ISAAC ASIMOV: 100 Years of Genius

I remember where I first encountered Asimov, but not when. I’m certain I was still in primary school, so i can’t have been older than ten, but that’s about it. As to the where, it was Richard Booth’s Bookshop in Hay-On-Wye, the second-hand book capital of the world. Lost in a cellar filled with thousands of ancient paperbacks, I left the building with two. Pirates of the Asteroids and Foundation. Both by Isaac Asimov.

The former was exactly what the cover and blurb would lead you to believe. A rollicking adventure story of a young man using his wits to overcome a band of pirates dwelling in our solar system’s asteroids. A list of similarly pulp-sounding titles in the series appeared on the inside cover. But what caught my eye was a foreword by the author, in which he apologised for using out of date science in the book, and offered a few updates. Hold on a minute, I thought. The science in this matters? Brilliant! Knowing that the author knew their stuff assured me I was in safe hands.

And then there was Foundation. Here was a book like nothing I had ever read. Or anything I have read since. Every few chapters, the characters would be forgotten and Asimov would skip ahead a few decades. There was no real overarching plot, just a series of episodes like some bizarre TV series. Each would present its own unique problem, then wrap it up before being packaged away and left behind. The scope of the thing was massive. A Galactic Empire sinking into decline, with its only hope a colony of intellectuals banished to a remote world.

It would be years until I read the follow-ups to either book, but the names stuck with me. Salvor Hardin. Terminus. Anacreon. Trantor. Later they would be joined by others. Daneel Olivaw. The Mule. Bel Riose. Every bookshop I visited, I kept an eye out for that exotic name. A name so distinct it often appeared alone. Not Isaac Asimov. Simply: Asimov. Aside from possibly a few Star Wars EU books, I had never read much SF before. But from Foundation onward, I was hooked.

There can be no doubt that Asimov is one of the most important authors of the 20th century. A man who helped popularise an entire genre. These days, it seems like he has fallen out of favour a little, with criticisms applied to his writing, calling it basic, or workmanlike. But that’s missing the point. Asimov’s work may not have elegant sentences or long-running metaphors, but it has something more important: Accessibility. That’s what writing is, after all. A means by which to convey ideas. And Asimov had ideas enough for a dozen authors. The simplicity of his style is its elegance. He had an unrivalled gift for making even the most mundane of things seem amazing.

Something else that separates Asimov from so many others is his love of intellect. His heroes are rarely the type to go charging around the Galaxy with a gun, blasting down hordes of enemies. No, they’re smarter than that. Foundation posits a world where only cleverness can save us. Not just cunning or outwitting our enemies, but the preservation of knowledge itself. This is not just uniquely entertaining. It is inspiring. Even in the face of humanity’s darkest hours, a book can be more powerful than the deadliest weaponry. If that is not the greatest ideal SF can teach, I don’t know what is.

My love of Asimov has come a long way. Over the years, I’ve hunted down all but one of his books (Return of the Black Widowers, if anyone has a spare), and read them again and again, finding fresh delight each time. For my A-Levels, I wrote a short SF piece heavily inspired by Foundation, particularly Bel Riose. Then at University, I wrote my Master’s dissertation on the role of Empires in SF, an idea I had first encountered thanks to Asimov. Here I also discovered the overwhelming negative view of genre literature held by Academia at large. Given Asimov’s love of learning, incorporated into so many of his works, I was enraged, saddened, and amused in equal measure by this resistance. But in the end, i graduated with a first. I could not have done that without Asimov.

Asimov died in 1992, before I was born, but he’s been a part of my life for over a decade and a half now. Today would have been his one hundredth birthday. Probably. Record-keeping was not a strong point of post-Revolutionary Russia. I don’t know how we would have celebrated the day, though i assume he’d have spent it writing. All I know is that I’ll celebrate the genius of Asimov by reading on of his books. And then likely a couple more.

