It's been a while since I've seen a novel set on the moon. It's almost as if, after mankind has set foot on our nearest space rock, the moon has lost some of its magic and allure.
Luna: New Moon sets out to show us the moon in a different light. Set in a not-too-far future, the moon has become a resource, the permanent home to hardy settlers and the new frontier. There has been a moon-rush, the way there have been gold rushes, coal rushes, oil rushes in the past.
Frontiers can be lawless places. There is a reason the West used to be Wild. There is a roughness in places that are frontiers today: the Arctic, the great mining and logging areas of Latin America, the oil industry onshore and offshore... robber barons, speculators and entrepreneurs all have exactly the sort of energetic, ruthless hunger that Ian McDonald has found so fascinating in the novels he set in developing nations of the future. The moon is no different, except the power that run the moon - the Lunar Development Corporation (reminiscent of the East India Company or the Hudson Bay Company and other colonial corporations) - formalised the ruthlessness into a unique legal system. The only law is contract law. Everything can be negotiated. Every atrocity can be paid off with compensation, if there is someone left to make a claim.
I've been eagerly awaiting Luna since I first heard about it, at LonCon last year. Ian McDonald is a brilliant writer, and seeing the moon through his eyes promised to be an exquisite pleasure. I was not disappointed. At first, the character list at the start of the book scared me: so many people. so many names, so many relationships to remember (and so many unfamiliar terms: what is an 'oko' to another person, I wondered). Needless to say, I forgot them all and started reading. Fortunately, the book flows so organically that it's perfectly accessible even without the list at the start.
The story starts with aplomb: a 'moon run': naked teenagers leap out of an air lock and sprint through the vacuum in ten seconds, to another air lock and safety. It's a coming of age rite, dramatic, dangerous and heart-stoppingly tense.
The pace never really lets up. Soon, the viewpoint shifts to Marina Calzaghe, someone at the very bottom of the pecking order, a Jo Moonbeam, a new arrival who lost her job and is near the end of her tether: her accounts for air, water, food and bandwidth are all perilously low. You can survive without food for a while, and even water can be scavenged, but without bandwidth, you have no means to find a job, no chance to escape from poverty, and your ultimate death would be inevitable as all your accounts would run out.
There are five dynasties on the moon. Australian metal & rare earth miners. Ghanaian traders. Russian space transport tycoons. Chinese high tech / IT magnates. And, newest of all, Brazilian upstarts, the Corta-Helio family: Helium miners. Marina Calzaghe catches a lucky break and gets to be a one-off waitress at a Corta party. After that, much of the novel tells the tale of the Cortas - their matriarch's rise to wealth and power, their traditions and struggles, and the inter and intra-dynastic squabbles.
The moon is brought to life beautifully. People live in underground caves or on giant moving platforms perpetually cruising around the moon's equator on rails. The currrencies feel right and convincing. The dynasties and family politics are cut-throat, as they should be on a frontier. Everything about this moon is interesting, visceral and so very very alive. It's not at all a dead rock, but a buzzing frontier.
Ian McDonald is a virtuoso with prose. Luna might have some of the dynastic feudalism and tribalism that Song of Ice and Fire has made so very fashionable of late, but it's told in prose that flows and sings and dances on the page. It's seductive and mesmerising - a beautiful book to read.
If Luna has a flaw, it's that it's the start of something - a duology, a trilogy, a series: I don't know. It's a great, engaging and thrilling read, with some stunning set pieces, tension, great prose, but it does not feel as if its story has ended. It leaves me wanting more.
I can't wait to find out what comes next. Highly recommended.
In summary: With its evocative cover, good use of rhetoric / memorable voice, and its powerful artwork, this is a graphic novel firmly aimed at a grown up market. It was a little too short, but is a very strong independent graphic novel. Recommended. ...more
The Quality of Silence starts with bad news. Yasmin and Ruby have just landed in Alaska, after an exhausting transatlantic flight. At the airport, they are funnelled away from the other passengers by security staff and brought to a police officer, who tells Yasmin that her husband (and Ruby’s father), Matt, has died in a catastrophic fire.
It’s a nightmare for any traveller. For Yasmin, it’s even harder news to take than it would be for anyone else. Her young daughter Ruby is completely deaf. They’d travelled to Alaska a few weeks earlier than planned because of a marital crisis. The last exchanges between Yasmin and Matt had been… difficult, to say the least.
The circumstances of Matt’s death are odd enough that Yasmin convinces herself that he can’t be dead: an entire Inuit village has burnt down, with every single resident dead. Bodies are burnt beyond all recognition. The police identified Matt by the fact that there was one more body than they expected to find, and, after a little research, they heard that a nature photographer had been staying at the village and assumed it’s Matt. That’s not enough to convince Yasmin: she becomes convinced that Matt may now be in danger, caught out in the Alaskan winter, thousands of miles from civilisation, with no one looking for him.
The rest of the novel tells of Yasmin’s and Ruby’s quest to find Matt. It’s an enchanting and gripping read, not so much for its thrills and cliffhangers, but because Yasmin and Ruby are wonderful characters easy to identify with and feel for. The mother-daughter relationship is completely convincing. Reading about a deaf little girl has lots of potential to pull at heart strings, but this is not a novel that ‘plays the deaf angle’ for tearjerking / inspirational tosh. Instead, it’s a novel about a very convincing, intelligent, young, deaf girl, and her mother, who struggles with wanting the best for her child even if that isn’t always the easiest path at the moment.
The Alaskan setting provides a grand canvas for their quest and conflicts, with plenty of natural peril. It enriches the story and serves to isolate Ruby and Yasmin in a way that few places on Earth could match. It’s impossible not to get heavily invested in their story as they try to make their way from Anchorage to Anaktakue (the destroyed Inuit hamlet).
