Slow Bullets by Alastair Reynolds

Slow BulletsSlow Bullets won the 2016 Locus award for best Novella and was shortlisted for the Hugo (along with making a number of must read lists). As you would expect from a novella it’s a short read at 192 pages but it packs in more ideas than many more weighty novels manage.

Narrated in the first person by Scur at some point in the future, Slow Bullets begins at the end of a vast conflict between hundreds of human-colonized worlds, the “Central Planets” fighting against the “Peripheral Planets”. On the brink of the ceasefire Scur is captured and tortured (injected with a titular “slow bullet”) by ruthless war Criminal Orvin before being left for dead in the ruins of a bunker.

She is revived aboard the prisoner transport vessel “Caprice” which seems to be in all kinds of trouble, not least with everyone being revived from sleep statis in an unknown area of space.

Those who are familiar with Reynolds work will know that a re-occurring theme is that of memory, and memory is what underlies the story here. The slow bullets themselves are not an artifact of aggression, instead being small implanted chips that record a person’s past, their memories of themselves and their family. At the very beginning our Narrator Scur tells us she was forcibly injected with a second slow bullet and we never really know if this was successfully removed (Scur having passed out cutting it from her leg). This introduces us to the fact that Scur’s memories may be unreliable. The fact that we may not be able to trust what Scur is saying (and who she really is) is underlined a number of times, small touches sowing the seeds of doubt such as when Orvin mentions “So Scur is what she calls herself now?”.

From the Narration itself memory then becomes part of the story when the inhabitants of the Caprice realize that the computer memory is failing and they must try and preserve as much as they can physically by writing on the metal walls and later on their own flesh. I won’t go too much further into the story itself as it’s worth encountering without spoiler but suffice to say it lives up to Reynolds usual epic scale. The book moves from memories of the individual to those of society and race, how it is all but impossible to keep a reliable record of the past and our faith in electronic storage is a short-sighted one.

Not only is this book small, it’s incredibly swift too. I read it in one sitting, one morning. There is no wasted space and most is devoted to moving the plot forward, a departure from much of the author’s works with little time spent world-building or given over to exposition.

Opinion:

Five Stars
Slow Bullets is incredible, it is a superbly balanced story packed full of ideas and subtlety. It’s also not only the finest of Reynolds work so far but it’s one of the finest nuggets of science fiction you could read anywhere.

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Borne by Jeff Vandermeer

We all just want to be people, and none of us know what that really means.’ Jeff VandeMeer’s Rachel summarizes the theme of his latest book best. The author’s first novel since his acclaimed Southern Reach Trilogy, Van de Meer’s Borne is a surreal piece of work that examines the idea of identity in a relentlessly unforgiving, post-apocalyptic setting.

Although broken into three sections, Borne is really a book of two halves. The first part is an intimate examination of Rachel’s relationship with Borne after she brings him into her and Wick’s home, and the questions his presence raises. The second evolves the characters in a way that takes these questions and makes them real. The consequences of the answers Borne may or may not have reached about who and what he is, and how those decisions impact the trio are laid out, questioning the nature of relationships, trust, and independence.

Borne is a fascinating character because he is the ultimate blank canvas who speaks as a child without social conditioning. His appearance is ever changing and evolving, as is his mind, preventing definition in any meaningful way. He is childlike, naïve, intelligent and powerful, and with no understanding of himself. He constantly questions Rachel on whom and what he is: ‘Am I a weapon? Am I a person?’ Questions ultimately posed not so much to our protagonist but to the reader, challenging us to define what makes a person a person.

One scene where Rachel takes Borne out into the city for the first time echoes a child first discovering the world beyond their home, an experience filled with joy, intrigue, enthusiasm, and dangerous naivety. It’s a tense and wonderful set piece that provides just one in many examples of VandeMeer’s ability to cleverly build on both his characters’ complex dynamic as well as his world.

Opinion:
Four star
Four Stars

The simplicity of his set up – The Company, Mord, Rachel, Wick and Borne – is one of the best things about this book, as it leaves no room for distraction. Everything on page is relevant and contributes to the questions being asked. The twists are few but significant and the pacing is occasionally uneven, but overall it’s a delicately written, charming and terrifying read that has you constantly reappraising your conclusions.

