I won a copy of Roil in a recent giveaway sponsored by Erik Lundqvist and thought that I should read and review it1. Erik was very positive in his review, but I’ve been burned by Angry Robot before. Of the five Angry Robot books I’ve read this year, one was good, one was poor (Chris Roberson’s Book of Secrets – it’s on the TBRASP pile) and the rest were rubbish so let’s see if Roil can do any better.
The book opens with seventeen year-old David Milde witnessing the murder of his father and being forced to go on the run. It’s not a particularly original opening but David happens to be a drug-addict which makes for an interesting spin albeit one that results in a protagonist that spends the majority of the book running from place to place being told what to do and unable to think for himself. Moving on, our next protagonist is Margaret Penn, the daughter of the world’s most famous scientists and on a quest of vengeance after the Roil destroys her home of Tate.
What is the Roil? A superstorm full of monstrous creatures hungry for flesh and heat that is slowly but surely devouring the world of Shale. Ingenious endothermic weapons have held off the Roil’s advance for a time but the only thing that can stop it for good is the Engine of the North, a mythical device that Margaret intends to activate. Enter John Cadell, sent by the allies of David’s father to protect him, and one of the eight Old Men who built the Engine over four thousand years ago. He activated it once before to stop the Roil, but fears what may happen if it is activated again.
Roil is not an easy book to get into. The first half is made up of David getting high and whinging about being dragged around by Cadell whilst Margaret attempts to escape the Roil in a steam-powered car that goes at about two miles per hour. Jamieson switches between his three protagonists so frequently that it’s difficult to form an emotional attachment to any of them, thus in an attempt to get a grip on the book one must concentrate on the world itself. Shale is an intriguing creation but damn do you have to work hard for it. What eventually amounts to a surfeit of ideas is parcelled out somewhat meagrely in the form of the epigrams that open each chapter, made up of a mix of past and future histories alongside political memoirs, folk rhymes and other such miscellany. A few of these are effective but the majority add a confusing layer of detail, spoil the coming chapter or are just hilariously bad, such as the Quarg Hound riff on Blake’s “The Tyger” or the quote taken from a book titled “My Brother The Verger” which sounds like a Jerry Springer Show episode.
Other gaps in our knowledge are gradually filled by Cadell in his exchanges with David. That is before Cadell lays it all out for him. And when I say “all”, I mean all. For reasons I can’t quite fathom, Jamieson decides that a third of the way into the book is a great place for a spectacularly clumsy info-dump on a par with the end of an early Alastair Reynolds novel. It’s around a page of exposition that still makes me wince when I think about it, but confirms to the enquiring reader that Shale is a colony planet and that Cadell along with the other Master Engineers terraformed the planet and inadvertently created the Roil.
The epigrams and occasional info-dumps aren’t the only things that hurt the world-building. It’s also hampered by a severe lack of description of, well, anything. We only get a decent idea of what David’s home of Mirrlees looks like near the end of the book when he passes over it from the air, even though it is Shale’s main city and where most of the political skullduggery occurs. And what of the Roil and its Roilings/Roilbeasts? One can take a reasonable stab at what a Quarg Hound looks like, but what about Endyms (they fly and have large eyes and leathery wings), Vermatisaurs (it’s big and flies but does it have six mouths or twelve? Your guess is as good as mine because the author wasn’t able to decide) and Hideous Garment Flutes?
This brings me to a more general problem with the writing. It’s an apocalypse so exaggeration is par for the course, but the prose in Roil is grandiloquent to a fault. People constantly howl (there’s even a “vast architectural howl” on page 100), soldiers and iron beams crash by Remic-style, Aerokin (living airships) possess flagellum that twitch in “ceaseless hungry jactitation”2 (p15), noise is characterised by “hums and tintinnabulations” (p279) and thunder is “deliquescent” (p280). It’s as if Jamieson thought that breaking out the thesaurus every so often was a quick way of improving his prose. Of course there is a preponderance of Places And Names Beginning With Capital Letters, a trend in genre fiction that is bloody irritating and no substitute for actually telling us what these places and things look like.