THE SHAPE OF THINGS TO COME: Upcoming SF in 2020

As we head into the futuristic space year 2020, it’s time to look ahead at what sort of SF we’re going to be treated to. This list is by no means comprehensive, as I’m not the omniscient superbeing I’d like to be. But here’s a sampling of what we can look forward to. All dates taken either from Amazon, publisher, or studio announcements.

January 1 – Doctor Who: While the first season of the Whittaker/Chibnall area was rough going, I have high hopes for the sophomore year. With Judoon and Cybermen both poised to return, here’s hoping the storytelling can match up to the quality of acting and effects from last season.

January 10 – The Good Place: The final few episodes of this bizarre, wonderful show ill doubtless bring countless surprises. With so much going on, it’ll be a tricky one to wrap up, but getting to the end will certainly be fun.

January 10 – Titans: With the cast now set in place – Oh, who am I kidding. They’re adding more characters. The Netflix UK release of Season 2 comes the same year as the American release of Season 3, making this one of the few genre shows to survive the swathe of cancellations in 2019.

January 11 – Lord of the Dark Millennium (Dan Abnett): A massive anthology of Dan Abnett’s 40k short stories, covering Gaunt’s Ghosts, inquisitors and more besides.

January 23 – Star Trek: Picard: The series that has the potential to make or break the entire franchise, I have nothing but optimism when it comes to Patrick Stewart’s return to the stars. Hopefully this optimism will be reflected in the show itself.

January 23 – The Puzzler’s War (Eyal Kless): The follow-up to Lost Puzzler that I wasn’t sure was happening, this post-apocalyptic science fantasy has both my curiosity and my attention.

January 30 – Bone Silence (Alastair Reynolds): The final volume in its trilogy, this looks set to wrap things up nicely for the sisters Ness.

February 4 – The Firmament In Flame (Drew Williams): I’m still a book behind on the Universe After series, but any author who can make me enjoy a book about psychics in space clearly deserves a place on this list.

February 6 – The Last Day (Andrew Hunter Murray): QI elf and No Such Thing As A Fish host Andrew Hunter Murray turns to genre writing with this post-apocalyptic tale of a world that has stopped spinning.

February 18 – Light of Impossible Stars (Gareth L. Powell): I only discovered Powell’s work this year, and the final Embers of War novel has shot to the top of my most-anticipated list. This is space opera at its very best.

April 16 – The Last Emperox (John Scalzi): The fast-paced, foul-mouthed space opera of the Interdependency comes to a climax with the third book. Not all of Scalzi’s endings have worked for me, but hopefully this one will.

May 28 – The Doors of Eden (Adrian Tchaikovsky) – A portal-based slice of SF from one of the genre’s most prolific and diverse authors. I’m going into this one pretty blind, but Tchaikovsky is an author who rarely disappoints.

July 9 – Demon In White (Christopher Ruocchio): The middle installment of Ruocchio’s baroque, sprawling space epic sees Hadrian travelling into the heart of the Sollan Empire. Ruochhio is one of the bets authors to emerge in the past few years, and I’m eager to see where he takes us next.

July 21 – Ballistic (Marko Kloos): The second book in Kloos’ second military SF series, dealing with post-war rebuilding, and those who want to see a return to the violent past.

September 17 – To Sleep In A Sea Of Stars (Christopher Paolini): The author of Eragon returns to novel writing with his new science fiction work. Not much to go on at this point, but his fantasy work got me into that genre, so hopefully he can carry the same passion and skill into SF.

September 21 – A Desolation Called Peace (Arkady Martine): The sequel to Martine’s brilliant debut, this is the book I am most looking forward to.  Empires, imperialism and colonialism, this is the future of the thinking person’s SF, while still being a cracking story in its own right.

December 18 – Dune: The latest adaptation has everything going for it. Budget. Writers. Cast. Marketing. Even if it’s only half as good as I hope, it will still be one of the best films of the year.

 

Also coming in 2020, we have Season 5 of The Expanse (and possibly the final novel of the series as well), a new season of The Orville and the potential of books from many more of my favourite authors.

Something I’ve forgotten?
Something you can’t wait to get your hands on?

Tell me about it, and I’ll see you in the New Year.

