FABLES AND FABRICATIONS by Jan Edwards
While being aware of Jan Edward’s considerable skills as an editor and co-publisher of Alchemy Press, I had not
previously read much of her own writing. FABLES AND FABRICATIONS is a collection of fourteen short stories
interspersed with poems. All of the stories have been previously published elsewhere although the haiku’s (three line
poems with a 5-7-5 syllable structure) are all original.
One of the problems I often have with single author collections is that the stories often become very similar. That is most definitely not the case here. While most of the stories could be classed as fantasy (with a couple of exceptions) the stories are pleasingly varied in subject and style, ranging from light humorous pieces through to some dark and emotionally affecting tales. It is no easy task to write well over such a wide range, and is a good reflection of the author’s significant abilities and imagination. I also like the prose style which makes very effective use of similies and metaphors so that they are evocative without being cliched. Whilst every story is not equally enjoyable, I feel this is more a question of my individual taste than anything inherent to the crafting and quality of the story.
One of my favourites is the first story, “Drawing down the Moon” which looks at the high price which must be paid for communicating with the dead. I really liked the shift from the mundane setting of a seedy café to the high drama later in the story. It also amply demonstrates the author’s ability to write credible female (and male) protagonists. Other favourites include; “Midnight Twilight” about a journalist searching for a mysterious creature in the remote Arctic, which again is very atmospheric; “The Abused and Him” which is not fantasy but paints a realistic and unsettling picture of the after-effects of abuse on a victim; and “Princess Born” which is a very funny re-writing of the Princess and the Pea fairy story. The author is clearly familiar with a lot of folklore, both British and European and plays with these themes very effectively in many of the stories, which appealed to me personally.
Regarding the poetry, I am always hesitant commenting but I did enjoy the Haiku in particular as one can see the real skill in capturing an impression or emotion in very few words.
This is a collection of thoughtfully written, wide ranging stories which I thoroughly recommend with the only caveat being that it is not for those who want science fiction stories.
LEINSTER GARDENS AND OTHER SUBTLETIES by Jan Edwards
The problem with reading a book of ghost stories is that you are always on the look-out for the ghost. It is harder to
surprise the reader but a skilled writer can do it especially if they make use of the full use of range of ghosts that
appear in literature. Many Victorian writers liked the idea of the vengeful ghost, the innocent who suffers at the hands
of the wicked and wants justice. Other ghosts don’t realise they are dead and don’t know that they have to move on,
while others are somehow trapped. Experiences that might be interpreted as ghosts may merely be a replay of events
with no spirit involved or a lost spirit from another dimension may not understand the havoc they are causing. There
are probably as many interpretations of the phenomena labelled ghosts as there are apparitions recorded. The
challenge is to make the supernatural unexpected rather than unexplained.
In this volume of fourteen ghost stories, Jan Edwards explores the nature of the ghostly event and finds ways of reinterpreting it. Many of these stories have their roots in folklore and urban myth; many reportings of ghostly sightings have already entered into the mythology of the haunted place. The title story, “Concerning The Events In Leinster Gardens” has the authenticity of the 1930s in both language and attitudes. It also draws on the scams that were able to catch out the unwary. Archie buys a ticket to a masked ball in good faith. From the moment of his arrival in Leinster Gardens, the reader is aware that nothing is quite what it seems. Gullible Archie is not so fortunate. The challenge is to spot all the tropes that Edwards is playing with.
Whereas, the house itself in Leinster Gardens can be regarded as the ghost, “The Waiting” would be regarded as more traditional with a house being haunted. It is the approach that makes it different, cutting between past and present.
A good way of solving the ‘which is the ghost’ problem is a bit of misdirection. Titles well-chosen can provide it as in “Nanna Barrows” a story narrated by a young girl, now an invalid after having recovered from diphtheria.
“April Love” gives us a choice of possible ghosts. Some, often weak stories, don’t reveal that the narrator is a ghost until the very end, leaving the reader feeling cheated. This doesn’t happen here as the narrative is third person but seen from the points of view of April and her two suitors. It is very carefully plotted to keep the reader guessing.
By default, ghost stories have an element of the past within them. Often it is a contemporary figure interacting with a spectre that has their origin in history. In most of Edwards’ stories, the setting for the events is also historical. “The Ballad Of Lucy Lightfoot” is an exception because it crosses boundaries. Lucy has returned to the place of her birth on the Isle of Wight to finish what started nearly two hundred years previously. The story manages to combine paganism, folklore, time travel and immortality yet still contains ghosts – though this time they are much harder to spot. Because of this, and its longer length it is my favourite in this collection.
“Orbyting” is very different and a complete contrast to the stories on either side of it. It has a very modern high tech, SF feel to it. Kat is part of a team of ghost hunters. When she returns to the office to retrieve forgotten keys she gets locked in. On screen, she is hunting a ghost but is it also hunting her?
Two stories here are very much of the traditional type. In fact, the idea of “R For Roberta” has been used before. It is an elderly man at the end of his life who is remembering the time in the war when the plane he should have been on didn’t return from its war-time mission. While in “Wade’s Run” two lost women are taken to a hostel after an accident by a helpful motorist, after he runs them down. Like “R For Roberta”, “Redhill Residential” has its roots in WWII when many airmen failed to return. Again it is the past impinging on the present, but this is a much more unusual and subtle story. “Valkenswaard” is another war-time ghost story but where death is violent and loss is both dreaded and expected the frequency of ghostly events is intensified. In this story, though, the apparition is closer to the one who experiences it. It could be regarded as a spirit who doesn’t yet know that the body is dead, or a spirit determined to keep a promise no matter what.
Most ghosts are perceived to have the same appearance as when they died. Some, who believe in a happy afterlife, imagine their loved ones at the peak of their Earthly fitness, so when the lover dies young, the partner living to ripe old age will be rejuvenated when they meet again. There are obvious flaws on this arrangement but that is no reason to think that a spirit is identical to the body they left with all the traumas of injury or sickness. In “The Clinic” this is something Sarah gets to consider when her younger sister dies. Young men are always ready to laugh at the tall tales of their elders. Whether they are ready to believe them or not doesn’t stop them daring each other, especially after a few beers, which is why in “The Eve Watch” the two youths celebrating their last night of freedom before being called up, are lurking in the churchyard. According to Jem’s Granfer, watching there for three consecutive years will grant a vision of those about to die. Here, we have an example of a predictive ghost, a messenger from the spirit world where the future is known.
The final two stories both deal with transformations, but in very different ways. In “Otterburn” there is a question as to whether there is a ghost here, a transformation or even a death. There is certainly a disappearance. The skill of the writing allows the reader to make their own decisions as to what has taken place on the river bank. With “The Black Hound Of Newgate”, there is no doubt that sorcery has taken place. In folklore there are many tales of ghostly black dogs roaming the countryside, often portending bad luck for whoever sees it. This one haunts Newgate Gaol. It is often postulated that we all have an animal inside us and that out human form is merely a veneer. The question this story asks is whether both parts of a soul die at the same time, or can one form become a ghost leaving the alter ego having a material presence. After a riot in the gaol, one man may have the chance to find out.
This book can be read simply as a collection of ghost stories, but on another level it exploring the variety of ghostly phenomena and asking the reader to wonder why we are so fascinated by them. Many of these stories are set in the past and Jan Edwards is very good at evoking an earlier era in a minimum of words. It is perhaps a volume to be dipped in to rather than reading straight through.
SCAVENGER ALLIANCE (Exodus 1) by Janet EdwardsSCAVENGER ALLIANCE is the first in a new SF series by Janet Edwards. It is set in the same universe as her previous Earth Girl series but some four hundred years earlier so it is not necessary to have read Earth Girl to enjoy this story. This novel looks at the early years after the establishment of interstellar portal technology. Most of Earth’s population has left in a massive, rushed exodus to new unpolluted colony worlds. With so few people left on Earth, infrastructure and technology have collapsed. The remaining people have segregated into “respectable citizens” who have left the cities and founded settlements in the countryside, and the “undesirables” that neither the settlements or the extrasolar colonies will accept.
TELEPATH (Hive Mind 1) by Janet Edwards
There is now a new kind of author – the hybrid. These are writers who have been published by mainstream publishers
but have later decided, for various reasons, to self-publish. Storm Constantine was one of the first, wanting to get her
earlier books back into print before going on to develop the independent publishing house of Immanion Press. Brum
Group member, Janet Edwards has joined this select band. After the success of her Earth Girl trilogy, she had a
following wanting to know where they could get hold of the next book. Publishing schedules of the major publishers
tend to put out only one book per author per year. Janet didn’t want her fans to wait that long, especially as she is a
prolific writer, so decided to produce the next books herself. While some authors need the input of various editors and
agents to make sure a high quality is maintained, it is pleasing to discover that Janet doesn’t. TELEPATH has the
same excellent production qualities as the Earth Girl trilogy.
Janet writes very effectively for Young Adults, properly embracing the sub-genre and placing her characters in peril, keeping the action going throughout. TELEPATH has a number of parallels with the Earth Girl trilogy. Both are set in far future societies and each has an eighteen-year old female protagonist who finds herself in a situation where she is an outsider having to prove her worth. In TELEPATH, the human population of Earth is gathered into huge, largely underground, complexes known as Hives. Each of these is as self-contained as a country. The Hives trade with each other and may be suspicious of each other’s motives. As in EARTH GIRL, much of the teen age years of the young people are spent learning independence and living in areas that largely exclude adults.
Amber, the protagonist of TELEPATH, and Jarra, the protagonist of EARTH GIRL, each begin the narrative reaching a point where their lives will change for ever. For Jarra, it is choosing the university course that will shape her adult career. For Amber, it is the series of tests that make up Lottery in the year she is eighteen. From the results of these she will be assigned a job for life, one that she is suited for and will enjoy, and will have the information she needs to carry it out imprinted on her brain. She will be very unlikely to ever meet her teenage companions again. Amber, though, turns out to have a very rare quality. She is a true telepath. As such, and only one of five in her Hive, she must be protected at all costs as she is the one who effectively will keep order. She will be able to find and track criminals so that they can be apprehended and dealt with by the Enforcers.
Amber discovers that she has a vast area, including a park, that is part of her quarters but that she has to share it with a team of Enforcers that act as her bodyguards, as well as medics, tacticians, cooks, cleaners. And she has to learn to control her new-found abilities. She has to be able to pick out from amongst the myriads, the criminal mind and direct her team to find them. She has to be able to shut out the unwanted thoughts of the others around her.
From her Lottery testing, Amber’s elite enforcers have been selected to conform to the profile she would be attracted to. Since she won’t be allowed to freely socialise, any partners would have to be found amongst those in her coterie and a telepath’s desires are paramount in keeping her happy. Thus, amongst the group is Forge, the friend from her teenage years that she was obsessed with, though he was never a boyfriend. Now she finds herself more attracted to Lucas, her tactical team leader because his mind fizzes with energy. When they attend a situation when a three-year old goes missing, incidents from her childhood begin to make more sense and an unexpected threat is exposed.
In this novel, Amber has to cope not only with the dramatic change in status that the Lottery’s rite of passage throws at her and the awakening of her own physical needs, but an imminent danger to her and her Hive.
Janet has done a good job juggling the need to write something different from her first trilogy while also keeping the elements that have attracted her fan base. Anyone who enjoyed the Earth Girl trilogy will love this. Like Jarra, Amber dances across the page with all the hopes and neuroses of any eighteen-year old. A good job well done.
WILLFUL CHILD by Steven Erikson
The first thing to do about this book is to forget the hype as the intelligent reader will immediately become suspicious.
Publicists only go overboard for one reason – they desperately want you to buy this book. The question to ask is why is
the hype necessary?
Steven Erikson has gained a huge following during the publication of his ten volume epic fantasy series, The Malazan Book of the Fallen. He has written another novel and a selection of stores in the same world. His best book by far is THIS RIVER AWAKENS, an exquisitely written novel about young people at an age when the decisions they make reflect the rest of their life. It was his first novel and only recently republished. First time round it didn’t spark the interest his fantasy has.
It should have done.
The first clue that this book, WILLFUL CHILD, is not High Fantasy, is the space ship on the cover. For a publisher to issue a book very different from an author’s usual output is always a risk. Some fans will take a look at the packaging and put it back on the grounds that they ‘don’t read that space stuff’. The first danger is losing the readers expecting more of the same. They need to be supremely confident that more of the reading public will look further than the name – the most prominent thing on the cover – and at least read the blurb. This is another problem in that names get associated with types of books and thus alienating those who might enjoy it when a writer goes off in a different direction.
Most of us readers of SF, whatever our era, have something that defines the beginning of that interest. For the older generation, it may well have been Dan Dare in The Eagle, for others, Dr Who, Star Wars or Fireball XL5. Erikson’s early influences obviously included Star Trek.
WILLFUL CHILD is both a parody and an homage to the TV series
The technology that enabled humans to venture into space was delivered by accident. A century later, Captain Hadrian Sawbuck gets his first command, the ASF Willful Child. He is younger than most captains and his attitude is that of a kid with a new toy. His first mission is apparently simple – to catch a smuggler. He doesn’t make the same mistake others would, but identifies the right ship. However his victory is short-lived as the AI doing the smuggling proceeds to take over his ship and sends it straight into a war zone and a series of diplomatic incidents.
The result is mayhem.
Anyone who is familiar with Star Trek will know some of the decisions the captain makes would not be tolerated in a modern navy – space or otherwise. For example, having all the significant command crew members on a hostile planet at the same time would be a courts martial offence, but then Star Trek was modelled after the adventures of Horatio Hornblower where a captain was expected to lead. Erikson exaggerates this trait in the antics of his hero.
