book held true here.

I have mentioned before, but I think Newman has a gift with naming things. You would think this kind of gift would be common in fantasy and science fiction where you’re kind of making things up wholesale and need to come up with a descriptor for them, to get across certain concepts, tones and ideas to people who would never encounter them in real life. It is not common at all, and in fact I find it a major failing of a lot of fantasy in particular. Occasionally you get actual mad geniuses like Gene Wolfe spewing out beautiful prose that requires you to go digging through esoteric thesauruses to figure out what the hell he means. Elsewhere on the sliding scale you have someone like China Mieville who uses grotesque and bizarre word combinations to put uncomfortable images into your head (I will never forget reading about the limb-farms and bile-tanks of the Grindylow in The Scar).

Newman utilizes elements of both. He plays with words that don’t typically go together, and makes them work, makes you think of very disparate things and how they might physically appear or influence the tone of an object or a person.

To wit, one of my favorite things he’s come up with is a group called the Knights of Jade and Ash. I just love the taste of those words together. You don’t often find jade in the company of ash, so what on earth has drawn these two words into a singular troupe? He’s fairly sparse with his descriptions, too, so you can fill in the blanks with your imagination.

The story is a nearly textbook bildungsroman as a young girl named Vesper inherits a very dangerous weapon from her father and begins a long trek to grow as a person, a warrior and a savior (or destroyer) of a world threatened by a massive cyst in reality known as the Breach.

Honestly, a lot of the good I have to say mirrors my thoughts on The Vagrant itself, but I think this book does a bit better than its predecessor. This may be by virtue of featuring a talking protagonist, someone who has to grow and change quite a bit, instead of favoring the ronin motif of the first book. I love the Vagrant himself as a character but past a certain point you kind of knew what was going to happen; he’d be surrounded, forced into a fight, and he would decimate his foes in a beautiful, almost lyrically-written fight sequence. Vesper starts off as someone who is a bit more pure, a bit more naive in the ways of the world, but still very much willing to throw down like her old man.

I must also admit a weakness for enchanted blades, and The Malice itself is a delight. It’s explored far more thoroughly here than it was in the first book. You learn a bit about its history, its powers, its potential. It’s a scary holy weapon that will turn on you if you falter or show weakness, or will get you killed spurring you into a crusade that your body cannot yet handle. I don’t see cursed “good” swords very often; usually they’re straightforward in trading your soul, your blood or your friends for fighting prowess. Here, on the other hand, is a blade so driven to fight the forces of the abyss that it will turn you into a monster in pursuit of this divine task. The descriptions of it are brilliant too, I love the eye-pommel and the twitching wings that make up its crossguard, and the…

Well, you’ll have to read on to see what else, I hate spoiling.

All that said, definitely start with the first one. There’s a nice little catch-me-up section at the very beginning here but you’re losing a ton of context and brilliant worldbuilding if you dive in midway, even if the story will make a rough kind of sense.

Review: The Djinn Falls in Love (And Other Stories)

I love genies, or djinn, or jinn, about as far back as I can remember. I think my first exposure to them was an extremely child-friendly edition of 1001 Arabian Nights and the original Aladdin (which was set in China (written by a Muslim guy to look exactly like an Islamic city (which is how you get characters like the Sultan of China))) that kept out a lot of the more gruesome elements. Then, of course, there was the Disney version that came out when I was about 7 years old. and is one of the first films I remember seeing at the theater. In my teens I stumbled upon Neil Gaiman, who took a much more adult approach and delved into some of the background of the race.

They’re fascinating to me because they are completely unlike anything else I’ve encountered in mythological studies. They’re a supernatural race that isn’t an existential threat, or an enemy of the regional god, or demigods themselves. They’re more like our half-remembered brothers and sisters. We were made of clay and dirt, they were made of fire and shadow. We were given the oases and fields, they were given the dark places and the glass palaces hidden in desert mirages. We see each other out the corners of our eyes sometimes. In many places where the djinn legends are prominent, they follow the same religion as the human cultures, complete with prayer rugs and singing. Even the most basic description of them from the old texts, men made of smokeless fire, is something I’ve always found evocative and striking.

