HALFHEAD by Stuart B MacBride
This is the first foray into science fiction by a prolific crime/thriller writer Stuart MacBride (note no initial ‘B’). His noir
crime novels are set in Aberdeen and feature a gritty and much put-upon detective sergeant Logan McRae whose
efforts in solving a number of high profile and sometimes horrendous cases are not recognised or appreciated by his
This book, written in his normal lively if occasionally gruesome style, is set in a relatively
near future with the action (and I do mean action) taking place in Glasgow. To be specific, in its vast and deprived
south side connurb blocks, these are always set to explode at the least provocation. They were, eleven years ago, the
scene of the VR (virtual reality) riots in which 3 million people died. At the same time similar riots transformed the
United States from a superpower to a third world state.
In this world perpetrators of major crimes are surgically mutilated on conviction,
losing their lower jaw, and are lobotomised before being sent out by the State to do menial jobs in the community in
order that everyone can see what happens when you break the law. These are the ‘halfheads’. One of these, Dr Fiona
Westfield, who was one of the most prolific serial killers Glasgow has ever seen, is waking up and she wants revenge,
particularly on William Hunter who was instrumental in her arrest and conviction. Since then he has been promoted to
the rank of Assistant Network Director. The Network is a type of special police force/paramilitary organisation dealing
with major crimes.
The book follows these two over the period of Dr Westwood’s awakening. Extra spice is provided by the machinations
of a powerful and rogue extra government organisation. There are a good number of strong secondary and minor
support characters seamlessly interwoven throughout this action-packed story.
This story has a start, middle and a strong and clear end, which still leaves open the possibility of a sequel. If you like
noir crime/thriller novels both HALFHEAD and the Logan McRae books take some beating and are strongly
recommended. For once I agree
with the quotes on the jacket, i.e. “Compelling” (SFX) and “Slick, gruesome and brutally
intelligent. This is bare knuckles thriller writing” (Michael Marshall).
BREAKING POINT by John Macken
This is the third book featuring ex CID detective and forensic scientist Reuben Maitland who has been sacked form his
post as head of GeneCrime the elite UK forensics centre.
Why he has been sacked is not made clear, but is alluded to as being due to using GeneCrime laboratory resources for conducting his own research. Although sacked he is still carrying out research into the use of DNA in behavioural profiling and has covert assistance from a few old GeneCrime colleagues. He has identified that there are five aberrant genes that make a person likely to be a psychopath. The more of these one has, the higher the potential for violence. To help identify these persons from their DNA, he has created a system he calls Psychopath Selection.
Reuben’s temporary replacement, Mina Ali, discovers that a data base of the DNA profiles of persons excluded from enquiries has become rather large and has been
moved to an unexpected position in the IT system. She also finds that it has been recently searched. This information is brought to the attention of the apparently new head of GeneCrime, a DCI Sarah Hirst without any great impact. Later on she provided these profiles to Reuben who identifies that seven of them are potential psychopaths. It is also identified that six of these persons have recently become victims of violent crime and the seventh has committed a violent murder (described in the opening chapter) on apparently very little provocation. Reuben decides to contact these persons and inform them of the aberrant nature of their DNA and their potential for extreme violence, beseeching them to try to remain calm no matter how provoked. One of these persons is a violent criminal with whom Reuben has crossed swords in the past. The provocation that he undergoes leads to a campaign of violence with Reuben being one of its victims.
At the same time, London is being terrorised by a serial killer who strikes on underground trains without leaving any trace. The mounting body count leads to panic and traffic chaos as passengers shun the use of the Underground. GeneCrime is puzzled as to the cause of death. Unknown to Reuben his actions in trying to help these potential psychopaths leads to a traumatic clash with the Underground Killer.
It is quite obvious that this is the third book in a series as there are many things left unsaid or taken for granted in its first half. For instance, early on the GeneCrime staff holds a wake to which Reuben is invited. But who has died is not made clear until halfway through the book: how he died never is. As a result I found the book initially unsatisfying, but as I progressed came to enjoy it more and more. I would strongly recommend that to get the most out of the book the other two in the series are read first. Is it science fiction?
Probably but only because (to the best of my knowledge) the GeneCrime laboratory does not exist and neither does Reuben’s Psychopath Selection system.
HOUSE OF STORMS by Ian R MacLeod
I was thoroughly impressed with this book. I found it a little strange at first – from the cover and blurb on the back
(GORMENGHAST-comparisons) I assumed I would be entering a different world, but indeed the one in the book is
strikingly identical to the one we know. The only thing different is that aether – a magical element – has taken over
the world (described in his first book THE LIGHT AGES), and the world is stuck in a Victorian-type era. In this world
dwell Alice Meynell, ruthless great grandmistress of the Guild of Transporters, and her son Ralph. There are two halves
to this book – Ralph growing up on a huge estate near Bristol, and then him finding health and love. The second half
to me was less appealing – it featured strongly a civil war and nasty associations with that. He brings out the ‘Chosen’
in this half – those overcome and changed by aether. This part is how war changes the world.
The book is firmly set in English soil and likeably so. The south-west and Bristol are especially strongly featured and this was interesting for me., who has never been to Bristol. I started to feel like it would be familiar should I visit in the future. The character are well-drawn particularly Alice. You can really feel the pains and troubles they go through during the course of events. Alice is cunning and manipulative but displays a touching love for her son, and this fleshes her out into more of a three-dimensional character rather than just a stereotypical bad guy. This big book was read through very quickly as a result of Ian’s writing style. His is a different but fascinating world based on our own.
In fact his ideas are such that it is almost too much to take in at once, but I have been converted and will now look for THE LIGHT AGES to catch up on what went before, the take-over by aether which is referred to in the HOUSE OF STORMS; but not too tantalisingly, so that one feels one should have read them in the correct order - to my mind this ‘sequel’ of sorts is enough of a stand-alone book, especially as Ian has focused on different characters to those in his first book. All in all an excellent read.
THE HOUSE OF STORMS by Ian R MacLeod
The basic premise behind this novel makes it an original, alternate world fantasy. The level of technology is very
similar to that in our own Victorian era.
The difference is that a substance called aether holds things together and makes the machines work. It is a kind of elemental magic. MacLeod explored the idea first in his novel THE LIGHT AGES and he handles the technological side of his creation very well. The problem is the plot, especially at the beginning. It has the makings of a Victorian melodrama.
Alice Meynell is a woman who has slept her way to the top. She is now married to the greatgrandmaster of the Guild of Telegraphers and still has ambitions. Her son, Ralph, is suffering from TB and she brings him to Invercombe in North Devon to die. Instead he survives and forms a liaison with a shore-girl that Alice has hired as a maid at the house. They plan to elope to the Fortunate isles (West Indies) but Alice finds out and puts a stop to it. Ralph is sent to the academy to learn his trade before being married off to a suitable woman, not knowing that Marion, the maid, has given birth to his child.
The plot becomes more original after this as the East and West of Britain indulge in a bloody civil war. There are actually three stories worth telling here, that of Alice Meynell, especially her use of aether to achieve her ambitions, of Marion Price who becomes a rallying cry for the Western forces due to her Florence Nightingale-like activities, and of Klade who is the son of Ralph and Marion and is brought up among people deformed by aether poisoning. Each of these characters could easily have been given a book of their own and they could have been developed to a greater depth. The pages of exposition could have been expanded and more immediate. There is a bigger work here that has been squashed into one volume. I do not often advocate trilogies, but in this case, the story would have benefited from that kind of treatment.
DYNASTY by John MacLeodSubtitled ‘The Stuarts 1560 - 1807’ I wondered why this had come through my door. Not SF at all but pretty good for all that.
MAMMOTH ENCYCLOPEDIA OF SCIENCE FICTION by George Mann
First things first - ‘Mammoth’ this certainly is not, particularly when compared with the 1993 Clute/Nicholls
Encyclopedia. One wonders whether there was any need for anything new to supplant that benchmark publication, but
it seems to have been felt that there was room for something that would be eight years more up-to-date as well as less
expensive and more accessible generally. Thus in the main half of the book, headed ‘Science Fiction On The Page’,
Mann has confined himself to (about) 150 authors and these include a number of fairly obscure contemporary writers,
presumably in the expectation of future promise rather than past accomplishments. This is in keeping with one of his
aims, which is to provide a pointer to the way SF might be going in the future. However, I found that some quite
important writers have been left out: I find it hard to agree with the inclusion of (for example) Michael Crichton if this
has resulted in the exclusion of (for example) Dan Simmons. Also, although there are entries for about half a dozen
SF artists, both British and American, I was disappointed to find that ‘Hardy, David A .’ was not among them.
Another criticism I might make is that this section concentrates 90%-plus on book- length work, the importance of the short-story form in SF being virtually ignored.
The other main section is ‘Science Fiction on the Screen’, comprising an eclectic selection of movies and TV programmes. I found I did not always agree with Mann’s choice of what to include, or his comments, but that only represents the difference between my personal opinion and his and this is a useful guide.
There are also an introductory chapter providing a brief overview of ‘The History and Origins of Science Fiction’ and a section entitled ‘Terms, Themes and Devices’ with entries on subjects from Aliens to Wormholes.
The former is both informative and insightful but the latter gives only superficial treatment to its various topics and would be useful only to the more casual, non-technical reader.
I cannot vouch for the accuracy of every bit of information it contains although I did notice a very few minor errors. All in all, however, Mann (who incidentally is assistant manager at an Ottakar’s bookshop) has succeeded in producing a viable alternative to the more comprehensive Encyclopedia. It is certainly handier, avoiding as it does the larger work’s copious references to books etc., one will probably never read by writers one will probably never even hear of anywhere else. However, I cannot help wondering if its intended market really exists. The serious student of SF will want the larger work, despite its bulk and price, whilst the casual reader at whom this is aimed would perhaps be unlikely to consider buying a reference book of this kind, although I could be wrong of course. Within its own terms of reference it is a good piece of work and any who do buy it will find it to have been money well spent.
HEART’S BLOOD by Juliet Marillier
Caitrin is an adolescent on the run in Ireland in the eleventh or twelfth century. Creative and independent-minded,
with almost psychic sensitivity, she has been psychologically and physically brutalised by the mundane and
domineering men and women of her home community. She’s a scribe, struggling to succeed in a traditional man’s
role against her society’s straightjacket views of a woman’s place. Isolated and sexually intimidated, she’s on the run
from the dark lust of her cousin Cillian.
Juliet Marillier’s regular readers may take the Irish setting as a given, but for newcomers it arrives grudgingly via scattered clues. Pointers to the period are equally oblique, guessed from vague concerns about ‘the Normans’ and their capacity for non-specific fiendishness. Luckily both time-frame and location are about as relevant as they are credible. Just as most Hammer films were set in a vaguely familiar Foreignshire, usually populated by Cornishmen, this is Marillier-land and resembles nothing so much as the ancient Greece – or even Ireland – of Lucy Lawless and Kevin Sorbo.
The opening scene, lifted straight from a Hammer film, sets the general tone of mild spookiness and constant sexual threat. Caitrin is dumped from a farmer’s cart in the woods around spook-troubled Whistling Tor. “Oi can’t take you farther unless you pays, hur hur,” drools the farmer, ogling her lady-parts. “But oi wouldn’t stay round ‘ere, with all them ghosts and monsters.” Revolted and scared, Caitrin stumbles into the woods, talking to herself like a loon.
When she reaches Whistling Tor village, Caitrin learns of a vague but terrible curse on both the land and the local chieftain Anluan. The woods are full of evil ‘presences’ and Anluan is a disfigured hermit who won’t honour his duty to protect his serfs from the invading Normans.
Caitrin is drawn to the community of oddballs who quite literally haunt the forest around the other-worldly castle- mansion on top of Whistling Tor. She seems to have an affinity for the strange folk who walk the wild wood’s paths. Could this mysterious place possibly be the safe haven where she’ll find both a new family and a use for the talents that set her apart in the outside world? She immediately clashes with the tormented, disfigured, solitary, brooding Anluan. Will her fragile femininity crack the ice that guards his heart?
The brusque, muscular warrior-butler Magnus sets Caitrin to work in the library, transcribing the ‘latin’ writings of black sheep great-grandfather Nechtan into Anluanfriendly ‘Irish’. This flips us back into Hammer gothic territory because what amount to Nechtan’s diaries describe his ‘experimentation’ with dark forces, hurriedly pasting ‘evil wizard’ across ‘mad scientist’ on his dressing-room door.
There’s a constant background hum of sexual threat. Caitrin’s been abused and beaten by sexual predator Cillian and his mum. She’s told she has ‘the body of a whore’, which is to say big breasts and wide hips. She seems to think of people, not even just men, as either pimps or rapists. I wasn’t entirely comfortable that this dark psychological territory is expressed in reductive, coy language and covered by a sweaty, bodice-heaving film of wish-fulfilment power fantasy. When Caitrin travels psychically back in time to watch evil Nechtan torture and murder a hedge-witch and her little dog, too, she senses his gruesome ‘hardness’ for Aislinn his ‘pert-buttocked’ Igorina. Later she can’t sleep and wonders feverishly about the mental perversion his cruel mastery has forced on the innocent serving girl.
Cold shower, anyone?
It’s a tortured girl meets sullen boy story, built from the Meccano set of stock fantasy characters and situations. The writing style’s unsophisticated, with a juvenile quality you could say is appropriate to its young lead character, but which I’d argue probably isn’t that thought-through or deliberate. Some very deliberate button-pushing skews the book towards a particular gender and demographic. A sour-tasting fog of frustrated, sado-masochistic sex clings to every page, and I’d say the sexual politics are a bit suspect. If this had come from another stable, and significantly another gender viewpoint, let’s say John Norman, I think it would be mercilessly hounded and parodied into oblivion.
GRAVE MINDER by Melissa Marr
This is Melissa Marr’s first adult novel following a string of teen genre stuff. With a seal of approval from Charlaine
Harris of True Blood fame, you know what you’re getting here.
When Rebekkah Barrow receives a call telling her that her Gran Maylene has been murdered, she returns to the small town of Claysville; a town that has always drawn her for inexplicable reasons.
Unfortunately for her, she is also drawn to Byron, the local Undertaker with whom she has had on/off dalliances in the past. Things are complicated with Byron as he was originally the beau of Ella, her sister, who committed suicide some years ago. So going home following Maylene’s death brings with it a whole host of problems, particularly as it turns out that for centuries the Barrow women have been ‘Grave Minders’ and Rebekkah has now inherited the job.
A pact was made in the 16th century between the town council at Claysville and a certain figure known as Death. Without the help of the Grave Minder working with the local Undertaker, the dead have a habit of rising in the town, and from now only, only Rebekkah can stop them. The job comes with its perks of course. Apart from never having to pay bills, Rebekkah can take trips to the land of the dead for a little sight seeing, and the world which Marr has created is definitely worth exploring. The local bar in the land of the dead is particularly entertaining.
here are no real surprises here if I am honest, and while the novel itself is enjoyable, it is rather a breezy affair with the culprit of the piece being very obvious.
However, the characters are believable, there is a fair amount of humour and all together it is a nice adult debut. I think Marr has more to offer and I would like her to examine her land of the dead in more detail. All in all, this novel is a decent enough diversion.
DEADLY CURIOSITIES by Gail Z MartinCassidy Kincaide is owner of “Trifles and Folly” an auction and antiques shop in haunted Charleston, South Carolina. Behind the veneer of buying and selling antiques is her real job; getting supernatural objects off the market and tucked away safely. It's the perfect job for Cassidy, because she's not just a history buff, she's a psychometric who can read the emotions in objects and hear voices or see images. Teag also works at the shop with Cassidy and has his own powerful magic, often playing bodyguard to Cassidy. There's also silent partner and vampire Sorren (over 600 years old and a member of the Alliance) who deals with the supernatural item to neutralise it. And Sorren is worried, because amidst the everyday work of haunted opera glasses and other miscellanea, something big, and bad is coming.
VANITIES (A Deadly Curiosities Adventure Book 1) by Gail Z Martin
Following on from Martin's very enjoyable first adventure comes a new adventure narrated by vampire Sorren, which
starts with the tantalising line, “I was dead when I first saw Antwerp. The year was 1565."
This short novella finds Sorren arriving in Antwerp with his vampire maker Alard, after being a petty thief in Bruges. Now, here he is, entering Antwerp a much improved thief and an immortal, ready for one of their biggest jobs. From the docks, Alard and Sorren proceed to an antiques and curios shop “Vanities”, meeting mortal manager Carel. Sorren is to steal a brooch, but as with the previous objects and artefacts in the original novel, all antiquities have a power, a supernatural resonance and as such, the brooch is dangerous.