The important thing about this book is that it should not be taken
seriously. It will appeal to those who enjoy seeing their fictional heroes parodied and those who like the idea of farce with spaceships. Anyone who expects this to be an SF version of Erikson’s epic fantasy will very quickly get the rug pulled out from under their feet. It is always good to try something new, whether as a reader or a writer, though this might not have made it to the bookshelves if Erikson hadn’t already got a formidable reputation.
ICE TOWER by Christopher Evans
Or is it 'ICETOWER'? I think so, because although the (rather nice) cover clearly says ICE TOWER, inside it is always
ICETOWER. While I’m at it, another couple of niggles about the cover. The front illo shows too young men standing
back-to-back on the top of a tower on which they barely have room to stand. This never happens. Also — and this
complaint applies not just to this cover, but one sees it everywhere (such as in Sad Café's 'Everyday Hurts'): it is not, as
it says here, "It's the same everyday." It should be "It's the same every day". Think about it (the copywriter obviously
OK, now to the book. I didn't know when I picked up this review copy that it is a juvenile. How would I? Only by reading the small print on the credits page can one find "a Dolphin paperback by Orion Children's Books". Surely children's books should advertise this fact on the cover, along with some guide as to age suitability? Notwithstanding, this is quite an entertaining, if short, read, and I was quite pleased with myself for working out the 'word puzzle' it contains, early on. Two boys, friends, but one having seemingly turned nasty, are on their way home on the school bus. It is snowing, and the driver leaves to make a 'phone call at the top of a steep hill. One of the boys fiddles with the hand rake, and they hurtle downwards. . . When Rhys awakes, his friend Jack is in some sort of coma, and he has to drag him around -- fortunately getting lighter and lighter — as he encounters a series of fantasy-type adventures in the Icetower, populated by animated paintings, a Shadowman, a Black Knight, a talking jackdaw who gives Rhys cryptic word clues, and various mythic beasts. Young teenagers should enjoy it.
Apparently this is one of the Dreamtime series, with other titles written by Stephen Bowkett, Jenny Jones and Colin Greenland. But each story is obviously quite separate and individual, except that, presumably, it takes place in this ’other’, dreamlike world.
GUARDIANS OF PARADISE by Jaine Fenn
Jaine Fenn has embarked on an ambitious potentially nine-volume series of which GUARDIANS OF PARADISE is the
third. So far, each of them has a different flavour. The first of the series, PRINCIPLES OF ANGELS, was set in a highly
technical environment. The city of Khesh floats above the atmosphere of a barren planet. In it, we are introduced to
two characters. Nual is an angel.
This means she is a physically altered executioner. Taro lives in the undertow, the maze of walkways and hovels clinging to the underside of the city.
Volume two, CONSORTS OF HEAVEN, is very different in setting. It is an adventure on a low-tech world that has many of the trappings of a fantasy novel. It is only towards the end that it becomes clear that it has links with the universe of PRINCIPLES OF ANGELS. It also introduces the third character, Jarek, who is part of the triad that GUARDIANS OF PARADISE revolves around.
By the start of the third novel (providing you have read the other two) we know that Nual is Sidhe. This race was thought to have been wiped out a long time ago, to the great relief of humanity as they are extremely manipulative and have the power to bend minds to their will. Nual is young, in Sidhe terms and was little more than a child when Jarek found her aboard a derelict Sidhe mother ship, the only sane survivor of some kind of disaster – she didn’t know what. The Sidhe, however, want her either back in the fold or dead. They don’t care which. They have already, (in PRINCIPLES OF ANGELS) tried to use her friend and mentor as an assassin. Now they have sent a more blatant hit squad.
Jarek, by coincidence, arrives just in time for the shoot out. Once they have escaped, Jarek tells Nual and Taro that he has discovered the source of the ‘shift units’ that take space craft between systems instantaneously. They are the rewired brains of boys with a kinetic talent, bred for that trait on Serenein, the planet in CONSORTS OF HEAVEN. Despite the fact that it might eventually lead to the end of faster than light space travel, the three team up to find where these boys are processed and put a stop to their torture. If it also wipes out the Sidhe once and for all, they decide it is a price worth paying.
Whereas, volume one was an unusual, high tech setting with a deal of politics and volume two appeared superficially more like fantasy, this third volume is a more traditional space opera with a different kind of action and intrigue. Although Jaine hopes that each volume will stand alone, it is advisable to start with PRINCIPLES OF ANGELS in order to understand the full import of the series.
THE SHIPS OF ALEPH by Jaine Fenn
If you are going to start a new small publishing company, then it is vital to produce a quality product from the start and
this novella is certainly that. Tower of Chaos Press are a small independent publisher, run by Dave Weddell (Jaine
Fenn’s partner) and THE SHIPS OF ALEPH is its first publication. It aims to produce mainly short stories and novellas,
initially mainly by Jaine Fenn. THE SHIPS OF ALEPH was originally published as a limited edition chapbook for
Novacon 42, when Jaine Fenn was Guest of Honour. It is now being made available as an eBook by Tower of Chaos
A natural phase for children is the “Why?” stage, when they want to know the answer to everything about the world and how it works. Most people grow out of it but some adults retain that curiosity, not least among them many SF writers and readers. THE SHIPS OF ALEPH is a tale of that sort of curiosity and how far you would be prepared to go in pursuit of knowledge and truth. It is a science fiction story although it may not seem so at first. The narrator, Lachin grows up in a small fishing village. His enquiring mind and a lame leg leave him isolated from his peers. When the Duke announces a project to build a ship to explore the seas, Lachin is eager to join despite the prevalent mood that it is ungodly and thus doomed to failure. Thrown into the sea when the ship founders at the edge of the world he wakes up seemingly back in his home village although he is the only inhabitant. From there he faces a series of choices all of which involve remaining in his current state of knowledge or risking the unknown and ultimately a chance at another exploratory journey unimaginable to his earlier self.
I really enjoyed this story. The pace is quite gentle but keeps the reader interested. The characterisation of Lachin, as one would expect of Jaine Fenn’s work is excellent and he is a very believable and sympathetic character. Considerable attention has been paid to the structure of the story with the theme of journeys both spatial and intellectual integrated really well without detracting from the actual narrative – not an easy thing and one many authors don’t always manage satisfactorily. Although the story fits into Jaine Fenn’s SF Hidden Empires series, the story still works even without an awareness of these. As a final incentive to buy it also has a superb piece of blue-toned cover art by David A Hardy.
MERRY-GO-ROUND and Other Words by Bryn Fortey
In choosing a book to purchase, a number of factors are taken into account, either consciously or subconsciously. The
cover is always one.
Good ones draw the eye and give a hint of what kind of book will be found between the covers. An intriguing title may well cause the book to be taken off the shelf but in the age of the celebrity the name of the author may well be a deciding factor. So it is my job to help you decide if Bryn Fortey is a name worth watching out for. For some of you, the question uppermost in your minds will be ‘Who?’ For those of the older generation, brought up reading such volumes as the FONTANA BOOK OF HORROR, or the historians of horror fiction the name may be more familiar.
This collection can be regarded, not just as a tribute to the author but also to the enduring quality of horror fiction. Stories published early in the last century by greats such as M.R. James are still thought of with affection and still hold insights into human behaviour. So, too, do those printed more recently. A good story should not be judged by the era when it was written. Bryn Fortey’s fiction, as represented here, covers a period from the 1970s to the present time. Within these covers you will find twenty-one (or perhaps twenty- two) stories and six groups of poems.
The discrepancy in the number of stories relates to the first and last pieces. ‘Shrewhampton North-East’ is a ghoulish little story revolving around the nightmare of train travel. In this case the narrator and his mother are stranded at the eponymous station along with nine others, some of whom have been waiting for three days. ‘Shrewhampton North-West’ which resolves the situation owes much to Lovecraft.
Here the title story is second for aesthetic reasons. One thing I would like to have seen in this book is the first date of publication of each story. This is because ‘Merry-Go-Round’ has a number of familiar themes and knowing how they fitted into the history of the horror genre would give an indication of the degree of originality.
The collection also contains science fiction. ‘Ithica Or Bust’ belongs to the school of zany science fiction that only those with a good grasp of ancient Greek myth will fully appreciate.
‘Remnants’ is a very different kind of science fiction, dealing with the issues arising when a colony ship crashes on a planet. Instead of everyone pulling together for survival, nastier basic instincts have surfaced. To add to the unconventional approach, Fortey brings the reader in towards the end of the attempt to survive, allowing him to play with the unexpected. ‘The Oscar Project’ begins in a bleak, dystopian future, for which many blame Christianity. The main character is conscripted to work on a project to view the past, until an accident allows him to interact with it. Despite certain similarities to Moorcock’s ‘Behold the Man’ the approach, origins and motivations of the characters are different.
Music plays an important part in this collection, both the stories and poems. ‘Denton’s Delight’ follows jazz saxophonist Hal Denton, on the downward spiral after hitting the big time too young. Now without the creativity he once had – until he plays at a South Wales Jazz club.
Vampires who feed on things other than blood? This is the inspiration behind ‘The Pawnshop Window’. On the day they buried Louis Armstrong, another trumpeter remembers what might have been - a poignant story. Other musically themed stories include ‘First Words’ where Fortey is blending at least three disparate ideas into one brief story. It shouldn’t work, but somehow, it does.
Perhaps the stories with most impact are those that take a small idea and paint it in such a way to set the reader thinking about the possibilities. In ‘Wordsmith’ best-sellers are taken from the depths of the psyche of the insane. Another seemingly small idea drives the horror behind ‘Skulls’. Eric Brown’s superpower is the ability to recognise who will die soon; that person’s head appearing as a skull.
Poems are often far more personal than fiction. A good poet, and
Bryn Fortey is one, often expose more of themselves through poetry than any other kind of writing, including autobiography. They give an insight into the soul of a person. The poetry here is divided into six groups. The first, highly personal and poignant, are messages to his wife and son and as such, we are privileged to be able to share them. The second and fifth groups show Fortey’s passion for music. Science fiction images and ideas can sometimes be conveyed more powerfully in just a few words. The third group does this, especially ‘A Taxi Driver on Mars’. Those in the fourth group begin with two memories, the poet looking back from his autumn years before looking the other way, wistfulness followed by a trip into darkness with ‘Nightfall’ - a poem to produce shivers. The final ones provide a sense of dread a fitting group to be placed just before the final story.
If I have any criticism of the poetry, it is the layout. Where a poem goes onto more than one page, the other part would have been better on the facing page so that whole of the structure can be seen with one glance.
Often the structure of a poetic form adds to the appreciation of the word pattern.
Always with an author that a potential reader might not be familiar with, the question remains – why should I buy it? For anyone who values quality poetry, that is one good reason. For others – these stories have variety but the best of them show how a range of ideas can be meshed together to form small gems. Not everyone will like all the stories but it is worth savouring the best, and trying to figure out how Fortey manages to juxtapose the impossible and make it work.
ROOK SONG (The Gaia Chronicles 2) by Naomi FoyleThe first novel of this series, ASTRA (reviewed BSFG #514) was the story of a young girl growing up and gradually discovering that the perceived utopia of her country (Is-Land) is in fact a controlling, totalitarian society. As a child she is persuaded to avoid a gene-modifying “Security Shot”, which all the village children are to receive as she is told it will limit her intellect. The consequences of this decision ultimately lead to disaster for her and her foster parent, Hokma. At the end of the story she is exiled from her country, still suffering from the physical and mental effects of the “memory pacification” brainwashing to which she has been subjected. The first novel had given very little detail of the outside “Non-Land” other than as somewhere which was intent on destroying or infiltrating Is-Land.
THIS ALIEN SHORE by C S Freidman
I hadn’t heard of C S Friedman. I wasn’t excited by the blurb, ‘ A cross between cyberpunk and Star Wars.’ But hell, it
was SF and it was sitting among a box full of fantasy so I picked it up.
I instantly warmed to her acknowledgement of Cordwainer Smith’s inspiration. Almost immediately I realised that a comparison with Star Wars was an insult to this book, a book with a complex and fascinating background and intriguing characters.
The first faster than light drive, used to establish colonies on every planet in reach, also worked irreparable genetic damage on anyone making the journey. The resulting people, called Hausman variants, hate the Earth which cut them off without a lifeline in fear of infection of the human gene pool. This is the basic background, peopled with aliens and monsters that are human, Guildsmen who are the only beings capable of piloting ships through the ainniq, at huge cost to their sanity, a vast computer web and a proliferation of interconnected lives.
Against this background, Jamisia, a young woman with biological brain-ware more valuable and extensive than would seem reasonable and a cast of intrusive characters in her head, is fleeing assassination and attempting to understand herself. Kio Masada, Gueran, is also attempting to understand something, a computer virus infiltrating the web.
It really would be pointless to try to explain more. The story is too rich and complex for reasonable synopsis. Go out and buy it immediately.
DARK UNIVERSE by Daniel F Galouye
The problem with classic science fiction is that it so often dates so very badly.
The greatest vision of the future can go desperately wrong when history takes a different turn. Nightmares of science become jokes when science decides that isn't how things are. What good is it to have a great futuristic novel when you need to look on it with nostalgia? This suffers from all of this and loses so much in the process. We have here a future where the 3rd world war between the great nuclear powers actually happened. A science that still believes evolution is accelerated by irradiation. Even more than this we have plot lines that have since become cliches.
This is the story. WW3 happened. People retreated to the deep bunkers (remember the coal mines of Dr Strangelove). In one of them something went wrong. The lights went out and people adapted to the dark. Some started to see in the infra-red, others lost any understanding of light. As "what if?" stories go, this is a good one but it carries to much baggage and one plot device that should be a surprise (the "monsters" that are taking people) is something I (at least) saw through much too soon.