Two days ago a bullet-shaped balloon drone flew over the Jut and the wall, passed beneath the Four Cannon of Willowhen Peak and vast and twisting buttresses of the Steaming Vents, and landed on the forecourt of Tate’s Breach Hold Chambers, meeting place of the Council. (p18)
Then there’s the issue with the actual names that Jamieson uses. Well, two actually. The first is a personal thing, in that I think that genre novels should avoid using real world names, although I’m willing to make an exception for the use of famous scientists and sf novelists to name ships, cities and colony worlds. On Shale we don’t have Clarke, Asimov and Heinlein, we have epigrams by a chap named Deighton, Downing Bridge, the town of Mirrlees 3 and Magritte Gorge. I appreciate that coming up with names for people and places can be difficult but this kind of thing ruins any sense of immersion. The other problem is that there are numerous quality control issues, what with the aforementioned Hideous Garment Flutes and a portmanteau created from “door” and “orifice” that is enough to make anyone who likes the English language fly into a rage (an educated guess should suffice, but it’s on page 247 if you must know as I refuse to type it out4).
Once David and Margaret finally meet, the plot actually starts moving but it’s at this point that more characters get thrown into the mix. Medicine Paul (clumsy naming strikes again – he’s a former surgeon turned politician) and Stade take their turns at the narration helm and their addition is detrimental to the focus of the novel. Cadell is subsequently bumped off, passing on his nanotech powers on to David, and thus David gains some agency at the cost of the book’s most interesting character, but not before Cadell gets his Crowning Moment of Awesome whereby he jumps out of an airship with a rope around his waist and proceeds to take out another by punching out the windshield of its cabin. Jamieson then does his best to undermine this achievement by setting up a love triangle between David, Margaret and airship pilot Kara (Jade – not to be confused with Mara Jade Skywalker) which just screams “I’m a shit YA trope”.
Night’s Engines is set to complete the Nightbound Land duology and with the first novel cack-handedness out of the way, it could potentially build on Roil‘s strengths and finish the series well, even with the niggling feeling that the story could have easily told in a single installment if Jamieson had binned the epigrams and trimmed the other POV characters. At any rate, the GOOD-BAD ratio for Angry Robot is slanted heavily towards BAD and I’m going to have to be much more cautious about their books in future.
1 Hush those of you muttering about the Clarke Award shortlist. I’ve actually read Zoo City so that’s on the to-be-reviewed-soon pile, as opposed to the to-be-reviewed-at-some-point pile, the to-be-read-then-reviewed pile or worse yet, the to-be-read-and-reviewed-when-I-find-the-damn-book pile.
2 To save you looking it up, it’s a medical term that means “the restless tossing of the body in illness”.
3 In the extras at the end of the book, Jamieson explains how he originally named his cities after authors he admires (Tate was originally called Bishop after K.J. Bishop) but left Mirrless because he thought that a city should be named that. It’s a nice thought but still a bad choice.
4 Oh all right, it’s “doorifice”. I hope you’re happy now.
A good story badly told is one thing; a shit story well told another; but a shit story told shittily is hard to praise. Yet I’d say the point about the lack of discrimination in fantasy reviewing is that it’s actually a lack of discrimination on the level of style and form. Too many fantasy readers simply lack all interest in the style and form of a book, are interested only in the content, or more narrowly only in certain hypertrophic brightly-coloured features of the content. ‘Rip-roaring’ can be a euphemism for ‘kinetic and violent, and since that’s all I look for I didn’t notice anything else about the book.
Although I didn’t get on with Kell’s Legend, I am willing to concede that it is a book that one could read purely for the ridonkulous action, clockwork vampires1 and prose so purple it’s heading into ultraviolet. I am less forgiving of Soul Stealers however, in which Remic decided to ignore consolidation in favour of even more plot, including the worst twist that I have ever read. With Vampire Warlords, the Clockwork Vampires trilogy ends with a bang in terms of large-scale vampire carnage but a whimper on almost all other fronts. Ignoring style and form only gets you so far, especially when you’re dealing with as many glaring faults as this book presents.
