Review: PIMP MY AIRSHIP by Maurice Broaddus

Book Reviews

Pimp. My. Airship. What a title. As someone with very little steampunk reading hours under my belt this was a book I was super excited to read, especially after how much I loved some of the other books put out by Apex, like SNOW OVER UTOPIA, COIL and ROSEWATER (originally published by small press Apex before being picked up by Orbit – lil piece of trivia for ya there). I didn’t fully know what to expect from PIMP MY AIRSHIP, but I was definitely along for the ride.



It tells the story of a chiba-smoking spoken word poet called Sleepy, who inadvertently becomes the face of a revolution when his performance theatre is raided by the authoritarian Indianapolis cops. Taken under the wing of a professional revolutionary known as (120 Degrees of) Knowledge Allah, the two of them soon find themselves on the run from one end of a retro-fitted Indianapolis to the other, in a desperate attempt to elude the powers that be. Meanwhile, young heiress Sophine Jefferson becomes embroiled in the shady world of corrupt politicians and racist businessmen who run the city, putting her on a collision course with the path of Sleepy, Knowledge Allah and the fomenting revolution.

I’ll start with the good stuff, ’cause there’s a bunch of stuff I thought was *chef’s kiss* about this book. Pimp My Airship really excels on the macro level – themes and world building. It’s a book that brazenly goes to town on the status quo, shining a bright light on the cockroaches of systemic racism, police brutality and the exploitative nature inherent in industrial capitalism. Broaddus does a great job at weaving these themes into the story and showing how all these things are part of a broader and interconnected web of systemic oppression; in Broaddus’ book the primary function of the state is to protect the interests of the wealthy and protect private property, while the City Ordained Pinkertons (COPs) exists as a supposedly neutral force that in reality acts as the violent enforcers of capital and privatised prisons exploit their overwhelmingly black inmate population for free labour. Sound familiar? Yeah.

The broad world building is cool too. Each chapter is introduced with snippets of reports from the corporate press outlets ironically called Vox Populi and Vox Dei, which give us some background context to the kind of world Sleepy, Knowledge Allah and Sophine exist in. They’re propaganda outlets which go out of their way to perform the kind of mental gymnastics often displayed in our own corporate media institutions that variously boost the voices of the powerful, justify police violence and attempt to paint white people as the ‘real victims’ of racism. One of my favourite parts of the book is the section about The Knights of the White Camelia, a real life organisation of mainly upper class white men who occupied powerful positions in government and business in the 19th century. Even though they’re the ones getting rich exploiting people in the fields and factories, sentencing people in the courthouses and pulling the levers of power in government, they see themselves as the real victims of working class and black exploitation when the oppressed make any attempt to resist. After all, when you’re blind to your own privilege, any attempt to level the playing field feels like oppression. This is handled very well in the book, showing how the powerful view the status quo as the natural order of things and any attempt to level the scales as dangerous radicalism.

Unfortunately this method of world building at times felt much too info dumpy for my tastes. These little media snippets are interesting in and of themselves and do give us as readers some wider context about the world, but too often they weren’t directly relevant to the story being told. This stuff always feels more natural and relevant to me when it’s weaved into the narrative, if the characters see it in action or speak to someone who talks about it. I’d rather not be simply told something is the case, but see it crop up as part of the story.

This is where the book is weaker in my opinion – at the micro level of character. This is very much a plot-driven story and for the first three quarters of the book the characters have very little agency. Instead they’re helplessly carried along on a wave of events happening to them and I struggled to identify any goals or motivations they were working towards, beyond simply escaping the bad things being done to them. Even then, they never seem to have any plan to get themselves out of danger, and instead are reliant on the unexpected actions of others to get them out of a tight spot. I mean obviously YMMV on this, but I’m more engaged by characters who do stuff, and it’s their actions that create drama and tension and drive the story forward by their consequences. So even though lots of stuff was happening and danger was never far away, I didn’t get a great sense of narrative tension because Sleepy and Knowledge Allah didn’t really have any goals for most of the book. Sophine was more interesting. She has plans for her life that go very awry and she makes decisions that drastically alter the course of her life; I felt like she had much more agency and a direct effect on the world around her than Sleepy and Knowledge Allah ever did, so this was a plus point in the story.

