Saturday, 18 April 2015

Two Flights of Fantasy, Spoiler free reviews of "Starborn" and "The Vagrant"

At the Grim Gathering II in Bristol just over a week ago I was fortunate enough to meet two authors on the brink of their debut publications and, by fair means and foul, secure copies of their books in advance of the 23rd April release date.

In sharing a release date, the books are sort of siblings - or at least close stable-mates.  As such I set out to read them tag-team style, letting the stories take it turns to envelope me as - somewhat against my normal reading habits - I switched back and forth between the two books.

Through a busy week of late night reading I found myself  thinking of two iconic aircraft of World War 2, The Hawker Hurricane and the Supermarine Spitfire (Hang in there, this is going somewhere honestly).


Fantasy as a genre is in a constant state of development.  In a crowded market flush with new submissions daily, publishers must be looking for something fresh in their new signings.  A distinctive voice, or setting or story, or ideally all three such that it lifts a book above the clamour of traditional fantasy shouting from the shelves of Waterstones or amazon.  They seek work and authors which push at the boundaries of fantasy, or even step beyond them.

In a similar way the development of fighter aircraft followed a pattern of boundary pushing between the two world wars which lead from the biplanes and triplanes of the Red Baron and his foes to the sleek killing machines of the world war two aces. In particular it lead to the iconic machines of the battle of Britain - the Spitfire and the Hurricane.

While similar in outward appearance and effectiveness, the two planes were worlds apart in internal construction and design.  The Hurricane drew on techniques of stringing and canvas familiar to the fitters of World War One, but clothed in a new form.   The Spitfire was an all metal warrior, riveted and riveting in its seizing of modern techniques.  The one was evolutionary, the other was revolutionary.

Which brings me back to the two stable-mates Starborn and The Vagrant, at least in so far as they compare to my own reading experience.  One takes the evolutionary path of a somewhat traditional starting point before pushing and stretching the envelope of the reader's expectations.  The other opts for revolutionary approach, throwing the reader in at the deep end of a setting and style which defies pre-conceptions and conventions.  Perhaps the germ of my fighter aircraft analogy was laid in the way both stories take brief sojourns into the skies. More likely it was in the emphatic way they command their milieu and demand the reader's attention.

Starborn by Lucy Hounsom

On reflection, nothing is as it seems. 

Making comparisons between books can be invidious.  The process risks being like those Orange adverts they used to have in the cinemas, where a board of film executives dismiss a new film pitch by reducing it to a two line pastiche of existing films.  However, there is a benefit in some reference points from which to triangulate a book and place it somewhere in the multi-dimensional spectrum that is modern fantasy.

For me Starborn had echoes of "The Magician's Guild" and on turning at the end to the back cover I discovered that John Gwynne had also found similar resonances with Trudi Canavan's work.  There is Kyndra, a heroine on the brink of adulthood experiencing a moment of crisis in her life. There are people seeking to protect and nurture her while others wish to use her. There is suspicion, dislocation and loss, and there is conspiracy and imperfection in the supposedly ivory towers.

At the same time, Starborn is a very different work and story to the Magician's Guild.  The action sprawls across a continent, not merely a city.  The wielder's power is not like the orthodox concept of wizardly magic, but is drawn from the Sun or the Moon depending on each wielder's affinity and leaving each wielder greatly diminished in the hours when the source of their power lies hidden.

There are some echoes of a Harry Potter style education in that there are novices and classes and tutors.  There is a library that harbours secrets to be probed, but at greater risk perhaps even than wondering the stacks of the Unseen University while trying to avoid the grasp of an orang-u-tan librarian, or lurking in the dusty shelves of Kvothe's alma mater in fear of the ire of Master Lorren.

But again, Starborn is different. These are not long drawn out hours of study, this is sudden cramming for a test Kyndra neither wanted not expected, yet one she dare not fail. A test that puts the trauma of my 3rd year French exam (28% in case you were asking) quite in the shade.

And that is where my experience of Starborn began to push beyond the relative familiarity of coming of age and reluctant initiation, into something far darker and at times uncomfortable to read.  Which is not a bad thing.  There are times when a book should make a reader sit up abruptly and re-read paragraphs and pages while musing "wtf."

The other reference point that struck me as relevant was not a book at all but a TV series, one of my favourites in fact.  Dr Who.  The citadel of Naris, for all those small glimpses of an educational environment,  reminded me less of  Magical Universities and their academics and more of the enigmatic world of Gallifrey and its austere Timelord masters. 

Thinking of references in both the old and the new series of Dr Who, I found resonances between Naris and the strict hierarchical world and birthplace of our favourite time warrior.  From early glimpses of information in Starborn, I find myself making the same assumptions of homogenous virtue and worthiness in those bearers of great power as I had in Dr Who. Yet as we draw close we find even the powerful and the blessed can be sundered by faction and weaknesses of a very human kind.  There are some for whom power is not enough and others for whom every piece is a pawn to be sacrificed.  Having once fixed that reference in my mind, I found other parallels tumbled out as the plot progressed - but this is a spoiler free review so read the book and message me if the same thoughts occurred to you.