So you really want to know what happens? Right then. The Vampire Warlords have returned to the world and everyone else is pretty much fucked. Hell-bent on wiping out the vachines and turning everyone else into vampire slaves (not a plan with long-term prospects mind), the three Warlords head south to Falanor and take over the cities of Jalder, Gollothrim and Vor. Kell, Nienna and Saark2 survive their plunge through the mountain of Skaringa Dak and are rejoined by Myriam who has been released from the Dark Side with the death of the Soul Stealers. After Kell is persuaded not to run for the hills, he comes up with the master plan of recruiting an army from the inmates of the Black Pike Mines prison, most of whom were put there by him. Despite the efforts of one Jagor Mad (“…because I’m mad” p136), this barmy plan succeeds and Kell takes his army to fight the Vampire Warlords and send them all back to the Chaos Halls or die trying.
I was going to do a breakdown of the plot but there’s just so much of it, very little of which is any good. More importantly it would take about two thousand words which is a level of detail that is quite unnecessary and one that the book doesn’t deserve. What annoyed me more than anything was all of the inconsistencies that range across the trilogy and within Vampire Warlords itself. An example of each then.
In Soul Stealers, Myriam has a vision of saving Nienna from snow lions which stops Kell from killing her on the spot, but it doesn’t happen3. This either means that Myriam lied or because Remic simply forgot about it happening. As you might have guessed, my money is on the latter especially since there is no support in the text for Myriam faking the vision. Later on in Vampire Warlords, we are introduced to two new albino armies that appear alongside Harvesters. Wait a minute, I hear you say. Weren’t the Harvesters helping Graal to bring back the Vampire Warlords? Well, yes, they were. Perhaps there are multiple factions within the Harvesters, but once again Remic fails to address this concern within the books. The albinos show up to save Kell’s army from Kuradek’s Harvesters outside Jalder and then inform Kell that they are now at war with the Harvesters. Those two are just the tip of the iceberg.
Aside from that are more problematic failures of plotting and imagination. When Myriam rejoins the group, Saark notices that she is distinctly hotter than in her previously cancer-ridden state. Nienna naturally gets jealous and starts making bitchy comments to both of them, but keeps insisting to both Kell and Saark that she is no longer a child. Right. Myriam then shags Saark to give him the clockwork he needs to become a true vachine (in a way that sounds about as fun as cytoscopy) and promptly tries to kill him when he refuses to join her in deposing the Warlords and ruling the land. It gets better. Myriam has a(nother) change of heart and comes back to help our heroes. Saark shags her again after he had already moved on to Nienna (when Kell was conveniently absent), and Nienna sees it happen. How do you think Nienna reacts to this betrayal? Does she try to make him jealous or threaten to cut off Saark’s balls or ask Kell to batter the crap out of him (for a third time)? No. She simply sleeps with him as if nothing happened. Ladies and gentlemen, I present to you Andy Remic and his depiction of women in Fantasyland.
If I had to pick the worst offender, of which there were many, many contenders, it would have to be the explanation for Kell’s blood-bond axe Ilanna. After brief flashbacks to the Days of Blood and endless teasing us over whether Kell killed his wife Ehlana or not, we find out that yes, Kell did kill her. Except it wasn’t his fault because she made him do it. You what? It turns out that Ehlana had foreseen the coming of the Vampire Warlords and concluded that Falanor needed a hero capable of defeating them. In order to create such a hero, she cast dark magick that compelled Kell to kill her and trap her spirit inside his axe, which on the face of it makes about as much sense as the Bionic Commando game (2009) where the great reveal is that all of the bionic soldiers were selected based on having significant others who could be killed and their personalities embedded in the bionic parts to ensure that the soldiers would not reject them. Not only does this explanation contradict Kell’s Legend in which we’re told that King Leonoric’s father, Searlan, was the one whose magick created the blood-bonded weapons (in keeping with Remic’s lack of imagination, there were three of them and yet no mention of the other two), but it absolves Kell of all responsibility for being a bad person. He didn’t kill all those innocent people, his wife forced him do it with black magick. Pity the man who was saddled with an evil wife, a religious nutjob for a daughter (who incidentally gets turned into a vampire and then killed by Kell) and a grand-daughter with less than two brain cells to rub together. This is so abhorrant that I don’t even know where to begin. Frankly, Remic can go and take a fucking hike for trying such bullshit. He probably needs to look up the meaning of the word “misogynist” while he’s at it.