So yeah, PIMP MY AIRSHIP was a bit of a mixed bag for me; great at the broad strokes stuff, a bit weaker when you zoom in and a method of storytelling I personally just don’t have a taste for. Overall I was a bit disappointed it didn’t reach the potential it clearly has, but there are definitely things to love about it and I still think it’s definitely worth a read for those aspects.


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Review: THE EMPRESS OF SALT AND FORTUNE by Nghi Vo

Book Reviews

THE EMPRESS OF SALT AND FORTUNE is the book that got me excited enough to finally kick my imposter syndrome in the head, log on and request an ARC from Netgalley. Needless to say I was pretty shocked when I was actually approved, but also excited to curl up with an advance copy of a fantasy novella I simply couldn’t wait to read.



This short novella is the story of the Empress In-yo, a young northern royal sent south to be married off to the ambitious emperor as part of a loveless political marriage following the conquest of her people. She’s widely treat with contempt in the emperor’s court and immediately exiled once she has performed her ‘duty’ of producing a male heir. It’s a multi-faceted story of revenge, female solidarity and the the injustices of empire and monarchy.

The story itself is told in a uniquely engaging way. The first chapter introduces Chih, cleric of an order dedicated to the recording and preservation of history, and their fantastic companion, the wonderfully-named Almost Brilliant, a talking hoopoe bird with a photographic memory who assists them in their work. Chih and Almost Brilliant meet an old woman called Rabbit at the late Empress In-yo’s residence, who recalls her life as Empress In-yo’s handmaiden through her recollection of memories inspired by the objects and mementos Chih records in their ledger during their stay.

Each chapter is headed by Chih’s very objective ledger entry. Sleeping robe. Silk, muslin and silk thread; Cup. Polished mahogany inlaid with silver; Box of cumin. Wood, copper and spice. The objects themselves provide us with little insight, but through Rabbit and the memories they inspire her to recall we’re given a window through which we observe the life she lived, alongside an exiled empress whose agency and capacity to impose her will on a stiflingly patriarchal world is revealed as the story progresses.

This narrative device is quite beautiful; alongside the evocative, but still tightly-controlled flow of the prose, it provides an interesting meta-narrative for those who want to think about the story on a deeper level. Stories are always told from someone’s perspective. Good writers do this even in third person narratives, telling the story through the lens of the viewpoint character, who impose their own biases and prejudices on the story. EMPRESS goes a step further than that. Because the story is filtered through a second layer of human experience i.e. Rabbit’s own perception of events and then the way she recalls them after the fact, we as the reader are actually twice removed from the ‘actual events’ of the story. The result is a multi-layered rumination on the act of story-telling, memory and the shared experience of female solidarity in a world where established systems of power exist to minimise their existence.

None of this comes at the expense of characterisation or world-building though. I loved the relationship between Chih and Almost brilliant. The two of them clearly have a bond of deep love friendship and that is often expressed through chiding admonishments and loving jibes. Almost Brilliant admonishes Chih’s reckless curiosity in a way that reminded me of Pantalaimon and Lyra in Philip Pullman’s His Dark Materials books. There’s a great little snippet near the beginning that establishes this lovingly humorous relationship right off the bat.

“Cleric Chih, get back to your campsite! You are going to get yourself killed, and then I will have to tell the Divine how terribly irresponsible you were.”
“Be sure to make a good account of it,” Chih said absently. “Hush now, I think I can see what made that racket.”

Another little moment I loved came near the start too, when Chih introduces themself to Rabbit.

“I am Cleric Chih from the Singing Hills abbey. This little feathery menace is Almost Brilliant.”


I was excited to read THE EMPRESS OF SALT AND FORTUNE, but I didn’t expect to be so moved by it. This is a wonderful book, beautifully-written, with a story that is as engaging on the surface as it is deeper down. It’s quite remarkable that Nghi Vo has packed so much depth and meaning into a book as short as this and yet nothing ever feels rushed or shoe-horned in. It was a pleasure to read and I’m eagerly looking forward to whatever she does next.