Although on the short side, this is a great introduction into the history of the Alliance and Sorren himself. There's adventure, bloodshed, humour and poignancy. These short adventures and the debut novel itself make me want to read more from this series.
VENDETTA (Deadly Curiosities 2) by Gail Z Martin
“Trifles and Folly” isn't your average antique store. Cassidy Kincaide, the current owner of Trifles and Folly has had the
store in her family for over three hundred years, in haunted Charleston, South Carolina. In the first book she discovers
the store's real purpose, and her destiny. It's her job to keep magical curios and antiques safe from the public.
Sometimes a jewellery box is just that, and sometimes it houses a blood-sucking demon. Either way, it's a dangerous
job, but someone has to do it, and it appears that someone is Cassidy and her employee, Teag. She also works with
her silent partner, Sorren, a six-hundred-year old vampire with a few powers of his own. Think a quaint, old-fashioned
version of the TV series,Warehouse 13.
To help her with her job, Cassidy's talent is psychometry, the ability to read objects through touch. When Cassidy touches the latest acquisition, the emotions are rife. Martin is expert at filling in the gaps and creating the mystery to progress the story through Cassidy's visions; sights, sounds, feelings, atmosphere. It's all here. And each artefact is a little glimpse into history, and a case for the Trifles team to solve. Cassidy is literally plunged into the past as the person who owned the object narrates their death and the circumstances surrounding it; moving and engaging stuff.
Emerging, shaking and upset from her vision, Cassidy tells Teag the bad news. There is a ghost attached to the jewellery box. But that's not the bad news. It's the wraith that eats ghosts, now in the most haunted city in North America that's the problem. And something even bigger is on its way.
Cassidy has an interesting cast of characters to assist her in her endeavours. Teag himself is a Weaver, who can weave magic into fabric or find out anything by weaving information on the web. Lucinda is a Voodun mambo (root worker) who can offer protection through herbs and channel Baron Samedi. Valerie is a medium who runs the local ghost tour, Chuck is a retired Supernatural Black Ops Agent, Bo is the ghost of her dead dog and Father Anne is a tattooed and powerful priest who frees spirits helping them into the next world. Amidst the urban fantasy fare, the adventure, intrigue and humour, there is darkness galore and even a Lovecraftian vein. We also get to know Sorren a little better, and that knowledge is poignant.
Martin doesn't shy away from the darker history of the South, being open and honest about slavery and the like. Her cast of characters is also wonderfully diverse including sexuality, race and colour. Martin is also adept at handling exposition and back story through conversation with other characters that feels natural.
There are a lot of battles and blood in this novel and a few losses along the way, which makes the final showdown with the 'big bad' all the more dramatic and fraught with tension. Cassidy, Sorren, Teag and the rest of the team fight well together, but their adversary is strong. Will they survive intact? That's not for me to tell. What I will say though, is it’s one helluva finale and this book had me gripped from start to finish.
Great characters, brilliant back story, emotional resonance, big bad monsters and a multitude of magic. This blockbuster of a book has it all. Highly recommended.
A STORM OF SWORDS by George R R Martin
In book three of this fantasy series, George R.R. Martin grabs you by the throat and doesn’t let go. After the first two
books 'A Game Of Thrones’ and ’A Clash Of Kings’ the plot line still twist and turns with the freshness that so few writers
can sustain for such a length of time. As the Guardian reviewer stated Its ambition to construct the Twelve Caesar’s of
fantasy fiction, with characters so venomous they could eat the Borgias’. All I can say is move over Hannibal (The
cannibal) Lector you’re a non-starter by comparison.
With the House Lannister in control of the south, the King of the North Robb Stark is holding his own against his enemies, but seemingly making little progress in wresting the crown from Joffrey Baratheon the first, son of King Robert I Baratheon but born of an incestuous relationship between Queen Cirsei and her twin brother Jaime Lannister. To the far north beyond ‘The Wall’ ancient enemies are stirring which could spell the end for all the warring Houses. The defenders of The Wall and thereby the defenders of the peoples to the south are not the force that they used to be, with the numbers in their ranks dwindling and made up from the dregs and prisoners that have managed to escape the hangman’s noose. Into this rich brew are thrown the Houses that have their own agenda in backing other claimants to the Iron Throne. If things could not get worse to the East the last survivor of Aerys II Targaryen, King of the Iron Throne killed by Robert I Bartheon is raising an army to retake the Iron Throne. With the political intrigue and marriages of convenience to cement alliances between the major Houses the minor Houses are seizing their chances to fill the power vacuum left by the warring factions.
George R.R. Martin has received high praise from many reviewers for this series and I can only add my congratulations for an epic fantasy series that I can't wait to read book four. A Song Of Ice And Fire I’m sure will go down as one of the all-time great series of Fantasy fiction this has, to quote one reviewer, superbly developed characters, accomplished prose and sheer bloodymindedness.
Also the vicious sting in the tail of A Storm Of Swords is one that comes as a total surprise to the reader. A must have series for all readers of Fantasy or Science Fiction!!
DREAM SONGS: A RRRETROSPECTIVE Book Two by George R R Martin
I was originally attracted to review this book by the one and only story I have previously read by George R R Martin;
"The Hedge Knight", a novella that is set in and preludes A Song of Fire and Ice, George Martin's ongoing series of
fat fantasy novels. That story was first published as part of the LEGENDS collection put together by Robert Silverberg
(Tor/Voyager, 1998). When I read that collection, "The Hedge Knight" stood out from the rest and is the only one I can
significantly remember, some 8 years later.
You will note from the title that this is book 2 of a retrospective collection. As such, the collection represents various stories from throughout George Martin's writing career, and hence does not have a chronological order or linking narrative, and it is not necessary to have read book I (which I haven't).
The collection has two Haviland Tuf stories: the complete stories can be found in TUF VOYAGING, and these two tales represent un-expanded or alternative versions of tales found in that complete collection. Tuf. A likeable sort of rogue ecological engineer long after that science has died, roams the galaxy in his ancient seed-ship, searching for planets that he can assist in an ecological way, usually giving them more than they bargained for and making himself rich in the process. This was a really pleasant way to open the collection… 1 think Haviland Tuf is brilliant! Fun, clever, thought provoking and supremely approachable - these stories have persuaded me to track down the full collection.
Next up we have two television scripts George Martin produced, one for one of the latter day (misguided?) attempts to bring back 'The Twilight zone, and another a pilot for a more intriguing television show about a contemporary doctor who links up with a parallel-world-hoping woman, constantly on the run from her ominous and alien-technology-laden pursuers. Although the concepts seem strong and both would probably make good shows, 1 always find that reading scripts makes me feel as if I am experiencing the stories in the wrong medium… which of course, I am. A low point in the book. Then, for me.
Following this are two excerpts from the long-running Wildcards series. As the introduction interestingly notes, the Wildcards idea sprang from an extensive set of super-heroic role-playing that George Martin, Roger Zelazny and friends partook of back in the "80s. Knowing this, I approached with caution. Having done my share of role-playing, 1 am aware of how frequently role-players think their characters will transfer to great written stories, and how infrequently that actually turns out to he. Nonetheless, 1 found the Wildcards stories to he well written and quite enjoyable, but the general concept seemed at odds with the mature treatment given to if. Somehow superheroes just seem a little too marvelous.
I enjoy the comics and the movies; (George Martin's stories just don't reflect the right ambience, I guess.
The collection finishes off with…. Well, various. Several SF (some far future, some just round the corner), a couple of horror, and a fantasy (the aforementioned "The Hedge Knight") make up a highly varied set of stories. I was struck by the strength of the concepts and the way George Martin's characters react in such natural seeming ways to the situation they are in, giving each story a compelling sense of reality.
Overall, 1 got a lot more enjoyment from this book than disappointment I might have been templed to hand out top marks, but the presence of the scripts and the slightly off feeling I got form the Wildcards drop it from first class To be honest, the 700+ pages disappeared alarmingly quickly, and left me wanting for more. Time to track down that copy of TUF VOYAGING, then.
DREAMSONGS: A RRETROSPECTIVE by George R R Martin
This is a massive, MASSIVE collection of short stories and novellas, as well as retrospectives, by George R.R.Martin.
Over the years he has delved into SF, Fantasy, Horror, thriller, from his humble beginnings trying to make a living in comic books. There are in this 32 short stories, including the Hugo-winning ‘A song for Lya’ (good admittedly but not my favourite). As well we have television scripts, and Gardner Dozois does the introduction, and at the end is a comprehensive bibliography.
One for the fans perhaps? I’d say no, not at all. I picked this up at a meeting a while back (it’s taken me a little while to get through it all!) as I was curious – I’d heard the name but not read anything by him, so I thought I’d give it a go. I have ended up with no small admiration for the author – he can write good fiction in so many different styles without any loss of quality. Of course not all his stories in this tome are memorable but it is notable how many I can remember now, going back over the contents list. His characters are for the most part well drawn and memorable, with real emotions that we can empathise with. He has written stories for all genre fans, SF, Fantasy, horror so there is something for everyone. I was going to pick a few out as examples but it might be best to let the reader make their own mind up as they go through the book.
And then there are the author commentaries which to some may be the highlight of the book. Martin tells his story of how he got into fiction, his origins in comic books, and how he ended up where he is today, with several references to American culture of the time. His humour is dry yet witty and quite humble in its tone, very likeable in fact, and these sections for me were highly enjoyable and put the book a step above others in its class.
THE ARMAGEDDON RAG by George R R Martin
First published in 1983, this early Martin novel has been out of print for many years and the decision to re-issue it now
may well be connected with the recent success of the writer’s TV series A Game of Thrones. In truth, it scarcely belongs
in these pages – it contains no SF element at all. There are hints of occultism, but this does not appear until almost
halfway through and so little is made of it that it almost might as well not be there at all.
The story kicks off with the gruesome murder of a rock promoter on the anniversary of the day when the lead singer of the heavy metal group he managed, The Nazgûl, was shot dead during an open-air concert ten years before. Journalist-turned-author Sander Blair is offered the job of writing a story on the murder in the context of what has happened to the man and the surviving musicians during the intervening years, but soon finds himself disconnected from his putative employer as a result of his insistence on writing his own story instead of the one he was hired to produce. Criss-crossing America, he looks up old friends as well as the surviving band members and this part of the story becomes something of a mish-mash of disparate themes as he rediscovers his own past, and finds himself haunted by dreams of his student days. He may be sliding into madness, a slide which is checked when he meets Edan Morse, a mysterious, possibly criminal, entrepreneur who wants to recreate The Nazgûl with a new lead singer created in the image of the old one. Sandy is hired to handle the publicity for the revival tour which is scheduled to climax in a final concert staged on the date, at the time and in the place where the original singer was killed.
From this point onwards the story really takes off, with unexpected twists as tension and drama increase to a climax which remains uncertain until the very end, while Sandy continues to wrestle with his demons, still unsure whether they are real or not.
To present this as primarily a murder mystery is to miss the point. What it is, is an homage to the pop music- hippie-peacenik-radical-nonconformist student culture of the sixties and early seventies and this aspect of the book is brilliantly and evocatively realised. The original killings are the trigger which set the whole thing in motion, and somehow death and blood are supposed to bring about some kind of apotheosis in which Sandy is to play a critical part, but it is the story of the music which is important.
George R R Martin has made a name for himself as a fine SF writer, as his many awards testify, and he had already come into his own when he wrote this thirty years ago. It is well crafted and well-written, and certainly deserving of being read by anyone with an interest in its principal theme. However, as has already been stated, a reader looking for SF, or even Fantasy, should not expect to find them here.
SONGS OF THE DYING EARTH: Stories in honour of Jack Vance edited by George R R Martin & Gardner Dozois
Rog may still remember that meeting of the ‘old’ Brum group in 1963 when Cliff Teague showed me the newly
published Lancer paperback of Jack Vance’s THE DYING EARTH. It was already the stuff of legend since it had
previously only appeared in a old 1950 Hillman Books edition and was long out of print. Instantly I shot out of Charlie
Winstone’s front room and caught a bus to the newsagent up the road who, fortunately for me, was still open, and even
more fortunately, had one last copy on his rack. I was thrilled just to hold the book in my hands; it was wonderful,
evocative stuff. Everybody thinks so.
But THE DYING EARTH is a hard act to follow and even Vance himself couldn’t quite manage to do it with the much later Cugel series. So, were other writers able to capture the same magic in this ‘tribute’ volume?
Most of the stories are set in familiar Vance locations (Almery, Ascolais, and so on) with established characters like the wizard T’sais, the witch Lith, even Cugel himself. They are told in the same overtly formal, archaic language, and in some cases even develop a tale from the original volume; for instance, Mike Resnick provides a clever prequel to “Liane the Wayfarer” while Phyllis Eisenstein offers a mannered sequel. The whole book has been put together in this way; twenty-two stories each trying to take us back to Vance’s world of the dying Earth.
They say that imitation is the sincerest form of flattery but I don’t know. It seems tome that there’s still something missing, some intangible quality. It might be Vance’s sly wit, or the incredibly careful way he selected his words to convey exactly the right shade of meaning. It’s a style which looks easy to mimic but I don’t think it is, and most of the authors represented here can’t pull it off; some of them come nowhere near.
Vance’s stories were written by a young, talented writer just commencing his professional life, bringing qualities of freshness and originality and heart-felt meaning. By comparison these have been turned out to order and for the most part are derivative and stale. Some are feeble and over-long, others are just silly. And by the end of the book I was starting to feel that I’d really had more than enough of the Dying Earth. So – not recommended!
HUNTER’S RUN by George R R Martin,Gardner Dozois and Daniel Abrahams
Sao Paulo is a planet – presumably one of many – colonised by humans from Earth who have been transported there
by aliens. It is very much a “frontier” planet where the rule of law runs thin. The story begins with maverick prospector
and general all-around hoodlum Ramon Espejo, having killed a man in a knife fight, fleeing into the unexplored
north and encountering a concealed and hitherto unknown alien outpost.
He is captured by these aliens and finds they want to use him for their own purposes, but as he learns more about these purposes he is enmeshed ever further in a web of danger and deceit. There are disturbing discoveries in store for him and his return to human civilisation leads him to re-assess what he wants of life.
An afterword tells how the book was begun in 1976 by Dozois who sought Martin’s help to continue: eventually it was finished by Abrahams who is now the same age as they were when they started it! It turns out to be a reasonably successful collaboration; there are no obvious changes in style and the joins are well concealed. Nevertheless I could not escape the feeling that whoever started the book had little or no idea in what direction other hands would take it, although it seems that all were happy enough with the final result.
I found it a well-written story, gripping enough to keep me turning the pages to find out what would happen next although there were times when the grip faltered as a result of a tendency toward the verbose. The character of Ramon was rounded and complete if not very likeable, the aliens were novel and very alien and the “wild frontier” nature of the planet was well realised. The flora and fauna of the world of Sao Paulo were elaborately visualise and portrayed – this in particular leading at times to the excess of wordiness referred to.
Considering its difficult history it undoubtedly works well. However I would not describe it as a great book but rather one poised on an uncertain dividing line between qualified success and heroic failure. It is certainly worth reading but I would not describe it as special enough to warrant the writers seeking to embark on another collaboration or the reader to seek one out.
EVOLUTION by Stephen Baxter Gollancz, 672 pages, £7.99 paperback There was a time when people wrote stories that made science more appealing by making it into fiction with characters people could identify with and plots that engaged the attention. They were more entertaining than text books and managed to explain some of the science. This isn’t like that. Quite the opposite.
Baxter has taken the story of human evolution, some of it speculative, some of it based on history or fossil record, and made it into a series of short stories set at the points where things change. There’s the great disaster that started the rise of the mammals, finally coming down from the trees and a few other recognisable events. All this is done in a style reminiscent of the old wildlife documentaries with names based on species and descriptions of every other creature in range—and there are quite a few. He does not attempt the level of anthropomorphism that you’d find in Richard Adams or a lot of the David Attenborough documentaries. Rather than make this accessible he seems to have tried to make this as awkward as possible even to the point of using similes for science geeks—a tipping point is analogised as like dropping a crystal into a supersaturated solution.
The stories improve slightly with the appearance of modern man but even then, the aim is to describe the scenery rather than work in any kind of plot. There’s an hundred page section at the end with a view of what humans may become but as they step away from intelligence and identity, they step back into the wildlife documentary background.
I can’t help thinking that a properly written text book would have been more accurate, more fun and might even have managed a plot.