 

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A Closed and Common Orbit by Becky Chambers

A Closed and Common Orbit. This is Chambers’ second novel. Her first novel, A Long Way to a Small Angry Planet, was a unique self-published sci-fi novel that blew up in popularity. It made it onto the lists for several awards, including the shortlist for the Arthur C Clarke Award and the long list for the Baileys Women’s Prize for Fiction. It garnered enough commercial and critical success that Chambers was picked up by the publisher Hodder and Stoughton. A Long Way to a Small and Angry Planet was a fantastic and emotionally ending novel. It had a profound impact on me, and so I knew Chamber’s second novel would as well. When preparing to read A Closed and Common Orbit, I expected, as with Chambers’ first book, that I would cry (I did), and that by the end, I would be left simultaneously enraptured and distraught.

A Closed and Common Orbit is set in the same beautifully crafted universe as Chambers’ first novel, but the plot is almost completely separate. It follows the paths of two relatively minor characters introduced in the first novel. Sidra is a newly conscious artificial intelligence, built for a ship but now inhabiting an artificial human body so well crafted that no one suspects she’s anything other than truly human. She is guided by her friend and at-times mentor in things human, Pepper, a friendly expert engineer who – as we learn in the first chapter- was herself raised by an artificial intelligence. The story swaps between Pepper’s past and Sidra’s present. In the past, Pepper struggles to grow and survive in a hostile world with an artificial intelligence taking the role of confidant, advisor and, in some ways, parent. In the present, Pepper takes on a similar role- though with less parental overtones- for Sidra. Out of place, Sidra struggles with her body, her identity, and her relationships. She tries to find a place in a world that doesn’t see artificial intelligences as fully sentient beings, and tries to find peace in a body that she cannot help but feel does not belong to her.

Chamber’s universe is a complex one, and while you don’t need to read the first book to understand the plot of the second, a reader new to Chambers’ universe might find themselves adrift among the alien species, cultures, technologies and worlds that populate the text. Once you can make sense of it all, though, the intricacies of the universe are compelling, while most of the main characters are humans (or at least AIs pretending to be human), members of alien species play major roles as well, and they add beautifully to the novel. Chambers has created truly fascinating alien cultures, cultures which often force us to look a bit more closely at elements of our own world, and learning about these cultures throughout book is an intriguing and enjoyable experience. In truth, the plot sometimes felt like the weakest part of the novel; there weren’t many moments of tension or active conflict, and the resolutions to certain conflicts felt unfulfilling. This isn’t to say the plot is bad; it just isn’t what makes the book great. This isn’t a book that grabs you with its breakneck pacing and clever twists. The plot is not an end in itself as much as a vehicle through which to develop the characters, and it is characters where Chambers truly shines.

The characters and their interactions are what make what makes A Closed and Common Orbit a truly beautiful novel. Sidra, Pepper and the major non-point of view characters are carefully and compassionately crafted. Their relationships with each other aren’t always easy; where the story really moves forward is not outside conflict but the conflicts between these characters. Yet in their conflicts, these characters are extremely sympathetic. They clearly aren’t perfect, but they are still admirable and, above all, they are human (even as they are also Artificial Intelligences and aliens, they give us profound insight into the human condition). These characters are compassionate, complex, flawed, and relentlessly real. Particularly in sci-fi and fantasy, we often talk about more “realistic” characters in reference to the trend towards gritty, dark fiction. When we refer to “real” characters we often mean morally gray protagonists, or sometimes outright anti-heroes, who are generally really good at killing other people, be it with swords, magic, guns or lasers. These characters and the narratives around them often make us come face-to-face with difficult questions, and they’re also usually vastly entertaining. I love these types of characters, and I love these types of stories. But I think Chambers has a different type of “realistic” character which is equally engaging. She writes about people who are flawed, difficult, who make mistakes and do the wrong things; people with biases, who fight and hurt each other, who snap and lash out; but for all that, she writes about fundamentally good people, people who grow and love and help each other, and people who try to do the right thing even if they don’t always succeed.
There is a type of grief that comes at the end of certain stories, the kinds of stories you don’t want to end. It isn’t grief come from the end of the narrative itself- a good plot, no matter how gripping, is not the part of a novel that makes us invest emotionally. More often than not, we don’t want to the story to end because the characters are so inviting and loveable, the world so fascinating and engaging, that we don’t want to leave the people and the places we have come to love. In A Closed and Common Orbit, a surprisingly significant portion of the novel revolves around seemingly inconsequential issues.

