Darrow is haunted by what he's done, and hamstrung by the messy politics of a new Republic. Shadows of Julius Ceasar here, perhaps, as a military strongman clashes with the civilian order he has sworn to uphold - heightened by the fact that Darrow established that civilian order. But "less romantic" doesn't mean "less readable". The heady stuff of rebellion, of "breaking the chains" may be absent but in its place is a more sober, perhaps more grown up, vibe.
The story is of a whole with those earlier books. This is the same Darrow with the same drives and, as before, we feel for him, for his dilemmas, his shortcomings.
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More, knowing how Brown puts his characters - and Darrow especially - through the wringer, we fear for him: for what may become of him and for what he may become. It's the same potent mix that Brown has served up before, yet still fresh and with a whole new cast of characters whose stories run parallel with Darrow's.
An embittered ex soldier on Luna. A pair of exiled nobles in the Rim of the Solar system, caught up in politics of the exotic Golds who live out there. A Red woman, freed from the mines of Mars only to face new perils. All of these narratives are in first person, as is Darrow's, creating a very demokratic as it were picture of the new world Darrow has made rather than one focussed on a single viewpoint.
And they allow Brown to experiment with slightly different styles: for example, the ex soldier inhabits a noirish world, popping pills to kill his empathy as he walks a narrow line between time bosses and his former comrades. In short, my fears were proved wrong. Brown has avoided writing a mere potboiler, an equivalent of the Star Wars prequel trilogy, by widening his scope to address new issues, new complexities, and the torments of new characters. And all without jeopardising the raw power of the original trilogy, the feeling of almost playful violence, the sense of the Heroic in a Beowulf or Homeric style which infuses Brown's work at its best.
It's that mode which shows us just how compelling the Gold myth is to Darrow and of course to the Golds themselves. Amidst the chaos and suffering of "democraky" who wouldn't yearn for order, for strength, for freedom from having to take decisions? I don't think I've read another recent author who shows us the insidious nature of authoritarianism - and the lessons are if anything more sharp here than in the first three books.
I won't make facile comparisons with the current political situation but this does also give the book a sense of urgency, of relevance. And indeed a couple of times Darrow's Howlers explicitly refer to the Society forces as "fascists". If you haven't read those books yet, I'd strongly suggest you read them first since while this book is relatively self-contained, reading it first will spoil details of the plots of the others which develop in a nicely layered way and are worth discovering little by little.
When you've done that you ought to read Iron Gold immediately though.
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I always look forward to Stross's books, and I've been following his stories of world walkers since the start of the Merchant Princes sequence in its original, six volume, form. So this is the 8th book in that series I have read, and I'm glad to be able to say that Stross is successfully keeping the books fresh, while engaging with events whose seeds were sown right back at the start. He's done this by successively widening the scope.
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We began with one woman, Miriam Beckstein now Burgeson who originates in what looked then like "our" timeline and her discovery of her place in the relatively parochial, parallel timeline kingdom called the Gruinmarkt as part of its "world-walking" Clan. Over the original series the story broadened from fantasy-like beginnings to a technothrillery narrative which took in nuclear terrorism, drug dealing and ultimately revolution in a third, steampunkish timeline. Dark State develops that, while also bringing to the fore the possibility of conflict with a scarily advanced civilisation from yet another timeline - one which would make events so far look like neighbours arguing over an unruly hedge.
That may come in book three, or be the focus of a future trilogy - let's wait and see. So much for context. What is Dark State like? As with the previous volumes, it's an assured, well-written story about competent people playing for high stakes. Rita Douglas, the daughter Miriam put up for adoption and who was brought up by Franz and Emily Douglas, is proving a capable agent for Homeland Security although the clash between the personal and the political is about to hit her hard.
She has an additional resource to draw on in being part, via her adoptive parents, of the Wolf Orchestra, an East German spy ring stranded after the end of the Cold War. In Empire Games Kurt put the Orchestra on standby and now it's tuning up to play a final symphony. Rita's counterparts in the New American Commonwealth across several factions and the regime in exile of the pseudo British kings are equally effective, making this book a game of chess played between very high ranking players. Almost everything is on the board from the start Stross does reserve a few pieces and the way the games goes very much reflects the character of the protagonists.
By that I mean that while one's first impression is that Stross is doing a lot of telling not showing, that isn't in fact the case - what these people do is who they are, so we are learning about how a well imagined and diverse set of characters see their world s. For example, we have Elizabeth Hanover, a doubly exiled princess brought up among emigres and dreamers in Europe, apparently a minor piece on the board but very much taking her fate in her own hands.
By the end of this book we have a clear picture of her and Stross is obviously reserving a big part for her in Book 3. If Merchant Princes was in part about deconstructing the "exiled nobility" trope in fantasy, Dark State takes that to a whole new level since Elizabeth is, literally, exiled nobility - in fact royalty - but won't be defined by that.
In what may be a two fingered gesture to SFF conservatives, Stross explicitly makes Elizabeth and Rita women of colour and yes, the context of the story totally allows for that.
Given Dark State's focus on espionage, tradecraft and general chicanery, it's not surprising that a lot of space is dedicated to surveillance and how to mitigate it. All of the protagonists are playing this game on different levels to such a degree that tiny advantages or disadvantages make a big difference in the outcomes. It's clever, engaging, well thought through and fun to read as well as potentially useful - "every phone was, by definition, a wireless bugging device", "orient, observe, and decide before you act". I do have a slight reservation which is that we get something close to a stalemate: it all rather cancels out and the resulting plot turns in a number of key places on essentially chance developments.