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February Wrap Up

Updates

“A day may come when JonBob posts a monthly wrap up post on time, when he forsakes his friends and breaks all bonds of fellowship to write that damn post when it’s due – but it is not this day!”

To be fair this makes it sound like I’m some kind of social butterfly with too many parties and social commitments to have time to blog, whereas in reality I’ve just been sat watching four-hour YouTube episodes of Dungeons & Dragons games in my pyjamas. That being said, I did read a whole bunch of cool books in February, so let’s just get to ’em!



JADE CITY by Fonda Lee is one of the best books I’ve ever read. There, I said it. Anyone who’s had this conversation with me in the past knows how miserly I am with the old five star reviews (I basically don’t give them haha). Even some of my favourite reads that I’m constantly banging on about have been four stars; I reserve the coveted fivers for those truly special books that are borderline genius writing. Jade City is definitely that. Read my full review here, but the tl;dr is Asian-inspired secondary world with feuding mafia families sliding ever closer to all-out gang war. Stunning world-building and morally grey (heck, really even downright baaad) protagonists who you root for anyway. I have the sequel, JADE WAR, lined up to read in March and I’m pretty much quivering with excitement.

THE EMPRESS OF SALT AND FORTUNE by Nghi Vo was my very first ARC! I finally told that imposter syndrome to go do one and got myself on Netgalley to request this book. Lo’ and behold, I was actually approved, so big shoutout to Tor for sending this over to me. And I’m so glad they did, because this book is just all kinds of wonderful. A short novella about memory, the anger of women, solidarity, about revenge and a big old ‘Fuck You’ to the patriarchy. It’s written with such rich, vibrant prose and I just couldn’t get enough of it. My full review will be out in a couple of weeks and I can’t wait to share it.

NEON LEVIATHAN by T.R. Napper was the first sci-fi book of February and is a collection of short cyberpunk stories that all take place in a future where Australia and Vietnam are locked in a seemingly perpetual war against China. There are stories about hustlers selling their memories to corporations, soldiers running a fine line between reality and illusion on active service and military veterans forced to undergo memory reassignment surgery due to PTSD from the war. I’ll have a full review of this going up next week too, but for now I’ll just say that this was a decent book with some interesting concepts and ideas that I thought didn’t quite land as well as it could have. Enjoyable, but not altogether satisfying, as it left me feeling like everything was just a bit too underdeveloped.



KINGSBLADE by Robert F. Nugent and THE PENITENT DAMNED were two short fantasy books that I zipped through very quickly. Kingsblade is a short tale about old has-been knight Markard Greystone, who gets drawn back into the world of kingdom politics and intrigue by his old squire, now a knight himself. Things get dicey when the two of them are chosen to attend a diplomatic mission to a neighbouring kingdom and murder most foul is afoot. While Kingsblade is probably just about long enough to be a novella, The Penitent Damned is actually a short story, which I didn’t realise going in, so just a lil heads up for anyone going into this expecting a longer work. It’s a very short introduction to Django Wexler’s SHADOW CAMPAIGNS series, a flintlock fantasy with magic and shady factions vying for power. They were both pretty good. I wasn’t blown away by either of them, but they’re enjoyable stories and a perfectly pleasant way to spend an afternoon curled up on the couch with several cups of tea.

Gareth Powell’s LIGHT OF IMPOSSIBLE STARS was my most anticipated read so far this year and it did not disappoint. The EMBERS OF WAR books are some of my fave space operas and anyone who follows me on Twitter knows I can’t shut up about them. This book is the last in the series and follows Captain Sal Constanz and her shrewd and snarky sentient spaceship Trouble Dog as they head towards an area of space known as The Intrusion, a place where the known laws of physics break the fuck down and things get weeeird. Gareth writes such amazing pulpy space adventures, but for a modern audience and with really quite deep characters; there’s a lot of emotional moments, high stakes and tension and I seriously can’t recommend these books enough if you’re even remotely into science fiction. Go check out the full review and then immediately buy and devour this entire series.


