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Musing on Books
by Michelle West

The Privilege of Peace by Tanya Huff, DAW, 2018, $26, hc.

The Tea Master and the Detective by Aliette de Bodard, Subterranean, 2018, $40, hc.

Summerland by Hannu Rajaniemi, Tor Books, 2018, $25.99, hc.

Blood Orbit: A Gattis File Novel by K. R. Richardson, Pyr, 2018, $18, tpb.

Master Assassins by Robert V. S. Redick, Talos, 2018, $25.99, hc.

Hamster Princess: Whiskerella by Ursula Vernon, Dial Books, 2018, $12.99, hc.

 

Torin Kerr is the most famous ex-marine in the galaxy, thanks in part to a self-serving media personality who knows how to sell a story about heroes. But only in part. The rest is all down to Torin and her work ethic: She got the job done, and still does. These days, the job is different. Oh, people are still shooting at her and her team, but she's not allowed to kill any of them, which is decidedly one-sided. Torin's now leading the Justice Department strike teams, and the Justice Department has a whole lot of laws that their Wardens aren't supposed to be breaking. Among other things, it causes hideous amounts of paperwork.

The existence of the strike teams has caused friction, violence being the province of the backward and the savage—i.e. the Younger Races, of which humanity is one. Many of the Elder Races want the Younger Races quarantined now that the war is over, because the Younger Races are responsible for the spike in violent criminal activity, and if there were no Younger Races, there'd be no violence.

But the need to fight a war opened the door, and as that door can't be closed, Torin is getting the job done—while defining it. She knows what she establishes here will guide the Justice Department going forward, so it has to be done right. She believes in the promise of the Confederation, even if reality doesn't yet live up to those ideals.

Many of the Elder Races believe in it as well, but they don't want humans to be any part of it, and political arguments are brewing. Politics, however, are above Torin's pay grade, and she fully intends to keep it that way. Humans First, the xenophobic human supremacists, aren't making her job any easier. Neither are non-confederate aliens, the Silsviss, nor the general under whom she previously served.

The Primacy, with whom the Confederation is no longer at war, has been skirmishing on the Confederacy's borders. And a sheet of plastic, buried in the ruins on Threxie, has become the centerpiece of a media campaign for Presit, the reporter who's single-handedly made Torin Kerr a well-known figure. Presit decided it's time to run for office. She's a member of one of the Elder Races, but she's spent enough time on the war fronts to believe that the Younger Races deserve a place at the table.

Presit's live demonstration goes south, however, and all of the threads of Torin's past experiences come together in the concluding volume of the Peacekeeper trilogy, a terrific capstone for Torin Kerr's continuing stories. The Privilege of Peace is, in theory, the last of the Torin Kerr books, and I'm going to miss her.

I think this is my favorite of the three books, and Huff's dry wit and incredibly apt but satirical descriptions caused me to laugh out loud often enough I ended up reading a quarter of the book out loud to answer the "what's so funny" question each time. Highly recommended.

 

*   *   *

 

I have a weakness for smart but inscrutable characters, and Long Chau is definitely that. She's a somewhat mysterious consulting detective, and she comes to the rather sparse tea house of The Shadow's Child to request a brew that will help her think clearly in deep space. The Shadow's Child is a mindship, one whose main body is parked in orbit, and whose presence is defined by a decidedly terrestrial home—one that she can only barely afford to rent.

She was once a military vessel, with a family—mindships are incubated in human wombs, born, and become the heart of the family, the keeper of family memories and histories. The Shadow's Child lost her family; she is alone. Mindships were never meant to be alone, but the fear of the deep space in which she lost everything, and almost lost her life, keeps her grounded, making teas and brews that will alter the states of mind of the customers who come to her, few though those may be.

When the two meet, The Shadow's Child is not impressed. Long Chau is abrupt and arrogant, and her comments make the mindship incredibly uncomfortable. But Long Chau's money is good—and very necessary, and The Shadow's Child can create the brew required. But in order to use that brew, Long Chau will need to be monitored, and Long Chau intends to use that brew in deep space.