THE SHRINKING MAN by Richard Matheson
I saw the movie, THE INCREDIBLE SHRINKING MAN in 1957, and indeed it is one of my favourites, being quite
intelligent and the special effects are excellent, for the time. So I was interested to see how the film and book versions
compare. It was worth the trouble, because it proved an excellent example of how these two media vary, especially
since the screenplay was also written by Richard Matheson. I re-watched the film on video to be sure my memory of it
was correct (it was, more or less!).
The film is linear, following our hero, Scott Carey, from the time he encounters a cloud of strange sparkling droplets while out on the ocean in his brother’s boat with his wife. In the book he is with his brother Marty, with whom he also works. In the film, for some reason, his brother is called Charlie. In the book Scott has a young daughter, Beth, absent from the film (perhaps because it would have been too difficult when he shrank to her size and below?) The novel is written in a series of flashbacks, alternating between ‘now’, when Scott is living in the cellar of his house, about half an inch tall and shrinking by exactly one-seventh of an inch each day, and the story of how it all came about and developed. The film does have occasional voice-overs by the hero, so that we know something of his feelings and thoughts. But this is where the novel scores, because the writer is able to express the despair and loneliness, the occasional moments of elation at some small triumph, like securing a morsel of food, and also the physical effort and sheer pain of, say, trying to climb onto a chair, or the fear of being stalked by a Black Widow spider of about his own size. In the novel, sex also rears its head (think of the problems: size doesn’t matter?), whereas of course it isn’t even touched upon in the movie.
The film contains a number of action scenes which are either not in the book or are passed over quite quickly, such as the chase by his cat (whom in the film his wife thinks has eaten him), and trying to obtain a piece of cheese from a mousetrap in the cellar. But of course the culmination is the inevitable fight with the spider, which is much more drawn-out in the book. Now personally I doubt that he could dig a pit big enough for the spider to fall into, or that if it did, it would fall with sufficient force to impale itself on a needle (or that the needle would be sharp enough, relatively); especially as shortly afterwards the author explains why Scott does not hurt himself very much when he falls from a table - he is too small and light for gravity to have much effect. A minor quibble. This 1956 novel is still well worth a read.
THE FALCONER by Elizabeth May
Written in first person present tense, THE FALCONER is set in Edinburgh 1844 and tells the story of Aileana Kameron
(Kam), debutante, heiress and murderer. The press release suggests this is Buffy meets an historical romance and it
isn't far off. Kam is a fae hunter but in her ordinary life she is a lady subject to the taunts of the local gentry, who
whisper that she murdered her mother, having been discovered above the body covered in blood. However her father,
the Marquess of Douglas and the authorities insist the death was caused by an animal attack. Kam has been in
mourning for a year, but two weeks ago she returned to normal society, attending balls and the like. After her year of
mourning she's lost the art of polite conversation and insult but with the help of her best friend Catherine, her return to
society is easier. With her support, and her own tight control, Kam is allowed to “feign pleasant smiles, complete with
forced laughter that's a touch vapid, even stupid. I can never let the real me show.” And the real Kam is a frightening
creature; trained by a gorgeous and elusive fae, Kiaran (who plays Giles to Kam's Buffy) Kam spends her evenings
hunting fae. These are not the pretty winged Disneyesque creatures we see regularly, these are vicious, evil, and
dangerous and feed on humanity. And it was a fae who killed her mother, so she is intent on revenge and seeks the
fae that did the deed.
Kam is a strong female character, at war with her need to obey the rules of etiquette and find a suitable husband, whilst inventing weapons and fighting battles at night. The narrative is fast paced and witty. Reflecting on ladies fashion Kam notes "The adornments are beautiful but absolutely useless in battle." There is an authenticity here in respect of the Nineteenth Century and the rules of society which entertainingly offsets the fight scenes. Kam also has a Pixie companion, Derrick, who is used as a source of humour in the book, especially when drunk on honey, and lives in her dressing room exchanging honey for repairing her battle-worn dresses. A seal protects the 'normal' world from the majority of the dangerous fae, but the seal is weakening and in six days it will fail. As is always the way with these prophecies, Kam is the only one who can repair the seal and save humanity.
As well as being very similar to Buffy in parts, this book, which ends on a distressing cliff-hanger, is set to become a series and reminded me of The Split Worlds trilogy by Emma Newman or the Parasol Protectorate series by Gail Carriger. But that is no bad thing as both of those series remain strong and have a great leading lady.
May is an incredibly talented writer, keeping the reader hooked from start to finish. This is one of the strongest period fantasies I have read in a very long time and I can’t wait to read the sequel. If you love your heroines kick-ass and funny, then this is the book for you.
ANCIENTS OF DAYS: The Second Book of Confluence by Paul McAuley
McAuley's novels are not for the lazy reader. A deceptively simple
plot is lavishly embedded in the product of a fertile imagination. Ancients Of Days is the sequel to Child of the River in which Yama began his quest to discover his bloodline.
Confluence is a planetoid, dominated by a huge river. The people populating its length are descended from genetically moderated animals and the world is kept stable by machines. Yet no-one of Yama's bloodline seems to exist - they were the Builders who have long since vanished. On his journey, Yama is pursued by those who wish to use his abilities in the war currently raging against the Heretics, for Yama has discovered that he can communicate with and reprogram machines.
As Yama learns more about his situation and the history that led to the evolution of Confluence, so does the reader.
Sometimes, the information confirms what has been suspected, at others, it adds a new dimension. At the same time, it is the adventures of a youth growing into manhood. With this book, be prepared to be dazzled by the prose, wonder at the breadth of creation and work at the subtleties of the plot complexities. Pauline Morgan
COWBOY ANGELS by Paul McAuley
In a parallel-world America, the discovery of pan-dimensional gateways enables travel to alternate realities where
history has taken a different course. An American Government organisation based on the CIA sends its operatives, the
Cowboy Angels, through the gates with the object of unifying and uniting all versions of the Good 'Ol US of A. in time,
political changes dilute this objective, and a breakaway clandestine group is set up to continue the original work by
any means necessary. Having discovered how to use the gates to travel through lime as well, they are not above going
back and starling nuclear wars in other realities if they feel that this will best serve their ends, but fortunately a
renegade agent discovers the plot. He contrives to get a former friend and colleague brought out of retirement so that
together they can thwart this scheme.
It is all rather derivative. The basic concept is similar to H. Beam Piper's Paratime stories, the transport system of the gateways is borrowed from Peter F.
Hamilton's Commonwealth Saga and the general atmosphere with its weaponry and talk of "The Company" and "Black Ops" echoes every spy thriller from Bond to Bourne, while the gratuitous violence, torture and casual killing reflect the way things are today in our world. Interestingly, although this is where a lot of the action takes place, it is not the same as the 'real' in which the story is rooted.
Having said all that, it must be agreed that the author has mixed these ingredients into something fresh and exciting - definitely exciting. There is enough running and shooting for anybody and the complexities of alternate histories/time-travel/paradoxes sustain interest, provided the reader can keep track of who is who and when is when. Tension is unrelenting and it is never certain who will live and who will die. Even the ending remains open - it reminded me of something else, although I cannot remember exactly what.
COWBOY ANGELS is an interesting blend of SF with espionage thriller.
McAuley has become one of our leading SF writers and it is well up to his usual standard.
IN THE MOUTH OF THE WHALE by Paul McAuley
Cutting edge science fiction is such that it leaves the reader in awe of the imagination of the author. Paul McAuley is
someone who has always been able to do this.
His last two novels, THE QUIET WAR and GARDENS OF THE SUN, took humanity out into the far reaches of the solar system. Now they have taken the leap across interstellar space and centuries of time. Seed ships arriving at Formalhaut were sent out by various factions, leapfrogging each other and continuing the rivalries. The Quicks arrived first. They tweaked their own genomes and adapted, colonising worldlets around the star and creating habitats. When the Trues arrived they prided themselves on being unadapted ‘True’ humans. They requisitioned the Quick’s worlds and enslaved the race. Ori is a Quick who works on a space station orbiting the gas giant known as Cthuga. She remotely controls a bot moving around on the outside of the structure, tending the cable that reaches down into the dense atmosphere. Isak is a True and a disgraced member of the clan that maintains the Library.
Mostly this is an electronic storage facility, added to when fragments are found. Often these fragments (or hells) contain demons (equivalent to corrupting viruses) and his job is to destroy the demons. To complicate matters, the True are at war with the Ghosts, another faction that set out from the solar system who want possession of Cthuga where they believe is a world mind which will help them change history in their favour.
Creeping towards Formalhaut is a small, damaged ship. Within it is a passenger, the Child - a clone of Sri Hong- Owen one of the gene-wizards whose work produced the means to colonise the evirons of the star. She is being brought up in a viron which is attempting to recreate her early life, snippets of which will ring bells with readers of the earlier two books. It is her ship’s imminent arrival which triggers the events in which Ori and Isak find themselves caught.
The technical descriptions may faze some readers but this is a book worth persevering with if only to see the skill and economy with which McAuley weaves his plot strands.
INTO EVERYWHERE by Paul McAuley
When is a book a sequel? The question is not as easy to answer as it might first appear. In many minds a sequel is
almost a continuation of the first book. It is a ‘what happened next’ story. So, is Paul McAuley’s INTO EVERYWHERE a
sequel to SOMETHING COMING THROUGH? Chronologically, it is set after the latter and in the same universe.
In this scenario, alien beings known as Jackaroo turned up on Earth and offered humanity access to fifteen other worlds. They weren’t the first race to be given this gift as they found that all the worlds had traces of other civilisations. It was heaven for archaeologists. Some of the finds contained eidolons which infected the mind. They were ghosts of ancient technology and were a kind of algorithmic code that no-one completely understood. The hope was that studying them would allow greater access to advanced technology. At the end of SOMETHING COMING THROUGH an eidolon allowed space ships built by an Elder Race to be discovered, allowing almost unrestricted expansion into the galaxy.
INTO EVERYWHERE introduces us to two main characters. Lisa Dawes has an eidolon but it hasn’t done anything for years. Suddenly it wakes up. She learns that her estranged husband has been killed searching for alien technology and now the authorities want to find out what he has told her. Way across the galaxy is Tony Okoye. He is on a slime planet with a group of wizards (scientists) who hope the stromatolites there will contain ancient code. The expedition is cut short when they are attacked by another ship which wants to steal their finds. The novel follows both these characters in alternating chapters and each of them are facing pursuit because of the things others think they know or have. There are a couple of characters in common with both books. Adam Nevers, who is chasing Lisa, is an enforcer who believes all artefacts with eidolons in them must be quarantined. As an infected person, Lisa should be quarantined too. When he kills her dog in case it is infected, she is determined to stay out of his clutches. He is the nemesis of Ada Morange, a wealthy woman from the earlier book who is interested in finding and exploiting technology not supplied by the Jackaroo. Also appearing is an alien known as Unlikely Worlds who has been collecting the story of Ada Morange, and is known, at intervals, to both Lisa and Tony, though since it seems to be able to be in two places at once, it takes a while for the reader to be able to resolve the potential conundrum. In the context that the novel is partly a continuation of the rivalry between Ada and Nevers, this is a sequel.
Any good sequel will advance the story arc even if it is capable of being read on its own. INTO EVERYWHERE does this. It projects the finding of the alien ships into a future where the characters can discover more about the technology the Elder Races have left behind and find new places to look for the information to understand their place in a vast galactic history.
All this aside, Paul McAuley is a very intelligent writer. Not only can he weave enthralling narratives involving believable characters he can make alien technology feel alien rather than being an extrapolation of what we already know – a failing of lesser authors. His skill is something that any reader will be in awe of. He is an SF writer at the peak of his creative talent.
MIND'S EYE by Paul McAuley
If you put fifty people in a room and ask them to define science fiction, you will get fifty different suggestions.
Ultimately, if both the questions, ‘Is it fiction?’ and ‘Does it include science?’ can be answered in the affirmative, then
the writing in question is science fiction.
In his novel WHOLE WIDE WORLD. Paul McAuley took a concept that is already part of our daily lives, the internet, and extrapolated only a small way into the future to create a detective thriller that had all the excitement that readers of both science fiction and modern thrillers demand of their literature. In MIND’S EYE, McAuley is edging even closer to now. The US Army is still policing the situation in Iraq. The date could be anytime between last year and sometime in the next five. The political situation in the Middle East is relevant only in that it triggers the action of the novel and has a bearing on the direction the plot takes towards the end.
Alfie Flowers is a photographer but is the first to acknowledge that he is not as good as his father. Mick Flowers died somewhere in the Middle East soon after Alfie’s tenth birthday. The year before this, Alfie’s grandfather had died.
After the funeral, Alfie had taken a roll of paper from a hidden compartment in his deck, along with a pouch of grey powder. Alfie presumes that he tasted some of the powder and looked at the image on the paper. He doesn’t remember but since then he has suffered from epileptic fits. It has also made him sensitive to a certain type of pattern.
More than twenty years later, Alfie spots a piece of graffito on a restaurant window that makes his mind tingle. The frame of the anti-American image is a pattern of dots and dashes. Thinking that the artist, who signs himself Morph, could lead him to a solution to the problem that has dogged him since he looked at his grandfather’s paper, he decides to track down Morph. He enlists his friend, Toby Brown to help. As a reporter, Toby can get publicity for Morph which might bring him out into the open.
Alfie is not the only one interested in Morph. Harriet Crowley is a secret service agent. She also recognises the pattern Morph is using. Her grandfather and Alfie’s were colleagues and archaeologists. It was their excavations that originally uncovered the glyphs and recognised their significance. Harriet’s father had used the information to involve people in a cult set-up that went drastically wrong. Harriet also knows that Carver Soborin and Rölf Most are looking for Morph. Having obtained information about the glyphs and the drug from Harriet’s father they had tried to use them for commercial gain in Africa. The results had been horrific. Harriet wants to find Morph before they do and prevent them using them. She suspects they are looking for information to lead them to the original source.
To most people, the glyphs are just interesting patterns. To others, exposed to the drug they induce mental disturbances and can have psychological effects. Morph is using a fascination glyph which attracts attention to the cartoon it frames. After several deaths of people who have known Morph, Harriet and Alfie pool their resources. The trail takes them to the Kurdish region of Turkey, and then to Iraq.
This is a fast-paced thriller driven by the various needs of the characters.
Though the science element is small, it is significant, being the cause of the situations all of them find themselves in. MIND’S EYE will appeal equally to those who enjoy the Indiana Jones kind of adventure, as well as those who value good literature and a well told story.
SOMETHING COMING THROUGH by Paul McAuley
Themes in Science Fiction tend to go in cycles. It is not just new writers or those from mainstream literature who are
venturing into the field, thinking they have invented something totally new (and haven’t). In these cases, the book has
to be exceptional for them to be excused the fact that they are ignorant of the history of the genre. When experienced
writers who have a deep grounding of their craft and knowledge of what has gone before, take up a theme that has
lain by the wayside for a long time it is worth taking note. Then when several well established writers publish books
with similar themes in a short space of time, you start looking for the source of the synchronicity. Sometimes there is a
trigger, at other times it is not obvious.
Here the theme in question is the arrival of aliens who offer technological gifts without first stating what they want in return. In 1964, Murray Leinster gave us THE GREKS BRING GIFTS and later Arthur C. Clarke produced CHILDHOOD’S END. By this time we should have realised that it was likely to end in tears as the citizens of Ancient Troy found out when they dragged the wooden horse into their city. However free something appears, there is always a catch. Then at the end of last year, Greg Bear published WAR DOGS (reviewed in Newsletter #520 – January 2015). Now we have Paul McAuley’s SOMETHING COMING THROUGH. Both have aliens appearing on Earth (before the start of the novel) and offering advanced technology. In neither case do the human governments spurn the gifts. In the former, Earth forces become engaged in a war on Mars against other aliens, in the latter, humans are given the technology and access to fifteen planets that they can colonise. These planets have had previous tenants. There is a good trade in smuggling Elder artefacts to Earth. Some of the artefacts are infected with eidolons, a kind of ghost that can alter the mind it interacts with.
The plot follows two different but overlapping strands. On Earth, Chloe Millar has a reputation for being able to spot the break-outs of aberrant behaviour caused by eidolons. She follows up a lead to a meeting of a burgeoning religious cult and finds Fahad, a youth who is obsessively drawing the same image, one that can be identified as an Elder site on Mangala, the planet where a bead in his sister’s bracelet came from. Ada Monrange is a very powerful and wealthy woman who is interested in finding technology not supplied by the Jackaroo – the beneficent aliens. She arranges for Chloe and Fahad to be smuggled onto Mangala to see what they can discover. This needs to be done without the Jackaroo knowing.