BOOK REVIEW: Starsight, by Brandon Sanderson

-Spoilers for Skyward, and mild spoilers for Starsight-

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Publisher: Gollancz

Series: Skyward (2)

Genre: Space Opera

Pages: 457

Publication Date: 28/11/2019

Verdict: 5/5

Spensa has uncovered the truth. That the aliens who assault her world are in fact jailers with all of humanity as their prisoners. When an opportunity presents itself to infiltrate the enemy and learn how to destroy them.

Brandon Sanderson’s Young Adult space opera continues. While the first act follows on pretty neatly from the first book, from then on it goes off in a completely different. As usual, Sanderson’s pacing is on point, with the pace rarely slowing down once the action has started, and the action starts soon. Without going into spoiler territory, this book also has the usual Sanderson hallmarks of snappy dialogue, larger-than-life characters, and a slow-burn universe that is always on the cusp of revealing yet another secret.

In this volume, we leave the world of Detritus behind, and head for the alien colony of Starsight as Spensa infiltrates the ranks of humanity’s opponents. There are a lot of aliens involved, from the familiar Krell to the genderless Diodes to an utterly alien race who exist only as smells. There is, on occasion, a sense that we’re only seeing the surface of a much larger universe, with aliens of all sorts being thrown into play, but this never detracts from the plot. In a way, the ancient enemy of humanity feels like a darker take on Star Trek‘s Federation, with hundreds of different species working toward a seemingly common goal.

Once again, our narrator is Spensa, with interludes from Jorgen’s perspective. Accompanied by M-Bot the sentient fighter jet and her adopted pet Doomslug, Spensa is separated from the cast of the first book. But fear not, for there are of course new characters in town. Representing a group of species without ever being reduced to crude stereotypes, this new dramatis personae is a far cry from the first, but each brings their own skill set and charm to the table.

Much has been made of Sanderson’s worldbuilding, and that is on fine form in Starsight. As is ever the case with his novels, Young Adult or otherwise, nothing is quite what it seems, and there are twists and turns that will keep you guessing right up until the end. Not just in terms of worldbuilding and plot, but in the nature of the story itself. Starsight is a book that manages to be many things at once. this may put off some readers, but for me it was the icing on the cake. It is to Sanderson’s credit that none of these shocking revelations ever seem out of place, even as he turns worlds on their head. If you look closely enough, you’ll see all the clues were there from the start.

As a minor aside, in my copy of the book, Chapter 45 comes after the Epilogue, which seems an odd decision to me. Either a printing error or an unusual choice, but make sure you don’t stop reading too soon.

All told, this book cements Sanderson’s place as one of the finest story crafters of this generation, and we’re only halfway through Spensa’s story.

BOOK REVIEW: Double Eagle, by Dan Abnett

-Potential spoilers for the early Gaunt’s Ghosts novels-

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Publisher: Black Library

Genre: Military SF

Pages: 428

Publication Date: 2004

Verdict: 5/5

The Phantine XX are the Imperial Army’s elite flight unit. But even they cannot hope to stand against the forces of Chaos for long. Fortunately, they are not alone. Unfortunately, neither are the enemy.

Action in the Warhammer 40,000 setting is generally confined to the ground. Over the past two decades, the game has cornered the market in dieselpunk science fantasy amid the stars. Wars are fought in trenches, millions of men march to their deaths through muddy fields, and if a spaceship turns up it’s probably going to exterminate the planet from orbit. In Double Eagle, Dan Abnett shows another side to the war. The war in the air.

Set in the Sabbat Worlds, and taking part around the same time as books 4-6 of Gaunt’s GhostsDouble Eagle is rightly regarded as a classic by many 40k fans. Out of print for many years, this book has finally been reissued to coincide with the new Aeronautica game from Games Workshop. Aside from the brilliant new cover, nothing about the book has changed, and it’s just as brutally classic now as it was fifteen years ago.