Some things in the book are utterly authentic: Alaska, the ice highway, the relationships between Yasmin and Ruby and Matt – it all feels almost as if the story were biographical. But, at the end of the day, it’s a thriller. Certain plot developments are… cinematic. They don’t feel entirely authentic.
That said, the book is a pleasure to read. It’s gripping, engrossing, and heartwarming at times. I’d recommended it for pretty much every one who likes to read, and anyone who likes their books to put them in different shoes, in faraway places....more
The Water Knife is a novel set in a not too distant future USA struggling to deal with environmental changes. In particular, it's set in Arizona, where the city of Phoenix has become a zone of refugee camps, Red Cross water pumps, middle class people counting the gallons in their water cistern every day, but also self-contained biodomes (arcologies) and ultra-rich people live in well-defended luxury.
Angel is a contractor / mercenary working on behalf of a water company - the so-called Water Knife of the title. Lucy is an investigative reporter. Maria is a young refugee trying to get by in a mob-run brutal and ruthless area of town.
The domino that starts the chain reaction that will intertwine their stories is the vicious torture and murder of two men over a document that may or may not exist - a document of legally binding water rights.
At the start of the novel, the world building feels preachy. Several times, characters discuss the wilful blindness of their ancestors in driving their environment over a cliff and building cities in unsustainable places. Basically, we're being told off and our noses are being rubbed in it. It's a little offputting. It won't convince anyone who's in denial.
It also did not entirely convince me. Not the environmental calamities: those seem all too imaginable. In fact, there are regions of the world where water rights are the source of fierce and bitter conflicts right now. However, I don't see the State lines as being credible dividers in America. I could imagine divisions along religion, or race, or even politics: I can more easily imagine a Democrat vs Republican conflict turning into mass migrations and then regional divisions, as supporters of different ideologies start to dominate different regions. I just can't see strong divisions happening based purely on whether someone is Texan or Nevadan or Arizonan.
Once the story gets moving, it's a well-paced thriller, with various parties chasing after macguffins, information or fortune, and being chased by murderers, conspiracies and the occasional deadly riot. There's tension and cliffhangers aplenty. Violence, too: some of the characters suffer pretty permanent consequences.
The Water Knife is unusual in that it is neither a post-apocalyptic novel nor a pre-apocalyptic one. This is a novel of collapse in progress. #Phoenixdownthetubes. It reminded me a little of the (more literary) Random Acts of Senseless Violence, only this time the driving force of collapse is environmental rather than economical. There are not many novels telling stories set during a gradual fall of our civilisation.
As things race towards the end, the book becomes utterly gripping. Every plot development feels authentic, even when things twist to and fro. It really grows on you (as do all the characters).
If you can get past the slightly clumsy beginning and bear with it, you'll be richly rewarded: the finale is masterfully done. ...more
It does contain spoilers for The Just City - so if you have not read that, don't read this review.
The Philosopher Kings does not start straight after the climactic events of The Just City, Instead, the book is set about twenty years later.
Apollo, still living as a human, has been married to Simmea, and they have raised several children together. The book starts, cruelly, with Simmea's death in a minor skirmish. This is hard to take, as Simmea was the heart and soul of the first novel. Apollo, for the first time in his immortal life, experiences genuine grief and bereavement. It nearly destroys him.
Matters are not helped by the silly reasons for her death. She died, defending an artwork against raiders. After the events in The Just City, some of its citizens wanted to create their own Platonic utopias, diverging from the one created for them. Some wanted to pursue Plato's ideas more fervently and strictly, while others wanted to create a more Socratic republic of philosophers. The result of the splits are five different cities (including the original one), with different rules. While they share some things - the robots and the knowledge - other things were not distributed, including art. After some capture-the-flag style hijinx, campaigns of art theft turned violent. As all the youths had been trained in combat, skirmishes could be lethal, and Simmea dies in one such art raid.
As Simmea was the heart of the first novel, so their daughter Arete is the heart of the second novel. On the cusp of adulthood, this teenager has more common sense than her older brothers, more heart and brains and drive than almost anyone. While her father spends an awful lot of the novel moping, she navigates the stormy waters of grief, bereavement, first love, debate, demi-Godhood and more with that indomitable kernel of kindness and wisdom that is found in many of Jo Walton's characters.
Much of the novel is taken up with a journey to seek out Kebes, the former rebel who hated The Just City for enslaving him. As an exploratory journey, we meet other contemporaries of these ancient times, and see beyond doomed Atlantis for the first time.
The Philosopher Kings is, like The Just City, an intelligent novel that thrives on discourse and thought experiments. What deflates it a little is that it is missing the zest that Socrates had provided. It is a much less playful novel. The first book was imbued with a certain sense of bemusement - watching academics and philosophers trying to set up a utopia and follow a rule book, watching fallible Gods having their own blind spots, watching Socrates reach out to robots and interrogate ideas... The Just City thrived on humour and playfulness, even if it featured rape and infanticide and other serious matters. The Philosopher Kings is less lighthearted. It starts with death and carries on through grief and vengeance. It touches on oppression and fear. It features horrendous torture. It's a story of folly and cruelty and tragedy, with lighter moments, whereas the first was a light story about folly with tragic and cruel moments.
The Just City is a novel about consent. The Philosopher Kings is a novel about consequences. I would recommend The Philosopher Kings to anyone who read The Just City, and I would recommend The Just City to just about everyone. That said, I do worry that the road ahead may be more rocky for our protagonists than I'd ever expected... ...more