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.
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.
THE LIGHT AGES by Ian R MacLeodSutton Coldfield author MacLeod here creates a strange alternative England where the Industrial Revolution took place on the basis of a mineral resource called Aether discovered in 1678. Three hundred years later, the influence of aether is everywhere and its use through the application of arcane processes affects every aspect of life from education to engineering. The magical rituals and spells which govern its use are jealously guarded by the Guilds who control the various aspects of day-to-day life and their insularity seems to have stifled progress so that England (and the rest of the World) have failed to advance beyond a Victorian social structure.
DYNASTY by John MacLeod
Subtitled ‘The Stuarts 1560 - 1807’ I wondered why this had come through my door. Not SF at all but pretty good for
Having given up history and geography quite early at school to study sciences and fail calamitously at languages, I’m well aware that there are huge chunks of British history that I’ve missed. This book has filled in quite a piece for me in an entertaining and interesting fashion.
Of course, it always helps for me if the characters are believable. I’m not sure that the Stuarts are believable. As in Slow Lightning, it is constantly amazing to watch characters completely bugger up their lives, which is what the Stuarts seemed to do best. What an unhappy, unlucky, idiotic bunch they were. Well worth a look, although the price is a bit worrying.
I mean I know it’s pretty sad to look back to when I could buy a book for one and six but £8.99 seems to be the next step up.
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.
A MEMORY CALLED EMPIRE by Arkady Martine
While we all have our favourite authors, I do also try to sample new authors’ works. Sometimes I’m disappointed, other
times the work is “okay” but not particularly memorable and occasionally you find something of quality and talent that
you want to shout about and pester other people to read. A MEMORY CALLED EMPIRE is one of those books for me.
It is to my mind, an astonishingly accomplished science fiction book, especially so as it’s a debut novel.
This is a delightful, intricately plotted book. The Teixcalaan Empire control most of human space. Lsel is a mining station whose independence is threatened by the encroaching empire. The story starts when Lsel’s previous ambassador is reported dead and a new one has to be hastily appointed. A young, inexperienced but intelligent woman, Mahit is appointed to the role. She should be aided to settle into her new role and in navigating the minutiae of Teixcalaan culture and diplomatic relations by the presence in her head of an imago of the previous ambassador. Lsel society has developed this technology which allows the personality and memories of a person to be recorded and implanted in the brain of a successor, thus helping to preserve critical knowledge and skills among the small population. However, the imago of the previous ambassador is not only 15 years out-of-date but stops working soon after her arrival. Her mission to protect Lsel from being annexed by the Empire is further complicated as she finds the Imperial court in the middle of a succession crisis. Rival officials are manoeuvring for power around an aging Emperor, and the kudos and trade value of seizing a new colony could bolster their chances. Added to that she has the mystery of who killed the previous ambassador and uncovering how his activities have affected her present situation. She has only her Teixcalaan-appointed aide and her own poor understanding of the situation to rely on as she struggles for the survival of both Lsel and herself.
This is space opera on a grand scale. Mahit is the classic “stranger in a strange land” where everything is different and overwhelming. The worldbuilding is profound and credible and a major attraction of this novel. It has been thought about down to the finest details, including all the differences between Lsel and the Empire: names, clothing, writing systems, foods etc. This is not just “set dressing” but is integral to the storytelling, emphasising the sense of isolation and unfamiliarity for the main character when she arrives at the palace. In particular, I loved the way the author has thought about the “soft power” propaganda of the Teixcalaan culture, and which to me demonstrates that although Lsel is independent, the Teixcalaan still influence them – from trade, people watching and reading Imperial media, career opportunities which require speaking and writing Teixcalaan etc.
The Teixcalaan society regard everyone else as inferior “barbarians” and the formality of their society helps to reinforce that to an outsider. Another deliberate decision to keep “barbarians” at a disadvantage is to not allow ambassadors any independent access to the city’s system, and a Teixcalaan aide is needed for everything from deciphering all of Mahit’s mail down to electronically opening doors. This is where the other main character is introduced, an ambitious young woman, Three Seagrass. With her dry humour and a professed liking for “aliens” there is an immediate sympathy between the two young women, despite the natural wariness of how much trust and rapport there can truly be, given their respective positions and loyalties.
Much of the narrative consists of Mahit and Three Seagrass’ encounters and negotiations with high officials and even the Emperor. Early in the story Mahit is forced to seek protection with one of the Emperor’s confidantes (a wonderfully enigmatic Nineteen Adze who had a relationship with her predecessor), thus restricting even further her privacy and freedom to operate. There are a lot of verbal “fencing” conversations between Mahit and the various contenders for the throne, with oblique conversations operating on more than one level, and I enjoyed these as the reader needs to pay attention and to think a bit more. However, I am aware that this is not too everyone’s taste. That being said, as things progress the “action” element of the plot also works well, with tension and conflict escalating in a nicely paced progression.
I also liked the characters. While most are not overly expressive, as fits with the culture, they show real connections, humour and fondness for each other. Three Seagrass likes gently teasing her friends, both Nineteen Adze and the Emperor show clear affection and grief for the previous ambassador, Yskandr, and I especially appreciated Mahit, who is clever without being super-competent, and her cautious growing friendship with Three Seagrass.
This is a book, which much like Mahit, throws the reader in at the deep end. It’s a book which repays concentration and you have to build up the whole picture from the various breadcrumbs of information along the way. If you liked Ann Leckie’s ANCILLARY JUSTICE or Yoon Ha Lee’s NINEFOX GAMBIT, you’ll probably enjoy this. I found it fabulous SF and I’m not surprised to see it starting to appear on awards shortlists. I’m looking forward to the sequel that is due out next year.
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
AUSTRAL by Paul McAuley
SF has always included stories about humanity dealing with the effects of changing climates or environments.
Examples range from the after-effects of nuclear devastation such as Pierre Boulle’s PLANET OF THE APES or THE
CHRYSALIDS by John Wyndham, or disasters such as plant disease and famine in THE DEATH OF GRASS by Jon
Christopher or THE WINDUP GIRL by Paolo Bacigalupi. Unsurprisingly, given the real-world situation, recently there
have been quite a few SF books dealing with climate change. Many deal mainly with the consequences of sea-levels
rising (eg NEW YORK 2140 by Kim Stanley Robinson, AMERICA CITY by Chris Beckett and The Osiris Project trilogy
by E J Swift). In AUSTRAL, Paul McAuley also writes a near future SF novel inspired by climate change but his
narrative looks at the exploration and exploitation of a thawing Antarctica.
