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Peacemaker by Marianne De Pierres

Peacemaker by Marianne De PierresReview: Peacemaker by Marianne De Pierres (Angry Robot, 2014)

Note – thanks to NetGalley and Angry Robot for providing the ARC of this title.

The place is Australia, the time somewhere in the not-too-distant future. In this world the steady encroachment of human dwellings into unspoiled natural lands has continued to frightening extremes. Very few areas of parkland remain and Birrinum Park is one of those. Despite the lack of obvious clues as to its location in the book I’ve decided it’s somewhere near Melbourne because I lived there for a year and it’s bloody lovely. So there. The unfortunately-monickered Virgin Jackson is a hard-working park ranger following in the footsteps of her deceased father. Willful and not entirely respectful of authority she finds herself roaming the park after hours one evening and stumbles across a couple of strangers who have no business being there. Before you know it she’s dealing with a dead body, a disappeared person and the reappearance of ghostly bird she’d last seen years ago.

Enter Nate Sixkiller (yeah, seriously), a US Marshall drafted in to help deal with the unfolding situation in Birrinum. It seems Virgin doesn’t work well with company and the imposing Native American lawman is no exception. Before long though they’re both embroiled in a plot involving shady secret societies, magical totems and animal spirit guardians. Virgin finds herself battling rival gangs, the police, her bosses and her own distrustful, reckless attitude with only a supernatural eagle to keep her in check.

If that all sounds a bit ridiculous to you then don’t worry, I wholeheartedly agree. Peacemaker is a random grab-bag of disparate elements but for all that it hangs together remarkably well. It’s not without flaws for sure. The attempts at writing in an American accent are clumsy and entirely unnecessary to the point of distraction at times. Also the plot seems to progress in fits and starts at times, almost as if a case of writers block had been solved by tossing a dart at a ‘what happens next’ board. More than these gripes though, what seemed to me to be part of the book’s core – the spirit animals – are left almost completely unexplained. I’m all for a bit of fill-in-the-blanks mystery in my books but come on, this is the one fantasy element in the book and we’re given almost nothing to go on except ‘there are these animals and they’re like ghosts but they’re not’. Maybe the next book will remedy the situation.

That said, Peacemaker is nothing if not a lot of fun. Yes it is strung together by a lot of random threads and influences but it’s done in such a carefree fashion that it’s hard not to like it. The characters are over-the-top in classic comic-book style, especially Sixkiller, and as such come to life pretty easily in your mind. Sometimes Virgin comes across as a little too whiny and shallow but I found myself rooting for her despite myself. There’s a lot of scope for development in the universe Marianne De Pierres has conjured up and hopefully its potential will be realised as her style matures.

So it’s a mixed bag really but one which manages to come out on top. Is it an all-time classic? Nope. Is it worth picking up for a quick, fun read on a rainy spring afternoon? For sure.


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Last God Standing by Michael Boatman

Last God Standing by Michael BoatmanReview: Last God Standing by Michael Boatman (Angry Robot, 2014)

Note: Thanks to Angry Robot for providing the ARC of this title

It must be tough being a god. No, seriously! I mean all day long you’ve got those prayers coming in from every corner of the globe, not to mention the fact that everyone’s a critic and they keep cursing your name. Then there are those sickeningly sycophantic angels crawling up your ass at every opportunity (for Jahweh at least). And the real kicker – if you let your guard down and people start following some other deity then you’re out on the spiritual street, resigned to the dustbin of theological history. So it’s no wonder that Jahweh decided to pack it in for a while and take a vacation in human form.

Last God Standing introduces us to Lando Calrissian Darnell Cooper (yeah, seriously), the very human incarnation of the Christian version of the Big Man Upstairs. Son of an unhinged, homophobic car salesman father and a similarly eccentric mother it was little wonder that Lando found himself treading the boards as a stand-up comic, playing the Chicago circuit and holding out for his big break. Between that and courting his girlfriend, a British-American martial arts aficionado, his life is relatively uncomplicated. Well, except for the whole being-God thing.

You see his absence has been noted by the representatives of various vanquished pantheons from Norse to Greek to Native American. They’re a tad upset that the current pretender to the throne is slacking on the job and are looking for some payback for their previous embarrassments at his ends. To that end Lando finds himself tapping into his reserves of divine power to clean up them mess when the likes of Thor decide a holy fistfight in the streets of Chicago is in order. And to make matters worse his extended vacation has left a gulf, one which is just begging to be filled by something or someone altogether more malevolent. Hey, what happened to Lucifer while God was kicking back…?