Dogfighting has been a mainstay of SF since Star Wars was released in 1977, particularly when it comes to film and television. The most famous literary example is probably Michael Stackpole’s and Aaron Allston’s X-WIng series, but there are a few others. What separates Double Eagle, is that it is far closer to the World War Two actions that inspired George Lucas. These fighter pilots are limited by the edge of a planet’s atmosphere. Refuelling and landing for repairs are important components, as are the troops on the ground below. Dogfighting and bombing are both covered in all their unglamorous detail. Abnett’s eye for action is unquestionably one of the finest in the genre. This is a book where you can smell the smoke from the explosions, feel the wind on your face, and the tang of fuel gets caught in your throat. It’s a book that pulls you in by the throat and refuses to let you go.

With his longer series, Abnett proved himself the master of getting readers invested in characters before ruthlessly killing them off. While you can’t really compare a fourteen book series and a standalone, his talent with characters is on full display, and you just know that a single bullet is all it will take to end someone’s time on the page. With so many bullets flying, and a lot of characters around to catch them, there isn’t a single point in the book that anyone feels safe. And that’s exactly how a war-story should feel, particularly one in the grim dark future.

It would be easy to criticise Double Eagle for being light on plot, but honestly? I think a deeper plot would weigh the book down. This is the story of a single episode of a larger campaign, told over about a fortnight. The enemy is coming and we must stop them. Really, that’s all the plot you need for a book like this.

If you’re into your wargaming, this is a book you cannot afford to miss. If you’re not, it’s still a cracking story.

BOOK REVIEW: Echoes of Honor, by David Weber

-Major spoilers abound for previous books in the Honorverse. Click here for a full index of reviews-

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Publisher: Baen

Series: Honor Harrington (#8)

Genre: Space Opera/Military SF

Pages: 718

Publication Date: 1999

Verdict: 4/5

 

Honor Harrington is dead. Executed by the People’s Republic of Haven for her pre-war crimes. Or so they would have you believe. In truth, Honor is stranded deep in Republic space. But she is determined to return home, and only a fool would bet against a Harrington . . .

After a brief hiccup, the Honor Harrington series is back on form. When we last saw Honor, she was presumed dead by just about everyone. Clearly, that is not the case. But while she has escaped execution, she’s still stuck behind enemy lines with very little in the way of firepower. With most of the set-up in place from In Enemy HandsEchoes of Honor wastes little time in getting to the action.

The idea of a long retreat is possibly my all-time favourite trope in fiction. Battlestar GalacticaThe Lost Fleet, Xenophon’s march, I just love the idea of a massively outnumbered force pushing hard to leave hostile territory. Weber’s approach is a little different, largely due to the way the Honorverse handles the mechanics of interstellar travel. Simply put, Honor’s problem is not getting out of Havenite space, it’s finding enough ships to carry all her fellow refugees.

As has become tradition, the storyline is now split between three main arcs. the first is of course Honor’s ongoing struggles as both war hero and hated villain, depending on which side you fight for. The second is the political shenanigans going on within the People’s Republic, which are just as much a threat as the Manticoran Alliance. And the third is developments back home in Manticore. That final thread gets a lot more development here than in previous books, with Honor’s mother taking centre-stage as Grayson tries to cope with the ‘death’ of their hero.

There is a lot going on in this book, as you might guess from its page count. The one thing I’ve noticed about the Honorverse is that it rarely feels that long, even with page counts over five hundred. But when a book of this length is in mass market paperback, it can’t help but feel a little chunky. Looking ahead to the thousand-plus page monstrosities coming soon enough, I can’t help but wonder if the story will start to drag. it seems inevitable, but Weber has seldom disappointed yet, and clearly has a lot of material left when it comes to storytelling.

While there is little change on a grander scale, with even the larger conflicts being largely character-based,  Echoes of Honor does end with a lot of pieces on the board. The war has been going on for a while, after all, and when the book ends, it seems that the conflict may finally be nearing a climax. One way or another, there is going to be a reckoning.

A book that restores the Honor Harrington books, and Weber, to their usual high standard, Echoes of Honor is a fine introduction to the second half of the series.