Opinion:

Five Stars
One major plot point is one character’s’ decision to get a tattoo. This isn’t a part of the plot that creates suspense and action, but it is still engaging because of how it shows the complexity and growth of the characters. When the characters talk about tattoos, or their love of certain drinks, or any other number of day-to-day topics, the conversations are interesting because they show the intricacies of Chambers’ world, and because they give the opportunity for the characters to interact and for their unique personalities to shine. Seemingly casual moments like this fill the book, made profound and engaging by the depth of the characters. If I could, I would be happy to sit for a long time, watching the lives and conversations of the characters Chambers has made, the bustle of the universe she’s created, and, for a moment, feeling a part of it all. What I feel when I read a novel by Chambers is a feeling of home; a home I do not want to leave when the novel ends.

If, in the end, A Closed and Common Orbit left me slightly emotionally battered, it was for all the right reasons; like departing a good friend, leaving behind this book is bitter-sweet.

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Running Black by Patrick Todoroff

Running Black is a science fiction novel, the debut of Patrick Todoroff.

For the last eight years, the North Korean mercenary Tam Song has headed up Eshu International, a private security team that takes any job for the right price, no questions asked. Based in the Belfast Metro Zone, they’re reputed to be the best outfit on the planet.

Stable nano-technology: the melding of man and machine on the microscopic level, it’s a breakthrough worth billions that no one’s been able to achieve until now. The UK based Dawson Jull Corporation has finally developed a viable Nanotech Neural Network (N3 for short), a system that would exponentially increase a person’s cyber-capabilities. They’re days away from unraveling their prototype to the world.

Eshu International just got hired to steal it.

The first thing that strikes you about this novel is that it doesn’t mess about with introductions, back-story or building up characterisation, it just launches straight into the plot head first and expects the reader to keep up. This minimalist approach to world building can be quite effective if the story hold the interest enough, and more importantly if it’s well written. I am glad to say that the plot holds up well, and for a debut novel it’s very well written.

Running Black is a little like a 21st century version of William Gibson’s seminal novel Necromancer, but with the startlingly clear differences of character building and back story. The book has a mixed narrative, sometimes told from the first person of the character “Jace”, a member of the Eshu International – sometimes told in the third person. The plot follows the emergence of true “wetware” on a nanotechnology scale, and to just what lengths people with power will do to control the technology. The novel is fast moving with plenty of twists and short, descriptive chapters which manage to avoid breaking up the pace too much.

The near future setting is intelligently considered and effortlessly described, the countries are ruled by commercial entities, the neural network interface is a reality and genetic cloning is big (illegal) business. I liked the gritty, raw feel to a post modern UK (or in the book Northern EU) and while the characters aren’t fleshed out to any real degree, the author nevertheless manages to create a bond between reader and protagonist.

Opinion:

Four star
Four Stars
Running Black is a very easy to read, fast novel with plenty of action and describes an interesting vision of a future Europe, this book is highly recommended for those science fiction junkies that like many a military-based action but also an interesting and unique perspective for a possible future. Although this book is an easy read with a lot of people prefer to call “a beach book.” Meaning something to read on vacation, it will definitely keep you on the edge of your seat and turning pages on a lazy afternoon.

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Six Wakes by Mur Lafferty

The fantasist author of the, hilarious The Shambling Guide to New York City (2013) ventures into science-fiction horror.