At the Grim Gathering II authors talked about their writing style from the extreme plot-sters such as Peter V Brett, to the "going where the characters lead" style of Mark Lawrence.  Lucy Hounsom, I suspect, is at the plot-ster end of the spectrum. This is a carefully constructed story with clues planted for the alert reader, though whether you find yourself saying, "Yeah, I saw that coming" or "Doh, I should have seen that coming," it does not spoil the enjoyment of the story. 

Does the book have weaknesses?  Well it is a debut novel and every writer grows through the experience of writing.  There were a few wrinkles in the story for me. Some characters put in appearances which on reflection were a little convenient and defied my understanding of how the timeline had been progressing.  There was the odd villain who was forgiven and their crimes forgotten a little more rapidly than I would have expected.  While the plot was intricately woven in a way which bore up well to retrospective scrutiny (the "oh - so that's why that happened then" moment) such scrutiny did still raise my eyebrow as to how one particular event had been managed.

It was, for me a least, a plot driven book, and it is in its plot that the book pushes at the boundaries of the fantasy reading experience, and it is in the nature of a spoiler free review that I cannot share those innovations here.  Nonetheless this was a great read which I heartily recommend,  do find out about Kyndra Vale for yourself.

The Vagrant by Peter Newman     

Actions speak louder than words

At the Grim Gathering, Peter gave a short summary of his book "A one parent family in a post-demonic apocalypse."  Look closely at the exquisite cover and you will see the key elements in this tale.  A ragged man with a sword in one hand and a baby in the other walking a street of ruined buildings above a title set out in neon lights. Before the first page is turned, the book is challenging expectations.

I did not find it so plot driven as Starborn was.  There is a story line, and a back-story line.  By the end the latter has converged pleasingly on the former to explain all things that need explaining. But it is the spare writing, and the exoticness of the world building that carried me along.

In some ways it reminded me of the Gunslinger by Stephen King and its iconic mental image of an enigmatic hero on an unexplained journey through a blasted land.  This is a world not so much stalked as comprehensively mugged by disaster on an epic scale. On a long walk the protagonist acquires a staggering variety of both allies and enemies.

However, it is more complete and self-contained than the first instalment of the Dark Tower series.  At the Grim Gathering, the author said he always had a beginning and an end in mind and a misty patch inbetween where pretty much anything could happen. That overarching certainty guides the Vagrant's footsteps and reassures the reader that there is purpose in the present and resolution in the future.

The world building is broad and imaginative, in that not just one but two worlds are conjured up before the reader.  There is the world that was.  A world destroyed, the advanced civilisation where ships sailed in the sky and tanks like armoured trains went to war with demons, where knights still wielded swords in harmony and the mysterious power of the Seven, with their great champion Gamma, stood ready and on ceaseless and unchanging watch against invasion from the Breach.

Then there is the world that is. A world infested with entities which enslave the humans from without and within.  Creatures of chaos flood north across a now benighted continent.  Their power is constrained only by infighting between their factions and the necessity of finding ways to shield themselves from the toxic environment where they have won victory.  These demons are unlike any others, creatures of essence and desire, rather than corporeal entities.  More an infection than an invasion, they corrupt as much as conquer. A taint stains the land and its people. 

My other reference point is a 1981 film Mad Max 2, the (original) road warrior. There is that atmospheric journey through a shattered civilisation in which little islands of humanity strive to eke out some shadow of their former existence. Broken technology is cannibalised by desperate people as the Vagrant travels North past a barren landscape of twisted plastic and metal on a mission both personal and professional.  

The people have been crushed by defeat and by taint.  Things that were, or could have been human, have been corrupted beyond recognition. But still sparks of humanity and honour reside in the unlikeliest of places and can be kindled anew in a world where there is hope for all, and tears for those that fall.

The story is told in the present tense, even the backstory flashbacks. It is an approach still unusual to my old eyes. However, I saw it done to great effect in "The Girl With All The Gifts," and here - as there - the present tense narrative lends an edgy uncertainty as we follow our hero through a tale augmented with a variety of minor points of view (including a goat's uncomplicated eye).

The writing is unobtrusively good.  Like Mark Lawrence's writing, Peter Newman's avoids battering you with purple prose, or savouring its cleverness in convoluted gymnastics of vocabulary.  But open a page at random and you will find lines that make you nod in appreciation. "mist leaking in wheezy clouds"   "Busy clots of people move about"

The final departure from convention, or perhaps the first is in the protagonist's voice.  For Newman has determined that for the Vagrant, actions must perforce, speak louder than words.

Revolution and Evolution

I think it may be clear which of these stable-mates, these fraternal twins, plays the part of the revolutionary Spitfire and which the evolutionary Hurricane in my clumsy analogy.  Both are excellent reads, which I consumed in under a week. But they have very different appeals. The stories are self-contained, coming to a satisfactory conclusion.  But both left the door ajar for a sequel to challenge their heroes afresh.  I would read both sequels as soon as they were published (or even before if an ARC should find its way to me!)

It is invidious to try to rank such different books one against the other. For what is worth, plot-phile that I am, I finished Starborn on Thursday and The Vagrant on Friday 

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