I like that just like people, they aren’t good or bad by nature, they have free will and can choose to use it in the way they wish. You get good djinn who do bad things, bad djinn who do good things, and neutral ones who simply want to be left alone, just like you see in humanity.

51s9+SWaZ6L.jpgThe new anthology The Djinn Falls in Love manages to capture so many aspects of what I love about the dense and intricate folklore of these beings. I don’t think that such a thing could have been captured outside of a collection like this, because the djinn are so diverse that you need many stories to explore their many facets.

It opens up with possibly my favorite story of the book, a tale about a boy who stumbles into his mosque to find it inhabited by a congregation of strangers with flame-red hair who all fall through their prayer rugs at the end of the service, and goes from there. You have everything from mysteries, to love stories, to military thrillers to horror. Often these genres are mixed up and you’ll find several in the same story, which is tremendously fitting for the subject matter at play here.

It’s one of those anthologies where I liked some stories more than others, but I didn’t dislike any of them. If I were to re-read it I don’t think I’d skip around to favorites.

I was very appreciative of how accessible the stories were. There are some books I don’t recommend to friends unless they’re also into reading a lot of the weird and esoteric stuff I do, and like stories that require you to have a bit of that background. You could walk into this not knowing anything about the djinn and walk out with a good understanding of just how diverse the folklore around them is.

I also like how many new authors it introduced me to. Of course Gaiman’s story from American Gods still holds up remarkably well (and feels even more relevant in today’s world of immigrant and refugee crises), and Nnedi Okorafor’s delving into African djinn legends was fascinating, but I ended up with a big to-read list based on the entries of some authors I’d never heard of before. Sami Shah’s REAP is one of the creepier pieces I’ve read in awhile and I would read an entire novel set in the military-horror setting he’s created. Sophia Al-Maria’s Righteous Guide is equally creepy for entirely different reasons and doesn’t shy away from exploring the repression of women in many of these regions, and the interplay between the idea of djinn possession and female sexuality for some of the more superstitious. E.J. Swift’s Jinn Hunter’s Apprentice grabbed me way harder than I would have expected; space opera did not seem like a logical place to start exploring djinn magic but there you go.

Not all of the stories will make you feel good, but all of them will definitely make you think and give you an appreciation for an element of folklore and mythology that often doesn’t show up in western fiction unless it’s been scoured clean and bowdlerized beyond recognition.

Review: Torment – Tides of Numenera

You wake up plummeting towards the ground in a cocoon. It’s slowly shredded away from your body to reveal a vast crystalline dome below you and a collapsing moon above you, and you have no idea who you are or what is happening. You accelerate and black out just before impact, and reawaken on a vast platform of mirrors and obsidian, studded with glowing orbs. When you touch them, they pour forgotten memories into your mind, everything from underwater cities to ancient castles. Each new memory awakens latent skills that your body still knows even if your mind can’t make sense of them.

But something is stalking you through your own mind, a tumor made of smoke and teeth, and it’s closing in fast. Spectral figures emerge from the very landscape to try and help, but they end up as food for the creature that you only hazily remember as The Sorrow, and as it closes in on you, you manage to force yourself out of your unconscious and back into your twisted, mangled body.

You’re lying on the floor of a rotting laboratory next to a crystal sarcophagus, watched by a man covered in living tattoos and a woman surrounded by dozens of ghosts that look exactly like her. They think you might be a God.

Thus begins Torment: Tides of Numenera.

That was about five minutes. Over the next several hours it gets significantly weirder.

I love almost everything about this game. I backed it way back when the kickstarter began around 2013 and grit my teeth through almost half a decade of delays, because I played Planescape: Torment back when I was 14 and I would give anything to capture some of the awe that game inspired in me.

As the spiritual successor, with a lot of the same staff and a similar design philosophy, this game is so good. Of the recent old school RPGs to come out (Pillars of Eternity, Tyranny) this is probably my favorite.