Meanwhile, on Mangala, policeman Vic Gayle has a murder to solve. The corpse has been shot with what appears to be a ray-gun (source and technology unknown). There were two killings some time previously using the same method but he was unable to find the evidence that his chief suspect was guilty. The trail of incidents and bodies lead him in the same direction that Chloe and Fahad are travelling.
The story is cleverly told with enough time separation between the two strands so that although the reader is playing catch-up they are ultimately able to complete the picture before the characters do. There are always coincidences in a novel such as this but without them there would be no complexity to the plot. Paul McAuley has finesse in his writing which is why I prefer this over the Greg Bear.
THE QUIET WAR by Paul McAuley
In the Twenty-third Century the Earth has been virtually destroyed by a combination of climate change, pollution and
overpopulation. A fractured humanity has split into two factions. On Earth, the prevailing ethos is Green, working to
restore the human race to the best of what it once was while minimising its footprint on a restored planet.
On the other hand the Outers have colonised the moons of Jupiter and Saturn and use genetic manipulation techniques wherever these will help to further their ends. The activities of the Outers are resented on Earth and although the story opens with a seriousminded attempt at Peace and Reconciliation, a combination of clandestine manoeuvres and shifting political allegiances leads to a situation where war is inevitable.
The book is well-written and the story well-told. Passages describing habitats on the moons of the Outer Planets are particularly evocative, displaying the author’s background as a biologist, the technological side shows his mastery of the themes of hard SF and the people through whose eyes the story is seen unfolding are interesting and well- rounded characters.
Unfortunately it takes rather too long to get anywhere and the true theme emerges only slowly so that for most of the time it has remained difficult to see where it is going. The various threads one has been following are subsumed into a commentary on the influence of genetics on the complex inter-relationship between evolution and basic human nature. Meanwhile, for the several important characters, there is no final resolution except for those overtaken by death. The remainder are left dangling as loose ends whereas one would have liked to know what happened to them in the fullness of time.
In conclusion therefore, this is found to be a complex and interesting book which would have benefited from being either shorter or longer. If shorter its principal themes and objectives might sooner have become more readily apparent; if longer its eventual conclusions could have been more neatly tidied up. By falling between these two stools it remains a lesser book than it might have been, although it is still a grand and sweeping tale.
THE SECRET OF LIFE by Paul McAuley
Some authors will bludgeon the reader over the head with their superior knowledge, either because they have done a
lot of research and don't want to waste any of it, or because it relates to their previous job.
Paul McAuley is able to draw on his knowledge and paint a picture in deft strokes, as if he is gently letting you into a secret.There are several related problems that form the main thrust of the novel. There is the search for life on Mars. The Chinese claim that they haven’t discovered anything there, but are very secretive about their explorations. Then there are the slicks that have appeared in the Pacific Ocean that are killing marine life - although no-one will admit it. NASA intends to mount an expedition to discover what the Chinese have discovered, but their choice of personnel is influenced by money, in particular that provided by the Cytex organisation which is continuously looking for the profit margin in all of it.
6 Mariella Anders is a microbiologist whose work is highly acclaimed. However, she doesn’t like the idea of selling her soul to a big corporation. She is altruistic, believing that knowledge should be shared, not parcelled out to the highest bidder. She is delighted to win a place on the next flight to Mars - but not by who she has to travel with.
This book is delightful to read, and thought provoking at the same time.
WHOLE WIDE WORLD by Paul McAuleySome authors are able to construct complex alien worlds, some can extrapolate weird far future scenarios, some imagine strange space adventures for mankind or conjure near future thrillers. In various of his books, Paul McAuley has done all of these. WHOLE WIDE WORLD is near future crime. Although a cop, John Dixon has always been sidelined into the essential kinds of jobs that involve filing and information. In the beginning he is merely been given the job of collecting a couple of computers from a murder scene in order to retrieve any useful data that might be on them. The problem is that the hard drives have been stolen though it quickly becomes clear that the murder was broadcast over the Internet.
DRAGON’S TIME by Anne & Todd McCaffrey
Todd McCaffrey began a sequence of novels set in his mother’s creation, the planet of Pern with its thread-fighting
The first four volumes have had their problems but in this, the fifth, Anne has taken a hand. The difference is noticeable as the characters are more deftly portrayed and the plot is more complex. There are still problems, many arising from what has gone before.
Set at the beginning of the Red Planet’s third pass near Pern, there are insufficient dragons to keep the thread falling on the ground and destroying the vegetation.
At the end of DRAGONGIRL, Lorana leaps forward in time to try and bring back dragons from the next interval, knowing it will cost her her unborn child. She believes she has failed and is forced to look for a different solution. On a dragon that she has borrowed from another rider, she does a lot of time hopping, leading Fiona back to the empty Igen Weyr so that the young dragons can grow up in the past (see DRAGONHEART). Now she has to find another place to do the same with the next batch of weyrlings.
Although this novel explains some of the incidents that have occurred in earlier volumes in the series, it is introducing new concepts. Not enough time is spent on some of the more interesting aspects, such as the story of Terin and F’jian and there is far too much emphasis on babies.
If some of the terminology sounds confusing, then do not start here; go back to the original beginning and DRAGONFLIGHT.
THE SKIES OF PERN by Anne McCaffrey
When Anne McCaffrey writes about Pern and its dragons, she is as magnificent as ever. These books have a sparkle
that is missing in too many of the collaborations.
THE SKIES OF PERN takes off after ALL THE WEYRS OF PERN and focuses on F’Lessan, F’lar and Lessa’s son.
Although the Red Star has been diverted, thread is still falling and all the pressures on the dragons and their riders is still present.
To add to the confusion is the belief by some holders that dragons are no longer needed - or soon won’t be. Also, there are some people who think that the new technology, rediscovered with the finding of the colony’s original landing site, is an anathema and should be destroyed or resisted at all costs.
Into this scenario falls a cometary fragment.
The resultant tidal waves destroy many coastal holdings. The up side, and developed within the novel, is the discovery that the dragons have the power of telekinesis. This suggests a hope that the dragons will still have a role after the final strands of thread have drifted from the skies.
The people in this period of Pern's history seem to have extremely eventful lives and sometimes it seems that the solution of the problems is solved a little too easily. However, this book is guaranteed to pass away an idle hour or two of pleasant enjoyment.
THE TOWER AND THE HIVE by Anne McCaffrey
The fifth book and advertised as the last in the sequence that started with The Rowan.
Very much a sequel with characters carrying forward such that reading previous books is a necessity. The heroes and
heroines are psionics showing they are the best. The transportation of spaceships is by teleportation assisted with
mechanical energy and communication is by messages sent the same way or by telepathy. This makes the universe
small enough that any character can interact with any other. A comfortable read in the style of a soap but aiming for
the grandeur of space opera.
DRAGONHEART by Todd McCaffreySome concepts seem to endure. The Dragonriders of Pern and their adventures have that quality. Created originally by Anne McCaffrey in 1968, the telepathic dragons have gained a huge following. After several collaborations with his mother, Todd McCaffrey has taken on the mantle.
SLOW LIGHTNING by Jack McDevitt
There’s a fairly long review quote from Stephen King on the back of this book. In part it says, ca nail-biting neo-Gothic
tale that blends mystery, horror and a fascinating look at how first contact with an utterly alien species might happen.’
Somehow, despite everything, it didn’t work for me. There were certainly bits that were scary. There were bits that were
interesting and Kim Brandywine, heroine of the book, was sufficiently real to me that I wanted to give her a bloody
good shake but I wasn’t gripped. If it hadn’t been the only book I’d got with me on the plane I’d have dumped it back
onto the review table with the hope that someone else would pick it up.
Kim works as a marketing person for the Seabright Institute who are turning stars nova in an effort to attract aliens, in a universe that seems empty of other life. (Naïve? Yup.) Some years ago her older clone/sister disappeared after returning from an expedition to find life. This loss has affected Kim deeply. It seems to have turned her into the sort o f person who would carelessly risk her own and other people’s careers, and indeed lives, out o f curiosity. Inevitably she sets out to investigate what happened all those years ago with massive consequences.
It’s difficult to say quite why I found it so uninspiring. Certainly I found the reliance on individual stupidity and misjudgement to be irritating with Kim being a particularly splendid example. The scary bits were pretty damn scary but somehow didn’t come to anything. The mystery looked interesting but again, was finally revealed to be fairly mundane. It is a well written book which I found, ultimately disappointing.
BLACKWING (The Raven’s Mark 1) by Ed McDonald
In recent years, there has been a rise in popularity of fantasy labelled as “grimdark” for works which are seen as
particularly violent, with cynical flawed heroes and often dystopian worlds. Writers such as Joe Abercrombie, Mark
Lawrence and Richard Morgan have been particularly successful in this field. By those criteria, BLACKWING could be
classed as fitting this type of novel.
Ryhalt Galharrow is a disgraced nobleman who has pledged himself to the service of a powerful being called Crowfoot. This is marked by a raven tattoo on his arm, which gives him the rank and title of Blackwing. With his disreputable crew, he tracks anyone who flees the Republic into the twisted, distorted and deadly border region called the Misery. The Misery was created as a defence against The Deep Kings, other powerful beings who wish to overthrow the Republic. For eighty years, the Misery and the threat of Nall’s Engine (a powerful magical device) have maintained the stalemate with the Eastern Empire and the Deep Kings.
After years of silence, the tattoo rips from his arm and delivers a message; he must protect a mysterious noblewoman who is visiting a nearby frontier fortress. However, he finds complacent, poorly-trained troops and ill- maintained defences. While he is there, the fortress is breached and overrun by invading troops. The famed Nall’s Engine fails to activate and he escapes only because of the magical abilities of the woman (Ezabeth) he is supposed to be rescuing. They then work together to uncover the traitors and to try and restore the Republic’s major defences before an emboldened army led by the Deep Kings can destroy them.
This is the debut novel by a new author and definitely shows promise. The premise is different and does not feel too familiar. There is good pacing and the story fairly rattles along. The world building including the Misery and the gruesome agents of the Deep Kings (Darlings, Brides etc) all show excellent imagination and make a welcome change from the stock orcs, goblins etc. In terms of grimdark, I am not sure it is a completely accurate description – the protagonist although outwardly cynical, is very much a hero in terms of his actions and motivations.
Where the novel feels it could be improved is in the characters. The two main characters, although they have some flaws and back stories, feel almost too competent, and I found myself a little emotionally detached from them. Also, the secondary characters would benefit from more detail and attention to their back story. Nenn (Galharrow’s second in command) felt like a far more potentially interesting character than the magician, Ezabeth and I hope she is given more time in the next volume. Part of the problem I had may be with the story all being told from Galharrow’s point of view, which always makes it more difficult to convey other characters’ thoughts and opinions. To summarise, this is an auspicious start from a new author who I am sure will continue to improve, and BLACKWING will appeal to many fans of gritty fantasy.
ARES EXPRESS by Ian McDonald
Imagine a terra-formed Mars crisscrossed by an efficient railway system.
Habitation is sparse, distances are vast. The live-aboard crew of the trains has a society developed from the necessity to keep the system running. Then throw in a wild card.
The plot at the beginning sounds a little familiar - Sweetness is born into an Engineer family, she wants to drive the train but women don't do that. Her marriage is arranged with a Steward boy from a different train. She doesn’t like the idea so she runs away. At this point, though, any expectations the reader has go haywire as Sweetness gets caught up in the machinations of Devastation Harx.
Superficially, he appears to be an evangelist. He harbours ambitions to destroy the network of satellites that keeps the atmosphere breathable. Sweetness, unknowingly, has something he needs to complete his plans - the soul of Catherine of Tharsis who has been masquerading as Sweetness's imaginary dead twin. She flees through a surreal landscape where giant furniture adorns the hills. She spends time with the children of Worldroof, on the outside of the glass dome covering Grand Valley, the site of the original landings (a fascinating culture in its own right).
In recent years, there have been a number of novels set on Mars (Kim Stanley Robinson, Anne Gay, etc.) but McDonald provides his own slant on it. He is not content with devising one new culture; the world is visualised as a whole and has several. There is not just one take on scientific extrapolation, there are several; and what in other hands would have been plot cliches, become fresh looks at familiar ideas. The characters are finely drawn and the places are real, touches of wit and humour add levity to what could have been dull. McDonald has produced another masterpiece.
BE MY ENEMY: Everness Book II by Ian McDonald
There are some people, among them writers, who seem to think that young adult books are a version of the books
written for older children in decades gone by. Some of these think that writing such a book is an easy task. A glance at
the best of the genre shows clearly that it isn’t. While many novels currently marketed for young adults in the
fantasy/dark fantasy field, tend to have a strong element of romance and seem to be aimed at the female readership,
this doesn’t have to be so. Post-pubescent boys are also allowed to have feelings. People of the age for which the YA
label is aimed (or should be) are also very capable of understanding complex narratives and emotionally deep
concepts. Very little separates YA from what is regarded as adult fiction.
BE MY ENEMY continues the adventures of Everett Singh, a mathematically precocious fourteen-year-old from London, England. In the first volume in this series, PLANESRUNNER, he discovered that alternative worlds branch off from ours exponentially and that scientists had developed a device that allowed passage between them. His father, Tejendra, had developed a multidimensional map of the other planes which he’d sent to Everett before he was kidnapped by people from a parallel world who wanted it. Now Everett is searching for his father. He has the assistance of the crew of the airship Everness which includes Sen, a girl his own age.
As this, the second volume in the series, begins, Everness is stranded over an icy landscape on a version of the world where civilisation made no appearance – in the London area at least. From the opening pages, the crew is in peril. They don’t have the power to go anywhere else and they suddenly discover that they have been followed by a highly armed force. Even when they’ve solved the immediate problem, there is still the issue of how to find Everett’s father. For him, this is the most important objective, ever. Others have different agendas, some of which run parallel with his, at least, for a while.
One of the alternative worlds, E1 which first developed the jump gate, has been cut off from the rest of the planes. Nothing goes in or out. There are rumours, but Everett and the Everness crew see no long term solution to their problems other than going there. To complicate matters, Everett has acquired some deadly enemies, who wish to wrest the technology his father gave him from him, no matter the cost. To help them, they have taken Everett M. Singh from a different alternative and set him to recover the data base they want. To survive, Everett has to battle his alter self.
As this is a YA novel, don’t take hormones out of the equation. Throw two adolescents together and there will inevitably be sparks but whether the result will be a comforting fire or an almighty explosion depends on personality and circumstance. This novel is a perfect example of what a YA novel ought to be. It is exciting enough to capture the readership of all ages and deep enough to satisfy the adult reader without losing the younger ones. It has well defined characters and if the positions of them are perhaps a little too black or white, the headlong adventure with problems to solve at every turn sweeps the reader past any objection.
BRASYL by Ian McDonald
As in his previous book River of Gods, which I reviewed here a couple of years ago, McDonald has chosen a setting
unusual (although perhaps not totally unique) in contemporary Sf - the country better known to us as Brasil in case you
hadn't guessed - for the stories of several seemingly unconnected people.
In the Rio of 2006 Marcelina, an ambitious TV producer, finds her world invaded by an exact duplicate of herself whilst in Sao Paulo in 2032. Edson, an equally ambitious young entrepreneur meets and falls in love with Fia, a young hacker through whom he learns of the world of quantum computing. When she is mysteriously killed an exact duplicate of her turns up as well, and it become apparent that the both these duplicates have crossed over from alternate worlds in the Quantum Multiverse. Meanwhile, interleaved with their two stories is that of Father Quinn, an eighteenth-century Jesuit priest who has been sent for to act as an Admonitory and bring into line a renegade fellow- priest. He is captured by natives and given a drug which opens his mind to the many worlds of the multiverse, with the result that he becomes involved with a mysterious "Order" which exists to police transitions between the worlds. Marcelina together with Edson and Fia have become aware of both the multiverse and this Order: pursued by the latter they are rescued by Father Quinn and recruited by him to the other side.
These three stories are intricately braided together, the frenetic, almost hallucinatory style of the contemporary sections contrasting with a somewhat more prosaic and down-to-earth telling of that which is set three centuries earlier. It is all meticulously researched, particularly as regards the history of the Portugese conquest of Brasil, although to my taste the historical sections tended to drag and should have been tighter and briefer.
By contrast the modern stories really rock and the vivid descriptive passages truly take the reader to strange and unknown worlds.
Unfortunately a couple of things remain unclear. It is fairly explicitly stated that there is a "war" going on across the multiverse but there is no explanation as to how the sides are divided up. Also it seems that the possibility of travel between worlds includes travel between times - or does it?
