GOD OF CLOCKS by Alan Campbell
GOD OF CLOCKS is Alan Campbell’s final book in The Deepgate Codex series following SCAR NIGHT and IRON
ANGEL, reviewed by myself in the Brum Group News (issues 457 and 458 respectively).
SCAR NIGHT described a gothic horror setting which played host to a fantasy tale. IRON ANGEL widened Campbell’s fantasy world and showcased his ability to craft interesting characters with so much twist that there may be little left of anything else left. Through the first two volumes I found the author to be capable of inventive ideas and sometimes gripping action, but also often bogged down in over emphasised description.
This third book is much closer to the second than the first; indeed it feels as if they might have been written back to back. Rather than more wild creation, the vistas opened up in the second volume are here developed further. So, too, are the characters that were introduced in IRON ANGEL, all of whom gain greater depth here, making them rather more interesting. The story carries directly on where IRON ANGEL left off (the latter having been something of a cliff- hanger).
I think it is notable that the invention in this final volume is, perhaps a little less wild than in the previous volumes, but it is also seems considerably better conceived. One or two of the concepts in GOD OF CLOCKS are actually thought provoking (!) and satisfyingly complex. This is helped by this volume, being the final, providing all the answers and finally making sense (of sorts) of some of the more improbable seeming concepts introduced earlier.
Overall I feel that Campbell improves his writing throughout the trilogy; the third book feels tighter, with the description better balanced by the action (for anyone who missed my previous reviews I felt that the first book was so steeped in gothic horror imagery that the description overshadowed everything else, leading to an often rather turgid read).
GOD OF CLOCKS inherits its storyline directly from IRON ANGEL, and so does not meander like the former book. The plot winds pleasingly through battles in hell, personal journeys and an interesting quest through time to a reasonably satisfying conclusion. And the final question has to be: can I recommend the whole series? Well, I consider that the notably atmospheric setting and the highly curious characters will probably make it fairly memorable in comparison with many other fantasy `epics’, so I give this a tentative recommendation. Just be certain of what you are getting into – if you laugh in the face of high page counts, and fancy a trilogy steeped in blood and souls, this is quite possibly a pleasant diversion for you. Otherwise, I must suggest staying away…
P.S. I must note a particular personal criticism; if you are anything like me, you will expect that after some 1400 pages I expect a chapter or two at the end to show how the characters recover or otherwise live on after the grand climax; a 2 page epilogue following the very pages that resolve it all simply will not do to provide closure!
IRON ANGEL by Alan Campbell
IRON ANGEL (also known as PENNY DEVIL) is Alan Campbell’s second book, being the second volume in The
Deepgate Codex series. IRON ANGEL follows SCAR NIGHT, reviewed by myself in the Oct 2009 Brum Group News
(issue 457). The recently published GOD OF CLOCKS completes the trilogy.
SCAR NIGHT described a gothic horror setting which played host to a fantasy tale. It was quite inventive, but seemed somehow limited in the scope it was willing to portray. With the second volume Campbell opens up the vistas on his world, and this volume is all the better for it. Giving the reader a view of a much wider world lends the book a more credible feel, although it does dilute the focussed Gothicism in the first volume.
My criticisms of the earlier book’s writing seem to hold true for this sequel, but reading more of Campbell’s text has given me a deeper insight into the same. In summary I felt the first book showed some promise, especially if the reader is after fantasy with gothic horror trappings, but that somehow not enough content seemed to fill up the 550 pages and I could not see where all the words went! Well, now I have figured it out – Campbell spends some time re- iterating his descriptions, presumably to hammer home the effect, but I started to find myself wishing I didn’t have to read the fourth or fifth description of a thing just to get on with the action.
At the beginning of the book the characters from SCAR NIGHT seem to be simply trying to survive, seeming to have little to do, and as such the story seems to meander without decisively going anywhere. However, in amongst all this I did find that Campbell has introduced an interesting selection of new characters, expanding on and deepening some of the ideas in the series. This aspect of the book showcased the author’s ability to craft interesting concept- characters who are almost thought-experiments in their divorcement from humanity.
After about the half-way mark the story seems to come together, and the book gains a measure of urgency, and even became quite exciting at points – and I did find myself getting that old ‘can’t put it down’ feeling, if only for a few chapters. This gives me hope – I am sure Campbell can, at least, be a dynamic writer, if he tightens the description up a bit.
IRON ANGEL is a worthy sequel to Scar Night, as far as that goes; and if you enjoyed the first you will probably enjoy Iron Angel more so; I feel Campbell has improved with the second volume, but only incrementally. Unfortunately the good stuff is rather swamped by the over-emphasised description, and therefore I cannot recommend IRON ANGEL unreservedly.
SCAR NIGHT by Alan Campbell
SCAR NIGHT is Alan Campbell’s first book. Alan has a background in video game design, having worked as a designer
for Rockstar Games on the popular Grand Theft Auto series. He left this industry several years ago to take up writing
and SCAR NIGHT was published in 2007. Since then he has turned this book into a trilogy with IRON ANGEL (also
known as PENNY DEVIL) and the recently published GOD OF CLOCKS.
The commendations accompanying the blurb gush the usual hyperbole as if this book was the greatest thing in fantasy to come along since THE LORD OF THE RINGS. Alas, I cannot really agree with that. Neal Asher writes “I haven’t read a fantasy this good in years” by which I can only assume he hasn’t read much fantasy.
From the blurb one might think this is a deeply gothic and dark tale, full of the promise to plumb your darkest nightmares. Except that really it isn’t.
Initially, at least, the prose invokes many a ‘dark’ description, drenching everything in blood. Furthermore, the setting, being a city hung by massive chains over a pit, in the depths of which reside the souls of the dead, at first seems improbably steeped in gothic-horror imagery.
However, after a while the description settles down and the book becomes more akin to a common fantasy novel. The characters are well described, and seem to have understandably human motivations, but often are slightly one dimensional, making the whole story sometimes seem over-simple.
And the story itself, while taking some pleasing twists (which surprised me at least once) would have fitted quite nicely into a book of half the page count. In fact, given the large number of pages I am not sure where all the words went…
The text is easy to read and only occasionally felt cluttered (increasing my mystery as to why so many words were necessary). One critic writes that Campbell “effortlessly channels… Mervyn Peake”. Having read Peake I find this praise to be poppycock. Peake could stop me on any given page with a word I needed to look up; none of Campbell’s text gave me pause for lexicographical thought. But this is not necessarily a criticism, as I sometimes enjoy a `light’ read that I don’t have to work at.
The book makes one or two mistakes; for example, it is set in a city, but character development outside of the 10 or 11 major characters necessary to the story is virtually non-existent. As a result the city feels rather empty; in 550 pages a little more could be set aside to give the city inhabitants some character, surely?
Overall I must say that I don’t think SCAR NIGHT is a bad book per se, but it is a first book and I think this shows in the lack of subtlety and occasional heavy-handedness apparent in the text. The twists in the story were pleasant though, and by the time you are halfway through the improbable-seeming setting has resolved itself in a fairly logical manner. If one is intrigued by the idea of a modern fantasy with gothic-horror scenery then this may be a book for you. And now I can look forward to reading IRON ANGEL, the first sequel (review to follow); who knows, maybe with the practice first volume out of the way, Campbell can iron out some of the faults…
SEA OF GHOSTS by Alan Campbell
This book is the first part of The Gravedigger Chronicles a new series by the author of The Deepgate Codex trilogy. It
is set in an ecologically damaged world that is slowly drowning after a genocidal war between mankind and their
brutal oppressors the Unmer, a powerful civilization of sorcerers and dragon-mounted warriors.
Mankind only won the war with the aid of a sisterhood of telepaths, the Haurstaf, and an Unmer renegade. When the Unmer realised that they couldn’t win the war they distributed untold thousands of ‘ichusae’, little glass bottles that when opened release an unending flow of toxic brine. Immersion in this liquid turns unprotected skin into leathery ‘shark skin’; drowning in it turns people into the living dead who metamorphose into stone when they are exposed to dry air. In turn the Haurstaf hold the world to ransom.
Colonel Thomas Granger, one of the last of the Gravediggers, an erstwhile elite imperial infiltration unit, insults the emperor he once served and takes refuge by becoming a jailer in Ethugra - a city of brine flooded streets and gaols. After six years of this new grimy existence he takes possession of two new prisoners, one of whom, Ianthe, turns out to be the daughter he never knew he had. She has an extraordinary psychic talent which could be a threat to the Haurstaf and all the world’s power mongers.
SEA OF GHOSTS, as well as being written from the viewpoint of Tom Granger and Ianthe, tells the tales of Ethan Maskelyne the unappointed ruler of Ethugra, an amateur scientist and avid collector of Unmer esoterica and Sister Briana Marks head of the Haurstaf sisterhood.
SEA OF GHOSTS is a book worth persevering with. If I had not been reviewing the book I would have abandoned it after the first hundred pages or so.
However I am glad that I did not as the story improved immensely into a rich dark tale of ancient and current enmity, treachery and unshakeable loyalty. I’m now looking forward to reading the next episode in The Gravedigger Chronicles.
CHILDREN OF THE MIND by Orson Scott CardRegrettably, this is a "do not start from here" book. This is the fourth volume of the Ender saga, the others o f which will stand alone. Children of the Mind is a direct continuation from the third, Xenocide, and you need to be familiar with the characters and what has gone before to gain full understanding.
NAAMAH’S KISS by Jacqueline Carey
This is the seventh book in the Kushiel’s Legacy series and the first following the life and adventures of Moirin mac
Fainche born to the Maghuin Dhonn; the folk of the Brown Bear, the oldest tribe in Alba.
Once there were great magicians born to the Maghuin Dhonn but now, only small gifts remain to them. Moirin possesses such gifts - the ability to summon the twilight and conceal herself and the skill to coax plants to grow.
The book follows her life from childhood on being raised in the wilderness by her reclusive mother. When she is about ten she is taken on a visit to Clunderry for a Midsummer’s Day festival and Moirin learns how illustrious, if mixed, her heritage is. She is the great granddaughter of Alais the Wise, child of the Maghuin Donn, and a cousin of the Cruarch (Ruler) of Alba. She also learns her father was a D'Angeline priest dedicated to serving Naamah, goddess of desire. It is during this visit that she starts to sense the presence of unfamiliar gods in her life; the bright lady, and the man with a seedling cupped in his palm.
When Moirin undergoes the rites of adulthood, she finds divine acceptance, but her destiny lies somewhere beyond the ocean. Traveling to Terre d'Ange she finds her father, develops her talents, becomes an intimate of the Royal Court, being distantly related to the ruling family, and almost dies. Here she finds that her destiny requires her to travel with a visiting Ch’in philosopher who is summoned back to his homeland to save the life of a blindfolded warrior princess. When she arrives she finds that more is at stake, the fates of nations hang in the balance.
Moirin’s story will continue in NAAMAH’S CURSE to be published later in 2010.
For once I concur with the comments on the back of the book. I found it hard to put down, a most enjoyable read; the text flowed easily, leading the reader through the life of a likeable heroine, and all the characters were well described. The fact that this was a book of over 600 pages was no burden. In addition, the fact that this is the seventh book in a series is not a hindrance to enjoyment as stated earlier, this is the first book following the life of Moirin mac Fainche and as such easily stands alone. I highly recommend it to potential readers.
FULL BLOODED (Jessica McClain 1) by Amanda Carlson
Jessica McClain is the only female werewolf in an all-male werewolf race. Except that Jessica has never changed - it's
not supposed to happen. Yet one night she wakes up in body wrenching pain to find her body going through the
change, so she tries to grab the serum left for her to halt the process by knocking her unconscious, the serum she wasn't
meant to need. Through mind-tomind connection, Jessica is able to communicate with her twin brother, Tyler and
her Dad, which is quite handy considering she wakes up naked and injured and unsure where she is after her first
Her new found status as a fullblooded wolf is about to rock the supernatural status quo with major ramifications, particularly as her father Callum is Pack Alpha. She wakes up again after passing out to find herself back at the Compound she had moved out of seven years before. In the real word she had built a life as Molly Hannon, working with Nick as part of a detective business. The Compound has a number of 'Essentials'; humans who know about the supernatural community but keep it quiet: doctors, nurses, lawyers and the like. It's up to Callum to protect his daughter and keep her change a secret from the Pack. According to the Cain Myth, Jessica’s change would bring the downfall of the Pack.
Carlson's debut novel is a rollicking read, fast-paced and immense fun. Her authorial voice, especially as wolf and woman is very strong, the whole piece having been written in first person, or what C E Murphy has referred to as "first person snark"; an accurate description. Carlson mixes more supernatural stuff into the novel, with Jessica's business partner Nick being a werefox and their secretary Marcy being a talented witch. The case she returns to work on also involves an imp that's a little too friendly with the local females.
As Jessica struggles with her new status she finds her appetite and senses increased as well as her interior wolf battling her for control. It all makes for an interesting supernatural novel fraught with tension and laced with plenty of humour. A nice addition to the werewolf sub-genre of modern Urban Fantasy.
BLACK SWAN RISING by Lee Carroll
In post-Buffy days, urban fantasy has been as common as, well, the common cold. And it is not always easy when
choosing an urban fantasy to differentiate between the good, the average or the just plain poor.
Luckily for readers, we Reviewers (poor souls) encounter all sorts of examples from the genre to test our patience.
And luckily for this Reviewer, BLACK SWAN RISING is actually really rather good.
The surface plot is quite straight forward.
Twenty-something single girl Garet becomes embroiled in an investigation into a mysterious burglary at her father’s art gallery, aided by obligatory nice vampire Will Hughes.
She is on a mission to clear her father’s name; he is accused of organising the burglary to commit insurance fraud. Garet is also left holding a puzzling silver box bearing the swan emblem as its lock. The silver box opens a doorway to The Summer Country, home of the fey and Garet is the ‘Watchtower’, guardian to this doorway. And that really is just the surface plot.
I was pleasantly surprised at this easy read that had lots to offer in the way of character dimension (our heroine does not just swoon or have sex), plot development and a clear indication of the dual writers thorough research into its artistic and jewellery embedded background. There are plenty of cultural references for genre fans, including a scene in an antique store particularly reminiscent of a certain Peter Cushing film. There is also a post 9/11 atmosphere than embodies this novel, handled with both tact and poignant emotion. Better still, the sex that normally accompanies this sub-genre is for plot development and is suitably low key.
All in all, this novel was an enjoyable read, and I was actually pleased to learn it is part one of a trilogy.
Watch out for THE WATCHTOWER coming in August 2011.
THE WATCHTOWER by Lee Carroll
It didn’t surprise me to find that Lee Carroll is the pseudonym for two Americans.
They have fallen into the trap that even highly respected writers encounter when trying to set novels in other countries
and other times. They get it wrong.
This book is written as two parallel sections. One deals with Garet James, a modern American woman who has fallen
in love with a vampire only to discover that the original focus of his affections was her fourhundred year dead
ancestress. Marguerite was an immortal fey who gave up her immortality to be with Will Hughes at the same time as
was trying to become immortal to be with her and was tricked into becoming a vampire by John Dee. One strand of
the narrative relates Will’s original quest for immortality, the other follows Garet’s search for a way to make Will mortal
again. Although the modern sections may well have been visited and recorded accurately by the authors, there are so
many inaccuracies in the English Tudor sections to make the novel extremely irritating. To compound matters, one
character, who has an extensive part, is referred to only as ‘the poet’ when patently this is supposed to be Shakespeare.
Also, the only place that states that this is the second volume in a trilogy is in the acknowledgments, which most
people do not read. Instead it drops you straight into the middle of the story with so many issues in the past lives of the
characters that it is difficult to understand where they are coming from.
THE CROWN OF EMBERS by Rae Carson
In the distant past, when I started reading SF, there was no such thing as Young Adult fiction.
Children’s books were divided into age categories but after sixteen, you put away childish books and joined the adult library. If you were adult enough to leave school and get a job, you were old enough to read any book. At the same time, the subject matter was different. There was less gore, sex stopped at the bedroom door and there were taboos regarding what could and could not be written about. William Burroughs was positively scandalous and D.H.
Lawrence’s LADY CHATTERLEY’S LOVER became a renowned court case. Young people did not have emotional crises. Then the teenager was invented and attitudes changed. These days Young Adult fiction is categorised by having protagonists in the sixteen to eighteen age group and who are beginning to explore their sexuality. Rae Carson writes in the YA category.
In the first volume of this trilogy, FIRE AND THORNS, seventeen yearold Elisa is married to the king of Joya d’Arena. She is a little too plump to be beautiful but she has one asset. She was born with a Godstone set in her navel.
This turns cold when she is in danger. By the end of the first novel, her husband is dead and she has been proclaimed Queen, partly because she was able to rally the army and defeat her sorcerous enemies.
At the start of THE CROWN OF EMBERS, instead of building on her strengths she had reverted to being an indecisive adolescent, doubting her capabilities and allowing the members of the Quorum of advisers to use her as a doormat, taking decisions from her hands. She accepts the suggestion that she should marry and is pushed to see a number of suitors. Of them, the only one she has any liking for, Tristán, turns out to prefer male companionship. The man she really fancies is the commander of the Royal Guard, her late husband’s best friend, Hector. After a couple of barely failed assassination attempts, the spark of the original Elise begins to resurface. To wrong-foot her enemies she announces that she is going to the Southern part of her kingdom in order to assess whether Tristán would make a suitable consort. Her real reasons are two-fold, to draw her enemies away from the city of Brisadulce and to find out more about the powers of the Godstone.