The immediate setup will be familiar to mystery fans: five dead bodies, variously stabbed, poisoned, or hanged, and no survivors. Whodunit? We’re in the 25th century, however, on a sub–light speed starship that’s controlling artificial intelligence, IAN, is offline. The six—gofer Maria Arena, Capt. Katrina de la Cruz, navigator/pilot Akihiro Sato, security chief Wolfgang, engineer Paul Seurat, and Dr. Joanna Glass—wake in new, cloned bodies, covered in slime, surrounded by vats, tubes, gore, and the horror of their own slaughtered corpses, with no idea of what’s been happening since the voyage began. They do recall earlier lifetimes, but evidently they were all criminals, so nobody can afford to reveal anything or trust anybody else. And with both the clone-growth and memory-backup processes sabotaged, the bodies they now occupy are their last. Maybe this is all just too devious; In any event, the narrative never quite lives up to that remarkable opening. Momentum dissipates amid frequent pauses to belabor the cloning process and laws relating to clone succession, not to mention a succession of scientific howlers (for instance, the ship depends for power on a solar sail—but there’s no “solar” in interstellar space). Still, as the characters delve separately and together into their previous lives in search of an explanation for their predicament, the tension rises, personalities are revealed, and common factors emerge—some of them, we learn, are retired, recovering, or repurposed homicidal maniacs.

Opinion:

Four star
Four Stars
You have to wonder why, given Lafferty’s manifest talent for humor, she didn’t simply play it for laughs. Still, readers easily captivated and not overly concerned with structural dependability and she delivers everything will find much to entertain them.

And she delivers everything a science-fiction fan could want from a wonderful world to well developed characters and dialogue. This book is sure to help you while away those lazy winter hours.

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Moxyland by Lauren Beukes

Moxyland is the debut novel of Lauren Beukes and the first book published by Angry Robot Books. It is currently nominated in the longlist for the South African Sunday Times Fiction Prize.

Set in Cape-town in the near future, four hip young adults live in a world where your online identity is just as important as your offline life. Getting disconnected is a fate worse than imprisonment but who will stand up to the overpowering and oppressive government?

Kendra is an art school dropout who finds her niche by signing up to a nano-tech marketing program, basically becoming a living, breathing advert for a soft drink.

Lerato is a very ambitious Aids Baby who is busy plotting to defect from her corporate employers.

Tendeka is a hot headed activist who is becoming increasingly destructive.

Toby is a rogue blogger, creating a video-cast of his daily screwed up life, trying to create as much chaos to film as possible.

Moxyland essentially deals with technical progress and how on its current track could quite easily result in complete loss of personal freedom, think a very adult version of Cory Doctorow’s little brother mixed with blade-runner, then peppered with “V” for vendetta and topped off with cyberpunk classics like Snow Clash and you will begin to grasp the ultra modern novel that is Moxyland.

By its very definition, the dystopian novel tends to make for uncomfortable reading, the subject matter will not allow otherwise, as a result it can be very difficult to create a readable and ultimately entertaining story.

I am happy to say that Lauren not only achieves this feat but actually surpasses many other attempts to do so, creating a dystopian future that is corporate in nature with a brutally efficient police force highly efficient at suppressing any form of public protest.

Opinion:

Five Stars
Not only is this very topical (looking at the current economic and political climate it is easy to see happening) but by also combining current technological trends and then expanding on them, (for example the current mobile phone / pda / iphone tech) the reader is drawn deep into the story.

Managing to combine futuristic lingo with current street talk, Moxyland is a highly charged, imaginative and empathetic story that manages to both impress and disturb at the same time, a word of caution though this is clearly an adult only novel, not for the younger readers.

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The Dervish House by Ian McDonald

The world of The Dervish house is a reflection of its parent city of Istanbul which is itself a reflection of the nation of Turkey; ancient, paradoxical and divided like the brain of a human being. In the year 2027 on a blisteringly hot summer’s day there is a small explosion in Enginsoy Square, a minor bomb on the 157 tram – the only casualty the suicide bomber whose head was wired to explode. Yet this everyday occurrence will send shock-waves much further, resonating louder and ultimately affecting the lives of those around it in unexpected ways.

Turkey of 2027 is the largest, most populous and most diverse nation in the EU, but also one of the poorest and most socially divided. It’s a boom economy, the sweatshop of Europe, the bazaar of central Asia and the key to the immense gas wealth of Russia and Central Asia.

This is the age of the carbon consciousness, each individual given a carbon allowance which has brought forth a whole new trade. Those who can master the trading between gas prices and carbon trading permits can make a fortune; the old Byzantine politics are back. They never went away.

Ian McDonald can be a very subtle writer at times, he manages to weave a tale that is ultimately about the people and places, managing to do so in such a convincing fashion that it can be some time before you realize the ideas he’s transplanted within the messages and ideas he is really writing about.

