The Devotion of Suspect X

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What it’s about: A murder is committed, and we know who did it. The question is, how will the killers evade the police?

Notes:

  • After reading the masterful Naoko, I sought to read Keigo Higashino’s other mystery novels, expecting an entirely more conventional murder mystery. But The Devotion of Suspect X is no such thing. Instead of being a whodunit, it is more like a howdunit, with the perpetrators revealed at the start and much of the novel being an account of how the detectives try to make sense of the circumstances of the murder while the perpetrator orchestrates his 6D chess game of a plot to throw the investigators off the scent.
  • One would think that a howdunit, bereft of the usual core conceit of mystery novels – i.e. the mystery – can ever build suspense. But Higashino has a way of writing with an undeniably seductive clarity that keeps hinting at the fact that the story is bigger than it seems – and what starts out as a straightforward case slowly turns more and more bewildering, to both us and the detectives, until the story is blown wide open with one of the greatest twists I’ve read in a detective thriller.
  • The book doesn’t rely on verbiage or put on literary airs. It’s a straight-shooting, tautly-written detective novel that feels pulpy in its brevity but is startlingly complex and well-conceived in its execution. The result is a novel that is both easy to read but unputdownable in the way it seduces you to unravel yet another layer in its narrative onion.

Verdict: Quick-paced, cerebral and utterly engrossing, The Devotion of Suspect X expands the boundaries of the genre and delivers an unexpectedly involving narrative with a killer twist.

I give this book: 4.5 out of 5 bento boxes

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The Delirium Brief

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What it’s about: Shit hits the fan in the Laundry-verse, as the Sleeper in the Pyramid returns bearing the face of another old adversary, and all the world’s occult forces must rise in opposition to its grotesque crusade.

Notes:

  • The Delirium Brief is like the Avengers of the Laundry-verse. Nearly every protagonist that featured in the past six or so books makes an appearance in this, even long-forgotten bit players like Iris from The Fuller Memorandum. The PHANGS, the elves and even some of the “superheroes” from Annihilation Score make an appearance. And let’s not forget Bob Howard, missing the past three books and now finally back in full Eater of Souls vainglory, once again the somewhat unreliable narrator of this book.
  • In The Delirium Brief, our heroes are finally confronted by the greatest enemy of all – their own Government, who, driven by a very neoliberal desire to privatise the occult defense capabilities of the state, liquidate the Laundry in a hasty and ill-conceived move to curry public favour after the bungled elven invasion in Leeds. Except that the entity they are trying to outsource these functions to is controlled by a soul-eating eldritch horror who wants nothing more than to consume every living soul on the planet, and are presiding in a systematic dismantling of the occult defense infrastructure to enable that. A frightening and very clever parody of the very real desire by some quarters of the political spectrum to abdicate the functions of governance to private actors, leading to regulatory capture – except that this particular dysfunction has existential consequences.
  • The book, apart from bringing together all its characters, also kind of executes a few odd plot retcons – like recasting Iris as a sleeper agent all along, and making the Mandate the Black Pharaoh – probably for the sake of maintaining overall series continuity – because the Laundry was probably not gestated as such a long series to start with. The jury’s still out on this one, but I suppose we will see if these plot threads start to bear real fruit in latter novels.
  • The notion of the Senior Auditor afraid and at his wit’s end enough to welcome the rule of a lesser eldritch evil – to combat an infinitely worse one – is truly frightening in the context of the Laundryverse. Stross is not pulling any punches here on the severity of the existential crisis facing the world – and I personally can’t wait to see what happens next.

Verdict: Fiendishly clever, gripping, replete with quality Lovecraftian horror, and a satisfying culmination of books’ worth of buildup of characters and plotlines, The Delirium Brief is an explosive and bold entry of the Laundry Files novels.

I give this book: 4.5 out of 5 Continuity Operations warrant cards

Evening’s Empires

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What it’s about: In a far-future Solar System recently ravaged by the actions of unknowable alien intelligences, a resourceful young scavenger seeks revenge against the agents that killed his family.