The first settlers included idealists such as the “ecopoets” who seeded the emerging landscape with genetically
engineered plants and animals to establish a new ecosystem. They also gene-edited their children so they could
better survive in the still harsh and cold Antarctic. As the population grew, the push to exploit resources and generate
jobs led to resentment and clashes with the environmentalist ecopoets. They were dismissed, discredited and in some
cases interned. Austral is the daughter of one of these ecopoets. As an orphan and a despised “husky” or edited person,
she has few opportunities and rights. She works as a prison guard in a labour camp. When a visiting politician and his
daughter visit the prison, a kidnapping attempt goes wrong and Austral finds herself fleeing across the Antarctic
landscape with the politician’s daughter – a situation which presents both dangers and opportunities for Austral.
As the story of the exciting pursuit from the authorities and the criminal gang who orchestrated the original kidnap
attempt continues, the reader also uncovers the history of Austral and her relatives and the connections to the
politician’s family. These flashbacks add much of the interest to the narrative, which could otherwise have been just a
standard chase thriller. A lot of the characterisation and focus of the story centres around Austral which potentially
could have been a problem. Happily, however the characterisation of Austral in particular is excellent; her harsh
upbringing and the prejudice she has encountered have left her defensive and wary, but she is also intelligent,
competent and compassionate. Another strength of this novel is the detailed thought that has clearly gone into the
worldbuilding; all the facets such as the history, geography, science and society of this frontier Antarctic nation have
been considered and dovetail together well without heavy info-dumping. The only part of this novel which didn’t work
well for me was the character of Kamilah (the kidnapped girl) who felt very whiny. Also, the recounting of a story she
was reading was irritating and I felt did not add much. Apart from those couple of minor quibbles, I thoroughly
enjoyed this intelligent and well-crafted novel.
COWBOY ANGELS by Paul McAuley
This is an alternative world/parallel worlds novel with a bit of time travel thrown in for good measure. At places were
decisions are important for the future course of history, the time line has branched. In one of these alternative worlds
or sheaves, the scientist Alan Turing emigrated to America and invented a gate into the alternative histories. This one
is referred to the characters as the Real. The cowboy angels of the title were a team who went through the gates and
helped the Americans in the other sheaves to take control of their destiny so that America becomes the dominant force
for democracy in all of them.
The action is set mostly in 1984 when Carter has become the US president.
Adam Stone, one of the early travellers through the gates, is hauled out of retirement as his old comrade in arms, Tom Waverley has gone on a killing spree. In ten days he has killed six doppels of same woman in six different sheaves. He will only talk to Adam. Waverley’s daughter, Linda, is assigned to Adam as his driver and local contact. When they finally catch up with Waverly, they find he is suffering from terminal radiation sickness but tells them that if they want to understand why he has killed the same woman six times, they must look for clues. He gives them a starting point before killing himself.
The plot twists backwards and forwards across the different sheaves and is well up to McAuley’s usual standard of complexity, both in the way he handles ideas, settings and the characters. His scenarios are well thought out and he avoids the pitfalls that this kind of novel can produce.
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
It is always refreshing to read a book where you can rely on the accuracy of the science, or at least, to know that the
projected developments are plausible.
A ‘quiet war’ is a conflict carried out by propaganda and threat without any actual violence.
This is the situation between the peoples of the Inner and Outer systems. Earth has suffered from vast ecological disasters but the balance is gradually being restored, though the biodiversity is unlikely ever to regain its peak of the 19th century. The people of the Outer Planets live in biodomes, relying on their structural integrity and specially designed vacuum organisms to provide everyday needs.
It is the bioengineers that carry the plot forward. Macy Minnot is part of the team sent out from Earth as a diplomatic gesture, to Callisto to help quicken the new biodome project at Rainbow Bridge. Though a relatively passive character, she gets caught up in the attempts to sabotage the goodwill that the project is designed to generate. On Earth, Sri Hong-Owen labours under a different set of pressures. She thinks of herself as one of the best gene-splicers in the business – the best being Avernus who works in the Outer Planets. Some of her clandestine work for the family that rules Brazil – one of the three real powers left on Earth (the others being Europe and China) – is nearing fruition. Among these are clones, bred and trained to be saboteurs in the run up to the shooting war that some political factions feel is desirable.
There may be a little too much in the way of scientific explanation for some tastes, but the complexities of the situation and the interactions of the characters as well as the individuality of the landscapes combine to form a novel which will not disappoint those who hanker after real science fiction.
THE SECRET OF LIFE by Paul McAuley
McAuley began writing with out-and-out space opera, but has since branched into a whole variety of other areas
including apocalyptic near-futures. Here he has combined both trends in a story based on biogenetics, a subject which
is beginning to emerge as a leading topic in SF and to become a further example (if one were needed) of the way in
which SF mostly follows trends in contemporary scientific culture rather than leading or directing them. The story tells
how a Chinese expedition discovers microbial life on Mars and brings back a sample which escapes into the
environment. An American expedition is then mounted to in an attempt to obtain further samples and discover how to
counter the global threat which has been caused.
This is science fiction writing of the best kind. It eschews gung-ho adventure but is an engrossing story of scientific extrapolation concentrating on working scientists who are also real people with real motivations shaped by personal histories and strengths and weaknesses of personality.
McAuley has obviously done a great deal of homework; his descriptions of Martian geology and geography must surely come from a detailed knowledge of the results of recent explorations; failing that I can only say that his imaginings (if that is what they are) have an amazingly authentic sound to them. Additionally, his background as a research biologist comes over in his fascinating accounts of how research in this area goes on - not just the science itself but also the politicking behind it and he also has something to say about the moral issues surrounding aspects of scientific research and discovery.
To be realistic, I guess this will not go down in history as one of the all-time great novels of the 21st century, but it is a really excellent book nonetheless.
WHOLE WIDE WORLD by Paul McAuley
Some 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.
Superficially, the novel has the form of a conventional crime thriller. The detective has problems with relationships and doesn't always obey authority. He uses the usual techniques to gather some of the clues and there are a number of possible suspects. The difference is that this is set at least ten years in the future. Between now and then there has been a revolution in British society. It has become more isolationist and much more of a ‘nanny state’. The web is tightly controlled, even the mildest kind of pornography is taboo and almost everywhere you go - especially in London - you are tracked by cameras.
The pace is fast, the story telling is slick. Some of the characters are a bit conventional, but the setting is subtly drawn and for those who wish to see it, there is a warning. It is very easy to imagine that many aspects of this future are not only feasible, but are almost with us. Paul McAuley has seen the future and I don't think I like it. I liked the book, though, a lot.