Last God Standing takes a very original premise and proceeds to have a hell of a lot of fun with it. Boatman has a sharp tongue and has no qualms about causing offence to the thin-skinned, which makes for hilarious reading at times. However he never crosses the line into being offensive for the sake of it (although I ‘m aware that other readers disagree here). Instead it puts me in mind of some of my favourite stand-ups, from George Carlin – who is repeatedly namechecked – to Jim Jeffries. Caustic but always well-meaning.

The divine smackdown scenes are ridiculously overblown and all the better for it. After all if you’re going to run with an idea like inter-deity warfare in city streets then why half-ass it? There’s a very visual element to the way these sequences play out, like I was watching them unfold on an Imax screen in my cranium. In fact the same could be said for much of the book, the natural flow of the story lending to a cinematic quality.

Of course the book isn’t without its flaws, naturally so for a debut full-length work. About half to two-thirds through the story takes a sudden leap away from what passes for its reality. In retrospect it doesn’t seem so bad but at the time of reading it was so jarring that it seriously derailed the plot and caused a temporary but sharp drop in my enjoyment. You ever watch Fringe? You know when they put Pacey in the machine and everything went weird and you kinda stopped watching after that? Yeah, that feeling. But thankfully the effect was short-lived and Boatman pulled things back together for a fitting finale.

One other quibble, and this has nothing to do with the content of the book itself. Angry Robot marketing team, what the hell are you doing? For starters, Last God Standing has been saddled with the worst cover I’ve seen since… well, I can’t even remember. If I still owned dead-tree books it’d be the worst cover in my extensive collection, the kind only found on Facebook groups dedicated to bad self-published fiction. Seriously. And another thing, the blurb the cover and even the title focus on the concept of God as a human stand-up comedian. In the book? Not so much. The whole stand-up thing isn’t even a MacGuffin, it’s entirely irrelevant. Lando could have been a street sweeper and things would have played out exactly the same. No big deal, just I was kinda looking forward to some actual stand-up being involved in the book itself beyond the two token passages we’re given.

But meh, that’s just splitting hairs. Stand-up or no stand-up, Last God Standing is a fun read and one which has inspired me to track down it’s author’s previous short works. Hopefully with a little more work he’s going to develop into a serious talent and I’ll be watching while it happens. Oh, and this book will probably really piss off your obnoxiously religious friends, which is always a good thing.

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Filed under Fantasy, Humour, Supernatural

The Deaths Of Tao by Wesley Chu

The Deaths Of Tao by Wesley ChuReview: The Deaths Of Tao by Wesley Chu (Angry Robot, 2014)

It’s no secret that I’ve become quite obsessive about my adopted island home of Taiwan so it’s always a joy to discover authors who hail from these shores. First it was Charles Yu whose How To Live Safely In A Science Fictional Universe has secured a permanent place on my favourite books list. Then along came Wesley Chu, another American author of Taiwanese origin, whose The Lives Of Tao was a fantastically original and enjoyable piece of sci-fi mayhem. Such was its success that he’s back already with a sequel (and another already in the pipeline). Not only that but this time he brings the action to Taiwan!

The Deaths Of Tao picks up a little down the line from its predecessor and the civil war is still raging between the Prophus and Genjix, rival factions of an alien species, the Quasing, who crash landed on Earth millions of years ago. Unable to survive in our atmosphere, these incorporeal and extraordinarily long-lived visitors inhabited the bodies of earthy organisms, hitching a ride until the rise of a conscious entity (us, naturally) with which they could communicate and whom they could also manipulate, feeding them information and ideas with an eventual aim of developing the technology which could return them home.

Idealogical differences over the Quasing’s treatment of their hosts sparked violent disagreement which soon escalated into full-blown war. Our protagonist Roen found himself an unwitting participant when the Prophus agent Tao, on the sudden death of his previous vessel, was forced to inhabit his body and induct him into the front ranks of this invisible conflict. The Lives Of Tao followed Roen’s training and struggle to accept this new reality with which he was confronted. By the time we pick up the story in Deaths both he and his Prophus friend have gone rogue, abandoning the Prophus council and following their own suspicions about recent Genjix activity. His estranged wife Jill and her Prophus remained where they were, although Roen keeps an eye out for their safety from his hidden missile silo. Yeah, this book is far from serious.

