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Exogene – TC McCarthy

Since I’m on a roll, I thought I’d review the other book I read this week. Exogene by TC McCarthy is the second book in The Subterrene War. It’s a testament to the author that I only realised it was the second book after I finished it.

In the dark future that is the setting of The Subterrene War series, girls are vat-cloned, taught to believe in a god who will reward them for killing with a place at his side. Indoctrinated with the teachings of the Modern Combat Manual and believing they act for God, they are a ruthless force of killers bio-engineered for war. Their main use is to secure and hold mines, as well as engaging in full-scale war.

Exogene follows the story of one particular clone – or Germline unit as they’re called – Catherine. It tells her story in fragments as she recalls and lives it, and how she feels about being a thing created to fight and die. It tells of her faith and how she first loses it, then regains it.

The Germline units are the Western world’s (American is implied) clone units. The Russians (and Chinese?) have their own versions, and they use different techniques to keep them loyal. The difference in attitudes was interesting, and I found the tale oddly enthralling.

I’m not sure what I really expected of the book, but it looked interesting. It’s not a book I’d have bought without knowing it (but the library solves that issue), but I’m certainly looking at buying the rest of the series now.

It’s just an interesting concept. Warriors engineered to be perfect, and taught to believe in only two things: Faith and Death. They are taught to love death and seek it through glorious battle against the enemies of God. When they die, they don’t see it as a bad thing, or something to be avoided, but as the ultimate reward. When the first girl dies during training, they see her as lucky for being the first one to join God at His side. They have such unbridled faith, and they’re being used as tools for war, treated as subhuman, and given all of the worst jobs.

There’s a certain quality to the book and I don’t quite know how to describe it, but the grim future that McCarthy describes is one I could see happening all too easily.

A good book, and one that’s made me think.

Warbreaker – Brandon Sanderson

Well, this is hardly going to be an objective review. There isn’t a single one of Brandon Sanderson’s books that I’ve read and not liked. All, umm… 4 of the ones I’ve read.

What he’s done this time is create yet another world out of thin air, and it’s glorious in its way. Each person has a Breath (which some people liken to a soul) which can be granted to others, or used to perform magic of a sort. The rich and powerful of the realm show this by having hundreds of Breaths, each one worth enough to feed a family for months.

Having enough Breaths makes you resistant to disease, illness, and even aging – as well as giving you the ability to read auras, see perfect tones of colour and Awaken items.

This is where we get to the magic. Awakeners can imbue items (anything from clothes to corpses) with Breath and a Command, which allows them to act on their behalf.

The book follows a pair of sisters from Idris, a remote kingdom where it is believed that a Breath is a person’s soul and hoarding them or using them to Awaken items are sins and heresies. The sisters (princesses of the realm) journey to Hallendren, rival kingdom, and home to Awakeners and the Returned – people who died and revived themselves somehow and are now considered to be gods by the Hallendren people.

There are some hints to the origins of the Returned, but nothing concrete.

It kind of all starts when the wrong sister gets sent to be the God-King’s wife. Their father, fearing war and wishing to protect his favourite daughter, sends his youngest daughter (Siri) instead to fulfil the slightly ambiguous contract he had with Hallendren. The elder daughter (Vivanna) follows, partially to rescue her sister and partially to give herself a purpose.

I found myself drawn into the world, and constantly wondering how things worked and who the key players in the book actually were. While I anticipated some of the twists, I didn’t catch them all, and that was a pleasant surprise. Enough of a surprise in fact, that while my work hours might be over, I’m still sitting at work writing this having just finished it half an hour ago.

A touch of Googling tells me that Warbreaker is a singleton book. I can understand this, and the story is finished as it stands, but I find myself terribly curious as to what happens after the book and exactly how the Manywar started. You get enough of the story through the book and I think actually telling the tale might cheapen it, but part of me still wants to know, just as part of me wants to see what happens with Vasher after the end of the book.