DRAGON’S TIME by Anne & Todd McCaffrey
This sequel to DRAGONGIRL continues the epic saga that is Pern. Lorana has cured the dragons' sickness but so many
died from the disease that there are no longer enough dragons to fight the deadly Thread (a disease which sucks the
land dry). With numbers reaching crisis point, Lorana flies forward in time in a desperate bid to bring dragons from the
future back to fight Thread. It involves an unbelievable sacrifice on her part - but without her action all life on Pern is
doomed. Left behind at Telgar Weyr, Fiona, Kindan and T'mar are distraught when they realize what Lorana has
done, but two things save them from complete despair. The first is that Fiona is pregnant, the second the fact all the
dragonriders are exhausted, a sure sign that they are “Timing it” – (existing elsewhere in space and time). This gives
them hope for the future and confidence that Lorana has found a way through time to help them. They just have to
trust in her and wait for her to lead them through this most perilous of times. As this is going on, a young lad Jeriz, ten
years old, is apprenticed to Fiona, to remind her to eat and look after her pregnancy, whilst she teaches him to read
and write and gives him access to the ‘Records’.
For the uninitiated into Pern, even with a brief introduction to Pern’s history supplied, the world is too confusing to care about. If I’m completely honest, I didn’t care enough about these characters. I believe this is predominantly due to the fact I am not immersed into Pern culture, so for readers continuing with the saga, this would not be the case. However, there seems to be an excess of everyday dialogue and interactions, which detract from the plot development. In short, up to two hundred pages in, not a lot had actually happened. Despite the SF tropes (genetically-engineered dragons and time travel) it also feels incredibly like old style fantasy as opposed to SF. It feels much like post-Tolkien, pre- Adrian Tchaikovsky fantasy.
If I were an established reader of Pern, I am sure I would have enjoyed this book, however, as a Pern novice this was not the book for me. Novices should start with an earlier book.
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.
CYBERABAD DAYS by Ian McDonald
In his novel, RIVER OF GODS, Ian McDonald chose as a setting a future India, dealing with problems that India is
likely to face. The impression is of an India at the centre of world events.
It is colourful, courageous and utterly convincing.
CYBERABAD DAYS is a collection set in the same time and place. They are stories of the people of this future India, the seven stories each touch on an aspect of this new society. Due to the problems brought on by climate change, India, always prone to drought and the vagaries of the monsoon, has a severe water problem. The country has disintegrated into a number of smaller states, two of which rely on the Ganges river for life support. There are wars between states.
Wars are fought between battlebots, controlled by teenagers via a virtual reality. In “Sanjeev and the Robotwallah”, Sanjeev is a boy who, from the first time he sees a Battlebot, is fascinated. When the robotwallahs offer him a job he is in heaven, even though all he is expected to do is clean up and keep house for them. It is a rite of passage story with Sanjeev discovering that his heroes are also human.
“Kyle Meets the River” is a story about fear of the unknown, including technology. Kyle’s father is a construction engineer. His best friend is Salim, the only Indian boy to attend the International School within a gated community.
When things come to a head, Kyle has to make choices and discover what is really important.
“The Dust Assassin” is a kind of futuristic fairy tale with a sting. Two wealthy families are at war, literally, over the control of the water resources.
When one attacks the other, they kill everyone except the daughter. She tries to find a way to avenge her family’s honour. Things do not quite work out how she envisaged them.
“An Eligible Boy” looks at the problems that arise from a historic desire to have sons. In the disgraceful parts of India’s past, girls have been killed at birth or aborted when their sex was known. Now, girls are a rare commodity. The story exposes some of the pitfalls for young men who are now in surplus. In the marriage stakes, women now have the upper hand.
With the development of Ais, there is a fear that they could supplant humans. The Hamilton Acts decree the destruction of all level 3 and above Ais.
Not all states have signed up. In “The Little Goddess” the narrator eventually agrees to smuggle Ais across the border into Bharat. She is a schizophrenic and the condition makes her ideal as she can carry several at a time inside her head.
However, the noose tightens on the smugglers and if she is caught, she will be killed.
“The Djinn’s Wife” looks at a different aspect of the emergent technology.
We are used to seeing people walking around with Bluetooth receivers in their ears. Phones have internet connections. Combine the two and you gat an internet connection that is transmitted straight to the brain snuggled behind the ear.
Dancer Esha Rathore attracts the attention of A J Rao, a level 3 AI. He is also an actor in India’s most popular soap Town and Country. Through this device, they can communicate, and to her it as if he is a real as any other person. The story highlights the problems of immersing oneself too much in a virtual reality.
“Vishnu at the Cat Circus” deals with the problems that designer children can have as they grow up. Vishnu is the second child of parents who must have the next best thing. He is born a Brahmin. His genes have been tweaked so that he will live twice as long as a normal person, but he will mature physically at half the rate. At twenty, he has the appearance of a ten-year-old but the mental processes of a young man his chronological age. His brother resents him but is a genius in communication technology in his own right. As the story unfolds, Vishnu realises that his brother’s plans are perhaps a step too far.
All the stories here could be regarded as a warning against taking some current strategy too far. They are excellent, well crafted stories, aimed to provoke the thoughtful reader.
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: MOON RISING by Ian McDonald
Ian McDonald’s Luna trilogy is one of those rare works that reminds me why I love reading science fiction so much. I
adored the first two books, LUNA: NEW MOON and LUNA: WOLF MOON (reviewed in Newsletters # 552 & 553) and
have been eagerly waiting for this final part in the trilogy. Thankfully, it didn’t disappoint me.
To quickly recap, hostilities between the controlling industrial dynasties of the Moon colonies erupted into open warfare. Clan Mackenzie appeared triumphant until Lucas Corta (head of Clan Corta) returned from hiding on Earth. By political manipulation and the promise of lucrative access to the Moon’s resources and industries, he amassed sufficient forces to exact a bloody revenge and seize control of the high office of Eagle of the Moon. However, ruling the Moon is not as easy as conquering it and Lucas is weakened by his deteriorating health and the potential Corta hostages hiding on the Moon, including his own badly injured son, Lucasinho. In the continuing power vacuum created by the war, amidst the divided loyalties of the children of dynastic marriages, and with resentment of the wealth and autonomy of the Moon growing amongst Earth’s power blocs and corporations, the remaining Five Dragons’ family members and the rest of the Moon’s population face a precarious and perilous future.
A large part of my enjoyment of these books has been the detailed and complex lunar society that feels utterly believable. I love the way the different cultural influences from the Portuguese, Russian, Ghanaian and Chinese emigrants etc amalgamate together and form something unique and enchanting even though at the same time you are fully aware of how harsh and violent it can be. The hints of a lunar society evolving and moving away from Earth both in cultural and biological terms are explored further, and indeed some of the struggles in this book are about the “soul” and direction the lunar society will take.
Another triumph with this book is in the characters. I have written before about how well the author handles a large cast of characters each with distinct viewpoints. In this final volume, we again see the differing perspectives of both elder and younger family members. The characters also for the most part have depth to them so that as a reader you care about what is happening to them and worry whether your favourites will survive. About the only exception is Bryce Mackenzie, who feels a little too much of a stereotypical villain and reminds me a little of Baron Harkonnen from DUNE. There are many individual triumphs and tragedies in this book and the author puts some of his characters (and the reader) through a wide range of emotions. Remarkably he manages all this without it slowing the plot and with everybody having a satisfactory end from a narrative standpoint, although not always a happy one, and with many emotional and physical scars for those left standing.