Being a YA novel, Elise has to pass through a further ‘rite of passage’ during the course of the book. She has to begin to reassert her true adult personality and she has to experience all the angst adolescents are prey to in the presence of someone they are sexually drawn to. Here it is the realisation that a relationship with Hector is what she wants but might be politically inadvisable.
(There is also the worry that he doesn’t actually like her but hangs around because of a sense of duty).
At the start of this volume, Elise is shaping up to be a tiresome pawn in other people’s plans but the plot gradually becomes more engaging. The friendship between Elise and her maid, Mara, is nicely handled as Mara is able to guide Elise along her route to potential maturity in ways that none of the others do.
The book is typical of its genre. Some older readers may find the plot a touch simplistic but it will appeal to those fourteen to eighteen year-olds that it is aimed at.
GRACELING by Kristin Cashore
For a book which plunges headfirst into the plot, GRACELING takes quite a while to find its feet. Once it does hit its
stride, it's a fast-paced story with an intriguing premise, some likable characters and villains you'd love to hiss. There
are enough ideas here for a series too.
Katsa is the niece of one of seven squabbling kings. But that's not the reason she's valuable to her lord. She's a killer, fast and deadly.
Her talent, or ‘Grace’, develops in childhood and like all ‘Gracelings’, she has distinctive eyes. Now a young woman, she doesn't like murdering dissidents and torturing debtors but she has to obey her king … doesn't she? Feared, she has few friends, and with her odd eyes she can't even disguise herself. To salve her conscience she sets up the Council, a secret network that rescues victims of the kings’ greedy wars.
On a rescue mission, she literally bumps into one of a rival king’s sons. And he's almost as good a fighter as she is. Can she survive? Can he? By the end the reader really cares.
Once past the info dump, the tale rattles along in page-turning style. This is a fabulous and enjoyable world well worth a visit.
JACK OF RAVENS by Mark Chadbourn
This odd mixture of present day and Celtic mythology has worked well for Chadbourn in his previous two trilogies. In
JACK OF RAVENS he revisits some of the characters and ideas. Fans of the previous books are going to enjoy this
volume, but there are too many elements from them that the reader needs to know about to understand what is
happening. Therefore, do not read this book if you have not read at least the first trilogy.
And do not continue reading this review as it might give away too much.
Jack Churchill (Church), the hero of the first trilogy, has been thrown back in time to 100 BC. He knows he is out of time but cannot remember how he got there. He knows that Ruth, the woman he loves, is many centuries in the future.
In order to keep the balance between Existence and the Void, lines of power crisscross the Earth. When there is a need, five people, the Brothers and Sisters of Dragons, come together to combat the crisis and are able to draw on this power. After initiating the first of the five, Church falls in with Niamh, a queen of the Otherworld and is not there when the others of this five are murdered. He finds that he has been pursued from the future by Ryan Veitch. Once a Brother of Dragons, Veitch now wants revenge on Church who killed him in the first trilogy. Church has to travel through time to get back to where he belongs and save Ruth.
There are a series of short adventures in intervening time periods such as Roman Britain and Elizabethan London. It is suggested that the actions of Church and Veitch change recorded history. We are not shown what effects they actually have and the stops are too brief to fully appreciate what Chadbourn is trying to achieve. Each of these episodes probably deserves a short novel of their own so that there would be the opportunity to develop characters and explore the settings and effects of their supernatural interference. There are good set piece scenes but they are not enough to hold the book together as a coherent whole.
THE DEVIL IN GREEN and THE QUEEN OF SINISTER by Mark Chadbourn
The blurb starts "Humanity has emerged blinking from the Age of Misrule", thus immediately indicating a sequel of
sorts to Chadbourn's previous Age of Mistule series. In these series he paints a vision of our world, apparently ravaged,
not by war, but by mythical creatures which now prowl the fields and towns, striking down anyone who stands in their
The two books here reviewed, THE DEVIL IN GREEN, and THE QUEEN OF SINISTER, approach this world in different ways. Presumably both are set some months after the Age of Misrule which Chadbourn focused on in his previous trilogy. In THE DEVIL IN GREEN, the attention is on Salisbury, where the cathedral is at the crux point of various ley lines, and thus the wrath of all sorts of nasty tilings comes down on it. Mallory is the 'hero' who joins the warrior- Christians who have set up camp in the cathedral, and soon realises the group's fundamentalist tendencies could prove catastrophic. Meanwhile he still manages to make friends, find love, and discover himself.
THE QUEEN OF SINISTER moves away from the characters of the first book, and focuses on a pleasant but somewhat complex young woman called Caitlin, who is a doctor in a town stricken with the plague. She soon learns however that there may be other forces at work behind this plague, and, sets off on a long journey to escape her past and find peace, happiness, and possibly a cure along the way. But of course things are not really that simple.
The two books are very different. The first book is set almost exclusively in and around Salisbury. For the most part the action sticks in the world as we know it. The characters are, in the main, male. The second features three very strong females, and suddenly introduces the idea of swapping dimensions, through the magic of one of the characters. There is a couple of long scenes which are not set on this world, but while they are in our dimension they travel a long distance, and there are scenes in various places such as Birmingham (it is very obvious that the author knows this city in depth). What is also different is that while the heroes are both similar in the fact that they are Brother/Sister of Dragons, the realisation of this seems to take longer in the first than the second book. THE DEVIL IN GREEN approaches this subject better, as once the protagonist realises the truth, there isn't an awful lot of self-discovery left to do, apart from, in Caitlin's case, recovering from her grief at the loss of her family. 1 sympathised a little more with Mallory who is rather less seemingly perfect an individual, and seems to suffer all the frailties of humanity, with no particular special powers. Caitlin we learn all of a sudden has MPD, a goddess living inside her, and can do all sorts of ferocious things when the mood takes her!
The best tiling about the second book was learning a bit more about the world as it is then. We meet more of these mythical characters, and not all of them are evil or out to extinguish mankind, as they seem to be in THE DEVIL IN GREEN. At the same time THE QUEEN OF SINISTER doesn't hold the same interest as far as issues and complexity goes. THE DEVIL IN GREEN has a whole host of religion-driven ideas and issues in it, and it makes very interesting reading.
Chadbourn has obviously done his research into prehistoric Britain and its Celtic culture, and this research really shows in the intensity and vividness of the books. Both are recommended reading, worthy for the sheer vivacity of the descriptions, the idea of hope in the face of desperation, and a rather cracking good adventure story!
THE QUEEN OF SINISTER / THE HOUNDS OF AVALON by Mark Chadbourn
These two books comprise the second and third volumes of The Dark Age series which in turn is a continuation of The
Age of Misrule trilogy. In the first series, life in Britain radically changed overnight when all the myths became real
and the countryside was overrun by the monsters of nightmare. Five people, the Brothers and Sisters of Dragons, were
chosen by a higher power to fight for humankind. Although they triumphed in that the world was not completely
destroyed, mythical creatures are still around and normality has not been restored. To counter the next threat, five
more Brothers and Sisters of Dragons are chosen.
At the start of THE QUEEN OF SINISTER a plague has taken hold of the country. It resembles the Black Death but is actually supernatural in origin.
Dr Caitlin Shepherd is supremely efficient until the plague takes her husband and son. This event drives her over the edge and colours all her actions in the rest of the novel. At this time, the lament-brood, an army of the undead, begins to stalk the countryside. Some of them seem to be searching for Caitlin. Also arriving on the scene is the mysterious Crowther. He persuades Caitlin that the cure to the plague lies in the Otherworld where all the monsters have come from and that she has a chance of getting her son and husband back if she goes there. He also tells her she is a Sister of Dragons. Several others join them in their journey. At the end of it, Caitlin has to make a decision. She is not given all the information to make an informed choice, and her emotions get in the way of clear thinking.
In THE HOUNDS OF AVALON, we are introduced to a Brother and another Sister of Dragons, Mallory and Sophie. It is possible that volume one of this trilogy revolve around them as they seem to be well formed characters with a developed relationship. Caitlin is by now no longer a Sister of Dragons but desperately wants to get her status back. Much of the action revolves around Oxford where the remnants of government have retreated. Here we meet Hunter, a military assassin. He discovers he is also a Brother of Dragons. To stand any chance of defeating the forces that are rapidly approaching in the midst of an unusual July winter there must be five. It may be up to Hal, Hunter’s quiet, unassuming and bookish friend, to discover the answers.
Both these books are good, fast paced adventures and can be read together as a pair if the first is unavailable. It is probably better not to dwell too much on issues that are ignored. For example, we are told that Britain is isolated from the rest of the world, yet there are still helicopters and, in Oxford at least, electricity and a semblance of normality. Is the rest of the world in a similar turmoil or has Britain disappeared from the view of the Continent? Are they trying to break through? No mention is made of Ireland which shares the Celtic mythology that is overwhelming the island. And why only the Celtic mythos?
Unless, in India chaos has resulted from the return of the demons and such gods as Kali and Shiva. Is China ravaged by real dragons? Perhaps there are stories yet to be told about the return of the gods and demons of other cultures.
WORLD’S END by Mark ChadbournI should first declare a slight bias - I’ve been a fan of Mr Chadbourn since I read his second novel NOCTURNE some years back. At the time I bored all my friends recommending and enthusing about it and published rave reviews every where I could.
A CLOSED AND COMMON ORBIT by Becky Chambers
This is a sequel to the 2016 Clarke Award-nominated THE LONG WAY TO A SMALL, ANGRY PLANET (reviewed in
March 2016 newsletter #534). The original novel was a fun space opera which followed the mixed human and alien
crew of the Wayfarer on a long voyage to build a new hyperspace tunnel. It was full of both different alien species and
personalities, all trying to live harmoniously in a galactic civilisation. Its major strengths were the detailed
construction of the differing alien races and cultures and the many diverse, interesting characters. A CLOSED AND
COMMON ORBIT is set in the same universe but wisely in my opinion, choses to move on from the crew of the
Wayfarer. Instead it concentrates on two characters who, although appearing in the first book, were more minor
characters. The story starts with the artificial intelligence, Sidra awakening in a synthetic body designed to pass as
human. In her previous existence, she was a ship’s AI, her sole purpose monitoring and caring for a ship’s crew.
Unfortunately, and unintentionally, during the transfer process, her personality was reset to the factory standard so she
is totally unprepared for her new life and must rapidly learn and adapt to her new situation. This is further complicated
as the galactic civilisation does not allow AI’s to exist independently and if her existence is revealed, she will be
destroyed. However, Sidra is not alone. She is sheltered and guided by Pepper, one of the engineers who helped in
the transfer process, who as we gradually learn knows quite a bit herself about starting over in a completely new world.
The title of A CLOSED AND COMMON ORBIT refers to two astronomical concepts. A closed orbit is an orbit that repeatedly returns to the same starting point. The common orbit of the title refers to two bodies sharing the same orbit. These are an elegant description of the structure and narrative of this story. It alternates between two stories, that of Sidra and also of Jane 23, a child slave who escapes from her enforced labour. As the reader swings between the two narratives, we see the parallels and common themes of their lives which eventually converge together.
This book is more reflective and focused than the previous novel, which might not suit everyone, especially those who may be disappointed that their favourite, more flamboyant characters are absent. However, I personally like that the author has the courage to produce something different rather than taking the perhaps safer option of sticking with the same characters and situation.
Despite this change, the writing still has many of the strengths of the original. The characters, whether alien, human or AI are credible and not clichéd. Again, whilst there is an enjoyable and interesting plot the novel is not solely focused upon action but also upon the value of caring and supportive inter-personal relationships as well. The author also retains the ability to craft characters that the reader deeply cares about, not only Pepper and Sidra, but the alien Tak and the AI, Owl among them. It subtly promotes the message that the best societies are those which value and respect all sapients equally whatever their differences. This second novel clearly shows a writer who is growing in confidence and ability from an already impressive debut. This is very good, stylish and character-driven SF with emotional depth from an author not content to rest on her laurels but to dare something different. Carol Goodwin
THE LONG WAY TO A SMALL, ANGRY PLANET by Becky Chambers
This entertaining space opera has an interesting route to publication. The author funded her writing time via a
Kickstarter appeal. It was then successful enough in the highly competitive self-published field to be offered a
publishing contract by Hodder (UK) and Harper Voyager (US).
The Wayfarer is a dilapidated old spaceship which builds hyperspace tunnels between solar systems. When young Rosemary Harper joins its mixed human and alien crew she is looking for a break from her privileged but troubled past and a chance to see more of space than the narrow confines of the Solar system. Soon after she joins, the admittance of a new species into the galactic alliance provides them with a unique and lucrative opportunity. The Wayfarer is hired to build a new high-speed tunnel to connect the new species’ system to the galactic network. The only catch is that the tunnel needs to be anchored from the new system, which means a long outward journey through war-torn and unstable systems. The challenges along the way uncover secrets from all the crew’s past as they work together to survive the threats along their route.
The main enjoyment for me in this book is the characters of the various crew-members and the development of their relationships. This is a crew that is diverse in the extreme, and has credible aliens with different morphology, biology and cultures from the human representatives in the crew. The alien crew-members include a six-legged chef and medic, Dr Chef; the reptiloid pilot, Sissix; a navigator infected with a symbiotic intelligent virus, Ohan and an intelligent AI running the ship’s systems, Lovelace. The human crew members also have very different personalities; the new member, Rosemary, at first quiet and over-awed but who grows in confidence; the reclusive and emotionally distant life-support technician, Corbin; the scatter-brained but brilliant engineer, Kizzy and her partner-in-crime, the smart-mouthed but friendly computer technician, Jenks and finally the long-suffering captain, Ashby struggling to keep them all in order and in business. Unlike many space operas, this is an optimistic story. Although there are hardships and losses, what is gratifying is the way that the crew do work together and support each other including, very importantly, emotionally as well as practically.
The world-building is excellent and the journey introduces us to other characters and civilisations than just the crew members. Although the main focus is on the crew, there are plenty of events which keep the story flowing at a satisfactory pace. It is evident that substantial effort has gone into planning the complex inter-relationships both within the crew and the differing galactic races. The author has exceptional imagination and as a debut novel this is extremely impressive. Although the word might not be quite appropriate given the aliens in the plot, it is the humanity and emotional depth of this novel which I really liked. Although an enjoyable space opera, it might not suit anyone who prefers an all-action type of narrative. And finally, in case it has got lost in all the above, it must be emphasised that this book is great fun and extremely readable.
A CALCULATED LIFE by Anne Charnock
This SF novel is set in the near future. Super-intelligent Jayna works for a big corporation sifting through vast amounts
of data to predict future trends. Jayna is hardly ever wrong and the company has made large investment profits
following her guidance. However there is something different about Jayna, which the reader only slowly discovers and
thus she struggles to comprehend her fellow workers. When her forecasts start to go wrong she believes the data
accessible through the company is too limited. She tries to gain a better knowledge of people and society around to
help but this leads her into dangers and uncovers hidden unpleasant aspects of a society which had previously
seemed benign and utopian.
I found this book difficult to get into at first, mainly because we are given little information at first about the society and Jayna. However it repaid perseverance and I found I thoroughly enjoyed the incremental, slow accumulation of details which fitted perfectly with Jayna’s pursuit of knowledge and emotional development. Although very intelligent, Jayna’s experience is very limited and she is socially awkward. This makes it hard to find her sympathetic at first but as she slowly builds information and begins to question society and her place in it she becomes a fuller and more interesting character. The book looks at the nature of what it is to be human and how much “genetic engineering” should be for the benefit of the individual or the state. I also liked that a lot of people in the society, especially the privileged, do not see the problems and are quite comfortable with the status quo as this seemed realistic.
This book is very well-written and constructed and is worthy of far more attention. Anne Charnock is a very successful journalist and foreign correspondent with articles published in The Guardian, New Scientist and the International Herald Tribune amongst others. This experience shows in the quality of this literary SF. Others obviously agree as it was nominated for the Philip K Dick and Kitschies Awards in 2013. It is not the type of science fiction which dwells on a lot of technical details so is possibly not for the hard SF fans. That said the development from today to the future in this book seems very believable.
I am not always a fan of literary SF but this book repaid persistence and was of a very high quality. Its slower pace is not for everyone but fit with the main character and her journey. As good SF books should do it speculates on the effects of future developments on humanity and gets you thinking.
THE ENCLAVE by Anne Charnock
In this novella, Anne Charnock returns to the near future United Kingdom of her first novel, A CALCULATED LIFE
(which was a finalist for the Philip K Dick Award). In that novel genetic engineering was aiding the establishment of an
elite, with access to upgrades for intelligence, antisocial behaviour etc. whilst the majority are denied these and form
a struggling underclass. Whilst A CALCULATED LIFE looked mainly at the privileged through the eyes of a naïve
“simulant” Jayna, this novella looks in more detail at the general population, living on minimal support and surviving
on a mixture of wits and intimidation.
The story is told mainly from the viewpoint of two characters who live in an “enclave” outside the city, where like a shanty town most of the available jobs are menial or dirty, and people are constantly scrabbling to make a living. These two characters are Caleb, a bright and enterprising twelve-year old refugee and Ma Lexie, a young widow who is barely tolerated by her husband’s gang family and surviving by using young children without parents as child labour to recycle thrown-away clothes and scraps to eke out a living. Caleb was “recruited” by a scout for the gangs from a travelling refugee group after he lost his mother and he now works in Ma Lexie’s group. When Caleb manages to catch Ma Lexie’s attention with his designs for improving clothes, she promotes him and this allows him a little more freedom to plot an escape. Both characters are simultaneously victims and manipulators. Ma Lexie may control the children’s lives but she is in turn controlled by the gang who at any time could take away her “business”. She promotes Caleb for her own advantage but also in a desire for company and someone to look after her. This is a society where everyone uses everyone.
