I find I’ve grown into Cogman’s novels set in parallel worlds connected through her great Library. Her confidence and comfort writing in this world that she’s created also seems to have reached new levels with this latest instalment, which also benefits from not needing to introduce the characters, since we know them from the previous novel.
Despite her heroism in saving the day in the previous novel, Irene the librarian is on probation for breaking quite so many rules in the process. She is therefore given sub-par assignments that are riskier than usual, but she seems to be taking it in stride. Meanwhile, the Library, eternal and unmovable and outside of space and time, is under attack. Quite how this is being achieved is not understood, but old enemies rapidly appear in central roles and a conspiracy begins to appear on the stage.
Our heroine, relegated to the sidelines by her superiors, finds herself rapidly drawn back to the center of current events, due in large part to a pre-existing relationship with the malefactor-in-chief. As she tries to play by the rules of the library, while nevertheless using her connection to the enemy to draw him out and foil (or at least understand) his plans, she comes to realise that she is not the only one preparing traps and moving chess-pieces on the board, and that everyone is not always what they seem.
The adventure is fun and the world and its rules are entertaining, but it is the characters that make the novel. It’s not that they’re drawn with incredible depth, in fact its rather the opposite, with Vale, Irene, Kai and almost every other character playing almost entirely to their stereotypes. With these simple notes, however, Cogman composes a highly entertaining score, and the pages turn easily as the story develops and the characters play their expected parts to perfection.
The founding premise of the series, of parallel worlds each on a spectrum between orderly or chaotic, allows Cogman immense freedom to invent universes inspired by the works of Arthur Conan Doyle, with a shot of steampunk and the occasional flying sleigh or talking bear. The implausible becomes plausible when things like magic, sorcery and impossible technologies are justified as manifestations of chaos that grows and fades as opposing forces of the fae and dragons bring their influence to bear on each world. More than in the previous novels, it becomes apparent that one cannot exist without the other, and that chaos and order do not correlate nicely with “wrong” and “right”, and perhaps this will be further developed in future novels that are sure to come.
I read some strong reviews of Scott Sigler’s latest book, Alive, and was looking for something to get my teeth into as I managed to free up some time for reading again. Unfortunately, there was a gap between my expectations and what the book delivered that made it hard for me to enjoy it.
That obviously doesn’t mean that the book isn’t good, but I’m not good with young adult fiction unless it’s sufficiently complex under the surface or it has a sufficiently powerful underlying premise or message.
In this case, unfortunately, that didn’t work out for me.
This is a book that keeps a secret from you and sets up a big reveal. You feel the secret building as you go, in the unanswered questions and in the gaps between the questions that have been asked, and that gets you to keep reading, playing a game of guessing the outcome before the story gets to the point where all is revealed.
It’s like painting with negative space, where it’s the bits of the canvas you don’t actually fill in that contain the detail of the image, and you can only see the shape of what’s being drawn when either the rest of the canvas is sufficiently filled for a shape to emerge, or when the artist helpfully traces a line around the edges of the object on the page.
As a consequence, there’s very little I can say about the book without revealing the contours or that image and spoiling the story for you.
As an aside, the author has a request to reviewers at the end of the book asking that they not reveal “spoilers”, and obviously I wouldn’t, but isn’t it sad that it’s necessary for an author to actually outright ask people not to spoil the book for others.
The reveal is satisfying (it’s not like Lost, at the end of which I was abruptly furious with the writers), in the sense that everything does hang together. Unfortunately it wasn’t interesting enough for me to feel that it was worth the buildup. Luckily, since the writing style is clear and the story fairly straightforward to follow, I blasted through this book so fast that I didn’t feel I had lost loads of time on it, so I wasn’t upset. It was more like a meal that leaves you strangely unsatisfied at the end of it.
What I can tell you is this – a group of youths awaken in coffins, they have no memory of how they got there, no idea what they are doing there, and no knowledge of their own names except for the engravings on the coffins they woke up in. From there they start to explore and discover their environment, and others like themselves.
