Roma Mater is an... odd novel.  Like Emperor and in the same vein as The Sarantine Mosaic, this is a novel about a lesser known period of Roman history, the mid 4th century CE.  Unlike those, this spends much of its time in the fictional, fantastical created elements of its world, rather than the real and historical aspects; the Andersons seem to want to use the history as a way to work around much of the world-building, or perhaps to give us familiar points of reference (Caesar, for instance) that we can hang the fictional, Anderson-created elements of the novel on.

Roma Mater starts strongly, and gets progressively weaker as characterisations get fuzzy, plot disintegrates, external elements disappear from the scene and increasingly the novel becomes about Ys and her relationship with her gods.  The plot of the novel starts as Gratillonius' mission to Ys, to bring them on side for Magnus Maximus' (temporarily successful) bid for a role as Augustus of the West launched from Britain; but over the course of the novel we see his loyalty to Rome essentially vanish (whilst there are flimsy justifications of some of his actions as Rome-centric, his strongest actions on Maximus' behalf is in fact completely off-stage.  The other plot, of the religious conflict - between Mithras, the traditional trinity of Ys' pagan deities, and Christendom - and the mysticism underlying it, is equally strangely handled; we alternate between Ys' traditional deities fading and dying, and being resurgent and angry, or simply taking over everything, completely extant (which never seems to actually affect Gratillonius' beliefs in Mithras, oddly).  Both plots manage to work at odds with each other in that regard; not waxing and waning in concord, but just seeming to be confusingly attempting to bring the two parts together. There's also a very brief Irish plot - Niall maqq Echach attempts to raid Gaul, Gratillonius uses the magic of Ys to prevent it, Niall survives though his son dies, and then... Niall curses Gratillonius and vanishes completely.

The characters are equally uninteresting, with one possible exception.  Roma Mater has a set of characters who each have one characteristic; they're differentiated well, but they're still very two-dimensional, and this is especially problematic with the Nine, who are supposed to be intelligent, powerful and independent women and yet those we see most seem to be perfectly happy to defer to Gratillonius and think that he is far more wise than them.  That Dahilis' one characteristic is being utterly in love with Gratillonius makes that even worse - the women are so focussed on Gratillonius, whereas he's got aims beyond the women despite his love for Dahilis, is deeply problematic.  Gratillonius himself does go some way to saving Roma Mater's characterisation - his conflicting ties to Ys and to Rome, to Dahilis and Magnus Maximus, and to Mithras and the deities of Ys are thoughtfully set out, and his crises of faith and life are interesting and bring him to life as a believable and interesting person.  He is definitely a military man, and his memories inform his present character, as do his fellows; indeed, he's a well-constructed person to hang the narrative on, but unfortunately not enough to save the plot.

Roma Mater's style, on the other hand, is typical Poul Anderson: utterly brilliant.  The sections with the Scotti (Irish) are written in the style of an ollam's saga; it creates a sense of mythology, and of the strange, deity-infused world that the Andersons wants to create.  It's a lyrical, beautiful and powerful piece of writing, and also works incredibly well as a contrast with the sections following Gratillonius; those sections are in a drier, simpler and starker style.  Less related to the character and more straightforward, this style mainly serves to contrast the Ysan and Scotti sections, but they certainly do serve that purpose.

Overall, then, Roma Mater is a weak mess of a book for most of its length; the Scotti sections and character of Gratillonius do a lot to rescue the novel, but overall the Andersons really haven't risen to the heights Poul has achieved in the past with this novel.
Stephen Baxter is renowned as a hard science fiction author, and Emperor, at least in one regard, demonstrates some of the skills of hard SF: meticulous and detailed research, portrayals of the technological and societal situation as well as character (the epilogue of the novel has a great skit on this, about Lucian), and use of characters to explore the changing world.  Emperor, however, is essentially historical fiction, with a tiny tinge of fantasy; the fantasy is an excuse for continuity across nearly 400 years of Romano-British history, more than anything else...

Because Emperor doesn't really have a plot.  Instead, it has three (four, if you include the prologue) moments of plot, islands linked by a prophecy given in the prologue and by the family relations of the characters.  The first moment is resistance by three Brigantians to Claudius' invasion of Britain; in this telling we see the immediate and early effects of the invasion on the British people, and meet Vespasian, future emperor, as well as Claudius, the emperor of the moment.  The plot here is minimally, rather just following the responses of the three Britons to the invasion, and how they differ and have very different results - integration, death, or the semi-integration of life in Britain in Romano-British culture.  The second is in the time of Hadrian, and a visit to Britain; here every member is integrated to at least some degree with Roman society, and the plot concerns the machinations of Severa using the prophecy to try and gain profit from Hadrian's consolidation of the empire (in the form of the Wall).  The final is in the time of Constantine; his Christianisation of the empire, the institutionalisation of the Church, the taxation required to recover from the post-Diocletian civil wars, and so on result in descendants of the original family of Prophecy uniting, or at least appearing to, in an attempt to leverage changes in policy using the prophecy - though there are, naturally, games within games.  The point here being that the Prophecy comes in to play at three crucial moments in history for Britain, and vulnerability for Rome: Claudius' invasion; Hadrian's consolidation of empire, rejecting Trajanic perpetual expansion; Constantine's conversion, and this allows Baxter to explore those turning points.

The research behind Emperor is, whilst not perfect (we see glass mirrors, rather than just beaten bronze, and a penetration of the use of coinage that the last thirty years has cast significant doubt on), meticulous, and details are thrown in very neatly.  The cultural picture of Rome, and Roman imperialism, is painted very nicely and effectively; we see how the attitude of Rome changed to her provinces and provincials over time, meaning that what we get is a picture of Rome's decline.  It is perhaps a little caricatured, and there is certainly an extent to which for Classical scholars of Rome it will fall short, but Emperor does certainly paint a useful and intelligent portrait of three vital points in Roman history and explode many of the modern myths about our classical past, albeit whilst buying into others.

Finally, and least importantly (as Thalius says, the ideas are the point in this kind of fiction) Emperor does have a strong, varied cast of characters.  It's a wide cast, but they're each very individual; all influenced strongly by, defined by, and of their time, rather than standing out from it, which is perfect, and all showing the differences in culture by contrast, because in some ways there are continuities of character across the eras.  Baxter's writing is weakest here because they do occasionally delve into simplicity and monodimensionality, but at the same time they're fun, interesting characters who we do care about and want to follow, and their views of the Roman world are so fascinating because of their attitudes given what actually happened; again, for a Classical historian, a really interesting piece of writing.