As if this wasn’t enough LUNA: MOON RISING is also a tightly plotted thriller, combining intrigue, politics and some exhilarating and high-stakes action scenes. As with the other two novels in this series, this is outstanding, adult SF that should be getting way more attention than it seems to be. Why this didn’t make the Clarke Award shortlist is an absolute mystery to me. In short, I would recommend it to anyone who loves diverse, intelligent and superior SF.
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 COLD KISS OF DEATH by Suzanne McLeodSuzanne McLeod’s debut novel was highly original in concept and execution and this second in the Spellcrackers.com series does not disappoint, indeed in some ways it is even better than the first. Genny Taylor, the only Bean Sidhe employed by Spellcrackers.com, (indeed the only Bean Sidhe in London!) is trying to get on with her life after the events in THE SWEET SCENT OF BLOOD. With her complicated personal life in chaos after the revelation of her background, she doesn’t need the added problems of threatened eviction by an ill disposed witch neighbour, propositions from all the Vampires in London, and to top it all, she’s being haunted by the ghost of a child. Events escalate quickly and Genny becomes implicated in the murder of one of her Spellcrackers’ clients. She quickly finds out that she is central to more supernatural intrigue in both the Vampire and Fae realms.
THE SHIFTING PRICE OF PREY by Suzanne McLeod
The 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.
At this point SF fans may turn away, because our main protagonist Gen, whose maternal grandmother is the Sidhe Queen, 'sees' magic in the ether/air and can 'crack' or absorb spells to counteract the intention. Gen is investigating the murder of grade fairies, as their parts are the equivalent of magical Viagra. Gen soon becomes involved in a case looking for the wife and child of a visiting diplomat whilst also trying to find a way of ending an infertility curse affecting all of the fae. All through this she is trying to earn a living, not worry about her ex Finn who disappeared and keep the business running.
There are a whole host of interesting characters including the kelpie Tavish and Mr Lampy, the gnome who is Gen's new client, and a thoroughly dislikeable character. It is fairly easy to pick up on any action from the preceding books without worrying or reading the first few books. Ripe with Greek mythology and fantasy lore, this is, pardon the pun, a cracker of a fantasy novel with a strong female 'lead'. Although she does miss her ex and also has feelings for her vamp blood master Malik, she is not defined by romantic relationships.
And the cases she gets involved in are hugely entertaining; from the Magic Mirror in Harrod's dressing rooms convincing punters to get plastic surgery to the prankster in Leicester Square doing a 'Harry Potter' and bringing film posters to life, it's all very lively.
McLeod also presents a realistic multi-cultural London.
This novel is very reminiscent of the work of Kim Harrison or early Laurell K Hamilton before sex became the dominant feature. This is a great book and I look forward to the promise of the next instalment.
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 Mead
I 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 MeaneyJohn Meaney is a clever and complex writer. He weaves seemingly unrelated stories together to make a greater whole.
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.
DARK BLOOD by John Meaney
Dark Blood is a direct sequel to Meaney’s excellent Bone Song. In the latter, police officer Donal Riordan has
discovered that he had been set up to fail in the protection task he had been given. At the end, both Donal and Laura
Steele, his boss and lover, are killed but for Donal, death is not permanent. Laura was a zombie and now he has her
heart keeping him functioning.
Donal’s is a strange world where sorcery is apparent, spells are a useful tool in everyday life. It is a world with all the technological trappings of our own, such as cars, guns, telephones and all the other necessities of modern civilisation. The system though, is powered by the residual energy in bones. The bones of the dead are processed in huge vats. At least that is better than the system in Illuria, a country across the sea, where living children are tapped for their energy.
Back at work after his recovery, but still grieving for Laura, Donal finds her department leaderless but determined to solve some of the outstanding issues from previous events. They know that there are strange things going on but lack the authority to tackle them head-on.
Tangled with the desire to catch those that escaped after the debacle that cost Laura her existence, are a plot to subvert the citizens of Tristopolis via ensorcelled phone lines, and politics. The rise of the Unity Party after a massacre at the Town Hall, which zombies are framed for, leads to an intent to legislate against non-humans and cast them out of society. This will include Donal and some of his colleagues. They take it on themselves to hunt down the black mage behind the Unity Party in an attempt to restore the equilibrium.
Complex and fast paced, Meaney paints a believable society populated with unforgettable characters. Is this Science Fiction? Who cares? It is a thoroughly enjoyable, though dark, romp through an alien world.
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.
IRON COUNCIL by China Miéville
This is the third of the New Crobuzon novels. Although the plot and characters of this novel work well enough without
reading the previous stories, there are some things that are more fully explained elsewhere. As with its predecessors,
the setting is a world going through an Industrial revolution where alchemy and magic are as scientifically meaningful
as physics and chemistry. There are many sentient species - human, insect, cactus, amphibian and others. There are
even more creatures produced by arcane and pseudo scientific means. Criminals are Remade with parts of other
creatures or machines.
The city-state of New Crobuzon is at war with Tesh. The war is so distant to its citizens that some believe that it is just an excuse for the state of martial law that exists on the streets of the city. Rebel groups range from the artists and political activists to terrorists and criminals. As a result of a rumour, a small group of activists set out to find the 'Iron Council'. The Council are a renegade group who have become such a powerful mythical symbol that some don't even believe they exist. Here is the story of the Council from their creation as a result of a workers' dispute to their final return to the city. This is also the story of Judah Low, a creator of golems - animated creatures made from anything to hand (and some tilings that have no substance).
The story is well told with a heavily detailed background. The romantic ideal of a leftist revolt belongs to the characters and not the writer. Maybe this loses something as the third volume in an ongoing series. Some of the things that seemed new and inventive the first time around are starting to become just more of the same.
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. Pauline Morgan
THE CITY & THE CITY by China Miéville
That reiteration of THE CITY should, correctly, be printed upside down except that I can’t easily do it on my computer.
Its significance is that the novel takes place in two cities which inter-penetrate; that is, the run-down and vaguely
Eastern-European Beszel co-exists with the booming and slightly Oriental Ul Qoma. Two separate cultures, different
languages even, occupying the same physical space, the inhabitants of one habitually ‘unseeing’ the citizens of the
other, even with two lots of traffic obeying different rules on the same streets (except that they aren’t the ‘same’, not
when a Besz only acknowledges his ‘own’ set of pedestrians, buildings and street-signs).