Such is the case with The Dervish House itself – a beautiful, old, middle-eastern style house designed around a central square with garden and water feature, a focal point to the story that weaves drama with conflict and intrigue with thriller, one central theme connected through three story strands that feature six main characters. Each of these characters is clearly delineated, lending strength to the literary style already present and notable for the pure quality of the prose. We are treated to a week in the ever so real lives of these characters as each change in some way in the after affects of the bomb.

Each of these individual story threads would make up a novel in its own right for many authors but here it creates something very special, a rich, confident and masterfully cultivated journey – joined together and culminating in a climax which makes excellent use of the underplayed science fiction elements.

Opinion:

Five Stars
The main message here is about artificial intelligence and the natural progression towards artificial sentience, the “singularity” event that describes such a leap in technology and the dangers of nanotechnology popularized after Prince Charles coined the phrase “grey goo”. I loved the inclusion of the “mollified man”, a little known bit of history that hints at the research the author has gone to. My favorite though has to be the very idea that our own bodies could one day be living super, incredibly well thought out and a fantastic thought – although a computer crash or software reboot could be quite painful.

I also loved the way that McDonald manages to bring each of the colorful characters that inhabit the book to life in such a manner that makes them uniquely human and ever so realistic. Part of the beauty is in the detail, managing to give little insights, foibles and characteristics about each without affecting the pace of the plot.

The book has been nominated for just about every major genre award this year and has already won the British Science Fiction (BSFA) and the John W Campbell awards despite some very fierce competition.

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The Other Log of Phileas Fogg by Philip Jose Farmer

The Other Log of Phileas Fogg is very much a “literary mashup” novel which fills in the blanks from Jules Verne’s classic novel “Around the World in 80 Days”. Its being given a new lease of life thanks to Titan Books originally published almost 40 years ago.

As the title suggests the novel introduces the idea that there was a second, previously unknown journal that Phileas Fogg wrote detailing a secret history of his famous trip. Farmer merges characters from some of Verne’s other novels such as Captain Nemo and then blends these with other fictional works including Arthur Conan Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes series.

Rather than re-write Vernes accounts, Farmer expands the story in new directions and offers a greater insight into who (and what) the characters are. As such it makes sense if you read Around the World In Eighty Days although it’s not essential. The author does an admirable job of keeping the literary style similar to Vernes, which has it’s own advantages and disadvantages; the story has an air of authenticity about it however like the novel it’s based on it does feel a little dry and in places the descriptive narrative that details areas that Verne didn’t know about slows the pace.

The story more than makes up for this though, it’s a great tale that manages to completely change the original story without contradicting it or causing any continuity issues and the way Farmer manages to meld characters from different series is just genius (for example Captain Nemo is actually the one and same master criminal James Moriarty). It’s got a slight air of the Steampunk about it too, enough to be considered part of the genre but it’s also got a style all its own. The story is set within the authors “Wold Newton” series which makes the supposition that the 1795 meteorite strike near the titular village caused genetic mutations to anyone passing by which gave them extraordinary abilities (which were then passed on to their descendants).

These alien abilities include an extremely high intelligence, superior strength and longevity along with the desire to do great “good” or great “evil” and they fall into two distinct families, the Eridanean (agents for good) and the Capelleans (villainous rogues) who battle each other in a continuous secret war.

Opinion:
Four star
Four Stars
I can’t see this book being to everyone’s taste, it’s too close in style and form to the late 19th and early 20th century authors to appeal to all (which in itself is an admirable accomplishment and clearly intended) but anyone who can see the entertaining story and insightful ideas through the slightly dry narrative, or indeed likes the style and form of the classic authors such as Jules Verne, Sir Arthur Conan Doyle or Edgar Rice Burroughs should love it.