Before long Roen and Tao’s investigations bear fruit and the Prohus are forced to accept what is happening. The Genjix are attempting to recreate conditions suitable for their own unaided existence on this planet. Unfortunately this requires a significant increase in temperature and an environment entirely hostile to human life – global warming anyone? Following the trail requires Roen to rejoin the Prophus and infiltrate Genjix operation in Taiwan. Meanwhile Jill has her hands full in America as the Prophus influence in government wanes and it seems the Genjix are attempting to seize control of the entire country. On the Genjix front, one of their most venerated agents has acquired a new vessel, Enzo, trained from birth to be the perfect host – powerful, smart and deadly.

The Deaths Of Tao is really just more of the same and it’s very welcome for that. In between fleshing out the history of the alien inhabitation of our planet and the schism which led to the current situation, Chu weaves another massively entertaining tale, throwing together sci-fi, political intrigue and spy thriller. Although the tone is in some places significantly darker than the first installment it never loses its sense of humour. This is a book which is very aware of what it is, never taking itself too seriously or forgetting what it’s supposed to be. One of the strong points is the cast of characters. Flawed but likeable Roen, conflicted Jill, and their respective agents work together remarkably well and form an anchor for the rest of the novel. The supporting roles are equally well fleshed out and Chu managed to create a hell of a villain in Enzo – ruthless, willful and just generally detestable. He manages to toe the line between supervillain and overblown parody perfectly, always right at the limit of evil without ever straying into comedy territory.

And then there’s the Taiwan section. I was overjoyed to hear from Wesley himself that he had actually visited these shores to conduct some research under the guise of family visits. It certainly paid off and manages to lend those sections of the story that little bit extra authenticity. One niggling point though. Okay, I get that everyone knows Taipei and for the purposes of the story it made sense to send people there. And yeah, Kaohsiung is a fantastic city and deserving of its appearance. But come on, no Taichung? Not even a little? Have we offended thee Mr Chu? Here’s a deal, you can crash on my couch if you’ll write Feng Le sculpture park or the Greenway into the next installment. Or even better, an assault on City Hall! Just let me know…

In short, The Deaths Of Tao is extremely good fun. Nothing too heavy, just a perfectly balanced blending of sci-fi, comedy and action which should perfectly while away a lazy Sunday afternoon. If you haven’t read The Lives Of Tao already then do it. You won’t regret it, I promise. After that just try and stop yourself picking up this ridiculously fun sequel.

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Hang Wire by Adam Christopher

Hang Wire by Adam ChristopherReview: Hang Wire by Adam Christopher (Angry Robot, 2014)

Note: Thanks to Angry Robot for providing the Advance Reading Copy of this title.

Something is rotten in the city of San Francisco. A serial killer stalks the streets, selecting his victims under cover of night and garroting them with high tensile steel. The nickname bestowed upon him by the media? The Hang Wire Killer. An organisation of news bloggers covering current events in the city is out celebrating when a booby-trapped fortune cookie blows the roof off their party. During all this the circus has come to town but something sinister is lurking within. Trouble is brewing and the only hope for the city, and indeed the world, may be the ancient gods lurking unknown among us since time immemorial.

Well, if that isn’t a set-up for a gloriously silly and enjoyable book I don’t know what is…

Hang Wire hangs together through a series of flashbacks, slowly filling in the gaps telling us how the state of affairs came to be. A trail of murders and a quest for power provide the background, while in the present things get ever stranger. Ted, the blogger injured in the cookie attack, is recovering quickly with seemingly no ill effects. Not until he starts sporadically losing consciousness and awakening with no memory of what happened. His co-workers are worried, particularly his partner Alison, but there seems to be nothing they can do. But then Benny starts acting strange, and who invited Bob the beach bum dance instructor to the party?

And then there’s the circus. Little by little the camaraderie which binds the workers together seems to be unravelling. Fistfights are breaking out and tensions are high. The ringleader is acting strangely and the star attraction, tightrope walker High Wire, refuses to practice with his crew and disappears at night. Exacerbating matters are the Celtic dance troupe, taking their fire rituals a little more seriously than would be comfortable.