I’ve been a bit suspicious of tackling Miéville’s previous books (perhaps it’s the ear-ring that does it) and to be honest, this didn’t look the sort of thing I’d enjoy, yet I slipped into it easily and found it a clever, fast-paced and fascinating murder mystery set in a bizarre and surreal landscape. But at the end of the day it’s another one of those SF books which, as the Austrian critic Franz Rottensteiner once said, “offers silly answers to stupid questions”. The twin cities could only last as long as their inhabitants were prepared to observe the ridiculously restrictive rules which govern their daily lives. And they wouldn’t stand for it, not for five minutes never mind five centuries! So it’s all nonsense, though entertaining nonsense!
STAR WARS CLONE WARS GAMBIT: STEALTH by Karen MillerThis 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.
THE BONE CLOCKS by David Mitchell
I 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.
Mitchell is a perceptive writer, particularly talented at creating entertainingly offbeat characters in widely different milieux. His depictions of the teenage Holly Sykes and the undergraduate Hugh Lamb in the recent past (1980s, 1990s) are a joy to read, full of wit and clever revelation. Gradually the narrative progresses, via different narrators and Mitchell's familiar novella structure, into the future. But over half the novel has gone by before we arrive at anything substantially futuristic (2025), and the previous SF/fantasy elements have been restricted to very brief episodes easily dismissed as hallucinations.
Only after page 397 do we learn about the reincarnation theme and the war between two groups of supermen (and women) with super powers. There's an exciting (though baffling) battle between the two groups. Later on, in 2043, we see the planet, via the microcosm of one small corner of Ireland, descending into dystopia and barbarism.
Somewhere in the middle of the book is political satire and literary feuding. I noticed Lord Sugar and The Apprentice (carefully renamed to avoid legal action) receiving a kicking.
So this contains many themes, several tropes of SF and plenty of characters turning up again and again in major and minor roles. Mostly it's Holly Sykes' novel; she's there at the beginning and the end.
Mitchell has done an excellent (if occasionally patchy) job. This is a difficult and demanding novel, partly SF and partly not, though wholly worth reading. NB Copy not supplied by Sceptre/Hodder––I bought it.
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.
HATER by David Moody
Hater heralds the mass-market release of a horror novel by an unknown British writer that doesn’t feature vampires
dating werewolves… Is this a sign that the publishing world is slowly returning to recognizing horror as a genre to
encourage rather than treat it as if was toxic debt? It must have helped that Guillmero del Toro (PAN’S
LABYRINTH/THE HOBBIT) purchased the film rights when it was originally self-published in small press.
Set in a kitchen-sink provincial British city (unnamed), its first-person narrator is Danny McCoyne, in his late twenties, saddled with debt, and trapped between warring kids and a loveless marriage and a clerical job in the City Council he hates. In between witnessing seemingly random acts of street violence, his resentment of his lot in life grows; in fact, it’s difficult to think of a novel with a more depressed and bitter narrator, although after a time, you’ll figure out why it’s written that way.
The novel is promoted as a cross between 28 DAYS LATER and I AM LEGEND (although in my opinion it’s like neither the book nor the film).
However, it is so much like 28 DAYS LATER, it could have been marketed as a spin-off novel with a few alterations. Although as it’s one of my favourite horror films, I’m not suggesting that as a criticism. Like that film, the violent attacks are orchestrated by a virus of hate which turns a large proportion of the population into violent killers, although there are differences in that the attackers revert back to paranoid individuals.
HATER is a plot-driven novel and there’s a danger in the review revealing too much of the very significant twist which makes the final third of the novel worthy of a lucrative film deal. My one criticism is that too many major and minor characters stories are never concluded. Whilst that makes sense in terms of what does happen, it still feels disappointing to find most of the book’s sub-plots are still unresolved at the end.
The novel is easy to read and follow and can be read quickly. It’s not the best post-apocalyptical zombie novel, as that remains Simon Clark’s brilliant BLOOD CRAZY but the fact that it’s out there in the bookshops seems to me, a good thing.
THEM OR US (Hater Trilogy 3) by David Moody
The 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.
Danny McCoyne is a Hater with a difference in the post-apocalyptic world – Danny can ‘hold’ the hate and pass himself off as an ‘Unchanged’, which makes him invaluable to Hinchcliffe, the despot running what is left of Lowestoft. McCoyne, despite his weaknesses and the actions he has performed in hate, is a strangely sympathetic character and makes for a great lead. Despite his hate he is likeable and as a narrator, he is a great choice.
The world Moody has created is bleak, visceral and cold. What frightens the reader so much is the actual possibility of Moody’s vision becoming reality. If you have read the Hater novels, then you must simply read this instalment; in a word, it is stunning. If this is your first Hater novel, don’t worry reading this without knowledge of the first two books will not detract from your experience. And experience this is! Enjoy the end!
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.
NO WAY by S J Morden
This is the follow-up to ONE WAY, both written under Simon Morden’s pen name of S J Morden. Simon has previously
written several books as well as wining the Phillip K. Dick Award and has been a judge on the Arthur C. Clarke Award.
He has degrees in Geology and planetary Geophysics so he should know what he is talking about when writing a book
about the exploration of Mars, and it shows. As with ONE WAY this book was a pleasure to read as it is full of
engrossing action which takes place in an extremely demanding and well described environment. If you have already
read ONE WAY or my review published in the June 2018 (No 561) edition of the BRUM Group News you may
remember that a private conglomeration, Xenosystems Operations (XO) has, with promises of a fully automated
construction process, won the contract to build NASA’s permanent Mars base. Unfortunately for them the required
technology does not work! So without telling NASA they decide to manually construct the base using long-term
convicts with appropriate technical backgrounds to do the construction and maintenance work before NASA’s
professional astronauts arrive. Accompanying these prisoners to Mars was one XO supervisor, who was to return to
Earth when the NASA astronauts leave. Shortly after they arrive things started to go wrong resulting with Frank
Kitteridge, a convicted murderer being the last man standing. All this is succinctly covered in the first few chapters of
NO WAY so readers who have not read the first book are not at any disadvantage. That said I would highly
recommend reading ONE WAY just because it’s very, very good. In NO WAY the situation is that Frank has come to an
accommodation with XO and agrees that if he takes the place of the XO supervisor without letting the astronauts know
who he actually is and successfully supports their mission he can come home with them at the end of the mission. But
naturally things are not that simple as XO cannot be trusted and will do anything to protect its own interests. What
follows is high quality human interaction interspaced with high drama as Frank becomes integral to the NASA mission
enabling them to meet and survive the threats that Mars and XO throws in their way. All this action is set in a well-
described unforgiving world coupled with realistic science and ends in a totally believable way that sets the scene for
a concluding volume. As I said at the beginning of this review, I really enjoyed NO WAY and its predecessor and look
forward to reading the sequel. I highly recommend it.