These comments notwithstanding, this is an excellent and fascinating piece of up-to-the-minute Science Fiction with a basis in the most extreme ideas of modern theoretical physics.
EMPRESS OF THE SUN (Everness book III) by Ian McDonald
One of the big differences between adult and YA fiction is the abilities accorded to the young people involved. They
may be beset by problems that would appear insurmountable to the ordinary youngster but they will win out in the
end. In adult novels this might not be the case and the story has possibility of ending in total disaster – just as it might
in real life. The hero of this series of books, Everett Singh, is a mathematical genius. He hasn’t quite sussed out girls
yet, but the one he is most in contact with is bit of a tease. She’s also a lot more confident with her abilities and she
can pilot an airship.
It has long been proposed that each time a decision is made, an alternative future becomes a possibility. In the first volume of the series, PLANESRUNNER, Everett discovered that his father, a physicist, had been involved in developing a Heisenberg Gate. This device enables users to cross from one possible world to another. So far, ten have developed the technology. Everett’s Earth is the tenth. His father, Tejendra, developed a mathematical model that enabled any of the possible worlds to be accessed, and left it for Everett, just before he was kidnapped. Now there are factions, the most dangerous being led by Charlotte Villiers, who will go to any lengths to acquire the device. Everett, though, has help. It comes from the crew of the airship Everness.
At the end of the second volume, BE MY ENEMY, the ship jumped to a world where Everett hoped to find his father. EMPRESS OF THE SUN begins with Everness being dropped, literally, onto a very strange version of Earth. The solid matter in the solar system has been remodelled to form a huge disc with the sun moving up and down in the centre, through a hole. The technology to do that is so obviously in advance of what Everett is used to so that first they speculate that aliens have created it before they meet the inhabitants. It seems that the dinosaurs were not wiped out in this plane but have had the extra two hundred million years to develop though they still retain some characteristics of their reptile ancestry and are considerably warlike.
Thus the crew of the Everness have an extra set of problems added to what they had before. The airship is in desperate need of repair and as they start on the work, they find themselves caught between two of the tribes vying for supremacy. They still have Charlotte Villiers on their tail, trying to get the Infundibulum – the map of the other planes and Everett is still searching for his father.
In BE MY ENEMY, Everett’s alter (from another Earth) was placed in Everett’s family as a spy. Known, for convenience, as Everett M, he has his own problems. Not only does he have to avoid the pitfalls of impersonating himself, he also has to deal with the nano-spider that came back with him from Earth 1 and wishes to absorb carbon based life into one huge nano-entity. Despite his original brief, he finds he is beginning to care about what happens to his alter’s friends and family.
While this is still a great action packed young adult book the series is beginning to delve deeper into what it is to be a caring human. The philosophy is not overwhelming but carefully paced. There is one problem. This is not a trilogy. The ending sets up further mysteries that have yet to be unravelled. Excellent reading for all ages.
LUNA: NEW MOON by Ian McDonald
In Ian McDonald’s LUNA: NEW MOON, the Moon is being colonised and exploited for its unique resources and
environment. The moon colony is like an extreme “gold rush” frontier town. Ostensibly overseen by Earth, via a Lunar
Development Corporation, in reality there is little law other than contract law, which governs everything and even
court cases can be settled by trial by combat. For those who succeed the rewards can be rich but in a world where
everything even oxygen must be paid for, failure can be fatal. Five major family corporations, the “Five Dragons”
control much of the wealth and industry and the story looks at the growing tensions between two of the families, the
Corta’s (who mine Helium-3 which is vital for Earth and Moon power generation) and the Mackenzie’s (who make their
money from metal extraction). These families have been there from the early days and have used arranged marriages
to cement alliances and settle disputes. As Adriana Corta, the Brazilian-born matriarch approaches her 80th birthday,
internal family struggles over the succession and escalating tensions between the two families over control of resources
erupt and change things irrevocably.
This is a complex and detailed story told from multiple viewpoints. The characterisation of so many different yet essential characters is superb. The society the author has imagined is a multi-cultural melting point, with people from all over Earth forging a new life on the Moon. The detailed research into societies as diverse as Brazilian, Ghanaian and Chinese is evident. This research also shows in a consideration of the necessary science, technology and biology involved in this intricately constructed world.
While any SF novel based on the Moon will inevitably be compared to Heinlein’s THE MOON IS A HARSH MISTRESS, this book also reminds me in a lot of ways of DUNE (Frank Herbert). It has that same sense of a society shaped by its environment, and the same atmosphere of families and corporations constantly manoeuvring for advantage and survival in a harsh environment. Another similarity is that there are also hints of religious and other groups starting to make long-term genetic and societal evolutionary plans. This sense of a cultural evolution of humanity (exiled permanently from Earth as their bodies adapt to lunar gravity) on a new world and the detailed worldbuilding also reminds me of Kim Stanley Robinson’s Mars series. This is masterful, adult SF and I can’t wait to read the sequel, LUNA: WOLF MOON.
LUNA: WOLF MOON (Luna 2) by Ian McDonald
In the first book in this series, hostilities between two of the five major lunar families (the Five Dragons) erupted into
open conflict and warfare. At the end of that book, the Corta family was decimated and the remaining members were
scattered, taking refuge with other families or groups. Clan Mackenzie appears triumphant and has acquired control of
most of Corta company’s previous holdings.
As the remaining lunar Corta’s try to rebuild their lives, one of the senior Corta’s has escaped from the Moon during the initial upheaval. Believed dead, they have room to manoeuvre and recruit allies. Over the two intervening years they have plotted and conspired with the aim of exacting a vicious and elaborate revenge. As that revenge comes to fruition, many inhabitants of the Moon will find their lives and livelihoods massively disrupted and lunar society will be changed forever.
The author delivers yet another hugely satisfying thriller. The reader is again drawn into the conflict between ruthless families. This time we see more of other lunar groups than just the Corta’s; the Mackenzies, ostensible victors at the beginning, who fragment into two factions as events progress; the Sun’s, Asamoah’s and Vorontsov’s, as they jockey for advantage amidst the disruption; and the loosely bound Wolf groups and the quasi-religious Sisterhood who help shelter some of the remaining Corta’s.
Once again, the level of detail in the world building is exemplary. There is a large cast of characters (a Character list is provided and is very useful) which may deter some readers. However, most are sufficiently dissimilar and differentiated that the reader is not confused. In fact, I found this large number of viewpoints and personalities a major part of the richness and depth of this book. The author has succeeded in creating a capitalistic, machiavellian society where people must be hypervigilant among the backstabbing rivalries. Nevertheless, it is not all one-sided and there are also examples of love, selflessness and sacrifice which keep this from being a bleak novel. Also among the believable technological advances and the merging of different cultures, there are hopeful signs of a unique, lunar society evolving, separate and different from Earth. A wonderful hard SF novel with a fitting conclusion that still tempts the reader onwards with the many issues remaining to be resolved in the third volume.
PLANESRUNNER (Everness Book 1) by Ian McDonald
Deciding whether a book belongs in the Young Adult category isn’t as straight forward as it sounds. Despite what
parents, publishers and teachers think, youngsters tend to read in a category higher than their targeted age. Just
having a protagonist in their late teens doesn’t make a book YA. The main difference between YA and adult novels is
hormones. Often the main character is just becoming aware of the opposite sex (or occasionally same sex though this
is rarer) and this tends to colour their judgment in ways that the romance between adults who have been through that
doesn’t. Also most YA novels stick to the point of view of the protagonist whereas adult novels may have multiple
PLANESRUNNER definitely fulfils the criteria of YA. Up to the point that the novel starts, fourteen year-old Everett Singh’s main focus has been physics. He is on his way to meet his father, Tejendra, to attend a lecture together when he sees him snatched from the street. Unfortunately, no-one believes him. Everett, though, is determined to find him.
One of the theories Tejendra has been working with is the idea of multiple universes splitting off from each other every time a choice is made. Some of these will be so similar that differences will be unnoticeable, others will have diverged long enough ago to appear alien. Everett discovers that it is the operatives of one of these other worlds that have kidnapped his father. As an impetuous youth, he determines to rescue his father. To that end, he crosses into this other world. This is a place where everything is run by electricity and that never had a steam age and where oil-based products, including petrol and plastic do not exist. London is ringed by coal-fired power stations generating the necessary power. It is a place where air transport is by airship. Here he meets Sen Sixsmyth, adopted daughter of the owner of the Airship Everness. Sen is Everett’s age and knows her way around and she is as impulsive as him. She persuades her mother to take Everett on as crew while they try to work out a plan to rescue Tejendra.
For a YA novel to work it has to provide equal enjoyment for adults and teenagers. PLANESRUNNER does that. It has the high quality of writing that engages the reader and carries the plot forward at a furious pace. It makes no concession to the age of the reader; after all, the YA target audience is sixteen to eighteen and should be capable of understanding any decent literature. This just happens to have adventure and hormones. Ian McDonald is one of those writers who is capable of charming any reader with his story-telling abilities. This does not disappoint. Only one problem – you have to buy the next volume to find out what happens next.
RIVER OF GODS by Ian McDonald
I have not previously got on very well with Ian McDonald’s work but this is different – a great big coruscating
blockbuster of a novel, one of the best I have read for some time. It takes place in 2047 on the Indian sub-continent,
now divided into twelve semi-independent nation-states, a setting which is as alien as many a distant planet. Law and
order is a tenuous concept at best, corruption is everywhere, but the central most important theme is that the
proliferation of computer systems has led to the emergence of self-aware artificial intelligences which are trying to
escape human control in order to pursue their own incomprehensible agendas.
The story is told from the alternating points-of-view of several disparate characters, one of whom becomes involved in the exploration of a strange object which has been discovered approaching the Earth from outside the solar system.
Meanwhile, another makes the discovery that an A.I. is not merely generating CGI characters for the most popular soap on TV but is also providing CGI ‘actors’ to give them an off-screen persona. Eventually these and other narrative threads come together to provide a denouement which is as remarkable as it is unexpected.
New, inventive, wide-ranging and strange, this is by any criterion a firstrate novel. Michael Jones
ROSEMARY AND RUE (Toby Daye Book 1) by Seanan McGuire
October (Toby) Daye is a changeling - half human/half fae and a knight of the Summerland Court. Things get a little
fishy for Toby when she's tailing Simon Torquill, twin brother of her liege, Sylvester Torquill. And by fishy, I'm being
literal; no fancy metaphors here. Simon uses his power to turn Toby into a fish where she flounders in a pond for
fourteen years until the spell breaks and she is found naked and disoriented, the apparent victim of an attack.
When she tells the police who she is they are in uproar at her for impersonating a dead woman. So she has no choice but to retain a human disguise and work the night shift at the local Safeway, dealing with the loss of her partner Cliff and daughter Gillian who wants nothing to do with her after she reappears fourteen years later.
However Toby can't ignore Faerie much longer when her friend Countess Evening Winterrose phones her, in trouble and sounding scared. And she is on the case before she can blink.
Blending magic, fae mythology and the sprawling city of San Francisco, McGuire puts the 'urban' and 'fantasy' in equal measure back into this busting-at-the-seams genre. It is at times over-saturated but McGuire's combination of a truly sassy, likeable female hero, her supporting cast, and the murder mystery elements make this book stand above the rest. It is written with a wonderful wry sense of humour and Toby has to deal with attempts on her life as well as attempts on her chastity by ex-lover Devin, whilst building up a whole host of debts to various fae including the annoying, yet alluring Tybalt, Cait Sidhe and King of Cats.
The initial murder mystery is wrapped up nicely by the end but the book does leave lots of questions open for the following book. A rollicking good read.
THE FORGOTTEN BEASTS OF ELD by Patricia A McKillip
This may be the best of all fantasy novels. Not the longest, not the most subtle, not the most original. Yet it’s full of
love, hate, revenge and fear, put across with a youthful exuberance which the best fantasy must possess.
Patricia McKillip was 26 when this was first published (in 1974).
Similarly, Poul Anderson was 28 when THE BROKEN SWORD was published, and Peter Beagle was only 20 when A FINE AND PRIVATE PLACE first appeared. Older writers may be more experienced, more polished, but they are too cynical to believe in love or to write with the necessary lack of restraint.
Believe me, I know.
THE FORGOTTEN BEASTS OF ELD is magical in more ways than one. Sybel is a young woman with considerable magic powers, who lives happily alone except for a few fabulous beasts: a lion, a cat, a boar, a falcon, etc., whom she controls and communicates with. She agrees to look after Tam, a baby cousin of hers, and because he is heir to a throne she is forced to take sides in a war between kingdoms. Tam is on one side and the man Sybel loves is on the other.
Okay, so the plot does creak a bit, but it still offers plenty of surprises.
The story is told in the most beautiful poetic language, full of metaphors and similes, only occasionally venturing into the purple. Even the beasts have melifluous names: the Cat Moriah, the Swan of Tirlith, the Liralen. Read almost any page of the novel aloud and it sounds like an incantation.
Cleverly, McKillip creates legends as she goes along, helping to persuade the reader that, spiralling outwards from Eld, are many kingdoms, many wizards and witches, and a heritage of myth and legend which has built up over centuries.
It is important for you to know that no Forgotten Beasts are harmed during the unfolding of this story, though a few men do die, some nastily.
A wonderfully satisfying novel, highly recommended.
THE BITTER SEED OF MAGIC by Suzanne McLeod
Urban fantasy is the umbrella that includes contemporary supernatural fiction and includes vampires and other
creatures of folklore.
Unusually for this field, this series of novels are home grown and set in London. This is the third featuring Genny Taylor. She is the only full-blooded sidhe in the city even though her father was a vampire. Although she cannot cast spells she can absorb them or crack them. Her job with Spellcrackers.com is to remove spells from places they shouldn’t be and round up mischievous sprites, like the pixies that rampage through Trafalgar Square.
This London is not one that we are familiar with since very few humans play a part in the action. The police force seems to be staffed by trolls and witches. It is they that call in Genny when a dead faeling (half human/half fae) is found in the Thames. She is asked to remove the spells that the body is wrapped in – a glamour and a stasis spell that stop the body fading. This seems easy enough but she is then arrested for stealing the stun spell which she used on a dryad who would not take no for an answer. Even before this moment, Genny had problems. All the other supernatural beings want to break the curse which prevents the birth of new, full-blooded fae. They think that if she had a child the curse will be broken. Thus she is pursued by suitors trying their luck. As she gets drawn into the powerplay between vampires, witches and goddesses, she begins to uncover more about her own background than she really wished to know.
Although this is a clever, action-packed novel the series has reached a point that to fully appreciate the nuances it is better to start with volume one, THE SWEET SCENT OF BLOOD.
THE SHIFTING PRICE OF PREY by Suzanne McLeodThe latest Spellcrackers.com novel, THE SHIFTING PRICE OF PREY finds half vamp half fae Gen Taylor dealing with all sorts of supernatural mayhem in London as she tries to manage the company Spellcrackers. And you can't argue with a start like this; "The garden fairy was as desiccated as a dead frog . . . "From here you know what you're getting; funny, engaging Urban Fantasy that plays with the tropes.
IRON CROWNED by Richelle Mead
IRON CROWNED is the third part of the Dark Swan urban fantasy series which is the continuing story of Eugenie
Markham, a Sharman-for-hire. However, to best appreciate this book, it is virtually essential to first read the STORM
BORN in which she is first introduced, and THORN QUEEN its sequel.
Eugenie is a Gentry – a human half breed who, when she is not banishing entities trespassing in the human world, is trying to learn how to be Queen of one of the Gentry kingdoms, the one known as the Thorn Land. To complicate matters her biological father was the feared ‘Storm King’ and there is a prophesy that the first born son of the Storm King’s daughter will conquer the human world, so naturally many Gentry want to father that child, by force if necessary. Eugenie however, is not the only daughter of the Storm King; she has a young teen half sister Jasmine who wants to be the one who fulfils this prophesy. Unknown to each other before the events of the first book, they have a hate relationship that gradually turns to respect and possibly fraternal love.
Romantic interest and support in the Otherworld is provided by Kiyo who is a half breed Japanese Fox Spirit, who can shape-shift into any kind of fox, and Dorian the Gentry Oak Land King whose magic gives him mastery over earth and stone. To further complicate things while Dorian is in favour of the prophesy coming true Kiyo is not. Is Kyio truly on her side as he spends much time supporting his ex-partner Maiwenn, the Willow Queen who is strongly in opposition to the prophecy, and is about to have their child? Can she fully trust Dorian, as he too has his own agenda and tends not to fully explain things to her.