Boundy Awards 2019

Today marks a full year since I started this blog. While there have been times it felt more like a chore than a hobby, overall it’s been fun. It’s brought me into conversation with both creators and fans from across the SF community, and I know at least one person has picked up a book because I recommended it. To my mind, that’s a success. Spreading the joy of science fiction is what At Boundary’s Edge is all about. For everyone who has been a part of it so far, or will be in the future, you have my most sincere thanks.

To celebrate this first anniversary, I thought it would be a good idea to have a little award ceremony. The most inconsequential award ceremony ever. And so with no further ado, I present to you: The inaugural Boundy Awards

 

Boundy Awards for Literature

Best Standalone – Cage of Souls, by Adrian Tchaikovsky. Bleak without ever being nihilistic, this Dying Earth tale shows just why he is one of the UK’s best SF authors.

Best Opener – A Memory Called Empire, by Arkady Martine. One of the most accomplished debuts in years, this space epic is a clever rumination on the nature of civilisation. Smart without hitting you over the head with the fact, the Teixcalaan series is definitely one to watch going into 2020.

Best Continuation – Children of Ruin, by Adrian Tchaikovsky. The long-awaited sequel to Children of Time continues Tchaikovsky’s run of genuinely alien creations. The perfect fusion of Space Opera and Hard SF.

Best Conclusion – Triumphant, by Jack Campbell. The conclusion to the Lost Fleet prequel brings everything to a satisfying close. With all the action and battles you’d expect, and an epilogue which teases at more to come.

 

Boundy Awards for Audio

Best Drama – Torchwood: The Green Life, by David Llewellyn. If you thought the quaint charm of the Pertwee era would never work alongside the swearing and violence-fuelled Torchwood, then Jo Grant and Jack Harkness would like a word with you.

Best Music – The Lost Fairy, by Paul Shapera. The conclusion to the third Shaperaverse trilogy brings in everything listeners have come to expect. High emotions, original worldbuilding and a bombastic soundtrack. It may even make you shed a tear or two.

 

Boundy Awards for Visual Media

Best Film – Not Awarded. Shockingly, I have gone an entire year without watching any new releases. While I have high hopes for Rise of Skywalker, its release date falls just outside the awards window.

Best Episode – New Eden (Star Trek Discovery, Season 2, Episode 2) In a season that essentially saved the series, New Eden was the opening salvo of the new management. With a mysterious colony in deep space and moral debates, this was the first episode of Discovery to feel like classic Star Trek.

Best Season – Krypton, Season 2. Another SyFy show cut short in its prime, Krypton‘s second season showed just what you can do with a superhero licence. Jumping wildly between grim dystopian SF and the pulp sensibilities of Flash Gordon, season 2 gave us larger roles for General Zod and Doomsday, while also introducing the madness that is Lobo. With its unrelenting enthusiasm for life, Krypton was perhaps too good to last. But for what it’s worth, season 2 was a stunning farewell.

 

Boundy Awards for Interactive Media

Best Computer Game – Not Awarded. As with films, I haven’t found the time for much gaming this year. At least not on the SF side. That said, both The Outer Worlds and Jedi: Fallen Order are games I intend to pick up in the new year.

 

 

So there you have it. The first (and hopefully not last) Boundy Awards. Thank you for attending, congratulations to all the winners, and see you all next time.

10 Guidelines For Better RPGs

I’ve been thinking a lot about RPGs lately. As well as running two Stars Without Number groups (more on that in the future), I’m also planning a D&D5E, Call of Cthulhu and potentially more campaigns. Despite the variety of systems I’ve experimented with over the years (reading manuals since 2008, and GMing properly since 2013) I’ve come up with a few guidelines which I feel are pretty universal. Of course, these are best suited for my own personal tastes, and your mileage will likely vary. Nevertheless, here they are.

For Players

1) ‘It’s just what my character would do’ is not sufficient justification for spoiling someone else’s game. Playing your character is the key element of an RPG. However, ensuring that every leaves with good memories is more important. If you shoot John because you’re a serial killer, it’s not good roleplaying. It’s you making a character who causes problems. Please. Don’t be that guy/gal.