ONE WAY by S J Morden
This is the author’s first book under the pen name of S J Morden although he has written several books as Simon
Morden and has won the Phillip K. Dick Award and been a judge for the Arthur C. Clarke Award. In addition, he has
degrees in geology and planetary geophysics so he should know what he is talking about when writing a book about
the exploration of Mars, and it shows. ONE WAY is also the first book by this author that I have had the pleasure of
reading. In my opinion it was well worth my time, it being full of engrossing action taking place in an extremely
demanding environment. In many ways it reminded me of Andy Weir’s excellent book, THE MARTIAN although there
are significant differences. For instance, this is a murder mystery and there is no last minute spectacular rescue of the
marooned astronaut. It also has some echoes of Agatha Christie’s 10 LITTLE INDIANS in that one by one the
protagonists are killed off. Like me you may deduce who is the murderer but as in all well-written mysteries that does
not spoil the reader’s enjoyment; how the story unfurls is key.
In ONE WAY a private conglomeration, Xenosystems Operations (XO) has, with promises of a fully automated
construction process, won the contract to build NASA’s permanent Mars base. Unfortunately for them the required
technology does not work! So, without telling NASA, they decide to manually construct the base; this will have the
advantage that if any unforeseen glitches occur the adaptability and problem-solving abilities of humans will triumph
where machines would fail. They will also have enhanced profits. But who could they get to do the job without NASA
finding out? Fortunately for them XO ‘owns’ three prisons which would provide the workforce. In addition, as much
American fiction would have us believe, prisoners have no rights and for serious crimes sentences are inhumanly long
so who would know of their ‘recruitment’. So, a number of convicts with appropriate technical backgrounds are
clandestinely selected as candidates and undergo strenuous but basic training. Prisoners who do not accept this offer
or fail the training process will be returned to prison and ‘buried’ in perpetual solitary confinement. Accompanying
these prisoners to Mars will be one XO supervisor, who will return to Earth when the NASA astronauts arrive, but as far
as the prisoners know they will be left to maintain the base. Shortly after they arrive things go wrong and the first death
occurs; is it an accident or murder?
As I said at the beginning of this review I really enjoyed ONE WAY and look forward to reading more books by this
author. I highly recommend it.
PS My wife, who is not an SFF fan, also thoroughly enjoyed this book.
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.
THIN AIR by Richard K Morgan
I’m a fan of Richard Morgan and when I saw that THIN AIR had been provided for review, I was very happy that I was
lucky enough to acquire it. Many if not all of the Brum Group members will be aware of, if not have read, the author’s
Takeshi Kovacs novels. The first of these, ALTERED CARBON, is I believe currently available on Netflix. Like these
books THIN AIR is a fast-moving tale full of blistering action and populated with well-defined both male and female
characters in believable environments.
There is no padding in this tale and, as with many great books, there is a surprising but totally believable twist at the end as well as a satisfactory and somewhat happy ending. I’m really glad that I had the opportunity to read it.
The main protagonist, Hakan Veil is an ex-corporate enforcer modified in the womb to produce a gene- engineered killing machine. Before being stranded on Mars he was employed as an ‘overrider’. Hidden somewhere on his employer’s spacecraft he was the ultimate deterrent to mutiny, his remit, save the ship (at any cost). In recognition of this he is often referred to in the book as ‘Black Hatch’ as well as ‘overrider’.
The action in THIN AIR takes place in the Valles Marineris which is made habitable by an atmosphere retention layer referred to as the ‘Lamina’ that interacts with the solar wind to produce brilliant aurora. In addition, the inhabitants’ genomes are constantly tweaked using mosquito-like ‘code-flies to frequently inject updates. This has resulted in a population that is described as ‘hardscrabble to the bone, sandblasted from birth into conformity with the Valley’s brutal expectations and predator norms. These men and women knew the Gash (part of Bradbury city) for what it was – an ocean of treacherous economic weather and pitiless food chain dynamics just waiting to bite.’ Consequently, local governmental corruption is rife. Oversight from earth is provided by the locally hated COLIN (Colony Initiative) organization.
After falling foul of the local city police (Bradbury PD) Hakan is forced to bodyguard Madison Madekwe, a member of an unexpected COLIN spot audit. Her role is to investigate the disappearance of the winner of a lottery prize, a trip back to earth. When Madison is kidnapped and he is nearly killed, Hakan’s investigation overturns ‘stones’ that put both himself and various others at risk. As could be expected from the environment in which he is operating and Richard Morgan’s previous books there is a great deal of violence and a high body count. Perhaps surprisingly Hakan turns out to have a powerful social conscience and sense of societal obligation.
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!
RED NOISE by John P Murphy
Science fiction has a long history of using tropes from Westerns (ie cowboy stories) including many space operas. Gene
Rodenberry described the original Star Trek series as a space Western (“Wagon Train to the stars”). Other examples
that come to mind are Westworld, Firefly and latterly the Disney Star Wars TV series, The Mandalorian.
RED NOISE is also clearly based on Westerns and readers/watchers of both will recognise many of the tropes. A solitary asteroid miner, with a mysterious past, arrives at a small trading outpost to offload the ores they have harvested. Two rival gangs run the meagre and shabby amenities including the bar/hotel and the casino. An uneasy truce is maintained by a corrupt and outnumbered law enforcement team. When the miner is fleeced on the price for her ore, she is left without enough money to buy the fuel and supplies she needs to leave. The corrupt law enforcement chief refuses to intervene, so she decides to take action herself and plays the two gangs off against each other, whilst making money at the same time. Essentially, the setup will be recognisable to anyone who has seen the spaghetti western, A FISTFUL OF DOLLARS.
RED NOISE is an enjoyable piece of hokum – readable and entertaining though not especially profound. Jane is revealed (to the reader at least) as being ex-Intelligence Corps, so as well as experience in destabilising groups, she also has bio-modifications which increase her strength and resistance to pain. Her machinations as she baits and deceives the opposing factions are quite entertaining at first, though as the body count rose, I found the somewhat casual disposal of gang members a little harder to take. That being said, it is not much different to what you would see in any cowboy or war film so I may be being over-sensitive. Later in the book, Jane does seem to develop some conscience and tries to rein back the gangs but they now have their own momentum. The plot works well and moves along at a good pace, alternating between action and slower scenes. There are also some unexpected twists and setbacks which make the story more interesting and also add an element of doubt about what the final outcome might be. There has clearly been thought given to the motivations of characters and the way their previous interactions with each other impact on their current responses. However, none of the characters are very multi-layered or sympathetic (perhaps deliberately) and thus as a reader I didn’t feel a great deal of emotional investment in their fates.
Given the many cross-over/mashups there have been between Westerns/SF, I think there will be a proportion of SF readers who will enjoy this book. It’s competent though not particularly deep or intended as any sort of metaphor or commentary. That being said it “does what it says on the tin” and is engaging enough that I did not struggle to keep reading it.