Not really for the under-30's.
ASH A SECRET HISTORY by Mary Gentle
I have always liked this author's work, although some of her books have been a bit strange, to say the least. She has
taken a new direction several times and here she has surpassed herself to produce something entirely new and
There are two stories in this book. Nominally, the main one is that of Ash, who lived her brief life as a leader of mercenary soldiers in the second half of the fifteenth century. As her story unfolds it looks as though a supernatural element is creeping in, but this effect is subsequently found to arise from an unknown mediaeval technology. One suspects that it might even be extraterrestrial, but when the truth is revealed it is something entirely different, possibly worse, and the book is still only half way through.
The second story supplements this by including between the chapters correspondence exchanged between author and publisher as the writing of the book progresses. The author draws on previous versions of Ash's life, supplemented by translations of hitherto undiscovered manuscripts and illuminated by archaeological research. While this goes on, however, historical records are changing before his eyes and it becomes apparent that the history in which Ash lived may not be our history. In fact, it may be that the past itself has somehow been changed, with fragments of the ‘'lost" past lingering on or reappearing in our present. Even his book, the book we are reading, becomes affected so that only this one copy survives. It has become part of its own story.
Although the major part of the book, the story of Ash, appears to be Fantasy it would be wrong to dismiss the whole as such. The real story is actually the modern one, and that is very much Science Fiction. And what a story it turns out to be!
The only criticism I could make of ASH would be its inordinate length, as the writer displays an encyclopaedic knowledge of mediaeval dress, weaponry, warfare and way of life generally. This is highly instructive, and together with one feature I particularly liked - that instead of a stilted reproduction of mediaeval speech the characters' words are "translated” into twentieth century idiom complete with four-letter words - gives an amazingly authentic atmosphere, but the sheer amount of detail does slow up the narrative in places and some of the early parts of the book can be rather slow going. However, in the later chapters the pace picks up as the two stories, one Fantasy and the other Science Fiction, mesh to produce a staggering climax as alternate histories collapse together to produce one present day.
If you only buy one more book this year, make it this one.
THE GEARS OF MADNESS by Iain Grant
Steampunk is a strange phenomenon. It is a combination of nostalgia and alternative science. While some exponents
of the sub-genre want to take science back to the Victorian Era, some use it as a jumping off place for another
direction of development. A few turn it into a genuine alternative history along with a different physics. Iain Grant is
one of the latter.
This collection of seven stories started life as a series of adventures only available on the internet. This book brings them all together to form an ongoing narrative. The sub-title is “The Collected Sedgewick Papers”. This is not quite an accurate description even though there are links between them. Many, though not all, are purported to be from the memoires of Mr J Cadwallander and mostly concern the situations he was dragged into by Professor Erskine Sedgewick at the start of the twentieth century. There is enough in the basic relationship between the two men to wonder if the initial inspiration was Conan Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes stories.
In this world, as is consistent with some of the beliefs of Victorian natural philosophers, the space between planets is not a vacuum but stratified layers of aether. To get between the layers there are a series of locks through which ships can travel. The first story in the book, set in 1902 is “The Angels of the Abyss”. When something strange seems to have occurred in one of these space-locks, Sedgewick inveigles himself and Cadwallander onto the expedition to find out what is going on. They find that the cylindrical structure has been invaded by alien beings which manifest as angels but are deadly to whoever touches them. It is during the events here that Cadwallander loses an arm, which is replaced later by a very efficient mechanical one.
“The Pearl of Tharsis” set a year later introduces the adventuress, Mina Saxena, who has a place in several other of these stories. Sedgewick and Cadwallander are on Mars when a sandstorm downs their flying machine. They and the passengers and pilot take shelter in a labyrinth of caves. Mina has suffered the same fate, but sees an opportunity to hold the professor to ransom. Music, though lures them deeper into the caverns where they encounter Chioa Khan (an alias of Aleister Crowley). Here a god-like being has summoned people by supernatural means to a perpetual party where no debauchery is forbidden.
Mina tells the next story. In “The Well of Shambala” she has attached herself to a British expeditionary force in Tibet, which sets out to investigate a temple in the mountains. They have a limited time as by a certain date, the artillery on a space platform will shell the Russian forces in the area. What they find is literally, out of this world.
“The Bridge to Lemuria” uses several meanings of the word bridge in its execution. There is an actual bridge across the North Sea that is being built to link Britain with Belgium. It is almost complete when a murder sends Sedgewick to Yarmouth to investigate Edward Klein, the architect of the project. Where the two halves join in the centre he has constructed an arch of chthonic design. The finished construction is intended, not just as a bridge between countries, but between eldritch worlds. It is worth noting that Mina Saxena is initially accused of the murder that sets the events in train.
At first “The Shadow Under London” seems unconnected with the rest of the stories other than the narrator, Inspector Wilmarth who was the arresting officer in “The Bridge to Lemuria”. He is called in when his cousin is accused of the murder of a doctor working in the tunnels that will become a deep underground railway. The only connection with Sedgewick is that the nurse working there is his niece. Like several other stories in this collection the resolution involves eldritch gods.
“The Herald of the Ancients” and the title story, “The Gears of Madness”, are actually two parts of the same, longer story but written separately due to the original format. They bring together a number of characters from other stories, including Mina Saxena and Chioa Khan and rearrange the alliances seen earlier. It is a tale of gods and aliens.
While these stories belong to the steampunk genre, they also have a Lovecraftian influence as each contains monsters or monstrous beings masquerading as gods. Grant has obviously had a lot of fun creating this world and playing with history and historical characters. While not overtly humorous, the breakneck pace makes them highly enjoyable.
TELL NO LIES by John Grant
Story-tellers are good at lies. It is their stock in trade. A good story-teller is able to be convincing while being a master
of misdirection. The reader is sucked in to the power of the tale before realising that everything is not how they
expected it to be. In some cases this leads to a “groan effect” as a twist is revealed that, although unexpected is
provided without the clues that on looking back were present. A subtle bard leaves the reader with a feeling of
satisfaction. John Grant belongs to the latter school. Thus it is often difficult to discuss the themes and tropes within his
stories without the game away. From this selection of his work it is clear that he is a clever writer. These twelve stories,
from a period of ten years from 2004, provide a good showcase for his skill.
A common factor with many of these stories is the first person narrator. In “Q” the narrator is Cello, the Deputy Director of the CIA. She is in post because the president and her boss have been killed in a “terrorist” attack. That background is just there to put her in the right place for the rest of the story. Part of that is to examine a project her predecessor was involved with; the other part is philosophical concerning the nature of God. It is a lot to unpick in a short story and a reader might well be frustrated by all the things left unsaid.
There is scope here to build the background and make a longer story with more pace. As it stands, it is in stasis.
“Baited Breath” is a total contrast and full of humour. Again there is a first person narrator but the voice is very different. He and his wife, Natalie, discover that they have an infestation of dragons. These are small, mouse-sized dragons but they do breathe fire and they leave fluorescent droppings about the place. They have exactly the same problem as if they were mice – how to get rid of them.
Artists and poets use “found” objects in their work. A glimpse of the unusual can spark off ideas in a story-teller’s mind. “Two-Stroke Toilets” is an example that has generated a science fiction, time-slip story. When the narrator and his wife come to live in a small English village they discover that it has a gateway to the past. Although the narration is straightforward it generates;9 other issues, suggesting that the nature of time is more complex than most think.
Even Grant’s seemingly frivolous stories have a serious vein running through them which is not always apparent until the end is reached. Children have wild imaginations and the ability to invent imaginary situations which they enter in a way that becomes alien to most adults. “Commander Ginfalcio Beeswax And The Menace From Deneb” is one of these scenarios in which young Harold believes implicitly and the adults humour him – up to a point. A well- crafted story has a turning point at which all our preconceptions change. It may come at any point in the story and in the best ones, it sneaks up on us without us realising it. Grant does it here, and in many of the others included in this volume.
This volume ends with tongue-in-cheek humour. All the title character of “Benjy’s Birthday” birthday wants for his thirteenth, is a universe – the latest must-have for all the kids on the block.
Summing up, Grant likes to use the first person as he can play with the idea of the unreliable witness. It is easier to surprise the reader if the narrator is discovering things at the same time giving the stories a subtlety that using third person might not have. Many contain an element of the supernatural but the concepts are not too wild for the non- genre reader to appreciate. Not all the stories here will suit all tastes as in some Grant has a tendency to philosophise slowing down the pace with exposition. A volume worth dipping into.
HAWK & FISHER 2: FEAR AND LOATHING by Simon R. Green
Reprinted as a collection this is three stories about two cops Hawk and Fisher a husband and wife team that would give
Dirty Harry a good name. Written in classic “city cop” crime style the back drop is pure fantasy. While this is the second
collection of stories about Hawk and Fisher they are self-contained and it is not necessary to have read the first
collection. A good read for the beach or train this holiday.
9TAIL FOX by Jon Courtenay Grimwood
Sergeant Bobby Zha is a policeman in San Francisco. He is investigating the murder of a supposed burglar by a
young girl who couldn’t even hold the gun steady. He is also looking into the story of a dead baby told to him by a
crazy homeless man. Then he is shot dead. After a dream of a celestial fox Bobby wakes to find that he is now Bobby
Van Berg, just woken from a coma after more than a decade with a fortune in compensation. He acquires fake ID that
says he’s working for various government agencies and in very little time he is investigating his own murder. Is it
connected to the shooting or the dead baby or both? Why does his partner deny he was there?
This is really a detective thriller. There’s a central plot point that is definitely fantasy and the final revelation involves the sort of SF that you’d find in James Bond but, as a whole, this is a detective novel.
Grimwood is a pretty good detective/thriller writer. His plots are solid although sometimes convoluted with plotlines that just appear out of nowhere. As such, this is probably his best to date. On the other hand this is the least SF/Fantasy yet. If you haven’t read any of his books yet and you’re not worried about it being anything more than a good thriller, this is a good place to start.
And for the fans… there’s always the fox.
Forever Free by Joe HaIdeman
In this the long awaited finale to The Forever War and its sequel Forever Peace Joe Haldeman has once again stated
that he is in the forefront of Science Fiction writers.
The story continues with the veterans of the Human Tauran war living on a planet called MF (Middle Finger). A planet that seemed to have no geological history, and that was in a part of space that had been inhabited by an earlier race that the Taurans simply referred to as the Boloor “the lost”. The veterans of the Human Tauran war have stayed still due to the time differentials associated with warp ships, while the human race back home has evolved into a collective mind and simply used the term Man for themselves rather than Human for the non-collective mind “Vets” . Man is keeping an eye on the “Vets” as they are useful as a genetic backup if anything goes wrong with the genetic makeup of the evolved Man. A number of “Vets” decide that enough is enough and they are no longer willing to act as a genetic base line for the human race. They decide to steal a mothballed starship and head 40,000 light years into unknown space to create a new life for themselves and their families so that they will be away from Man and the Taurans. The consequences of their actions to themselves and the other races is something that 110 one could foresee but is revealed as the story unfolds.
Forever Free is an absorbing finale to the other two books and Joe Haldeman is a craftsman at his trade. The plot line unfolds with several twist and turns and the reader is drawn in to feeling a great deal of sympathy for the out of place veterans from the Human Tauran war. Their struggles to get out from under and not to be dominated by what they see, as the cold blooded evolution of the human animal strikes a chord with the reader. The first 200 pages of the book deals with an all to familiar problem of people returning to normal life after fighting in a major conflict and with the problems of the “Vets” just trying to be themselves when the society that they left has changed so dramatically. The only sour note in the whole story was the final conclusion that seemed to be a let down after such a good build up through the bulk of the book, but Forever Free will I'm sure be well received by those who love Joe Haldeman 's work.
SKIN TRADE by Laurell K Hamilton
SKIN TRADE is the latest (17th) of the Anita Blake Vampire Hunter novels. These are set in a world where vampires
and were-animals exist and are part of society.
That said there is a love/hate relationship with them being thought of as monsters by some ordinary humans.
Consequently they have second class legal and ‘human’ rights and can be executed for minor as well as major offences, as long as a warrant has been issued by a court.
Anita, currently a US Federal Marshal, hunts transgressors and executes warrants, so successfully that she is known as the Executioner by these supernatural species.
At the start of the series Anita is convinced that these creatures, especially vampires, are monsters but this viewpoint gradually changes and by the start of this book believes they, like humans, are mainly responsible citizens but also, like humans, some are monsters. The reason for this change of view lies in her, initially very much against her will, becoming involved with Jean-Claude the vampire Master of the City of St. Louis and becoming his human servant.
This has developed her psychic powers, physical strength and powers of recovery from harm, but has also cursed her with Jean-Claude’s ardeur which has turned her into a succubus needing to feed on sexual energy. Consequently she does not believe that she is human anymore and at one stage in SKIN TRADE she requests two vampire brothers (sent as body guards by Jean-Claude along with others to protect her and act as psychic food) to kill her if the ardeur overcomes her and she becomes evil.
SKIN TRADE opens with a bang when Anita receives a parcel containing the head of a Las Vegas cop. It has been sent by Vittorio, a very powerful vampire serial killer, who she first came across in the novel INCUBUS DREAMS. Only stopping to get her vampire hunting kit, she flies off to Las Vegas where she meets up with three other Federal Marshals who have featured in previous novels. There she is immediately embroiled in local police politics when the Las Vegas SWAT team psychically tests her ability to work with them and not put them in danger. In addition she is interrogated by detectives as if she is a suspect/accomplice of the killer. Fuelling this attitude are rumours about her morals and that she is a publicity hound. It does not help that she is petite and cleans up well. She wins around the SWAT team, but the local under-sheriff and detectives continue to treat her as a suspect.