So, in conclusion, the Clockwork Vampires trilogy starts off terrible and finishes abysmally. Even if you are willing, and indeed able, to ignore style and form, it’s remains a trilogy that is utterly devoid of merit and one that gives both David Gemmell and low fantasy a bad name. I leave you with a quote that sums up my feelings of the whole trilogy in a succinct manner and the fervent hope that these reviews will convince other people to give these books and the books of Andy Remic in general a very wide berth.
Cockwork vampires more like.
1 Which I’ve been informed was “borrowed” from Guillermo Del Toro’s Chronos (1997), all the way down to the clockwork device that turns Myriam into a vachine in Soul Stealers
2 Who is still alive after having a Soul Gem carved out of his chest. Please note that Saark is still only part-vachine at this point (he’s missing the clockwork), whereas the prime vachine Anukis dies immediately after her Soul Gem is removed, as does the super-human Jageraw who can *time-travel*.
3 And in case you were wondering, it’s not going to happen either as Nienna gets killed because Remic decided that making her a jealous naive child wasn’t enough. She had to act like a fucking idiot as well by charging in to help Kell fight in the grand finale and falling on to his axe.
At the end of Kell’s Legend, King Leonoric and the army of Falanor had been defeated by General Graal and our heroes Kell and Saark were trapped on top of a ruined skyscraper by a horde of cankers. Kell’s grand-daughter Nienna had been poisoned and subsequently kidnapped by Myriam and the Jailers in order to persuade Kell to lead them to Silva Valley, where Myriam hoped that the vachines will give her clockwork to cure her cancer1. Meanwhile Anukis, having rescued Queen Alloria from her vachine captors, is back on her quest to find her father Kradek-Ka and has fallen into a whirlpool deep inside the Black Pike mountains.
In an attempt to avoid gratuitous sniping of the second book in the Clockwork Vampires trilogy, I endeavoured to concentrate on the plot and characters rather than minor issues such as style and form. This proved difficult for a couple of reasons, namely Remic’s writing manages to be worse in this book, relying heavily on italicised text for emphasis2, Capitalising The First Letter Of Place Names to make them seem more important3 as well as the ever-present…ellipses, and more importantly because the plot is complete bobbins. Let’s take the former as accepted and move on with reasons for the latter.
In this second installment, we discover that Graal has harvested Falanor’s population not to provide sustenance for the vachines in Silva Valley, but to provide the blood-oil required to summon the Vampire Warlords from their exile in the Chaos Halls. Graal and Kradek-ka intend to use the Vampire Warlords to remove the inferior vachines in favour of pure-blood vampires, which sounds like an interesting idea until you remember that both of them have worked on behalf of the vachine nation for over a thousand years. You’d have thought they would have come up with a plan a bit sooner right?
Druss and Sieben Kell and Saark escape certain death (with the intervention of a third party) and settle back into their routine of fighting bad guys, bitching about each other’s faults and walking to the next town. Sometimes the order changes but it’s very much a retread of the first book. Saark keeps up his banter about fine clothes, good food and succulent quims whilst Kell berates him for being a dandy/popinjay/peacock and generally whining about how things were better in the good old days when a man who wore pink shirts would be lynched. The bickering wasn’t all that funny in the first book and repeating the same jokes doesn’t make for any improvement.
Over to the female POV characters. I didn’t have much hope for Nienna and unsurprisingly she is still getting threatened with rape on a regular basis until Kell and Saark finally catch up with her and Myriam. Anukis on the other hand had finally broken free at the end of Kell’s Legend so I was interested to see where that would go. She finds her father only for the git to drug her up to the eyeballs to keep her placid for the summoning ritual. Elsewhere Alloria, having plucked up the courage to return to Falanor alone to find her sons, has to be saved from wolves by Vashell who has decided to try and atone for being an utter dick to Anukis. Female agency – what’s that all about then?