In a short 59 pages, Anne Charnock constructs a very believable world which could easily be extrapolated from current events. This is an excellent example of “show not tell” – it touches on many serious issues whilst still keeping the story paramount and is more effective for leaving the reader to think and draw their own parallels. The characterisation is superb – one is both sympathetic and repulsed by the actions of the characters. The prose is first- rate – precise and sharply accurate, building up a wealth of detail via small observations. It is not a work where the technology is at the forefront, or with a large amount of “action” (although events do happen and there is a very definite plot). and thus, may not suit fans of more traditional SF. However, in my opinion, Anne Charnock in this novella has shown yet again that she can write extremely intelligent and thought-provoking SF.
NIGHTS OF VILLJAMUR by Mark Charon NewtonA convoluted, confused plot, unlikeable characters and an aimless storyline makes this one of the less enjoyable books I have read.
GIVE ME THESE MOMENTS BACK by Mike Chinn
GIVE ME THESE MOMENTS BACK is an anthology of short stories by British Fantasy Award nominee, Mike Chinn
who is also I believe a member of the Birmingham Science Fiction Group. This collection of eighteen stories covers a
very wide range of subjects. Whilst most have a supernatural or horror theme, there are also a couple of contemporary
stories and a couple which fall into the science fiction area.
The short story form is not everyone’s cup of tea as the limited length does tend to expose any flaws in a writer’s technique. With an experienced disciplined writer however they are a very effective method of storytelling. In this collection the author is excellent at establishing a sense of place and also atmosphere. The stories show a wide range of ideas and imagination. The story often arises from the location and is not using the lazy, standard tropes of many other writers.
I am not a fan of slasher-style horror and this collection demonstrates how unnecessary that is and how more disturbing it can be to leave some things to the readers’ imaginations. Instead the stories develop from an initial disquiet, with incremental revelations which build to the final often nasty conclusion without complying with a superfluous obligation to go into graphic detail.
As with any collection of stories, there will always be some which appeal to a reader more than others. All I can do to give you a bit of a flavour of the book is to briefly describe a few of the stories. Those which I most enjoyed were “Welcome to the Hotel Marianas” which is clearly influenced by the old TV show Voyage to the Bottom of the Sea (clearly acknowledged in the notes at the end of the book) but which takes a dark turn, “Harbour Lights” which looks at the disadvantaged in a Barsoomian-type society and my favourite, “Kami Ga Kikoemasu” about a Japanese whaling boat haunted by a spirit monster (with again nods to MOBY DICK). There were also a couple of stories which I also did not like. I feel that the author writes women characters less well and their portrayal in two stories in particular (“Brindley’s Place” and “All Under Hatches Stowed”) made me personally uncomfortable.
RADIX OMNIUM MALUM & Other Incursions by Mike Chinn
Anyone who has heard of Mike Chinn will probably be familiar with either his steampunk versions of Sherlock Holmes
or his Damian Paladin stories. Since the works of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle are now out of copyright, there have been a
number of stories and novels (of varying degrees of competence) using his character. Mike Chinn’s rank in the higher
echelons of the sub-genre but there is a danger of them being lost. Damian Paladin has, so far, two collections
devoted to his exploits and are well worth hunting down. Mike, though, has written and had published a wide range of
other stories, some of which are included in this new volume. From a man who keeps guinea pigs they are often
Devising ways to end the world, or at least human domination of it, is a favourite pastime of horror writers. ‘Radix
Omnium Malus’ (loosely translates as ‘The Root of Evil’) is reminiscent of Brian Lumley’s ‘Fruiting Bodies’ but here the
malicious growth has been magically invoked and is out of hand and is consuming everything. In ‘Blood Of Eden’
instead of an indestructible plant it is Dracula threatening world domination using corporate means. ‘Cheechee’s Out’
is the start of an alien invasion, with Cthulhu-type creatures taking over men in high positions. Inevitably, there will be
Monsters of several varieties occur within a number of these stories. The trick is doing something new with them. In
‘Sons Of The Dragon’ the road builders in Romania encounter vampire worms and ‘Considering the Dead’ relates the
history of Cthulhu, but the biggest monsters are human. ‘Kittens’ begins as an urban myth, this time the story of kittens
being dumped in a glass recycling bin and morphs into serial killer nastiness. In ‘Only the Lonely’ the monster is a
female sexual predator. Instead of being a warning for young girls it is the middle-aged man that needs to beware.
One of the causes of people believing they have had supernatural encounters is anxiety. ‘Two Weeks From Saturday’
is one of those stories that anyone who has been reluctantly included in an event will understand. For Cliff it is the
impossibility of writing a decent story for the writers’ meeting run by his boss’s son that creates nightmares. Grief, too, is
an emotion that can affect the mind. ‘The Streets Of Crazy Cities’ demonstrates an extreme reaction that Martyn has
after the death of wife, child and several other people that he knows. It is a story that initially misleads and shows the
skill of the author in its construction.
These and the others stories in this volume challenge the reader. They meld folklore and myth into, mostly, modern
settings. There is one historical story there, ‘Suffer A Witch’ which demonstrates petty human jealousy and the danger
of drawing conclusions. Like the characters it is unwise to assume that you have all the knowledge needed to
understand the situation. In ‘The Pygmalion Conjuration’ both Dennis, who finds a conjuration to bring to life
photographs of desirable women for sex, and Miss Grant, the librarian who pointed him towards the relevant book, find
to their cost that they have missing information.
Folklore doesn’t have to have an ancient pedigree. The urban myth behind ‘The Owl That Calls’ has a more recent
genesis, but even these may have some reality behind them as Tomas Ullerden discovers when expecting to debunk
the sighting of a Mothman on Bodmin Moor. While many myths have their roots in a pagan or superstitious past, the
coming of the steam age has imbued trains with a degree of mysticism, often involving death. Two train stories are
included here. ‘Rescheduled’ sees Graeme having to go home to fetch the office keys and having distinct problems
with trains, while in ‘The Mercy Seat’ Jim catches up with two friends from his youth. The memories revolve around the
railway bridge by the station and the trains that run over it.
Some of the stories in this volume need to be read more than once to find the subtleties in the story telling, but for
anyone who wants to spend time with the uncanny and horrific they will find this volume contains gems.
WRITING AND ILLUSTRATING THE GRAPHIC NOVEL by Mike Chinn
The title says it all, or almost all. Long-standing BSFG member Mike Chinn has put together a book of the A-Z of
writing, illustrating and selling the graphic novel minus the basic technique of drawing, the assumption being that the
reader can already do this although he does go into materials, colours, computer graphics, etc., and more of the tricks
and techniques of presenting the material. He discusses the various sub-genres, the devices, such as framing, used to
guide the reader (viewer) through the story, styles of artwork, writing, note taking and just about everything from
conception to conclusion, all illustrated profusely. In fact the book could almost serve as a basic illustrated dictionary
of the graphic novel.
Because Mike is not teaching drawing per se but its application, someone like me, whose drawing skills are very basic, can also learn from his book. I've always understood graphic novels to be comics for adults (?), a view reinforced by the covers seen in bookshops but they are more than that, having the characteristics of the written novel although with a different emphasis. And it's interesting to note how many of the techniques used depend on a knowledge of the interactions between the human brain, mind and eye, techniques used in advertising, particularly in posters. Which leads me to a slightly worrying conclusion.
The human mind cannot imagine what it has not experienced. If an author writes 'The alien had a head like an oozlum' the reader would be perplexed but if he wrote 'like an eagle' the reader would understand. It does not have to be firsthand experience either - a photograph or sketch will serve as experience. And experience is learning, and learning moulds the personality. Which means that, within limits, a written novel is only a recombination of experiences, although constant rereading will have some effect on the reader. Graphic novels on the other hand are stories set visually in pictures, which are effectively second-hand experiences. Although the reader 'knows' these do not reflect reality as does the sketch of an eagle's head, they will have more effect than just the written word.
This means that it's not impossible for an avid viewer to develop over time a perception of life that is distorted. This probably won't matter too much where pictures of elves are concerned but blood 'n' guts 'n' general mayhem is a different matter. I believe there was some form of legislation in the '50s regulating the content of comic books; nowadays with the much greater ease of production and distribution perhaps graphic novelists should consider the influence that they have on their viewers.
This review seems to have developed some way from its initial sentence so I'll conclude by saying that Mike's book is not only helpful and informative for the budding graphic novelist but its of interest to anyone interested in visual 'story telling'.
For the price of a couple of paperbacks you can't go wrong!
VALLIS TIMORIS by Mike Chinn and Sir Arthur Conan Doyle
Copyright is a tricky minefield to navigate. Different countries interpret it differently. Once an author dies, there is a
period of time before their works become out of copyright. It means that the publications can be reprinted without any
royalties paid or permission required from the estate. It also means that characters created by the out-of-copyright
author become available for further adventures involving them to be penned. Sir Arthur Conan Doyle is out of
copyright and his most celebrated character, Sherlock Holmes, is in the public domain. As a result, the BBC have
created a modern version of Holmes which worked brilliantly.
Adrian Middleton has taken advantage of the situation by creating a series of books under the general heading of the “Moriarty Paradigm”. The brief for his authors includes using the original Doyle text and not only adding to improve the flow for a modern reader but to place the story in a parallel universe. The basis for this treatment by Mike Chinn is THE VALLEY OF FEAR.
The first thing to note is that this alternative Holmes is set against a steampunk background with a network of aerostats (dirigibles) across the world. Man has also reached the moon. Otherwise, it sticks very closely to the original concept for the first two sections of the book.
In both VALLIS TIMORIS and THE VALLEY OF FEAR, Holmes receives a mysterious letter from one Porlock. This is a coded warning which actually arrives too late since Holmes and Watson are shortly summoned to investigate the death of John Douglas of Birlstone Manor House. In both books, this investigation takes up the first part of the book. Chinn, however, deviates from the original script by adding a race across the English countryside between a train and an aerostat.
The next section in both is an account of how Douglas made the enemies who pursued him from America to his English retreat in order to seek revenge for a perceived betrayal. While Doyle’s account is set in a god-forsaken corner of America, Chinn has transposed the action to the moon. Same story, different place. Doyle finished his short novel with an epilogue. Chinn takes that and folds inside it an expedition by Holmes to the moon to seek the missing pieces of the puzzle.
The question is not whether this book is well written – it is – but whether it enhances the body of work that already surrounds Doyle and Holmes. The steampunk development works well and since the movement has its roots in Victorian technology it is entirely possible to envisage Holmes and Watson inhabiting this universe. For those who are not intimately familiar with Doyle’s stories, then this version is enjoyable. The purists may wonder why, since almost the whole of Doyle’s text has been incorporated into this volume. I have yet to be convinced that this is a worthwhile approach. Having said that, I did enjoy Mike Chinn’s additions.
VAMPYRRHIC RITES by Simon Clark
When so few novels are being published under the horror banner these days, it is good to see the occasional one
gracing the shelves. There is a market for them out there.
The problem is who are they aiming it at, and do they care?
This is the sequel to VAMPYRRHIC in which a group of people were brought together in the town of Leppington to either join or vanquish the vampires who had been waiting over a thousand years for the direct descendant of their original Viking leader to direct then in a war against humanity.
Now the threat is back. Beneath the waters of Lazarus Deep, the vampires are adding to their number and these modern recruits have retained their intelligence. Once they have the right person to lead them, they can begin their campaign to rid the world of warm, living creatures. This time they have a choice. Either David Leppington who rejected their proposal of supremacy last time, or the half brother he didn’t know he had.
This is almost a good book but it treads a well worn path. The nasty killings start and the main characters are brought together but it is the factors they are initially unaware of which will spell success or disaster and a high body count. If you are looking for a quick, filmic read, this is fine. It is slow to get going and the characters do not have quite enough depth for my taste. Also, I get put off a book when factual things are wrong. Here, a raven has a yellow beak and an albino has green eyes. Where a deviation from the norm is essential to the plot it is very easy to qualify. Not doing so is a sign of sloppy editing.
Other readers may not notice, or care. Someone always does.
GREETING CARBON-BASED BIPEDS by Arthur C Clarke
In the six decades that Arthur C. Clarke has been involved in Science Fiction the growth of the modern world has
evolved beyond all recognition. Some of the changes have been down to Arthur C. Clarke himself.
This book is a collection of essays and short stories concerning the way that technology has evolved with an ever faster pace and the way that Science Fiction writers have tried to predict the future, not always correctly, in their writings. As one of the Grand Old Men of S.F. Arthur C. Clarke has been involved with both the fiction and the Science fact that at the turn of the 21st century invades more and more of our daily lives. His reminiscences of the way that cience treated S.F. in the 40’s and the early 50\s are a reminder of the ostrich head in the sand syndrome. Some of the essays on the early years are quite humorous as well as very revealing about the perceived wisdom of what the future would hold for the world. As technology changed the world so the way that ordinary people viewed Science Fiction changed, from an attitude of scorn and derision to one of wary respect. Some of the essays in the chapters dealing with the 60’s and 70’s show how the start of space exploration showed the ordinary public that the imagination of the Science Fiction writers in the 20’s and 30’s was now becoming an every day reality. Not all of the essays deal solely with technology but they encompass the attitudes o f ordinary people and the politics that shape peoples lives. The concerns of rising religious fundamentalism and the damage that it can cause by keeping people ignorant and in fear and poverty when their lives can be helped by technology is also touched upon.
Interspersed through the book are stories of Arthur C. Clarke’s love of Sri Lanka and his adventures of skin diving in the seas around the island. The range of topics discussed are wide ranging and varied from his work on screen adaptations o f his novels and television programs to his work with NASA and his drive to promote outer space. Arthur C. Clarke has been called the Prophet of the Space Age and is classed as the most visionary and versatile thinker of the 20th Century. It makes one wonder that if a person with such talents was in charge of the world were would the human race be today?
Greetings Carbon-Based Bipeds is a unique insight into the thinking behind a rare imagination and well worth a read.
RENDEZVOUS WITH RAMA by Arthur C Clarke
A classic indeed, this stands head and shoulders above everything else I have read recently. Rama is a mysterious
vessel apparently heading towards the Sun, for what reason nobody seems able to answer. The populations of the
civilized planets, and their chiefs have many a discussion about this, but eventually as it draws closer, a taskforce is
dispatched to investigate and get inside it. What they find there is beyond their imaginations… Beautifully descriptive
narrative, by the end of the book I really felt a rapport with this strange alien colossal vessel. Clarke, by way of his
exploring astronauts, brings the world to life for the reader, and who can forget the soaring stairways and upside down
oceans? I found the mysterious South Pole harder to envisage – with all the spikes and lightning conducting going on,
but this was the obviously alien side to the world, and it is a shame this was not explored further in this book.
It is of course not just about description, the sudden action sequences (with storms, hurricanes, extreme heat as well as human interventions) are enthralling and exciting, and a welcome change from the descriptions. Clarke is a master of narrative, knowing when to give the reader a break and when to keep them enchanted. The characters are well drawn too, for the most part, without delving too much into their lives back at home, we are led to feel we know them and can thus empathise with them.
The world itself is never fully explained though hints ate given as to what it could be for. This maintains some mystery about it, but is ultimately frustrating – or maybe I just like loose ends to be tied up. I believe there is a sequel to this book which I have yet to read, so maybe it is a deliberate ploy on the writer’s part, who knows. An excellent book anyway, full of suspense, action, sadness, wonder. Vicky Cook
THE CITY AND THE STARS by Arthur C Clarke
Originally written in 1956 and expanded from AGAINST THE FALL OF NIGHT, THE CITY AND THE STARS must rank
as one of the all-time great novels in SF. It has been classed as probably Clarke’s most perfect work, and it truly
deserves this accolade. This classic deserves to be required reading for all new science fiction fans as it has all the
elements of a story from the golden era of SF.
Many millennia in Earth's future, there remains little of the once-proud human race and its remnants have fallen back into the refuge of the city of Diaspar. Little changes in the city as its inhabitants wile away their lives secure in the knowledge that the world around them will remain unchanged as the matrix f their lives will be held forever in the memory of the city’s master computer.
The original designers of the city put a wild card into the construction of Diaspar in the form of a ‘unique’ individual who is born with no previous lives and is seeing the city for the very first time. The ‘unique’ Alvin, the latest person to be born in Diaspar, has a yearning to see beyond the city limits and, unlike his fellow citizens, who are content to live their lives within the city boundary, is frustrated by the claustrophobic environment.
In his exploration of the city, Alvin meets up with Khedron the Jester who befriends Alvin just as he has befriended other ‘uniques’ over the millennia. With Khedron” s help, Alvin learns that the past ‘uniques’ have disappeared from Diaspar in circumstances that his tutor and guardians cannot explain to him.
The story that unfolds on Alvin’s journey of discovery, is destined to rewrite the accepted history of the human race and man’s attempt to be more than human.
Clarke’s book is a testament to the enduring power of the SF genre. Even though THE CITY AND THE STARS is nearly fifty years old, it still has the power to hold the reader and is a worthwhile addition to the SF Masterworks series.
THE COLLECTED STORIES by Arthur C Clarke
As titled, this is a complete collection of Clarke’s short fiction spanning sixty-four years of his writing career and
incorporating several pieces which have never before appeared in book form. (In fact, I discovered a couple of items
which have been omitted, though probably for good reasons. I also spotted several typographical errors carried over
from a previous book publication).