The Shadow's Child therefore agrees to skirt the edges of that space while monitoring Long Chau and her reaction to the brew she's created. Long Chau is heading into deep spaces to find a corpse. Not a specific corpse—any corpse will do; the detective has decided she needs to know how corpses decay in deep space, and this is the most efficient way to get that information, given the fallout of war.

The corpse they find, however, is not a corpse abandoned in the aftermath of the war; Long Chau points out that the death is recent. The Shadow's Child is drawn, however unwillingly, into the mystery of that woman's death, and to solve it, she must face her own past, and the trauma that arose from it.

The Shadow's Child is far more reader accessible than Long Chau; she is the viewpoint and her thoughts and fears make sense, as do her doubts and her uncertainties. It's ironic, then, that she's the ship and Long Chau is the human. She is Watson to Long Chau's Sherlock, competent and honorable, confused and yet determined.

The mystery, the world, and the characters are a perfect blend, and I absolutely want more of these two.

 

*   *   *

 

In Hannu Rajaniemi's first novel outing since the close of his trilogy, he has gone back in time—in theory—to Britain in 1938. Rachel White is a member of the SIS, the British intelligence agency. It is not easy being a female agent—a married female agent; society in general does not have much room for competent women. Rachel is therefore more competent at her job than most of her peers, or she wouldn't have it.

A Russian agent has defected. Rachel is given the job of getting the counterintelligence he can provide—and he's not all that interested in anything but drinking and, apparently, wasting everyone's time. But during a duel brought on by his insults to a young man's poetry, Rachel impresses him enough that he is willing to give her one piece of vital information: There's a mole in the service. Peter Bloom.

The complication: Peter Bloom is dead.

In Rajaniemi's Summerland, that's not impossible, because in this 1938, the British have discovered a way to communicate with the dead, and a city in which the dead can—and do—reside on the other side. And so have the Russians.

The Intelligence service bridges both sides of the divide: The Winter Court is the living side; the Summer Court, the dead. There are natural laws that govern the dead. One's spirit vanishes into the ether as memories are stripped away—but in Summerland, if one has the map to the location upon death, those memories and identities can be preserved. It's not a wonder, then, that the city of the dead so closely resembles a living city. People take trains to work and back; they live in apartments or houses; they work in offices. Those offices might not cleave to the realities of architecture—thought can shape the ether in which the dead "live"—but in large part, the differences are cosmetic. The dead recreate what they know.

If one has a ticket—a spiritual map of sorts—to Summerland, death is an inconvenience. You die, and you arrive on the other side, where you can phone your loved ones over the ether. You can visit them, if you have the money to pay the spirit medium you're going to possess. Tickets, however, are only available to those who merit them—and the class system is alive and well. The rich and the powerful in this 1938 don't need to fear death. It's just an interruption.

It's an interesting novel about intelligence, counterintelligence, and the afterlife—the tools are different, but the sides are similar, except for one thing. The Russians have built a god in the afterlife, an amalgamation of those who have died and joined The Presence. The Russians who have proven themselves worthy are given the chance to join the Presence, where their knowledge will be absorbed, and they will be one with god.

Peter Bloom has seen god, and he wants to join. He is a highly placed member of the Summer Court. Rachel White is attempting to catch him, to dig up proof of his duplicity. In that structure, the book follows the move and counter-move of spy novels. But the reasons for the defection and the moves allowed either side by the structure of the world add a dimension to the whole, and the games-within-games leads to an end I did not expect.

Part of that ending I really liked. Part of it I'm more ambivalent about. But the ambivalence doesn't destroy the book for me, and Rajaniemi's characters are, as always, human, real. Not neat, not tidy, and not without internal conflicts, but real. Science fiction may be the literature of ideas, but ideas become real for me when the characters that convey them feel real. Rajaniemi has both in abundance.

