Wednesday, 17 August 2016

Review - The Stars Askew by Rjurik Davidson

Sequels are a funny beast. 

Sometimes they soar and exceed all of our wildest expectations.

And sometimes they fall so flat that you start to wonder why you even bothered picking them up in the first place. 

So when I heard about The Stars Askew I was cautious.

I wondered if Davidson replicate what worked so well in Unwrapped Sky? Could he build upon all of the fascinating themes he touched on in the first book? Would he be able to recapture and further explore that wonderful and strange tone that he excelled at? Or would The Stars Askew fall by the wayside, like so many other sequels that have come before it? 

Well, after finishing it I'm happy to say that The Star Askew not only lives up to its predecessor, it surpasses it. 

The Stars Askew brings to the table what Davidson does so well. You have a riveting and vibrant world that pulses with imagination, a successful and increasingly violent revolution standing on tenuous legs, and a raft of enthralling and fascinating characters who each bring something different to the story. 

What separates The Stars Askew from Unwrapped Sky however is that it is tighter and more controlled. At times in Unwrapped Sky it felt like Davidson had too much going on. There was philosophical discussion, a magic system to explain, political economy to unpack, and a steampunk and fantasy story to explore. The Stars Askew is cleaner and more streamlined, with a clear direction and enthralling plot that culminates in what is arguably one of the best conclusions to a book that I've read in many years. 

Told mainly from the perspective of three points of view (Kata, Maximillian, and Armand), The Stars Askew begins a few weeks after the successful (and bloody) revolt of the people of Caeli-Amur. From this starting point Davidson takes you on a fascinating journey of what occurs in the aftermath of a revolution. What happens when services that you take for granted break down in the power vacuum? What do you do when the new rulers begin hoarding and resorting to violence and purges to maintain their tenuous grip on power? Both of these questions are explored deeply, and I was stunned by just how riveting I found it. Davidson obviously draws from a deep understanding of revolutionary theory and political economy, but he never resorts to bland extrapolations or dry political discourse. The story is vibrant, fast-paced, and often bloody and violent. Murder investigations take place, assassinations and counter revolutions are planned, and gods and other beings interfere and use us as play things. Amidst all of this the people and creatures of Caeli-Amur struggle to survive, and are constantly torn between sides and factions that change their spots and evolve with every day that passes (for example the growing violent extremism of a faction of the seditionists). The Stars Askew asks hard questions, and it is confronting reading at times (Camp X for example). But it is also thoughtful and delightfully weird, blending elements of fantasy, steampunk, noir and horror into a mash that challenged and entertained me at the same time. Davidson reminds me a lot of China Miéville in that regard. He also has that uncanny ability, like Miéville, to weave serious philosophical and political discussion into a book that has, to be frank, has freakin' minotaurs in it! 

The action is yet again impressively choreographed, and the world building rich and wonderfully played out. I delighted in placing where Davidson had drawn his ideas from (the Reign of Terror in revolutionary France for example, or the system of concentration and labour camps in Nazi Germany and Stalinist Russia), and I felt as though I was caught up amidst the chaos as I read. And as a magic systems geek Davidson's use of Thaumaturgy, with all of its risks, still blows my mind.

If I had one small criticism it would be that the three main characters never really cross paths, with each taking their own directions (despite all of their goals concerning the fate of Caeli-Amur) in the story. Although I understand why Davidson did this, I would have liked to have seen a little more interaction between them. 

In combining revolutionary theory with bursts of thaumaturgical power and political intrigue Davidson has, once again, written a story that both delights and challenges your thinking. Powerful, gripping, and utterly addictive. The Stars Askew is the type of story I'd happily take with me to a deserted island. 

5 out of 5 stars. 

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