04ad676271fd34f4cdcd4f49df31299a.jpgThe setting is to die for. It’s purestrain Monte Cook. He lists his major influences in creating it as the art of Moebius, and the writings of Jack Vance, Michael Moorcock and and Gene Wolfe. It’s a world one billion years from now where eight great civilizations have risen and fallen on the bones of their predecessors, littering the dying planet with technology so alien that it’s practically magical. The Ninth Age has just hit the feudal era, and sword-wielding knights coexist alongside “mages” who can control ancient nanomachines to cast spells, and rogues who are more like cyberpunk hackers than medieval thieves. Every area you explore oozes personality and thousands of tiny details to look through. I bought the pen and paper game ages ago but the translation to video game as a medium is perfect.

This is the first game in ages where my initial playthrough hasn’t been a warrior/fighter type. I’ve been playing as a Jack, the rogue class, a literal jack-of-all-trades and homage to Jack Vance’s influence on the genre. You learn a little bit of everything and can talk your way out of practically any conflict. In hours of playing I have had one tutorial fight and managed to manipulate or sweet talk my way past any other show of arms. It’s almost like playing through a novel, with well-written branching dialogue and a ton of replay-ability evident even in the midst of my first go.

If I have any complaints, it’s that what I did see of the combat feels incredibly clunky. I don’t know that I’d enjoy a fighter character unless a large part of that was using intimidation checks to avoid fighting people, ironically enough. But the game really does throw a lot of options at you; my Jack is often presented with the ability to turn enemies against one another, or make myself into their ally, or simply misdirect their wrath somewhere off the screen. I could easily see a nano-wizard being able to scan their minds and influence them that way, or a grizzled glaive warrior scaring a bunch of wasteland scavengers off just by unsheathing his giant blade and grimacing at them.

It’s not quite as good as Planescape: Torment, but PST is honestly one of my gold standard games when it comes to writing. Even pushing aside the heady nostalgia factor, it just has a borderline-perfect cast of characters, every single action you take has weight behind it, and it works within one of my favorite fantasy settings ever. Numenera is young compared to Planescape, and this Torment game has a lot to live up to, but absolutely an A+ for effort and something I can advocate buying at full price, because if you like good storytelling you’ll probably get at least 2-3 replays out of it and that comes out to 60, 70 hours or so.

Review: The Heart of What Was Lost

51qdqrflmcl-_sy346_So, obviously, this is going to have some spoilers for Memory, Sorrow & Thorn, the story beginning just a few weeks after that series ends. If you haven’t read them, tread lightly, because they do have some good twists and you’ll want to read them before tackling Heart here.

I am actually going to be the weird guy here and say that I enjoyed this more than the original trilogy. That seems vaguely heretical coming from a fantasy fan, but I actually didn’t get into MS&T until I was in my late twenties, and at the behest of my wife. I knew that it was a good series but it was kind of relegated to the “oh god, I don’t have time to devote to a doorstopper fantasy series right now” pile and when I did have time I inevitably ended up with some new release in my lap.

I feel that Heart manages to capture my favorite aspects of the original series while jettisoning many of the parts I found arduous. Now, don’t get me wrong, I did like all four books of the original trilogy (god damnit Williams) but there were segments that you could cut out and not lose anything from the story. What I loved was the sense of depth and history that he managed to infuse the setting with, and speaking through unreliable narrators long before that became a standard trope and the basis for many grimdark series. The idea that ancient prophecies about fighting back dark lords might actually refer to genocidal human imperialists, and that they might not realize it until after they tried to fulfill those prophecies with themselves as the heroes, that’s really good stuff and you can see how it shaped the genre as a whole.

Heart takes the idea that even in a fantasy conflict there is more depth than first appears, and applies it here to an incredibly stereotypical conflict: big, burly viking warriors versus sadistic dark elves.

Except the vikings actually kind of did wipe out the elves’ fore-bearers without much provocation, and only a few members of the current leadership would consider offering mercy to even the women and children of their enemies. These are the kinds of vikings who will very literally ravish and pillage your town in the worst ways, but we are conditioned to consider them the heroes of the story through certain framing devices and juxtaposition with enemies who are far worse.

Except the aren’t.