 

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Blood Orbit, by K. R. Richardson, owes much to detective fiction of the noir variety. Let me say up front that that is not a sub-genre with which I'm hugely familiar as a reader, in part because I have always hit the wall of "why are all the women always sexually aggressive toward the main character?" which tends to annoy me enough that I stop. This novel evokes elements of those books for me—but without any of the teeth-grinding. Which may mean that it's not noir, or that Richardson is much more adept at handling all of the elements.

The book opens with Matheson and his partner Santos. They're the equivalent of police, but police work is paid for, and directed by, a corporation in this futuristic world. Matheson is both young and as idealistic as people who live here can be. He joined the force because he wanted to somehow make a difference. But he's working the stretch of a city that's poor, where racial tensions between two of the three populations on Gattis who are in conflict define the streets, and where neither of those two talk to outsiders.

It opens with carnage: a massacre in Paz, at a bar in which the significant members of the Driehle community gather. Those members are now dead; they've been robbed and mostly efficiently murdered. Santos is injured—self-inflicted, the result of his horror and panic, and Matheson is given a new partner from a different division: Inspector Dillal. Dillal is biracial, which pretty much means no one wants or trusts him. He is also physically enhanced, an experimental product. As such he's valuable as an object: Parts of his brain and body have been replaced with mechanical parts that in theory will allow him to be much more efficient.

But half of his face is no longer organic; nothing about the operation is subtle. Inspector is a rank that Dillal, without volunteering for this operation, might never have achieved. It's impossible not to notice the augmentation; half his face doesn't move. The very qualities that have caused his isolation are the qualities that have allowed him to survive the operation—but if he's not careful, and the machinery breaks down or is rejected, he's a dead man. The machinery is of more value to his superiors than his life, and he's signed off on that fact. They'll pull it all out to preserve it, leaving what's left to rot.

Life doesn't have a lot of value to the higher-ups. Their jobs do. They need Matheson and Dillal to solve this murder Right Now. Or sooner.

But the murder is complex and complicated, and the police aren't getting answers from the people who have information. Racial tensions are high because the obvious assumption—that it was the Ohba who murdered the Dreihle—is adding fuel to a fire that's already dangerously high. If all were as it seems, this economically depressed section of Gattis would be a dumpster fire in the making—and of course all is not as it seems.

Richardson's writing has a precision and a level of detail that doesn't slow the story down, and her characters exist within the context she's created, with all of the ramifications that implies. Matheson is neither Dreihle or Ohba; he's of the race that occupies most of the upper class. But he has his own reasons for the choices he's made, and if those reasons are almost laughable—to anyone outside of himself—he is undergoing his baptism by fire while attempting to hold on to the core of them. He's in over his head—but so is Dillal.

Idealism exists to be tarnished. The police are corrupt. Bribes are expected. Friends are situational. Murder happens. But this murder could light a fuse that will start an explosion that will trivialize the number of deaths that have already occurred. The murders are going to be pinned on someone, because that's what the upper echelons expect. Matheson and Dillal have one week—or less—to make sure they're pinned on the actual killer.

Grim, gripping, and ultimately hopeful, Blood Orbit creates a setting that rings true, with characters who are struggling to do their best in a world that doesn't value best; it values power and position, which, come to think, sounds very familiar.

 

*   *   *

 

Master Assassins is an enormously ironic title. The cover of the book makes it clear, but if you're reading this, you probably don't have the cover in front of you. If what you want from a book with this title is a story with assassin school tropes, you don't want this particular book.

If, however, you want a book about brothers (half-brothers) and their complicated, conflicted relationship, which plays out against a backdrop of religious fanaticism, prophecy, and magic, this might be for you.

Kandri and Mektu, the Hinjuman brothers, are soldiers in the Prophet's army. Kandri is, for want of a better word, the more socially normative brother; Mektu causes trouble wherever he goes. If there's a wrong or inappropriate thing to say, Mektu will find it; he makes people uncomfortable minutes after he's first opened his mouth—and getting him to shut up is almost impossible.

