Review: Lockstep

lockstep (1)The lockstep is the weirdest concept I have ever come across. By hibernating, the population of a far flung colony can exist on almost nothing but the power required for the deep sleep modules. While they slumber, bots tend the day to day activities, harvesting and harbouring resources to sustain the colony when it wakes, and to fuel a journey across the stars to another colony for the purpose of trade. If they sleep on the ship, they can awaken at that other colony, having travelled multiple light-years ‘overnight’. If that other colony hibernated at the same time they did, then they, too, would have years of harvested materials to trade and the resources for their own journey elsewhere. Sleeping planets in a wide network become linked by a schedule of hibernation that allows trade and faster travel. But what happens to all the years falling away in between?

That was the question that poked me throughout Lockstep. Karl Schroeder expends quite a bit of effort toward explaining the theory and the math and I sort of got it. I understood the concept enough to take it as given, so I could get on with reading the story. But a sense of urgency gripped me as years floated away between periods of hibernation. On many of the planets, folks ‘wintered-over’ or hibernated for thirty years at a stretch. They’d wake for a month, burn through their gathered resources and then go to sleep again. Even though I understood it, it felt like just another night to them, I could not get over the wasted time, the years that went by unchecked. I missed them on their behalf.

When years hit the ratio of fourteen thousand real-time to forty actually lived, I had to cast myself adrift from the loss. It was too impossible to contemplate.

‘But what is the book about?’ I hear you ask. Well, it’s about a boy who is lost to time. Toby McGonigal set out to claim a moon. Once he put a metaphorical stamp on the rock, his family of intra-galactic homesteaders would have successfully mapped the portion of space surrounding the planet Sedna and could rightfully call it all theirs. An accident tosses him off course and out of time. He wakes over a dark planet, figures out he is lost and decides to hibernate again, for the last time. He is surprised to wake up again and even more surprised to find that fourteen thousand years have passed. Then he learns about the lockstep and the lockstep worlds. Hint: Toby grasped the concept more easily than I did. I think he felt the passage of years as keenly, however.

Toby is not simply a boy out of time, however. He soon discovers he has a legacy, one that has had thousands of years to germinate. He is a legend awakened, the emperor of time. Who seeded the myths? His grieving family. Their search for him and the wait for his return, started the trend of hibernation, creating the lockstep. Toby is the heir to that and all it entails. But not all of his family are happy to see him. In fact, they seem bent on his destruction. Why? Answering that question would be giving up the plot of the book.

Lockstep is pretty unique, as far as far future Science Fiction goes. The concept is really out there. The world-building matches the insane passage of time, though. Periods of enforced hibernation mean people can live in really bizarre circumstances on worlds perhaps only Karl Schroeder can dream about. I enjoyed learning about these different worlds, from concept to creation, and how different life could be in space. The genetic advancements were fascinating. The denners, cat-like creatures that served as an alternate hibernation system, were really cute. I want one. Of course, if I woke up tomorrow to find thirty years had passed, I might want my money back.

As expected, the inhabitants of these worlds have some strange ideas. Here’s where having a boy out of time as the narrator really works. The reader experiences these differences with Toby, which allows the author to insert small chunks of exposition that might otherwise feel heavy. Schroeder doesn’t dump all over the page, though. The explanations are in small, digestible portions that integrate seamlessly with the story.

Toby is an interesting mix of boy and man. He’s believably smart and reasonably sympathetic. At seventeen, his thoughts often felt immature. His lapses in judgment are easily forgiven; he’s lost a near unfathomable amount of time and forty years with his family. The universe is full of strangers living strange lives. Of his new friends, I think I liked Shylif the most. His story really bridged the gap between ‘fast worlds’ and the ‘lockstep’ worlds, fast worlds being those that exist fully in real time without hibernating.

I’ve read Karl Schroeder before, and have admired his imagination before. I love that for every twenty authors out there writing the regular space opera, which I need regular doses of, there is another guy dreaming up the impossible. If he writes another time-bending novel, I’ll check my anxiety at the front cover and leap right in.