And that’s my February Wrap Up. I’d say that next month I might post the month in review on time, but I’d only be lying to myself and “If you can’t love yourself, how in the hell you gonna love somebody else”, as the old saying goes. Have you read any of the books I got to last month? Let me know what you thought of them and what you’ve been reading lately but for now, happy reading bookwyrms.


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Review: TIME OF CONTEMPT (The Witcher #2) by Andrzej Sapkowski

Book Reviews

Definitely my favourite of The Witcher books so far, TIME OF CONTEMPT contains enough of the stuff I love in fantasy for me to enjoy it, even if I still think this is one of the most over-rated series of all time. And hey, you know what, sometimes the books we read don’t have to masterworks; in my humble opinion Andrjej Sapkowski is a bit of a hack haha. And I don’t really mean that in a pejorative way either (for the most part), it’s just these books aren’t very original or well-written and yet for all that, they’re still enjoyable. I realise I’m probably not selling anyone on this series right now, but I actually enjoyed this book, and here’s why.



For starters, this is where things finally kick off! BLOOD OF ELVES was a decent book, but for the most part was a set-up novel, where Sapkowski moved all the pieces on the chess board into place. This was enjoyable in its own right and I had a blast with the unscrupulous kings and their spies lurking in the shadows, working to advance the interests of the various kingdoms and factions in shady and nefarious ways. But now tensions begin to boil to a head, and these nefarious characters and organisations have plans to put into action.

What really keeps me invested in these books is all the delicious scheming. The scheming that everyone knows is going on, but up until the second half of this book have been unable to acknowledge in the open. There’s a great protracted scene where Geralt attends a banquet/piss-up at the mage college of Aretuza and gets caught up in a diplomatic merry-go-round, where the attendees are trying to variously recruit him, squeeze him for information or just insult him with a thin veneer of respectable politeness. I also just found this scene hilarious, because all the female mages are smoking hot and literally all of them want to bang Geralt; Sapkowski was definitely hunched over a very uncomfortable boner while writing this painfully obvious wish fulfilment scene haha.

That said, I feel like his writing of women has improved overall at this point in the series. The short story collections were atrocious in this respect, but I think Time of Contempt does well to give us female characters with power and agency, without reducing them to simply and only objects of desire (which a lot of them definitely are, but that’s fine so long as that’s not all they are). I have complicated feelings about the representation of women in this series and I’d really love to read something about it by someone more intelligent and articulate than I am.

Some of the other stuff I liked about this book in particular is probably quite niche, but I loved the scene with Yennefer and her dwarven banker. Give me more finance in fantasy. Merchants and trade, banking and lines of credit, shipping lanes and tariffs. I thrive on that shit, absolutely lap it up, can’t get enough of it. My favourite parts of games like Civ and Europa Universalis are the trade mechanics and one my favourite parts of Skyrim was the existence of the East Empire Company. What I like about The Witcher books is that trade is inextricably linked with empire and imperialism. Trade is political. The merchants have class interests that don’t line up with the nobility and there are complicated webs of alliances that form within the various nations that are lining up for war. This is the kind of stuff that gets my heart rate spiking.

I’m still enjoying the development of Geralt and Yennefer’s weird ass relationship, though I have generally been disappointed with Geralt as a character overall. There’s just not that much to him ya know? Other than being the strong, emotionally unavailable and damaged monster killer, he just comes across a bit meh. This book took some small steps to rectify that, I just feel at this point in the series I should have some strong feelings about our titular hero, and I just don’t. Yennefer, on the other hand, is a baller and Ciri got a bunch more interesting in this book, especially towards the end where some crazy stuff happens that makes me think I’m gonna enjoy her arc going forward.

I feel like my intro was much more of a downer on this book than I ended up writing about, but I did say I actually enjoyed it, so there you go. Definitely not a masterpiece by any stretch of the imagination, but an enjoyable fantasy romp with some cool action, monster fighting and a plot that throws the chessboard to the ground when it comes to the proverbial shit hitting the fan. Looking forward to the next one.