The case is complicated by her discovery that one of Vittorio’s cohorts is a weretiger and is also married to Bibiana a were-tiger queen who has her own agenda regarding Anita. In addition, Anita has previously been infected by were-tiger lycanthropy which makes he sensitive to Bibiana’s powers. This also makes her vulnerable to Marmee Noir the Mother of All Vampires, a very ancient vampire imprisoned somewhere in Europe, who coverts her body as a means of resurrection and is prone to attack when Anita’s defences are weakened.
Overall the book is highly readable and full of action from start to finish. It is amazing how much can be crammed into a very short timeframe. As has been identified by other reviewers Anita is a complex and well developed character.
While it is strongly recommended that whole series be read in chronological order, this and the other novels are good stand alone reads.
MANHATTAN IN REVERSE by Peter F Hamilton
This new book brings together a number of stories published since Hamilton’s first collection A SECOND CHANCE AT
EDEN, although several earlier pieces, including the Novacon 27 Special “Softlight Sins” remain uncollected.
The first, and longest, story “Watching Trees Grow” is set in an alternate history where Rome rules the world, albeit in a
much more enlightened fashion than in Keith
Roberts’ PAVANE. Here we find electric cars on the streets by 1830, the Solar System explored by 1920 and
interstellar colonies established by the end of the 20th Century. The world is effectively run by a handful of great
families for whose members
rejuvenation brings near-immortality and the story follows the efforts of one
family member over two centuries to solve a murder and to bring the perpetrator
to a justice which is at the same time humane and devastating.
Two other long stories feature the detective Paula Myo who played a significant part in the Commonwealth Saga
comprised of PANDORA’S STAR and JUDAS UNCHAINED. In “The Demon Trap” she is instrumental in bringing an
unpleasant, though well-deserved, retribution to a multiple murderer, while in the title story “Manhattan In Reverse”,
written specifically for this collection, she becomes involved in a case in which familiar themes of First Contact and
Uplift both come into play.
The remaining four stories are all much shorter and explore a variety of issues, albeit in what at first sight appears to
be a relentlessly downbeat fashion. There are no happy endings and the protagonists do not always get the
conclusions they might think they deserve, although the reader may think differently.
To say that “Watching Trees Grow” is the stand-out story in this collection, worth the price of the book on its own, would
be less than fair to the rest of the collection. It comprises a varied and well-balanced selection of stories, showing both
severally and collectively that Hamilton is as accomplished a writer of shorter work as he is of his blockbuster novels
and series. Highly recommended.
PANDORA'S STAR / JUDAS UNCHAINED by Peter F Hamilton
PANDORA’S STAR is part one of The Commonwealth Saga a vast undertaking in two huge volumes, the second
being JUDAS UNCHAINED. The saga combines a lot of elements, not just from science fiction but from other genres
as well. It begins with the discovery of a revolutionary technological development. Just as the first manned mission
lands on Mars, Nigel Sheldon and Ozzie Isaacs build a prototype wormhole generator which takes them almost
instantaneously to Mars. Space travel becomes obsolete overnight as humankind spreads out from Earth stepping from
planet to planet via the manufactured wormholes. There is no need to control the population, surplus people can just
move on to another world. There is no need for war. If you don’t get on with your neighbour you can settle a new
planet along with those who think the same way as you do. You can live on one planet and commute to work, via a
wormhole, to a job light years away. Rejuvenation, too, becomes commonplace.
When your body begins to fail, the clock can be turned back and youth can be restored but with all the experience of age retained. Death holds no fear. With a regular memory download a new body can be cloned and the memories restored to it, should the old one become too damaged for revival.
This sounds like a recipe for Utopia. The problem is that people are still human. They still have the same ambitions, jealousies, obsessive behaviours they always have had. There is still interpersonal conflict. So, one element of the novel is a detective story. Paula Myo is the best detective in known space. She has always caught the perpetrator of any case she has handled, with one exception.
She has been obsessively pursuing Bradley Johansson and Adam Elvin for well over a century. They are terrorists who believe that an alien known as the Starflyer has infiltrated the highest echelons of government and is manipulating humankind for its own nefarious ends. Johansson, she believes, is paranoid. He is also cunning. She suspects that someone is tipping them off as they always seem to be able to slip past her.
It is also a political thriller as the Burnelli family vie for influence. There is adventure as Ozzie Isaacs sets off to explore the Silfen paths. The Silfen are an alien race which seem simple and peace loving. Electronic gadgets tend not to work on the worlds they occupy and there are rumours that they have ways of moving from planet to planet without the use of wormholes.
This is a society that has become dependent on wormholes. Then Dudley Bose, an astronomer at a backwater university makes an alarming discovery. It has been known for a long time that a pair of star systems has been surrounded by an impenetrable shield. At first it was thought that these were Dyson spheres so the systems have been generally known as the Dyson pair. Bose discovers that the shields around the systems appeared instantly and simultaneously. The question is, are these force fields? And have they been erected to keep something in, or something out? Because of the distance the only way to investigate is to build a space ship and visit. The expedition is commanded by Wilson Kime who was on the only manned space flight to Mars. What he and his crew discover is not good news.
This is a very complex plot, and by the end of the first volume, the strands are only just beginning to come together. Some, as yet, seem unconnected from the whole. Hamilton does not introduce random factors without a very good reason and in JUDAS UNCHAINED the final links are made. Although there is a tendency to lose sight of characters during the narrative, they are strongly enough portrayed to be quickly remembered. It becomes more of a problem if the books are read with a time lapse between them These are very large books and require a lot of investment of time to read them. On the plus side, reading Peter Hamilton is enjoyable.
THE TEMPORAL VOID by Peter F Hamilton
The best advice that can be given is, don’t start from here! This is the second of two enormous books, the first being
THE DREAMING VOID.
The universe is a vast and extraordinary place.
With development of wormhole technology, longevity and re-life processes, the human race has expanded well beyond the solar system, encountering strange celestial objects as well as aliens. Some of the characters have also been encountered in Hamilton’s previous duology, PANDORA’S STAR and JUDAS UNCHAINED. Although it is not necessary to have read these two volumes, to have does help to understand some of the references which otherwise go unexplained.
The focus of these novels, and a projected third, is the Void. It has been observed for centuries but so far it hasn’t revealed its exact nature. Inigo has been dreaming, in detail, about a young man called Edeard who lives on a planet where electronic technology is impossible, but all have psychic powers of some kind. The dreams pass to other people via the gaianet - linked to the enhancements that most people have to exchange information. The belief is that the dreams come from within the Void. A faction called Living Dream has grown up around the Dreamer and their leader, Ethan, plans to take the followers into the Void to find enlightenment. To help them, they need to find the Second Dreamer and will go to any lengths in their search. The Second Dreamer is Araminta who spends much of the novel trying to keep ahead of the invading snatch squad.
As with all of Hamilton’s novels, it is not as simple as this. In the midst of the mayhem, Paula Myo is trying to track down Troblum who says he has important information for him but who, in a firefight with the Cat (a resurrected opponent of Paula’s), disappears.
In many ways there are two novels here; the story of Edeard and his attempts to clear his city of criminals, and the problems the Commonwealth has in trying to stop Living Dream’s pilgrimage which, it is feared will cause the Void to expand and swallow the galaxy. And there is a hostile force of invading aliens on the way. Although some strands of the plot seem to be tied up by the end of this volume, there are a lot more loose ends hanging about for volume three.
DEAD IN THE FAMILY by Charlaine Harris
This is the tenth novel in the Sookie Stackhouse series and follows on directly from the events chronicled in the
previous book DEAD AND GONE. In DEAD IN THE FAMILY Sookie is still recovering from being tortured during the
Fairy War when her home arrangements are disrupted by her housemates leaving. No sooner have they left than she
succumbs to a request from her surviving fairy cousin who then moves in. As if that was not enough her lover’s vampire
sire arrives out of the blue with a major problem in tow.
Further complicating the situation is an unforeseen outcome of her granting a favour for the Shreveport werewolf pack and the local ramifications of the two natured (werewolves, etc) revealing their existence to the ‘normal’ human population.
On the positive side her brother Jason seems to be growing up at last and acting responsibly.
The book is a good, straightforward, enjoyable read covering the complicated life of a likable heroine whose helpful good nature, determination and occasional pragmatism sees her and those she loves through the difficulties depicted in this book. It certainly will not disappoint fans of the series and should encourage those who have not read any of the previous books to try them.
GRAVE SECRET by Charlaine Harris
Charlaine Harris has a big following and it is easy to see why. Her books are easy to read page turners told as a
straightforward, first person narrative. GRAVE SECRET continues the adventures of Harper Connelly and there is not a
vampire in sight. (Her other series featuring Sookie Stackhouse features vampires strongly).
This novel is basically a crime thriller, with added extras. At fifteen, Harper was struck by lightning. This has left her with the ability to find bodies. The dead are eager to tell her how they died. The body she cannot find is that of her sister, Cameron, who disappeared eight years previously. Harper is sure she is dead because she would not have left her sisters. At the time Cameron disappeared, they were living in a rundown trailer. Harpers mother and her new husband were both junkies, out of their skulls most of the time and incapable of looking after their children, especially the two babies.
At the start of GRAVE SECRET, Harper and her stepbrother, Tolliver Lang, are on their way to Dallas after a difficult job in North Carolina (see AN ICE COLD GRAVE). Although they have grown up together and work together - Tolliver is Harper’s manager - they are not related by blood and have become lovers, something their relatives cannot get their heads around. Their purpose for going to Dallas is two-fold. Harper has been asked to do a grave reading for a wealthy rancher family and to visit their younger sisters who have been adopted by Harper’s aunt, Iona.
During the reading in the graveyard, Harper not only discovers that the grandfather of the Joyce family died of an induced heart attack, but that his caregiver died in childbirth. Then three things happen: first, Tolliver’s father, recently released from jail, turns up wanting a reconciliation with his son and to see his daughters (something everyone concerned is sceptical of); then Tolliver is shot; the third thing is that an anonymous caller claims to have seen Cameron.
Harper has to try and cope with the things that bring back bad memories as mayhem escalates around her.
This is a light, enjoyable book that stands up well without having to read the others in the series, though you will probably want to afterwards.
THE STAINLESS STEEL RAT JOINS THE CIRCUS by Harry Harrison
The first Stainless Steel Rat story was published in 1957 and was a fresh and original tale featuring the eponymous
hero, also known as 'Slippery Jim’ DiGriz, a professional criminal who was forced to turn interstellar law enforcer to
escape the consequences of his misdeeds. It became a book, followed over the years by half a dozen more and now,
after a hiatus of about twelve years, here is another instalment in the saga - presumably the last, since it concludes
with Slippery Jim’s avowed intention to retire and concentrate on writing his memoirs (!). Before that he has taken on
and defeated a master criminal who begins by ostensibly employing to solve a series of mysterious robberies but turns
out to be a con artist intending to avail himself of the Rat’s talents and use him to perpetrate a monumental
I must confess to having been somewhat disappointed. Tastes have changed in thirty-odd years and SF has perhaps become more sophisticated (I certainly hope I have). Thirty years ago the stories had something new to say and Slippery Jim DiGriz was a worthy addition to the pantheon of great SF heroes. By contrast, this latest one seemed short on originality and lacking in excitement. Obviously the ending was never in doubt and on the way the hero’s smug cleverness became a trifle boring. Even the jokey style has lost its lightly amusing touch and become heavy- handed. I seized this book in eager remembrance of past glories, but living on past glories is not enough and without something new to say an ongoing series is in danger of becoming too formulaic.
That said, it is not all bad. Harry probably couldn’t write a really bad book if he tried and there is still plenty here to satisfy. Wait for the paperback though.
BLACK MAGIC SANCTION by Kim Harrison
This is the latest episode in the continuing saga of Rachel Morgan who is feisty, totally loyal to friends, honourable
and merciful to enemies…. and is a witch. As with the previous novels in the series, this book is full of fast-paced,
nonstop action from start to finish.
At the close of the previous book she was ‘shunned’ by the witch community for allegedly being a black witch and dealing with demons. In this story she is under attack by the coven of moral and ethical standards, the group who legalized her shunning (they also use ‘legal’ lethal white magic). This tale also chronicles her running battle with Trent Kalamack, a closet elf and mega rich businessman/ criminal/politician and the demon Algaliarept. An ex- boyfriend turned thief is also involved.
After a number of kidnap and arrest attempts the coven is successful and she is sentenced without trial to imprisonment in Alcatraz (a good prison for witches as it is surrounded by salt water which destroys spells).
Here, prisoners are drugged to prevent them attempting to cast spells with the more dangerous ones being lobotomized. Rachel is also threatened with genetic slavery as coven members covet the magic potential of her unborn children. Fortunately for her
she has very good friends to rescue her quickly.
As with all the previous books in this series BLACK MAGIC SANCTION is highly readable with well-defined and enjoyable characters and can be enjoyed if read out of sequence. That said, it would be better to read it in chronological order as this will provide useful background information and further flesh out all of the characters. I eagerly look forward to the next episode.
ANIMA by M John Harrison
Two novels, previously published five years apart, are here collected in one volume. They are described on the back
cover as ‘his two classic love stories’, but apart from this somewhat tenuous thematic link they share little or nothing of
incident, characters or even setting.
THE COURSE OF THE HEART purports to tell the story of three students who were led by an older man in some act – scientific experiment, secret ritual or arcane rite - that is never made clear what, which affects their future lives in unspecified ways. Two of them marry, then divorce, the woman dies of cancer while the man suffers a breakdown. Only the narrator seems able to keep his life in any sort of order, but he has forgotten where they all started from. One is left wondering what it has all been about.
