The Uploaded (Ferrett Steinmetz)

4 stars

In the near future, the elderly have moved online and now live within the computer network. But that doesn’t stop them interfering in the lives of the living, whose sole real purpose now is to maintain the vast servers which support digital Heaven. For one orphan that just isn’t enough – he wants more for himself and his sister than a life slaving away for the dead. It turns out that he’s not the only one who wants to reset the world…

‘The Uploaded’ is a dark book. I’m going to give you that warning for free now.

If said warning doesn’t put you off then please continue…

Amichai is an Upterlife orphan, a teenager whose parents died in one of the horrific genetically modified plagues that are accidentally set loose on the living world every now and then, and ‘ascended’ to a digital existence. Freed from the chains of reality, pain and suffering, they’ve all but forgotten that they left two children behind, spending their days fighting dragons with their pain receptors turned off and sipping piña coladas alongside an artificial sunset.

Amichai is left in the physical world, full of bleak crumbling sky scrapers, questionable protein sludge and glistening servers, whose upkeep is all that he’s considered good for. A trickster at heart and someone who is just terrible at following rules, Amichai lives under the constant burden of the shrive, a ‘save point’ where his memories and experiences are periodically uploaded to the servers and judged by the living dead. Tip too far into ‘criminal’ and he will not be allowed to enter the upterlife, instead dying a horrifying ‘meat death’, his existence erased.

Following the effects of the Bubbler Plague, which annihilated much of the living population, kids like Amichai are a dying breed, both needed and treated with disdain by their ‘ancestors’. Amichai would probably care less if it wasn’t for the existence of his sister, a survivor of the plague, no longer considered fit to wear the badge of the LifeGuard, the proxy officers by which the dead ‘police’ the living. Surviving ‘robbed’ her of the chance to ascend to the servers early, instead forcing her to take on menial work in microchip factories until the end of her natural lifespan.

Life on Earth is hopelessly grim with some foregoing the promise of a digital afterlife altogether, instead choosing ‘meat death’ and the dream of Heaven, trashing the servers that they consider ungodly. Caught between the dead, who do not value his existence and the ‘NeoChristians’ who wish to rob him of his digital future, Amichai is in a bit of a bind. All he knows for sure is that, life cannot continue this way.

Something has to change.

This was a very clever book. It’s been a while since I’ve had a book make me think so much. It’s also a strangely apt book for our current political situation, with the older generations entangling our futures in the chains of their poorly thought out decisions.

It’s definitely more about the concept than the characters. The worldbuilding is astounding, every little detail meticulously thought out for maximum weight and horror. Although the story is very different, I got a real ‘Fallout’ vibe from the book. It’s a bleak horrible world, with people banding together the best they can just to deal with the hideousness of their lives. A dangerous job is no longer considered something worth avoiding, but something that could potentially lead to a quicker upload to the Upterlife.

It’s not a book for the faint hearted, it is relentlessly dark and relentlessly hopeless. I’d also put a big warning on the book for anyone who’s currently having suicidal thoughts. Although the book is, obviously, NOT advocating suicide, the way that characters talk about death and how much they are looking forward to it could be seriously triggering for some readers!

In the afterword, Steinmetz speaks about the fact that he’s been writing this book for years. You can really see it in the story through the attention to detail and the planning of each of the twists and turns. It’s a story that I really enjoyed just letting it take me where it went. I stopped guessing what Amichai would do next, instead accepting that I would probably just be wrong.

In comparison with the world, the characters are a little bit forgettable. I don’t think that’s necessarily a flaw, it’s definitely a story more about deeds than the people behind them, but I found myself forgetting some of the side characters names or losing track of their relevance to the story. Amichai is, however, a great lead. When I was reading, the image in my head was Robert Sheehan as Nathan in ‘Misfits’, irreverent, extraverted, but, under it all, caring and more than a little afraid.

It’s a book that makes you feel a little hollow inside. You’d like to think that those living a digital existence wouldn’t forget the needs of those that they leave behind, but you also know that it’s entirely likely. The dead in this world have the ultimate privilege, they do not fear for anything, not hunger, poverty or pain, for they have already triumphed humanity’s greatest fear, death itself.

So, all in all, a great standalone with exceptional world building. Books like this are why I read science fiction: huge ethical questions, dark not entirely unfamiliar worlds and massive concepts. A great book, and definitely one that will have me searching out Steinmetz’s back catalogue.

(Also, look at this stunning cover…)

TheUploaded_144dpi

Many thanks to Angry Robot books for a copy in return for an honest review!

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Godblind (Anna Stephens)

4.5 Stars

“The Mireces worship the bloodthirsty Red Gods. Exiled from Rilpor a thousand years ago, and left to suffer a harsh life in the cold mountains, a new Mireces king now plots an invasion of Rilpor’s thriving cities and fertile earth.