In the end, whilst Emperor is probably weakened because of my university study of Ancient History (nitpicking: it's what we do), it remains a very strong, lightly fantasy tinged, historical portrait of three eras in Roman history, as well as being good fiction; very readable, and very informative, it's certainly worth a look.
Lavie Tidhar has always had fun playing with reality and the intersectionality of fiction and reality; it's a marker of the Bookman Histories, albeit not one highlighted quite so much as it is here.  Osama, after all, is a noir novel, and noir rather lends itself to existential questions, universal doubt, crises of identity, and similar; which is what Osama really does best, alongside a beautiful prose style and some wonderful writing. This is, after all, Tidhar's undoubtedly strongest and most interesting work to date, and combines that with a potentially explosive idea...

The plot of Osama follows Joe, a PI based in Japan, who is hired to find Mike Longshott, a writer of a series of pulps called Osama bin Laden: Vigilante.  The narrative of the novel intersperses excerpts from these novels - descriptions largely of al-Quaeda/Islamist terrorist attacks from Nairobi onwards, although 9/11 is played oddly - with Joe's increasingly abstracted and frustrated search for Mike Longshott, and increasingly Joe's avoidance of a search for a fundamental truth: what is the nature of his reality?  The alternate history of Osama is slowly revealed, with the effects never quite clear in their totality, only partially; Tidhar's novel is not about the world but about it's nature, and that intersects with the plot in little notes - such as de Gaulle's death in 1944 in Algiers, rather than in 1970; or the failure by the Western powers to carve up the Middle East to suit themselves.  The whole novel's plot relies on those literal differences, to some extent, and our not knowing all of them; because this is a strange world apparently without terrorism, a world where noir is reality, and this leads to the fantastic intertextuality between the fiction of the Mike Longshott books, the fiction of Lavie Tidhar, and the real world, layering in on each other powerfully and incredibly to a point where reality itself - inside the novel, at a minimum, and probably also outside - is a construct, although whose and for what purpose is left tantalisingly unclear.

The character of Joe - the only real character in the entirety of Osama (who, tantalisingly, appears only on posters with the words "Osama bin Laden: Vigilante. Wanted Dead or Alive" in the novel, as advertisements for the Longshott books) - is one ripped straight from noir.  A PI who
drinks, smokes, takes a case because a dame walks into his office and pays him to find Longshott, stubborn and occasionally foul-mouth, Joe is a man lost in his world; his identity fraught with confusion and questions - as becomes increasingly apparent throughout the novel - and his certainty in existence and everything around him increasingly shaken.  The way Tidhar slowly erodes the foundations under Joe's feet is perfectly played, and the ultimate pulling away of the rug - Joe's choice, right at the close of the novel - is brilliant, and incredible; not one we can perhaps accept, but one we can understand, and one in character for him.  This is definitely a portrayal of a character as well as of a world...

But Osama is a portrayal of a world, and it does it beautifully.  The combination of styles - the noir, the evocative, beautiful and lush physical description which makes scenes and cities pop off the page, the powerful language, the short sharpness of the chapters, the clarity and conciseness of the language which says exactly what it means to and neither more nor less, make this not only a compact and pacy novel but one that is also almost leisurely; basking in the descriptions and the language Tidhar uses is just as possible as scratching one's head at the philosophical conundrums and reality-questioning engaged in, and both are as possible as simply enjoying the noir story.  Indeed, the multiple levels on which Osama should be enjoyed make it a book that really works well, because none of them are mutually exclusive, and combine to create a really effective novel.

Osama is up there with Chris Beckett's work in terms of thoughtful intelligence combined with sheer authorial craft; a few more like this, and picking a top 5 of the quarter is going to be intensely difficult! It's no wonder to me that Osama is up for a slew of awards, and good luck to Tidhar in them; I'd really recommend this novel to you.
The Way of Shadows, first volume of the highly popular Night Angel Trilogy, is something I've taken a long time, and a lot of persuasion, to pick up a copy of and read; Weeks' work has received praise from writers like Sam Sykes, and there clearly are parallels between their work.  However, what Weeks does with his words and characters and what Sykes does with them are very different; the difference between The Way of Shadows and Sykes' Tome of the Undergates is one of quality and kind...

The plot of Way of Shadows is very, very messy.  Whilst Weeks may want to tie plots in and out of each other and use the idea of betrayal and counterbetrayal, alongside a variety of concealed identities and hidden pasts, in order to build a novel which will take Azoth from gutter rat to becoming Kylar Stern, Night Angel, he does so in such a way that puts too much pressure on the reader to try and make sense of plots that don't work, plans from people who are supposedly intelligent if not brilliant that are so dreadfully and deeply flawed as to be unrecognisable as a plan rather than just making it up as the characters go along.  The reliance on this complexity, and on the stupidity of every single character we meet, really grates; that Weeks seems to provide coincidence after coincidence to keep the plot moving (and not just coincidence, but extremely unlikely coincidence) and deus after deus out of the machinae to keep Stern alive demonstrate a weakness in the writing.  Combine this with inconsistent characterisation (or rather, acts extremely out of character and inexplicable); villains who are evil... because evil!; and the procrastination about getting to the point, and Way of Shadows has a plot that really, really needed streamlining and rewriting.

The characters of Way of Shadows are little better; as mentioned above, this is a novel plagued by inconsistent characterisation.  I expect, over the course of a novel this long especially, characters to change and develop; what I don't want to read is that characters have suddenly switched their whole thought-processes and how they work, or that the whole novel has been a lie in some way that makes the character suddenly not actually make sense; or that they're taking actions which are inconsistent with their portrayal, generally ones that make out a much lower level of intelligence.  That this is a problem across the board doesn't make it any better, it just demonstrates that it is something Weeks built in, either conciously or subconciously; but either way, ineffectively.  The problem of character is even worse when we extend it to villains; outside (not-well-written) fiction, is there an instance of someone doing evil for evil's sake? However, our villains here - both Rat and Roth, but also minor ones like Aleine - are precisely that; doing evil for the sake of doing evil, or for gaining power.  This isn't something found in nature, but The Way of Shadows actively cultivates that image, doing irreparable harm to the portrayal of the villains because they become so inhuman as a result.

In the end, The Way of Shadows is a mess of a book, and gives me no hope for the rest of the series; despite the popularity of these novels, I can't bring myself to even consider recommending them for more than a moment, because Weeks' writing is weak, his characterisation worse, and the whole novel devolves into a confusing, sloppy mess.  Best avoided at all costs.
Ganymede, the fourth installment in Priest's Clockwork Century series, may well mark a turning point in the setting of the series, both for Seattle and for the wider world.  Building on events in Dreadnought and Boneshaker, with possibly a reference to Clementine in there at the beginning.  Our main characters are the smuggler (or pirate, as the term seems to be in the Clockwork Century) Andan Cly and New Orleans madame Josephine Early, with Texas Ranger Horatio Korman reappearing along with Cly's crew.