Moving the actual plot in a forwards direction, we discover that the summoning ritual requires three Soul Gems that have been embedded in three Guardian Souls and which only Graal’s twin daughters, the titular Soul Stealers can retrieve. This is all just over-complicating the plot for the sake of it. The origin of the Soul Gems nor the reason they have to be carried by people is never explained, nor is the fact that the Soul Stealers are mentioned in the ancient vachine holy book, the Oak Testament, in spite of the fact that the book precedes the birth of the Soul Stealers. The pair are by and large absent from the proceedings, which makes a mockery of the title, and yet are built up as this unstoppable force that Kell cannot stop, so of course magic is pulled out of Remic’s hat when Kell has to take them down.
I wasn’t going to bother quoting any of the book but this classic moment has to be read to be believed:
They stopped, snarling and drooling, and spread out, circling the donkey, great paws padding and claws drawing sparks from the hard ground, eyes fixed, travelling in lazy pendulous sweeps. Mary eeyored in panic, eyes wide, ears laid back on her terrified skull. Saark found his heart in his mouth, terror running through his veins.
“No,” he muttered, gripping his rapier as Mary hunkered down in terror, bunching her hind quarters to do the only thing she know how; to kick.
“Not the donkey,” wailed Saark.” (p251)
Saark, nobleman, unrepentant womaniser and expert swordsman expresses abject misery at the thought of his donkey being killed by cankers. Words cannot describe the epic fail here. Even if this was being played for comedy it would have been shit but I get the impression that Remic was being completely serious here. I came close to throwing in the towel here folks.
To top it all off, there’s a plot twist that is surely worthy of the TV Tropes shocking swerve page. Alloria, Queen of Falanor, was a vachine all along and she was the one who planted the third Soul Gem in Saark! This means Remic can say “Hah! She didn’t really get raped in the first book by Graal, she was just pretending so ner to all those people who called me a dirty misogynist”. Yah, well, that might have worked with some more foreshadowing, a plausible reason for why two of the best vachines ever (Vashell and Anukis) didn’t notice a fellow vachine in their midst and last of all if Remic had managed to pull it off without flatly contradicting *all* of Alloria’s POV narration. Did everyone who gave this book a positive review think that this twist was acceptable? There’s a difference between switching your brain off for the lol-worthy MEGAVIOLENCE(tm) and being tolerant of the author slapping you in the face with his wang exclaiming “Hah! Bet you didn’t see that one coming!”.
It’s probably a good thing that I was reading this on a Kindle as that is precisely the kind of shit that results in defenestrated books. The book ends on another cliffhanger as the summoning ritual is completed and Kell, Saark, Nienna and Saark jump down a hole into the heart of the Black Pike mountains. Vampire Warlords is up next and then I’m going to be in need of a double eye transplant. Remember readers, I’m doing this so you don’t have to.
1Incidentally, how would an essentially medieval society be able to diagnose internal tumours without using magic? Note that magic throughout the series is always of the evil/black kind, such as Kell’s blood-bond with Ilanna. There is no indication of good/white magic at all.
2 Characters do not merely run along walkways, they hammer down flexing planks, swords slam up or across, axes sing, arrows flash, Kell growls…
3 Mainly halls as it goes: the Golden Halls, the Halls of Bone, the Chaos Halls, the Hall of Heroes and the Halls of Shit Prose
4 Evidently Remic’s thesaurus is missing the word “fop”
I blame Martin Lewis for this*. After all, it was his blog post that drew my attention to the brilliant review of Kell’s Legend by Jared at Pornokitsch, and furthermore it was he who bemoaned the lack of discernment in the fantasy blogsphere**. So, for all of the above and because
I’m a nutter I love David Gemmell’s brand of low fantasy, I thought I’d give the book a go to see if it really is as bad as Jared said.
Kell’s Legend is dedicated to the late David Gemmell for inspiring Remic to write fantasy, more specifically Remic cites Gemmell’s first novel Legend in the Q&A at the end of the book. This would have been painfully obvious to anyone who has read Gemmell’s debut. For those unfamiliar with Legend, it was about a grizzled axe-wielding veteran forced out of retirement to help fight off an invasion of his homeland by a barbarian horde. Kell’s Legend is about a grizzed axe-wielding veteran forced out of retirement to fight off an invasion of his homeland by a clockwork vampire horde, with added rape and MEGAVIOLENCE(tm).