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Review: LIGHT OF IMPOSSIBLE STARS by Gareth L. Powell

Book Reviews

Sal, Trouble Dog and the gang are back for the final instalment of one of my fave space opera series of all time! LIGHT OF IMPOSSIBLE STARS delivers everything I’ve come to love about Gareth Powell’s writing; literary characters in a pulp setting, snappy dialogue and deep themes delivered in tight, fast-paced prose. Plus Alien references, an AI in a clown costume, Dutch cyborgs and motherfucking reality quakes! I devoured this book in a single day, delighted in every second of it and now I just need more, always more.

***Warning*** Minor spoilers for the previous books in the series. If you haven’t read them yet, oh boy you’re in for a treat. Read my reviews for EMBERS OF WAR and FLEET OF KNIVES, then just go buy this entire series.

Light of Impossible Stars picks up where Fleet left off; Captain Sal Constanz and her sentient rescue ship Trouble Dog are running out of fuel, hunted by Ona Sudak and her genocidal fleet, and speeding towards The Intrusion, an area of space both the Marble Armada and the extra-dimensional Scourers mysteriously avoid. Probably because the laws of physics turn to mush here and no one knows why. I mean, if the only safe place in the galaxy is a place no one has ever returned from and experiences reality quakes on a semi-regular basis, you get an idea of just how Up Shit Creek Without A Paddle our plucky space adventurers really are.

We also get to meet some new characters. Cordelia Pa is a young scavenger on The Plates, a series of manufactured habitable micro-worlds constructed and abandoned by the Hearthers, the alien race who unwittingly unleashed the Marble Armada and fled to The Intrusion millennia ago. Cordelia and her brother eke out a miserable living scavenging for ancient Hearther artefacts and shifting them on the black market, all the while trying to avoid the authoritarian private mercenary police that patrol City Plate Two. But when Cordelia is snatched from her home by a strange crew lead by a woman called Lomax, Cordelia begins a journey that she hopes will explain the affinity she feels with Hearther tech and the strange powers she has always harboured.

From a story-telling standpoint, Gareth Powell knows how to spin a yarn that gets its hooks straight in, no messing about. Space opera is a genre suited to fast-paced adventure and Gareth has distilled this art into a science. He writes in a way that pisses you off if you get hungry or have to go to the loo cos it means you have to put the book down. I was halfway through Light of Impossible Stars before I knew what had happened and only realised cos my stomach started screaming at me to eat something.

What I love more than anything about this series though is the characters. The character development is simply phenomenal. Sal started out as a military woman with a conscience torn to shreds by war, seeking some kind of redemption in the House of Reclamation. She wanted to save people, without any complicated moral considerations, despite knowing deep down that sometimes it might be necessary to break a few eggs to make an omelette. One of my favourite scenes in the book is when Sal reflects on how she’s been forced to change yet again in the aftermath of the new order imposed by the Marble Armada. Puts me in mind of my boy Karl Marx’s most insightful observation on the development of society: “Men make history, but not in circumstances of their own choosing”. People have effects on the world around them and the world around them affects them right back. Sal has definitely changed since the start of the series, though everything she did made sense, both from a narrative standpoint and from what we know of her as a person. She’s changed, but still retained the core of who she is.

(P.S. for any part-time scholars of wor Karl in the audience, I do know this isn’t the point he was making in The Eighteenth Brumaire, it just made me think of it okay, chill out).

My favourite character though, was, is, and forever will remain the snarky, independent and fiercely loyal Trouble Dog. From a Carnivore-class heavy cruiser built and bio-engineered for one purpose – to kill, obliterate and destroy with no qualms or scruples – Trouble Dog has developed into someone with a complicated, and yet fundamentally moral outlook on life. There are snippets where Trouble Dog’s inner turmoil and all very human side is laid bare. The fact she is constantly trying to understand and embrace that side of her character shows how far she has come since her days as a war machine in the Conglomeration navy. Plus I just love her personality. The scene where she meets Adalwolf on the deck of a virtual reality ocean liner and arrives wearing ‘a shaggy black bob, and wrapped in a sparkly gold flapper dress, accessorising with a matching tiara and an outrageously long cigarette holder’ is just peak Trouble Dog haha.