There wasn’t very much story told from the perspective of the Norns, the darker half of the elven/fairy race in the original trilogy. Here a full half of the book explores their culture, their religion, the interplay between different state powers, and the vast web of personalities that inhabit their mountain strongholds. While they served as faceless mooks in the first books, you kind of retroactively feel awful for them here.

The story is told through three perspectives: the Rimmergard lord Isgrimnur is trying to deal with his bloodthirsty (and rightly so, in some ways) lieutenant and with an infuriatingly enigmatic Sithi emissary both at the same time, each pulling him in a different direction when it comes to approaching the siege of the Norn lands. There are a pair of mercenary warriors who find themselves very far from home and not sure how to deal with that. Finally there is Viyeki, a military engineer from the Norn homeland, serving at the behest of his elder and the leader of the engineer corps.

The meat of the story is in this last third. We kind of know what to expect of the Rimmersmen from their prominent role as shock troops in the original trilogy, but the Norn stuff is very new and incredibly interesting. Their immortality adds a certain tragedy to them; each of them has hundreds if not thousands of years under their belt, knowledge of the forgotten world lost forever in the swing of a sword or an axe. You get a glimpse at their magic practitioners, the engineers, and the military forces who consider themselves dead from the moment they pick up a blade. Each one wants a different thing out of the conflict, and is willing to sell out certain aspects of their timeless culture to bolster what they consider important. Underneath it all you come to understand that the Storm King is far from the scariest being in their wasteland home, and there’s a very good reason that they came willingly to his banner when faced with some horrifying alternatives.

I like antagonists who make me think, which is one of William’s strengths.

It’s short as well, which forces him to condense what I like instead of meandering off. There’s a certain number of set pieces here, only a couple dozen named characters, and the immediacy brings a certain vividness and urgency to the narrative. While MS&T was all about sweeping fantasy, exploring the corners of the world and forging alliances with far-flung kindred in the face of obliteration, this is about a very bad siege. For the people involved in it, the expansive world outside no longer exists, and their entire lives revolve around sapper tunnels, food, and how and when they want to die. Beyond the races, the only link to the first trilogy is that both stories deal heavily with the idea that history is not as it seems, that as a set of lies agreed upon by scholars it is subject to change and rewrite depending on who happens to be holding the biggest pen at the time.

It left me looking even more forward to the second trilogy, which this serves as a bridging novel to, The Last King of Osten Ard. I’d love to explore the depths of the Norn mountain stronghold even more fully than we got here, and I especially love the hints he’s continuing to drop about the origin of the Garden from which all the elven peoples originally sprung.

I also kind of wish more books were like this. At his best I consider Williams the master of blending elements of grimdark with epic fantasy. It isn’t a curse-laden swear-and-rapefest like grimmer offerings, but it has enough unexpected deaths, a mature approach to medieval politics and too bloody-minded a take on combat to fit comfortably among the true heroic fantasy out there. And that’s to it’s benefit, because whitewashed heroic fantasy gets very old, very fast, and I’d much rather have the best of it mixed in with deeper questions about colonization, revisionist history, culture clashes and misunderstood prophecies.

Review: The Stars Are Legion

51a7Ho628kL.jpgSo, I’ll start this by admitting some bias off the bat. I’m a big Kameron Hurley fan. I’ve been entranced with Worldbreaker Saga trilogy ever since I picked it up a few years ago after the blurb piqued my interest. I went on to grab all of the short fiction I could get my hands on, along with the essays she’d been putting out and would eventually collect in the Geek Feminist Revolution last year. I’m eagerly awaiting the third Worldbreaker book. I consider her amazing essay “We Have Always Fought: Challenging the ‘Women, Cattle and Slaves’ Narrative” to be part of my worldbuilding bible and something I go back and read in its entirety any time I sit down to start working on some new setting, just to make sure I’m not inadvertently letting important things fall through the cracks like historians have done with our own history forever.

So, you might imagine I’ve been waiting for The Stars Are Legion with baited breath ever since I first heard rumblings about it. Her take on space opera, as a big old standalone, which serves as both a love letter to the genre and a skewering of many of its less savory tropes and stereotypes.