Hang Wire tells a number of tales all at once. It’s a detective story, a horror, a little bit of science fiction and a lot of urban fantasy. It’s a heady mix and throwing all these elements together means Adam Christopher is able to keep things rolling along at a hell of a pace. Just when you think you’ve got one thread untangled, bam! He hits you with a new murderer, superhero or plain old deity. Weaving all this together requires a lot of moving around, not only in space but also time, yet the story never really loses its way. Somehow coherence is maintained while you’re reeling from one supremely confusing (or confused) viewpoint to another.

Which brings me to another of Hang Wire‘s strong points. An intricate plot like this requires a large cast and this is where many similar novels fall down. By sacrificing quantity for quality, many authors wind up with an ensemble of paper-thin caricatures, leaving the entire book without any weight. Adam Christopher in comparison manages to imbue each of his lead characters with distinct personalities and motivations, lending his story an unexpected heft. Even minor players have their important roles in the story and he handles each as an individual, not merely as disposable plot elements. More of this in contemporary storytelling please.

Unfortunately the diversity of elements at play, while being one of Hang Wire‘s strengths, was also for me one of its weaknesses. At points it just gets a little too much. In the beginning everything seems fine and the story develops with just the right amount of novelty and surprise but somewhere around the halfway point you start thinking, “Are you kidding? Now there’s a samurai? And a magic monkey?”. Maybe it’s just me but I felt he could maybe have reined in the craziness a little and saved some of it for a sequel. However as I said earlier the book never loses its cohesion despite everything which is going on. Something of a miracle if you ask me.

Son on the whole Hang Wire gets a big thumbs up. The urban fantasy genre may have become a little saturated of late but this is certainly a fresh addition to the shelf. From psychotic gods to ancient forces lurking beneath, from living ferris wheels to evil Riverdance, Adam Christopher packs it all in. Just remember to suspend your disbelief for the duration, or send it to the pub for the evening…

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Filed under Detective, Noir, Urban Fantasy

iD by Madeline Ashby

iD by Madeline AshbyReview: iD by Madeline Ashby (Angry Robot, 2013)

Is it possible to truly create artificial intelligence? Fabricated beings which truly experience the same fears and desires as ourselves? Given the rapid pace of advance in AI research and computing power we may find out soon. This means asking ourselves some serious questions. How would we treat such beings? Would they exist on an even footing with us, creation alongside creator? Would they be independent, autonomous agents or would we seek to control them? And would we, as the creators, be justified in treating them as we treat our mp3 players?

iD takes us back to the world of such sentient robots envisioned in Madeline Ashby’s debut novel, vN. In the first installment the vN (von Neumann machines) were slowly becoming a normal part of human life, as labourers, friends and partners, until Portia appeared. The mother of a vN called Amy, Portia developed a contempt for humanity and discovered a way around the failsafe, the inbuilt switch which causes vN to shut down on witnessing or even contemplating human suffering. Hiding away inside Amy’s consciousness, Portia triggered a round-up of vN, with the upshot finally being Amy, her vN partner Javier forming a massive, conscious raft, a floating haven for vN around the world.

This is where iD opens, the island now a vN refuge protected by Amy’s lack of failsafe and Portia supposedly destroyed. However, Amy represents a threat which those in authority cannot stomach and it’s not long before they target the island in a devious attack, killing Amy and forcing Javier and the other vN to flee for their lives. Javier slips into the underground, hunting down a backup copy of Amy. Meanwhile his enemies are tracking him down, humans and vN alike. The trail for the sole existing copy of Amy, his last chance to be reunited with the vN he loves, leads him inexorably towards the religious cult which created his kind in the first place, created them to be servile companions for those unfortunate enough to be left behind following the Rapture. It’s not long before dark secrets and grimy skeletons start tumbling out of closets.

At times iD is a truly uncomfortable read and this is one of its strengths. Ashby is not one to shy away from asking the questions we’d often rather avoid, no matter to which unpleasant corners of the human psyche they may lead. The core theme of iD is the human urge to control and subjugate. Fortunately most of us possess the moral checks and balances which prevent us from exercising this urge on our fellow humans. But what if that switch were turned off, if we were allowed free reign over those who were merely humanlike, who could do nothing to harm us, who we could convince ourselves weren’t ‘real’?