Amidst all this there’s still a natural underlying current of serious themes that make this series simultaneously fun, pulpy and literary. Cordelia’s hostility to the prison system as a system that perpetuates the conditions that give rise to crime; Lomax’s observation that the scavengers and couriers doing the dangerous work to retrieve Hearther artefacts aren’t the ones who get rich off them; philosophical and psychological ruminations on how humans view the world (“You are capable of simultaneously occupying two contradictory standpoints? That explains so much abut your behaviour as a species”). There’s a lot of deep stuff in this book, but it’s all seamlessly part of the story, masterfully woven into the fabric of the narrative.

This is a fantastic book, an immensely satisfying and action-packed conclusion to a wonderful series. Gareth Powell is a stand-out among science fiction writers and has quickly become an auto-buy author for me. If you’ve read the previous two books and are looking forward to this, you won’t be disappointed. If you’re a space opera fan and haven’t read any of the Embers of War novels yet, I can almost guarantee you’ll love these books. But for me, for now, all that remains is to say “Farewell Sal and Trouble Dog. Thanks for everything, it’s been a blast”.


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The Great Unread: Series I Never Finished But Want To (Part 2)

Updates

Last week I wrote a post about some of the fantastic SFF series I’d started, but never completed. Surprisingly, it quickly became one of my most popular posts, which I didn’t expect at all. Success flows from the least expected fountains I guess. Anyway, in that post I promised a follow up, because obviously I’m a literary savage and have numerous unfinished series languishing on my shelf. In this post, I treat you to a series from each of the main branches of of speculative fiction; one each from horror, science fiction and fantasy. So bookwyrms, without further ado, here is part two of The Great Unread.


LOCKE & KEY by Joe Hill

If you weren’t already familiar with the LOCKE & KEY graphic novels, many more of you will now know about it from the recent Netflix adaptation. I haven’t watched it yet because my brain won’t allow me to watch film or TV adaptations without finishing the books first. It’s the same reason I haven’t got round to watching The Witcher yet and, to be honest, I like it that way. I like formulating my own images and interpretations of characters and settings before having someone else’s vision painted over my own because, no matter how hard I try, if I do it the other way around I just can’t get the film or TV version out of my head while reading. Graphic novels don’t have that problem to the same extent but even so, I just like to read the print stuff first.

I’ve only read the first trade paperback issue of LOCKE & KEY, the collection called WELCOME TO LOVECRAFT, but I finished it in one sitting and it had me so simultaneously intrigued, creeped out and engrossed that I know I’m in this one for the long haul. This first issue introduces us to Tyler, Kinsey and Bode Locke, who relocate to their uncle’s home in the small town of Lovecraft after their father is murdered by a disturbed teen called Sam Lesser. Before long, young Bode discovers a supernatural door in the house that has a disturbing but alluring power that allows him to communicate with a malevolent being that resides within the house.

It’s difficult to say what really makes this such a great story without getting too far into spoiler territory, but both as a graphic novel and a horror story it had me hooked on so many levels. Above all it’s a story about loss and grief and how people process the senseless loss of loved ones, but the horror element is still front and centre. I’m still fairly new to the horror genre, but WELCOME TO LOVECRAFT does what I think horror does best, by using the genre as a tool to explore the darkest inner workings of us as imperfect and contradictory human beings.


REMEMBRANCE OF EARTH’S PAST by Liu Cixin

THE THREE BODY PROBLEM is set against the backdrop of the Chinese Cultural Revolution and is the story of a secret military project attempting to make contact with extra-terrestrial life. Ye Wenjie is a physicist who, after being denounced as a traitor to the revolution, is forcibly recruited to work on a scientific project called ‘Red Coast’, nominally a secret government initiative to utilise high-powered radio waves to damage foreign spy satellites. As the truth becomes apparent and Ye makes great leaps forward in interstellar communications, she is faced with a choice that will change the course of human civilisation forever and perhaps threaten its very existence.

