Firewalkers – Adrian Tchaikovsky

firewalkers cover

“The Masserey-Van Bults were coming in all the dry way down the Ogooue Road, and, as Hotep would say, there was much rejoicing.”

In a not-so-distant future, the Earth has become a scorched hell zone. The very rich have escaped to orbiting habitats, accessed by space elevators. At the base of each, service townships (Ankara – not the Turkish capital, to save you my confusion!) have sprung up, populated by the likes of Mao. Mao is a young Firewalker – someone who will head out to the sunstruck wastes to fix the solar panels and tech that keeps the Ankara viable. It’s a deadly job, but when his other option was facing the bugs of the protein farm…

Adrian Tchaikovsky has a thing for bugs, as his previous works have shown – slight trigger warning for that, I suppose, but I loathe wriggly things and coped just fine.

In this novella, he manages to create a highly believable world, a set of intriguing characters, and switch direction at least twice. The pace is almost a little too much, but it certainly keeps the interest! I did wonder if the use of slang and dialect was going to be irritating, but very quickly I settled into it and it adds plenty of atmosphere – another way to create this world in a truncated way.

Mao pulls in a couple of skilled friends to head out to discover why the power to the township is failing. We get a sense of their lives, the new ‘world order’, and the results of a couple of hundred years of continued climate change. The timing is so coincidental: young people heading into life-threatening danger, the only way they can scrape a living, to save the privileges of the super-rich.

I won’t spoil the huge twist in direction, but it wasn’t what I was expecting! It wasn’t what the group were expecting to find in the middle of a barren desert, either…!

As I said, there’s a lot packed in to a fairly short tale. Well worth the read, and all too relevant for our times, in many ways… let’s hope we don’t head quite the same way, eh?!

NetGalley eARC: 185 pages / 10 chapters
First published: 12th May 2020
Series: none
Read from 8th-12th May 2020

My rating: 8/10

The October Man – Ben Aaronovitch

october man cover

“In late September, as the nights close in, a strange madness possesses my father.

After seven books following PC Peter Grant in London, Ben Aaronovitch takes a slight detour with this novel. we are introduced to Tobias winter, Peter’s German counterpart, sent to the town of Trier to investigate – you guessed it – somewhat strange goings on.

A body has been found in a field belonging to an old, but small vinery. It’s coated with mould – a fungus of the same kind used to deliberately infect the grapes to make a sweeter wine. The vinery is close to the river Kyll, and indeed the current owner’s grandfather would leave offerings to the river goddess… sound familiar?

Like the previous novella in the series (The Furthest Station), I enjoyed the way the shorter format kept things focused on the one story. It still has many twists and turns, not being quite as tight as I expected, but still intriguing.

Tobias Winter is basically Peter Grant with a few different words in his vocab. Taking any section without specific identifier, I think the narration would be indistinguishable from Grant’s street smart, slightly sarcastic tone. Which is no bad thing, but still.

While I overall enjoyed the story a great deal, I think introducing new characters, new location, and a new organisation is perhaps a bit much to ask for a sub-200-page novella.

Still very worth the read, though, for fans if maybe not newcomers to the series. It is interesting to see the Rivers of London series branching out, and I’d love to see even more – but, I think perhaps it’d only really work if the voice was as distinctive as the new region?

Hardback: 180 pages / 13 chapters
First published: 2019
Series: PC Peter Grant / Rivers of London book 7.5
Read from 25th-30th July 2019

My rating: 8/10

Walking to Aldebaran – Adrian Tchaikovsky

“Today I found something I could eat¬†and something I could burn to keep back the darkness.”

In our not too-distant future, astronaut Gary Rendell is part of an international team sent to explore the mysterious object discovered at the edge of our solar system. Instrument readings show it should be the size of a planet; probes send back images of something far smaller but which always presents the same face to the camera even it’s orbited.

