Old magic and future worlds

Gwen Ansell rounds up some of the latest science fiction and fantasy releases.

The Departure by Neal Asher (Tor)

Neal Asher’s Polity hard-SF action series was always replete with skop, skiet en donder. But his universe was so wonderfully intricate, eccentric and often funny that those genre conventions did not matter. That changes in The Departure, the first episode of his dark, dour origin story of Alan Saul, who is the Owner of Worlds.

Saul is a near-autistic cyber genius: first agent and then discarded tool of a future police state ruling a dying world. This is science fiction that might have been inspired by Ayn Rand. Big ­government and the inexplicable predilection of ordinary people for breeding has brought ruin. In their quest for freedom and vengeance, Saul and his elite rebel allies revel in twisting necks, crunching limbs and splattering brains against hi-tech walling.

The shabby proles exist merely to whine, attempt pathetic thuggery and be splattered. As always with Asher, the plot is clever, though the writing in our advance proof felt somewhat ­unpolished. But the weight of ­casual violence justified by humourless elitism is repellent.

Dangerous Waters (Book 1 of the Hadrumal Crisis) by Juliet E McKenna (Solaris)

Juliet McKenna is the fantasy writer I would like to be. This ­historian by training has ­succeeded in meeting the hardest challenge fantasy sets: taking the world she has created and getting it to evolve from feudalism to capitalism, all the while ­telling gripping, colourful tales.

There is uneven ­development: the revolution started in the ­warring dukedoms of Lescari, where­ ­aristocratic spats were decimating the lives and livelihoods of a growing petit bourgeoisie. The aftershock is felt in even the still-undeveloped, exotic Aldabreshin Archipelago to the far south, for this is a world globalised by the activities of seafaring traders, explorers and pirates. And most fascinating is what is happening to magic. In the early books it was a controlled force, exercised on their own elitist and often ambivalent initiative by the magi of the secret magical isle of Hadrumal.

Now it is becoming a commodity, up for sale to the highest bidder. McKenna’s books — this is the 13th — are best read in order, to watch this enchanting world unfold and grow and to follow the fates of characters such as wizard master Planir. He and his travelling wizards blend elements of inquisition, secret service and Blue ­Helmets: they intervene to save lives and fight evils, but also to defend the integrity of the magical establishment, stability and the status quo.

Dangerous Waters
interrogates how tenable this role can remain in a changed world, but the dilemma is dressed up in seductive robes of thunder flash, dragon, tavern brawl and duel. Addictive.

The Dragon’s Path (Book one of The Dagger and the Coin quintet) by Daniel Abraham (Orbit)

Abraham’s previous Long Price quartet created a fascinating, ­genuinely alien world in which the main source of energy was enslaved golems embodying transforming forces.

So it is initially disappointing to find The Dragon’s Path ­taking place in a far more conventional fantasy setting of warring feudal kingdoms, chain mail and swords. The disappointment does not last, though.

The Dragon’s Path takes on a difficult task: exploring ­societies in transformation through their more unsympathetic ­characters: Dawson, the diehard feudalist who would rather skewer a farmer than give him a vote, and Geder, a ­philosophical lordling who commits atrocities by the book. These guardians of the status quo are set against — though they have not yet met — a troupe of travelling players and Cithrin, a talented and thoroughly engaging young banker.

Feudalism counterpoints capitalism, honesty the artifice and bluff, male the female, material the myth and the arcane. The path of the dragons serves as a metaphor for destructive civil war, but also exists as literal roads of smooth green jade left by the world’s ancient rulers: the weight of history and old magic. This new world is every bit as subtle, intricate and layered as Abraham’s last and the book a compelling, superbly crafted read.

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Gwen Ansell
Gwen Ansell is a freelance writer, writing teacher, media consultant and creative industries researcher. She is the author of various books, including the cultural history ‘Soweto Blues: Jazz, Politics and Popular Music in South Africa’ and the writers’ guide, ‘Introduction to Journalism’.

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