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In a Right State by Ben E

It’s a fact that following the explosion of technology we now give away vast amounts of information freely and often unknowingly. Big companies have got smart at figuring out just how best to get such information. Many sell that data on without compunction. Fast forward to the year 2066 and big corporations control every part of people’s lives – with a constant stream of personal data analyzing every little thing they do.
In a Right State is set in such a future, a late 21st century United Kingdom ruled by big business, a country focused on profit and consumerism. This is also a future where the very idea of waste is a criminal one, renewable energy rules and CO2 emissions a thing of the past. Food is grown genetically modified by law to produce the least wasteful crops with the most efficient taste and nutrients. This is a future where even the body parts of the deceased are sold off to the highest bidder.
The story begins at such an auction when Duncan’s late wife is sold off piece by piece. Ordinarily this wouldn’t be an issue however the body hides Duncan’s secret, a secret that will get him into a great deal of trouble should anyone find out.
The most striking, most worrying thing about this book is the plausibility, a future vision that is one very small step from reality. Adverts take the place of any form of entertainment and can leap out at you when you are out for a walking, in your home or anywhere else for that matter. This violation of privacy is only one step away from where we are right now. And yet almost everyone accepts this, almost everyone seems prepared to give up our privacy, our data and our very freedom as long as the next gadget, film or show is but one click away.
While this future might have done away with global warming and embraced the concept of recycling it is at the expense of a tightly controlled state where consumers are little more than cattle milked for their money. Freedom is an ideal long forgotten by most.
Luckily the story is told with a great deal of humor and distinctly British humor at that. There are a few times when exposition drags the pace down a little but overall the story moves forward well and the characters respond in realistic manner to the many unexpected turns the story takes. Sarcasm and intelligence combine well with a twisting plot and some great characters set against this dystopian vision.

Opinion:

Four star
Four Stars
The result is an impressive read, as delightful as it is disturbing. Ellis treats us to a cautionary tale of consumerism taken down one plausible path that seems likely to happen if we sit back and let it. For many, our country is already in a right state; Ellis shows how it could be a whole lot worse.

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Foreign Devils by John Hornor Jacobs

Foreign DevilsA steampunk science-fiction fantasy set in a world that draws some uncomfortable inspiration from our own, Foreign Devils is the sequel to John Hornor Jacobs’ The Incorruptibles and follows the adventures of Fisk and Shoe – two would be mercenaries making their way through a world of demons, feral elves and worse. The story is told in a suitably gritty first person narration from the recollections of Shoe – the dwarf.

The second book picks up from where the first book left off, with Fisk and his new wife Livia. Both are sent on separate missions and so the book’s narrative divides, although we continue with Shoe as primary narrator and Livia’s recollections are sent to Fisk via the Quotidian, a blood enabled personal communication system, and he provides an edited version to Shoe, preserving his partner’s role as the journal keeper.

Hornor Jacobs expands his canvas by sending half his cast to Tchinee – the analogue of China in his fantasy world. Livia’s petition on behalf of Rume is to secure their support in the oncoming war against their Medieran enemies, whilst Fisk and Shoe continue to hunt down Beleth, the rogue demon engineer.

Hornor Jacobs’ world of Occidentalia is a fusion of western, steampunk and old religion. The religious language is much more closely related to our own world than many fantasy authors choose to tread, with Hornor Jacobs’ demons very much unwashed from their satanic origin in the way the characters discuss them and other references are much closer to home than we might be accustomed. The starkness of The Incorruptibles is muted somewhat in this sequel and some of the unsettling culture parallels of prejudice and class from the first novel are less pronounced. In some ways this is a shame as we are less inclined to reassess our own legacy. The direct correlation is retained and used when exploring the nature of slavery from a personal standpoint and we do see characters demonstrating the kind of filtering needed to endure the ways in which their supposed superiors treat them as objects. In the early chapters, some of the principle characters – particularly Livia – are starting to connect their own unconscious mistreatment of those considered beneath them with the blatant denigration performed by others.

Opinion:
Four star
Four Stars
Foreign Devils concerns itself more with the hunt and the introduction of the new Tchinee culture. We do get an interesting interlude related to the downtrodden Dwarves who are gradually coming to resent their oppression and this bodes well for a further installment that might explore praxis. The book is much longer than its predecessor and the diverging plot lines means it is less of a page turner. However, the world devised by Honor Jacobs is unique and interesting with its developing mythology, technology, demonology and dark magic. There is substantial grit to the writing throughout and Hornor Jacobs does not compromise in his description of events. There are surprising twists and turns, with characters murdered, kidnapped and tortured as the writer requires, the conclusion of both quests providing revelations in equal measure.
If you’re seeking a gritty steampunk series, which offers interesting characters in an analogous real world setting, you’ll find plenty to like in Hornor Jacobs’ series.

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