The collection is neatly framed by his earliest and somewhat undistinguished effort to his latest, a "collaboration” written by Stephen Baxter which constructs a new edifice from the same theme and events and takes it to levels of social extrapolation, emotional content and literary quality undreamed of half a century ago. In between the stories cover every aspect of SF, from amusingly ingenious to inventively prescient, and range from those which are, quite frankly, somewhat pedestrian to others which have the emotional content to stir the soul. It has to be said that Clarke was never a literary genius and his writing style always left something to be desired, particularly in his earlier years, but the never ending flow of ideas and invention always made up for his stylistic shortcomings and there are enough really special bits of writing - most notably but certainly not only “The Star” for example - to compensate for any amount of lesser work. In essence, therefore, the individual stories vary from good to near-miraculous.
What I was surprised to find was that 899 ( 93% ) of these pages come from the twenty-five years between 1946 and 1971, while a mere 37 pages cover the next thirty years to the present day.
Clarke now relies largely on other hands to convert his ideas into the written word and it is pretty unlikely that there will ever be much, if anything to add to this 5 collection. It will therefore remain as a fascinating study of the work of a man whose contribution to SF is impossible to overstate. It is interesting to see how his writing has always kept pace with contemporary science, with some ideas returning for further development and I was also intrigued to find several stories which later became the basis for fulllength novels.
The 93% which I mentioned earlier constituted the contents of several book collections published during the same period and frequently reprinted. There can therefore be few readers without some degree of familiarity with what is here and because of that it is difficult to give a star rating as so many people will be in a position to provide their own.
However, it is well worthwhile having it all together in one volume and in my case simply being stimulated to read the stories again was a rewarding exercise worth a top five stars.
THE GHOST FROM THE GRAND BANKS by Arthur C Clarke
This tells the story of the race to raise the Titanic on the centennial of its sinking, and that about sums up the plot. The
novel covers some fairly stereotyped characters ranging from a world-weary engineer to a married couple, and is very
heavy on engineering and techno-babble. This did not unfortunately appeal to me particularly, and I did not warm to
the characters either – I would have preferred better-created characters and a human story. The lack of
characterisation has been said to be typical of Clarke, so perhaps this is not surprising, but this book just did not gel
with me like some of his others have (RENDEZVOUS WITH RAMA, for instance).
There is some improvement near the end when the action finally picks up and things move away from all the talking and engineering – for instance there are some excellent action scenes involving an octopus and a tsunami, but on the whole it was too little too late and just not convincing. The book is too slow with not enough human story. The fact it is set in the future, but too close to our own present, grates too, though his treatment of the then much-feared Y2K subject is interesting. The story idea of having a race to raise the Titanic is also an original and interesting one.
I enjoyed the Rama series so read this to expand my familiarity with the author. However, to be honest, I was left a little disappointed by this one.
THE SPACE TRILOGY by Arthur C Clarke
This is an omnibus edition of three of Clarke’s works from the 50s and contains new forewords from the great man
himself, putting into context the separate stories with the knowledge of fifty years of hindsight.
The first novel, ISLANDS IN THE SKY, takes the reader into the world of 16-year-old Roy Malcolm as he prepares for the journey of a lifetime into space as the winner of a TV aviation quiz show. The inner orbital space stations of Earth are regarded as part of the planet and under Earth’s jurisdiction. To a youngster’s view of things the differences between Earth and the colonies on the Moon and Mars are immaterial as he enjoys the experience of being in orbit around his home world.
As a book written in the early 50s for the ‘juvenile’ market, it is fairly simplistic in its style and content but is worth the read for the nostalgia content alone.
THE SANDS OF MARS moves the reader to the outer colony of mankind and the friction that is growing between Earth and Mars. The famous SF author Martin Gibson is taking his first trip into space to see for himself the difference between the reality of space travel and the fiction that he has been writing about for years. From Earth’s orbiting space station he is destined to travel on the inaugural flight of the Aries, a new class of ship designed for the tourist industry rather than the utilitarian ships of an earlier generation. As Aries' first flight is also being used as a shakedown cruise, Gibson is the sole passenger on board apart from the crew, and part of his being on board is to write about the trip and relay it back to Earth to publicise the tourist potential of the ship.
With the trip over, Gibson’s arrival on Mars is somewhat of an anticlimax as the ‘famous author’ is treated with some indifference by the colonists who are more interested in taking their colony to a liveable standard rather than mere survival on another world. As Gibson adjusts to the colonists and the harsh landscape that surrounds them, he finds that his attitude to Earth gradually shifting, with surprising results.
4 This story is more like the vintage Clarke that has made him one of the most formidable writers of SF in the second half of the 20th century.
The final story, EARTHLIGHT, takes place on the Moon. Bertram Sadler has been sent by Earth to do a cost- analysis on the Plato observatory and he expects that his cover story will hold up, as his real mission is to find out what’s going on between the Moon and the federation of colonies on Mars and Venus. The federation is finally getting ready to cede from Earth and its stifling bureaucracy. Sadler settles into his role of cost-analysis while keeping his ears and eyes open for the person or persons who are passing information on to Mars. While he is plugging away at his assignment, events are moving faster than even he could have imagined. When he gets an offer to travel outside the lunar domes and across the barren surface of the Moon, he readily accepts in order to get away from the boredom of his assignment that seems to be going nowhere. The trip is uneventful until the crew of the lunar rover comes across an unknown installation that they are quickly warned away from. Sadler’s interest is piqued about the activity around what can only be a weapon, but a weapon against what?
EARTHLIGHT follows the thread of the earlier stories and brings to a conclusion the breakaway of the colonies from Earth.
Clarke has given fictional examples of man’s spirit to venture into the unknown of space and make a habitable world for himself away from his home planet.
The styles of the narratives have obvious flaws in them, which can only be seen with the hindsight of 40 years of practical space exploration. Even so, Clarke’s stories still make enjoyable reading 40 years on.
SUNSTORM by Arthur C Clarke & Stephen Baxter
I enjoyed this one more than the previous volume, TIME’S EYE, mainly because although I do usually enjoy
‘alternate reality’ stories, I’m not a great fan of historical novels, and although I’m sure all the undoubtedly well-
researched material about Genghis Khan and Alexander the Great is very interesting, I prefer my hard SF to be about
science. Actually, although it is helpful to have read the first novel, it is really quite a separate story, so not essential.
In TIME’S EYE people from very different time-periods, including subhumans and Rudyard Kipling, are suddenly thrown together on a shattered Earth by what appears to be alien intervention, revealed only by the presence of gleaming, spherical ‘Eyes’. Of these people, only Bisesa Dutt, formerly working for the United Nations from within the British Army in Afghanistan, manages to return to her ‘own’ time on 9 June, 2037 – the day after she left, but having aged five years. And on the very day that an immense solar flare causes widespread damage to all types of electrical systems, traffic chaos, communications, and general alarm, injury and death.
The scene moves to the Moon, where a slightly dysfunctional genius called Eugene Mangles is the only person to predict a much more catastrophic solar event in April 2042, which will destroy the whole Earth, ejecting as much energy in a day as we normally receive in a year. Naturally, from this point onwards much of the action concerns attempts to convince the powers-that-be that this is a real danger, and deciding what, if anything, can be done about it. Here we meet Siobhan McGorran, the Astronomer Royal, to whom falls the task of coordinating this effort.
Two major computer AI systems run virtually all utilities systems, communications, etc. On Earth, it’s Aristotle; on the Moon, Thales. Both originated in the 20th century with something like Google. It is decided that the only way to even attempt to save Earth is to build a huge shield far out in space, creating a sort of artificial eclipse which will protect Earth from at least the worst of the radiation. To have any hope of making this work a new AI will be required: Athena. Now, remembering 2001 and Hal, you will probably be expecting these AI’s to spring some surprises. Well, maybe; I won’t spoil it for you. But certainly they are vital to the story, and the book is exciting and satisfying, with many touches which are recognizably the characteristic work of both authors. A real page-turner.
I have one small gripe. Clarke always capitalized Sun, Earth and Moon.
Quite rightly, since they are proper nouns, and all rather important to us! So by what logic does Baxter (who did all of the actual writing) do so with ‘Earth’ and ‘Moon’, but not ‘sun’? It jars every time I read it.
THE LIGHT OF OTHER DAYS by Arthur C Clarke & Stephen Baxter
The title is taken from a story by the late Bob Shaw, to whom the book is dedicated, but it has little to do with Shaw's "
slow glass ". The concept behind the book is a camera ( for want of a better word) which can be used to view any
event anywhere in space or time at the will of the operator. This is not a new idea: a similar idea was used by Isaac
Asimov in 1956 in a story entitled " The Dead Past " and before that in 1947 by the less well-known T.L.Sherred in a
story called " E For Effort
Like Clarke's previous collaborative n ovel" The Trigger " which I reviewed in these pages about a year ago, this one takes a new science-fictional idea and looks at its likely effect on people and society. The writers have provided a pseudo-scientific explanation for the working of the device by basing it on the use of wormholes, a concept not available to the previous authors I have mentioned and as one would expect, the explanation sounds quite plausible, at least on a surface level. However, the main purpose is not to provide an account of the device itself but rather to describe the consequences of its introduction. It all takes place in a near-future world affected by social, political and physical deterioration, complicated by the advent of the "Wormwood ", a 400-kilometer astronomical body due to impact the Earth in five centuries' time. Society and people do adapt to the wholesale introduction of " WormCam " technology, but the Wormwood turns out to be something of a red herring having little effect on the eventual outcome.
Asimov's 1956 story ended with the frightening realisation that uncontrolled use of such a device would mean the end of all privacy. This book takes it from there to produce a penetrating and revealing insight into what might happen when everyone has to conduct their personal lives in a world made of glass, while open government becomes a reality, war becomes impossible and history, including the origin of all religious beliefs, is exposed to scrutiny. These developments are fascinating. Stories of history are given a new realism and there is a striking review of the four billion year story of human evolution with a new nd unexpected suggestion for the origin of life on Earth. Eventually, humanity itself becomes changed at the most fundamental level.
I feel sure that however the collaboration between the two writers may have taken place it was left largely to Baxter to wind it up and the ending has his authority stamped all over it, even though the sheer extravagance of the whole remains typical of the best of Clarke. Whether I am right or not, the result cannot be accounted as anything but a total success and is a book not to be missed.
TIME’S EYE (Time Odyssey Book 1) by Arthur C Clarke & Stephen Baxter
TIME’S EYE is a story of Earth within an alternative universe of the past, the present and the possible future of
It is set against the occurrence of a global realignment of the fabric of space and time. This has resulted in selected times of human biological and social evolution being shifted from their rightful place within the historical timeline to coexist at one instance, resulting in a patchwork of eras situated across the earth.
These slices of time range from the beginning of man’s evolution from forest dweller to savannah dweller, through the periods of ancient and modern history and on forward to a proposed near future.
That this is something other than natural is evidenced by the appearance of the large hovering spheres within the individual time slices and the oddly geometric and obviously artificial boundaries.
The story concentrates on the coming together of two groups and the events they experience as they travel towards the proposed centre of the disturbance. The first consists of a helicopter crew from the near future; Rudyard Kipling and the British Army in the NW Frontier; and Alexander the Great and his army; the second consists of a group of cosmonauts and Genghis Khan and his army.
The plot runs smoothly through the reconstructed Earth, taking the reader to areas of the world that the two great war leaders knew in their time and postulates on their reactions to the changes. The leisurely journey through the world is broken by various faster-paced sections of the story.
One such interruption of the slower tempo of the story is the eventual coming together of the armies of Alexander and Genghis Khan in a battle for the possession of the central controlling sphere.
An enjoyable and exciting read postulating the effects of such an occurrence and the resulting social interaction between people of different time periods.
THE LAST THEOREM by Arthur C Clarke & Frederik Pohl
Well, it’s a bit of a mess, really. Just as Heinlein repeated himself in his later, dreadful books, so Clarke returns to some
of his old, wellworn ideas – the ‘Skyhook’ or space elevator on Ceylon, a solar sailing race with his ‘Sunjammer’, the
wonders of deep-sea diving, and so on. I was ready for the scene in which someone has to go into vacuum without a
spacesuit, and didn’t quite get it though the story came close.
But wait a minute, did I suggest that Clarke wrote this? No, he didn’t. The book has Fred Pohl’s trademarks all over it, his tongue-in-cheek, don’t-take-too-seriously depiction of human foibles and alien interventions, never mind the mathematical stuff which is his special forte, and the most interesting bit of the book. Unfortunately, despite a few digressions our protagonist has solved Fermat’s Last Theorem by Page 109, barely a third of the way through, and from then onwards it’s downhill all the way.
Did I say ‘story’ up there? You know, with believable characters, plot, suspense, tension & resolution, maybe a bit of mystery and excitement along the way? Sorry, you don’t get any of that stuff. The best they can manage is some between-chapters verbiage about squids-in-space who are going to destroy the Earth… except that for no particular reason they decide not to, in the end.
There was a report in Ansible two years ago that Clarke ‘is no longer writing, and has asked dynamic young author Frederik Pohl (born two years after ACC) to finish his new novel’. I suspect that’s a bit of an understatement; my guess is that Arthur gave Fred an idea, a few notes, and left him to it. I wonder why either of them bothered.
THE BELLES by Dhonielle Clayton
Given the cover of this book I was in two minds as to whether I would like it or not. On the one hand, it is very “pink”
and soft focus, which made me worry whether it was heading too much into “chick-lit” territory (a term which I detest).
However, it also had a person of colour on the cover, which is still quite progressive even to this day. Not knowing quite
what to expect, I actually loved this book and whizzed through it in one session as I really got hooked into the story
and wanting to know what happened.
Orleans is a city where status is determined by beauty and appearance. Everyone is born grey-skinned and viewed as ugly, apart from the mysterious Belles. They are naturally “beautiful” and what is more, they have the magic to change other people’s appearance, at least temporarily. They are raised and managed by the DuBarry family, who regulate access to their services and also market Belle-sanctioned beauty products and cosmetics. As each new generation of Belles matures, they are sent to various “tea houses” where they will work at transforming the rich courtiers and merchants. These placements are determined in a grand spectacle, the Beauté Carnaval, where the Belles compete to show their abilities with the winner becoming the new “favourite” who will serve the Queen and her court at the royal Palace.
Camille is one of the newest Belles – she is ambitious but naïve. As she starts to treat the members of the royal court she discovers that her transformative powers have a negative side, both in the effect on herself but also in the pain the transformations cause her clients. Whilst the Queen tries to regulate and limit these procedures, the callous and selfish heir apparent Princess Sabine will clearly ruthlessly exploit the Belles’ abilities if she succeeds to the throne. Initially flattered and indulged, Camille tries at first to please the vain and cruel Princess Sabine. As she and her sister Belles start to discover more about the cost to themselves and to society as a whole of the use of their abilities, Camille comes to realise that the Princess is a monster who cannot be allowed to take the throne. As the Queen’s health starts to fail, Camille must try to find a way to escape from the control of the royal court and to learn more about the Belles’ unexplained abilities and origins.
What makes this well-paced and enjoyable YA fantasy really stand out is in its exploration of the many problems associated with modern-day society’s obsession with youth and physical “beauty”. From the constant pressure to emulate so-called “celebrities” and the extremes that people will go to in order to achieve so-called perfection through to the mental health effects on those who can’t meet impossible and arbitrary standards. Although there is a lot that can be read into the metaphors of the story, the touch is light and not heavy-handed and the story works well on its own merits. The story builds to an exciting climax but there is clearly much still to be resolved in future books. A great debut and it will be interesting to see how the author develops and improves in future books.
MISSION OF GRAVITY by Hal Clement
Has anyone in the group NOT read this one? MISSION OF GRAVITY is pure, concentrated science fiction as-it-used-
to-be, a problem story on a fascinating alien world. The storyline takes us across the face of Mesklin, the ‘poached-egg’
planet where temperatures are below -100C and a day is only 18 minutes long. Our hero is Barlennan, a sort of giant
centipede, who captains the sailing-ship Bree from the Rim, where gravity is ‘only’ 3G, across roiling seas of liquid
methane and through many adventures to the remote pole, where gravity approaches a crushing 700G.
The point is to stay faithful to science as-we-know it, using as baseassumptions the astronomical data about the (then-recently discovered) superjovian companion of 61 Cygni, with no tricks, no dodges, and no super gadgets in the last chapter. “Playing the game”, Hal Clement called it, as he did the math and tried to make sure his physics and chemistry were scrupulously correct. You can’t have an alien environment much stranger than this!
But true ‘hard’ SF isn’t seen very often these days, too difficult when softer options seem more popular, cyberpunk and wide-screen baroque, not to mention telepathy and – dare I say it – all those bloody dragons. MISSION OF GRAVITY is over fifty years old now, Hal Clement’s action sequences and dialogue were never very dramatic even then, and maybe our field has moved on? It’s a classic of course, no doubt about it, but then so are BLEAK HOUSE and THE PICKWICK PAPERS and most of us don’t read them for fun any more, do we? So I’d be interested to know what newer readers make of this book.
SALVO edited by Lynn M Cochrane
People can write for many contrasting reasons and the intended audience can be very different for different pieces.
This book evidences this very well; this is a showcase anthology of work by the Cannon Hill Writers’ Group, a local
writers’ group and includes work by several Brum Group members including Theresa Derwin, Jan Edwards, Lynn
Edwards (as Lynn Cochrane), Chris Morgan and Pauline Morgan (as Pauline Dungate. It is always difficult to review
something which is so varied, both in themes and styles. This little book contains over 50 pieces of prose and poetry
and obviously there will be some that suit some people more than others. It also needs to be borne in mind that the
writers themselves have very differing levels of experience, ranging from some very new to writing to some who have
been professionally published. That being said I did find many pieces which I enjoyed and although I have not
enough space to
discuss every piece in detail I will try and provide an idea of the variety and highlight a few of the works which I liked.