I’ll be reviewing this book fully at some point but, in short, what I loved about it wasn’t necessarily the science involved in explaining how a lot of the technology works (though I did actually enjoy that a lot and want more of it), it was the complex relationships between the characters and the various factional struggles that take place, both within the various power groups in Chinese society and the microcosm of those struggles on a personal level that drives the story forward. There’s a lot of physics in this book, from the importance of orbital mechanics to the details of amplifying radio waves but, if you’re a bit of a geek like me, then I think this will only enhance your enjoyment of the story because, far from getting in the way of the narrative, Liu does a great job of allowing it to enrich the story.

REMEMBRANCE OF EARTH’S PAST is a sub-genre of science fiction I don’t ordinarily read. It’s hard sci-fi which, prior to reading the first book in this series, I had no meaningful experience of whatsoever. After reading THE THREE BODY PROBLEM though, it’s definitely a genre I plan to explore more thoroughly and I’m looking forward to the rest of the series.


THE FIRST LAW by Joe Abercrombie

I really enjoyed THE BLADE ITSELF, the first book in Joe Abercrombie’s FIRST LAW series. Yes it’s grimdark, but it’s also just great fun to read. I have a full review of THE BLADE ITSELF, which you should check out for all my thoughts, but the tl;dr version is it’s a fantastically-written story with vivid characters and a setting ripe with social upheaval and a world seemingly about to be torn apart by arcane power, war and underhanded political subterfuge.

I’ve already reviewed the first book fully so go check that out, but what excited me the most about continuing with this series is the tantalising sense that the first book ended at the point where the status quo of the world we’ve spent 500 pages growing accustomed to is about to be shattered forever. I’ve seen a lot of writing advice say the best place a book is at the point where everything changes, where the status quo is broken; this book is hard proof that doesn’t have to be true and that prescriptive writing advice should always be taken with a pinch of salt.


The more discerning among you who also read last week’s post may recall I promised four unfinished series in part two. However, in true book lover fashion, I’ve since started another two series that I want to talk about so, lucky for you, there’s actually going to be a PART THREE of The Great Unread, featuring the final three unfinished series I have on the go. I can’t promise I won’t start a few more in the meantime but hey, the blessing of the TBR means it will never be complete and there’ll always be more awesome stuff to read.

So that’s all for now bookwyrms. Let me know if you’ve read any of these series, what you thought of them and what are some of your own unfinished series you really want to get to?

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Review: JADE CITY by Fonda Lee

Book Reviews

I don’t know what I expected before I started reading JADE CITY, but I absolutely did not expect a fantasy, Godfather-style gang war epic with bioenergetic, power-boosting jade stones! Throw in the fact it’s fantasy in a modern setting, with cars and guns, planes and international trade deals and Fonda Lee has laid the groundwork of a solid gold premise. But Fonda Lee went so far beyond this premise, she can’t even see the premise. The premise is a dot to her. Jade City is everything a novel needs to be bordering on a masterwork of fiction; incredibly deep world-building; a character-driven narrative and a buy-in so intense there were several times I literally shouted out loud into an empty room because I was so invested in the lives of these characters, and the often infuriating and dangerous decisions they made.

The fact I was so invested in the characters and rooted so hard for their success is a testament to Lee’s talent as a writer, because these characters aren’t exactly good people. Kaul Lanshinwan (Lan) is the Pillar of the No Peak clan, one of the most powerful of the clans that effectively rule the island of Kekon and it’s capital city, Janloon. Lan is the head of this mafia-style crime syndicate controlled by the Kaul family and his brother Kaul Hiloshudon (Hilo) is his enforcer. Hilo is the Horn of the No Peak clan, a brutal and gifted street fighter, whose job it is to lead the Fists and Fingers of No Peak, who are analogous to the Caporegimes and soldiers of the real-world mafia. Kaul Shaelinsan (Shae) is the black swan of the Kaul family, committed to pursuing a life outside the influence of her mafioso family, though she begins to find that path more and more difficult to tread as tensions with the rival Mountain clan begin to boil over into open conflict.