I could have accepted the plot theft because there’s nothing new under the sun and all that, but Remic proceeds to ‘borrow’ dialogue wholesale from Gemmell as well. Kell refers to his womanising companion Saark as “laddie”, just like Legend‘s Druss, Saark’s own dialogue is reminiscent of Sieben the Saga Master from The Legend of Deathwalker, down to referring to
Druss Kell as “old horse” and Remic even steals Gemmell’s phrase “a man to walk the mountains with”. James Long of Speculative Horizons calls this “a deliberate nod to Gemmell fans” and one that he liked a lot. I call it lazy bullshit.
Underneath the dense layers of homage, there are a few original ideas lurking in the depths. The steampunk twist on vampires (human-clockwork hybrids called “vachines”) is novel and if he’d concentrated more on developing this aspect of his world-building instead of skull-fucking Gemmell’s style into oblivion then perhaps he could have finished with a more substantial product. That is if Remic could write worth a damn. As Martin noted, Gemmell at his best was merely a serviceable writer. Remic’s writing on the other hand makes my eyes bleed. I’m loathe to quote any of the book because it hurts too much but here you go:
More arrows thudded the canker’s flanks, and it reared, pawing the air with deformed arms, hands ending in glinting metal claws, and fangs slid from its jaws as its vampire vachine side emerged and it leapt on a soldier, fangs sinking in, drinking up milky blood and then choking, sitting backwards as swords hacked at its cogs and heavily muscled flesh and it spat out the milk, reached out and grasped an albino by the head, to pull his head clean off trailing spinal column and clinging tendons which pop pop popped as they dangled and swung like ripped cloth.
Please note that the above quote is a single sentence. Angry Robot at this point deserve a massive slap for not getting an editor to fix some of Remic’s more glaring style issues. A good start would be to ditch the overuse of ellipses to add…tension and to stop Remic from coercing hyphens into… splitting up the end of- Sentences. Correcting the constant barrage of typos would also have been nice but that’s a different problem.
Plot-wise, it’s all a confused jumble of MEGAVIOLENT(tm) fight scenes broken up with terrible dialogue and women getting humiliated, raped, killed. If they’re lucky, they merely get kidnapped and given a slow-acting poison. So there’s a nation of clockwork vampires in the far north who need a combination of blood and oil to survive, but they’re running low on the former and send an army of albinos to invade the southern kingdom of Falenor. Alongside the albinos are Harvesters, an allied race who are able to utilise blood-oil magick to subdue the enemy and, er, harvest (imagination failure #1 of many) their blood.
In the process of this grand scheme, they rile Kell who goes on a geriatric rampage to find his grand-daughter Nienna and then to warn Falenor’s king of the impending threat. Along for the ride are Nienna’s university friend Kat and disgraced womanising swordsman Saark. Meanwhile in Falenor’s capital, the king’s wife is captured by the albino army’s leader, General Graal, and raped repeatedly to demoralise the king. If that wasn’t enough misogyny for you, back in Clockwork Vampire Land, a high-born vachine princess is found to be ‘impure’ and is subsequently humiliated, raped repeatedly and a bonus, led around on a leash before she eventually escapes to find her true destiny.
Remic likes his cliffhangers, ending almost every chapter with one of our heroes about to get a sword in the face, but then they inevitably survive through a rubbish plot device. For example, Kell spends most of the book running away from a couple of monstrous cankers (mutated vachines, which incidentally are derivative of Gemmell’s human-animal Joinings) only to later use some magic in his demon-possessed axe that allows him to start slaughtering the things with cheerful abandon. It also turns out that Kell used to hunt vachines which is clearly why he mentioned nothing of the sort for the first half of the book and was confused as to why the invading Army of Iron would want to slaughter the entire population of Falenor. Come on Remic, at least attempt to explain this with something like, oh I don’t know, amnesia suffered as a result of Kell’s alcoholism or repressed memories perhaps. Something however bloody implausible would have been better than Kell suddenly spouting all this knowledge that after acting all stupid (it probably runs in the family judging from Nienna) but then he also completely fails to recognise the trio he put in jail five years previously (whom Remic imaginatively names the Jailers***) so at least he’s consistently dumb. All of that would have enough to be getting on with, but Remic continues to pile on the plot elements which is at odds with Gemmell’s minimalistic approach to world-building and actual concentration on character.