But maybe that's just true to life! Dark State is a world - a universe - a set of universes - which make political points about such matters as democracy, economic development, and the surveillance society. Stress has thought long and hard about this stuff as readers of his blog will be aware and offers plausible, and often troubling, conclusions. For example, the New American Commonwealth is about to lose its First Man its equivalent of its President, although it's more of a "guardian of the revolution" role.
Will a newly established democracy manage this transition or will factional rivalry turn into civil war? The author gives us few outright heroes or villains: I would have said "no" but there is Rita's boss Col Smith who seems to have been responsible for the nuking of the Gruinmarkt in Merchant Princes.
We may sympathise with the survivors of the Clan because they're Miriam's people, but they are, as one sceptical figure here notes, an aristocratic-minded sect within an egalitarian society in the same way as they formed a state-within-a-state in the Gruinmarkt. At the beginning of the book Stross illustrates, using the Wolf Orchestra as an example, how such a sect can survive and keep itself safe within a wider society. He's essentially set up a situation where an alternate timeline the New American Commonwealth introduced as an apparent refuge for the world-walkers when their own was nuked by the US becomes itself an active and interesting project which the reader will want to see survive, Clan or no.
Given Col Smith's record that seems an iffy proposition and if I were one of the Clan's opponents in the Commonwealth, I'd be pointing out that the hostility from the US is primarily directed at the Clan and that they might be becoming dangerous guests Individuals may be in shades of grey but there is however a clear denunciation of the extent to which, in this timeline, Ubiquitously Surveilled America has descended into an authoritarian state: the Fourth Amendment is a dead letter, one character here is spirited away into " night and mist " and may face "destructive debriefing and recycling , we're told that "everything is terrorism these days: downloading, uploading, jaywalking with intent to cause fear", a sinister sounding "Defense of Marriage Act" is in force.
The US Administration here is also riddled with conspiracy theorists, adherents of fringe religions and so forth, so much so that Rita is tasked, alongside obtaining valuable intelligence about the Commonwealth, with verifying a whole range of bizarre beliefs and theories the need to pander to which hinder Col Smith's operation at times contrary to popular belief, fascism is not "efficient", and Stross highlights this in passing.
Play it Sam". More soberingly, there's a description in the historical Appendix of what happened after the French invasion of Britain which placed customs barriers on the canal system, "breaking up what had hitherto been the largest free trade zone in Europe" and causing economic disaster. To sum up: this is an intelligent, sharp SF-espionage-thriller which nails some dark tendencies in present day politics and use of tech while building up an even more nightmarish threat in the depths of the timelines.
Strongly recommended. The playground that is Lewis Carroll's Wonderland begs to be peopled by authors, filmmakers, comic makers, indeed anyone with a creative spark who can produce a fresh take on the adventures of Alice and the surreal, sinister crew that she encountered down the rabbit hole and through the looking glass. And so we have in this book an abundance: dark Wonderlands, Wonderlands turned into theme parks or battle fields, imaginary Wonderlands, Wonderlands that have spilled over into the "real world".
Above all, we have Alices.
Alices of all sorts: little girls who fell down that rabbit hole, older women who came out, the real Alice Liddell, missing daughters, wayward Alices, tough cookie Alices. Alices as victims, as manipulators, as surrogates, as avengers. All read at once, it is perhaps rather overwhelming, like eating a whole box of Christmas chocs in one go, and I wouldn't advise that apart from anything else, many if not all of the stories evoke - mostly with some success - the jargon and atmosphere of Carroll's books and that is something which is perhaps best not taken in large doses.
No, I'd suggest rather that you come and go: read a story, ponder, return. Hop around the book, depending whether you want pastiche Alice, Alice-with-a-twist or - and these were my favourites - Alice inspired fiction, perhaps with no Wonderland, indeed even no Alice as such, but with a sense of something.
As you fall down that rabbit hole, passing shelves and volumes, I offer the following as a brief guide, to help you choose what to read and in what order. Or is she a not-Alice? In Wonderland you can never be sure. It's a nice story of fantasy and adventure set among the vorpal roses.
Conjoined Jane Yolen - some of whose Alice stories were included in her The Emerald Circus which I recently reviewed, although not those featured here is a story of the Tweedle twins touring with Barnum's circus. Mercury Priya Sharma is a dark tale set in a debtors' prison not so far from the village of Daresbury where the real CL Dodgson is commemorated in church window. It features a hatter and his daughter and the mercury that causes hatters' madness.
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The ensemble of Wonderland turn up in wonderfully distorted ways - a Duchess who is the boss of the jail. An Alice who's taught "Be tiny. Adapt to the dictates of the situation". A cat called Dinah. A Knave Here, it's all about escape.
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Some Kind of Wonderland Richard Bowes reimagines the Alice stories as a film made in s New York, which is revisited by its stars, now advanced in age. Again, the Wonderland motif bleeds through into mundane reality raising possibilities of escape but also of entrapment in that beguiling pocket universe. Alis Stephen Graham Jones is towards the horrific end of the whimsy-horror spectrum that these stories define, taking a familiar trope - foolish students experimenting with things that should be left alone - and giving it a distinctly Carollian twist involving a mirror.
All the King's Men Jeffrey Ford is one of the odder stories here. Again it features motifs from Carroll's books, but is not quite set in either Wonderland or in any real world. It is more a nursery rhyme kingdom, complete with an evil Humpty Dumpty.
It's an inventive, twisty tale, hauntingly effective, portraying a world which could surely feature in a longer piece of fiction. Run, Rabbit Angela Slatter is firmly set in the a real world but in a seamy, noirish version of it.