In IRON CROWNED Katrice, Queen of the Rowan Land, is pursuing a war against both Eugenie and Dorian, the origins of the conflict being described in THORN QUEEN. Horrified by the level of casualties, Eugenie is persuaded to try to find and win the fabled Iron Crown which is so powerful a magic object that it is believed that possessing it will scare Katrice into surrendering. What are its powers? Will the cost of using them be greater that the benefit?
Richelle Mead writes a well constructed, fast moving novel set in an interesting world with well fleshed out characters. I thoroughly enjoyed all three of the books in this series and look forward to the next one
SUCCUBUS REVEALED by Richelle MeadI dislike seeing items described as ‘Must Have’ when I am out shopping, many things are but most of those so labelled are not. However being a ‘bookaholic’ certain series by particular authors are to me ‘Must Haves’, a novel in Richelle Mead’s Georgina Kincaid urban fantasy series is one of these. SUCCUBUS REVEALED is the 6th and possibly final book in the series which chronicles the story of Georgina Kincaid a succubus and her, quite pure, passion for author Seth Mortensen. Both are engaging characters and following their tale is a great pleasure. Georgina may be a member of Hell’s Legions, but she is smart, funny and compassionate having sold her soul to the Devil in order to save others from harm. Adding breadth to this and the previous novels are her Seattle-based mundane and ‘infernal’ friends, a somewhat disreputable angel as well as Seth’s delightful family who are suffering more than their fair share of misfortune. In SUCCUBUS REVEALED all seems to be going well in her love life when she is suddenly given notice requiring her to move to Las Vegas, a seemingly ideal location for a succubus. When she gets there everything seems too good to be true while misfortune hits Seth’s family. To solve these mysteries her Seattle friends rally round, especially the nephilim, Roman and the angel Carter. To resolve matters requires a trip to hell and, as is to be expected, getting back is by no means guaranteed. One of the things that I like about SUCCUBUS REVEALED is that although it is part of series and full of well-fleshed engaging characters, it is eminently readable by itself and a reader is not disadvantaged if he/she has not read any of the previous five books. The whole of the Georgina Kincaid urban fantasy series is an excellent read.
ABSORPTION by John Meaney
John Meaney is a clever and complex writer. He weaves seemingly unrelated stories together to make a greater whole.
In this novel there are at least five strands scattered throughout time, each with their separate characters but with the hint of a common theme.
Ulfr is a warrior of a Northern clan in 777AD. He believes in the trickery of the Norse gods. He perceives the travelling bard Stigr as touched by darkness even though his oratory entrances the rest of the tribe. Gavriela Wolf, a German Jew and a physicist in the 1920s sees the same phenomenon when she spies on a local meeting and observes Hitler entrancing the crowd.
In 2146, Rekka Chandri is the member of the human exploration team that makes contact with the sentient natives on an unnamed planet. The local people communicate by scent and transfer knowledge directly by tasting each other’s flesh in ritual situations. One of her friends back home is a pilot who, in order to navigate muspace, has had her eyes replaced.
Further in the future in 2603, Roger Blackstone is just starting college on Fulgor. He notices a darkness lingering around his tutor but is too busy making friends and studying to let it worry him. His father, Carl, is a descendent of the pilots of 22nd century Earth but is genetically adapted to operate in mu-space.
He has been a spy on Fulgor for twenty years.
Roger, Gavi and Ulfr each dream that they inhabit crystal bodies in some far future place. They occasionally get waking visions of each other.
Most of the action takes place on Fulgor as one of the Luculenti hierarchy, Rashella Stargonier, discovers an artefact buried on her estate. When she opens it, she is infected by a vampire code which eats its way into her neural paths. She and all the other Luculenti are connected to the Skein, the communications web of the planet as are all the services of the city. She finds that she can connect with and devour the neural information of others, leaving them dead. The hunger to gather this knowledge accelerates putting the whole city in peril.
By the end of this volume, the first of three, it is possible to see loose connections between the disaster played out on Fulgor and the characters in the past. The links, however, are not yet strong enough to see the true pattern emerging. Possibly Meaney has introduced too many strands, too quickly, to do the overall shape full justice. Buy this book, but save it until the subsequent volumes are published before reading them.
BONE SONG by John Meaney
This is a book very difficult to categorise as it takes elements from a number of different genres. Is it science fiction or
fantasy? The story is set mostly in the city of Tristopolis. It has many of the technological trappings that society in
modern America is cursed with. – cars, pollution, phones, surveillance, guns, guncrime.
It could be a colony world as the majority of the population is human but there is no suggestion of interstellar space flight. Though the electricity the city is run on is generated from the bones of the dead. Bones have a psychic energy which can be put to use. Many of the machines are operated through the service of enslaved wraiths – sentient beings that appear to exist mainly in another dimension.
BONE SONG is also a crime thriller. Donal Riordan is a police officer.
He is charged with the security of an operatic Diva who will shortly be performing in the city. It has been noticed that a number of other exceptionally talented performers around the world have been killed during performances and their bodies stolen. It is believed that their bones are being stolen for sale to wealthy collectors. As Donal discovers, touching these bones transports a person into a world encompassed by the talent. Unfortunately, the Diva dies and Donal barely escapes with his life. He is recruited into a special squad whose current job is to track down the bone collectors.
Meaney has done an excellent job in creating this world. Although the reader is dropped straight into it, the familiarity of the crime genre and the clarity of the writing means that there is no confusion as new concepts are introduced. Donal’s character is well drawn as are some of the others. Some members of the team he becomes part of, tend to remain sketchy as there are perhaps too many to develop within the fast moving story. There are plenty of plot twists and surprises.
Hopefully there will be other novels set in this world and the opportunity to explore the more bizarre aspects of it, along with the people who inhabit it.
TRANSMISSION by John Meaney
Volume two in the Ragnarok trilogy, TRANSMISSION is John Meaney’s latest epic Space Opera and spans thousands
of years as various characters find themselves intertwined inexplicably through time.
In 8th Century Norseland Ulfr, a young Warrior can see an evil in the shape of a darkness, that no one else can see.
In Europe WWII, Gavriela also sees a darkness that few others can see, as the Third Reich closes in. She finds herself adept at code breaking and aides the Allies in their fight against evil.
In 2603, Pilot Roger is mourning the loss of his parents and his planet as he comes to terms with his new life alone, pursued by the same darkness, as he is trained in the espionage skills shared by his father. This is a new life for Roger and he is intent on finding the evil that destroyed his family.
Ulfr, Gavriela, Roger – all are linked through time and through their ability to see a darkness that few others can see.
As to be expected with a second volume in a trilogy, questions do remain unanswered at the close of the novel.
However, this power house of SF is an example of why Meaney remains a strong voice in the genre. Meaney’s love and knowledge of the martial arts and hypnosis feed into the novel, as does his scientific knowledge. For science novices, some of the theories explained can be a little confusing, but this does not detract from the readers’ enjoyment.
The characters are well written, the world building is phenomenal and the pace, as chapters switch from time zones, is just right, keeping the tension levels up. The female characters are particularly strong and literally jump off the page, particularly the WWII code breaker Gavriela. The novel is also steeped in historical accuracy and authenticity.
Though a little hard going at times this novel is a prime example of hard SF done right. I look forward to what volume three of the Ragnarok trilogy holds.
WEIRD TRAILS 1 - URBAN FANTASY WALKS, DIGBETH, BIRMINGHAM edited by Adrian Middleton
Starting probably with Neil Gaiman’s NEVERWHERE, there is now almost a sub-genre of urban fantasy based around
London’s history, geography and urban legends (by writers such as Ben Aaronovitch, Paul Cornell, Alex Verus etc).
This book sets out to say why should London have all the fun? There are other cities and places in the UK with just as
rich a history and folklore (modern and old) worthy of attention. In this first book in what is intended to be an ongoing
series, the editor has examined the area of Digbeth in Birmingham.
For those who are unaware, Fringeworks is a small press based in the Midlands. For a limited budget small press book this works very well. The book is a mixture of factual information and new fiction stories based around the area and legends of Digbeth. It is organised to be used as a walking tour with a map and route at the start of the book. Indeed when launched at Andromeda One, attendees had the option to take the tour with the editor. I certainly found much interesting information about the history and buildings of the Digbeth area of which I had been previously unaware. The many photographs also help to associate building names to the actual places. The use of little picture symbols to associate various “legends” to specific areas of the map is a good idea. One small suggestion is in future volumes, repeating sub-sections of the map throughout the book might be helpful as I did find myself constantly having to flick back to the front of the book to locate the section being discussed. Splitting the map across two pages also made it harder to follow. That said I am not always the best person with maps!
The stories are all fantasy-themed, using facts or legends of the area. The various authors of the short stories which are interspersed between the drier factual sections include some Brum Group members such as Lynn Cochrane, Pauline Morgan (writing as Pauline Dungate), Theresa Derwin and Anne Nicholls. As with any collection of short stories there are always some stories which work better than others, but I found the majority of the stories quite fun although some seemed rather short. My own favourite is “The Curzon Street Horror” by James Brogden, a satisfying little horror story involving a mummified cat and the establishment of the railways. Personally I would have preferred a larger proportion of the book devoted to stories.
The recent success of the Peaky Blinders TV programme does seem to have increased interest in Birmingham’s history. This is therefore perhaps a good time to release this book. Whilst I personally found the balance too skewed towards facts (which can make it a little dry at times), this obviously increases the appeal to a non-genre audience. In its stated aim as a sort of source book for new fantasy based around Birmingham I think it works very well. The concept would clearly work well for other areas and it is nice to read something different and not biased towards London.
EMBASSYTOWN by China Miéville
China Miéville is a versatile writer who can demonstrate the true subtleties of science fiction. The Embassytown of the
title is a far flung outpost of humanity and is an enclave within the city of the Ariekei, an alien species who speak
Language simultaneously through two mouths. They do not recognise sounds as speech unless produced this way so
Ambassadors are doppels who have learnt to synchronise their speech. Other humans can understand the Ariekei but
are not heard by them.
Avice was born in Embassytown but left to become an immerser – one of the people who can navigate the currents between worlds. She returns to Embassytown after a long absence with her fourth spouse, Scile, a linguist who wants to study Language. The problems start when Bremen, the administration centre of the colony, sends an Ambassador who is not home grown. These pair are very different people. The first time they speak to the Ariekei their combined voice has a strange effect. The Ariekei become addicted and the addiction spreads in such a way that the civilisation of the Host species begins to break down, endangering the existence of Embassytown.
This is a compelling tale for the intelligent reader. Much of the set-up is not explained and has to gleaned by inference – terms and devices that Avice is familiar with are not explained, she assumes the reader knows, in the way that a contemporary writer does not explain television. The themes beneath the plot concern the nature of language and the different ways of thinking rather than the interpretation of words and the ways misunderstandings can easily occur. It is the kind of book that can stimulate debate.
My only quibble is that Avice is not totally convincing as a female character.
KRAKEN by China Miéville
It is rare to find a writer who does not feel that they have to explain every obscure reference to a reader. China
Miéville is an intelligent and knowledgeable author who treats his readers with the same consideration he would
KRAKEN is a complex novel dealing with arcane knowledge. It starts ordinarily enough with a young curator, Billy Harrow, leading a tour at the Natural History Museum in London. When he leads them into the room with the exhibit they have really come to see, they find it has vanished.
Since the exhibit in question is an eight-foot long specimen of a giant squid in an even larger tank of preserving fluid, this is apparently impossible.
The London of KRAKEN is not quite the same of ours, at least, not if you scratch the surface. There are a lot of religious cults, many of which have predicted Armageddons (most of which don’t happen on the prescribed date).
Many people have a ‘knack’, a way of using a supernatural power – hunches are accurate, Londonmancers can read the entrails of the city. One of the criminal masterminds has been reduced to a Tattoo on an innocent man’s back, from which he runs his organisation. No-one knows what is going on, but most agree that the world is going to end in a couple of days and it is somehow connected with the disappearance with the squid. One of the cults with an interest is the Krakenists. They regard the Kraken as their god and the missing squid, although dead, is an ambassador. They haven’t got it, though everyone thinks they have or that Billy knows where it is. He hooks up with Dane Parnell, a Krakenist to search for it. The hope is that finding the squid will avert the portending apocalypse. They find an unlikely ally in Wati. In ancient Egypt, Wati was a soul placed into a shabti to serve a rich man after death. Somehow he began to think for himself, wonder what he was getting out of the arrangement and persuaded the other slave-souls to go on strike. Thousands of years later he is still striving for workers’ rights and has, as convener for the Union of Familiars, called all familiars in London out on strike. As a disembodied soul he flits from statue to statue organising the strike and keeping a watch out for who might have stolen the squid.
This urban fantasy novel is an example of some of the best genre writing around today.
STAR WARS CLONE WARS GAMBIT: STEALTH by Karen Miller
This is the first part of a two-part series about Obi-Wan Kenobi and Anakin Skywalker on a secret mission to a small
and seemingly insignificant planet to investigate the development of a bio-weapon by the Separatists.
I’ll start with the good points. It is clearly written, the Star Wars universe hangs together well, and the writer gets the Star Wars feel to the book across well. Some of the characters are portrayed with interesting conflict and for a two- part series the slower pace of the book is acceptable. I genuinely believe that movie and film tie-ins are a way to introduce people the wider SF genre, and so when reading this book I took two points into consideration – firstly, whether it represents the Star Wars genre well, and secondly, how it might fare in the SF genre as a whole. Unfortunately this book is a disappointment to the Star Wars franchise, let alone to the genre.
The main problem with this book is that there is a lack of understanding about the characters to the point where it became painful to read. Anyone who has watched the Star Wars movies will know that Jedi adhere to a strict code of discipline and morality; they spend years in training, they are often diplomats in peace negotiations, they are wise and akin to warrior monks. This book has constant bickering and sarcasm between Obi-Wan and Anakin that is simply out of character for them. I am also sure that Jedi are emotionally tortured in many ways, but they would not ‘over- share’ as happens in this book!
There was one scene in this book which made continuing with it until the end a painful experience. It was a moment in which the any plausibility of the characters was swiftly lost: Anakin Skywalker: ‘But that means
This is American humour shoved into a franchise book which quite frankly, is a cheap shot at a joke. This is not even recommended to Star Wars fans that might generally enjoy the occasional franchise novel
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THE BONE CLOCKS by David MitchellI saw that this had just won the World Fantasy Award so I read it to find out how much SF/fantasy it has. As in CLOUD ATLAS, there's some SF and some fantasy, though mostly this is literary fiction.
GRAVITY DREAMS by L E Modesitt Jr
Science fiction! A good post Holocaust novel well worth a read. The holocaust this time being as a result of
nanotechnology and age control.
The lead character has to come to terms with technology and new values.
Aiming for one post as a respectable teacher in society he falls from grace, having all he loves taken away he has to run. Fleeing to the demons he has to start his life again and being stubborn ends up at the bottom before he can accept the talents he has in the new society.
THEM OR US (Hater Trilogy 3) by David MoodyThe third novel in the compelling Hater series, THEM OR US starts following the ‘limited nuclear exchange’, which has resulted in the implosion of the vast ‘Unchanged’ city centre refugee camps. The towns that remain, dominated by Haters are desolated, radiation filled cities corrupted and ravaged by the remaining humans. The humans that remain as the dominant species are the Haters, people filled with uncontrollable rage and the desire to kill anyone left, more specifically, the Unchanged.
THE DANCERS AT THE END OF TIME by Michael Moorcock
(Reprint omnibus of AN ALIEN HEAT, THE HOLLOW LANDS and THE END OF ALL SONGS).
Michael Moorcock has been one of the best writers in British SF for forty years or so now. He may use styles and ideas from all sorts of other sources - if you can’t see Conan in Elric or Robur in Von Bek, you’ve missed something - and some of his ideas of style are not for everyone. How many couldn’t take to Jerry Cornelius? But he can put a story together and make it work. If you haven’t read any of his works before, this is a good place to start.
In this series he’s doing time travel, the end of the universe and Oscar Wilde Victorian drawing room comedy. Well, that’s where this comes from and some of it is quite obvious. There is no great evil out to deliver the world to the forces of chaos and the only thing that separates our hero from the love of his life is the fact that she’s married and Victorian. Even the end of the universe is a trivial point at the end of the story.
The greatest flaw in this is in the comedy. There is really only one joke, with endless variations, about the strangers in an alien place. Despite the fact that current vogue at the end of time is the Victorian era, they have very little idea about it. On their visit to the 19th century they seem to wander about in a daze. In their own time a replica of New York includes the home of its greatest king, Kong the Mighty, and a copy of the Cutty Sark moored on the river, inside a bottle, and all of this life size.