The answers which Ashby uncovers in iD are unsettling and serve as a warning to be on our guard at all times. The treatment of Javier from the outset is stomach-turning, his failsafe manipulated for everything from sexual gratitude to murder and betrayal. As he delves ever deeper into the post-Amy world, a world ruled by distrust of vN, we learn more of how the humans have exploited the vN for all manner of purposes. This book does no favours for your estimation of the capabilities of your fellow man. In fact you might come away feeling more than a little dirty.

Thankfully these explorations of our darker side and potential for evil never bog down the explosive plot and Ashby keeps things rocketing along at pace throughout. In fact it’s so well handled that the more cerebral aspects of iD seem to sneak into your subconscious without you even noticing. You’ll just suddenly find these thoughts roaming around the cellars of your brain with no idea how they got through the door in the first place. To me that’s one of the hallmarks of a great book.

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The Lives Of Tao by Wesley Chu

The Lives Of Tao by Wesley ChuReview: The Lives Of Tao by Wesley Chu (Angry Robot, 2013)

I’ll admit it, I’m a sucker for the wish-fulfillment branch of sci-fi/fantasy. You know the kind, when the protagonist just could be you or someone you know. Like The Never-Ending Story for grown-ups. Hell, it’s nothing to be ashamed of. Escapism’s half the reason we read, transporting ourselves to other worlds, other eras. Now and again it’s fun to be in our own era and our own bodies, becoming the hero, leaving the desk-job behind. Welcome to The Lives Of Tao.

Roen Tan is nobody. Slowly aging, getting wider every year, stuck in a cubicle farm in an anonymous software development company. He has no spine, his boss rules his life. He can’t gather the courage to ask for a date, and even if he did his lack of confidence and physique would make the outcome more or less certain. Then Tao comes into his life – and I mean literally.

Tao is a Prophus, an agent for one faction of an alien species fighting an invisible civil war among us. They’ve been here since before the dinosaurs, working to advance the evolution of local species until able to construct a craft to take them home. Why not do it themselves? The Prophus and their rivals the Genjix are gaseous lifeforms unable to survive in our atmosphere. They must inhabit hosts, sharing with them all of their memories from previous hosts through their unimaginably long lifespans. Humans, being the most intelligent species around, are their vessel of choice and all the major events of our history have been manipulated by them to allow us to advance technologically as fast as possible. The catch is that once a Prophus or Genjix enters a host they are stuck there until that host’s death.

Tao and his vessel Edward, something of a superspy in the James Bond mould, find themselves trapped following an incursion into Genjix territory – a Chicago skyscraper. Unwilling to allow his Prophus to be captured, Edward sacrifices himself, allowing Tao to seek out a new host. Unfortunately Tao’s time is limited and suitable vessels in the vicinity are thin on the ground. With scant seconds left on the clock Tao dives into… guess who?

The Lives Of Tao plays out more or less predictably from here on out. Tao, as a high-ranking spy, must whip Roen into shape in order to continue their urgent fieldwork. Cue a series of ridiculous training montages in literary form. You can almost hear the 80s cheese-rock pumping in the background as Roen has his befuddled ass kicked over and over by his mentors. All the time the Genjix are tracking him down, the net tightening around him as they race to eliminate him before his training is completed.

Sound silly? Yeah, that’s because it is. It’s gloriously silly, revelling in all the action tropes it picks up and abuses. This is not a book which takes itself seriously at all. That’s not to say it isn’t engaging though; I was hooked from the get-go by the basic premise, the hugely entertaining action scenes and Chu’s nerd humour. On top of this there’s a minor sub-plot unfolding in the background as Tao relates the history of his species’ arrival on Earth, his own experience in hosts such as Genghis Khan, and the schism which led to the current war. Some of the historical sections are wonderfully playful – the Black Death as a slate-cleaner to erase the Dark Ages? – while others are frighteningly plausible.

The Lives Of Tao is brain candy, no doubt, but with an uncanny gravitas which keeps it stuck in your head well after you finally force yourself to put it down. Especially recommended for any nerd who has ever found themselves hating a soulless office job.