I loved all these anti-hero characters. It was fascinating to watch Lan struggle with the pressure of living in his grandfather’s shadow, the ageing Kaul Seningtun, the revered leader of Kekon’s national liberation struggle, now an old, bitter and increasingly senile man who never misses an opportunity to berate and criticise his grandchildren for what he perceives as their juvenile and misguided conflict with the Mountain clan.

With Shae, it was her conflicting commitments that drove much of the plot forward, but also her own character development stemmed directly from her inner turmoil and how she chose to deal with it. On one hand, she finds the activities of her family distasteful and corrupt, and wants to live an independent life free of their influence and the unfair advantage the Kaul family’s power would grant her. On the other hand, she finds herself increasingly drawn back into the family circle as her brothers become embroiled in a violent conflict that puts them in constant danger and suspicions of treachery within the inner circle of the clan becomes more prevalent.

Hilo was my favourite character though. As violent and hot-headed as he is, there’s no denying that’s what makes him an effective Horn and yet, as the story progressed, I loved watching how he was increasingly forced to deal with the complex politics of Janloon; from the necessity of engaging diplomatically with The Mountain, to navigating the corrupt politics of Kekon’s ruling council and keeping the civilian population and class of tribute-paying business owners known as the ‘lantern men’ loyal to No Peak in a situation that becomes increasingly violent and unstable.

On top of these three main characters are a host of other, nominally ‘side’ characters, but whose agency and actions often have profound impact on the direction of the plot. Kaul Seningtun, whose derisive attitude to his grandchildren affects how they respond to the unfolding world around them; the young criminal Bero, whose insatiable desire to make a name for himself leads to some of the most explosive events of the story; and Yun Dorupon, the Weatherman of the No Peak clan, whose loyalty to Kaul Sen and the old ways of doing business cause constant friction with Lan and Hilo, who represent the new world of modern Kekon.

It strikes me at this point that I’ve barely even mentioned what makes this book a fantasy novel, the mystical jade that is only found on Kekon and endows those that wear it with enhanced strength and speed, among other abilities. Again, it shows how great a writer Fonda Lee is that her story isn’t entirely reliant on any kind of fantasy gimmick that stands in for plot or character development. Jade is central to this story in that it’s the resource that made Kekon a target for imperialist nations, but was also the means by which the Green Bones genetically predisposed to successfully harness it’s power fought off the yoke of colonial occupation and established themselves as the island’s new ruling class. Now, a generation after the war of national liberation, a new war is being fought between rival factions for the control of the country’s jade supply, along with the wealth and power it bestows.

Finally I want to talk about the masterful world building in this book. I read somewhere that the experience of playing tabletop roleplaying games like Dungeons & Dragons engages the same parts of your brain involved in formulating memories, so the experiences you have at the table often feel just as real as stuff you did in real life. That’s what reading Jade City is like. Janloon honestly feels like a city I’ve actually visited, a place I could hop on a plane and fly back to, it felt so real. The culture and social practices of the Kekonese people is so fleshed out and detailed, right down to the most subtle and minute details.

In a culture where respect, honour and hierarchy is so deeply embedded, the Kekonese language has developed to reflect the importance of these values. The suffix ‘-jen’ is used to denote respect and deference to your social superiors and so Lan and Hilo are often referred to as ‘Lan-jen’ and ‘Hilo-jen’, and failure to use this form of address can indicate a lack of respect. Indeed, for Yun Dorupon there is only one ‘Kaul-jen’ and that is Kaul Seningtun. Doru often refuses to address Lan with the proper respect due to the Pillar and it’s such a subtle, yet powerful way of showing what he really thinks of Lan. There are numerous other ways Fonda Lee has developed to show social status and power dynamics in this world, such as when the leader of the Mountain clan, Ayt Mada, pours her own tea first, before her guest, sending an instant unspoken message that he is not a guest with enough status or due enough respect for her to honour in this way. It’s just brilliant and these details are what makes this story and this place and these people feel real in a way most stories don’t.

This has been one of my longer reviews but there’s just so much to love about JADE CITY I feel like it was warranted. Suffice to say I absolutely adored this book and I’m already itching to start the sequel.

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