Kandri, by association, is considered problematic, and that association is what troubles him, because Kandri has learned with time that survival depends on the ability to fit in and keep his head down. He's a grunt soldier, when it all comes down to it; he has no power and no authority. When the book opens, he has discovered that Mektu has been talking about the yatra, a mythic figure that curses men, steals their minds, and causes catastrophe.

And any number of catastrophes can be blamed, by the superstitious, on the yatra. Kandri doesn't believe in the yatra, but he's not stupid; he knows that others in the army will. And bad news draws attention; Mektu is drawing attention. He always has.

Kandri's godfather is the weaponsmith in their armed camp, and Kandri often cries—or grinds teeth—on his shoulder. His uncle Chinidalin, as they call his godfather, listens to his complaints about Mektu, and agrees. They have both tried, in their own way, to protect Mektu. But Kandri is frustrated and tired of trying to both protect his brother and keep as low a profile as possible. And his brother is talking about deserting.

The Prophet's soldiers are marked in a way that makes deserters visibly identifiable. Desertion is death—and not a pleasant, swift death, either. Only harming the Prophet or her beloved sons incurs a worse penalty—and that is unthinkable.

But Kandri's run-in with a pedophile drug-dealer, leads, unintentionally on his part, to the unthinkable, and the crime of desertion becomes a desperate, last-ditch attempt to save his own life. His brother is embroiled in that desertion, as is their godfather, and Eshett, a woman who was sold to the brothels that service the army encampment, and whose quick thinking gave Kandri enough time to escape.

In Redick's hands, it works. Kandri and Mektu aren't close, but they're brothers. Kandri can—and frequently does—think of either strangling or deserting the brother who has been such a trial to him on so many occasions, but Mektu has saved his life when no one else would, during a disaster of an attack and the inevitable retreat. The bond of family is restricting, defining and ultimately trustworthy, and the doubts, frustrations, and loyalty feel completely real to me.

As does Kandri's desire to strangle Mektu when Mektu says or does something cringeworthy. The relationship, replete with its long-nursed resentments, feels real, and its history unfolds in and around the flight from the Prophet's forces. The history is both personal and relevant for entirely different reasons; it becomes clear that the half-brothers' father is part of the much larger shadow that is slowly enfolding the lands, although the why and the how are left for later books.

And none of this really captures the tone or the quality of the writing; it is subtle and layered, evocative and true.

I'm not certain it will work for everyone—I'm not certain that Mektu, for instance, won't put people off. But I'm very interested to see where Redick will take the brothers, and what their ultimate fate will be.

 

*   *   *

 

Whiskerella, by Ursula Vernon, is the fifth book in her Hamster Princess series, which is written for younger readers. I want to say it's a middle-reader, but on the younger end of that scale, and as such probably doesn't belong in this column. But I discovered the first book in December, and immediately went out and bought the remaining three, and then waited—with patience! Honest!—for Whiskerella. As my children are now technically adults, I cannot pretend that I wanted to read them to my kids.

These are what are commonly called fractured fairy tales. Vernon takes a well-known fairy tale, and stands it on its head. Or perhaps Harriet, Hamster Princess does that. They are laugh out loud funny. (If you are reading them to your younger children, you might have long, winding explanations of why you laughed, because half of the funny is not easily explained to six-year-olds.)

Whiskerella is Vernon's version of Cinderella, and can I just say I like the Vernon version much better? I think it much improved.

All of the books have become an instant part of my comfort-reading canon. Are they deep? Probably not. But the elements turned on their head deserve to be there, and beneath the humor is a question about our assumptions. (For example: What is it about people who decide that their version of happily-ever-after has to be your version of happily-ever-after?)

With the loss of Terry Pratchett, there's been a great, empty void in my humerous reading. Vernon isn't Pratchett, but there's a warmth of humor and an absurdity of situation that helps fill it.

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