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 NationFirst 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 plans.
ASTOUNDING by Alec Nevala-Lee
John W Campbell is perhaps best known for the story “Who Goes There” which was filmed as THE THING FROM
ANOTHER WORLD (1951) – remade as THE THING (1982) – and as the mainstay/chief editor of Astounding
magazine. It was this magazine that was instrumental in forming modern science fiction. Campbell attracted a host of
Golden Age SF writers who would come to be the grandees of the genre: Isaac Asimov, Robert A Heinlein and L Ron
Hubbard among them. This book examines the magazine’s genesis and its development to become (arguably) the
leading SF magazine. It also takes a critical eye to the relationships between Campbell and the aforementioned
writers (other writers pop in and out of the narrative too).
To be honest I expected a rather dry history but the book is in fact a fascinating insight into both early science fiction and American culture in particular, at the various “isms” of that era (yet look around – nothing changes, sadly). The story begins in the 1930s and follows the characters through WW2, at their attempts to be patriotic, to help the US war effort, and at the conceit they held for themselves.
If you have any interest in the history of science fiction you should read this book. It is an astounding story.
LAST DAYS by Adam Nevill
The 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.
Now guerrilla filmmaker Kyle Freeman is hired to produce a documentary account of the cult and what happened to it. His employer has lined up interviews with surviving former members as well as police officers involved in the investigation of what actually happened at the end, and has arranged visits to the sites once occupied by the Temple.
Kyle and his friend and cameraman Dan then embark on a harrowing odyssey in the course of which they find out a great deal more than they ever wanted to know. It eventually becomes clear that the Last Days had accessed an evil supernatural force first aroused during a religious conflict in the sixteenth century. Worse, that evil is still extant wherever a connection with the Temple of the Last Days still exists. Kyle and Dan find themselves under attack; Dan is nearly killed in London and Kyle, having learned that the cult of The Last Days and its horrific Blood Friends still exist, returns to America for a showdown planned to put an end to it forever.
Whether or not this is the sort of book that leaves you afraid of the dark depends on your susceptibility. The intention is obviously to scare and horrify in equal measure, but if that fails what remains is an admittedly fairly intriguing account of an evil supernatural haunting. That aspect of it is worked out well enough, but there is a tendency to go into too much detail, slowing things down and making the book longer than it needed to be. Fortunately the pace picks up again as the climax approaches, and the ending is satisfyingly apocalyptic. Michael Jones
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.
AFTER ATLAS (Planetfall 2) by Emma Newman
I have recently been watching the TV series Hunted where a group of people try to evade capture by a team who use
all the modern methods of tracking and surveillance. This includes CCTV, social media tracking and appeals, and
tracking data from cars, phones and traffic monitoring systems etc. Although clearly manipulated to a degree for
television, it is frightening how effective this can be and how much our privacy is being eroded by changes in
technology. In AFTER ATLAS, a near-future SF novel by Emma Newman, this has been extrapolated to a world where
most people now manage all their devices, shopping, money etc via an “APA” chip implanted in their brain (think of
this as a semi-intelligent virtual secretary). The ubiquity of “chipped” people means that most crimes are easily solved
as people and their activities can be easily traced. For the few remaining crimes which need more detailed
investigation, there are a few highly trained and skilful investigators. Carl(os) Moreno is one of the best of these
When a wealthy, foreign, high-profile cult leader is found dead at a country hotel that specialises in offering private and personal service, Carl is assigned to the case. In a very politically sensitive atmosphere, he is the only one deemed acceptable by the US, European and British governments who all have their own interests and agendas in solving (or covering up) the mystery. Whilst part of his selection is for his skills, it is also because of his previous connection to the dead man (and his cult) from when he was a child. Having fled the North American cult as a youth, Carl was a refugee to Britain. Unbeknown to many, he is now indentured to the Ministry of Justice. He must work to pay off the constantly accumulating “debt” he owes to them and the “hothouse” company that educated him. These companies take talented refugees and train them as skillful assets to be sold to the highest bidder. Any infraction or bad performance review can add penalties and increase his debt. Whilst he tries to determine why Alejandro Casales is dead and who was involved, his job is complicated by all the political ramifications, his own grief and unresolved feelings about Casales (who was an important part of his childhood) and also by the constant monitoring of his own behaviour via the APA in his head. As in the previous book in this series, PLANETFALL, this is a superbly imaginative yet very realistic extrapolation of currently developing technology that has the potential to make a huge impact on people’s lives. Emma Newman also continues to show a superb ability to write subtle, multifaceted characters who have been emotionally and mentally marked by their experiences, with a perceptive and sensitive eye that is rare particularly in the SF field. Whilst this book is number 2 in a series, the setting is completely different and can easily be read as a stand-alone. I really enjoyed this intelligent and convincing novel. The emotional toll of constant monitoring and slavery in all but name was convincing and at times genuinely disturbing. If I have a criticism it is that I felt it could have been longer. The latter part of the book when Carl visits the Circle cult in the USA felt a little rushed at times and wrapped things up a little too quickly for my liking. Despite that caveat, Emma is, in my opinion, a talented SF author who is writing some very fine, different and thought-provoking Science Fiction
ATLAS ALONE (Planetfall 4) by Emma Newman
The books in Emma Newman’s Planetfall series have been receiving lots of praise and recognition in the SF field,
appearing on many award shortlists, including being a finalist in the Clarke (AFTER ATLAS), BSFA (BEFORE MARS,
ATLAS ALONE) and the 2020 Hugo’s for Best Series. There is an over-arching plot across the books but until now, the
books can also be read as stand-alone novels as each book has been in a different setting and told by a different
protagonist. In the Planetfall series, a visionary genius and a team of true believers constructed a functioning
spaceship and embarked on a journey to a new solar system. They left behind the schematics for their spaceship
technology sealed into a time capsule. Book 1 (PLANETFALL) looked at the difficulties the colonists encountered,
whereas the later books are set in our solar system and the events surrounding a race to build new spaceships. ATLAS
ALONE looks at events onboard a new colony spaceship on its way towards the original Atlas colony.
The narrative in ATLAS ALONE follows on most directly from AFTER ATLAS. Three of the characters from that novel, Carl, Dee and Travis, were added at the last minute to the spaceship. They share a secret, having witnessed the deliberate start of a nuclear holocaust on Earth and they know someone on board was responsible. Six months after departure, Dee in particular is struggling to cope with her anger. When she is asked to use her previous skills as an analyst, it provides an opportunity to move into the social circle of the elite section of the ship. She starts to meet and become accepted by those who financed the expedition; a mixture of hard right-wing politicians and religious isolationists and this provides her with the opportunity to investigate who is responsible for precipitating genocide. She is invited to join a new artificial reality game, but when a player she kills in the game is found dead in real life (and they were one of her main suspects) she needs to know how and if it can happen again. Worried that suspicion will fall on her, she accepts the help of another player who adjusts the ship’s records to provide her with an alibi. Having only “met” them in the game, she does not know their real identity. This new ally professes to also be intent on justice, but gradually Dee becomes suspicious of their motivations and manipulations and realises that she is trapped in a Faustian bargain.