Filed under Alternate History, Science Fiction

Mockingbird by Chuck Wendig

Mockingbird by Chuck WendigReview: Mockingbird by Chuck Wendig (Angry Robot, 2012)

Mockingbird is the second in the Miriam Black series by Chuck Wendig, following on the heels of 2010’s Blackbird (reviewed here at Mountains Of Instead). Miriam is a loner, an angry and twisted dropout with a healthy disrespect for authority and a venomous tongue. Since her teens she has drifted around the highways of the US, hitching rides and picking up what little money she can to get by. What sets her apart is the fact that any skin-to-skin contact with another person allows her to see, in graphic details and down to the minute, the manner of their eventual death.

The first novel set the background to the tale, describing how Miriam used her power to follow the soon-to-be deceased, looting their corpses when they drop. Having long ago had it demonstrated to her that she could never change the inevitable she discarded any sense of morality and resigned herself to a life alone. Until a certain trucker stepped into her life, causing her to rethink. Cue a kindling romance, an escalating conflict with a sinister criminal and an eventual reason that the future may not be as fixed as she once believed, just so long as the scales remain in balance.

At the start of Mockingbird, Miriam has settled down to life with Louis and is realising what happens when a bird is caged. The monotony of a nine-to-five job, the constant vigilance to ensure she never so much as brushes against another human and the fact of Louis’s job keeping him from her for weeks at a time are wearing her down. Something is about to snap in her when she is saved by a job, suited to her particular talents. …, a friend of Louis working at a school for troubled orphan girls, believes her life is soon to be cut short by cancer and wants to know for sure, freeing herself from the uncertainty and stress. The lure of a cash reward and a chance to use her power is too much to resist and the pair set off. Of course, things are never going to be as straightforward as they seem.

The remainder of Mockingbird turns into a game of cat and mouse with Miriam pitting her wits against a twisted serial killer targeting the charges at …’s school. What should be a routine thriller is given more mileage by the unique nature both of Miriam’s talents, not to mention her tenacious nature, and the depravity of the killer she finds herself squaring off against. Wendig’s characterisation is as strong as ever, giving life to what could easily have been a two-dimensional cast in another author’s hands. Dependable Louis, neurotic … and the slippery PE coach head up a cast of believable characters with plenty potential for interesting interaction.

However, Mockingbird stumbles a bit when it comes to keeping the fires stoked under the plot. In the first novel the balance between Miriam’s inner turmoil and the events unfolding around her was spot-on, allowing the reader inside her head while still keeping thing moving. This second installment spends far too much time wrestling with Miriam’s angst though. What should have just been a secondary plot driver instead takes centre stage and moves Miriam from sympathetic anti-heroine to whining brat. The first half suffers particularly from this, leaving me thinking “Okay, I get it, you feel suffocated and conflicted – just do something about it!” I’m pretty sure you’re not supposed to secretly want bad things to happen to your protagonist…

So Mockingbird¬†still ends up with a passing mark. It’s a good read, mindless fodder for holiday time if you prefer your fiction with a darker tinge and some sarcastic bite to it. It’s not perfect and it fails to live up to Wendig’s potential but it still sits head and shoulders above the majority of titles in the genre. One for reading when one requires a guilty pleasure heavy on entertainment and light on substance.

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Moxyland by Lauren Beukes

Moxyland by Lauren BeukesReview: Moxyland by Lauren Beukes (Angry Robot, 2010)

Set in South Africa a mere few decades hence, Moxyland is an intoxicating tale of greed, rebellion, betrayal, hedonism and hope, all wrapped up in a smothering blanket of state control and corporate oppression. This future world is a bleak, dismal place. Despite the promises of ever-advancing technology and growing economies the gap between rich and poor constantly widens. Big business controls the planet, plastering every surface with advertising and holding the population to ransom through a Kafkan legal system, all the while aided and abetted by a government which views the majority of its citizens as near-worthless commodities.

The action follows four distinct narratives, each interlinked with the others and all spiralling towards the same inevitable conclusion. First up is Toby, an egotistical drop-out living on the cash advances of his estranged mother, blowing every penny on designer clothes and drugs and documenting every step for his blog. ¬†His friend Tendenka is an activist, alarmed at the increasingly fascist nature of his adopted country and leading ever-more daring actions against the powers-that-be at the behest of the mysterious *skyward. Occasionaly aiding and abetting Tendenka through her access to certain corporate ivory towers is Lareto, a ruthless and ambitious corporate executive who views others a mere stepping stones on her journey to power. Finally we have Kendra a young artist who has transformed her entire body into a corporate billboard – nanotech implants give her flesh a green hue and render her addicted to her sponsor’s soft drink with the bonus of enhancing her natural physical abilities.

