Blood and Iron

By Tony Ballantyne

Blood and Iron by Tony Ballantyne
Blood and Iron is the second book of Tony Ballantyne's 'Penrose' series and carries on pretty much from where Twisted Metal left off. Karel and Susan, torn apart by war and separated by thousands of miles try desperately to get back together. Karel walks south towards Artemis City where he believes Susan is being held and Susan plots escape from her captors in an effort to search for her husband. Kavan, having seen his army decimated in the taking of the North Kingdom, has realised that Spoole, Leader of Artemis City, has become corrupted by power and forgotten the Spirit of Artemis. Kavan decides to march on Artemis City and take it back from Spoole and his generals, but while he starts his long march alone, along the way he picks up an Uncertain Army who believe in him completely.

Meanwhile, in Yukawa on the other side of the continent, Appointed Commander of the Emperor's Army of Sangrel, Wa-Ka-Mo-Do of Ko, has been tasked with establishing cordial relations between the existing robot population and the newly arrived Humans. But what Wa-Ka-Mo-Do doesn't realise is that his mission is doomed, political wrangling at the highest levels has quietly ceded control of Yukawa to the Humans leaving him on a fools errand, protecting humans from a robot population about to riot due to starvation and ill-treatment while unbeknown to them all, the Humans are far more powerful an enemy than any of them could ever have known.

Like most middle books, Blood and Iron has the advantage of not having to set much up as that work was done in the first book, but it also has the disadvantage of having to up the ante storywise and give us more from the characters because there are pages to fill. Thankfully Ballantyne is a gifted storyteller and he does both with aplomb.

First of all the introduction of Wa-Ka-Mo-Do and the Humans that have landed on Penrose is terrific, making for probably the more interesting of the parallel storylines that comprise the bulk of the book. Wa-Ka-Mo-Do himself is a really nicely drawn character, a decorated warrior, noble and loyal, something akin to a samurai and with an unswerving belief in Yukawa and in the Emperor he serves we learn a lot about robotkind through him, but more importantly, once he meets the humans and slowly starts to learn a little about them, we see ourselves though robot eyes and there are some very interesting questions to ask about ourselves and some slightly uncomfortable ones once we see the darker purpose in the humans arrival.

Meanwhile, the aftermath of the bloody war that Artemis City waged across Shull is that there is nothing left to conquer - at least as far as the two principal characters, Kavan and Spoole, are concerned - and as that realisation becomes apparent it seems inevitable that they should turn on each other, one for an ideal and the other because he has been twisted to lead and can conceive of nothing else. It is Kavan's unswerving mission to take Artemis City, and the growth of his 'Uncertain Army' that fuels the other plotline, alongside Spooles attempt to retain leadership of Artemis City in the face of Kavan's assault while all the time his Generals plot against him.

The slightly 'third wheel' plot of Karel and Susan is kept on the back burner a little bit and it occasionally feels like it's there to put a slightly more 'personal' sheen on an otherwise epic story, but it is nevertheless very readable, particularly for Karel who, along with a very old robot with a mysterious past, has the more interesting journey and along the way uncovers the some huge truths about robot and human history.

While both are excellent, overall this is a much more engaging read than Twisted Metal. Small friendships begin to evolve within the epic spread of the story and the characters feel more (dare I say it) 'human' and less mechanical than in the previous outing. The pace is quick, switching back and forth between plotlines and occasionally into stories from robot 'folklore' but it never gets confused and, as the robots try to figure out the humans - particularly Kavan and his troops - there are some genuinely hilarious moments. I have some questions to ask about things that were set up in the first book that don't get a mention here but I'm hoping that they come to fruition in the final installment, but either way, this is a terrific series, well worth investing in, and I'm looking forward to the next book enormously.

Blood and Iron is published by Tor through Pan Macmillan and is available from Amazon, Blackwell and all good book stores.

Tony Ballantyne's website is here.

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