Another variation on the theme is the alien pirates who have landed at the end of time and proceed to loot, murder and rape anything in sight - except that for these people, death hasn’t been permanent for centuries; rape is thought of as a mildly amusing novelty; and most of the contents of the world are manufactured with little more than a thought. That said, there is enough scope in the gag to till enough of the book.
It’s Moorcock; it’s fun; it’s an easy read. What more do you want?
BRING THE JUBILEE by Ward Moore
This one of the definitive ‘alternate world’ novels. The book is not perfect.
There are probably flaws in its extrapolation of history - especially when it comes to Europe (William V is king of England, Napoleon VI is emperor of France when the history only diverges in the 1860’s in America). 'The writing style seems to be wrongly dated - more 18th than 19th century. But these are petty problems. There is little science here that wouldn’t have been known to the author (set at its most recent in an alternate 1940’s but written in the 1950’s) and none of it is explained at length.
This is the story of the United States after the Confederacy won the civil war.
Since the southern states had taken this as a war of independence, the United States still exists although (since several states were conceded to the Confederacy) it is smaller and, because of heavy reparations, much poorer. Slavery no longer exists but the black population has been repatriated to Sierra Leone and extreme poverty means that some people ‘indenture’ themselves to large companies - effectively selling themselves as slaves for their working lives.
Hodge Backmaker is a farm-boy down on his luck who comes to New York with 3 dollars in search of whatever work he can find. He has educated himself from whatever books he can find and his favourites are American history. On his first day in the city he is beaten and robbed and taken in by a bookseller who needs someone to run errands and not ask questions. He will be provided with meals and a place to sleep and allowed to read whatever takes his fancy. After 4 years of reading he is ready to apply to every college he can think of.
Since the bookseller is really a front for a clandestine organisation called the ‘Grand Army’ that wants to destroy the Confederacy and restore the states he has been offered a job as a Confederate spy. He has also seen too much of the Grand Army’s operations to stay, and he has the offer of a place at a college of sorts out in the country.
They have several different projects at this college including......a time machine.
BLACK MAN by Richard K Morgan
As a child, Carl Marsalis was genengineered by a secret government programme to be a ‘Thirteen’, an alpha-male
built as a perfect soldier.
Now, during a difficult global peace, he works for the government hunting down other Thirteens working illegally in the global criminal underworld, rather than live a free but sedentary existence on the colony planet Mars.
Marsalis is hired to hunt down a Thirteen who has stolen a Mars shuttle and returned to Earth for reasons unknown.
The UN have linked the return to a series of very graphic murders throughout the globe and the plot is driven by Marsalis and his two UN companions hunt for this killer whilst the investigation leads to exploration into what happened to the Thirteens once they’d completed their fighting purpose.
Black Man (US Edition title - ‘Thirteen’) is violent, explicitly so and makes no apologies. Readers of Morgan’s earlier and very successful SF thrillers will find few surprises there. The book begins with Morgans’ now trademark left- wing leaning acknowledgements page together with tender dedication which soon give way to unremitting gun-fights, brawls and cannibalism.
But Black Man is not simply violent for its’ own sake, the plot is an exploration of violence not a glorification. The effects of violence, personal, social, political are what drive the narrative as much as its’ fast paced plot. Unlike the worst of Hollywood, this violence hurts with scars both physical and mental and grief becomes an important theme.
The novel has excellent cyberpunk dystopian world building (In particular the separation of America and the mid- west “Jesusland”). Recommended to those with a strong stomach who want a thought provoking, entertaining thriller.
THE COLD COMMANDS by Richard K Morgan
Richard Morgan has proved himself to be the master of two genres, i.e. SF with his first novels: The Takeshi Kovacs
trilogy, MARKET FORCES and BLACK MAN and now with THE COLD COMMANDS and its predecessor THE STEEL
REMAINS he is demonstrating his mastery of dark fantasy.
In THE COLD COMMANDS a warning has been given by the Kariathi helmsman Anasharal (an AI) of the
reappearance after 4000 years of a ghost island in the northern ocean which is reputed to be the mausoleum of the
greatest emperor of the Dwenda, the Illwrack Changeling. The Dwenda are a humanoid race, formally mankind’s
masters and deadly enemy. This reappearance is forecast to have dire consequences for humanity.
With this in the background the story follows the adventures or misadventures of Ringil Eskiath, sometimes called
‘Angeleyes’, a disreputable scion of one of the Trelayne (Northern) League, a scarred hero of the Gallows Gap battle
and a self described ‘faggot’. While his is the greater part in the tale, his strand is skilfully interwoven with those of
other heroes of THE STEEL REMAINS. That is Egar the Dragonbane, a majak (steppe nomad) mercenary living in the
southern empire city of Yhelteth and their friend Archeth the last remaining member of the Kariath race and special
advisor to the Emperor Jiral.
Many other characters, including the Emperor, a sect of religious fanatics, the Kariathi helmsmen and dark gods add
to the overall richness of the plot. Like many books this one started very well, but suffered a brief dip into the doldrums
in the middle with Ringil languishing in the misty ‘Grey Places’ a dimension that partly overlaps with that in which
humanity dwells and which is home of the Dwenda and the Dark Gods and the occasional human. However, this is
brief and is germane to the story and does not distract from the overall excellence of THE COLD COMMANDS. Highly
THE STEEL REMAINS by Richard K Morgan
THE STEEL REMAINS takes place years after a war with the scaled folk, in which the novel’s hero, Ringil Eskiath,
played an important fighting role. The empire, divided between a barbaric rural north and a trading wealthy south, is
slowly returning to normal. Trade links are opening up, slavery has been reintroduced and the merchant classes have
begun to replenish their fortunes.
This fantasy debut features three distinct narratives; Ringil’s being the most significant. In exile in the north, he is summoned back to the south by his mother to recover a cousin whose debts have sold her into slavery. The other stories feature what has happened to his previous fighting allies and how a new threat will lead to their paths crossing once again. Egar the Barbarian has returned to his tribe a hero and tribe leader although his exposure to the more civilised south puts this coveted role into question as others jockey for his job. The third story is that of Archeth, an advisor to the Emperor, sent to the north to investigate the ransacking of a port by forces unknown which resulted in only one, damaged survivor.
The Yhelteth Empire is a well-realised fantasy setting with plenty of potential for the novel to be the start of a series.
Morgan’s clear prose is evident and the supernatural darkness of various sections in the story indicates his potential as a horror writer, especially with the great opening chapter.
However, as each chapter continues one of the three strands of story, it becomes frustrating to leave the other characters in the midst of either an action sequence or a plot-turning revelation. Whilst this is a common structural form within multi-plotted novels, for the longest part of this novel, it’s not obvious as to how the three strands of story fit into one narrative and it ended up similar to trying to watch three different movies simultaneously by swapping from one to another after every scene.
THE STEEL REMAINS reads as a conscious attempt to try something different for Morgan although the novel read as a more traditional sword and sorcery style fantasy rather than one of his more groundbreaking science fiction novels.
WOKEN FURIES by Richard K MorganThe star of Morgan’s debut novel ALTERED CARBON, Takeshi Kovacs, is here returned for a third adventure, set this time on his native planet.
DEAD ISLAND by Mark Morris
DEAD ISLAND is the eagerly awaited novelisation of the game released on 8th September.
Royal Palms is a luxury vacation resort on the tropical paradise island of Banoi. A plague breaks out on the island and the islanders and tourists are transformed into flesh-eating dead. Four survivors who are inexplicably immune must fight to survive and escape from the island, aided by a mysterious voice on their mobile phones. Visceral, bloody, gory, rather kitsch (but also fun) DEAD ISLAND fleshes out the game (pardon the pun), creating characters with histories and motivation. Have no illusions, this is pulp fiction but quality pulp; the writing a is class above the norm and imbued with Morris’s signature exploration of fear and loss.
Some of the characters are blatant survivor stereotypes but have been designed for the game and brought to life by Morris. The characters in the ‘game’, or in this case, the novel, become more than simple zombie fodder or avatars. The reader actually cares what happens to these people. There are lots of nods to the tropes of game play; a mysterious benefactor, the choosing of weapons, a martial arts expert and an open ending, but this novel still makes for a tremendously fun read. Finishing with a cliff hanger, I am actually hoping for a sequel, so invested am I in these protagonists. Zombie goodness!
VAST by Linda Nagata
I had a real struggle with this - 1 found myself constantly looking for something else to do instead of picking it up and
reading some more of it and I have rarely been so glad to get to the end of a book as I was with this one.
The basis of it sounded most appealing, with a crew of humans aboard a semi-organic spaceship fleeing the destruction of their world, with an automated alien destroyer in hot pursuit. For decades they seek either to fight off their pursuer or to make contact with the object of subverting it so that they can make good their escape. At the same time they aim to penetrate the part of space from which the enemy originated millions of years ago, in the hope of finding out how to put a stop to the endless destruction of all life in the universe.
(Yes, I am familiar with Fred Saberhagen's Berserker series.)
The trouble with VAST is that it is just too intricate. The crew are a highly advanced form o f humanity and they live and operate in a confusing mishmash of intelligent viruses, nanotech and computer interfacing as they restructure their ship, re-grow their bodies and split off virtual personae as and when the need seems to arise. Half the time I found it almost impossible to follow who was doing what, and why, and it was perhaps because of this that I could not discover any dramatic tension, any excitement, to keep me interested. Maybe this was simply a failing on my part and a better reader than me might get more out of it than I did, because there is definitely a high level of inventive writing in there. However, I must speak as I find and what I found was bor-ring.
Also, there were tantalising hints that this was a sequel to at least one previous volume, with the possibility of more to come. On other occasions like this I have been interested enough to seek out the rest of the series, but not this time thank you.
SURVIVORS by Terry Nation
First written in the ‘70’s by Terry Nation, this story has seen a revival with the recent TV series shown on the BBC,
starring Julie Graham, Paterson Joseph and Max Beesley. I watched the programme before reading the book, and the
two are not at all the same although they obviously follow the same basic root storyline. The basic premise is that a
mystery virus (never, annoyingly, explained in either medium) spreads scarily quickly and wipes out most of the world’s
population in a matter of a few days. It starts off slow but then seems to take hold overnight. This part is covered
quickly as the main focus of the storyline is, of course, from the title the survivors and how they cope with an almost
empty world with all the mod cons still around them. The book and programme star a character called Abby Grant who
has lost her family but thinks her son may be alive still. She gradually meets other survivors, some friendly, some not,
and with a small commune of the friendly ones, she learns self-sufficiency and eventually forms long term survival
This is occasionally interrupted by other groups who try to raid their supplies or form an army to control the surrounding areas.
The book covers more of a timescale than the series - though admittedly another series is in the pipeline which may cover events in the latter part of the book. The characters are also slightly different in the book which meant I had some trouble relating what I’d watched to what I was now reading about. Only Abby and to some extent Greg appeared to match in both book and series. Some set pieces were straight from the novel, others appeared to have been invented completely. I presumed this was done to bring the story a bit more up to date and relevant, though really the only thing I missed in the story was any mention of computers, software and gadgets, though of course, without electricity these would presumably have been useless anyway.
The ending and approach to the book’s resolution was a bit different to what I was expecting, and it will be interesting to see if the series takes this line next time. Overall I enjoyed the story, though I might have liked a bit more padding out of the characters. I was trying to rely on my memory from the programme to remember what the characters were like as people, and their individual backgrounds but not a lot of detail is given to bring them to life. A good read anyway, and it moves along at a good pace. The parts which may strike a chord include the initial reactions to the ‘flu’ (in these days of swine flu breakouts) and the scenes where they are making a new life for themselves out of the remaining rations etc.
LAST DAYS by Adam NevillThe Temple of the Last Days was a pseudo-religious cult which began in London in 1967 and imploded in a massacre in Arizona in 1975, with a brief sojourn in Normandy in between.
THE RITUAL by Adam Nevill
We have all experienced those “it seemed like a good idea at the time, but what the hell am I doing here,” moments.
For the four friends on a hiking holiday inside Sweden’s Arctic Circle it comes two days into their journey. It didn’t help
that two of them were unfit and woefully unprepared for such strenuous travel through an uncompromising, snow-
covered wilderness. The four had been college friends. In fifteen years they had grown apart but after meeting up
again at Hutch’s wedding they had planned this trip. It was only a three day hike through a National Park but one day
in, Dom had twisted his knee and Phil hobbled on severe blisters. Luke had decided he had nothing in common with
these men any more. It was Hutch, the only one who could read a map, who had made the decision to take a short cut
through virgin forest. There were no trails so after hours of crashing through undisturbed undergrowth the sight of an
eviscerated deer twelve feet up a tree was unnerving, reminding them that there could be wolves or bears in the forest.
It was a relief, then, to come across the deserted, dilapidated house. Despite the disturbing relics discovered in the
roof space they decided to stay the night. Their nightmares, probably induced by the day’s events made the rifts
between the men deeper. The abandoned church they found the next day didn’t help either but when in the night
something rips Hutch from his tent, the terror of the unknown settles very firmly over the remaining men. The first half
of this novel deals with the terrors of being lost in a strange place and the way that relationships can disintegrate in
the face of hardship. Most novels of this kind would have the shared experiences drawing the men together and
bonding being cemented in the face of adversity. Nevill doesn’t take the obvious route. Luke’s disgust at the failure of
Phil and Dom to cope in a crisis increases his alienation from them, especially after Hutch’s death (they find his body
strung up in a tree the same way the deer was). His instinct is to go on without them and try to find help. Why he didn’t
has more to do with the fear of being alone rather than any sense of comradeship. The reactions of all four men are
cleverly depicted to bring out the best and worst of their characters. Nevill doesn’t stop there. The second part of The
Ritual concerns what happens to Luke once he manages to get out of the forest, and the strange people who take him
under their roof. The horror in this book is far more constrained than in Nevill’s previous novel, Apartment 16. The
situations the four men, and later Luke on his own, are ones that can easily be imagined given the way that people
behave under stress. As a psychological thriller, The Ritual works extremely well.
PLANETFALL by Emma Newman
When we look at the people around us there is a danger that we will assess them according to our own lights. The
physically disabled and frail are usually easy to recognise but some conditions are hidden, such as diabetes, heart
conditions and asthma. They can be as debilitating but are externally invisible. So are many mental issues. It has
taken a very long time – centuries in some cases – for the medical fraternity to recognise some of them. How much
harder is it, then, for the ordinary person to know? Especially if the sufferer doesn’t talk about their concerns.
The basis behind the novel, PLANETFALL, is an expedition to a distant planet, instigated by Suh-Mi. She has been missing, presumed dead for more than twenty years but her presence resonates throughout this book. The remaining colonists have built their town around an alien structure into which Suh-Mi disappeared. Most of them are expecting her to return with words of wisdom. They have been waiting a long time. In this sense she is a Moses figure, leading her people to a promised land and now they wait for the final revelation.
Renata Ghali (Ren) is a printer engineer. Since most of the needs of the community are met using 3-D printers she is a valuable and respected member. Outwardly, she seems as balanced as everyone else. The fact that she goes down into the recycling room and takes away thrown-away items that she thinks can be mended is eccentric but understandable; well within the norms of human behaviour. Then the society is destabilised by the arrival of Sung- Soo. He staggers in from outside. That he is alive is revelation enough as everyone believed that the landers carrying other colonists were all destroyed. He explains that there were survivors but he is the last of them. And he is Suh-Mi’s grandson. The other revelation is that although the plants native to this planet are toxic to humans, he can eat them, probably due to the parasite they find living in his gut.
Nevertheless, he is made welcome and a home is made for him. He wants to know everything, especially about his grandmother. His presence, though, is a catalyst for change. Ren has not invited anyone into her home for years. Gradually the reason unfolds. She is a hoarder. She is unable to throw anything away. She has filled every available space with the broken objects that she has rescued. To other eyes, they are garbage, to her, they are precious. She will fix them – eventually. When the other colonists discover this, they see it a deviation not as a mental illness that should be looked on with sympathy and treated. Their reactions set off a further chain of events that threatens to dissolve the glue that holds the colony together. It is unusual, and pleasing, to have a seriously damaged person as a central character but as this is a first person narrative it is possible to show Ren’s mind-set and the way that she fails to understand that there is anything odd about her behaviour. Newman treats her sympathetically and it is easy to relate to Ren’s issues, even perhaps, seeing a little of ourselves in her.
This book has excellent characterisation and the plot revelations, as they creep up on the reader, are delightfully handled. I cannot recommend it highly enough.