So, in hindsight I should have known better. It turns out that Kell’s Legend really is as bad as Jared said it was, although in my case I can’t honestly say that I’ve read a worse book. This coming from a man who has read virtually all of the Dragonlance books and a fair few of the Forgotten Realms series too). Kell’s Legend should be avoided at all costs. If you’ve read all your Gemmell books to death and are still after a fix, then go and read Ian Graham’s Monument instead****. It’s significantly better and much more in Gemmell’s style, utter bastard protagonist notwithstanding.
And having said all that, I intend to review the rest of the Clockwork Vampires trilogy, because I’m a masochist and someone has to counter the positive reviews of Soul Stealers and Vampire Warlords. Duty calls!.
* Also Angry Robot for reducing each book in their Kindle back catalogue to £1, but mainly Martin.
** He’s absolutely right by the way
*** I don’t think there is a facepalm big enough for that particular naming decision
**** Graham’s website states that he is now writing full-time. Considering Monument was released back in 2002, I’d love to know what’s he been living off since then.
Lex Falk, you are an acclaimed correspondent with several agency awards to your name and a reputation for hard facts and penetrating coverage, therefore the SO is very pleased to welcome you to Settlement Eighty-Six, and to validate your accreditation. Having you here proves to the public back home that, despite reports of open conflict, the Settlement Office has nothing to conceal on Eighty-Six, and your reportage will be received as unvarnished and credible.
You will, of course, report only what we permit you to report.” (1% )
Suffering from the burnout that comes with decades of space travel, Falk has come to Settlement Eighty-Six in expectation of the usual media show-and-tell and a fat pay cheque, not because he actually gives a shit about what may or may not be happening. According to the Settlement Office Military Directorate, an outfit not so much an army as a “very, very slick PR company with added guns” (12%), Eighty-Six is the site of a local dispute with anti-corporate paramilitaries and not, as rumour would have it, a war with Central Bloc forces.
“The Cold War’s been cold for nearly three hundred years, Falk. As we move out and expand, all it ever does is get colder and colder. Hard space sucks all the warmth out of it. We were at close quarters when it started, sharing one world, and still it started cold. It must be approaching heat death by now.” (8%)
Aha! It’s an alternate future history! Through casual conversation and narrative musings by Falk, we discover that Earth has diverged significantly from our present history and is made up of three superpowers: the United Status, the Central Bloc (aka the Russians) and China, all of whom compete for resources on each newly discovered planet, as overseen by the nominally neutral Settlement Office and its military arm. In this future, media control is extremely tight to the point where journalists are given hundred-page long vocabulary guides (“dispute” should be used instead of the sensitivity-averse word “conflict”) and corporations sponsor expletives and ling-patches that force journalists and soldiers to say the safe expletive in place of any other swear word.
Naturally Falk is too cynical to believe the SO cover story. In fact no one believes it, least of all the post-global corporations who are taking the blame for the situation. When Falk meets his former data engineer, Cleesh who has been forced out of orbit for health reasons, she hints at the bigger picture but refuses to let him in for fear of him scooping her. Meanwhile, Falk does some investigation of his own and partners up with a rookie reporter who finds hard evidence the official story is bullshit.
The rookie shags Falk to keep him on side and promptly takes a back seat after Cleesh introduces Falk to a corporation who intends to get the real story out there by embedding war reporters in the warzone. Since the SOMD won’t allow journalists to travel to the real front line, the corporation intends to “embed” Falk’s consciousness into the head of a chipped active duty soldier.