Dom Templeson is a Watcher, a civilian warrior guarding Rilpor’s border. He is also the most powerful seer in generations, plagued with visions and prophecies. His people are devoted followers of the god of light and life, but Dom harbors deep secrets, which threaten to be exposed when Rillirin, an escaped Mireces slave, stumbles broken and bleeding into his village.

Meanwhile, more and more of Rilpor’s most powerful figures are turning to the dark rituals and bloody sacrifices of the Red Gods, including the prince, who plots to wrest the throne from his dying father in the heart of the kingdom. Can Rillirin, with her inside knowledge of the Red Gods and her shocking ties to the Mireces King, help Rilpor win the coming war?”

I’d been itching for a good bit of dark fantasy for a while, so when I weirdly ended up with two copies of ‘Godblind’ I had a feeling that it was just ‘meant to be’. I actually took a good two weeks reading this, not because I wasn’t enjoying it, but because I wanted to savour it.

The Rilporins have been favoured by the Gods of the Light, the Dancer and her son, the Fox God. Peace has reigned for many years, with their enemies, the Mireces, and their Red Gods exiled to the inhospitable mountains, held at bay by the powers of the Light. But now the Mireces are on the move, hoping to tear the veil that keeps their Red Gods from the mortal world. The most assured way to break that veil? To spill truly epic amounts of blood in the name of their Gods…

I should probably point out at this moment that this book does fall into the grimdark category. If you haven’t read grimdark in the past, that basically means dark fantasy with characters that are more often than not grey morality or outright amoral. Plots are often ruthless and brutal with much death, and kind of make ‘Game of Thrones’ look positively lighthearted. If that isn’t your thing then you probably won’t enjoy this book very much. As with much grimdark there are quite a few content warnings that I’d like to put out there: violence, torture, religious sacrifice, self injury, internalized homophobia, rape and mutilation. They’re not one time warnings either, they occur multiple times throughout the book, and I don’t say that as criticism, I say that as fact. If you like your fantasy a little more forgiving then this book probably isn’t for you.

If, you know, that does sound like your kind of thing, then please continue.

One of my favourite things about this book was the characters, especially those of Rillirin,Tara, Dom and Crys…though, to be honest, I found all of them interesting in their own way. Rillirin is one of the first characters that we meet, a bed slave of the Mireces King and, honestly, one of my favourite female characters that I’ve read in a while. Seeing her flee from the Mireces, become a stronger person and begin to heal from her trauma, I found it was really great to meet a female character who didn’t have to fit the cookie cutter mold of ‘strong female protagonist’. Rillirin is strong,  but she’s also learning and growing and healing and I can’t wait to see where her story continues in later books.

“Then fuck you all, she thought, I’ll save myself.”

The quotation above is a perfect example of all the great women in this book, from Tara, the excellent Rilporin officer who consistently has to deal with men casting aspersions about how she climbed the ranks, to Gilda, an older woman and priestess who spits in the face of those who come to burn her town, and Lanta, a priestess of the Red Gods who is attempting to seize power for herself from the Mireces Kings. It was really nice to read some grimdark written by a woman, in that the female characters were much more than emotional cannon fodder.

The character of Dom is a fascinating one. I can see a couple of different directions in which his story might go. Out of all the characters in this book, his situation is probably the most tenuous. As a seer he is truly at the mercy of the Gods, who can enter his mind and send him messages and images at any time. Struggling and suffering under a compact that he made in past and trying to desperately avoid losing all sense of reality, I honestly worry for Dom and his tentative relationship with Rillirin. I fear that they might both be harmed by what is to come.

The final character I want to talk about is Crys, who I both adored and had a little bit of trouble with. I should probably preface this by saying that I’m bisexual and that, from what we see in text, Crys also seems to be bisexual. Which is awesome, I love representation and it’s pretty rare to see it in grimdark fantasy, let’s be honest. The problem I have with Crys is the way that him coming to terms with that bisexuality is written. We have a male character who flirts with Crys, and, initially Crys’ response is that he is abhorred, which, well, internalised homophobia is totally a thing, and his response IS explicitly called out on page (which I liked). However, I don’t really feel that we see enough of his mindset changing, of him thinking about his attraction before, boom, it’s the night before a battle and said male character is asking if he wants to kiss him and, suddenly, insta-bi! I also struggled with that scene because it seems as if the other male character is coercing Crys with the whole ‘we might die in battle tomorrow’ and, I totally think it isn’t intentional, but it does play a little into the ‘predatory gay’ trope. So, I’m conflicted, ‘yay’ for a canon mlm relationship in grimdark fantasy but ‘not-so-yay’ for there being some problems in how it was written. I’m hoping that by book two maybe some of those problems might have been ironed out.