The poems and prose here contain a mixture of pure fiction, some
clearly autobiographical pieces and some clearly very personal stories.
Although the majority of the work is in real world settings, there is some science fiction, fantasy and horror.
In the science fiction realm there is ‘Nanna’ by Margaret Miller which starts with an old lady telling children her story of the colonisation of
a new planet. Although using familiar themes it is still well-written and builds a believable and likeable character. ‘The Harrowing’ by Lynn Cochrane is a study of a disaster but observed subtly from the side-lines. It concentrates on ordinary characters slowly adjusting their lives due to civilisation collapse, and the actual detail of what has happened is only inferred from its effects.
There is also some horror and fantasy although for some of the
stories the boundaries are a bit blurred. Theresa Derwin has a funny little story called ‘Mikey’ which starts as an interview about discrimination, but with a twist. There is also ‘The Hag’s Piano’ which is very atmospheric but would benefit from expansion – although to be fair it is billed as an extract.
For fantasy fans there is ‘A Woodland Dream’ by Helena Hempstead, a
modern variation on the theme of A MIDSUMMER NIGHT’S DREAM.
Of the more mainstream work, I liked ‘September 1st 1939: Evacuation’ by Joyce Lancashire and ‘Memories of Trains’ by Z. Burszytn which both feel like very personal recollections of war memories. They may not be the most polished but the recall and recording of these memories is clearly important to the authors and does engage the emotions.
There were also various stories which used humour, of which the most amusing in my opinion was ‘The Start of the Habit’ by Chris Morgan, about two ladies with awful husbands.
Finally, this volume contains a number of poems in various styles,
including rhyming, non-rhyming and even a haiku. I have difficulty
assessing what is good or not with regards to poetry and am hesitant to offer an opinion. I can only say that some did not work for me but I certainly enjoyed some of the poems. I liked ‘The Vigil’ by Helena Hempstead and ‘Rook’ by Elaine Oakley for the emotions they captured which felt very real. Lastly, but by no means least, the collection ends with an excellent poem by the late Joel Lane called ‘The Chosen Woodlouse’ which in just three short verses contains a lot to think upon.
WEIRD ALES: LAST ORDERS edited by Lynn M Cochrane
The effect of alcohol, or more exactly the after effect of too much, often leaves the imbiber with the intention of never
again. This might just be because the body rebels and the horrible feeling of systems shutting down. Alternatively,
there is the horror of finding out what you did while you were out of your skull. These days you can view it on social
media to the embarrassment of yourself and family. It is worse when the actual drink is the source of the nightmares.
This is the third anthology that has alcohol at the heart of all its stories. In some cases, it is the secret ingredient that makes it special. In ‘Tenebrae Dark’ by Josh Reynolds it is the blood of a creature out of nightmare that is distilled to make that sought-after spirit.
To get the best flavour the beast needs to be fed blood and human is best. (It is a pity that the title is spelt differently from the text of the story.) ‘The Master Brewer’ in Daniel Hall’s story uses the essence of young women as the magical ingredient for the brew they come for miles to sample. E M Eastick’s ‘Yeast Beast Bitter’ also uses bodies as an ingredient, but in this case, it is the yeast that does the work, and it is a useful way of disposing of obnoxious men.
Once you have made your brew, you need a place to consume it. Roger Harris frequents ‘The Queen’s Head’ described by Calum Chalmers in his story. Arrayed behind the bar are half-finished bottles of spirits, and Roger covets one of them. When he steals it, he gets more than he bargained for. In ‘Alcoholiches Anonymous’ by Marc Kadushin the bar in question is the Arcane Toddy. It is frequented by supernatural beings.
When a paladin is killed in the bar, Greg, the owner finds he is on the wrong side of an avenging angel.
A pub or bar is not the only place to find an unusual tipple. The narrator in ‘Uncle Bertie’s Liquor Cabinet’ by James Newman finds a strange bottle tucked at the back of his late uncle’s drinks cabinet. The effect of sampling it is to make visible the invisible. This story owes much to Lovecraft, as does ‘The Dunwich Cold One’ by Stuart Conover. Here, the bar owner makes the mistake of buying a brew made from ingredients growing along the Miskatonic River.
Once you have had your fill of alcohol, you can look forward to the hangover. Jonathan Butcher’s ‘The Last Hangover’ is the ultimate one, except the bigoted narrator has to live his last night alive over again, and again and for ever. Hell is a permanent hangover.
These aren’t the only stories in this volume but all point out the perils of imbibing too much, all have their own brand of nastiness. Lynn Cochrane (a Brum Group member) has done a good job of editing this book – any problems are the authors’ fault rather than hers. Praise too, to Theresa Derwin who concocted the idea and persuaded others to swallow these cocktails of lethal drinks.
THE ALCHEMY PRESS BOOK OF HORRORS edited by Peter Coleborn & Jan Edwards
At a time when too many anthologies are limited to a theme, here’s an unthemed one containing twenty-five brilliant
and far-ranging horror stories. I searched assiduously on your behalf for a dud amongst them but couldn’t find one.
This is largely due to the fact that over 400 stories were submitted. That’s a huge, perhaps unprecedented response to
a small press anthology.
I’m not going to tell you about every story, just about the sharper, stronger, more surprising ones that have stayed with me.
It’s easy to take Ramsey Campbell for granted as “Britain’s most respected living horror writer”. He’s been producing top quality horror stories for over fifty years and “Some Kind of a Laugh” is one of his best. A bistro waiter is the look-alike of a famous comedian; he’s pushed into using the comedian’s familiar catch-phrases to increase custom at the bistro. It’s all perfectly credible - and still surprising.
There’s a completely different type of story from Stan Nicholls, about a changing landscape: credible, very bleak, and not an Orc in sight. Credibility of setting and characters are important aspects of horror fiction and are common to almost all of the stories here. Debbie Bennett’s “The Fairest of them All” has Caitlin, in her mid-teens, with boyfriend trouble. James Brogden’s “The Trade-up” shows us a travelling salesman down on his luck. There are foreign settings. John Grant’s “Too Late” is a warning against Spanish holidays with one’s spouse. Madhvi Ramani sets her story in a small German town reminiscent of “Hotel California”. In “Along the Backroads” Jenny Barber portrays a dangerous landscape (I was reminded of Harry Harrison’s DEATHWORLD). Ray Cluley’s “Bluey” is set in an all too plausible English school of today, where Shaun is trying to control a class of 15-year-olds.
In the anthology you can find some quiet, atmospheric stories such as Storm Constantine’s “La Ténébreuse” and some extraordinary horrors, in particular “Peelers” by Ralph Robert Moore. So if you’re of a nervous disposition, stick with Mills & Boon romances, where a happy ending is guaranteed.
I must mention the illustrations. Renowned horror artist Jim Pitts has contributed a small headpiece for each story, terrifying and appropriate, the modern equivalent of Thomas Bewick’s engravings.
So this is a beautifully produced anthology of fine, satisfying horror stories. You may remember the editors, who spoke to the group in March 2015. If you buy a copy you won’t be disappointed and it may well become an annual series.
ABADDON’S GATE by James S A Corey
ABADDON’S GATE is the third novel in James S.A. Corey’s Expanse series and I regret that I have not read the
previous two. This is not because I found this book difficult to follow as the author has provided sufficient information
to adequately set the scene. In itself ABADDON’S GATE is strong enough so that reader’s enjoyment is not diminished
even if the previous two instalments have not been read. It is an excellent book flowing well and welding together the
storylines of the main characters in a masterful way creating a rich and enthralling tapestry. I expect that the first two
books of this series will also be very good and certainly intend to read them as soon as possible and then enjoy
rereading ABADDON’S GATE. I also eagerly await the fourth instalment CIBOLA BURN. Fans of Neal Asher and Gary
Gibson should also enjoy this series.
In these books mankind has spread throughout the solar system and split into three political groupings: Earth, Mars and the Outer Planet Alliance (OPA). Sometime before the events taking place in ABADDON’S GATE an alien ‘protomolecule’ has been found dormant within the outer solar system where it has lain dormant for about two billion years. On discovery it was somehow activated resulting in havoc and the destruction of Ganymede before it fell into the atmosphere of Venus where it created a ring-like massive artefact/structure (the gate) which leads to a starless space and is now in an orbit outside that of Uranus. Fleets of the three political and antagonistic groups are speeding to the ring both to study it and prevent the others from gaining an advantage.
ABADDON’S GATE is told from the points of view of four pivotal characters. Firstly, Jim Holden and the crew of the private corvette ‘Rocinante’ who are reluctantly ferrying a documentary crew to the gate to cover the unfolding events. Secondly, Carlos c de Baca, Bull to his friends and acquaintances, who is security chief on the OPA battleship Behemoth allegedly the biggest and baddest weapon platform in the solar system. If he wasn’t an Earther he would have been at least the ship’s executive officer and possibly its captain. Thirdly there is Clarissa Melpomene Mao who is travelling on the Earth Fleet support ship Corisier, she’s there to destroy Jim Holden for ‘crimes’ against her family. Finally, Annushka Volovodov, Pastor Anna to her congregation, is on the Earth Navy battleship, Thomas Prince as part of the UN Secretary General’s humanitarian committee advisory group. Pastor Anna is to play an unexpectedly pivotal role in the inevitable conflict between all protagonists on both an individual and individual basis.
As I’ve said before in previous reviews I do not care much for the publicity term ‘must have’ but I’m afraid that James S. A. Corey and the Expanse series has well and truly crashed onto my list of must have authors and books.
LONDON FALLING by Paul Cornell
There is a lot of what is called ‘cross-over’ fiction around these days. In some cases, it is claimed, that is just how the
story turned out, that the author merely told the story they wanted to tell. The more cynical might suggest that it is a
ploy to gain a larger share of the market, or that the author is dressing up what they really want to write my suggesting
it is something else. This latter scenario has certainly been employed by horror writers unable to find a publisher for
that genre label. Some crime can certainly be very gruesome.
At the outset, LONDON FALLING has all the hallmarks of being a crime thriller. Costain and Sefton are undercover cops planted in the gang of Toshack, a very successful underworld boss. Toshack has taken over a number of other firms in the last ten years but is very canny. No-one has been able to get any evidence against him. Now it is make or break time. Wired up, Costain has one last chance to get something out of Toshack before the heavy mob smash down the door and arrest the whole gang.
Then, in the interview, Toshack has an apparent seizure and dies. Immediately suspicion falls on the squad; that perhaps someone has managed to poison him. As a result, the four people that are above suspicion are hived off into a Portakabin with the brief to investigate the circumstances of the death, while the rest of the squad concentrate on clearing up behind Toshack’s gang.
Thus, Costain and Sefton are joined by Quill, their immediate boss and the witness to Toshack’s death, and Lisa Ross, a police analyst. Using Costain’s knowledge of Toshack’s movements in the last couple of days before his arrest they are plunged into a far deeper mystery.
This is the point where the nature of the book changes as supernatural horror elements begin to shape the rest of the plot. Searching the same houses Toshack did the night before his arrest, they discover the remains of three children in a cauldron switching the game to a murder hunt. They quickly find that their prey is a Mora Loseley who is a West Ham supporter and a witch. She is elusive but they do establish that any player who manages to score a hat- trick against her club is in danger of death. The race is on to catch her before that happens again.
The plot is far more complicated than that and has plenty of twists and surprises. The four principal characters are multi-layered each with their own motives, failings and insecurities but are able to meld as a team to reach out for their final objective. I would happily meet them again in another book.
MICRO by Michael Crichton & Richard Preston
I suppose with a title like MICRO, and with the discovery in the first few pages of a perfect tiny aircraft the size of a
peanut, one should expect a story about miniaturization. But it still came as something of a surprise, in a book by
Michael Crichton of JURASSIC PARK fame. We had the film THE INCREDIBLE SHRINKING MAN in 1957 (based on a
Richard Matheson story), FANTASTIC VOYAGE in 1966, updated to INNERSPACE in 1987, both with a very similar
theme to this novel (I wonder if the author had a movie in mind with this one – ?). We can also recall The Borrowers
and Land of the Giants on TV, which is really the same idea in reverse; and, of course, HONEY I SHRUNK THE KIDS.
OK, so the idea isn’t new, but is attractive to filmmakers!
Crichton was well into this novel when he died in 2008, and it was completed by Richard Preston, who is a ‘best- selling author of eight books’, which seem to be mainly non-fiction. Stories with this theme are usually regarded as SF, though if one takes the view that science fiction requires a known, accepted scientific principle, creating humans half- an-inch tall is not yet in that category!
In this novel the method is to subject just about anything to an immensely powerful magnetic field, thousands of times stronger than those in normal industrial use, and known here as a tensor field. This apparently produces a ‘phase change’, and the object – car, plane or human – is reduced to a centimeter or so in size, but everything working normally. (So presumably the very atoms in those objects must be reduced too, which I find most unlikely!) However, after a few days in this state humans become subject to ‘the Bends’; even slight wounds or bruises quickly become worse, and start to bleed profusely, so it is necessary to get back into the tensor field as soon as possible and reverse the effect.
As with other scenarios by this author the setting is in Hawaii; in this case the island of Honolulu. The new company of Nanigen MicroTechnologies has its headquarters and laboratories there, headed by despotic and probably psychopathic venture capitalist Vincent Drake. Seven graduate students are taken to the island as potential employees; one of these, Peter Jansen, has a brother who is a top executive with the company. But Eric Jansen dies in a mysterious boating accident, after sending a text to Peter saying ‘don’t come’. The seven students are shrunk, but become aware that they could also become victims, and escape. From then on it becomes quite an exciting adventure as they evade capture and find themselves in a strange world at the lowest level of the Hawaiian jungle where they are in danger of being attacked and eaten by ants, wasps, spiders and even birds many times larger than themselves, always with the deadline of the onset of the Bends. Some of them don’t make it.
Crichton obviously has a good knowledge of (or has done his research on) botany, zoology, entomology, along with physiology and quite a few other ‘ologies’, and he makes good use of this to produce a story which I enjoyed a lot more than I expected to at the start. Not very original, but still a good read.
THE ANNUNCIATION OF THE STARBORN by Bernadette Danaher
The cover of this book proclaims its publisher’s name along with the slogan ‘Daring New Literature’ with more
prominence than the title of the book. The mission statement on the first page follows this up with words like ‘fresh’,
‘innovative’ and ‘radical’. If I were to follow this with suggestions of Burroughs, you’d probably expect something that
most would find unreadable. This would be misleading.
Most of the company’s adjectives do not belong here - although this is a new author - and the writer this calls to mind is Edgar Rice Burroughs (not William).
What we have here is good oldfashioned sword and sorcery with the emphasis on the latter. Our ‘hero’ is magically transported to another world where he is the only one who can stop the evil (?) from destroying everything.
How he is expected to do this is not explained - it seems to have more to do with being in the right place at the right time - and most of the time he seems to be just a viewpoint for the reader rather than taking any active part in the story.
The setting is a world with three sentient species. The first is all-female part-human part-lioness (in a centaurlike arrangement) religious / magical caste. The female lead is one of these and therefore, despite politicking and the odd treachery, these are the good guys. The second race is effectively people with bird’s heads. Their new leader has been taken over by something nasty in a meteor so they pretty much get to be the bad guys (except for the odd heroic resistance type). Race number three is generally butchered (out of shot) by the bad guys and seem to serve no other purpose.
This is a solid and unremarkable story, reasonably well written.
In accordance with its ‘Daring New’ philosophy the publisher sells its books on-line at bastardbooks. Com.
X7: A SEVEN DEADLY SINS ANTHOLOGY edited by Alex Davis
Putting together an anthology with a theme is not easy. The idea behind X7 is simple – a story for each of the seven
deadly sins. Something like this cannot be an open anthology, authors have to be invited to take part and be assigned
their sin. Then the editor has to keep all fingers crossed that not only does the story fit the sin, but the quality is of an
acceptable standard – even the best authors can produce duffers sometimes.
There are good things and not so good things about this volume. The first thing a reader wants to know is who wrote the stories. This is missing from the contents page as is any indication of price from the back cover. Each story is frontispieced by a line drawing. Some of these are quite effective but are better reproduced smaller and in colour as cards on the front cover.
Lust is represented by Nicholas Royle’s “Dead End”. It begins with a man on holiday in France with his mistress. This could be a straight forward story of illicit sex, but in a horror anthology it is reasonable to expect something nasty to happen. Sin needs to be punished. Royle is a skilful writer and salts clues naturally into the story. It does, though, seem a little rushed towards the end.
Amelia Mangan introduces us to Envy in “If I Were You”. Edwin has discovered that he has a younger sister who was not given up for adoption as he was. He wants to be her, so much so that he is stalking her, observing everything that she does and copying it.
There have been a number of stories of dining clubs whose members seek the ultimate taste experience. None perhaps are quite as revolting as “Gravy Soup” by Simon Clark. This story represents Gluttony. It is the reluctance of some members of the Gymnasium Supper Club to share the secret of the best, most addictive food ever that has Gordon Clumsden sneaking around graveyards at night. This is the grossest story in this volume.
“The Devil In Red” by Alex Bell represents Wrath. Although this story is cleverly and skilfully written it is the most problematic in the context with its theme. Joshua Ackland is a defence lawyer. The client he sees on this day is obviously guilty - he was caught carrying a sack containing some of his wife’s body parts. He claims that the woman he killed was not his wife despite contrary evidence. I can’t quite equate deliberate acts with wrath. It is, though, an intriguing supernatural story that needs a bit more substance.
Simon Bestwick bases his tale of Greed, not on an individual person but the corporate greed of mankind. In “Stormcats” it is that vice and the disregard of the consequences that have led to the situation that Aaron and his family find themselves in. They flee rising floodwaters (caused by global warming) to a cottage which becomes an island. The fight for survival becomes surreal as Aaron reaps the effects of greed.