2) Work together. As I’ve alluded to in previous posts, there’s nothing worse than a character who goes their own way. The rule of ‘don’t split the party’ isn’t cast in iron, but most RPGs are a team effort. There are few things worse than a party that turns on itself.

3) If your character fits the campaign, the campaign fits your character. If the setting is the grim darkness of the forty-first millennium, make an Imperial Guardsman, or an Eldar psyker, or whatever the GM allows. Don’t make a communist hippy with dreams of being a samurai. Characters that don’t fit a campaign lead to players not enjoying it.

4) Invest. The more love and care you put into a character, the more enjoyment you’ll get. At the end of the day, your stats don’t really matter. As long as your roleplay is good, you’ll fit in. if you ever find yourself playing a stat block rather than a character, something has gone wrong.

5) The dice giveth, they do not taketh away. Before you make a roll, you never know what the outcome will be. That’s the whole point of having dice. Even a ‘failed’ roll advances the story. The hero whose blaster bolt misses the villain and kills the princess is more interesting than the one who mows down everything in their path like John Wick. Of course, if you roll 50 failures in a row, you may need to beg the GM for mercy.

For Games Masters

1) Know the rules, and know when to ignore them. Obviously, you should know how to run the game you are playing, but it’s also important to let things slide very now and then. If a player rolls 50 successive failures, cut them a break.

2) Reward Investment. If the players are showing an interest in your game, well done. You’re doing it right. If they’re more interested in some parts than others, focus on those parts. Make the game fun in the way they want, so long as it works for you too.

3) Don’t be afraid to torment your players. If players are invested in their characters, then there are worse fates than death. Consider injuring characters, taking an eye or hand. So long as you don’t make the character no longer fun to play, physical and emotional trauma can be a great source of roleplaying.

4) Make your expectations clear. If you’re planing a jokey campaign, having a samurai, a hacker and an Arthurian knight might be a great party. If you’re going for something more serious, then explain this to the players beforehand. It’s on you to make sure that players know what they are in for, and what is expected of them.

5) Improvisation beats planning every time. We all have plans. I make long-term story-arcs for all my campaigns. But when push comes to shove, I’ll change and adapt these plans on the fly. While players are not the enemy, no plan survives contact with them for long. The single most important skill for any GM is the ability to think on their feet.

So those are my guidelines. they work for me, and I hope they work for you too. if you have any suggested additions, I’d love to hear from you.

Quick Reviews: The November Black Libary Round-Up

Black Library has put out some excellent novels this year, of which I have reviewed some.  But in November, their best releases were of a shorter nature. Here’s a quick round-up of four novellas and two audio dramas I think you should try out.

Fresh from her debut Honourbound, rising star of the forty-first millennium Rachel Harrison has The Way Out. released under the Warhammer Horror imprint, this audio drama is a three chapter, claustrophobic affair. originally released in digital instalments, the CD brings everything together without waiting a week between cliffhangers. As ever, the casting and music are phenomenal, but it’s Harrison’s immediate sense of writing that really shines. With a small crew stuck on an abandoned space station, The Way Out neatly subverts expectations and keeps you guessing the whole way through.

Also released through Warhammer Horror is Alec Worley’s The Watcher In The Rain. A quieter, more melancholic piece, this audio drama sees an Inquisitor and a suspect struggling through a warp=spawned endless downpour. With the sheer volume of Inquisitor material available to readers, it’s nice to see a piece that can still surprise. Bleak and chilling in equal measure, it’s a more sombre slice of Warhammer than you might expect, and the ending is just perfect.

Moving away from audio, we come to Series 2 of the novellas. I’ve only read the first four, but all are set to have something for the reader. The first, Steve Lyon’s Iron Resolve is a classic Warhammer tale. An Imperial unit, outnumbered by Orks and cut off from reinforcements. If they can survive until dawn, there might just be hope. But hope is rare in the forty-first millennium. there are not too many surprises here, but it’s an old story told well, and hits just the right beats to rank as my favourite of the four.