The plot of Ganymede is relatively simple; Josephine, an old flame of Cly's, needs to hire him in order to get the submarine Ganymede to Union forces near New Orleans, which is held by the Republic of Texas on behalf of the Confederacy.  Complications, naturally, ensue, and there are two subplots; one to do with Cly's burgeoning relationship with Briar Wilkes, hero of Boneshaker, and his resultant plans to settle in Seattle, and the other to do with the increasing menace of the zombis in New Orleans - those affected by the gas found in Seattle; and it's this plot which returns Ranger Korman to the fray, trying to prove to his Texas superiors that the zombies are real.  The plot is mixed; there are a number of points when it moves fast, although those can move towards repetitiveness - and a certain uneventful repetitiveness too, both in the faster and slower-moving portions.  However, the faster moments are well-placed and well-paced, without losing focus or control, and with a certain stylish power to them; and the slower moments are also well-written, the romantic elements thoughtful and not overplayed, the more suspenseful moments not overblown or overplayed but adding a lot to the narrative.  The subplots don't always play the obvious role - the zombis especially being a matter of convenience, not logic, in their use, and some of the references to Cly's wish to settle down feel gratuitous, but overall it works well, and the Ganymede's role in the novel is well controlled, to bring multiple elements together.

The characters of Ganymede are perhaps the strongest point of the novel; Ranger Korman, Andan Cly and his crew we know, but Josephine Early and her employees are new, as is her brother Deaderick; and, unsurprisingly, they're all excellent characters.  Josephine continues the line of strong women that Priest seems to like (alongside the Clockwork Century, each installment of which has a strong female hero leading the case, we have Eden Moore and the Cheshire Red Reports series, both female-focused); she's thoughtfully written, with a combination of her racial politics and her care for the women who work for her making her a powerful figure whose motivations are complicated by her love for her brother.  The majority of the cast are equally interesting; they're not simple characters, but rather, people whose motivations can't be pinned down to one thing, and who have thoughts of their own, and influence the plot in well-thought out ways.

Overall, then, whilst Ganymede, like the other installments of the Clockwork Century, has its flaws, Priest does seem to be improving over time, and this is a fun, enjoyable and well-written story.
God's War is science fantasy after the Abercrombie model of fantasy: dark, gritty, grim, politically intelligent and without a single character we like or think is really at all competent.  As far as political intelligence in the novel goes, that too is tempered; whilst Hurley does indeed write about a world whose politics we can believe, the way she frames it (thinly-veiled Islam is evil and suppresses women! It's violent! Christianity is self-serving and violent and will enslave us all!) is deeply problematic in its simplicity, naivete and Islamophobia.

The plot is perhaps the strongest element of God's War; Hurley's novel doesn't have an original plot - bounty hunter versus bounty hunter versus bodyguarding bounty hunter, with the protagonist's dark and illegal past coming back to haunt them, and old allies and enemies popping up all over the place - but her handling of that (incredibly typical) plot is at least effective, as she takes us from moment to moment through the eyes of one of our various protagonists.  That those protagonists are a fractious, unlikeable bunch, unable to plan or anticipate and strangely blind at opportune moments, is an unfortunate point, but one worth noting; it demonstrates something that runs through Hurley's novel in her inability and/or refusal to write a competent character, and that does cause some problems for the plot.  Equally, the occasional moments of superhumanity (especially on Nyx's part) are rather ridiculous; after all, the amount she gets put through over the course of this novel, she should be many times dead by the end, but still manages not to be and to keep fighting, for reasons we don't understand.  However, the visceral writing really does bring some things back to us; whilst Hurley isn't good at writing a protagonist with mental impairments (drunkenness or high), she does write an incredibly good torture scene, or even simply a combat, which not only brings us into the action but shows us the blood and guts as they come spilling out, and the pain and emotionality as well as the speed and brutality of it.

The characters of God's War, then, aren't hypercompetent, or even competent (they fail more often than not - except when the plot demands otherwise, naturally); instead, Hurley has given us a set of unlikeable, odd characters who don't even really work as a group, despite the plot demanding such, and therefore a bit of a mess of a novel.  The thing about that mess is that it continues for 250-odd pages, and the dynamics of that mess just keep getting more ridiculous; time and again we see people acting out of character for reasons of plot, or just not really having a character.  Nyx is least guilty of this, as our protagonist; instead, she is simply someone who we can't really care about, because we have no reason to (she's not terribly effective, she's amoral, she has nothing she cares about, and she's somewhat of a violent sociopath).  God's War doesn't have likeable characters, it has a collection of people we need to follow to see what happens in the plot; and that makes it something of a slog to read, despite the action scenes (and occasionally, even those are a slog...)

Finally, a brief note on worldbuilding.  Hurley's obviously making the attempt to have God's War science fictional, especially with some of the reveals towards the end; but that would involve some plausible explanation for some of the things in the novel, which (and this is no bad thing - I rather enjoy fantasy and science fantasy, often more than classic SF) renders this science fantasy.  The problem comes with her science fantasy's politics; God's War has such contrived, strange and unbelievable politics (crossed with Islam, because religion at war with itself naturally brings Islam to mind, right?) added to problematic ideas of race (race, religion and nationality are inseparable in God's War... but only for the two nations at war, of course!) that make the world fall apart repeatedly, every time they're brought up or foregrounded; it's a really problematic world for me in that regard.

In the end, God's War has some brilliant ideas and some appalling politics, but whilst the gore and viscerality of the novel are excellent, it's deeply damaged by the messy plot and unpleasant, unlikeable characters.  Indeed, on similar grounds as my dislike of Abercrombie and Martin, I have to say that, based on this novel, I am not a fan of Hurley, either...
Tidhar's third volume in the Bookman Histories not only returns to, but surpasses, the promise of the first volume of the series.  The Great Game - a name instantly suggesting the subject-matter of the novel - is a fun, and enjoyable, thriller, which winks slyly at the audience with literary and historical allusions (our viewpoint characters include Lucy Westenra and Harry Houdini, and the rest of the cast draws on characters from Mycroft Holmes to Charles Babbage via Colonel Creighton and M.; the novel's front cover also shows off one of the more significant influences on the novel...)