Moxyland drags these four characters together as Tendenka’s protests against the government advance from simply reprogramming billboards to sabotaging art exhibitions and beyond. His earnestness in acheiving his aims is matched only by his lack of comprehension of the potential outcomes. The threat de jour is disconnection, with offenders being cut off from any services requiring identification, i.e. nearly everything. Prior to outright disconnection comes ‘pacification’, with the police forces able to deliver massive and extended electrical charges to any miscreants via their mobile phones. But Tendenka doesn’t understand just how far the authorities will go to preserve order and protect their corporate backers. To Toby this is all a joke, something to pass the time until he decides which (if any) direction to take with his pleasure-soaked life. Kendra is dragged into all this by Toby, becoming the unwitting target of his affections. Lareto sits safely above the other three. Safe from such threats as disconnection she maneuvers her way through the world of business politics, dispensing favours to old friend Toby at Tendenka’s request. Which is of course the request of *skyward. And just who is *skyward anyway?

The debut novel of Lauren Beukes, whose wonderful The Shining Girls I reviewed at the Mountains Of Instead, Moxyland is a beautifully nihilistic portrayal of a world gone wrong. With its roots sunk firmly in the cyberpunk genre its gritty streets festooned with technological marvels bring to mind the very best of the genre, from Gibson to Dick to Stephenson. The concept of a future inhabited by a select few haves lording it over the legions of have-nots is well-worn but it’s seldom brought to life as vividly as Beukes manages. You can almost feel the grime under your fingerprints as you read thanks to her obsessive attention to detail and wonderful talent for fleshing out characters.

There is a true warmth at the heart of this novel, which may seem a surprise as it is drenched in despair, violence and deprivation from the outset. Make no mistake, there are no happy endings in Moxyland. This is no fairy tale and Beukes pulls no punches in delivering her warnings about the dangers of creeping corporate powers. And the great tragedy of Moxyland is that despite the oppressive environment which they inhabit, the eventual outcome is the result of her characters’ own flaws. Hubris, greed, naivete, narcissism – they all pile on top of each other until the whole world comes crashing down.

It’s no mean feat to craft an addictive page-turner from such apparently hopeless premises. However, and remember that this is a debut, Lauren Beukes has managed to do it. Moxyland is an effortless read, yet one which constantly forces you to think, to reassess your opinions and to challenge your ideas. It’s bloody lovely. And if you’ll excuse me, I’m off to soak it all in again.

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Filed under Cyberpunk, Dystopian, Noir, Science Fiction

Crux by Ramez Naam

Crux by Ramez NaamReview: Crux by Ramez Naam (Angry Robot, 2013)

Well I was planning to review Lauren Beukes’s rather stunning Moxyland, but seeing as I just finished this book a few nights ago and it hasn’t yet been published – thanks to Angry Robot for the advance copy – it’s jumping to the head of the queue. Straight off the bat, if you haven’t read Nexus, the precursor to Crux, then there may be little bits of spoiler in here for you. If you have no idea what Nexus is then go read my review, buy it, love it and get Crux on your wishlist.

In Nexus, Ramez Naam constructed a near-future world in which neuroscience has advanced to a remarkable degree. Pioneers of the new technology combine drugs with nanotechnology to radically overhaul the brain’s operating system. This allows for rapid learning, shared experiences and a host of other benefits. Unfortunately, less scrupulous individuals have co-opted these new abilities to suit their own ends, such as turning otherwise normal people into utterly compliant sheep. The resulting furore resulted in international treaties criminalising much research and driving many of the new science’s pioneers underground.

One such pioneer, our hero Kade and his friends Rangan and Ilya, made massive improvements to a drug known as Nexus, finally allowing minds to combine, to communicate directly with each other. To the government though, and the newly formed ERD (Emerging Risks Directorate) in particular, Nexus represented a direct threat to humanity, allowing users to surpass the abilities of modified mankind and potentially resulting in an intra-species war. Infiltrating Kade’s group with a Nexus-modified agent, they blackmail him into turning over the secrets of Nexus and spying on the uncannily intelligent Shu-Yung Su, a leading Chinese neuroscience expert.