Next up is Danie Ware’s Wreck and Ruin. The Sisters of Battle have recently become an obsession of mine, and I’m glad to see ongoing fiction for the faction. This particular instance sees a small group of Sisters tracking down a heretic with the help of an Inquisitor. As ever, nothing is quite what it seems, and soon conspiracies are unravelled and havoc ensues. There’s a lot of plot for a novella so slight, and I’d very much like to see the characters get a novel-length treatment.

Thirdly, we have a tale of the Blackstone Fortress from Thomas Parrott. Isha’s Lament is the best piece of fiction to come from the subsetting, milking the dungeon-crawl aesthetic for all it’s worth. When a deadly plague is accidentally released, humans and eldar must work together to set things right. It’s a short, fun adventure, the slightly lighter tone a refreshing change from the general grim darkness of the setting. The equally competitive/cooperative nature of the Blackstone adventurers is also nice to see, bringing to mind Rogue Trader level shenanigans.

Finally, there is Nate Crowley’s Severed. I can’t think of another time the Necrons have really taken centre stage in a Black Library release, and on the basis of this novella, that’s a crying shame. Crowley’s undead immortals are a curious blend of shambling horde and tragic figures, with a  small sprinkling of gallows humour added in for good measure. This is a novella unlike any other, and I’m glad to see Black library’s continuing experimental phase this year.

With so many new voices, and a few old, November was a cracking month. I’m hoping we see more from each of these writers in the months and years to come.

BOOK REVIEW: Honourbound, by Rachel Harrison

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Publisher: Black Library

Genre: Military SF

Pages: 491

Publication Date: 03/09/2019

Verdict: 4/5

 

Imperial Commissar Severina Raine leads her regiment in the Bale Stars crusade. But after years of fighting the ranks of the Sighted, it seems that the deadliest threat may come from within . . .

Honourbound was one of the most anticipated Black Library releases of 2019, so much so that the hardback sold out of my local Games Workshop within a week. without even the store manager getting a copy. Now that the paperback has finally found its way into the world, I can at last add my thoughts to the conversation.

On the face of it, Honourbound is an unremarkable book. Astra Militarum regiment? Check. Fierce Commissar? Check. Heretical Chaos cultists? Check. In essence, it’s the basic components of any number of Warhammer 40,000 novels. A recipe for success, surely, but nothing to suggest the originality contained within. because make no mistake, this book is unlike anything the grim, dark future has seen before.

The present tense writing and short, choppy chapters make the book more than a little difficult to get into. But once you are in, it’s hard to get back out again. It’s writing that won’t let go, capturing the chaos of the forty-first millennium like few others. The dramatis personae list at the start is long, and we don’t stay with any but a few characters for any length of time. Viewpoints are picked up and dropped like leaves in a blizzard, so much so that it can be hard to understand what’s happening. It can be frustrating, but the style lends itself to focused reading, which can only be a good thing. This is a book that demands your full attention. And once given, you start to peel back the layers to see the glorious carnage inside.

Like most Warhammer authors, Harrison has a good eye for violence. The action is ever-present, detailed, but never drags or overstays its welcome. The direct style of the prose efficiently conveys a palpable sense of danger. From that long list of characters, it’s never clear who might get bumped off next. As with Dan Abnett’s Gaunt’s Ghosts series, Harrison in unafraid to wound or kill (if not do worse to) major characters. A fine trait for any author, if you ask me. The only character who ever feels safe is Severina Raine herself, because few authors will kill of their main protagonist quite so early in their career.

In a universe containing the likes of Ciaphas Cain, Ibram Gaunt and Sebastian Yarrick, it’s hard to make a Commissar who stands among those titans of the mythos. So what does Raine bring to the table? In a word: Faith. Raine is a true believer, and unafraid to show it. While never degenerating to the rabid frothing of Yarrick, she is nevertheless devoted to the Imperial cause. The first time we see her, she is executing a man for a brief moment of cowardice. I must confess, it’s nice to see a Commissar who lives up to their fierce reputation without being cast as the villain.