SIGNS OF LIFE manages to be more accessible and is a better book. The firstperson narrator, Mick ‘China’ Rose, and a mate start a business dumping illegal medical waste. He meets and falls in love with Isobel and as their relationship flourishes so also does the company, becoming legitimate and successful. Then he loses Isobel to a business client who will help her to realise her childhood dreams of flight. The firm collapses in bankruptcy and Isobel returns but the renewal of their relationship cannot survive the changes in her and the book ends on an uncertain note with the best of China's life now behind him. He has lost Isobel, his mate and his business, but maybe he has found himself.
Both stories, but especially the first, are written in a curious, choppy style, flitting to-and-fro between various past and present narrative threads which sometimes makes it difficult to pin down the precise order of events or even to determine the time frame in which they are set. In THE COURSE OF THE HEART one encounters passages repeated almost word-for-word in different places, and I also felt I recognised bits taken from earlier short stories although I no longer have that book so I was unable to check it out. Harrison’s writing here is at its best in passages of, at times, almost lyrical description, but the narratives are not strong and both stories suffer from this – the first one more so.
Harrison is not exclusively a Science Fiction writer and in ANIMA he is about as far from SF as he gets. It is worth reading as a work of ‘Literature’, but the true SF aficionado will find it of limited interest.
INVASION by Eric L Harry
I must admit I ’d never heard of Eric L. Harry before, nor if I had would his previous “military epics” (ARC LIGHT and
PROTECT & DEFEND) have appealed to me. (The term “military epic” when describing an SF novel, perhaps unfairly,
always reminds me of the appalling David Drake series “Hammer’s Slammers” ) But as I frequently enjoy “alternate
history/world” stories I decided to give it a go - I’m glad I did, this is a rattling good yarn.
The increasing political and economic strength of China force the West to make a number of seemingly innocuous concessions, including the dismantling o f the West’s comprehensive Spy Satellite network. As the Chinese expand throughout South East Asia the West, naturally, turn a blind eye - the Chinese provide a welcome stabilising effect in these previously worrisome areas. The West continue their policy of defence cuts in this increasingly war free world.
It is only when China turns its attention to the Middle East and swiftly conquers the precious oil field that the West suddenly becomes concerned. But, reduced to stone age, ground level, intelligence gathering, the West finds that the Chinese have the advantage of total surprise. When China brutally conquers Israel and Tel Aviv is razed by nuclear power the EC mobilises.
It is now that the lack of reliable military intelligence proves decisive - when the massed naval forces of Europe are destroyed by the sudden appearance o f a totally unknown Chinese fleet. The EC swiftly capitulates and China is free to turn its attention to the US. Within weeks the continental US has been invaded and America finds herself fighting for survival.
It is a testament to the writing ability of Harry (a descendant of Mark Twain according to the cover blurb) that this unlikely scenario comes across as eminently believable in this novel. (It would be interesting to hear the views of someone who knows China quite well, such as Brian Aldiss, on the plausibility of the events depicted …) It takes a lot these days to get me cheering on the Yanks (sick as I am of Hollywood’s apparently concerted effort to re-write all recent history in a pro-American/anti-British manner - “special relationship” indeed!) but I did here. This is ideal holiday reading, perfect for long train journeys or on the beach - I may even check out his earlier works.
THE DOOR INTO SUMMER by Robert Heinlein
This is one of my favourite Heinlein books (along with The Puppet Masters).
Unlike Stranger in a Strange Land or Time Enough for Love, this is still quite readable. It’s a nicely constructed time-travel, wish-fulfilmerit novel, like Time Enough fo r Love, but without the icky quality of that book.
Dan Davis is one of Heinlein’s hero-engineers, and he’d certainly be my hero for inventing Flexible Frank, the perfect house-keeping machine. According to Heinlein all women want a slave to do the cleaning for them. I certainly do.
Jilted and defrauded of his business by Belle, his erstwhile fiancee, he investigates the possibility of the Long Sleep as a subtle revenge. Being a red blooded Heinlein sort of guy, though, he changes his mind and decides to fight for his rights. Belle has other ideas and forces him into the Long Sleep. He wakes thirty years later to find a number of his inventions in common use but with a mystery surrounding their ownership.
This is an unusually sunny book for Heinlein with little of the right-wing paranoia so common. The women are either low-down rats or splendid competent women with blind spots. And there’s a cat. Reading Heinlein I’m tempted to say, ' To hell with the allergies, I need a character like this in my life.’
This is a great summer feel-good novel. Give it a go. Yvonne Rowse
DUNE by Frank Herbert
There can be few fans who do not know of DUNE, which has been around now for some thirty-five years. The raison d
’etre of this latest edition is the addition of the dozen illustrations created by John Schoenherr for the original
magazine serialisation, illustrations which author Herbert is said to have preferred over all others. As to whether it is
now enhanced as a reading experience by their inclusion, I have reservations. Although artistically attractive, they are
impressionist rather than representational and do little to provide the reader with a believable visualisation of how
people and places looked (or will look!) in that faroff future world. For that one must look to the De Laurentiis/Lynch
movie of 1984 which, whatever its other faults, constituted what can only be described as a stunning visual
The story of DUNE is immense in scope, dealing as it does with the emergence of a Messiah to lead the human race to a new future, his existence the result of a deliberate, though covert, programme of selective breeding over many generations. His story is set thousands o f years from now against a complex background o f religious manoeuvring, political intrigue, commercial machinations, inter-family rivalry and planetary war. However it is not an easy book to read. It is incredibly detailed, with appendices and a glossary to explain what may not be immediately obvious, and the reader dare leave no sentence unremarked in case some seeming trivial fact or casual remark may assume later significance.
Nevertheless, anyone prepared to put in the effort to understand it fully will find it a rewarding experience. Although it might not quite justify the claim on the front cover that it is the greatest science fiction novel o f all time, it should certainly be on everybody’s list of the top ten.
However, this review must chiefly consider it in the form of this new illustrated edition. It is probably not worth buying it for the illustrations alone but, what I said earlier notwithstanding, it is adorned by Schoenherr’s paintings and if you have not already read it - and you should! - this version is the one to have.
PRELUDE TO DUNE: HOUSE ATREIDES by Brian Herbert & Kevin J Anderson
When Frank Herbert died in 1986 he had already started work on a seventh novel in his Dune series. Now Brian
Herbert, in collaboration with Kevin J. Anderson, has taken on the continuation of his father’s work, but instead of that
seventh book they have chosen to write a prequel trilogy beginning some forty years before that first epochal novel.
(There is a hint that the seventh book may be completed also at some later date.)
Brian Herbert has obviously immersed himself totally in the saga of Dune and this new volume dovetails perfectly with those already published. The original Dune gave a sense of historical background and from one point of view it is interesting to see where in this background the characters are coming from and how the alliances and rivalries that shaped events in that book came to be.
The earlier lives of several characters who become major players in Dune (Duke Leto, Baron Harkonnen, Liet Kynes, Duncan Idaho, Emperor Shaddam, etc.) are followed and doubtless subsequent volumes will fill in the gaps still remaining. However, it must never be forgotten that it is not Frank Herbert recounting these events and there is no guarantee that they are exactly what was in his subconscious over thirty-five years ago. One has to wonder whether it is right for another hand to take up the pen that he was forced to lay down, however high the motives with which it is done.
I have to say that neither Brian Herbert nor Kevin Anderson seems to be a writer of the calibre of the late Frank Herbert. The book is put together very well and the actual writing is competent and very readable, but the sheer depth which made Dune a milestone in SF, a ground-breaking novel which won both Hugo and Nebula awards, is not there. Nevertheless, despite the reservations I have expressed, it is an interesting and worthwhile addition to the Dune saga. Michael Jones
THE ROAD TO DUNE by Brian Herbert & Kevin J Anderson
The late, great Frank Herbert seems to have been one of those people who never throw away any piece of paper with
any form of words on it and when he died in 1986 he left an enormous archive of letters, notes, drafts, chapters,
outlines etc., much of it concerned with his DUNE novels. His son Brian has devoted himself to studying all this
material and has, as well as a biography of his father, produced two trilogies of prequel novels co-written with Kevin J.
Anderson. I have reviewed several of them in these pages and found myself less than overwhelmed, so much so that I
made a point of avoiding the last couple.
Now they have come up with this, which is for the most part more specifically based upon the material left behind by Frank. It divides fairly simply into four sections: starting from the back of the book, these are – Firstly (or lastly, I should perhaps say ) four of their own short stories. One of these is the first story they wrote together based on the DUNE saga; it is connected to the events in the original book and is quite a good tale. The remainder are connected to their own later novels and I found them to contain little of either interest or merit.
Secondly, a baker’s dozen of scenes and chapters written by Frank but omitted from the novel as finally published, together with a further four deleted from the first sequel DUNE MESSIAH. It is explained that these scenes were trimmed from DUNE for the original magazine publication to make it fit better into the editor’s requirements for the lengths of the instalments, but were never reinstated for the subsequent book publication. Presumably, Frank would have had the opportunity to do so but decided against it, and his decision must be accorded some significance. Indeed, one can sometimes see why he chose not to bother bringing them back. Some clearly do not fit and would have had to be extensively revised; nevertheless they are on the whole illuminating and helpful if read in conjunction with the original book(s). Here on their own, however, they are somewhat out-of-place.
Next, a series of letters and notes recounting the original conception of DUNE and the processes of getting it published, first as a serial in ANALOG and then, after many unsuccessful attempts, in book form. This part is perhaps of some interest to an SF historian, but the ordinary day-to-day reader (even an SF reader ) will probably find it less than fascinating.
Last, but not least, a full-length (220 pages) novel entitled SPICE PLANET put together from outlines and drafts left by Frank Herbert himself. I did wonder whether it was in fact the mythical ‘seventh DUNE novel’ which has previously been mentioned elsewhere, but this is not made clear and may not be the case.
What it is, is a preliminary version of DUNE, abandoned by the author while still far from complete. He then started all over again with a radically different concept. Reading it, I was constantly comparing it in my mind with the infinitely better real thing of which this is a pale shadow, looking for familiar characters and events and mentally correlating them with what ‘really’ happened. In comparison it seemed a trivial work, shorter and lacking the depth and subtlety of the final version, and not nearly so complex, engrossing and well-written.
All-in-all, this book stands in relation to the original novel like the bonus disc you get with the ‘Director’s Cut’ of a movie on DVD. There are the deleted scenes, the production notes, the ‘making of’ documentary and even the original release version. Nobody would want the bonus disc without the feature, many would not want it at all, and few would bother with it more than once – all of which comments I feel apply equally to THE ROAD TO DUNE. I hope I have explained enough to enable you to decide which category you fall into – I will only add that rather than a book to be enjoyed in its own right by a casual reader this is more one to be studied by a dedicated DUNE enthusiast who may find something worthwhile in it.
HORNS by Joe Hill
There are not many books that are exquisite in conception and execution. HORNS is a rare one.
A year after the rape and murder of his girlfriend Merrin, Ig Perrish spends the night drunk and doing unspeakable things. He wakes up to find that he has grown horns. He discovers that not only do people seem unaware of the horns but they confess all the wicked things they would like to do and ask him if it is okay to do a particular sinful thing. His current girlfriend tells him she wants to get fat so that he will leave her, then asks permission to eat a whole box of doughnuts. Looking for help, the receptionist at the hospital tells him all the things she would like to do to the mother of a screaming child, and asks his permission. He gives it and stands back to watch the mayhem.
He learns unpleasant truths from his family, the people he thought were supportive when Merrin was killed. Most of them think he did it. Then he discovers that skin contact with others transfers their darkest secrets to him. In this way he discovers what really happened on the night Merrin died. Then he wants revenge.
Superficially, this could be described as a horror-fantasy novel. It is also a very poignant, character-driven novel about the effects the death of the woman he loves can have on a man. Horns have different meanings in different cultures, so does the concept of the devil. Many of these are explored here. Just as life has many different facets, so does this novel. There is humour and betrayal, the joys of young love as well as a certain amount of grue. What it is not, is predictable.
There are unexpected twists in the structure of the plot as the truth is revealed.
Whatever you normally like reading, give HORNS a go. If nothing else, you will enjoy the sheer quality of the writing.
DRAGON HAVEN by Robin Hobb
The best of Robin Hobb’s fantasy novels are internally consistent: they have an internal logic that makes sense within
the parameters that she sets. There is magic but it is subtle, not some powerful force that can be wielded by a
practitioner of the dark arts. The magic contained here is possessed by dragons. These dragons are effectively sentient
aliens that can have a symbiotic relationship with humans. There is a sense, though, that the world belonged to
dragons before there were humans around. But that was a very, very long time ago.
There is a lot that humans do not know about their world, that they are only just beginning to discover: the life cycle of dragons for example. They hatch on islands and the juvenile state of the creature is a semi-aware sea serpent.
Then, travelling up the Rain Wild River, they make cocoons on particular beaches and emerge fully formed dragons. At least, that is what is supposed to happen.
In THE DRAGON KEEPER, the first book of this particular series, the last dragon, Tintaglia, has rounded up the last sea-serpents and led them to the cocooning grounds. Unfortunately, those that do emerge are deformed, unable to fly or care for themselves. The local people attempt to feed them but they are a burden on the small provincial town. A group of misfits has been detailed to look after the dragons on their way up river in search of the legendary city of Kelsingra, which some of the dragons remember from their ancestral memories.
When DRAGON HAVEN opens, they are well on their way and the tensions between the mixed group of travellers is already present. City-bred Sedric wants to gather some dragon parts and head back downriver to make his fortune and elope with Alise’s husband. Alise is falling in love with the river barge captain and is torn between her duty and her heart. Greft, one of the dragon keepers is trying to claim leadership of the party. Jess, a hunter is not above blackmail to achieve his ends.