All in all, it’s an excellent book. It’s well written and I didn’t spot any grammar or spelling mistakes through it (which either means I was entranced by the story, or there weren’t any). No real reason for me to mention that, but I can be a bit of a grammar Dalek.

I thoroughly recommend this book, just as I recommend his Mistborn books (the original trilogy of which makes up the other three books of his I’ve read). Especially given I tore through it in three days.

Enforcer – Matthew Farrer

I found Enforcer to be an interesting book. It follows three major points in Shira Calpurnia’s early career as an Arbitor Senioris on Hydraphur. A native of Ultramar, she finds the complex politics of Hydraphur nobility to be a strenuous endeavour she’d rather not have to deal with, but as a faithful daughter of Ultramar, she knows her duty.

As an Arbitrator, she deals with criminals and infractions above the normal call of beat cops, such as heresy, disputes over warrants of trade and assassinations of high-level Imperial officials.

The style of the books is a bit odd compared to other 40k novels, it just seems to flow differently. I quite liked the books, and the stories – Calpurnia’s blunt style juxtapositioning with the flowery and subtle politicking of Hydraphur nobility works quite well, emphasising the difference between the various classes of the 40k universe.

One thing I found jarring was the differences between what Farrer has written as being Adepus Arbites protocols, ranks, etc and what I’d come to know from the Dark Heresy RPG (hardly the most reliable source, right?).

The always-do-the-right-thing vibe can get draining after a while, especially in the third book Blind. Blind is really quite slow to get going, but picks up a lot once it does.

This is definitely a book I should have written something about after I finished it instead of two months later.

I liked the trilogy, and the data fact sheets with extra information after each book was a nice touch. It’s just not as good as the Dan Abnett books. I would happily lend it to anyone interested in it.

For those of you interested in No Rest for the Wicked, the second book Crossfire has an outlook on how one Rogue Trader dynasty operates, focusing on the inheritance of the warrant after the head of the dynasty dies.

X-Wing Series – Michael A. Stackpole / Aaron Allston

It’s been a while since I posted. It’s not that I wasn’t reading, but that I couldn’t quite find the energy to post. And then I procrastinated. But enough about that.

I’ve been re-reading the X-Wing series recently. All but two of the books, but that’s because I’m missing my copy of The Krytos Trap and reading The Bacta War without it doesn’t quite seem right.

Wraith Squadron

I have the utmost respect for Aaron Allston as a writer; the Wraith Squadron books are – in my opinion – by far the best books in the series. He brings in a new squadron of rejects, shapes them into an elite unit and weaves their own story that fits beautifully into the universe. My only real regret is that there’s no real mention of Wraith Squadron after those four books other than a cursory mention in the New Jedi Order series.

Stackpole on the other hand… At one point, I had him listed as my favourite author in the Star Wars universe. In hindsight, I think this is due to the same youthful infatuation that causes Twilight to be so popular. Stackpole’s X-Wing books are less about Rogue Squadron and more about how awesome Corran Horn is.

Where Allston switches perspective regularly between core characters such as Wedge Antilles, Garik ‘Face’ Loran, Kell Tainer and Lara Notsil (aka Gara Petothel aka Kirney Slane), Stackpole tends to relate stories only from the perspectives of Corran Horn (recollecting his tales of emo woe) and Wedge (with the exception of cases where neither is involved), and even then focusing on Corran except where Corran’s not involved.

The idea has occurred that Stackpole mostly wrote the X-Wing books to give credence to his epic “I, Jedi” that would follow them. I just find it a shame that the Rogue Squadron books seem so focused on Corran that it skews my enjoyment of the books. Especially since I’ve always enjoyed reading the series.

If you haven’t read them, I would recommend them. They’re worth the read – especially the Wraith Squadron books. Just watch out for Stackpole’s obsession with Corran.

The Cardinal’s Blades – Pierre Pevel

I was unsure what to make of this book when I picked it up, but I thought I’d give it a go. My first impressions were that it was a very odd writing style, and oddly informative for a work of fiction.