Gary considered himself lucky. Lucky to be living his childhood dream to be an astronaut, lucky to make the selection for the first mission that might prove alien life exists. Lucky indeed to survive the cluster-f that said mission turns in to. Lucky… yeah o.O

There is something quite familiar about a lot of the story: Gary walks the mysterious Crypts, encountering dangers and fellow travellers. I loved that there’s an alien encounter that never manages proper communication, but ends up being co-operative anyway – we don’t see enough of that in fiction, where it’s usually all ray-guns blazing.

I could have read this short novella in one sitting, quite frankly. It’s dark and twisty, and a mix of sci-fi and horror. There’s also a huge ‘gotcha!’ that I didn’t quite see coming… I mean, I thought something towards the three-quarters mark, but then… Heh ūüôā

Very, very well written. I really should read more of Adrian Tchaikovsky’s work! Recommended.

NetGalley eARC: 105 pages / 14 chapters
First published: May 2019
Series: none
Read from 27th-31st May 2019

My rating: 9/10

Legion: The Many Lives of Stephen Leeds – Brandon Sanderson

legion cover

“My name is Stephen Leeds, and I am perfectly sane. My hallucinations, however, are all quite mad.”

Many Lives… gathers the three¬†Legion novellas together in one volume. I received the first of these,¬†Legion, from NetGalley, and it worked: I was hooked, and had to go grab the full book and remaining two stories.

The first installment impressed me with the level of backstory that was revealed and/or hinted at in a very compact form, while still telling a very interesting story – that of a camera that can take pictures of the past.

The second novella,¬†Skin Deep, sees Stephen aka Legion, the man with many ‘aspects’ giving him expertise in anything he needs, approached to find a missing corpse. Twist? The dead man was a scientist working on using human DNA to encode data, like the world’s biggest and most ‘handy’ computer storage drive. Again, this is a fairly short story, but feels much much longer, just with the amount that is crammed in.

The final installment,¬†Lies of the Beholder, gives the keen reader (ie me!) a little more of a personal slant. Aspects ‘die’, Stephen is in crisis, and we might even get to find out a little more about the mysterious Sandra…!

The novella form works brilliantly for these stories. Each is a fairly slim case for Stephen, but the hints and teasers about the man’s life and amazing brain are keeping you hooked as much as the plot. Brandon Sanderson’s preface talks about his idea of “Psychology-as-superpower”, which is absolutely fascinating.

Thoroughly enjoyed this, and I hope there might be more Legion stories to come.

HB: 340 pages / 45 chapters over 3 novellas
First published: 2018
Series: Legion books 1-3 omnibus
Read from 22nd-10th October 2018

My rating: 9/10

Ironclads – Adrian Tchaikovsky

ironclads cover

“Sturgeon says that, way back when, the sons of the rich used to go to war as a first choice of career.”

It’s the near future. Brexit has happened, but unable to stand alone the UK becomes part of the US – giving the latter a toehold right next to Europe. Governments are increasingly irrelevant, as it’s the giant Corporations who are running things now – including war. And as the opening sentence suggests, the sons of the rich are once again choosing war as a career. Well, it’s not like they have to risk their lives: they’ve got all the money, all the tech. No, it’s an excuse for them to play general while the grunts like Sgt Ted Regan are the cheapest of commodities.

So, when one of the ‘Scions’ – the mega-rich in their armoured tech marvel ‘suits’ – goes missing somewhere in the Nordic countries, it’s Regan and his closest few squad mates who are sent on the rescue mission. And, of course, things are never exactly what they first seem…

This is a short, standalone novella, but wow does it pack in the ideas! The plot is this one mission, but we get plenty of snippets about how the world has changed in the not-so-distant future, grounded in very real politics and such going on right now. It’s a little eerie at times, to be honest.

For the main, though, this is action all the way, with heavy dollops of very satisfying sci-fi all presented with just the right amount of characterisation – the latter not always a sure thing with such strong concepts and world-building. It’s nice to see the location of Sweden and Finland used for a change, too.

I’ve been meaning to try some of Adrian Tchaikovsky’s much-praised work for ages now, and if his longer work is anything like this I’m only sorry I haven’t tried it sooner! Recommended, for sci-fi fans, gamers, and anyone who might like a dose of action with a strong warning about ‘what if…’!