The stresses are compounded when a surge in the river’s water sweeps all away. While most of the dragons manage to wedge themselves amongst the trees until the waters subside, dragons and keepers are separated or lost. For several characters, this is a turning point, discovering what they really want. As they travel onwards it becomes clear that not only have attitudes changed, but so have the dragons and their keepers, not just mentally but physically as well.
This is an excellent, fast-paced novel with characters that exist on many levels. It is not just an adventure in a fantasy world, but adds to the knowledge of this world that Hobb has visited many times before – in nine other novels. Pauline Morgan
THE DRAGON KEEPER by Robin Hobb
After an excursion, Robin Hobb has returned to the world in which she set the Farseer, Live Ships and Tawny Man
series. Although there are familiar elements, such as the live ships (which are constructed from wizardwood and have
sentience) and the dragon Tintaglia (who found a mate at the end of the Tawny Man trilogy) THE DRAGON KEEPER
is the start of a separate trilogy, making it unnecessary to read the other books first.
As part of her payment for defending the town against Chalcedian raiders, Tintaglia struck a bargain with the Traders of Bingtown. What had not previously been known was that dragon eggs hatched into sea serpents. These, when fully grown, should have made their way up the Rain Wild River to the cocooning grounds. Inside the cocoons, the serpents changed into dragons. The cocoons were the wizardwood that the liveships were constructed from. In making the ships, thousands of dragons were unknowingly destroyed. With Tintaglia’s help, the last sea serpents are rounded up and led to the cocooning grounds by Cassarick. However, they do not have enough time to develop properly and when they emerge they all have some degree of deformity. They need constant feeding.
Alise Kincarron once resigned herself to spinsterhood but when she is courted by Hest
Finbok, a rich eligible bachelor, she agrees to marry him. All her dreams of a romantic marriage die as he spends very little time with her. Instead, she devotes her time to studying dragons and the Elderlings that used to share their cities with the intelligent beasts. Finally, in despair over her neglect by her husband, she invokes a clause in the marriage contract to go upriver to see and talk to the dragons. She arrives just as they are being moved out, up-river in search of the mythical city of Kelsingra, a place of which the dragons have vague ancestral memories.
This novel is an excellent beginning for a trilogy that has the makings of a worthy companion set to the other novels set in this world. Already there are tensions and misunderstandings. The dragons are arrogant and their keepers hard pressed to keep up with them. Alise and Thymara, a Rain Wilds girl and one of the dragon keepers, are both beginning to shake off the shackles of their respective upbringings and develop the characters that have hitherto been suppressed. All the characters find themselves in a situation that brings out the best and the worst in each of them. The only downside is the obvious reason why Hest only wanted a show wife. Nevertheless, I look forward to reading volume two.
STARBORN (Worldmaker 1) by Lucy Hounsom
On the day Kyndra is set to be welcomed into adulthood, her village’s celebration is ruined when she accidentally
breaks the relic at the heart of the ceremony. When the same day a disastrous storm causes havoc, Kyndra is made the
scapegoat and only escapes with her life due to the magical intervention of two mysterious travellers. However, their
aid comes with a cost and reluctantly, Kyndra has to agree to leave the village with them.
The strangers wield powers drawn from the sun and the moon and come from a hidden citadel called Naris. They are investigating a magical phenomenon, the Breaking that is destroying places across the land. Believing Kyndra’s visions may be connected to the Breaking and that she has the potential to become another Sun or Moon wielder, they take her back to their hidden city. In a city divided into rival factions who want to either use or destroy her, Kyndra must struggle to access her latent power and to determine the truth behind the dangers facing her world. Epic fantasy can, to me at least, feel an overcrowded field and it can be difficult to produce something original which still pleases fans of the genre. This author does seem to have managed well with this tricky balancing act. In particular, the believability and depth of the characters is excellent. The main character, Kyndra shows a pleasing growth in maturity from someone being pulled along to someone who actively makes her own decisions. The other characters are also well-delineated and have their own issues which makes them more rounded and interesting.
The story builds well as Kyndra and the reader gradually reveal more about the history and politics of Naris. The climax reaches a satisfactory conclusion whilst still setting up future possibilities for a sequel. This book has been compared with Trudi Canavan’s Black Magician trilogy. Whilst fans of that should certainly find much to like, I think this book is superior and an impressive debut.
JOHANNES CABAL THE NECROMANCER by Jonathan L Howard
Jonathan L Howard’s debut novel is the first of what promises to be a successful series of black comedy fantasy novels.
The protagonist, necromancer and brilliant scientist Johannes Cabal, has made a Faustian pact with the devil but wishes his soul returned. His lack of soul has been impeding further progress in his scientific work and research. The Devil, delighted at the prospect of a new deal with Cabal that might provide him with sufficient amusement to alleviate his eternal boredom, agrees to a new deal; the return of Cabal’s soul in exchange for 100 others within a year. Gleefully the Devil throws an infernal travelling carnival and a ration of black magic into the pact to ‘help’ Cabal in meeting his end of the bargain. Cabal uses this black magic to create some unnatural and peculiar characters as the carnival’s attractions. Cabal also enlists his charismatic and crowd-charming vampire brother to assist in the promotion of the carnival to entice unsuspecting carnival-goers from which Cabal endeavours to recruit his quota of souls.
Cabal is not a hero. He is driven to obsession for necromancy, lacks morality and is an exceptional snob. There are one or two moments in the book where the reader begins to think that Cabal may be empathizing with another character, but these end in chillingly nefarious deeds and conduct. This not only reinforces the reader’s perception of Cabal, but rather satisfyingly ensures that any ‘he’ll-turn-good-by-the-end’ clichés are avoided. However, although occasionally alternating between liking and loathing him, the reader somehow ends up rooting for Cabal by the end of the book.
Howard makes clear that his inspiration for this novel is Ray Bradbury’s SOMETHING WICKED THIS WAY COMES, the early sixties fantasy horror set in a town visited by an evil carnival. Lovers of this cross-genre classic would no doubt find Howard’s comic response to the question ‘where would an evil carnival come from, anyway?’ a fun tale.
This is not laugh-out-loud comic fantasy akin to Pratchett’s Discworld series or Butcher’s Dresden Files. More fittingly it is witty, dry and somewhat clever. If there is a criticism it is that sometimes the comedy is too clever, or that the occasional scene seems to have been constructed purely to place a clever gag into the book.
Another criticism is that there is a large gap after the first third of the book. The carnival goes from having gained 3 souls in one chapter, to only having two more to collect in the next chapter with just a paragraph to summarise the best part of a year. This was a little disappointing, and when coupled with an ending that came a little too quickly, the reader could be easily forgiven for wishing that there had been another 100 pages or so to this book.
Despite any criticisms, the book is a swift, peculiar and entertaining read which is well resolved at the end. The reader is left with enough of an interest in the characters and the hint of a plot that will arc over subsequent novels to leave them looking forward to reading the next one. JOHANNES CABAL THE DETECTIVE will be released in July this year and I for one shall look forward to the next instalment of this most quirky and macabre of comedies.
SECRETS OF THE FIRE SEA by Stephen Hunt
Love it or loathe it, the term ‘steampunk’ now defines a category of science fiction. Anyone who was at the last
Eastercon would have seen the wonderful costumes worn at the Steampunk Ball on Sunday night and seen the
inventive accoutrements. Victorian SF such as that written by Verne would have been classed as steampunk as
exponents of the genre write with a level of technology roughly equivalent to mid-Victorian.
This is the fourth of Stephen Hunt’s novels set in a world where steam is the principal motive force and electricity is a wild, dangerous beast.
There are clues that once, millennia ago, there was a highly technological civilisation that tore itself apart. Very little evidence of it remains.
One familiar character plays a part in this novel: Commodore Jared Black.
He is captain of a u-boat hired to take passengers to the island of Jago in the Fire Sea: Ortin urs Ortin is the new ambassador from Pericur, a nation of bear-like sentients; Nandi Tibar-Wellking is a student going to Jago to consult the archives; Jethro Daunt is an ex-parson turned detective going to pay respects to the Archbishop of the Circlist church (they deny the existence of gods) and Boxiron is a steamman, a sentient humanoid being whose body runs on steam. They arrive at a crucial time. Trade with the island is declining because there are easier trade passages that involve not crossing the Fire Sea, the First Senator appears to be becoming unhinged and the Archbishop has been murdered. Caught up in these events are Hannah Conquest and Chalph urs Chalph. Hannah is the ward of the Archbishop, left behind when her parents were killed. It is their work in the archives that Nandi particularly wants to complete. Chalph is Hannah’s friend.
Both are shocked when Hannah is drafted to the turbine halls, a place where emanations from the machines cause deformations in the workers.
Jago is a disputed island. All the settlements have been at the fringes, near the warmth of the surrounding magma sea. The ursine Pericurians claim it is holy land while the humans claim it by right of occupation and have the defences to assert that.
It would be easy to pick holes in some of the concepts and to find familiar elements in the text but the overall effect is a good solid adventure in an unusual setting.
EUROPE AT MIDNIGHT by Dave Hutchinson
When a book has been well-received by readers and critics, there is always the temptation to produce a sequel, even if
the original intention was a stand-alone novel. In the best cases, there are enough intriguing ambiguities to form a
second volume. It doesn’t mean that the same characters will be present (though the readership may want them) but
the story will be set against the same background.
At the end of EUROPE IN AUTUMN, Hutchinson’s first novel, there were enough opportunities to create something new – some authors feel a need to produce a similar plot but this is not what Dave Hutchinson does. In EUROPE IN AUTUMN, the focus was on Rudi, an Estonian chef working in Poland. Across the continent, society has been breaking up into smaller and smaller countries and polities making travel inconvenient. Rudi is also a Coureur, moving information and/or people from one state to another. Rudi is not the focus of EUROPE AT MIDNIGHT.
This begins with an innocent seeming scenario on a university campus. One of the lecturers, who introduces himself as Rupert of Hentsau, is fishing when a woman paddles past in a kayak. Slowly, it becomes apparent that this is not an ordinary campus, but a huge, city-sized place and there is no way out. Some think that there must be an escape route but there is no evidence that anyone has ever escaped. Then the woman, Araminta, reveals that she knows a way out, because she has come from the outside. A number of things happen simultaneously. The Science Department plans a coup and Rupert heads out along the river to prove or not, Araminta’s claims.
This is a novel seem from two perspectives. Rupert’s is first person, but there is also a third person narrative from the point of view of Jim Baines, a detective who is sent to Nottingham to investigate a stabbing. Jim is attached to a special unit that has been looking for clues to the existence of the Community of which the Campus is a part. As Rupert recovers, he finds that Jim believes his story and that he can never go back.
Like most good novels, there are a number of tangled threads. The idea of the independent small states is well established but one in particular is of interest to the authorities. The Republic of Dresden-Neustadt built a very high wall around its polity and nothing goes in and out. Many are curious as to who lives there and what is going on. The Community decides it wants to negotiate joining the rest of Europe. It is a strange place that should not exist and seems to sit within the folds of space, concurrent with the land around it. There are only a few places where people can cross over and their co-ordinates are closely guarded. To add to the mixture is The Line which is a country in itself and runs across Europe.
This is a complex novel, building on the enigmas left at the end of EUROPE IN AUTUMN and providing more to be explored in the next novel. A thoroughly good read that deserved its shortlisting for the Arthur C. Clarke award.
EUROPE IN AUTUMN by Dave Hutchinson
Predicting future political trends is difficult. As Charles Stross has now found not everything turns out the way you want
it. Several of his novels will now have to be regarded as alternative histories. Not that Stross will be particularly worried
as there is a fine tradition in alternative histories. Extrapolating current trends into a relatively near future is an
interesting exercise. Currently, there seems to be a desire for ethnic groupings to desire autonomy. Whether or not this
is economically viable depends on the strengths of the group. Dave Hutchinson has taken this trend to extremes and
postulated a Europe divided into ever decreasing blocs which may or may not have free movement across borders.
EUROPE IN AUTUMN is set largely in Central Europe and centres around Rudi, an Estonian cook working in a Polish restaurant. It’s not an easy life but he’s reasonably content. Max, the owner, pays protection to keep in business. It’s an accepted part of the system in a Europe where the authorities think they have better things to do. Rudi is able to move more freely across borders than most Polish nationals and with less suspicion so he is asked to go to the small state of Hindenberg and bring back a message from Max’s cousin. This is the start of a new career. While still working at the restaurant he is trained as a Coureur. Using a carefully constructed set of aliases, Coureurs smuggle documents and people across the borders faster than going through diplomatic channels.
This is a novel that starts off well. The seediness of the characters, settings and plot structure is reminiscent of a realistic spy thriller – far more gritty than the Bond novels. These are people that most would not notice as any good spy ought to be. Rudi’s frustration at the tedium of his initial training is shot through with reality. The first third is well written, pacey and holds the attention, everything that a good thriller should be. These qualities don’t diminish but as Rudi gets deeper into the role that has been elected into, the plot becomes more episodic. The result is something that could easily be turned into a many-part TV series. It has the same quality. There is a cast of regular characters who have developing roles and face changing dilemmas. There is the mysterious Zone. This is an area on either side of a railway line that crosses Europe and which steadily becomes the focus of Rudi’s activities. This is the story arc which creeps into the episodes, unnoticed at first but heading towards the big denouement in the final episode. For this reason, it is a shame that Hutchinson has confined himself to a single novel. Some of the episodes feel as if they want to be expanded and made more complex. A trilogy would have been nice. A longer series would have made the readership sit up and take notice.