The Cardinal's Blades

Part of the first came from the fact that Pierre Pevel is a French author, and it had been translated into English. A lot of the rest came from the second point.

It’s set in 17th century Paris for the most part, with some forays outside the city. The setting is fantastical, with magic and an ancient race of dragons who have taken human form – as well as their draconic footsoldiers.

The Cardinal’s Blades are a elite and secret group of Cardinal Richelieu’s guard, long since disbanded. A threat to France has arisen, and they are reformed to meet it. It’s a story of intrigue, magic and swashbuckling cavaliers. It takes the spirit of The Three Musketeers and with it’s own twists makes a story laced with humour, courage, swordfighting, politicking and brash adventure.

There are several familiar figures throughout the book as well. Not just Cardinal Richelieu, but the Comte de Rochefort, Athos, Porthos and D’Artagnan (as I recall) all feature in the book.

As I mentioned above, it’s oddly informative as well. As the book enters each new area, Pevel launches into a description not just of the area, but it’s history and other quirks. I learnt more about 17th century France from reading this book than from any other source. He doesn’t skimp on descriptions of the foul muck that covers the streets, the stench of the city, and all the other unpleasantness of the times. It adds to the characterisation, and the book is better for it.

All in all, it was an intriguing book, and while not my normal style, I enjoyed it. If you’re interested in a combination of The Three Musketeers and dragons, then I’d recommend giving The Cardinal’s Blades a shot.

Salvation’s Reach (Gaunt’s Ghosts) – Dan Abnett

I like the Gaunt’s Ghosts series. They’re gritty, hard, and while the Tanith often survive against impossible odds and show improbable skill for mere Guardsmen, they do hurt and they do die. The characters seem real to you and you get to know them.

Gaunt, in particular, has his flaws, but he’s a good man and a good commander who doesn’t often get the reward you think he should.

With that said, I didn’t like Salvation’s Reach as much as I did the others. Maybe it’s because I read the others in their omnibuses and now I’m reading them separately, but the story didn’t seem to end well. It just kind of stopped where I expected there to be more.

Admittedly, they had achieved their mission objectives and that part of the story was done, but it didn’t feel like it was a good ending there.

Right up until it stopped, I was enjoying the book. The Ghosts off on a secret mission with the aid of Space Marines is quite a cool story in itself. Throw in the sub-plots about (spoiler: Gaunt’s son) and Meryn’s underhand schemes and you’ve got a solid story. It was one of the books where they go in hard and not everyone survives. The Tanith are thinning down, and there weren’t that many to start with.

I liked the book, I liked Gaunt’s dalliance and his obliviousness to the feelings of others. I liked the ridiculousness of a marching band joining the elite commando regiment. I even liked the double-headed cyber-eagle.

I just didn’t like the ending.

Ciaphas Cain: Hero/Defender of the Imperium – Sandy Mitchell

I considered doing these as separate posts, but considering that I read them more or less one after the other, I didn’t see the point. (Delay only due to shipping times)

So there are two books here: Ciaphas Cain: Hero of the Imperium and Ciaphas Cain: Defender of the Imperium. As you may have guessed, they’re about Ciaphas Cain. The books are actually both omnibuses, collecting six novels and five short stories between them.

Ciaphas Cain is a Commissar of the Imperium. He is respected by the soldiers he serves with, honoured by Generals, a friend of the Warmaster, an ally of the Inquisition, and generally has a fairly decent life. Well, apart from the fact that everyone’s shooting at him. The thing is, is that Ciaphas is a bit of a coward. Every time a fight’s about to break out, he finds an excuse to go somewhere else. He’s spent his entire life trying not to get killed (a tricky job for a Commissar). Because of this, he’s ended up liked by the soldiers he looks after (because if they like you, they’re less likely to shoot you by “accident” during combat) and has found a large number of enemy holdouts, secret rituals and nests by looking in the place he thought they wouldn’t be (because if they weren’t there, he wouldn’t get shot at).