Like many people, I went into this book not knowing whether it was a standalone or part of a series. I worked out about half way through that it probably wasn’t a standalone, and I’m actually pretty glad. I think there’s a lot more of this world to see and a lot more story to be told. I’m excited because I’ve sort of been tip-toeing around grimdark recently and I’m glad to see a new voice, especially a female voice! I’m also still kind of shocked that this was a debut, it wasn’t clunky in the slightest and held its own with all the giants of the genre.

So, if you’re looking for something dark and bloody to satisfy your ‘Game of Thrones’ cravings, I suggest picking this up when it comes out a couple of days from now on the 15th of June. The hardback cover looks gorgeous… I’ve also seen some variants with edges sprayed black out there, which, let’s be honest, are absolutely dreamy.

Many many thanks to Harper Voyager for an advanced copy in return for an honest review!!

A song that describes this book to me: The Song of the Sword Dancer (The Witcher: The Wild Hunt OST)

 

 

 

A Jigsaw of Fire and Stars (Yaba Badoe)

4.5 stars

“Sante was a baby when she was washed ashore in a sea-chest laden with treasure. It seems she is the sole survivor of the tragic sinking of a ship carrying migrants and refugees. Her people.

Fourteen years on she’s a member of Mama Rose’s unique and dazzling circus. But, from their watery grave, the unquiet dead are calling Sante to avenge them:

A bamboo flute. A golden bangle. A ripening mango which must not fall… if Sante is to tell their story and her own.”


‘Strangers pitch up on our shores and we herd them into camps. They come in broken boats and we let them drown.’

I honestly don’t think there is a more important time to read this book than right now. With the political turmoil of Brexit and the resurgence of the far right, people seem to be forgetting that the desperate people trying to make their way into Europe are humans deserving of all the rights that we so take for granted. This book is about people whose only option is to attempt to cross the Mediterranean, who know it might kill them, who know they might fall into the hands of traffickers, but also know that it is the only choice that they have left. Honestly, with many peoples heads turned by the rhetoric plied by politicians, that we must strengthen borders and turn people away from our gates, I hope that people read this book and feel their opinions change.
Sante is one of the younger narrators that I’ve read recently, only fourteen, but her voice is so authentic that I feel it can be enjoyed by young and old alike. Badoe has a gorgeous way of writing, fluid and magical and, honestly, I didn’t even feel the pages passing, it was like a wonderful dream. It’s one of those books which is almost surreal, but you never feel the need to question it, it all makes sense in its own strange way. The closest category I’ve found when trying to explain it is Animist Realism, a genre of African Literature close to the Latin concept of Magical Realism, which is born from animism, a belief that everything on earth, be it rock, animals, weather or thought has its own spiritual essence. It’s the perfect genre for Sante’s story, allowing her to deal with the death of her parents, her exploration of the little she knows of them, and the ancestral echoes of the treasures that were left alongside her in the sea chest.

‘The baby gurgles, entranced by the rough play of water as a wave steadies her boat. She smiles, a jigsaw of stars and fire reflected in her eyes, and she stretches a dimpled hand to touch the moon.’

 

This book is so gorgeous. It’s rich and vibrant, filled with lush descriptions and poetic prose. Where in many books the inclusion of an animal companion can risk infantilising the story, Sante’s golden eagle felt more like a guardian spirit, a anthromorphisation of her strength and determination. It was a clever decision to balance the cold hard realities of the book against more whimsical prose. It’s the literary equivalent of casting fragrant rose petals over a rotting corpse, the scent only become more cloying, more horrific in the juxtaposition. The book is never graphic in its horror, it does not linger over the sordid details of what the traffickers do to their captives, but it does show the aftereffects of the trauma, the trembling fear and pain of survivors. It’s been a long time since I was so filled with hate for a villain, but ‘The Captain’, the head of the trafficking ring, is so powerful and vile that it honestly sent a shiver up my spine when he was first introduced.

The half star that I removed is for pacing, there was a bit of a lull at about the 60% mark that I felt was unnecessary and was the first time whilst reading the book that I felt a little bored. I was also a little confused about the use of the word ‘gypsy’ in text. Multiple times throughout the book Sante describes the word being used as a slur against other members of her circus family and yet once or twice she uses it to describe them herself. There’s also a random paragraph where Mama Rose, the head of the circus is described as dressing up in a kimono and white face powder for ‘thinking time’…whilst Mama Rose is a white woman. They’re small aberrations, but unnecessary ones that could easily be removed from the final product with no change to the plot itself.

Conclusion
‘A Jigsaw of Fire and Stars’ is a rich, vibrant young adult contemporary with a bright magical sparkle, that deals with incredibly important and relevant issues. It’s a short book, only 256 pages, which I’d genuinely love as many people to read as possible, because it’s the perfect foil to the dehumanisation of migrants that is horribly common in modern media.

‘A Jigsaw of Fire and Stars’ is out on the 7th of September, definitely one to be added to your ‘to be read’!

Many thanks to Head of Zeus Books for a copy in return for an honest review!