EUROPE IN WINTER by Dave Hutchinson
Dave Hutchinson is a writer capable of threading together a number of genres to make an unusual whole. This may be
the third book in the series but is sufficiently discrete for it to have won this year’s the BFSA Award for best novel.
Anyone who has read the first in the series will be familiar with Rudi, the Estonian chef who works in Poland and was recruited as a Coureur des Bois in EUROPE IN AUTUMN. He plays very little part in the second volume but is back here as a central character. EUROPE IN WINTER, however, starts with a bang – a very big bang. Running east to west across this Europe is a railway line. The Line is a country in its own right and to travel by train, a passenger has to become a citizen. For this reason, rather than stations there are consulates. (There is only one in Poland.) Someone has managed to blow up a train in the tunnel through the mountains of Eastern Europe, to the inconvenience of almost everyone.
This is a Europe that exhibits a number of other strangenesses. The Community is a whole country enfolded within the English landscape. It exists in parallel with the rest of Europe with only a selected number of places to pass from one to the other. It exists in the same way fairyland exists in some fantasy novels. The community, though, is in diplomatic discussions with the aim of joining the rest of Europe – except that knowing who to negotiate with is difficult as the continent has disintegrated in to many states and polities each with their own idea of government.
One of the states that became ‘of interest’ in EUROPE AT MIDNIGHT was the Republic of Dresden-Neustadt. No one knew what went on within the very high walls that surrounded it, and everyone was curious. The suggestion here is that it contains vast computing power that runs through various scenarios to predict the most likely. The question is whether that is the source of the dream Rudi has when he reprises a visit to the restaurant by a gang of Hungarians, followed by an impossible visit from his older self.
The spy-thriller element is strong throughout. Although Rudi doesn’t do much work for the Coureurs any more, he is drawn to a clandestine meeting with a man offering him information. He is not the only person who was offered the information so when he sees his contact being arrested, he steers the other person, Gwen, away from the area. When Rudi’s father dies, he is given a box of some of his father’s effects. The contents draw him into a mystery that started far in the past, and since someone seems to want him dead, Rudi’s stubborn nature makes him wish to unravel it.
This is a novel with a complex plot line which skilfully connects places and characters from both earlier novels and never heads in the direction expected. It is a book deserving of being read more than once in order to pick up all the nuances hidden within.
BY MIDNIGHT by Mia James
This is one of Gollancz’s Young Adult novels and the first of a supernatural series.
April Dunne is a sixteen-year-old uprooted from Edinburgh to a house opposite Highgate Cemetery because her father has a new job. She is sent to Ravenwood, a private school for high fliers. While most of the other sixth-form pupils seem either rich or geeky, she pals up with Caro who is, amongst other things, a conspiracy theorist, and Simon, Caro’s gay childhood friend.
While her father researches the Highgate vampire and April is becoming intrigued by Gabriel, a fellow pupil, two murders take place. One is of Alix Graves a pop star who lives nearby, the other April almost stumbles over on her way home. Then April’s father is murdered. Caro is convinced that the deaths are linked. She also becomes convinced that the school is being run by vampires.
Told from the perspective of a teenager, this is a fine portrayal of teenage angst, full of the usual arguments with parents, the on-off relationship with Gabriel, the urgings of her mother to make friends with Davina, daughter of one of the school’s richest patrons. Her loyalties are torn and she has not only her grief to contend with but also her mother’s decline. Then, just when she thinks things cannot get worse, she discovers that not only is Gabriel a vampire but she is a Fury. She can kill vampires – not with a stake but by kissing them. She is falling in love with a boy that she will kill if he kisses her.
Do these characters sound familiar? Imagine this as Buffy the Vampire Slayer with Highgate taking the place of Sunnydale. If you are a Buffy fan, you should enjoy this.
By the way, I forgot to mention the teacher who… never mind. Read the book and find out. Regardless of this, BY MIDNIGHT is a good example of teenage fiction that can also be appreciated by older readers.
PHOENICIA’S WORLDS by Ben Jeapes
Abingdon-based Ben Jeapes came to talk to the Brum Group in April
2003, and talked about his late lamented Big Engine small press. But he is also a popular YA (young adult) author of books such as THE
XENOCIDE MISSION (2002) and THE NEW WORLD ORDER (2004). Ben has now broken into the world of adult fiction – and an excellent debut it is too. Basically it is the story of two brothers (originally three but one, Felipe, makes an early departure – though he remains an important presence).
La Nueva Temporada is Earth’s first and so far only colony world.
It was chosen because it appeared to be earthlike – which it is, except that it proves to be in the grip of an Ice Age. Only a narrow strip of it is habitable by humans. It was reached by the only starship, Phoenicia powered by a ‘Matter Annihilation Drive’, and took forty years to make the trip, though the drive would only thrust for ten before shutting down, its crew and colonists in slow sleep. Yet Earth has a wormhole, through which people and objects can pass; but not objects as huge as Phoenicia. So the starship carried a wormhole terminus, which when opened allowed traffic back and forth daily. Since the bulk of the book depends upon it I don’t think I’m giving
too much away by saying that without warning the wormhole explodes, with disastrous results.
Most of the story centres around brother Alejandro – Alex – Mateo, and later his younger brother Joaquin –Quin. Their family is one of the leading – one might almost say ruling – classes on La Nueva Temporada, and they are hijos (‘hee-ho’s’) because they were the first to arrive on the planet. Alex wants only to stay and take an active part in the terraforming of his world until it begins to warm up
and humanity can expand across its surface. But the wormhole catastrophe puts an end to that, and he is forced to make the long, slow journey back to Earth in order to establish a new wormhole terminus. But when he gets there he finds that not everyone on Earth agrees with the plan to reopen it.
It is his much younger brother Quin, who hates La Nueva Temporada and everyone on it, who has to stay behind and watch his world collapse around him; only to become its ultimate saviour. Quin was
born just as the wormhole collapsed, so has never known his world as it was or should be. We learn about his life in a series of jumps, from a few years to decades, and his childhood and teen years are very well handled, shaping him as a future adult. So are the way that society and governments evolve on the two worlds; yet Jeapes doesn’t go into long passages of exposition or explanation, allowing the story to evolve at its own pace.
Likewise the science: we know that the wormholes take advantage of
quantum physics, but they have just become an accepted part of this future history. The story ends in a way that makes it clear there is plenty of room for a sequel. The characters are real and you care about them, and the worlds are believable too. This is one of the best hard SF novels I have read in a long time, and it is refreshing to find a ‘new’ author who can handle the subject so capably. In my book – and in his! – Jeapes is well able to join the ranks of Hamilton, Robinson and Reynolds. I look forward to his future output (no pun intended). Highly recommended.
As an artist I cannot resist a mention of the cover, which on the paperback is by Dominic Harman. For once it is a good old-fashioned
illustrative cover; indeed, those sharp, pointy mountains would be at home on a cover from the fifties! It shows signs of having been painted very quickly, yet it serves its purpose in attracting the eye. Which is what a cover is supposed to be all about, and other publishers would do well to remember this.
BAND OF GYPSYS by Gwyneth Jones
This is the fourth volume in the science fiction series following the leaders of the Counter-Cultural Revolution. After
the collapse of the internet and the isolation of Britain by the rest of the world due to a virulent computer virus, the
leaders of the Rock and Roll Reich emerged from the musicians at the Reading Festival. BOLD AS LOVE saw the rise
of the Triumvirate – Ax Preston, Sage Pender and Fiorinda Slater. CASTLES MADE OF SAND (Book 2) saw Ax a
hostage of drug dealers, Fiorinda held as a figurehead-of-state and a prisoner by her father, as Sage pursuing a higher
Zen state. By the untangling at the end, the three had accepted their three-way sexual partnership. Abandoning the
trauma of the events in Europe, MIDNIGHT LAMP saw them escaping to America.
Here, there is an attempt to harness psychic magic into a weapon. The result is the rendering of fossil fuels unusable as a power source At the start of BAND OF GYPSYS, the Triumvirate are found in Paris, but quickly return to Britain as the visible head of state. There are, however, conspiracies and political manoeuvring just out of sight. These people want the three of them on show, to keep the populace quiet, but contained.
The members of the Triumvirate are likeable characters and their problems are dealt with in a highly plausible way. This volume, however does not have the same zing as the previous three and it only really begins to wake up towards the end. Just as many second volumes of trilogies have the feeling of filling in between the setting up of the scenario in volume one, and the dénouement in volume three, this too, feels as if it is the linking volume before all hell is let loose in the next book. It is not bad, or badly written, it merely gives the impression of a stepping stone. There are more exciting things waiting on the other side of the river.
DARK TERRORS 4 edited by Stephen Jones and David Sutton
This year's paperback is noticeably less horrific and more literary in tone. Not that this is a flaw; most of the stories are
clever, highly original and very entertaining.
Picking a favourite is difficult from such a glittering array, but I think that Poppy Z.Brite's "Entertaining Mr Orton" is
going to stay with me the longest; it's a tour de force of gay sex, beautifully researched.
Moving from sex to alcoholism, Joel Lane's "The Country of Glass" is one o f the best of his stories, a strong and
emotional piece about a drinker's quest for his own holy grail, and set in Birmingham (particularly in Moseley).
Ramsey Campbell is as good as ever in "Never to be Heard", in which a boys' choir give the first ever performance of a
supposedly religious oratorio. David J.Schow provides an amazingly composite view of the Jack the Ripper murders in
"The Incredible True Facts in the Case". Conrad Williams writes about ghosts and suicides in the underground system
of a city slightly like London, while Michael Marshall Smith shows a frenetic view of New Orleans.
If there is real horror here at all, it's to be found in "The Wedding Present" by Neil Gaiman (the present in question is
just a description of the wedding and the marriage, but it changes) and in "Family History" by Stephen Baxter—yes,
the SF writer, with his first horror tale
DARK TERRORS 5 edited by Stephen Jones and David Sutton
This is a bumper-sized book - 500 pages and 31 new stories. There aren’t many horror anthologies in the UK (heck,
there aren’t many anthologies), especially ones that present such a wealth of previously unpublished tales. For the
horror fan, this series is invaluable. For someone on the outside, this volume is an ideal introduction to the horror field
- to the literate horror field. I mean, this is feel the width and feel the quality territory. Meet the authors: Chaz
Brenchley, Eric Brown, Ramsey Campbell, Graham Masterton, Kim Newman, Lisa Tuttle, Michael Marshall Smith,
Brian Stableford, Peter Straub … and the others.
Campbell’s story is a bitter-sweet piece, about an author aspiring to past success in a world were publishers leave a sour emptiness, and where the final outcome is street poetry - o f a type. Newman writes scathingly of “victim” television, as I’ve heard it called: Big Brother. Big bollocks. Birmingham’s Joel Lane’s story remembers the carefree days of the university student - only they weren’t quite so happy in all cases, where one can be dry in an ocean of emotion and romance. In Nicholas Royle’s tale, we spy a ghost, miserable from its previous life, imbued with sadness and tragedy. And perhaps the longest story, more a novella by David Case, is a wonderful yarn of mad scientists and cannibalistic zombies, melded into a refreshing 50s-style science fiction. C’mon', you don’t expect me to comment on all 31 stories, do you?
The book also sports a classy illustration. The last thing the book looks like is a traditional slash 'n ’ dice horror fest. And of course it isn’t. It is a marvellous taste of top-notch horror fiction, an appetiser and main course in one volume (although I wouldn’t say “no” to Dark Terrors 6). This is a very large-format paperback and is cursed by cracking-spine syndrome, no matter how carefully you read it. If you can afford the seventeen pounds, buy the hardcover - you won’t be disappointed.
INDIGO by Graham Joyce
As you would expect from Graham Joyce this is a riveting tale of suspense, with superbly drawn characters and a
wonderful all-pervading sense of menace.
Jack Chambers’ father deserted his mother and himself when he was five. Now, as executor of his father’s will, he must make arrangements to publish a strange book on his father’s search for Indigo, the colour that doesn’t really exist. (Well have you seen it? Oh yeah, describe it, point to it…)
Jack’s beautiful half-sister Louise and a mysterious, but alluring woman in Rome who knew his father, both have their part to play in the puzzle. As Jack uncovers the secrets and lies that dominated his estranged father’s life, he realises that the revelations could put his own life in danger.
This is a superb novel, riveting from the first page. There’s a wonderful (very short) review that I read of this book which summed it up: "It opens your eyes not in the usual way of saying that I mean it actually makes you look at things in a new way, like the world has been rinsed for you ” (lta reader from Glasgow” on amazon.co.uk). Yeah, that’s it - after you’ve read Indigo see if you can ever put a pair of sunglasses on again without thinking of it!
The only reason I give it four rather than five stars is that it suffers from Joyce’s usual problem - a weak ending. But please don’t let that put you off! This ending is weak only in comparison with the strength of the rest of the story!
THE LIMITS OF ENCHANTMENT by Graham Joyce
Graham Joyce has always written on the edges of fantasy. His apparently straightforward style is accessible to readers
of mainstream fiction as all the quirky bits can be passed off as psychological aberrations. Or can they?
Fern, the narrator, is a young woman living in rural Leicestershire in the 1960s. She has grown up in her adoptive mother's cottage, an old farm labourer's house which still has no gas, electricity or running water. The plumbing is a shed in the garden and a hand pump provides water. It could easily have been the setting for a tale in any rural part of the British Isles in the past five hundred years except that Fern owns a transistor radio and listens to pop music as she hangs out the washing.
Mammy is still a respected wise woman. Although the National Health Service is available, many of the local people call in Mammy to attend childbirth, visit for advice on unwanted pregnancies and to bake love into a wedding cake. Mammy has taught Fern some of her skills but there is a sense that she is holding some things back.