Pride can take many forms and seems a relatively innocuous sin. The problem comes when pride causes hurt to other people. In “Walls” by Gaie Sebold, Darren is proud of his beautiful wife. Most people would want to show off the things they take pride in. However, Darren keeps Chrys shut away, inventing excuses as to why she mustn’t go outside. From the start there are clues suggesting that all is not as it appears. According to the saying it seems reasonable to expect that Darren is heading for a fall. It’s a good story but the pride aspect of it could have been stronger.
“Seagull Island” by Tom Fletcher is a slothful story. It doesn’t do much but those in the grip of sloth don’t do much either. The narrator spends the whole story lying on a rock by the sea. Although I like a story that goes somewhere and has a bit more action, this offering is the epitome of sloth. Its shape totally encompasses that state.
Seven stories, seven sins. Some work better than others but in any anthology that is a given. All stories veer to the horrific side of life and for the most part the characters are exhibiting human frailty. There will be at least one story that all readers of horror fiction will
appreciate whether or not they feel it encompasses the sin it intends to depict.
THE HOUSE OF BINDING THORNS by Aliette de Bodard
THE HOUSE OF BINDING THORNS is the sequel to THE HOUSE OF SHATTERED WINGS. The reader is again
returned to a ruined Paris, devastated and polluted after a magical war between opposing Houses of Fallen angels
and their client magicians. In the first book, the House of Silverspires and the characters who lived there were the main
focus. In this book, the attention is shifted to a rival house, Hawthorn and its leader, the Fallen Asmodeus. Whilst
House Hawthorn was not as badly affected as House Silverspires, there were some significant consequences.
Asmodeus’ long-term lover, Samariel was killed and Asmodeus has reclaimed the human alchemist, Madeleine from
House Silverspires. Madeleine had hidden there for twenty years after escaping from a bloody coup within House
Hawthorn which brought Asmodeus into power. Madeleine and Phillipe, another main character from the previous
book, both have a pivotal role to play in this book.
During the first book, a hidden kingdom within the waters of the Seine was discovered. Ruled by shape-shifting water dragons (Rong), their magic is different in nature to the Fallen. House Hawthorn, seeing the opportunities, is trying to negotiate an alliance, which will be sealed with a dynastic marriage between Asmodeus and a royal prince. The water kingdom needs the alliance as they are weakened by various forces including magical pollution from the previous war but also by the prevalent use of smuggled angel essence (which corrupts the user) from the surface. When representatives of Hawthorn visit the Imperial Court to negotiate, they uncover opposition to the alliance from factions within the Kingdom and the Fallen, which ultimately threaten not only the alliance but the continued existence of the Kingdom and Hawthorn as well.
As good sequels do, this book expands from the narrow confines of one House to consider the wider environment of Paris. We see as a contrast to the Houses, the harsh life of the people who do not have their protection. They, the dragons and the Fallen all have a major role to play in the final outcome. In particular, the Annamite (Vietnamese) population who came as a result of France’s colonial occupation of their country feature strongly, both as the houseless but also as the magical, Imperial court beneath the river. This contrasting of Western and Eastern mythologies, magical and political systems is one of the refreshing and interesting aspects of this series. There is also a clear allusion to the Opium Wars between the British and the Chinese in the real world. As before the worldbuilding is unique, detailed and enthralling. If I have a criticism, it is similar to the last book in that I found myself far more interested in some characters than others, and felt there was more depth to them than the book had time to explore (in particular the interplay between the charismatic ruthless Asmodeus and the quiet but more moral Prince Thuan) but hopefully that will be in another book. If you like fantasy which is intelligent and definitely non-formulaic, then I would absolutely recommend this book.
THE HOUSE OF SHATTERED WINGS by Aliette de Bodard
The HOUSE OF SHATTERED WINGS is set in a ruined Paris. This is a world where angels fall periodically to Earth,
their wings removed and with no memory of why they have been cast out. These Fallen are suffused with magic and
gangs of humans will kill them to gain temporary magical powers although like all drugs, eventually angel essence
will kill the user. To protect themselves, the Fallen band together into Great Houses. These compete in ruthless and
Machiavellian power games which resulted some years ago in a Great War. This has left Paris devastated, its river
polluted and the humans forced into either scratching a living or if skilled, gaining protection from the diminished
houses. At the start of the story, House Silverspires rescues a newly fallen and disoriented angel, Isabelle from a gang
who want to kill her for her magical flesh. They also capture a strange man, Phillipe who seems more than human and
who has a mysterious link to Isabelle from having ingested some of her flesh.
While under house arrest, Phillipe and Isabelle unwittingly unleash a malign entity that hides in shadows and progressively stalks and kills the members of House Silverspires one by one. Phillipe, as the activator of the “curse” now starts to have visions, which are clearly someone’s memories. These memories show the house in earlier times, its missing and charismatic leader, Morningstar and his betrayal of the originator of the curse. The shadow killer is clearly the revenge of this person and is meant to bring about the total destruction of House Silverspires. As the other houses manoeuvre to take advantage of the stricken House, Phillipe is forced reluctantly to try and unravel the nature of the creature and the identity of the betrayed Silverspires member.
I found this very much a novel of two halves. In the first half I thoroughly enjoyed the world-building which is superb and detailed – the crumbling and derelict Paris and the diminished but still warring Houses work very well. The organisation of the Houses and their human and Fallen members are interesting and the slow reveal of the absent Morningstar and the consequences of his actions keep you engaged. However once the initial threat is uncovered, it felt to me like there was a significant loss of menace and pace. There is still a threat to the House but as they have been “off-stage” for too long, their ultimate revelation feels anticlimactic. It also felt to me that the characters’ motivations and actions were less credible and inconsistent with their previous characters – for instance, Morningstar and the head of House Hawthorn, Asmodeus. Also several plot points feel either unresolved or incompatible with earlier established facts – especially the relationship between Isabelle and Phillipe. I have read some of Aliette De Bodard’s SF short stories which I have thoroughly enjoyed. This book again demonstrates her impressive imagination but sadly the ending did not live up to the promise of the beginning.
THE ONION GIRL by Charles de Lint
Charles de Lint has built a world which he visits frequently in his novels and short stories. In the poorer areas of
Newford you are as likely to see magical creatures as vagrants and bag ladies - if you know how to look. The characters
that frequent these tales are such people. Often, as in any neighbourhood, old friends will be found. This is Jilly
Jilly is an artist. She and two of her friends, Sophie and Wendy, call themselves 'The Small Fierce Women'. It characterises their outlook on life. At the start of the novel, Jilly is involved in an accident which lands her in hospital. For a while her survival is in doubt, and then her injuries are such that she may not be able to paint again. Newford, though, lies close to the borders with the Otherworld. Sophie has always been able to travel there in her dreams to the extent that she has a whole other life there. Now Jilly finds that her dreaming sell can also go there, and she can do all the things she currently cannot do in her real life, like sketch.
At about the same time as Jilly's accident, a pack of wolves, the personalities of other dreamers, appears in the Otherworld. These are hunting and killing unicorns.
The narrative of the present is interspersed with chapters from the point of view of Raylene, the sister J illy left behind when she escaped from an abusive father. Gradually, as the layers of Jilly's and Raylene's lives peel away we get a glimpse of the forces that shape a person. This is a powerful novel, drawing on emotion to paint the characters and myth to give it that extra magic.
THE THIEF-TAKER’S APPRENTICE by Stephen Deas
This is the first of a series following the life of Berren, a fourteen-year-old boy living in the city of Deephaven. Berren is
a thief who has the nerve to steal the purse of Deephaven’s most feared thief-taker, Syannis. Impressed by this,
Syannis hunts down Berren and buys him from his vicious gang-master/owner Hatchet. The book then follows Berren’s
first few months as the thief-takers apprentice.
The book is well written and is easily read but is a linear depiction of Berren’s story, lacking the varied strands that
often gives a book breadth and makes it come to life. For instance, although Syannis is a very successful and
potentially interesting character, how he goes about his business, discovering vital information, is largely unreported.
So overall, I found the book was somewhat bland and disappointing. At one stage I thought to myself that this book is
more for young persons and not adults. It was therefore not
surprising that when I finally read the press release, as I did not wish to be over influenced by it, I found that it was
aimed at young adults. This was not apparent from the information on the jacket. Reassessing my conclusions, it is not
a poor book and young persons (young teens) should gain a good deal of enjoyment from it. However, I still think that
widening its scope to follow the lives and experiences of some of the other characters more closely would make it a
much better and exciting read.
ANDROMEDA’S CHILDREN edited by Theresa Derwin
ANDROMEDA’S CHILDREN is an anthology of SF stories with the theme of strong female protagonists who “challenge
the tropes of female characters in the majority of science fiction”. Some of you may remember that a book launch for
this book was also held at the October 2015 meeting of the Brum Group.
Perhaps the most glaring issue with this book lies not within its stories but in the many errors that are common throughout. It feels that the text has been put through a spell-checker but not proof read before final printing. This does the authors a grave dis-service as it is very distracting and pulls the reader out of the flow of the story. These numerous errors include missing words, missed or inappropriate punctuation (including apostrophes) and the wrong homophones (ie words which sound similar but have a different spelling and meaning) of which the most noticeable example is the first story “Desert Storm” which is listed as “Dessert Storm” in the header of each page.
The anthology contains thirteen stories, of which only five are by female authors. That is not to say that male writers cannot write good female protagonists – for example, the story “Golden Age” by James S Dorr in this anthology is a nice character study of an older woman looking back on her long life. Nevertheless, with this theme in particular, I would like to have seen a bit more of an equal ratio given that there are many excellent female writers out there.
Whilst some of the stories do feature interesting female protagonists, others do not feel like they live up to the remit of “challenging the tropes”. The stories that I liked included the following; “Desert Storm” by Pauline Dungate, in which we find that some things are universal, especially pompous individuals who need taking down a peg or two. “Being Ready” by Lynn M Cochrane, where the protagonist negotiates cleverly with her alien captors, and “To the Altar” where two women from opposing sides agonise over the ethics of whether to bomb a country into submission. What the four stories mentioned above understand, in my estimation is that strong should not just mean aggressive.
Unfortunately, some of the other stories in this collection miss this point, and feel that the definition of “strong” female character merely involves someone who beats somebody up (“Cut and Run” by David Perlmutter) or callously kills people (“Enlightened Soldier” by Matthew Sylvester and “Shelved Desires” by Damon Cavalchini). My least favourite story in the whole collection, “Electric You” by Damon Cavalchini, also suffers from this trope but in addition also dwells too much on a princess who distracts the “bad guys” with her attractive body and reads like bad E E ‘Doc’ Smith – not exactly “challenging the trope”.
The remaining stories in the collection all have some merit but I feel that they could have been more polished – some need a little more emotional depth whereas others are good ideas but would have benefitted from a little more attention to plot logic or research. Carol Goodwin
HER DARK VOICE edited by Theresa Derwin
It is always good to welcome new, independent publishers to the field, especially those prepared to produce
anthologies of new stories. It is a pity they have to go through a steep learning curve before the product is right.
Knightwatch Press is a relative newcomer to the playground and is still learning the rules. This is one of their early
volumes and, as such, exhibits many elementary mistakes. It does, though get some things right. It is better to begin
with the positive.
This book, subtitled AN ANTHOLOGY CELEBRATING THE FEMALE VOICE, was produced to raise money for the Breast Cancer Campaign, all profits going to that organisation. For that reason, all those involved gave their services without charge. There are twelve stories here (not ten as stated in the forward) and all but two are previously unpublished. They range from contributions from well-known authors such as Jaine Fenn and Liz Williams to the relatively unknown. Most of the stories are worthy of being included in almost any quality magazine and, unlike many anthologies these days, there is no particular theme, the only connection being that all the authors are female and the stories are of a sinister bent.
Normally, it is good practice to have the strongest story as the first in a volume, for the simple reason that this is what a potential reader will look at first (other than the cover) and decide whether or not to buy. The second strongest goes last. It is a shame that this convention was not used as the weakest story in the whole volume (“Honour Among Thieves” by Lynda Collins) kicks off the book. It doesn’t help that the final story “The Tenant Of Rosewood Abbey” is also by Lynda Collins. Although this is a far better story it could be further developed and there are other female writers who would have been happy to contribute to this volume.
It is not all bad news. There are some delightful stories here. “Fear Not Heaven’s Fire” by Jaine Fenn is not only powerfully written but the kind of story that I would expect in an anthology with this title. The narrator is a strong, female character; a blind nun who discovers a man hiding beneath the convent granary. In a mediaeval setting when the power of faith was stronger, still not all those who took the veil necessarily did so as a vocation.
The idea of these stories is to have a dark edge. That is certainly true of “The Clinic” by Jan Edwards. The sister of the narrator is in the last stages of Motor Neurone disease. Sarah wants the ordeal over and when she is made an offer to resolve the matter, she seriously considers it. This is a story with subtlety. Jacey Bedford’s story, “Kindling The Flame” is much less so but is still an entertaining piece of writing. The cover of the book is an illustration from the story – but more about that later.
The title character in Gaie Sebold’s “Ice-Cream Man” definitely has a demonic bent and is looking for an apprentice. This is a powerful story, and shows how low some youths can sink because they think that no-one cares. “Cyndy And The Demon Asmodeus” by Rhiannon Mills is almost another demonic recruitment story. Although not particularly sophisticated it still has a lightness of touch.
There are some writers who retell old tales in a different fashion, others who invent their own myths. Misa Buckley belongs to the former, as in her “Siren Shadows” a young man is lured to a night of lust with what he thinks are three beautiful women. Liz Williams belongs to the latter. Her “Blanchenoire” is a fable. Blanche is approaching adulthood, and lives in a world that is totally monochrome. Events change her perspective and allow colour to enter the world. Williams is a complex writer and even within a story this short there are themes that need teasing out. Nothing here is superficial. Lynn M. Cochrane’s “Leaf Green” also plays with myth but in a very different way to the other two. This story feels like a fragment of something longer.
So, this is a mixed bag of stories, some excellent, some enjoyable and a turkey. But readers don’t always agree with an editor’s choice. The downside of this book revolves around two factors, cover and layout. The cover illustration is amateurish, drawn by an artist who, in this instance, shows no skill in illustrating the human form. Covers sell books. This deserved better. The other big issue is inside. The content list fails to acknowledge the authors – a huge omission – and the author biographies at the end are too detailed. On a personal note, I find the actual layout of the text a little annoying. I prefer a larger indentation at the start of paragraphs, but it is consistent throughout.
Whatever the shortcomings of this volume, the important reason for buying it is that had been produced to aid a very worthwhile charity. You don’t have to read the book, just buy it as a contribution.
SEASON’S CREEPINGS by Theresa Derwin
These days, when people talk about pocket books, they mean note books that tuck into a pocket or bag, or in the case
of Americans, the publishing imprint that has given us popular series such as Buffy or Star Trek. They were made the
right size for the pockets of coats, before fashion banished them. This is a pocket sized book, but you probably wouldn’t
want to be seen reading it on a bus.
This slim volume was actually published before Christmas and would have made a good stocking filler for the horror fan in your family. It contains six pieces all with a creepy slant.
The first offering, “Fifty Hades of Grey”, is a short story with a topical slant. Most people will have heard of the Fifty Shades… books and film even if they have not admitted to reading or watching any of them. Many phenomena have corporations cashing in with merchandising. Four women, friends for nearly forty years, meet up to exchange Christmas presents. Ange presents the others with a small, naked male doll labelled, “Grow Your Own Mr Grey”. They giggle over it, as the instructions urge them to leave the object in water overnight. Once her friends have left, Jo submerges hers in the bath, just to see what will happen. Later that night, she wakes to find a six-foot, gorgeous naked man in her bathroom. Although she initially accepts the unexpected gift, the demon she has grown has underestimated the modern woman. The story itself is nicely told but its topical nature and some of the references in it might date it quickly and, even in five years’ time, the reader might not appreciate all the subtleties.
“Twas the Night” is a parody on the original verse but extremely topical. It was obviously written with passion and anger so it is possible to forgive its short-comings. It is the kind of thing that would appear in a newspaper at the time of the events. The shame is that it will date even more quickly than “Fifty Hades of Grey”.
In contrast, “The Red Queen” has an historical setting. Elizabeth Barton is enamoured with the stories of Charles Dickens. For some reason she determines to make his acquaintance and assist him in his writing. What he doesn’t know is that this is the vampire story in the book. The main problem is that this story is far too short. It lacks the space to exploit the richness of the setting. Dickens was a writer who had a talent for story-telling. This story should at least try to capture that. It would also have more impact if the final curtain had come at the time Dickens had embarked on his unfinished opus, EDWIN DROOD.
With this author, it would be unsurprising to have a collection without a zombie story. “Night of the Living Dead Turkey: Death From Beyond the Gravy” fulfils this role. The biggest pun is the title and gives an idea of the kind of story that follows. Basically, a mutation of avian flu causes a turkey, plucked and oven ready, to resurrect (one assumes it still had a head). The spread of the plague is fast and is told in emails and newspaper reports. It is a good attempt to be different but again suffers from its brevity.
“Last Christmas” uses another of the familiar horror tropes but to tell you which one would spoil the punch line. The male narrator is the one who usually cooks Christmas dinner and he and his wife, Alice, invite unattached friends. One of them, Dave, runs off with Alice, leaving her husband to plot revenge. This story works well at this length.
The final piece, “A Contemporary Christmas Carol” returns to the Dickens’ theme and is a short rant by Scrooge against his creator in modern idiom.
