Blood Binds the Pack by Alex Wells
Published by: Angry Robot
Genre: Science fiction
Reviewed by: Edwin
What to Expect: Science fiction Wild West biker witches and lesbian unionists fomenting a proletarian revolution against an evil corporation. What’s not to like?
(Note: review contains spoilers for Book 1 of the series, Hunger Makes the Wolf (reviewed here, and some general discussion of plot elements in the first ¼ of this book)
War is coming to Hob Ravani’s world. The company that holds it in monopoly, TransRift Inc, has at last found what they’re looking for–the source of the power that enables their Weathermen to rip holes in space and time, allowing the interstellar travel all of human society now takes for granted. And they will mine every last grain of it from Tanegawa’s World no matter the cost.
Since Hob Ravani used her witchy powers to pull a massive train job and destroy TransRift Inc’s control on this part of the planet, the Ghost Wolves aren’t just outlaws, they’re the resistance. Mag’s miner collective grows restless as TransRift pushes them ever harder to strip the world of its strange, blue mineral. Now Shige Rollins has returned with a new charge–Mr Yellow, the most advanced model of Weatherman, infused with the recovered mineral samples and made into something stranger, stronger, and deadlier than before. And Mr Yellow is very, very hungry.
Blood Binds the Pack builds on everything that was brilliant in the previous book in this series, Hunger Makes the Wolf, and improves it on it. Hunger Makes the Wolf showed us how our two primary protagonists, Hob and Mag, got into their positions in the Wolves gang and miners’ union respectively, here we see them more comfortable with that power, against a more purposeful and dangerous iteration of the EvilCorp we were introduced to in Hunger Makes the Wolf, TransRift. While on the surface this setup seems like a straightforward good plucky colonists versus bad evil corporation narrative, what I like most is that the book is both thematically and narratively afraid of ambiguity.
Where we were previously left in the dark about the nature of the Weathermen – TransRift’s genetically modified interstellar pilots/weather control magicians – Hob’s ally the Bone Collector, and the mineral unique to Tanegawa’s World that fascinates them both, in this book we’re given some answers. But those answers are not complete, and lead to more questions in turn. The same is true about the nature of Hob, Mag, The Bone Collector, and Coyote’s ‘witchy’ powers: they’re there, we know how they got them, but we don’t know why they manifest in the way that they do.
Similarly, we’re left with only a small window into how TransRift and the wider world work because only one major point of view character has any ongoing contact with that world. Our heroes are far from idiots, but they’re deliberately left by TransRift without much education or exposure to the news, and the narrative forces us into their level of understanding, which is an effective technique to get us to empathise with them. We never really get complete answers about what is going on and why, and I think the book is the better for it. It makes what is at one level very definitely a world-shaking narrative one which we see from street level. It’s the story of workers acting to survive, not anointed heroes finding the McGuffin and claiming a throne. The difference is one of emphasis and perspective more than anything else, but this working class perspective is one almost entirely lacking in contemporary SF, and it is really good to see.
From a thematic perspective, there’s clearly a big pro organised labour thrust to the narrative. There’s no getting away from that and, indeed, unions around the world should be hawking this book like mad because I’ve never seen a more entertaining argument for the power of the union movement. But even within that pro-union bent there’s a lot of equivocation. The knowledge of when to stay strong, when to compromise, and how to bring together disparate interests that won’t always agree is shown to be a key to the success of Mag’s efforts at solidarity. It’s not just one big happy family, and I appreciate that even in the areas the author clearly holds strong views about, there’s a significant level of nuance, and little starry-eyed utopianism.
A shout out, too, for the low-key foregrounding of queer characters (including the most unique take on gay ‘vampire’ I’ve come across). It’s done with great skill, centring those characters unobtrusively but unmistakably. This is perhaps best illustrated by quoting from one of the best fictional coming out scenes I think I’ve read in a long while. The character in question says “I got thrown out …because they wanted me to be a man, and then my brother caught me kissing a minstrel girl.” It makes the character definition of her identity as correct one, her community’s refusal to accept as the problem, and instantly lets you know she’s a trans lesbian (or bisexual) without ever being heavy handed or awkward. Seeing a queer author deal skilfully with queerness is a great pleasure.
Finally, it’s important to note that the book is just a ridiculous amount of fun. The characters are compelling and vividly drawn – Hob and Mag as the two leads are brilliant, and the supporting narratives of Coyote and Shige play off each other very well – and the plot moves at a brisk but not over-hurried pace towards an explosive conclusion. I mean, it’s biker witches and queer unionists in the SF Wild West with a gay vampire and a weirdly sexy possibly alien love interest as support cast members. It’s not possible for it to be anything but wildly entertaining. Creative, angry, and joyous in equal parts, I can’t wait to see what Wells serves up next.
What you might not like/doesn’t work for you:
This makes no pretence of being hard SF. If you need clear, logical systems in your world-building you might be disappointed. The pretty unambiguously evil corporation might strike some as too heavy-handed.
What you will love:
Everything? Biker witches and queer unionists defeat capitalism in a space!Western. Come on!
Edwin gets grumpy if his SF/F reading doesn’t feature happy queer main characters. Aside from that, he reads and writes for a living (though not fiction), so of course his hobby is reading, and now writing about what he reads. Why do anything else?
Connect with Edwin on Twitter: @gaybookgeek