The Great Game's plot follows three strands, each of them building together in complex ways to a conclusion that is powerful, horrific and rather unexpected.  The plot follows Smith, a retired agent of the Bureau - Mycroft Holmes' British intelligence service - as he begins a last mission in the wake of the assassination of Mycroft Holmes, hunting down the assassin.  The plot also sees Lucy Westenra similarly sent on a last mission by the great detective's even greater brother, and Harry Houdini set on something of a collision course with Lucy by the Vespuccian secret service.  Each plot strand builds on things learned in the others, and the division into parts of the novel, and only following one character in each part, really does help keep clear what's going on; though the differentiation of character and location is no small boon in that regard too.  It's a nicely controlled, and well-written plot that is both mysterious and brilliant homage to spy thrillers of all sorts; Tidhar's writing really does keep the plot moving fast and stops the mysteries and hidden elements getting annoying, whilst also avoiding letting things slip early or unneccessarily.

The characters of The Great Game are also well-written, especially Smith himself.  Smith's a nicely amoral creation, but a loyal one; loyal to Mycroft and to Britain.  His satisfaction in his job is evident, as is his borderline sociopathy; that Tidhar makes such a character an interesting, empathetic and indeed in some ways attractive is the mark of a fantastic writer, especially as we're never quite easy with Smith and his actions.  All of our characters, however, are united by one thing; their role in the game (which is, of course, afoot!).  And in no small part it is the effect of the game on our characters which this novel is about; they have very different outcomes, having gone in as very different and differentiated unique characters, each fantastically well-written, but each put painfully through the wringer and, mercilessly, ground down.

In the end, especially as this can stand-alone whilst referring back to events in prior novels in the Bookman Histories, I heartily recommend The Great Game; not only a satisfying read, but an enjoyable, fun, and interesting one too.


The Great Game will be out at the end of this month in ebook form and in the US/Canada, and on February 2nd in paperback form for the rest of the world.  Review based on an eARC provided by Angry Robot Books.
Giant Thief is a very traditional fantasy novel on some levels, and a would-be ground-breaking one on others.  Tallerman's bought into the idea of the unheroic protagonist (as seen in various works from Abercrombie down) and the combination of thief-and-brawn (as seen in works from Leiber on down!) and combined them with high fantasy (of the Tolkeinian style, really - right down to the long travel scenes).  The problem is that in amongst this, Tallerman doesn't give us some of the essential ingredients of a novel: a strong main character, a plot we can believe, or a compelling writing style...

To start with the second first, the plot of Giant Thief - such as it is - follows small-time petty thief Easie Damasco as he steals from rampaging warlord Moaradrid, and ends up with more than he bargains for; a stone that could determine the fate of nations.  Naturally, Damasco's reaction to this is to flee, and keep fleeing - and to try to hang on to the stone, which has no intrinsic value and only keeps him in mortal peril.  If you're wondering why Damasco does this, you're not alone - though Damasco himself doesn't ever consider it.  Damasco also picks up Saltlick, a giant, whom with the power of the stone he can command as if he were the giant king; Saltlick, over the course of the novel, helps and refuses to help Damasco by turns, oddly enough demonstrating a problem that Tallerman refuses to address and setting up huge plotholes, given the absolute power the stone theoretically bestows.  Worse still, much of the novel is spent on chases and travelling; time spent which could better be used to advance plot or character development is instead spent drawing out scenes which should be fast-paced, or at least moving us, is wasted in following our characters from one location to another.

Those characters are, of course, another of the problems of Giant Thief.  Tallerman appears to have had a plot outline in mind, and then tried to draw up characters to fit that outline; but the problem here is that the characters he uses to do so don't actually manage it.  Damasco himself is a small-time thief drawn into larger events - but, despite repeatedly wanting to escape from them, he never really does anything to try and do so.  Instead, he gets moved from crisis point to crisis point by the actions of others, never really claiming any agency himself, and especially with this novel being told from a first-person point of view that really draws a lot of power from the novel: much of it is spent watching Damasco watch others take action, and tell us about it, and that makes for a boring viewpoint, and a boring novel.  The other characters are all rather basic; they're not entirely two-dimensional, at least in some cases - Marina Estrada is a rather nice character, with some decent rounding out, albeit occasionally reverting to previous form and losing character development, and Saltlick's rather underutilised character gleams through the dross with some interest.

All in all, Giant Thief is an incredibly disappointing book; with some interesting ideas, Tallerman has written a book that is boring and characterless, conspiring to throw us out of the action repeatedly and with menace aforethought, and characters who don't stand up to scrutiny.  I've come out of this novel with the feeling that I just had to slog my way through it, not of enjoyment, and that's never a good position to be in...


Giant Thief is out at the end of this month in ebook format and in paperback in the US and Canada, and the 2nd of February for the rest of the world. Review based on an eARC provided by Angry Robot Books.
The third volume (and possibly last) in the City of a Hundred Rows series neither breaks particularly new ground nor squanders that which has been put in place in the previous installments of the series; whilst this might make it sound simply workmanlike and adequate, Whates' closing volume is neither, and sheds new light on areas previously in shadow, both of the city itself and the series.

City of Light and Shadow picks up right where City of Hope and Despair left off, and this review will contain spoilers, so the majority of the review will be under a cut.

Read more... )

In the end, City of Light and Shadow is an excellent conclusion to one of the best series to come out of the still-young Angry Robot Books; although, especially given the nature of the setting, if Whates chose to continue with another book, he could easily do so, since enough ends are left loose to allow it without too much shoehorning.  Brilliant work, and I highly recommend the entire City of a Hundred Rows trilogy to you.
Adam Christopher's Empire State is an interesting novel, to say the least; but it's interesting for its concepts more than its content, which is unfortunate when the concepts are delivered through the content, albeit in rather infodumping form.

The plot of Empire State is hard to describe, as is the novel itself; secondary-world noir, perhaps, is the best descriptor, but the plot has little content beyond explaining that.  Essentially, a murder investigation spirals out into a huge, world-shaking set of overlapping, and ill-explained, events and plots which are variously misconceived, hidden, or underexplained and driven only by dei ex machinae heaped on top of each other until the whole edifice creaks and crumbles with each rapid-fire twist and turn; that's when the broken story-telling style doesn't end up with events happening backwards or sideways, or with the disjointed narrative leaping around without any real sense of what's happening or clarity.  The consistency of the problem is disturbing, and really makes this a hard novel to read.

The characters are just as bad; from Rad Bradley, our main character, down, every single individual in Empire State is consistent only in their one-dimensionality and cod mysteriousness.  I say cod, because that mysteriousness really isn't terribly well conveyed; instead of making characters mysteries, Christopher instead uses statements that go nowhere, false trails that avoid conclusion and aren't actually followed up on, and on many an occasion, a musing of Bradley's that just is dropped as soon as plot or convenience demand and allow.  Rather than constructing a noirish and strange-yet-mundane world, Christopher's efforts in Empire State actually combine to create a confused, and indeed confusing, mess of characters and plot; we have no clear-cut clarity, except where we're having information fed to us in a rather constrained and over-basic manner.