This little book is probably best read with a glass of Christmas cheer and an inclination to be amused. As with most humour it will not appeal to everyone. And if you are sensitive about the language children in your household read, keep it out of their reach.
WOLF AT THE DOOR by Theresa Derwin
Modern writers of horror have a difficult problem. Gone are the days of sitting around a real fire in a room lit by
candlelight, with the wind howling outside and rats scratching in the walls. It is made harder by the authors who have
taken the traditional scary monster such as the werewolf and the vampire and turned them into cuddly, misunderstood
creatures. Not only does the present-day horror writer have to repossess some of the things which scare but to find new
ways to send that frisson of fear racing up the spine. In WOLF AT THE DOOR, Theresa Derwin has tried to do that in
these ten short stories.
As might be expected from the title, the eponymous ‘Wolf at the Door’ involves werewolves. Sam is a werewolf who hasn’t actually ‘changed’. He was infected while working for a facility that captures rogue super-naturals like vampires and werewolves. He is attracted to his councillor, Lesley, who is not what she seems. She tells him things about the research going on in the centre and together, they decide to put a stop to it. This is a romance that contains familiar tropes.
Anyone who knows Theresa will be aware that she has a ‘thing’ about zombies, so it is not surprising to find several in this volume.
‘Dirigible of the Dead’ has a steam-punk setting. The narrator and her small son are travelling from London to Birmingham by dirigible when passengers in economy class begin eating each other. ‘Ring And Rage’ is a more contemporary story. For those who know the Ring and Ride system, it is ideal for those who cannot use other means of transport to get to places like the supermarket. The disabled narrator is joined by a group from a sheltered housing complex. At the supermarket, they start turning into zombies. Here, there is a rationale for the change whereas in the former story, it goes unexplained. ‘Abuse of the Dead’ is a different take on zombies. Here, they are not flesh-eating monsters but dead members of the community with similar rights to the living. Some though, treat them as slaves or in the same way children were exploited in earlier eras. In this story, the narrator is a crusader for the betterment of the dead, working to expose those who would abuse them, for whatever reason.
There is a very thin line between a supernatural experience and being mentally ill. In ‘Muse’ it is left for the reader’s judgement as to whether Mark is actually being guided by a supernatural being, or it is a case that he has stopped taking his medication. ‘Pound of Flesh’ has the same kind of tone. This time it is a question of body image and the narrator is seeing how she would look if she carries out the self-mutilation that seems very logical to her. Whichever way it is read, both of these stories lead to the protagonist carrying out acts that a sane person would not contemplate.
Ghosts that appear in supernatural fiction can take many forms. Some are benign, some deadly. They have a purpose such as revenge, or may have lost their way to the next world. In ‘The Things I See’, the narrator sees the ghosts of murdered children. She always has, but has found that no-one believes her. They show themselves to her because she nearly became a victim like them, and they are trying to get a message across, through her.
Of these and the three other stories in this volume, ‘Pound of Flesh’ is the one that is the most satisfactory. Derwin has excellent ideas but in most cases, the stories are too short, needing a longer treatment to explore the idea more fully. As it is, the short scenes in several cases make the story line muddled. The other problem with this book is that the layout makes it frustrating to read, with, mostly, no indents to paragraphs. What makes it worse is that some stories start off being laid out conventionally, only to slip back into the annoying pattern. This is easy to spot if the final copy is checked. It spoils the appearance of the book and I know this publisher can do better.
FEVER by Lauren DeStefano
Sometimes it seems that the reason books are labelled Young Adult is that the author and/or editor believes that the
readership at which it is aimed is only looking for a well-written tale and the inconsistencies and the flaws will be
forgiven. The problem is that most reviewers are not the target market. Some YA books, like Janet Edward’s EARTH
GIRL can be thoroughly enjoyed by readers of all ages no matter what label is put on it.
Lauren DeStefano’s FEVER and its predecessor WITHER should really only be read by those who just want an interesting story without having their credibility stretched too far.
In the future world of these books, longevity treatments were discovered and dispensed to all.
Unfortunately, proper tests were not made and the children have a greatly reduced life-span. Boys die at twenty- five, girls at twenty; a fact that cannot be escaped. Thus there is an urge to keep the teenagers breeding in the hope that a cure can be found. In WITHER Rhine was forcibly snatched from the streets and became one of three wives to Linden. In the basement of their home, Linden’s father, Vaughn, is prepared to commit all kinds of atrocities to find a cure for his son. At the end of the book, Rhine and Gabriel escape from the house. Rhine’s vague plan is to get back to Manhattan where she expects to find her twin brother.
At the beginning of FEVER the euphoria of escape quickly changes as they seek refuge with a motley band camped in the grounds of an old carnival and they realise that this is within the Scarlet District. The Madam of this particular tented brothel recognises Rhine’s quality and devises plans for her. Initially it is a peep show with the punters spying on Rhine and Gabriel as two captive love-birds, then as a commodity, selling her on to the highest bidder. As Rhine realises what Madam’s intentions are, she becomes determined to escape. With the help of Lilac, another of the girls, they head on to Manhattan accompanied by Lilac’s malformed child. Their eventual arrival is not what Rhine expects. Vaughn is also determined to find and bring Rhine back to the house. To make matters worse, Rhine’s health begins to deteriorate even though she should have a couple more years left before her inevitable demise.
The trouble with many second volumes in a trilogy is that they tend to be makeweights, being the bridge between the excitement of setting up the scenario and the climax of the resolution in volume three. Here the plot is very circular and if it had been omitted it is doubtful that it would have been missed. Having said that, the younger readers who are the target audience may well disagree.
WITHER by Lauren DeStefano
This is a curate’s egg of a novel – good in parts. The image that we have of the future that Rhine Ellery lives in is
coloured by what she has been told and since this is a first person narrative, the reader’s world view is inevitably the
same. Some kind of war has destroyed the rest of the world leaving America isolated. The USA has its own problems,
reaping the consequences of a eugenics programme. The first generation to benefit from the scheme are fit, healthy
and long lived but their children are doomed to an early death, girls at twenty, boys at twentyfive.
One faction of the rich and wealthy want a cure, another faction wants nature to take its course and see the end of the human race.
Rhine’s story is a small capsule within the greater picture. She and her twin brother are sixteen and fending for themselves in Manhattan when she is kidnapped by Vaughn Ashby looking for wives for his son. Linden has five years left but his current wife, Rose, is dying. Rhine, Cecily and Jenna are her replacements. Each has a different attitude to the situation. Rhine only wants to escape but is effectively imprisoned in the Florida mansion. She also suspects that Vaughn is carrying out horrific experiments in the basements in the effort to find a cure.
Though the background is suspect, and we only get the one view, there are interesting aspects to this volume if read as a young adult novel. It is probably worth looking out for the second book in the sequence to see if any of the world view issues are resolved.
A MAZE OF DEATH by Philip K Dick
I remember classifying this as a problematical addition to Dick’s body of work when I first read it, newly in US
paperback, almost thirty-five years ago. It is an exceptional novel with, at its core, a new religion which, as Dick says in
a brief but very illuminating Foreword, “is not an analogue of any known religion.” This has a four-fold deity,
comprising the Mentufacturer, the Intercessor, the Form Destroyer and the Walker-on-Earth, each with a well-
developed role and explained in a non-supernatural text: A J Spectowsky’s HOW I ROSE FRON THE DEAD IN MY
SPARE TIME AND SO CAN YOU.
To counteract the weight of this theology, Dick deliberately used one of his less plausible B-movie plots. There are more than fifteen main characters, almost all of whom have their thoughts used in places, almost as many violent deaths, a very strange alien setting, and more twists than one can keep track of.
So it all moves very fast, though none of the characterisation is particularly deep.
All characters are flawed obsessives: an alcoholic, a nymphomaniac, a pill addict, a cleaning fetishist and so on.
The planet they all arrive on (in one-way spaceships, all part of an unexplained new project) is Delmak-O (or Delmark-O if you believe the backcover blurb). It’s extremely odd, almost dreamlike, with a mixture of organic and electronic creatures. There’s a large building which moves away as you approach it, and miniature buildings, kept as pets. There’s an oracle, called The Grand Tench, in the shape of a huge cube of gelatin; ask it a question and it replies with an answer from the I CHING.
There are characters with funny names, like Ben Tallchief, Susie Smart (usually known as Susie Dumb) and Ignatz Thugg, though they are all to a certain extent contrivances or mouthpieces rather than people.
I hope none of the foregoing will put you off. Despite difficulties and seemingly contradictory passages, this is an amazing and entertaining short novel, one of Dick’s best. Just don’t expect too many answers or joyful conclusions.
A SCANNER DARKLY by Philip K Dick
This book seems to be a piece of near-biography masquerading as science fiction. It seems to be the story of a group
of people sharing a house somewhere in California. They all seem to be petty criminals and drug addicts. There is a
lot here about the affects of various drugs (many of which might be fictional) on the mental state of the participants.
The great theme is that of dissociation. Many things are not what they appear to be. The central character is an undercover policeman searching for the source of a new drug. His main lead is through an addict living with several others in various states of dependence. Except that he is that addict. Either the drug that he is taking has produced this dissociative effect or maybe it has something to do with the working practice that means none of his co-workers know that he is this person. In losing touch with his other persona he becomes more suspicious of it hastening his own descent into (insanity?). A strong enough story but how much is life and how much is fiction?
CANTATA-140 by Philip K Dick
I had not seen this title before I picked up this book. Although Gollancz have printed a reasonably complete list of
other works in their previous Philip K Dick re-issues, this title isn’t on the list. It seems this is either an alternate title for,
or an alternate version of THE CRACK IN SPACE which they have listed but not re-issued.
The book is set on a world so overcrowded that people are kept deep-frozen in large warehouses to make enough room for the rest. Despite all this the population is still rising. Jim Briskin, campaigning to become the first black US president wants to do something about this although there don’t seem to be any options. Then someone discovers a ‘hole’ in a defective ‘Jiffi-Scuttler’ that leads to an alternative, almost unpopulated earth. This seems to be the perfect solution, but it isn’t…
I don’t know whether this is an incomplete version or not but certain things seem to be missing or not sufficiently explained. For example, despite the ‘Jiffi-Scuttler’ being central to a large part of the plot there is no description of the thing or explanation of what it does in this book (these can be found in the short story “Prominent Author”). The device seems to have contradictions - it is small enough to be taken in for repair but large enough to have a hole big enough for someone to crawl through yet too small to be noticed without an hours-long examination.
This is the sort of thing I would expect from a book at the middle of a series. There are characters and plot lines that need expansion that can’t be found in this book. Although some of this can be found in other stories, there isn’t anything here to tell you what else there is or where it is to be found.
FLOW MY TEARS, THE POLICEMAN SAID by Philip K DickThis is one of Gollancz’s ‘SF Masterworks’ series, and turns out to be one of those books I missed when it was first published, back in 1974. Which is probably a pity, because I can imagine that it must have had quite an impact back then. But it covers a period from 1988 to 2047, in what was then a ‘future world’, very different from the world we now know in 2001.
HUMAN IS? by Philip K Dick
This collection of 20 stories is subtitled “A Philip K. Dick Reader”, which suggest to me a selection of the most
important essential texts plus some kind of commentary. But comment is wholly absent, and one pulp story, “The
Variable Man,” is tediously long at 66 pages, so “Reader” is a somewhat pretentious description. Mind you, one has to
pretend a bit! Re-reading remembered gems (and entire novels) of PKD after the passage of several decades can,
alas, be a disenchanting experience. One problem with HUMAN IS? Is that most of the short stories are early and hasty
even if they showcase interesting idiosyncratic obsessions, and even way back then writing about, say, sunlight
blazing down on Callisto highlights a minimal understanding of the universe characteristic of, ahem, the mainstream
writer Dick yearned, though lacked the skill, to be. No wonder he has now become the darling of the mainstream, his
message being that you can write anything you please as SF so long as you throw in a moon or a galaxy or a robot,
and then this can be finessed into cult-fiction. As such, one might say that Dick is unimaginatively hyperimaginative.
And it’s a great shame that the climatic mature story “The Pre-Persons” is deeply reactionary, basically pro- firebombing abortion clinics, such as only an American God-nut could be.
Still, some stories are aces, such as “The Father Thing” which brilliantly expresses Dick’s great hang-up about parental abandonment, or “The Electric Ant,” the ultimate unreliable reality story, a genuine philosophical masterpiece worthy of Greg Egan. And I was amazed to rediscover, in “Second Variety”, the original little robot boy David and his robot teddy bear, which Brian Aldiss either homaged or had forgotten about (as had I) in “Supertoys.” Meanwhile, inconsistencies and nonsense trip up the tales, radiation pools drift about, hydrogen missiles start hydrogen fires, giant bullfrogs come from Jupiter, and other bollocks. Sometimes it’s as if Dick isn’t even thinking as he writes. Of course, once he starts really thinking we’ll enter the world of Valis revelations.
If I sound a bit negative maybe that’s because I just re-read on the trot three PKD ‘classics’ which I once adored, and only one of them, THE THREE STIGMATA OF PALMER ELDRITCH, still stood up; MAZE OF DEATH and UBIK seemed so crudely written and drab rather than visionary.
IN MILTON LUMKY TERRITORY / MARY AND THE GIANT by Philip K Dick
Philip K Dick was one of the best SF writers. He produced some of the most inventive material in the genre. He had a
wicked sense of humour and generally threw in the odd unexpected twist before the end of any story.
Sometime in the 50s he also wrote these mainstream novels. They remained unpublished until he died in the 80s. Where his SF was inventive, dark and comic, this is dull, grey and lifeless. This isn’t an attempt at literature, it’s mediocre 50s pulp fiction. This isn’t even up to the likes of Harold Robbins let alone any literary writer of the period.
There isn’t a great deal of difference between the two books. Themes recur, characters seem to be different versions of the same person, even large lumps of plot seem to be duplicated.
Our ‘hero’ (the strongest male character) has been travelling with his work for some years and is now settling down. He is buying all our part of a retail business. As a result of this he meets the ‘heroine’. She is either a business partner or an employee. There is a relationship there that never really seems to work properly. She has a lot of trouble making decisions and sticking to them. This proves financially costly to him. There is also an age gap that keeps them apart.
They seem to break up and things are settled in a final chapter that seems to be a clear break from the rest of the book.
In IN MILTON LUMKY TERRITORY our ‘hero’ is Bruce Stevens.
He’s been working as a buyer for a discount retail store in Reno driving up and down the country looking for goods that can be bought cheaply and in large quantities. He meets Susan Faine who was his school teacher years before and now owns half of a secretarial agency and typewriter supplies shop. She is divorced with a young daughter and wants to take more time at home. She wants him to buy out her business partner and build up the retail side of the business so that, in a few years, she can just do some of the secretarial work from home. They are soon married but it isn’t a terribly stable marriage. Then there are a lot of cheap typewriters that seem to be the way to make the retail business pay. Things are never that easy. Somewhere in all this is Milt Lumky - a seriously ill salesman who is the only one that can find the cut-rate typewriters and Peg Googer a onenight stand that Bruce kind-of regrets.
MARY & THE GIANT begins with the arrival of Joe Schilling. He’s been in the music business for years and he wants to open up a small record shop in a small town and retire. Things are complicated when Mary Anne Reynolds applies for the job of assistant in the shop. As soon as he offers her the job she changes her mind because she thinks he’s coming on to her. Their relationship is little more than a series of collisions. They have a dinner date. She works one day in the shop. They have a one-night stand. He rents her an apartment and they set about painting and decorating. The painting is never finished and she moves out without having spent a night there. She leaves town. In the background are Carleton Tweany a giant blues musician, various other downbeat would-be musicians and hangers on and an accidental death at a party.
It was once said that Phil Dick SF novels could never be filmed because too much of them were just people sitting around in rooms talking. Those stories had action sequences as well. These don’t. These are just back catalogue mediocrities published to cash in on a famous name.
NOW WAIT FOR LAST YEAR by Philip K Dick
This is volume 36 in the SF Masterworks series. I have to admit that I haven’t read many PKD books. No particular
reason - I just haven’t. I have heard it said that the more you read his body of works, the more you enjoy each book.
That could well be true. Certainly I enjoyed this one which was first published in 1975, so it’s relatively late. I must
One thing that I always find distracts me in books of this era is not the presence of ‘futuristic’ technology, but its absence. This story takes place in only 50 to 60 years’ time - 2055 or so - and one can fly to cities on Mars in a matter of hours (if only!), yet they use ‘tape projectors’ for entertainment.
This is a story to make your brain hurt.
Our hero, Eric Sweetscent (yes, really), via his estranged wife, becomes involved with a new drug which has been developed for use on the enemy reegs. Or is it Lilistar and its ‘Starmen? Nothing is spelt out; you have to work out what is going on as you read. But the drug JJ-180 has the strange side-effect of taking the user backward or forward in time.
Which is where the brain-hurting comes in, as Eric flits back and forth in time, at one point meeting himself. Eric’s temporary boss, Gino Molinari - ‘The Mole’ - whom he is supposed to keep alive, seems to exist in several forms, one constantly sick and dying, one strong and fit, and one already assassinated. Are these persona from other timelines, or are they mere robants? Does it make any difference? In some futures he is regarded as a traitor, in others as a saviour.
But the future of the Solar System depends upon his survival, so Eric had better make the right decisions. Read this and find out for yourself if he does.
