Tuesday, March 30, 2021

Nanoreviews: The Silvered Serpents, The Library of the Dead, Fugitive Telemetry

The Silvered Serpents by Roshani Chokshi (Wednesday Books, 2020)

(Warning: there's no way to talk about The Silvered Serpents without spoilers for The Gilded Wolves, so consider yourself warned.)

I'm not sure what it is about Roshani Chokshi's story of a motley, fractious heist crew in magical Belle Époque not-Paris that draws me in so thoroughly when heist-driven stories in general often aren't my thing . The worldbuilding certainly helps: with an intriguing magic system and history, Chokshi creates a version of an imperialist European nation whose genteel facade doesn't in any way obscure its imperialist exploitation of other cultures. The characters themselves are perfectly placed to underscore that: from mixed race Filipino academic and cake enthusiast Enrique, whose dual heritage leaves him distrusted and shut out of his peers' endeavours; to Jewish, neurodiverse engineering prodigy Zofia, all are people who find themselves on the margins of the elite, recognised and occasionally valued for their talents but never truly accepted. Or maybe these books hook me because they're just great, and they also end with heartbreaking cliffhangers every time and I can't help but finish up wanting more.

The Silvered Serpents picks up where The Gilded Wolves left off: with the found-family heist crew put together by disinherited noble and terrible choice-maker Séverin smashed into tiny pieces by the events of the last book, as Séverin attempts to prevent himself from having to grapple again with the kind of loss brought on by its catastophic revelations. However, when an opportunity arises to pursue godhood in the form of a lost text called the Divine Lyrics, Séverin decides to get the band back together - including Laila, his former flame, who he pushed away in a brutal ending scene in The Gilded Wolves (I warned you about those spoilers!) - and the group end up travelling to Russia, working with Séverin's estranged Aunt and another noble House to uncover the artefact's secrets, and to stop the damage being caused by another, considerably more murderous group seeking to harness its power.

Even more than its predecessor, The Silvered Serpents' thematic focus on bloodlines and heritage means that the emphasis is very much on the characters and the relationships between them, and that works perfectly: there's just so much to enjoy. While I did find some elements strained (honestly, I'm sort of done with "neurodiverse person doesn't realise they are experiencing love because they can only analyse their emotions through the detached lens of physical reaction", no matter how much I was rooting for that particular relationship), on the whole this is a great follow-up and (thanks to that cliffhanger!) I'm definitely keen to see where the final book goes.

Rating: 8/10

The Library of the Dead by T.L. Huchu (Tor Books, 2021)

Tendai Huchu's third full length novel and (I believe) the first published under his Cthulu-anagram penname (I mean, if you could, you would, right?), The Library of the Dead is an urban fantasy in a vaguely post-apocalyptic Edinburgh told through the voice of Ropa, a Scottish-Zimbabwean teenager and speaker to ghosts who ends up embroiled in a mystery involving missing children in her part of the city. As Ropa tries to unravel the case, it draws her into the orbit of the titular Library, whose stuffy regulations and elitism around types of magic and the kind of people who can practice it (i.e. people who can afford hefty membership fees) immediately cast Ropa as an outsider.

The Library of the Dead is another book that excels when it comes to both its place and its characters. Its version of Edinburgh is one where society seems to have basically collapsed for unclear reasons, with grim caravan park slums on the edge of the city, an unrecognisable currency, teenagers who are empowered to drop out of school to join the gig economy as soon as they hit secondary school, a new monarchy and various other indicators that this is not the Edinburgh of our own world - as if the acceptance of ghosts and other supernatural forces weren't enough on that front. (Don't worry, though, podcasts are still a thing). On the character front, Ropa is certainly the main attraction in all her super-smart, code switching, irreverent glory, but there's also plenty of other great supporting cast members, especially Priya, another girl from the library who immediately starts a friendship with Ropa when she finds her way into the institution. What also makes The Library of the Dead strong are the polyphonic voices of its different magic systems, and the way it ties in with Ropa's marginalised identity. In another book, the magic of the Library itself could be the main event, a well-defined anglo-centric "magic system" with alternate magical traditions perhaps getting a sentence or two of flavour to make it seem like part of a wider magical world. Ropa's entry to it, both as a ghosttalker whose profession is not considered to be a "respectable" form of magic and as someone whose family heritage involves magic that isn't part of the Library's interests at all, means the limitations of that tradition within this world are immediately laid bare to us, and it definitely sets up some intriguing material for future books.

The level of set-up vs pay-off is really my only critique here: The Library of the Dead is the start of a series, and as such it spends a lot of time establishing the various forces and elements in Ropa's world, presumably all the better to develop conflicts and unravel deeper mysteries further down the line. Still, if this series gets the time and development it needs, it's set itself up for great things.

Rating: 8/10

Fugitive Telemetry by Martha Wells (Tordotcom Publishing, 2021)

Murderbot! Fugitive Telemetry steps back and looks at Murderbot pre-Network Effect, during its time on Preservation Station. It's also a murder mystery, featuring the mysterious death of a traveller which requires Preservation Station security (who don't have to deal with too many murders, seeing as how they're in one of the few places in the Murderbot Universe that places significant, non-monetary value on human life) and Murderbot to work together to untangle it. The problem is, of course, that Station Security aren't too happy about working with a SecUnit, regardless of the assurances made by Mensah and the rest of its adopted family about its trustworthiness. Murderbot, of course, isn't too happy about working with anyone, and it's also trying to navigate the experience of being a known "Rogue SecUnit" in a society that (mostly) wants to ensure its rights and autonomy, but isn't entirely sure how to do so.

What follows is a fun romp through Preservation, with plenty of the action you'd expect from a Murderbot novella. This being the Murderbot Universe, the exploitative corporate practices of the rest of the galaxy naturally come into play, but the immediate stakes feel lower for most of the book, with the mystery wrapped up neatly over the single novella length. (Also there are a lot of sentences in brackets followed by more sentences in brackets.) (This is a thing Murderbot does a lot in its narration, and it felt like it might have happened more here than in any previous story?) (It's fine, I guess, I just noticed it, like, a lot.) (A LOT.)

Anyway, Fugitive Telemetry delivers no less, but no more, than a solid Murderbot adventure. There's nothing disappointing about that - and Preservation Station is a delightful setting for this particular adventure - but after Network Effect ended with a significant change in Murderbot's life path, it means this episode does feel more like a fun diversion than a book that's really driving the series forward, and that leaves me with less to say about it than I have about previous books in the series. It's still an enthusiastic thumbs up from me overall, though: more Murderbot is never a bad thing.

Rating: 7/10

POSTED BY: Adri, Nerds of a Feather co-editor, is a semi-aquatic migratory mammal most often found in the UK. She has many opinions about SFF books, and is also partial to gaming, baking, interacting with dogs, and Asian-style karaoke. Find her on Twitter at @adrijjy