Verdict: Again, at the risk of sounding like a broken record, the worldbuilding in Evening’s Empires is excellent, positing a Solar System in decline after a cataclysmic affair and rocked by religious awakening after a bizarre cosmic event called the Bright Moment. But its plot is a meandering, directionless mess with meh-at-best characters, odd plot trajectories, and a conclusion that falls flat after the expectations that have been built up around it in the form of the esoteric mysteries that McAuley has posited as part of his future history. As a work of fiction, it serves as the barest of threads to string together McAuley’s otherwise intriguingly imaginative world together.

I give this book: 3 out of 5 Dr Gagarian heads

In the Mouth of the Whale

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What it’s about: A thousand years after the events of Gardens of the Sun, a war is taking place in the distant Formalhaut system, with the dictatorial and militaristic True Empire and their Quick slaves battling the descendants of the transhuman Ghosts. Amidst this, a ship bearing the consciousness of Sri Hong Owen approaches ever closer, bringing with it a promise of transformation.

Notes: 

  • The Quiet War universe of books moves into the distant future with this third book, the worldbuilding of which I think actually trumps the near-future intrigue of the first two books in its audacity and sheer sense of vertiginous alienness. While the first two books strove to maintain some connection to contemporaneous Earth, the societies and polities depicted in Whale are indubitably strange, and yet familiar in how the chords of human nature play out even millennia in the future under the light of a different sun.
  • The polities depicted in Whale, particularly the True Empire and its slaves, the Quicks, are a sobering example of McAuley’s prognostications on what the terrible things that can happen when people obtain the power to bioengineer life at this level of sophistication. The baseline-human-fetishizing Trues have an overwhelming belief in their own superiority to the post-human Quicks, to the extent that they see Quicks as less than human and have free rein to treat them in the most inhuman ways possible, tweaking them without restraint to serve as their slaves and playthings for their most depraved pastimes. The True Empire, themselves, live across a smattering of planetoid bodies; their society is rigidly hierarchical, clannish, and militaristic, and they employ technologies they do not fully understand, that lend the book a kind of space fantasy vibe, what with various references to harrowing of Hells and purging of demons (essentially, entering virtual audio-visual representations of data structures to eliminate lethal computer viruses that have the annoying habit of downloading themselves into your brain and driving you insane).
  • That said, one gets the sense that, once again, McAuley lets his worldbuilding get way ahead of this storytelling. Narrative progression is essentially a vehicle for McAuley to introduce all his interesting sf concepts, and as one gets closer to the end, one can sense McAuley struggling to find a way to resolve the plot threads. At the very end, the story just runs out of steam and the collapse of the True Empire is relegated to a few passages without a clear link between the events of the book and the ending. Ultimately, despite all the cool concepts being flung around, reading the book didn’t give me that much satisfaction in reading a self-contained story with a clear sense of what it wanted to say. It’s like watching the beginning of a race, then skipping all the way to the finish – you don’t really have a sense of how the winners got to the front.

Verdict: Suffused with McAuley’s by-now signature imaginative power but lacking a compelling sense of story, In the Mouth of the Whale never really lives up to the potential of its fantastic sf premise.

I give this: 3 out of 5 bush robots

The End of All Things

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What it’s about: The sixth book in the Old Man’s War sequence continues the story of the Colonial Union’s quest to survive amidst various encroachments, primarily that of a clandestine organisation that has a stake in its dissolution.