One minor quibble I’d like to make as an artist - the otherwise nice cover by Chris Moore is rather ‘killed’ by the bright magenta blob at the top of the cover, which attracts the eye away from the art itself
Second Variety by Philip K DickAnother collection of short stories from the complete collection (Volume 2). It is all good solid stuff with all of PKD's usual tricks - the heavy sense of irony, the twist at the end of the tail... - but there's nothing that really stands out here. In some ways it loses from the lack of oddities as in the first and third volumes but if you can take this sort of thing and still be constantly surprised then that should not be a problem. It's all good stuff from one of the best writers of the genre but it can start to feel a little predictable after a while.
SOLAR LOTTERY by Philip K DickThis is Dick’s first published novel, and it is always interesting to read early works from authors who have been made more famous by their later novels.
The collected stories Volume 1 - Beyond lies the Wub & Volume 3 - The Father-thing by Philip K Dick
So much is said about PKD and his novels, they talk about the darkness and the paranoia and how difficult things are.
Add to that the recent films that owe more to Raymond Chandler and Dashiell Hammett and it isn't terribly surprising
that nobody's really paid attention to this stuff These are short stories published in the first half of the fifties. There isn't
a great deal of difference in style and quality throughout (although there are inconsistencies) and the standard is
The style that everyone called paranoia shows up very consistently here. Most of the stories have a plot that involves someone trying to take over the world / universe and usually the revelation that things aren't being run by the people you thought they were. The most surprising thing is the discovery of PKD's strong sense of humour. The heavy irony runs throughout, attempts to control the world are averted by the most unlikely candidates (small boys, stuffed toys). Some things resurface in other fiction (the one about the animal that says to the people about to eat it "the taste is good, very fatty but quite tender" (Beyond lies the wub - 1) and others are merely silly (The eyes have it -3) and there's always the twist at the end like something out of the old "Twilight Zone". Those who think comedy should be harmless could learn a lot here. The rest of us can just have a good laugh. William McCabe
THE COSMIC PUPPETS / CONFESSIONS OF A CRAP ARTIST by Philip K Dick
Back when I started to read science fiction, Philip K Dick was known for a handful of short stories – competently done;
things like “The Defenders” and “The Golden Man”, but gimmicky and slight, little to distinguish him from dozens of
other contributors to the 1950s’ magazines. Then he started to get more serious, his attention turned towards longer
lengths, and in 1961 he wrote the justly-praised and Hugo-winning THE MAN IN THE HIGH CASTLE. But the novels
gradually grew more and more strange, with the big turning point probably being THE THREE STIGMATA OF
PALMER ELDRITCH, in 1965, which attracted a great deal of attention. Remember, this was at the height of the ‘New
Wave’ controversy and Dick was hailed as one of its prophets.
I was editing SPECULATION magazine at the time, and didn’t care for the novel or the adulation with which I felt it had been greeted. So for the next few years we published reviews and other material that tried to take a more balanced, objective look at the Philip K Dick phenomenon. In the end we gave up, overwhelmed both by his volume of production and by the almost-universal critical acclaim.
THE COSMIC PUPPETS is Dick’s very first novel, published as half of an Ace Double in 1957. Expanded from an earlier magazine story from 1953 it is still very short (140 pp), and looked at analytically the setting doesn’t make sense, the plot-mechanics are rudimentary and characterisation is minimal.
However, the writing is oddly gripping and for the first couple of chapters we do genuinely wonder what is going on, until everything gets swept up – far too quickly - into a whirlwind resolution. The most interesting aspect of the book is the way in which it foreshadows the theme that came to completely dominate the author’s life; reality is not as it seems, and for that reason it has some historical interest for those interested in the evolution of Dick’s work.
CONFESSIONS OF A CRAP ARTIST is a longer (246 pp) and much better book. Dating from the mid-seventies, its tone is similar to Dick’s betterknown A SCANNER DARKLY (written in the same period), with multiperspectives on events and the same semi-autobiographical take on the craziness of Californian life. It compares with Vonnegut’s later novels though doesn’t go so directly for sardonic humour; instead, an air of gentle melancholy pervades the story of Jack Isidore – the ‘crap artist’ of the title – who believes in all sorts of nutty ideas, fills his apartment with rubbish (including old SF magazines) and in general doesn’t do very much with his life. Sound familiar? Neither book is marketed as genre ‘science fiction’ but those of us in the know will recognise the propeller beanie and the Hugo rocket on the cover of CRAP ARTIST. I found it oddly compelling.
THE THREE STIGMATA OF PALMER ELDRITCH by Philip K Dick
Philip K Dick wrote many stories with the same ideas presented in different ways.
Characters use drugs to enter some other reality in which they are not the same person.
That (and other effects) often leave them doubting whether their experience is real and if they are who they believe themselves to be. Sometimes a (usually false) messiah will present himself by connecting everyone’s experience. Sometimes people will join together in some other form of psychic sharing. All of these are present in this novel. Most of them are executed here better than in any other novel that Dick wrote.
You could say that this makes this novel clichéd. As this was one of his earlier novels, he hadn’t used the themes so much but, you may have read other, later stories as well so this is a good point. If nothing else, the clichés were his own and not copied from someone else.
There’s also the problem of the distortion of reality. Some readers may not be willing to read something that doesn’t tell them definitively whether this is real or just someone’s drugged dream. If you’re one of those, this book isn’t for you. If you can take a degree of uncertainty, this is a better choice than some of his other uses of that effect.
Once again the setting is an Earth after some great disaster. This time the sun is so powerful that most people live underground and rarely venture out in the daylight. There are now colonies on Mars. This is a place so depressing that almost all of the inhabitants are compelled to go there and everyone uses a drug to escape into a false world that they experience from the point of view of a Barbie doll. There is a great market in the production of the dolls and the accessories and a similar black market in the drug. All of these are controlled by one corporation. Then Palmer Eldritch returns from the stars with a new drug that doesn’t require the dolls to complete the escape. This threatens everything for the corporation. But is Palmer Eldritch still the man that left Earth all those years ago?
Is he even human? Is the new drug really what it seems to be? Maybe you will find answers to these questions. Probably not.
TIME OUT OF JOINT by Philip K Dick
This is another book in Gollancz’s ‘SF Masterworks’ series. It was written in 1959, and most of it takes place around then
- or does it? Or is the world of the fifties just an illusion, maintained to convince the ‘hero’, Ragle Gumin, and ensure
that he continues to enter a newspaper contest every day - and winning? For this is what he does, since he appears to
have a knack for guessing “Where Will The Little Green Man Be Next?” in the Gazette, and the inhabitants of the
small town of - what? The name is never actually given, and nor are its state or county. But anyway, they love him, as
they would a movie star or anyone famous. And everyone seems to encourage him to continue doing the competition,
and winning, almost as if their lives depended upon it. . .
But gradually, Ragle begins to wonder why this is, and what would happen if he stopped. And then his world begins to become untangled. Strange tilings happen. There are no radios in his town, only TVs. But Sammy, the son of his sister Margo, with whom he lives, obtains a crystal set, and on it they hear people talking, passing messages about something passing overhead. And they even mention Ragle’s name. He becomes involved with a local Civil Defence group; Sammy and his friends, exploring ‘The Ruins’, a mysterious area of old concrete foundations which Margo is campaigning to have cleared away and made safe, find some old telephone books and a copy of a magazine containing pictures and news stories about people they’ve never heard of, like Marilyn Monroe. Ragle digs out more, and finds a copy of Life magazine with a date of 1996. There are references to bases on the Moon, Mars and Venus. From then on, he is never sure whether he is living in a real world, or one of illusion.
It is only when Dick starts to reveal the reality behind all this that the book becomes less readable and more unbelievable. Indeed, it would probably have been better if he had not tried to explain it. A very informative Afterword by Lou Stasis (?) explains that at the time when Dick wrote this, he was churning out SF stories for Ace Books, whose editor was Donald Wollheim (who often used to 6 re-write authors’ work, without their knowledge until the story was published, to tit into his rather juvenile idea of science fiction). Dick desperately wanted to get off this treadmill, and considered Time Out of Joint to be the first of a new breed of novel - effectively, mainstream. He submitted it to Wollheim, knowing that it would not be accepted, and in fact it had already been accepted elsewhere. Of course, it didn’t really work, and the name of Philip K Dick is forever linked with SF. But a unique, mutant form of SF, full of strange, neurotic worlds which mirror his own, probably psychotic world.
Flawed, but very readable.
FOR THE WIN by Cory Doctorow
The genius of Doctorow’s writing is the way that he can convincingly inhabit the world
of the game-obsessed youngster. For most kids of today, having a job where you would be paid to play computer games all day would be some kind of heaven. In this near future world, they can do just that. On-line games are big business and experienced players are needed. If only it were that simple…
Leonard is a sixteen-year-old American. He calls himself Wei-Dong and hangs out in cyberspace with a gang of Chinese players. His father is not happy and tries to send him to a military school. Leonard runs away and gets a poorly paid job playing games. Mala and her army earn enough to get a better deal in the slums of Mumbai. One of their tasks is to help paying customers get their avatars up to higher levels where the in-game rewards are greater. They and Matthew’s gang in China are also gold-farmers. There are players out there who will pay real money to have virtual items credited to their in-game characters. The gold-farmers get them, their bosses sell them. It is big business. It is a commodity market. Real fortunes can be made or lost. The players like Mala and Matthew work in sweat-shop conditions.
Then they are approached, during battle, by Big Sister Nor, who plays out of Hong Kong. She wants better pay and conditions for the workers. She proposes a Trade Union, the IWWWW,
Much of the novel is the struggle to unionise the workers and get recognition. This is a realistic, gritty and at times, bloody novel. Just as the original workers’ unions had to fight for survival, so do these characters. Game-playing is not always fun.
Although this may look like a young adult book, it has some deeply disturbing passages involving brutality and exploitation. These things are probably going on right now, in the places Doctorow describes. He has changed the parameters but the message is the same. Act now.
Hidden inside a thoroughly enjoyable fast paced book is material that should make any civilised reader think.
LITTLE BROTHER by Cory DoctorowThere was a time when SF stories were written so that young people would read them and develop some kind of enthusiasm about the science that was involved in the story. This is like that. It does that quite well. This time the science is all about computer data security, codes, and how to keep yourself anonymous on the internet. There is enough plot involved to make it interesting and the science is kept simple enough (although there are pointers for further reading) to prevent alienating the audience. All this is most important as this is a book for teenagers. The central characters are at high school, all of the bad guys are adults in a position of authority. The situation makes youthful rebellion into a very good thing.
MAKERS by Cory Doctorow
Good science fiction writers are able to take present trends and extrapolate into a plausible near future. All of us can
see that if certain companies are unable to innovate, they will disappear from the market place. Digital technology
has tolled the death knell for film photography and power sources are moving away from the usage of chemical
batteries. In MAKERS, Doctorow starts with the merger of Kodak and Duracell to make Kodacell. Landon Kettlewell,
the CEO of the new company, calls a press conference not only to announce the new arrangement but also to outline
a new method of doing things. Instead of one, unwieldy and vulnerable company, they are looking for innovators with
perhaps one product idea that can, with sponsorship and guidance, be made developed into something commercial.
Suzanne Church, a local journalist, is invited to follow the progress of one of these new setups. Her move to Florida is meant to be short-term as she posts all the details of the work of two entrepreneurs, Lester Banks and Perry Gibbons. They are assigned a business manager to help with the financial side of the enterprise. The team is a success but with any new innovation there will be others who will try to copy the designs and flood the market with cheap versions.
To keep ahead, new concepts must be developed.
Moving a completely different direction, they run into a trademark battle with Disney.
With a near future setting, this is an excellent look at the way that big business conducts itself and the tricks the unscrupulous will get up to. It is also a demonstration of the power of the internet. There are villains, inside and out of the Disney Parks corporation, in particular a nasty, mean-minded journalist whose favourite pastime is to make inflammatory comments on the internet against his opponents. It is a pity that he is about the only English character. There are excellent cameo characters, like the Goth youth who calls himself Death Waits but the main characters tend to escape. They are too busy doing things and driving the plot to be fully fleshed out. On the whole, this is a good example of inventive science fiction.
Lord of the Isles by David DrakeDavid Drake has made the switch from straight Science Fiction to fantasy with remarkable ease. In this the first book of a trilogy? Quadrology? He has set the four main characters in a cosmic chess game, which takes them on a journey through a number a different planes of reality. Along with Tenoctris a female wizard, who has been moved a thousand years into the future, Garric or-Reise and his sister Sharina and his friend Cashel and his sister Ilna are forced to leave Barca’s Hamlet on the Island of Haft. As they leave the only home they have known for the outside world, they are initially pawns on a chessboard, in a cosmic game played by unseen players. But unlike pawns they come to realise slowly that they have more powers than anybody realises.
Queen of Demons by David Drake
Queen of Demons continues the story of Game, Sharina, Cashel, ilna and the sorceress Tenoctris, started in the first
book in the series Lord o f the Isles. After the defeat o f the ancient sorcerer the Hooded One in a great battle the
game should have been won, but the cosmic chess game continues. Game, who know knows that he-is from the
ancient bloodline of King Lorcan who hid the powerful Throne of Malkar, which is the prize that the players of the
game want. King Carus the last of the rulers of all of the isles, before they split into warring kingdoms, and who’s ghost
guides Garric towards re-uniting the isles into one coherent whole, but Garric has a long road to travel before this can
pass. His friends Cashel and Ilna who are halflings also have powers that others want, and his sister Sharma are forced
into different paths travelling through alternate realities before they are reunited. But in the background lurk the ever
present forces of darkness that still want to use the main players in the saga as pawns in their own game.
With the second book in David Drake’s epic fantasy, Lord o f the Isles, the Oueen o f Demons manages to keep the pace set in the first novel going, without the usual drop off the second novels in a trilogy sometimes suffer from. Even though the plot line is somewhat predictable the characterisations do not suffer. The adversities that the main characters have to deal with are dealt with in a competent manner, along with several novel twists on the fantasy theme. David Drake is definitely making a mark for himself in the Fantasy field and he has moved himself up a notch from his straight Science Fiction novels.
SERVANT OF THE DRAGON by David Drake
This third volume of the Lord of the Isles wraps up the story of Garric, Sharina, Ilna and the sorceress Tenoctris. Garric,
now the power behind the throne and the real ruler of the Isles, faces his greatest challenge from the dark forces that
sank the Isle of Yole. Woven into this background is the task of rebuilding a government and dealing with the shallow
and vain characters from Barca’s Hamlet who now seek to ride on Garric’s rise to power. Add to this the court intrigues
and other hangers on, and Garric has his work cut out. He has to rely on his old friends Sharina, Cashel, Ilna and
Tenoctris to help him understand the dark forces that are gathering.
The appearance of a shimmering blue bridge across the river, on the site of an old kingdom bridge that had been destroyed many centuries earlier, is the start of the long drawn-out battle between the forces of Garric’s kingdom and the wizards that have moved through time from the demise of the old kingdom. When Sharina is pulled through into another dimension she starts her long quest that will have surprising results for her friends. She does not realise that Cashel has also gone after her with a view to her rescue. The independent journeys that both of them make add to the forces that Garric will have to call on to defeat the dark wizards that are arrayed against him.
This book keeps the pace going that Drake set in the previous volumes. The convoluted plot line has been somewhat straightened out and the main characters have lost a little of their colour. David Drake has produced three books that provide an entertaining fantasy story with plenty of twists and turns that will keep the reader happy for many hours.
SHATTERMOON (The Long Game) by Dominic Dulley
Orry and her family are space grifters, moving from one con to the next, targeting the rich aristocracy of the
Ascendancy worlds. When the latest heist goes drastically wrong, Orry is left alone to try and pick up the pieces and
rescue her brother and the family spaceship from the murderous Morven Dyas.
Pursued by the authorities, who blame her for a murder she didn’t commit, she has only the help of an old spacehand, an antiquated spaceship and a young, naïve noble. Together they must out-run and outwit all the forces pitted against them in a race to retrieve a mysterious pendant that in the wrong hands could destroy the fragile peace between the Ascendancy and the belligerent, alien Kadiran.
This is a very fast-paced novel as the heroes race from one crisis to another. While some will find this exciting, I found after a while that it became exhausting and felt that the story would benefit from more “breathing spaces” for both the reader and the characters. The breakneck pace to me felt that there was not enough time and space to concentrate on character development.
Because of this, I felt that although Orry, the main protagonist had some depth, other characters would have benefitted from more exploration and fleshing out. As it is, it feels that characters are often dropping in or out as required to drive the plot and the reader doesn’t get long enough to get to know them. This fast pace also means that the set-up of the society, which has some interesting potential, is also too much in the background for my liking and the reader doesn’t get a detailed sense of place from the various locations in the book.
As far as I am aware, the book is marketed for adults, but it read very much to me as an YA book, with its young, feisty heroine who consistently outwits the bad guys. Also, the clear division of people into either good or bad with little shading would be a better fit and my concerns about depth would be less of an issue. The couple of things that sway me away from that classification though are one scene of graphic violence (which to me felt that it didn’t fit with the more light-hearted tone of the book) and the use of “quim” by a character about and addressed to Orry. This is a very misogynistic and offensive, albeit archaic, term and given that it is used to describe a young girl, I felt that in this day and age, the author could have found a better alternative.
At the end of the day I am sure that many people will enjoy this cheerful space romp but it was not one that really suited my tastes.
Time and the Gods by Lord Dunsany
This is the second in the series of "Fantasy Masterworks" (although there is no note of what number one was).
This is in fact a collection of 6 books of short stories published early in the last century (20th, that is). These vary between the mythological style of translated Greek and Roman myth and the traveller's tale but all of it seems to be original. This is one for those that think the modern fantasy writers are imaginative or inventive. There is not a great deal of detail here and you won't find any real depth to the characters but the story-telling has style and each story fits into it's allotted genre.