I'd really like to have enjoyed Empire State, and Christopher's attempts to bring in superhero and noir to his work looked like they could have been fascinating; but in the end this novel just spends far too long trying to be mysterious, and not enough time being, well, anything.
Clementine is another installment in Priest's alternate-history Clockwork Century series, and an excellent one at that; a novella available from Subterranean Press in ebook format, it's a story that ticks the boxes that the Clockwork Century series has as its hallmarks: well-written female hero, extended Civil War setting, steampunk mainstays like dirigibles, and the language of the times - one of our main characters here is black, and the attitude to Croggon Hainey is what we might expect. However, the best addition to Clementine is the obvious steampunk one: airship pirates!

The plot of Clementine is an effective, tight and fast-paced one.  We follow Maria Boyd, an ex-Confederate spy now employed by the Pinkerton Agency, in her hunt to prevent Capt. Hainey recapturing his stolen airship the Free Crow (renamed, by the man who stole it, the Clementine); and in the other strand, converging about half-way through the novel, we follow Hainey himself in his attempts to recapture his ship.  The plotting is fast-paced, and the incorporation as the story progresses of other elements and complications to the novel (such as the Union secret weapon, a vital component of which is being delivered in the stolen Free Crow) add a sense of building tension as well as some rogue elements - Boyd feels loyal, still, to the Confederacy - and the book's set-piece scenes are so well written and racey without being wild or confusing that the plot does move along at a fair lick, without leaving the reader behind or throwing out ideas too fast.

The characters are a less strong point, but Clementine still has a solid cast.  Boyd is a well-written and interesting character, albeit suffering a little from the "greatest ever" problem (up front and repeatedly throughout we're told Boyd was one of, if not the, best of the Confederate spies; her actual actions, however, really don't back that up).  Otherwise, though, Boyd is a character who really does bring the reader in; she doesn't like how she's treated as a woman, and doesn't like how she's been treated by her country but still feels loyal to them; there's also the extent to which she uses various tactics, rather than just being able to use her sex to her advantage, and to which she's a character who thinks about things, and is able to adjust to the situation as necessary.  Hainey's a very different character; obsessional, especially about recapturing the Free Crow, he's also got a chip on his shoulder about his treatment as a black man (or, as the novel repeatedly says, driving the point home, a Negro).  That combines with his somewhat chivalrous nature to create a really interesting, thoughtful character who is not only well-written but interesting; we don't see him undamaged by his time as a slave, but at the same time he's not defined by it, which is a fantastic combination.

All in all, Clementine is one of the best installments so far of the Clockwork Century; Priest's writing here is fantastic and fast-paced, and the characterisation excellent across the ball, meaning we're really - for the short length of this novel - seeing some amazing steampunk. With airship pirates.
The Night Circus was tipped as one of the debuts of 2011, and it is no fault of Morgenstern's that I took til 2012 to read it; once I started the novel, it was finished within just over 24 hours.  There appears to be a slight fashion for circuses at the moment in genre circles (see, for instance, Mechanique), and these two very different but also very similar stories demonstrate why: circuses allow the writer a lot of freedom...

The plot of The Night Circus is told in a temporally disjointed, but still clear and, indeed, chronological manner; nothing needs later elements to make sense, though some make a new sense as later events are told.  It concerns the magical contest between Marco and Celia, taught by two different mages and, as children unable to really understand the competition or what it is they are being bound to, drawn into the world of deadly and dangerous magics; it's a romance, in fact, between those two characters, and also (inevitably?) a tragedy.  But it's the telling of how we come from men arranging a strange and magical contest over the head of Celia to the tragic, beautiful end of the novel that really makes Morgenstern's debut shine; that, and the characters she creates as she weaves the illusion that binds the reader.

The Night Circus does have one of the most fantastic casts of any novel I have read for a while.  It's not doing anything particularly revolutionary here - especially for YA, which this book is pegged as (though I'd not hesitate to recommend it to anyone over the age of, oh, comprehension); but the characters are so fully realised, so individual, and so willing to fight against their roles that the writing makes them breathe and live, and makes us laugh and cry with them.  The rivalry and romance between Celia and Marco is so powerfully and beautifully portrayed, the one arising from the other and both being so influenced by their essential characters, so similar and yet also very different, that the reader can't help but care for them and care what happens to them; and despite the large cast of the novel, the reader knows every character so well, because they are each so vivid and unique, so well-portrayed, that they leap off the cage, from the mysterious Mr. A.H-- to Isobel via the twins and Bailey.

The plot is equally well-handled; never losing sight of the contest, Morgenstern doesn't always foreground it, so its pervasive influence is felt in little, rather than grand, ways.  Told episodically and out of order, we're also treated to a way of storytelling that avoids simplicity in favour of complexity, but not obscurity; it's still very linear, and allows us both to explore the wonderous, mysterious and strange Night Circus as well as follow our characters in their adventures and magic, and in which not a moment is wasted.  Everything builds up the atmosphere of the strange and wonderful, and also ups the tension; by the end of the novel, we're at a snapping point, and The Night Circus' tragic resolution was both inevitable and beautiful.

I really, really enjoyed this book, and I'd highly recommend The Night Circus to anyone and everyone; get a copy and read it.  Brilliant, beautiful, and so incredibly well characterised, this really did blow me away...
Silverberg's The Last Song of Orpheus is a novella retelling the myth of Orpheus, briefly and in full.  As a Classics scholar, I've felt drawn to this work for some time, a similar draw as to that of works like The Sarantine Mosaic and The Dirge for Prester John, and as Subterranean Press have released an ebook version of the novel with the same lavish and beautiful illustrations as their limited hardback release, I snapped it up; and, despite the familiarity (to me) of the story told in the novella, it was a good decision!

The familiarity of the myth aside, this novella is essentially designed to give Orpheus a character; beyond the tragic lover and one of the heroes of the Argo, the myths - as with most of their characters - give him very little personality.  The Last Song of Orpheus, however, spends a long time giving Orpheus a character; and it's a very interesting, fatalistic one - integrating the myth of Eurydice's death and Orpheus' trip to Hades and the voyage of the Argo with an Egyptian mystical tradition common to ancient ideas of magic and the fatalistic traditions of Greek religion.  Indeed, there is also a tradition in the Orphic religions of reincarnation and the repetition of the fateful life of Orpheus is a strong part of the character of Orpheus; his denials of free will and his determination to tell the story, in its dark and grim form, focussed on him and on mysticism, create a dark and strange character who stands apart from humanity, and yet also a part of it.  It's a fantastic character portrait, and one that, whilst offputting at the start, makes the end of the novella - Orpheus telling us about being torn apart by the Maenads - all the more affecting.