Lauded a hero because of his string of wins due to luck and accident, he ends up trapped in the role, finding that he has to maintain the façade of being a hero in order to not suffer that friendly fire incident later on. On the bright side, this means that he regularly dines with the finest officers in the Guard, and can usually get away with some plush assignments. On the other hand, when you’re an experienced hero, they keep wanting to send you into danger as well…

The books represent Ciaphas’ memoirs, which have been put into some sort of order by Inquisitor Amberley Vail. They tend to ramble, and be rather self-centred, but that adds to the charm. The books are a reminder that even in the grim future of the 41st millennium, there can still be humour. Cain is a likeable character, and it’s easy to emphasise with him and some of his ordeals. The excerpts added to his memoirs to flesh out parts that he’s missed (like the entire rest of the war) add a side note to that as well. Vail’s commentary is also a feature I liked, especially her fervent hatred of ex-soldiers making memoirs by battering the language into submission until it says roughly what they want it to (Cain not being among these).

If you like Warhammer 40,000 and you don’t mind a bit of humour in your grim future, then I’d recommend these to you. If you’ve not tried reading 40k novels before, I’d say they wouldn’t be a bad place to start.

ETA: So, I might have left out why I liked the books. They’re funny, Amberley’s snide comments are often hilarious, and they’re a reminder that not everything is about war, and not everyone in the 40k universe is a professional soldier (even when they are a professional soldier). The books could have been written in a third-person point of view as would be normal, but that wouldn’t be as entertaining. This isn’t Cain’s biography, this his his collected memoirs – the truth behind the hero where he tells you all of his flaws and how his greatest victories have often been achieved out of a desire to save his own skin.

He raises an army to free a planet in order to provide more meatshields to hide behind. He finds the safehouses of cultists by going to the least likely target so he’s less likely to get shot at. He stumbles upon a genestealer infestation by going to check a soldier’s story about being at a brothel. It’s his failings that make the stories enjoyable, and it’s his frank retellings (including his opinions of other officers) that make it worth reading.

The Night Circus – Erin Morgenstern

This was an interesting one. I’ve been playing Echo Bazaar for a long while now, and I’m always interested to know what Failbetter’s next project is. Last year, they released The Night Circus as a promotional game for the book of the same name. The game is filled with snippets from the book, and it wasn’t long before I fell in love with the magical world of Les Cirque Des Reves and the wonders of the circus.

When the book itself came out, I had to buy a copy. I didn’t get it immediately due to budget constraints, but when I did, I didn’t regret it. The book itself is gorgeous, emphasising the black and white themes of the story itself with crisp white pages edged in black, and a splash of red on the cover and the ribbon bookmark.

But enough about how I fell in love with the outside of the book.

The Night Circus tells an enchanting tale of a mysterious circus. It shows up unannounced, moving between towns without rhyme, reason or apparent schedule. Everything within the circus is black and white except for the patrons and the performers themselves. The circus is full of wonder, each tent revealing a new delight; impossible dreams made into reality.

Of course, it’s not just about the circus. A pair of long-lived rivals (one hesitates to call them magicians) have made another wager. Their new apprentices, trained in each other’s art and set against each other in a unique setting – The Night Circus. Created solely as a venue for the contest, the circus brings the two apprentices together as they begin to court each other by making new wonders in the circus for the other to admire. Rather than working against each other, they begin to work together and eventually manage to find a way to escape their fated end and secure the continuance of the circus once their contest is done.

I loved the story from the moment I started playing the game, and could barely put down the book once I had it. It was one of the most curious experiences I’ve ever had while reading: I simultaneously couldn’t wait to get to the next bit and find out what happened, but also couldn’t bear to miss something by reading too quickly.

In conclusion, I highly recommend the book, and I challenge you not to fall in love with it.