Notes:

  • Like The Human Division, this book is also comprised of a number of interconnected novellas, but unlike The Human Division, these are much more tightly connected and linked to a central narrative strand that was just only hinted at in the previous book. The Human Division had attributed various mysterious happenings to an unseen agent, but it is only in this book that the big bad is finally revealed in all its dastardliness, and this book is all about confronting that main antagonist. In that sense, The End of All Things is the more focused and narratively cohesive work.
  • This is the book where the political philosophies banded about throughout the series’ length gets put to the fore and discussed. Space, with its vastness and unpredictability, is a perfect canvas for a Hobbesian state of affairs where it’s every civilization for itself. But in this environment, two major polities have emerged – the Colonial Union and the Conclave, and the former is actually the “bad guy” in the Universe – an aggressive and expansionist entity that regards its actions as the only way to ensure survival in a cold and unfeeling universe. The Conclave, on the other hand, is a liberal, heterogeneous polity forged out of grudging consensus, an international order governed by mutually-reinforcing norms, that views the CU as a threat to its fragile state of affairs.
  • The Big Bad, known as Equilibrium, belongs to an order of political thought that views this bipolar world as inherently unstable and dangerous – that at some point, one entity will gain hegemony at the total expense of the other, imposing its fiat on the rest of the polities in known space, while erasing the losing party from existence. In a bid to resolve this state of affairs, they seek to use subterfuge and a whole host of frankly vile tactics to topple both empires and return the galaxy to a purely multipolar state of affairs, which they believe to be the most stable. Of course, they’re also counting on enriching themselves in the process, and the journey back into multipolarity is going to result in genocide.
  • Now, contemporary IR theory is of many minds about the stability of various polar configurations. Classical realism would hold that multipolar worlds offer the greatest stability, others think that it would still result in a large number of petty wars and force individual polities to mind too many different enemies, increasing the chances of overreaction and petty warfare. Either way, war is a constant, but Equilibrium clearly thinks that in a scenario where each state commands weapons capable of destroying vast swathes of an opposing planet, a multipolar world would diffuse aggressiveness and maximise the chances of species continuity (since no one species would be enough of a threat to be a concerted target of genocide from an alliance of other races). Basically, a return to a world where war is fought to maintain the balance of power, rather than to exterminate the enemy in their entirety.
  • IR aside, though, Equilibrium’s methods clearly paint them as an avowed antagonist, and the entire book is about the good guys’ efforts to sic them out and wipe their mercenary asses off known space, which proceeds in satisfying fashion. The first novella, the story of the preternaturally-resourceful Rafe Daquin, who, even as a disembodied brain in a jar, manages to outsmart his Equilibrium captors and reveal their existence to the world, is classic Scalzi – a story of how an underdog uses smarts to win the day against all odds. The second segment discusses the internal politics of the Conclave, and the third and last segments sees them coming to a modus vivendi  with the CU and Earth in a bid to defeat the newly found enemy. The stories are focused, fast-paced and thrillingly smart, interlaced with classic Scalzi humor and satisfying descriptions of subterfuge. Really, no one beats Scalzi at setting up convoluted plots that unroll across the telling of a tale in such a satisfying way.

Verdict: Yet another classic Scalzi doing what he does best, The End of All Things wraps up the latest strand of the intriguing Old Man’s War universe in satisfying and kinetic fashion.

I give this: 4.5 out of 5 brain-controlled ships

Gardens of the Sun

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What it’s about: The follow-up to The Quiet War, this book continues the story of the conflict between Earth and the Outers, as well as that of the lives of the various characters from the first book.

Notes:

  • This was actually a more enjoyable read than The Quiet War. McAuley is better at the big picture, and Gardens of the Sun definitely has a much more expansive scope than the first book. The book adopts a much more “future history” tone, with McAuley describing grandiose social and political movements, migrations, and revolutions from the perspective of his characters, who are both observers and active participants in these events. There isn’t much in the way of tension – a lot of the plot threads have an air of inevitability to them, in the sense that we never feel like the characters are acting in opposition to overwhelming odds against them, and the stage is often set for ensuring the survival of the collective (but not so much for the individual characters, who get killed off like flies). And a lot of the plot is told, rather than shown, in long expository passages. But I don’t actually mind this, because it plays to McAuley’s strengths in world-building.
  • Surprisingly, the characters all get significant and meaningful development in this book, and are as a consequence much more fleshed-out than in the first book. Characters like Cash Baker, Alder, Dave and even Loc Ifrahim are no longer the one-dimensional ciphers in the Quiet War and are deployed in a much more sympathetic and nuanced light. This really made me enjoy the book that much more.
  • For all of McAuley’s strengths in worldbuilding, however, one problem that emerges in this second book is his plot resolutions. He seems to have a clear ending in mind, but has problems resolving things that he’s set up over the course of the book. This leads to certain leaps in plot logic and deus ex machinae that pop up close to the end of the book, and plot elements that one would think deserve a bit more attention are described in the past tense and are taken to have occurred off-screen.