I finished it yesterday night and I was not disappointed. It actually blew away my expectations.

I am left with the quandary of how to give it a good review and explain why I liked it without accidentally spoiling something, because the novel is packed to the brim with twists and unexpected turns in the narrative, characters dying ingloriously and without a second though, learning something and then having to unlearn it just a few chapters later. I will try to explain what really stood out to me without spoiling, but if you’re really concerned about avoiding that I’d say stop at the end of this paragraph and just go with me saying: buy it, 2017 is young but this is already in my top five for the year, it’s one of the most imaginative pieces of science fiction I’ve read in ages.

Okay, all that out of the way.

The first and most striking thing about the novel is that it’s all women. It’s not a setting where men were discarded, or killed, or rendered pointless. There’s no mention of men whatsoever. The concept of men does not exist. Masculinity is not a thing, and neither is femininity by sheer virtue of having nothing to compare or contrast it to. The romances that pop up throughout the book are both queer and not, because while they’re woman-on-woman, there’s not an alternative.

That really shouldn’t be a big thing, because I can think of plenty of space opera novels I read from the 70s and 80s where there wasn’t a single woman of note and all the speaking roles were played by men, but here we are. It does stand out and I had to make some mental adjustments; for the first few chapters every time a crowd scene is described I had to remind myself not to imagine any male faces mixed in.

Second, and arguably the most important thing about the novel, is that it’s all about pregnancy. Everything in the setting is organic. Metal is beyond rare, practically nonexistant. The ships are huge living beings, calling to mind Moya and the other leviathans from Farscape (huge points in the book’s favor, that being one of my favorite shows ever), and their inhabitants are so connected to their ships that their wombs serve as… well, replicators and engineering chambers for the ship to create new parts in. Women might give birth to fleshy, veined cogs for the great machine as easily as what we’d imagine as a baby. Women can give birth to horrible weapons, vehicles, even the things that grow into the world-sized superships that make up the fleet.

Pregnancy and birth have always been in SF/F, but usually along the lines of body horror. Frank Herbert’s got the Axlotl Tanks of the Tleilaxu people in Dune, basically women stripped of sentience and reduced to breeding machines. Other writers have mimicked or parodied that. On a separate but related vein you might have something like Alien and the xenomorphs’ whole “gimmick” basically being walking sexual assault monsters that impregnate you and then you die. I could probably come up with a laundry list of alien or weird pregnancy metaphors in science fiction, but you get where I’m going.

This is the first time where I’ve seen it play a central role and have it be equal parts horror and awe, kind of a reverence for the power of creation that isn’t positive or negative. It’s intriguing and left me wanting even more than the book gave me, which is a considerable amount. It’s like the odd child of Ursula le Guin and David Cronenberg. There’s horror there in the sense that things can go wrong in pregnancy, and mutations can occur, and pregnancy can be unwanted, but it’s a very grounded horror that does not reduce the female body to a host for us to gawk at.

This particular strain of organic, body horror influenced worldbuilding isn’t new ground for Hurley, but I feel like this is the first book of hers that made it into a central theme and created something beautiful out of it while her other books used it to sculpt the setting and accentuate political maneuvering. The closest would obviously be Worldbreaker with its peculiar blood and plant magic systems, but I always feel like the focal point of those books are more about gender roles, transgender issues, and layered ethical quandaries baked into transdimensional warfare and political intrigue. The Bel Dame Apocrypha trilogy also incorporates some of what we see here, set in a post apocalyptic world where technology is insectoid, but much more about picking apart religion and social norms than the bugtech (again, another stellar series you should pick up, monster bounty hunters with centipede weapons in a blasted wasteland ruled over by Islamic-inspired sects).

Overall, it really clicked with me. It brought me something new, and made it even more interesting than just the newness itself. Good characters, as I said a ton of plot twists, a world that is shown to you in brief glimpses and a history that slowly unfolds over the course of several hundred pages instead of being vomited at you in blocky paragraphs in between space battles.

Oh, and bazookas that fire homing squid bullets. Always a plus.