NetGalley eARC: 160 pages / 10 chapters
First published: November 2017
Series: none
Read from 2nd-6th November 2017

My rating: 9/10

Agents of Dreamland – Caitlin R Kiernan

“Here’s the scene: It’s Thursday evening, and the Signalman sits smoking and nursing a flat Diet Dr Pepper, allowing himself to breathe a stingy sigh of relief as twilight finally, mercifully comes crashing down on the desert.”

Mysterious meetings in small town desert diners, shocking photographs, secret agents, time travel, space fungus, kool-aid cults… for a short novella, there is a heck of a lot packed in here!

I’d previously read Caitl√≠n R Kiernan’s novel,¬†The Red Tree,¬†following a recommendation based on the terrific¬†House of Leaves¬†(Mark Z Danielewski) – and while not quite as mind-bending as the latter, it shared that sense of disquiet and reality-breaking.¬†Agents of Dreamland has¬†quite a similar tone: unease and creeping levels of horror.

With such a short volume, we’re thrown into the action immediately and left to fend for ourselves a bit in terms of figuring out what’s what. Who is the mysterious Signalman, who is he waiting for, and why does he fear her? Perhaps knowing that ‘Dreamland’ is another name for Area 51 might give some clues…!

Chapters jump back and forth on the timeline a little Рso you have to pay attention to the title dates, which is generally something I hate, although it does serve its purpose here Рrevealing slightly earlier events even more remotely in the desert locale, from the point of view of a young teenager saved from the streets and brought to a different kind of purpose. Even without the subsequent revelations, this would have its own kind of chill.

I did fear at one point that the ‘short’ would feel ‘unfinished’, but no: while there is a lot of scope for continuation, and a wider tale that is hinted at, this is an almost perfectly formed slice of story.¬†It does perhaps take a couple of (short) chapters to get going, and it’s slightly unfortunate that the core idea is familiar to me from something I read a few years back – it would be more shocking otherwise, I imagine – but overall this is a¬†great short fiction from an author I intend to read more of. Recommended for fans of Twin Peaks¬†and¬†The X-Files.

NetGalley eARC: 112 pages / 11 chapters
First published: February 2017
Series: none
Read from 24th-27th March 2017

My rating: 8.5/10

The King’s Justice – Stephen Donaldson

“The man rides his horse along the old road through the forest in a rain as heavy as a damask curtain – a rain that makes dusk of midafternoon.”

A man rides into a small town recently¬†afflicted by a horrible murder. The locals are suspicious, but the stranger, known only as Black, has but to rub a mark carved into his skin¬†and they are reassured, if puzzled. Black can sense the evil and the trail it has left. He has come to deliver the King’s Justice.

Stephen Donaldson is one of the Big Names in fantasy, after¬†The Chronicles of Thomas Convenant. I’ve read and enjoyed most of his books, but have to say that while the stories are pretty amazing, the tone of the writing is often a little close to the line of pretentious and affected¬†– and yet, still worth reading.

The short form¬†can make this even more obvious. I can’t imagine many writers getting away with so much introspection from the main character, half the story being inner thoughts hinting at Deeply Important ‘stuff’ and tortured pasts and rather a bit too much ‘telling’ instead of ‘showing’.

There’s also a tendency to try to be as slow to reveal anything as possible,¬†and I think if this had been any longer than a short novella it would have come across as annoying rather than building mystery.

And yet… Donaldson is a strong writer, and despite all of the above the story kept my attention, kept me wondering, and pulled all of the threads together rather well by the end.¬†Perhaps the biggest strength is the feeling that there is a large, well-conceived, and very intriguing world going on behind this tale, and we’re being treated to the merest glimpse – so far!

(Note: there are two¬†books that may be called ‘The King’s Justice’ – this, the single novella, and another that also includes¬†The Augur’s Gambit.)

Kindle: 128 pages
First published: 2016
Series: none
Read from 27th October Р3rd November 2016

My rating: 6.5/10