The illustrations, whilst rare, are also fantastic; they aren't common but they are beautiful and, even in the black-and-white of a Kobo screen, they really do add something to the novel: a certain beautiful lushness, and - along with a flowing and poetic writing style - really evoke the power of Orpheus, even if not in verse form.  The building of Orpheus into an unreliable narrator, unwilling to ever confirm or deny anything at the start of The Last Song... but giving hints and then outright denying towards the end of the novel, really does create an interesting and well-written story without being clear about truth and not.

In sum, then, The Last Song of Orpheus is a beautifully written character study and retelling by Silverberg of a famous myth, interacting with other myths - such as that of Odysseus - as the demands of story call.  A beautiful, and effective, piece of work; I highly recommend it!
Tarr's historical novel with added magic is quite a fantastic one; set around the end of the first millennium, Ars Magica combines reality and fiction with a deft hand, and despite the slightly disjointed prose style and lack of truly cohesive continuous narrative, this works remarkably well as a novel because of the focus on Pope Sylvester II - or, as he's known in the novel (mostly set before his accession to the Papacy), Gerbert.

Ars Magica follows the rise of Gerbert on his path to the Papacy, with an added wrinkle of his learning the Art of magic; that wrinkle doesn't change the basic history, although Tarr does so on a couple of other occasions, but only develops Gerbert's character and that of some other figures in the novel.  We see the feud over Rheims in focus strongly, as it takes up a significant amount of the novel, and the magical fall-out of some of Gerbert's decisions also affects the course of the plot.  It's a well-written, character-driven series of episodes, but it is such a series; the Parts, especially, feel somewhat disjointed, but even chapters within those Parts are rather disjointed and broken in such a way as to break up the flow of the narrative, jumping forward in time without really explaining what happened between events.

It's really the characters which make this novel work so well.  Gerbert is brilliantly written, not saintly but trying his best consistently, a conflicted and at times broken man who is struggling against his limitations; driven by a need to know and a powerful ambition we see him fall, multiple times across the course of the novel, and part of the joy of Tarr's writing is the extent to which we watch him attempt - and sometimes fail - to put himself back together after, and learn from, his falls.  Richer is, in the latter half of the novel, with him each time this happens as a faithful servant and guiding hand, and again makes an interesting character, as we see his mixed feelings - of jealousy and of love for Gerbert - and as we understand his concern, but also see Gerbert's driving emotions.  Indeed, the whole novel is peopled by characters with historical evidence behind them, perhaps excluding a few very early characters; and they are all very human and well-written, with Ars Magica providing a very intelligent view of the people of the turn of the millenium.

In sum, whilst the novel is perhaps not presented effectively as a single piece of prose, Ars Magica is a fantastic piece of historical magical realism, and Tarr has created a fantastic cast to people it.
Lest Darkness Fall is one of the earliest works of alternate history, and of a time-traveller going back in time and affecting the workings of history with his foreknowledge. L. Sprague de Camp’s novel is, naturally, of its time (1939) and place (the good ol’ USA), but at the same time de Camp does turn out a fantastic piece of fiction.

Lest Darkness Fall follows one man, Martin Padway, who falls back in time to 535 AD, and the fall of Roman civilisation as the Dark Ages close in, and his attempts to forestall that darkness, through technological innovation and an increasing political and military involvement. The character of Padway is, in the end, deeply problematic; that he is an American, with American ideals, and a classical education, is not a problem, given his introduction as an archaeologist on his way to the Lebanon, but over the course of the novel he displays knowledge of all too many different subject areas; he turns out to be a genius military tactician and politician, able to invent paper, the printing press, and telegraph alone (although he can’t manage gunpowder), and a politician without flaw. The problem with all this is that Padway is a complete Gary Stu; none of his plans fail, his tactics are perfect and unbeatable by men like Belisarius, the best general of the time, and he juggles so many balls without flaw as to be truly ridiculous.

The plot suffers from de Camp’s major flaw; the consequences of Padway’s actions throughout Lest Darkness Fall end up positive and with Padway in control and command, the American always managing to lead the Goths to victory, control their simple minds by sleight of hand and trickery, or otherwise work such things into success for himself. In this way we end up without seeing more than moments of doubt which we can be assured are false, and – especially with the relatively strong refusal of de Camp to think through alternative results of actions in the period, and to credit anyone but his American hero with intelligence and ability (certainly intelligence or ability to match that granted Padway!)

In the end, this novel is saved by the historical attention to detail of its early chapters – some fantastic work there – and the writing style of de Camp, which is stronger than anything else about this novel. I’d cautiously recommend Lest Darkness Fall, more for its influence on the alternate history genre than anything else (Harry Turtledove and Eric Flint for instance), but approach with care!
Wolfe's Book of the New Sun sequence is one of the defining works of 20th century fantasy, although - with its setting on an Urth with a dying sun, and cultural setting of a post-galactic empire which has collapsed back down to a single planet and lost its past knowledge - it technically, perhaps, counts as science fiction; Shadow of the Torturer introduces us to some stylistic quirks of Wolfe's style in the series, and introduces us to both our narrator and the main character, Severian.

Severian is the only character we get to know in Shadow of the Torturer, for two reasons; first, Wolfe's strictly realistic first-person style means we only ever know Severian's suppositions about other characters, and explicitly so, and we know how unreliable Severian is as a narrator early on; secondly, other characters appear only briefly across the span of the novel, attaching themselves to and then vanishing from Severian's sphere, affected by and affecting him but never there long enough at this stage for us to truly know any of them.
Severian's character, as demonstrated in Shadow of the Torturer, is a compelling enough one for us to follow in this novel and beyond, however.  Because he's an unreliable narrator, and we're seeing his own portrait of his youth, it's hard to know what to trust, but the character that emerges is a none-too-sure one, uncertain about what he wants to do with his life; indeed, Severian is torn in two by competing loyalties, and pastes love of various women on top of that, in a wrought and well-written adolescent style.  A sheltered youth thrust out into the world, Severian's character does draw us in, especially with the overlaid character of the elder, wiser Severian laid atop the young lad; thus we come to care for Severian even as we know he must survive.