While there are numerous short stories following Rain and the Antari Rifles regiment, Honourbound looks like it will be the only novel for a little while. Hopefully, the high demand will result in a follow-up. If there is a second book, I’ll be looking for it on day one.

BOOK REVIEW: Howling Dark, by Christopher Ruocchio

Spoilers for Empire of Silence-

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Publisher: Gollancz

Series: The Sun Eater (#2)

Genre: Space Opera

Pages: 656

Publication Date: 18/07/2019

Verdict: 5/5

Hadrian Marlowe has spent half a century searching for a way to make peace with the Cielcin. When he finds a way to the lost world of Vorgossos, it could be the answer he needs. Or it could lead him to question everything he thought he knew . . .

Christopher Ruocchio’s debut Empire of Silence was always going to be a hard act to follow. For me personally, it hit every note I want in my SF. Ancient sprawling empires, thickly layered worldbuilding, a protagonist you can root for even if he might not be the hero, aliens who are actually alien. It was pitch-perfect all the way through. So good in fact, that I left the sequel sitting by my window for several months, not wanting to open it in case it didn’t live up to my expectations.

Reader, I need not have worried. Howling Dark is easily on the same level as its predecessor. But it’s also a very different book. And that’s why it’s so successful. Rather than resting on his laurels, Ruocchio continues to push boundaries, mixing genres and creating something genuinely new in the process. Quite simply, there is no other series like this.

At the beginning of Empire of Silence, Hadrian introduces himself as the man who exterminated the Ceilcin race. You’d expect this to perhaps rob his quest for peace of some of its tension, but political thriller is not what the book aims for. Howling Dark, even more than what came before, reads like an epic tragedy. There’s a weight to every event, the feeling of significance even when it could be inconsequential. It’s a book that requires focus and examination, but never to the point that it stops being fun to read. Ruocchio’s prose calls back to another age, but it never feels archaic or dated. The fact that Hadrian Marlowe’s memoire exists as an in-universe text only makes it better. Everything from plot to glossary build the world further.

And what a world it is. From the Dune-esque Gothic aesthetic of the Sollan Empire, Hadrian’s travels take him further into space. Marlowe’s Red Company is drawn from across human nations, showing a glimpse of life beyond Imperial borders. References are made to the adventures they’ve had between books, and while there is clearly a lot of ground covered (hopefully to one day be seen on page), it never feels like we’re missing out on something important. At least, I hope not. Where we spend more time is among the Extrasolarians. Barbarians in the Empire’s eyes, who have polluted their bodies with cybernetics. There’s a tangible cyberpunk feel to a lot of the encounters, with holographic advertising and humanform robots. Yet the transition between genres is never jarring. It’s not a different universe, just a different world within the same universe.

Then of course, we get our first proper look at the Ceilcin. Not just a lone prisoner as in Empire of Silence, but a full civilisation of them. I won’t go into too much detail – some things are better discovered for yourself – but Ruocchio has created an alien threat that is both absolutely alien and genuinely threatening. Even though we know how the story ends, seeing this key point of the journey is as gripping as anything else I’ve read or seen. Prince Aranata and their kin are a remarkable creature, and I very much hope we get to spend more time in their world before Hadrian wipes them from existence.

But it’s not just space that Hadrian explores. Just as in Empire of SilenceHowling Dark peels back layers of history to reveal more of how the Sollan Empire came to be. For me, this was one of the highlights. Hadrian’s encounter with Brethren in particular is filled with answers about questions I wasn’t sure I was asking, while also prompting more. Yes, I think my theory about the Mericanii was on the right track, but now I have more questions than ever about the Quiet, about the Empire, about everything.

The Sun Eater series is now two books out of a planned five. I cannot see how Ruocchio intends to wrap up everything in so short a span. In fact, I suspect he doesn’t. But even if there are mysteries left at the end, I intend to read everything of this universe I can get my hands on. If you enjoyed Empire of Silence, you will love Howling Dark. And if you haven’t read it yet, don’t leave things as long as I did. Get a copy and crack it open. You won’t regret it.