BODYGUARD OF LIGHTNING & LEGION OF THUNDER by Stan Nicholls
There is a world, where all the other-world creatures, such as
dwarves, elves, orcs, pixies etc are the native inhabitants and humans are the interlopers. Magic is real, but it is dying. The ice is closing in from the north and the Puritans are ploughing up the earth, destroying the conduits of magic. Salt this with an evil queen or two and some highly desirable thaumatergical artefacts (which no-one knows what they do) and you have a familiar fantasy scenario. Except that here, the orcs, those bloodthirsty, evil, demons- spawn are the heroes. Orcs in this world, though warriors, are the mercenary troupes o f Queen Jennesta. Stryke's troupe have been directed to capture a particular cylinder from a human fortress. After the massacre, they also find a haul of the narcotic, pellucid.
They spend the next twelve hours out of their skulls, realise that Jennesta will be so unhappy about the delay that she will probably execute them all so take a short cut home, only to be ambushed and the cylinder stolen from them.
Later, Stryke's troupe discover that the cylinder contains one of
several artefacts and decide that their best bet is to try and collect all of them. Thus, they embark on a quest, cutting a swathe o f destruction across the land, with the whole of the known universe at their heels.
Volume two is a continuation of volume one. The pace is fast and furious, the interplay between characters is good but I didn't feel drawn into the plot. After a while, the continuous mayhem begins to pall and the characters begin to lose their identity as ores. While this book may well appeal to the less discriminating reader, it does not have the eccentricity and humour of Mary Gentle's novel Grunts.
QUICKSILVER TWILIGHT by Stan NichollsA big problem of commenting on the third book in a trilogy is the danger of spoiling the first two in the series for those who have not yet discovered it. The two previous volumes, QUICKSILVER RISING and QUICKSILVER ZENITH introduce the reader to a world in which magic, like electricity in ours, is taken for granted. A network of magic conduits lies beneath the land ready to be drawn on. Everyone has glamours – some expensive, other cheap and tawdry.
QUICKSILVER ZENITH by Stan Nicholls
This is the second volume of a fantasy trilogy, that begins at a cracking pace, and continues at the same speed.
Volume one, QUICKSILVER RISING, introduces the principal characters and sets up the identity of this world. Here,
magic has roughly the same function as electricity does in ours. The rich can afford all kinds of magical items, usually
called glamours, while the poor have to make do with low quality fakes. The dynamics of the plot are complex, with
four factions vying for attention. Two empires, constantly at war with each other, dominate most of the civilised world.
As they are both despotic, there is a Resistance, an association of groups working towards the lifting of the yoke of
tyranny. To the north, Zerriess, the leader of the barbarian hordes is moving southwards, killing the magic as he goes.
The danger he represents has yet to be recognised by the other powers. Thrown into this mixture is a wild card. Prince
Melyobar, the titular ruler of Bhealfa is mad and in his floating palace is attempting to outrun Death. Anything he
does is likely to mess up the plans of any of the others.
The focus of the plot is centred on the island of Bhealfa. Here, an odd selection of characters are brought together by circumstance – Serrah, a disgraced soldier; Reeth a bandit prone to berserker rages; Kutch an apprentice wizard; Karr a politician; Kinsel, a pacifist singer; Tanalvah, a whore; and many others.
These fall in with the Resistance movement.
QUICKSILVER ZENITH sees the Resistance movement planning to escape from tyranny by buying an island and moving all their sympathisers to it.
Naturally there are problems – there is a traitor in Resistance, Kinsel in arrested and undergoes a travesty of a trial before being sentenced to the galleys, and Reeth is accused of the murder of the leader of the paladins. The paladins are a mercenary group that have become rich by playing for both empires. With all the issues thrown into the melting pot, it does not seem that one final volume will be enough to resolve all of them.
The plot moves very fast, with a lot of action. Even if all the sword fights are not wholly convincing it doesn’t matter too much as the reader is swept along. There is also a vast cast list. As a result it is impossible to develop them in any great depth in the space they have been allowed. In many ways these would have been more satisfying books if they were longer. Nevertheless, you are left wanting to know what happens next.
WARRIORS OF THE TEMPEST: FIRST BLOOD BOOK 3 by Stan Nicholls
Whether you will enjoy this book, depends on what you look for in fantasy - and what you put down before you started
this one. WARRIORS OF THE TEMPEST concludes the trilogy which began with BODYGUARD OF LIGHTNING and
continued with LEGION OF THUNDER.
The heroes ore orcs, those nasties that got such a bad press in Tolkein's THE LORD OF THE RINGS. The pace is fast and furious with the orcs doing what they are best at - killing - a lot of the time.
The setting is Maras-Dantia, a world populated with a host of mythical creatures, including centaurs, nyadds, goblins, brownies, kobolds and harpies, from a mixture of mythologies (bells should start ringing that this is not what it seems). The ice is encroaching from the north and puritanical humans from the south. Magic is disappearing. In volume one, Jennesta sent her crack orc division to acquire an artefact called an instrumentality. Due to a number of unfortunate circumstances, these orcs, lead by Stryke, found themselves under her death sentence and a quest to find the other four. They haven't thought as far as to what they will do once they have them.
The biggest problem is that it is often difficult to remember that Stryke and company are actually nasty viscous orcs. It is too easy to compare these unfavourably with those in Mary Gentle's GRUNTS!
where the orcs were over-the-top nasty but you ended up rooting for them. Here, your sympathies are with the orcs from the beginning. Pauline Morgan
THE DRACO TAVERN by Larry Niven
I have a theory about Larry Niven. This most brilliant and original of late-1960s SF writers has lost it. Somewhere in
the last twenty years he’s forgotten how to write a readable story. Maybe it’s because of all those collaborations but as
evidence I point to THE SMOKE RING, THE INTEGRAL TREES, RINGWORLD THRONE, and worst of all, RAINBOW
MARS. I ask you honestly, did you finish any of that lot?
But there’s a saving grace – while Niven at novel-length is excruciatingly awful, at short forms he still has that old magic, the gift of being able to take an idea and run with it, the ability to extrapolate and provide a new perspective that no-one has seen before. So we have a sort of inverse-square law; readability is inversely proportional to length, or in other words, the shorter the better. And the stories in this book are very short indeed. That’s why they’re so very good!
Annoyingly, the acknowledgements page doesn’t show sources of first publication, but I’ve been enjoying the Draco Tavern yarns for a long time in ANALOG and the earliest date from the mid-seventies. The idea is quite simple, and Niven is at least the fourth person to have used it; create an imaginary bar (we’d say ‘pub’) in which unlikely tales are told. Fletcher Pratt and L. Sprague de Camp started it with ‘Gavagan’s Bar’ in the early fifties, closely followed by Arthur C. Clarke with ‘Tales from the White Hart’, then Spider Robinson, and for all I know a half-dozen others.
Typically, Larry Niven goes that extra mile and gets various species of ET to tell his tall stories, in a locale he makes at least superficially plausible. So we get to hear about Earth’s first intelligent species and what happened to them; about bloodthirsty alien people-eaters from another Star who happily drink consommé when in polite company, and twenty-five other yarns about contact with the interstellar community. Some of these (the shorter ones) are better than others, and the book is probably best dipped into at odd moments rather than being read straight-through. But it’s fun, thought-provoking, and I recommend it.
EVERMORE: THE IMMORTALS by Alyson Noël
This is a book that will appeal to the teenage fans of Stephanie Meyers’ TWILIGHT and its sequels. There are a
number of familiar elements. Like Buffy (the Vampire Slayer) and Bella (from TWILIGHT) Ever is a teenager attending
an American High School. Like Buffy, she is a bit of a misfit. Her friends are Haven, a Goth wannabe, and Miles who
is gay. She instantly makes an enemy of the most popular girl in her year – Stacia. As in TWILIGHT, a gorgeous male
classmate soon appears who acts mysteriously and is not what he seems.
Ever, though, is not an ordinary teenager. She was the sole survivor of a car crash which killed her parents, sister and dog. As a result of that accident (reminiscent of Charlaine Harris’s heroine, Harper, of her Grave series of books), Ever has been left with psychic powers. She can hear other people’s thoughts, see their auras and see the dead. In fact, her dead sister, Riley, keeps hanging around. Ever is ambivalent towards the new boy, Damen. He does not have an aura and when he speaks, the other voices go quiet. He keeps giving her red tulips, but flirts with Stacia. He induces her to play truant, then disappears. There are, however, no vampires or werewolves in Evermore.
Although this novel, the first of six projected books, may seem derivative to the well read reader, it is very enjoyable and catches the flavour of teen life. It ought to prove popular.
POLLEN by Jeff Noon
Like VURT, this edition of POLLEN is issued on the 11th April 2013 and is set in the same alternate reality Manchester
and its bleak surrounding countryside. For those who have not read VURT, a Vurt is a virtual world akin to a
computer/game station adventure set in a LSD dream and accessed by tickling the back of ones throat by a special
type of feather. While in VURT some hints are provided as to the source/origin of Vurt in POLLEN both the
origins/source of the Vurt worlds and feathers is confirmed. Also as in VURT another staple 'Vaz' a universal lubricant
and fix-it with miraculous properties plays a prominent role.
In POLLEN the action takes place about twelve years after the events chronicled in VURT. However only one character in VURT is in the current tale and that is Twinkle although a further link is forged by Blush, a Vurt virtuoso, the daughter of Scribble and Desdemona.
POLLEN chronicles the 'sweet' death of Coyote an independent and semi-legal taxi driver and the search by his lover Boda for the reasons why and for justice/revenge. Coyote's death is the first of many; soon people are sneezing and dying all over Manchester. Hay fever becomes a fatal condition as exotic flowers bloom everywhere and the pollen count reaches astronomical levels. If nothing can reverse this epidemic humans of all kinds will become extinct or at least an endangered species. As well as the types of 'human' featured in VURT, i.e. Robos, Shadows (telepaths), Dog and Pures another two varieties are introduced - Zombies and Dodos and the reasons why these hybrids exist is explained. Importantly for this story Dodos are impervious to Vurt feathers and cannot dream or enter a Vurt world. Both Boda and Sybil Jones are Dodos.
The police only reluctantly treat Coyote's death as murder and blame Boda. However telepathic shadowgirl cop Sybil Jones believes otherwise and persists in looking for other suspects despite active obstruction from her superiors in particular the intriguingly named chief cop Jacob Kracker. Eventually she recruits reluctant allies in fellow cops Zulu (Zero) Clegg and Tom Dove. Arraigned against them and Boda are excellently depicted villains including Persephone and her husband John Barleycorn (a dark Vurt world deity providing links to Greek and other mythologies) and their “dupes”. Support for Boda comes from pirate DJ and mystic Gumbo Ya Ya and his network.
As in VURT Jeff Noon has created an eclectic and amazingly enjoyable set of characters set in an unbelievably believable fantasy world. To my mind POLLEN is an enhancement on VURT. I enjoyed VURT and I enjoyed POLLEN even more. JP
VURT by Jeff NoonVURT is a psychedelic cyber-punk SF novel set in a dystopian drugfuelled grungy Manchester and first published twenty years ago winning the Arthur C. Clarke Award. Basically VURT chronicles a quest set in a world inhabited by an eclectic mix of various species, that is: robos, shadowgirls (telepaths), dogboys/girls, pures (standard humans) and their various hybrids. In this story a Vurt is a both a virtual world which is akin to a computer/gamestation adventure set in a LSD dream. It is accessed by tickling the back of ones throat by a special type of feather. Some hints are provided as to the source/origin of Vurt. Another staple of this world is 'Vaz' a universal lubricant and fix-it with miraculous properties - where can I get some!
TEMERAIRE by Naomi Novik
At the core of this book is a brilliantly original idea, and this alone will endear it to many readers. It is an alternate
world, historical fantasy novel. In Novik’s universe, dragons are as much a part of the natural history of the world as are
horses or elephants. Dragons have been domesticated. Only a very few of them can breathe fire. Then the problems
The setting is the Napoleonic wars, a period when Britain was at war with France. The French fleet is bottled up in port by the British Navy blockade.
Except for the dragons, history has paralleled ours. Other authors have done similar things; Freda Warrington’s THE COURT OF THE MIDNIGHT KING tells Richard III’s story but with pagan magic wielded by the women; John M.
Ford told a similar story in THE DRAGON WAITING but with vampires. Both of these are stronger books than Novik’s, but this may partly be because they are more experienced writers. In both the former books, there is a very strong sense of period which is not evident in Novik’s novel. She has not woven her dragons sufficiently into the fabric of the politics and culture.
The book opens in the middle of a battle between a British and a French frigate. The language is clumsy and convoluted. Two of us read the first sentence three times before we could make sense of it. Neither was I convinced by the scene described. Nevertheless, the British captain, Will Laurence, prevails and discovers a dragon’s egg in the Frenchman’s hold. It is about to hatch. Unless someone is able to harness the hatchling on emergence from the egg, it will become feral and be untrainable. With echoes of Anne McCaffrey’s Dragons of Pern, the dragon decides that only Laurence will do. At this point he has to resign himself to leaving the Navy and joining the Aerial Corps. Man and dragon have bonded. In what is a relatively short book we then have related the problems of feeding a dragon at sea – they eat rather a lot, the training of the dragon and their part in rebuffing Napoleon’s invasion of England. The rest is fairly standard fare. Laurence and his dragon, who he names Temeraire, initially don’t fit into the elite society of dragon riders. Gradually this changes.
The concept behind the dragons is good but not quite convincing enough. They are huge beasts when fully grown. They are like airborne sloops, equipped with a crew of marines and other ranks which swarm all over them while in flight. The ability of a fifty ton behemoth to fly is explained by internal bladders! The quantity of meat required to feed them – two or three sheep a day each – is enormous and it is difficult to see how supply would be sustained, unless by the time of industrial expansion they are redundant and confined to remote landscapes bare of human industrialisation.
Novik is very coy about telling us the actual date of her novel’s setting although a knowledge of English history will eventually pin it down to1805 as the Battle of Trafalgar happens off stage (with air cover). There is no report of Nelson’s death. Perhaps this is an oversight as it would be a shame if history was changed at this point when she has been careful to follow it almost exactly so far.
The biggest problem with the novel, which may be because she is an inexperienced writer, is that it lacks depth and characterisation. It is fast paced and action-packed. There is good description of the dragons and the landscapes but if you take away the dragons the writing has little substance. I have no doubt, though, that it will prove to be a popular series.
WARNING! - TEMERAIRE has been repackaged and retitled in paperback by Ballantine/Del Rey in the USA as HIS MAJESTY’S DRAGON for publication in three months time. It is the same book.
TONGUES OF SERPENTS by Naomi Novik
This is book 6 of the Temeraire series - a very engaging series following the adventures of Captain William Laurence
and his dragon Temeraire as they are thrown together to fight for Britain during the turbulent time of the Napoleonic
Wars. In this latest book in the series, Laurence has been convicted of treason and stripped of rank, and sent to
Australia along with a prison colony. With them travel three dragon eggs which are to be handed over to officers
willing to accept such a remote assignment in that part of the world, including Captain Rankin, a former acquaintance,
whose cruelty once cost a dragon its life. They arrive to a colony in turmoil and accept a mission to venture into the
interior of Australia. But one of the eggs is then stolen which changes the shape and urgency of their mission, as they
must recover it before it hatches.
Their quest also leads to further discoveries about the global war between Britain
This book for me took a fair bit of settling into. I am normally a quick reader and fully expected a book of this size and
subject matter to not take me long at all. I have read most of the others in this series, and had become a bit of a big
fan so was rather excited to have the opportunity to review this latest offering.
The first section, set in the colony when Laurence and Temeraire have just arrived, has quite a slow pace. Not a lot
happened, there was lots of discussion about the latest developments in the war, and the characters were all maybe a
bit too prim and proper for me to warm to them. However, the book changes pace and feel as the expedition is
launched into the interior of the continent and the chase to find the egg starts. I really enjoyed the descriptions of the
Blue Mountains and later on the desert regions. The narrative here makes the experience a very vivid one for the
reader. The characters settle down a bit and become warmer, and more realistic in general in the way they talk and
react to events and situations. The number of dragons increases which leads to more
variety in characters, and it is easy to imagine them and what they are like. I am a big fan of good characterisation
and this really improved the book for me. Interestingly, whereas the first section took me a long time to read, the last
two thirds of the book took me a few days! Not just that I had more time to read it, I was more inclined to want to press
on and see what happened!
Overall a good book, and as engaging ultimately as some of the earlier books, although the heroes are more settled
with each other now. There is still new territory to explore with this ongoing story, something which the author hints at
in her final chapters which suggest possible trips to other countries and regions.