Things don’t go quite as planned…


Crux picks up the tale directly where Nexus left off. The ERD’s plan is in tatters. Their agent, Sam, has been turned against them by her own experiences of the beauty and hope which Nexus can offer. Kade has rigged Nexus with back doors which allow him to enter the minds of any users, subverting any ERD attempts to exercise control. He is protected by Feng, a member of the Confucian Fist, China’s first regiment of cloned, augmented super-soldiers. Shu-Yung, revealed to be an uploaded consciousness in a clone body and the first true posthuman, is alive following an ERD assassination attempt but her body did not survive. Instead her mind resides in a supercomputer far under a Shanghai university, raging against both the Americans who attempted to destroy her and the Chinese – including her husband – who now keep her imprisoned.

Elaborating on the disparate plot elements of Nexus, Crux branches off in yet more directions. In America there are the political assassinations being carried out by the PLF (Posthuman Liberation Front) against those in power who have stripped Nexus users of all rights as US citizens. Working within the administration, ostensibly against the PLF as well as Kade and his imprisoned friends, is Dr. Martin Holzmann, now a Nexus user himself and increasingly suffering under the weight of a guilty conscience. His guilt only increases further when he learns that the ERD is not only holding but is also torturing children born to Nexus users, born with the drug already augmenting their developing minds.

Meanwhile in Asia, Kade and Feng are constantly on the run from bounty hunters chasing the sizable cash reward offered by the US for their capture. Suddenly, offering some form of sanctuary, appears the transhuman guru, Shiva Pradash. He seeks Kade for his help to bring Nexus to the people of the world, to give humanity a helping hand on its way to what he sees as the next level of evolution. However, his fixation with gaining access to Kade’s back doors is more than a little troubling. Sam soon ends up on a collision course with them following her experiences tending for orphaned or unwanted Nexus children. And in Shanghai we learn of the true power of posthumans when Shu-Yung’s daughter Ling starts missing her mother a little too much.

So that’s the plot out of the way. How does it actually fare as a novel? Well if you read my Nexus review you’ll know that I consider it a tough act to follow. Perhaps not surprisingly, Crux doesn’t quite hit the mark – but don’t be put off just yet. The two major problems with Crux are slightly contradictory. First off is the pacing. Where Nexus rattled along at breakneck speed from start to finish, Crux seems to constantly get bogged down in details. It’s not so much that there is a lack of action and plot development, it’s just that every vaguely important point is hammered home repeatedly until you’re sick of hearing about it. This detracts from the story itself in a noticeable way and didn’t seem to me to be particularly necessary.

In contrast to the pace issue it seems to me like Naam is trying to cram too many elements into one story, concentrating too much on each individual strand and allowing the whole to suffer as a result. Crux ends up challenging the Song Of Ice And Fire series for the title of “Most Concurrent Threads In A Single Work” and falls into the same trap. By neglecting particular story arcs for too long they seem to have less impact when they return to the forefront.

But is it all bad? Well that’s a resounding “No!”. The technology and the study of its political and social implications remains as engaging as ever. Naam continues his exploration of the potential abuses of drugs like Nexus and delves ever deeper into the government’s possible reaction. Some may claim that his portrayal of the power-hungry and paranoid administration’s crackdown on Kade and his allies is overblown and heavy-handed but recent political events, from the reaction to 9/11 to the Snowden affair, paint a different picture. And far from becoming too biased in his handling of events he takes pains to ensure that he gives airtime to as many different viewpoints as possible. Kade, Sam, Shiva, Shu-Yung, Holzmann, and every other character has their own unique take on Nexus, on where it will lead and what the best moral response entails.

And despite my complaint about the pacing, it must be said that when action does erupt it does so in style. Naam seems to have refined his ability to depict everything from fistfights to full-on assaults. The book’s two action setpieces – furious attacks on a nightclub and an island fortress – erupt in gloriously chaotic and cinematic detail. It can be tricky to follow at times, verging on outright confusion, but this serves to create an even deeper authenticity, the literary equivalent of viewing the scene through the lens of a handheld camcorder. It may be shaky but it’s certainly intense.

To sum up, Crux may not quite live up to the extremely high standard of Nexus but it’s a close-run thing. The problems from which it suffers stem from a lack of judicious editing rather than the content itself and I would love to see a pared-down version with the unnecessary fat trimmed away. It offers a very satisfying continuation of the adventures in Nexus and paves the way for what will hopefully be a near-apocalyptic third installment.

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