Falk’s embeddee is Private First Nestor Bloom, a twenty-something alpha male whose male and female buddies talk with gung-ho machismo, complete with fist-bumping and “bringing [one’s] A game”. Witness the briefing from Bloom’s staff sergeant Huck:
“This is no fuckabout. It’s come down from the top, the gloves are off. We’re going in live, so I do not expect you rat-ass motherfuckers to make me look like a pretard. Every day for months you’ve been telling me you want the real thing. Here we go, the real thing. You fumble this, so help me I will sodomise each and every one of you with a loaded PAP 20.” (27%)
Nice. Being experimental technology, nobody is entirely sure what the embedding experience will feel like for either person involved. What happens is that Falk’s anxiety starts to affect Bloom’s performance, leading to a serious case of nerves just when the team is deployed to the front line. “He felt the other him pulling against him, like an anti-him, equal and opposite, blocking his ever urge, his every desire, negating his every move.” (28%) Things promptly go to hell in a hand basket and most of Team Kilo get, as parlance has it, scorched. Bloom himself is critically injured and Falk finds himself in control of Bloom’s body, with the aims of getting Bloom out of the firing line without giving himself away and trying to find out precisely what is worth starting a hot war over.
Being mil-sf and not from the hand of David Weber or Elizabeth Moon, I didn’t go in expecting strong female characterisation, but Pyrofennec’s enthusiastic review of Abnett’s Warhammer 40K trilogy Ravenor led me to hope otherwise. However at this point I was in despair. I’d been disappointed by Noma Berlin shagging Falk, even if it was shown as being entirely her choice to keep him from breaking the story early, disappointed by Cleesh being reduced to technical support and then even more disappointed when Salter, the sole female member of Team Kilo gets killed off so that Falk could experience Bloom’s subconscious grief. It gets even better when the three Central Bloc Russian sex slaves show up in a bizarrely tangential sub-plot, though at least one of them gets to save the day by driving everyone to safety. Fuck yeah!
In between tightly written, albeit slightly samey firefights, Falk starts putting the pieces together and discovers that the SO has been illegally giving prime planetary resources to the US. Whilst this seems like a good way of providing some balance it comes so late in the book as to be utterly redundant. There’s no obvious ideological slant, which makes a refreshing change from the usual gamut of mil-sf, but the narrative places the Central Bloc squarely as the bad guys, guilty of procuring sex slaves and slaughtering a large number of Eighty-Six’s settlers (I refuse to use Abnett’s word “settlementeer” because it’s clunky as hell, like the other neologisms scattered about such as “presearch”, “undertractive”, “conflirtation” and “pretard”). There’s no attempt to paint the Central Bloc in a favourable light even though the ultimate prize is something that every side would quite happily go to war over. Also, where the hell were the Chinese in this? All three superpowers provide military personnel to the SOMD and yet we only ever see the perspective of US soldiers. It would have been nice to have had confused Central Bloc SOMD units involved, or some oblivious Chinese units who simply got caught in the crossfire.
Going back a little, the concept of a future conflict with Russia the Central Bloc seems like a misstep of sorts. Despite being a modern mil-sf novel, there was a quaint feel to the proceedings that one gets from reading Cold War era sf after the Cold War ended (Greg Bear’s Eon would be a prime example). I’d almost have been happier if it had been the Chinese who were the bad guys, although that would have come under heavy scrutiny if they had been as obviously villainous as the Central Bloc here and I suppose one should be grateful that he avoided dragging the Middle East into this.
The ending when it comes is rather abrupt, with the macguffin (well, the second if one counts the sketchily described embedding technology) being painfully obvious and yet not explicitly stated. Make of that what you will, but in certain respects it’s good when an author leaves something to the imagination instead of tying off all the loose ends in painstakingly tedious detail.
Anyone coming in for instant gratification like that girl on GoodReads who gave up after a few chapters should adjust their expectations accordingly. Abnett takes his time with a slow burn start before the Hollywood-styled action mayhem begins. Overall, it’s a good read and a refreshing change from the usual right-wing weapon fetish junk, but sadly it’s too under developed to warrant re-reading.
 Page numbers are sadly lacking on my Kindle edition of Embedded so quotations are referenced by how far into the book they are. I have no idea if this is Amazon or Angry Robot’s problem but someone sort this shit out please.