The Iron Tactician, by Alastair Reynolds

The Iron Tactician

This is a bite-sized novella based upon the same characters as the excellent short story, “Merlin’s Gun”.

When I say “Bite Sized”, I mean, “I read this in the first 45 minutes of my flight to Miami.”

It’s not long.

Merlin is a rogue element escaped from a civilization, “The Cohort”, which is under existential threat by an aggressor known as the “Huskers”. They pursue pretty much any and all life in the galaxy and extinguish it, for reasons that have never been made clear.

The Cohort have taken to a fairly nomadic lifestyle in vast vessels called Swallowships to evade and combat the Huskers, and they have been losing a war of attrition over a very, very long time. By that I mean the kind of “long time” that only becomes possible when you start thinking in terms of relativistic time and long-distance space travel.

Merlin ran off, as was described in “Merlin’s Gun”, on a personally-appointed quest to find a weapon of vast power, which could tip the tide of war in favour of the Cohort, after endless engagements lost to the Huskers and centuries of running for their lives.

His quest is so spread out over time and space that Alastair Reynolds has built himself an endless story machine, not too unlike the Stargate franchise where you never really know what lies behind the next wormhole.

The fact that this is only the second story in the franchise demonstrates remarkable restraint, if you ask me.

Upon discovering a long-dead swallowship, Merlin finds out from their records that they traded a Syrinx (the alien artefact that allows him to travel an ancient high-speed galactic highway) a few thousand years ago in a nearby star system. Since his Syrinx has been damaged and his quest depends upon his ability to use the Ways, for which the Syrinx is essential, he goes in search of this rare and essential replacement, only to find himself embroiled in a local war between different planets in the same star system.

The story is well tied together, and Reynolds’ prose is tight, clear and well-edited as ever. The read is fun and satisfying. Don’t expect too much of a novella, there’s only so much space for character development. Also, it feels ever so slightly expensive for a meal consumed so rapidly. It is, however, a very good addition to the Husker/Cohort universe and to Merlin’s story and I’m glad to have read it, even if I still had to watch two movies and write 3 blog posts to get through the rest of the flight.

The Burning Page, by Genevieve Cogman

The Burning Page (The Invisible Library series Book 3)

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.