The plot of Shadow of the Torturer is very simple, and yet avoids the trap common to many opening novels in series; whilst it is brief, and does set up future books, it avoids feeling as though that is all it did.  We follow Severian as he grows up in the Guild of Torturers, focussing on a small number of events, and as he is then cast out and sent to be a carnifex in Thrax.  Thus we discover the world Wolfe has created, of Urth, and we learn about what place the Torturers have in it, as Severian tells us those things, and - possibly - as he himself discovers them; what is fascinating about Wolfe's style is that he foreshadows future events simply by dropping references about the present Severian, rather than by more extreme or obvious methods, and that he uses the simplicity of the plot to allow him to explore the fascinating and fantastical world and draw the reader in with a beautiful, idiosyncratic prose style that is all his own.

Shadow of the Torturer is a strong opening novel to a renowned fantasy sequence, and - especially as it is usually found bound together with the second novel of the quadrilogy - an excellent draw to the series, and Wolfe's work; I'll certainly be following the rest of the Book of the New Sun, and I recommend you do, too!
Sullivan's Theft of Swords is, according to the interview at the end, a concious return to traditional fantasy, using tropes and cliches as a way to turn away from the gritty, amoral violence that is typified by authors such as Sam Sykes, Joe Abercrombie, R. Scott Bakker and many more; instead, judging from the the first instalment of the Riyria Revelations, the reader is in for relatively black and white morality (although not completely), and Leiber-inspired characters, with Tolkeinian elements to boot.

The characters of Theft of Swords are, by and large, written in broad brush strokes; they fulfil archetypes as well as being written in a relatively unsubtle way. That isn't to say they aren't good, or sympathetic, and certainly that they aren't likeable; after all, Hadrian especially is a very friendly fellow who the reader would have trouble with not developing fellow-feeling for.  Hadrian is our Fafhrd, in this story; he's more sophisticated than Leiber's sword-slinger starts out as, and older, but he is indeed the muscle partner, an excellent martial soul in, apparently, every respect, but able to display Conan-level stealth as well.   However, his real character is a good-humoured, good-intentioned man who wishes he was more clear-cut in his morality; a good man who is trying to survive in a poor world.
Royce (or the Gray Mouser), on the other hand, is a darker character, more amoral and financially driven, although that seems to be in part driven by a wish to go straight with his girl, Gwen; he's more willing to kill, to take jobs just for the money, but he's also more careful about what jobs they take.  As we get to know Royce he becomes more likeable as we break through his shell, seeing him through Hadrian's eyes, and he does show his humour; and there's a big reveal towards the end of the volume which isn't a reveal about him at all, just as there is in the closing pages of the novel about Hadrian that has been incredibly strongly telegraphed.
The other characters also follow archetypical roles; Esrahaddon is the sage old man who stands as Gandalf in the Hobbit, in a number of ways - stepping in to give guidance and save skins, but only occasionally and when convenient.  Princess Arista is a competent, intelligent woman, ambitious in her own right; she's one of the ways Theft of Swords moves away from its cliche-embracing origins, with a powerful and independent female character who acts as well as being acted upon, and indeed, who causes things to happen, very much so.  On the other hand her brother Alric begins his appearance as an entitled brat and grows in the obvious ways very quickly into his role as a king; it's a little pat and smooth, and really quite bland - which sums up many of the other characters, who are so role-defined (either role in the world, or role in the plot) that they don't really stand up.

The plot of the Theft of Swords is relatively straightforward; Sullivan presents the novel at first as straightfoward swords and sorcery, small players with low consequences; and indeed, this is how Hadrian and Royce see themselves.  The scale, however, keeps zooming out until we see worldwide consequences to their actions; set up to take the fall for killing a king, they're broken out by his daughter and kidnap, in order to save, the prince - now king.  Covering the first novel of the novel we see Arista and Alric, from different ends, unravelling the conspiracy and attempting to gather resources to reclaim the kingdom.  The second novel of the volume covers an attempt to save a village from a beast harassing it, by stealing a weapon; but of course, especially with the resurgence of issues from the first novel, the problem snowballs and grows to huge world-changing problems, to the point where the Riyria are affecting the fate of kingdoms.  The plot is tight and well-controlled, if occasionally a little spelled out or attempting to pull off big reveals of elements obvious to the readers for some time by the actual reveals; and Sullivan keeps our eyes on the ball, cutting and changing viewpoints effectively as well as ensuring digressions don't go on for too long.  The one problem the novel does suffer from stems from its... unique... entry to the publishing world; Sullivan appears to have avoided an editor.  There is padding aplenty, such as extensive descriptions of food (but variably so, so sometimes we see momentary mentions of meals, other times paragraph-long descriptions of a meal); recaps and repetition, within each novel, which are quite short, rendering such recaps somewhat pointless; and infodumps which don't have even the subtlest of disguises.  This is backed by the occasional problem of research or understanding - such as in the fighting scenes, where we see occasional severe problems in how they're handled; but overall the pacing is good and powerful, keeping the plot powering on and moving quickly and effectively.

All in all then, Theft of Swords is a very enjoyable novel, and the Riyria Revelations look like they'll shape up to be very fun, if by no means groundbreaking, fantasy; a high achievement from Sullivan, even if his understanding of the history of fantasy (which began, really, with Howard and Leiber, gritty writers indeed!) is a little questionable. I'd recommend this very willing to fans of, for instance, Jordan's version of Conan or people who dislike the darker grit of Sykes and Abercrombie.
Swanwick's The Iron Dragon's Daughter has been recommended by some very prestigious left-wing authors as essential genre reading for socialists, and the messages of the novel certainly seem to fit with that recommendation - its nihilism aside, perhaps; the problem is that, as essential reading goes, it is actually a bad book poorly written, and that really does show through strongly.

Swanwick's novel has as confused a plot as any novel you are likely to have read.  Jane is a changeling working in a factory at the start of the novel, and wishes to escape; with the help of the iron dragon of the title, Melanchthon, she manages this and we explore parts of the world Swanwick has created through her eyes.  The biggest problem is the way in which we do this; a sex-obsessed, message-laden, chaotic, cyclical and above all poorly plotted out novel (when decisions have consequences, they need to have consequences, not just have brief consequences and then vanish despite the scenario appearing again in future; when you've set a theme, follow it through; when a character has learned something, they need to not forget it at opportune moments for purposes of plot). Indeed, those flaws rather run through the story of the novel; and are backed up by something worse - bad characters.  Jane is poorly written, simplistic, and rather more bounced around by others' than driven by her own desires and decisions, with the occasional brief exception which always fall apart rapidly after opportunities have been seized; and no other character has even as much three dimensionality as Jane, rather being simple and basic, designed as foils or friends or teaching aids for the changeling.