Reviewed for SFCrowsnest.

Review: DemonWars: First Heroes (Saga of the First King)

9780765376169_FC (1)I never doubted R.A. Salvatore talent; despite my love of Drizzt, I’d not have made it through twenty-four books (so far!) chronicling his legend if Salvatore had no skill with words. If he could not tell a story, the story, in the way it needed to be told, deftly and surely, his words always underlying and uplifting the most important elements: his characters.

In delving into a whole new world of his own imagining, I had to wonder if Salvatore’s magic existed only in the Realms. Having just finished ‘The Highwayman’, the first of two books collected in ‘DemonWars: First Heroes’, I can assure you it does not.

‘The Highwayman’ chronicles the emergence of a new hero, a character like none I have read before. An accident of birth left Bransen Garibond crippled. Walking is an effort, talking almost beyond him. Still, his adoptive father loves and cares for him. His existence is softly tragic, an orphan who still has a place and the care of a good man. Where his body fails him, his mind does not. Bransen all but teaches himself to read and devours the only book in the house, the very book that turned the lives of his parents upside down.

Through the teachings of the Jhesta Tu, Bransen struggles for control of his body. Then a miracle occurs. Contact with an Abellican soul stone helps him make the proper connections and for the first time he is able to stand up straight. So begins an alternate life, one Bransen cannot fully embrace right away. His infirmity makes him a target of the Samhaists and bullies, but also provides a convenient disguise.

Bransen’s problems pale in comparison to those plaguing Corona, however. The stirrings of a civil war, bands of powrie dwarves and the conflict between the Samhaists and the Church of the Blessed Abelle take precedence. Bransen cannot join the fight and his alter ego, the Highwayman, is not invested in either conflict, but his experiments with agility put him squarely in the middle of both.

The second book included in this volume, ‘The Ancient’ picks up the story pretty much where it was left. Along with his wife and mother-in-law, Bransen has been banished from Pryd Town. He would journey south to look for more enlightenment among his mother’s people, the Jhesta Tu, but the civil conflict has spread, making travel difficult. Indeed, he must often spend the day in the guise of The Stork, the bumbling, stumbling cripple no laird would be interested in drafting into service.

Unfortunately, the Highwayman is highly sought after and his identity isn’t the secret Bransen thought it might be. Enticed by word his father might still live, Bransen is tricked into heading north and drafted into service against trolls, goblins barbarians and powrie dwarves in a quest to settle the north. There, the conflict between the Samhaists and Abellican church also continues, which introduces a cataclysmic ripple into the plot.

The Ancient’ reads more like a novel of the ‘Forgotten Realms’, if one will forgive the comparison. Bransen is one of a cast of characters, as he was in ‘The Highwayman’. In the first volume, he is the title and the subject, though. That is his story. ‘The Ancient’ is more the story of his purpose or the destiny that finds him through the putting together of a band of adventurers and the eventual defeat of the big evil. I enjoyed the journey and if there had been a third book tucked into this volume, I would have turned the page and kept reading.

The first volume of The DemonWars Saga was published in 1996. That’s nearly twenty years ago. Salvatore’s signature world doesn’t carry the same number of books as his more popular legend of Drizzt, but I found the story and the world to be as compelling. His style and many of his character types were recognisable, but that did not lull me into believing I’d drifted between Realms. Always, I was aware of being in a new place, one just as carefully thought out and inhabited by a wide array of races, monsters and magic.

Chronologically, the Saga Of The First King slots in before the DemonWars, but as with all of Salvatore’s series, can be read before or after. Each of his novels is always a complete adventure, which is one of the reasons I’ve been faithfully reading his books for years and years and years. Another reason would be his heroes. They’re humble and full of faults. They stumble and make mistakes. They question their actions and motivations. They’re very human, regardless of race and that makes them very easy to identify with. Bransen Garibond is just such a hero and I look forward to journeying forward with him.

Written for SFCrowsnest.

Featured image is The Highwayman by Todd Lockwood. Click here to view it on the artist’s site.