The youths are marked with symbols on their foreheads, and these symbols correlate to specific skills and/or character attributes, which are drawn with so little subtlety that you have absolutely no doubt about who is what. It does get a bit tedious having people referred to as circle-stars or whatever, and the author in my opinion tries to mine this somewhat shallow vein for more than it’s worth.
As they explore, they will discover more about what they are doing there, who they are, and what’s going on. The big reveal isn’t wholly original, although there are interesting aspects to it which I thought were great and could have been explored more fully – but I can’t tell you what they are without comprehensively ruining the novel, and for all my reticence to rank it highly, it is probably quite a good read in the young adult category – I’m just a poor judge of that kind of material because it doesn’t push my buttons. At the same time, there are scenes of brutal violence which don’t really belong in the YA category, so I’m not sure what to make of the book overall – it doesn’t sit well in any of the categories.
It’s the first part of a three-part series. I can see where the story could go, but don’t really feel the need to find out exactly what happens next, and will probably give the rest of the series a miss.
Some reviewers loved this book, so read other reviews before you decide, I seem to be somewhat of an outlier on this one.
There are two principal ways in which this book (and those that follow, one would presume), is particularly strong.
The first, and more subtle, is the credibility of descriptions of military behaviour and composure under pressure. I hadn’t entirely understood why certain aspects of the heroine’s behaviour seemed so believably military-cadet-like until I learned that Elizabeth Moon has a military background herself.
The second particular strength is the nature of the world that’s being described as a backdrop to the story. With a far-flung empire and obligatory travel time measured in weeks and months rather than days, a kind of rule-by-consensus evolves. The distance and time involved in travelling from one point to another maintains and enhances the importance of shipping and transport while diluting the ability of any central authority to exercise control or to enforce a particular set of rules. Finally, it gives disproportionate power to anyone capable of bridging those distances with either information or matter, and those who have that sort of power have a strong incentive to hang on to their monopoly of it.
So it is that Kylara Vatta, after being thrown out of a military academy for rather spurious reasons, finds herself earning her way back into her family’s graces (and being conveniently moved away from the epicentre of the scandal she’s created by getting thrown out of the academy) by captaining a ship that’s due for salvaging at a location a few months travel from home.
Her genetic heritage – a desire to make the best of every situation and a constant search for trade and profit – manifests halfway through the journey as she spies an opportunity for some lucrative work if she makes a small detour. From there things slide downhill fast as she finds herself inadvertently embroiled in a complex fight between unknown but very powerful organizations, while still piloting nothing more than her ready-for-the-scrapheap outdated trading vessel.
Some weaknesses in the narrative comes in counterpoint to its strengths. While the military background of those characters that deserve one is impeccable, the character descriptions fall a little flat when we look at the civilian and emotional aspects. Specific character traits are explained, demonstrated, explained again, analysed in excruciating detail through italicized internal monologues, and then analysed and examined some more a few paragraphs later because we may not have gotten the message the first time. Ky’s affinity for combat, her complexes regarding the way she’s perceived by her family (too nice to strays), her dilemma about getting involved or becoming independent of her family – it is all over-explained, it comes back too often, and it moves forward too slowly to merit the many lines of text dedicated to the subject.
In terms of the very interesting concept that law and order become fungible and difficult to enforce over the vast distances of space, the idea is great, but disappointingly under-utilized. We spend more time worrying about whether we can trust the people in the ship, or whether Kylara can get over her first love affair, than examining the concept of how society and those who wish to further it struggle to protect against those who would take advantage of the relative lawlessness of space. We get aspects of this – the existence of militias and mercenaries in particular – and the genesis of the story more or less depends on the premise, but it’s rarely dealt with head-on in the text.
That said, despite being very linear and having some character balance issues (Kylara is the only properly developed character in this first book), the story works both as a by-the-numbers space thriller, executing a simple plot well, and as a coming of age story for a young heroine who discovers her strengths as she exercises them. For a young adult crowd, an excellent demonstration that science fiction can be fertile soil on which to grow adventure stories.
I enjoyed the book very much, even if I don’t think it’ll be winning any literature prizes.