Verdict: While still flawed, Gardens of the Sun is a much more interesting and involved read than its predecessor, and maintains the same grandiosity of worldbuilding as the original.

I give this book: 4 out of 5 Ghost Ships

The Quiet War

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What it’s about: Earth, newly ascendant from environmental catastrophe, seeks to establish its hegemony over the far-flung colonies of posthuman Outers living in the moons and planetoids of Jupiter and Saturn.

Notes:

  • This is the first of a duology of books that paint an arresting vision of the state of a 23rd century solar system where humankind has mastered genetic and environmental engineering to a degree that they can spin complete habitats on the most arid of rocks and thrive there to a high degree of self sufficiency and comfort.
  • The Quiet War starts out intriguingly enough, introducing the reader to a climate change-ravaged Earth with a vastly reshaped political theatre, dominated in the Americas by the dictatorial and oligopolistic (but also aggressively environmentalist) families of Greater Brazil, and their attendant gene wizards: scientific geniuses whose proprietary mastery of genetic engineering have given them considerable clout and influence.
  • On the far edges of the Solar System, new typologies of living are being explored by the Outers: diamond-tented cities perched on moonlets, undersea bases clinging onto the underside of Europa’s kilometres-thick ice-crust, mysterious gardens of vacuum-adapted organisms in the centres of hollowed-out asteroids. The Outers themselves are on the cusp of a massive flowering, forging their descendants into posthuman clades adapted to the diverse environments of the solar system.
  • McAuley’s training as a botanist and biologist shows, with oddly beautiful passages devoted to the exploration of how future humans might be able to cultivate living biomes from dead rock, and of the rejuvenation efforts being carried out on Earth, where we see an odd juxtaposition of climate consciousness, religious fervor, and dictatorship – a state of affairs that seems more and more likely as our squabbling corporate-dominated institutions move closer and closer to a global warming redline without being able to come to a consensus.
  • McAuley treats both sides with some complexity, at the risk of muddying his message. Greater Brazil is depicted as aggressive, conservative and militaristic, contrasted against the technologically progressive, gene-spliced Outers who operate using a culture of radical consensus and whose currency is a system of favour-based accounting called kudos. Except I’m not quite sure who McAuley is rooting for sometimes (which is not a bad thing, per se, but I think most books should take a stand on this) – because the Outer system of democracy is portrayed as ineffectual and affected, to the point of making them sitting ducks for a military strike.
  • Amidst the stellar worldbuilding, however, is a ponderous narrative populated with undistinguished characters, that, like the spaceships of the era, take forever to get anywhere. And indeed, the titular quiet war between Earth and the Outers is the payoff of the entire book, and the consequence of McAuley’s slow and considered buildup, but it feels almost inevitable – thus, the reader is just left with the task of finding out how exactly it happens.
  • To put it another way, the lives of the small players in this space opera intertwine with the massive historical shifts in power that result in a vastly different Solar System between the start and the end of the book. But the lives of the small, for the most part, pale in interest to those characters closer to the loci of power – gene wizard Sri Hong-Owen may be the most intriguing of these. But the book’s other POV characters – notably Macy Minnot and Cash Baker – are the “human interest” characters that don’t seem quite as interesting in the scheme of things, even as they are expository vehicles for McAuley to further explore the world he has wrought.

Verdict: While the worldbuilding is top-notch, the narrative takes forever to get anywhere, not helped by the inherent dullness of many of the story’s POV characters.

I give this book: 3.5/5 spex