Fern, she says, is not ready. Fern is caught between the old ways and the new. She is aware that regulations will stop her continuing Mammy's line of work, but at the start of the novel, these things do not concern her. It is only when Mammy is taken into hospital that her problems start. Fern is forced to consider the idea that Mammy will not be around for ever. Then the estate they rent the cottage from demands all the arrears of rent and she is faced with eviction. She has no way of raising or earning the money. To add to her woes, her enemies attempt to have her sectioned as crazy so that she can be totally disposed of.
For the characters in THE LIMITS OF ENCHANTMENT, 1966 is a time of change and they are caught up within a greater change. Society, its structure, beliefs and expectations are in flux and the survivors are the ones that are prepared to compromise. Mammy, illiterate but knowledgeable about the old ways represents a past whose purpose has been replaced by the young, vibrant technological age. Science and legislation is not on her side. Fern is poised on a stepping stone in the middle of the fast flowing river of progress. A misstep and she could be swept away.
Once again, Graham Joyce has produced a book that will delight on a number of levels.
FOURSIGHT by Graham Joyce, James Lovegrove, Kim Newman and Michael Marshall Smith.
Now this book didn’t even make it to the reviewing table. Nope. I snatched it out of the envelope and marked it down
for mine, all mine. I buy any book I come across with a Michael Marshall Smith story in it, hence owning all four Dark
Terrors books though I don’t like horror. This had the additional attraction of a Graham Joyce story. I hadn’t read
James Lovegrove or Kim Newman before but I will now.
So here is dark fantasy with depth, flavour, humanity. Hurray. I wrote some time ago that I didn’t like dark fantasy but it seems I was wrong, I just didn’t like that particular novel, because I like this book very much indeed.
Graham Joyce’s story, 'Leningrad Nights’ is an ugly story told with great beauty. It’s the fight for survival of Leo, young and abandoned in the nazi’s nine hundred days siege of Leningrad. Surrounded by death and starvation, transported by his grandfather’s opium tea, Leo survives by sordid means and with the help o f a frozen grandfather, a whore and her baby and various parts o f himself. This is a very dark story indeed and yet, illuminated.
James Lovegrove’s 'How the Other Half Lives’ is very much a modern fairy tale with the princess in the tower replaced by a prince in the cellar.
The idea of power being bought by subjection and sacrifice of an innocent victim is not a new one but this has an up-to-date feel to it whilst retaining all the strength of the archetype.
Kim Newman’s ‘Andy Warhol’s Dracula’ is an alternative reality story where vampires are undeniably real. Johnny Pop is new into America from Romania. Finding his feet, making a place for himself, he is drawn into Andy Warhol’s circle. This is a fascinating story, so woven into ‘real life’ that I was hard pressed to know what was real, what invention. The idea of vampires selling their blood as a drug filled me with admiration.
A lovely decadent story.
Michael Marshall Smith’s ‘The Vaccinators’ tells of Eddie who looks back with longing for the days when he could cut a deal with Columbian kidnappers, make some easy money, save a life and know the deal would be honoured. The ‘people’ he’s dealing with now are much less reliable.
As always, Smith is witty and amusing whilst being at the same time clever and disturbing.
This is a book well worth buying, even in hardback. I very much look forward to Peter Crowther’s next volume of four SF novellas.
UNHOLY GHOSTS by Stacia Kane
This is the first book in the Downside Ghosts series and is set 27 years after the 1997 Haunted Week disaster in which
the spirits/ghosts of the dead arose and slaughtered two thirds of humanity. Neither the established religions nor the
governments were able to control the ghosts and so they fell. Mankind was rescued by a little known sect, ‘The Church
of Real Truth’, which by the use of magic was able to banish the ghosts to the underground ‘City of the Dead’ also
known as the ‘City of Eternity’. So confident is the Church of its ability of controlling the ghosts that it pays
compensation to any household that becomes haunted. This, of course, provides an irresistible opportunity for fraud in
an impoverished world. To counter this, a corps of ‘Debunkers’ are employed; if necessary they perform exorcisms.
Chess Putnam is a ‘Churchwitch’ employed as a Debunker. However, she is hiding a secret from the Church as she is a drug addict and owes the local drug lord, Bump, a lot of money. He wants the debt cleared and forces her to investigate the haunting of an old airport he wants to use and either identify the mundane cause of his problem or exorcise the ghosts.
Investigation reveals black magic, human sacrifice and puts both her personally and the Church in great danger. To complicate matters she starts to feel a strong attraction to Bump’s strong-arm enforcer and also becomes involved with one of Bump’s rival drug lords.
UNHOLY GHOSTS is extremely well written introducing the reader to a likeable if damaged heroine trying to survive in an impoverished and dangerous world. The support characters are well defined and the action is non-stop from start to finish, exciting but none of it gross or explicit.
This is a really enjoyable book and I look forward to reading the other books in the series, UNHOLY MAGIC and CITY OF GHOSTS which are to be published in July and August 2010 respectively.
THE LAST LIGHT OF THE SUN by Guy Gavriel Kay
Kay introduced us to his fantasy alternative history in SAILING TO SARANTIUM and followed it up in LORD OF
EMPERORS. This is a world that has the same geography as ours but has two moons (one of them blue). The history
of the planet has followed a similar path with the Rhodian Empire being the equivalent of our Roman one. Sarantium
is synonymous with Byzantium with all its splendour. These two books were magnificently conceived and written,
portraying a divided empire heading towards its demise as seen through the eyes of a mosaicist.
THE LAST LIGHT OF THE SUN is set about four hundred years later in what we would have regarded as the Dark Ages. The setting is effectively Britain of that period, but here called Anglcyn. To the west lies Cyngael. To the north and east lie the lands of the Erlings, many of whom are blood-thirsty raiders. The country of Erlond to the west also gets a mention. The action begins in Cyngael when Ivarr Ragnarson leads a raid on the farmstead of Brynn ap Hywell, a ‘clan chief’ who killed his grandfather twenty five years previously. The attackers are driven off but not before one, Thorkel Einarson, is captured but who saves Brynn’s wife from Ivarr’s sneaky treachery. Thorkel had been on the raid with Ivarr’s grandfather that gained him the sword that Ivarr wanted to retrieve from Brynn. This sword is the focus of all the events in the novel and is directly and indirectly responsible for the fates of the principle characters.
Ivarr is a bit of a stereotypical villain. He is deformed, scheming, manipulative and thoroughly unprincipled. When the direct attack of Brynnfel fails he hires the Jormsvik mercenaries (including Thorkel’s son Bern), to attack Aeldred’s lands, telling them it will be easy as Aeldred will not be at home and Esferth can be easily looted. He knows they will fail, but his plan is to force them to sail further west and attack Brynnfel, as the Erlings would not be able to honourably return home after a resounding defeat. Fortunately, not everything goes his way.
Kay is a brilliant story-teller but this is not up to his usual standard. It could have done with some careful editing. Facts about the characters and their backgrounds are repeated too often, often close together suggesting that he has not been given the time to check through the narrative and cut out the extraneous information. In places, incidental characters are introduced because in real life they would be there. Surely it is not necessary to give an account of how a chance encounter affected the rest of their lives? Kay has missed the opportunity to invoke the magic and the differences of his world to make this more than just another Dark Ages fantasy novel.
UNDER HEAVEN by Guy Gavriel Kay
Guy Gavriel Kay is a man who likes to play with history. His novel SAILING TO SARANTIUM was an alternative world
narrative based on the Late Roman Empire; UNDER HEAVEN travels east down the Silk Road to the China of the
This was a highly civilised and mannered society. Everyone knew their place and to rise in society it was necessary to pass examinations. Not only was it necessary for even the humblest to be able to read and write but it was also important to know history and to write poetry
One young man, Shen Tai, is prevented from taking his exams by the death of his father, General Shen Gao. According to custom, the family is expected to withdraw from society for a period of two and a half years. The only exceptions are for those with military rank. Tai decides to spend his period of mourning on the plains of Kuala Nor, the site of fierce battles between his people, the Kitai, and the Tagur. He spends two years alone, burying the bones of the dead.
Lives can change on a whim. When the Kitan princess, who was sent to Tagur as a peace bride, hears of Tai’s efforts, she gifts him with two hundred and fifty Sardian horses. These are the most sought after horses in the whole of Kitai making Tai immediately the target for assassins. Unfortunately, an assassin is already on the way, sent by Wen Zhou, the new first minister, but for an entirely different reason. Tai has to negotiate through the minefield of manners and political intrigue. A casual gift has already changed his life; it could change the fate of his nation as well.
This is a book that starts with a strong image and unfolds in a mannered way. It is never short of interest, the life in ancient China being painted with deft strokes and the beauty of fine poetry.
TWELVE by Jasper Kent
TWELVE is Jasper Kent’s first published novel. Researching Jasper Kent’s past reveals he has turned his hand to a
variety of callings, having graduated from Cambridge in Natural Sciences: he has worked as a software developer and
has composed a number of musicals; clearly he has a rounded talent. However, I hope that his efforts in these other
areas are less pedestrian than his authorship.
I realise that we get a lot of variety in the books forwarded to the BSFG for review; nonetheless I did find this one bit of a surprise. It is an historical horror; a vampire novel set against the failed Napoleonic invasion of Russia in 1812.
The plot, told from the first person view of a Russian army officer, concerns a group of Russian special operatives pitting themselves to stop Napoleon’s advance. When a group of mysterious mercenaries offer their seemingly implausibly competent services, the officers are quick to take them up. The secret behind the mercenaries’ abilities (they are all vampires) soon causes the protagonist to convert from fighting the French to fighting the supernatural threat.
Given the author’s academic background I anticipated that I might learn something of the period from the novel. Unfortunately it felt very light on period detail to me; on reflection, the story might have been told against any military campaign, and aside from place names the book gives no insight into period specific life or motivations. I did find the specific main characters of the Russian officers, the protagonist’s love interest, and the main antagonist to be quite vibrant. However, as this numbers just 5 characters in total, I would certainly hope that the author would give them the effort necessary to make them come alive a little.
The writing itself is very neutral; reasonably easy to read, but lacking in character. The large page count slipped by quite easily, possibly as the font is quite large (enhancing readability) and I suspect that the text could have fitted easily into a smaller volume.
The horror content did not seem to scare me at any point. Maybe this is more me than the book (I cannot recall a time when I was scared reading a horror novel). Certainly it contains gore, as a vampire tale would seem to require, and it is quite creative in the gore’s deployment. Luckily this aspect is used in a sparing manner, which gives it the greatest impact; I have read other volumes that liberally waded through blood, and that approach loses its character very quickly.
The action sequences are written snappily, which does help to produce a level of excitement, and, as with the horror, the action is well placed and never overused. These evident skills of authorship, in conjunction with the overall slight character, makes this book seem rather workman-like: competent, but hardly inspired.
I note that the website ‘Fantasy Book Review’ rates this book highly (currently 8.5 out of 10). I can only assume that this is a damning statement about the field of historical horror, which must be dire indeed if a work as pedestrian as this can claim great praise.
FLOWERS FOR ALGERNON by Daniel Keyes
I have often heard of this book, ever since I was at school, but I have never had the opportunity to read it until now. I
was expecting a difficult read but I was very pleasantly surprised, in fact I found it extremely difficult to put the book
The book is in the form of a diary kept by Charlie Gordon, a mentally handicapped man, who has agreed to take part in an experiment that will increase his IQ. Algernon, of the title, is a mouse who underwent the experiment before Charlie, whose intelligence has increased immensely.
As the diary progresses you can see Charlie’s intelligence increasing and very soon he loses his job as a floor cleaner at the bakery and eventually surpasses even the scientists’ intelligence. He writes of the cruelties of the people around him as he becomes aware of what and why they do things to him and eventually he becomes aware of the inadequacies of the scientists treating him. The story told in the diary covers a period o f time of about nine months, in which time the story goes full circle. At the beginning Charlie is willing to do the experiment even if it will only make him clever for a short period of time. However, at the end, his loss of intelligence is felt a lot more as he desperately seeks a cure for himself and Algernon. Also, he desperately searches for friendship, love and respect from other people. Only on the way up and on the way back down again does his intelligence measure the same as any of his friends and as he surpasses them they become scared of him. It seems to him like the greatest gift to be given intelligence and yet the cruellest torture to lose it again.
I found this book to be one of the most gripping books I have read in a long time. I loved it and would heartily recommend it to anyone who wants to read a master’s work.
THE WALKING DEAD: RISE OF THE GOVERNOR by Robert Kirkman & Jay Bonansinga
It is Friday 21st October. Not for a long time has there been such anticipation for a second season of a genre
programme. The Walking Dead: Season Two premiered on FX
tonight and what a start (yes, this is a book review. Stay with me...). Because those clever producer chaps decided to
cash in on the network premiere by releasing a tie-in book on the same date.
The episode delivered on all counts, drama, gore tension and zombie goodness.
What a shame that RISE OF THE GOVERNOR let the side down.
Touted as a standalone trilogy, this novel features the journey of widower Philip Blake, daughter Penny, his brother
Brian and a couple of hard-as-nails old school friends as they try to reach the CDC in Atlanta. It starts three days into
the zombie apocalypse and is written, rather distractingly, in third person present tense. The point of view is
predominantly Brian, with a dash of Philip. However the whole technique means that the book lacks in emotion where
the reader should obviously feel something.
There is no denying the scenes of gore and the vista of despair that is the broken city of Atlanta is stunningly bleak,
and the story itself is sound, but there is something missing from this novel. It’s called ‘feeling’. It is an unrelentingly
grim piece of fiction. If that’s what you like, then great - if it isn’t, watch the series or read the comics instead.