The problem becomes acute as we see, in different situations, the same scenarios explicitly repeat, with characters reappearing and (perhaps) resurrecting; the cosmology of The Iron Dragon's Daughter is never explained and just assumed, but in such a way that beggars understanding, as people keep popping up without any explanation or logic behind it, and sometimes in multiple forms simultaneously.  This is backed up by a world that is built to have different elements which both cannot and do co-exist; we see a world simultaneously pre-industrial, industrialising, and post-industrial, without any logical reason for the different elements and kinds of world to co-exists.  And the nihilism at the heart of the novel is just horribly overstated, and yet at the same time undermined, in no small part by the plot itself, and writing style Swanwick employs (that this novel did not win a Bad Sex Award is surprising; the sex is frequent, appalling written, and deeply voyeuristic, and the incoherence of the novel as a whole is reflected in individual elements of Swanwick's style).

In the end, I came to The Iron Dragon's Daughter with high expectations and a willingness to give Swanwick a lot of credit; but the credit was squandered and my expectations were not only quashed but completely destroyed.  A really disappointing read.
Reading, and considering, Guy Gavriel Kay's historical high fantasies, a strong theme emerges; from Tigana, the first such, to Under Heaven, his most recent, we see not only turning points in history, or in culture, but the dying of a culture, it's slow and mournful ending.  The degree to which this is simply the end of a decline varies, but in The Lions of Al-Rassan, this comes through incredibly strongly; we're seeing the dying days of Al-Andalus, a regional power and hugely influential culture.

The characters of The Lions of Al-Rassan are, as per usual, well written; those we spend most time with, naturally, especially so.  Our El Cid and Ibn Ammar analogues are two of those characters, alongside a doctor named Jehane; each of the three interrelates in powerful, strange ways, defined largely by love and similarity, but also by ties of loyalty, duty, affection, and history.  The three different cultures - Jaddite, of Rodrigo Belmonte (roughly Christian); Asharite, of Ammar ibn Khairan (roughly Islamic); and Kindath, of Jehane (roughly Jewish) - are portrayed as quite varied, Kindath aside (whereas we do see zealots and barely-faithful Jaddites and Asharites, we only see reasonable and faithful Kindath); and in that variation our characters all fall into the same sort of place on the spectrum: faith forms a significant part of their identity, but doesn't - by its strictures - inform their actions.  Every character we meet, from Alvar to Ziri, is portrayed effectively and with a sympathetic eye, excluding the various religious zealots we see; and Kay lets us in on their innermost feelings and thoughts, giving us as readers an additional way to understand the events and world as he portrays it.

Those events are also incredibly well portrayed; The Lions of Al-Rassan demonstrates Kay's strengths in taking both the grand, political sweeps of history and the small, personal things on which events turn and combining them into a single, simple story, which follows the grand implications of personal decisions and the small results of grand events on a huge scale; Kay uses the plot, the exile of both Rodrigo and Ammar to the Asharite city of Ragosa, to explore the events leading up to and comprising the start of war between the Asharite and Jaddite powers in the peninsula.  The bonds of friendship and loyalty, tearing the characters apart and throwing them together, have a major effect on the plot, and the way that Kay draws in a number of elements - personal history being a major one (Kay's theory of history appears to centre on important individuals, not on sweeping narratives and societal pressures, as a rule) - to come to the powerful, grand climax at the novel's close is very well done.

The final thing to note about The Lions of Al-Rassan is another one common to Kay's work; the concern with a lyrical and poetic writing style.  Not only does Kay use poetry in the novel itself, there is also a lyrical style to the prose of the novel as a whole, and a concern with emotion and with individuals spinning off from the plot reminiscent of the great epic poets; both of these recall those epics and, one suspects, actively draw on them.  Kay's writing makes use of a number of techniques which really do add a power and inevitability to the novel, as well as a beauty to it; reading Kay's writing, from Tigana onwards, has the feeling of reading long-form prose, as it flows and moves, and the frequent uses of verse poetry in The Lions of Al-Rassan really highlights this.

In sum, then, the exploration of Al-Andalusan culture and the history of the Iberian Peninsula, with its culture, in the 10th and 11th centuries is beautiful and powerful; Kay's working of the plot and painting of the characters is, as usual, stunning, and I would therefore highly recommend The Lions of Al-Rassan.
Guy Gavriel Kay's post-Fionavar Tapestry trilogy has been of consistently high quality in my experience.  Kay's retelling of the An Lushan Rebellion, or rather the time leading up to it, is of a quality on a par with any of his other history-retellings; indeed, Under Heaven draws the (Western) reader into the foreign culture of C8th China and creates believable, empathetic characters - on all sides, surviving and otherwise, right and wrong.  Indeed, the reader comes out of this novel with no clear idea of who was in the right; and Kay, presumably, intended that here as much as he did in novels like Tigana.

The main character Under Heaven follows is Shen Tai, son of a general who won a victory between the Kitan and Taguran Empires - a victory in a battle with a huge death-toll.  The novel opens with Tai burying the dead, one at a time, in mourning for his father; this rather defines Tai's character - this, and the gift of 250 horses from the Taguran Empress.  That Tagur and Kitai had been at war for years before the peace won by Tai's father 20 years prior to the opening of Under Heaven means that Tai's life is turned upside down by this news.  Tai's character is very well written; we see him maturing, and growing, over the course of the novel - into a competent young man, intelligent and thoughtful, rather than somewhat impulsive at the opening.  Indeed, this rather tends to define our cast; whilst impulses do happen - and Kay demonstrates their long-term effect every time, with asides and offshoots we've come to expect from his style - generally all their actions are well thought out and considered, in all their implications.  Every character is well-painted and written thoughtfully and stylishly, so that whilst they're different they clearly come from the same culture; a very different culture to our own, leading to the reader clearly having an impression of that culture; and no character could be taken from the narrative without taking something essential from the plot and interactions of the cast.

The plot of Under Heaven is intricate and complex; rather than following the politics of the rebellion, we're following Tai's return home and his delicate attempt to balance the various interests standing in his way - and wishing to claim his horses.  Indeed, Tai's story is the centrepiece of the novel, and because of that, we brush against politics, getting simpler, more basic ideas of what led to the rebellion - but also complex relationships and rivalries over petty and important things alike, as in human nature.  Kay's idea of history comes out strongly here, the idea that small events and minor decisions can have a huge impact on world events; and indeed we see huge events having small consequences, too, with figures followed as they leave the narrative of Tai's life.  By the end of the novel, Tai's small action - of burying the dead in memory of his father - has impacted on a civil war that tears an empire apart, and defines the world.

The scale of Under Heaven is simultaneously grand and epic, and small and personal; the characterisation excellent, and the depiction of Chinese C8th culture simple and evocative.  All in all, another tremendous piece of writing from the master of this sort of work.

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