As with the other books in the series, the main protagonist is someone who has complex mental health issues. In this case, Dee (and Carl) were “hot housed” children – abandoned or refugee children who were forcibly trained for high- skill jobs but in return are indebted for the cost of that “education” and who are effectively owned by a corporation until they can pay it back (which is usually many years if ever). In Dee’s case in particular, this means that to protect herself, she learned to keep others at a distance and to suppress her emotional and empathic responses. Her quest for revenge is also in part, driven by a desire for revenge by proxy against the same privileged type of group that exploited her in the past. Whilst this works well within the narrative, it also made the book less enjoyable for me personally than the others in the series. Dee is too ready to cause harm to others without stopping to question the reliability of her information, and as someone who is supposed to be intelligent, I found that a little hard to believe. She is far harder to view sympathetically and her credulity and lack of ethics did irritate me at times. I also worked out the identity of her “ally” quite early, so the “big reveal” lacked the impact that it probably should have.
Whilst this is not a bad book by any means, I did feel it was more formulaic than the others in the series, and I feel the narrative was sometimes driven by needing to get to the set-up for book five at the expense of a more rounded plot. In particular, the “villains” who she is trying to identify are too stereotypical and lack nuance. I enjoyed it enough to continue the series, but it is not, in my opinion, as good as its predecessors.
BEFORE MARS (Planetfall 3) by Emma Newman
Although listed as the third in the Planetfall series, BEFORE MARS can be enjoyed without having read the previous
two books (PLANETFALL and AFTER ATLAS) as they all take place in different locations and with different characters.
I have read PLANETFALL but not yet AFTER ATLAS and did not feel I was missing any vital information.
PLANETFALL (reviewed by Pauline Morgan in July 2016 newsletter #538) looked at the first extrasolar colony,
founded by a group of true believers led by a visionary, Suh-Mi. BEFORE MARS is set forty years after that first
expedition departed and where people are hoping that a time-locked capsule they left behind will divulge the secret
technology of the first spaceship. Earth is mainly run by giant corporations where people have few rights and most
people connect directly by a chip in their brain to corporate systems, entertainment and the equivalent of the Internet.
BEFORE MARS is told from the first-person perspective of Anna Kubrin, as she arrives at the Mars base. The base has
a longstanding crew of four people plus the base AI, Principia. A qualified geologist, Anna has been sent unwillingly
to Mars base by its multimillionaire owner, Stefan Gabor mainly to paint the Martian landscape as his pet vanity
project. During her long solo journey, she has used “immersives” (full sensory recordings which can be hard to
distinguish from reality) including memories of her partner and son back on Earth. When she arrives, she feels an eerie
familiarity with the location and the other workers. As she faces hostility and tension from her new colleagues, things
start to not add up. Is there something hidden going on at the base or is it her own paranoid mind playing tricks on her
due to a combination of guilt at leaving her family and “immersion psychosis” where a person can no longer separate
reality from the fiction of immersive stories?
The first novel PLANETFALL was different from much contemporary SF in firstly, its extrapolation of the use of 3D
printing technology and also for having a protagonist who was concealing a mental health issue, something that is
rarely touched on in most SF or Fantasy. Again, in BEFORE MARS, the author is not afraid to give us another
protagonist who has flaws and a back history which will make her unsympathetic to some readers. The author has
excelled at writing a complex character with a finely defined internal voice. As this is a first-person story we see less of
the inner motivations and thoughts of the other characters, but they are still realistic and the reasons for their differing
relationships and reactions to newcomer Anna feel very credible. Whilst 3D printing was a major focus of the first
novel, time has moved on (both in the series and the real world) and this whilst still present is not as prominent.
Instead it is the debate about how autonomous our minds can be when everyone is connected and how much we can
trust what our senses are telling us. However, if this all feels a bit heavy reading, it is far from it. There is a good
developing plotline and the balance between Anna’s internal musings and the events on Mars offset well against each
other. This is excellent SF and this author goes from strength to strength. Her work is intelligent, profound, empathic
and still entertaining. Also, she deserves immense kudos for her bravery in using her own experiences with post-natal
depression to illuminate and elicit sympathy for her protagonist. Highly recommended.
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.
RE-COIL by J T Nicholas
There are probably as many different kinds of readers as there are books. We all know the ‘I don’t read Science Fiction’
statement before praise is heaped on the books of Margaret Atwood (who only sets her books in the future and asks
“What if…”) or Cormac McCarthy’s THE ROAD, because they are literature. A different reader will ask, why can’t they be
both? The truth is, the same book can be appreciated in different ways by different readers. Conversely, there may be
diametrically opposed opinions
RE-COIL is a space adventure set firmly in the solar system but where not only planets and moons have been colonised but there are numerous habitats. This is a far future where it is possible to eke out a living as a scavenger. The narrator, Carter Langston, is one such and we initially join him as part of a crew who have found a derelict about to plunge into the sun. Naturally, salvaging it is not as simple as it sounds as Carter dies
This isn’t the end of the story as everyone has a backup which, as a right, is downloaded into a new body. This is the recoiling of the title. The new body (coil) could be a different gender, race or physique. What you get is pot luck unless you are wealthy enough to have pre-ordered one. Since the memory on re-awakening only goes as far as the last back-up, the actual trauma of death is avoided. Which makes the attempt to kill Carter on awakening very alarming. Escaping, he manages to trace another crew-member, Shay Chan, who is very unhappy to have been re-coiled into a male body
The two of them are determined to find out why they are now targets. The answer is disturbing, but they find themselves recruited to help solve the problem
This is a case of technology both getting out of control and the ‘Big Company’ in this case called Genetechnic, not having thought through the consequences of their development. Everyone has memories that they would like to erase. The problem is that every memory is linked to all the circumstances that led to the moment in time that caused the desire. Wiping a person from memory means wiping everything else that happens in their vicinity and probably losing good memories as well. The nanites, referred to as Bliss, that have been developed to do the memory editing, have developed a hive intelligence and decided that all memories are traumatic to the owner. They wipe the mind entirely and now they have escaped. Carter and Shay are enlisted to destroy them
If what you want is a fast-paced adventure with mayhem, the certainty of death – and re-coil – and plenty of destruction, then you will enjoy this
For the reader who likes to dig below the surface, there are some issues
Just as Genetechnic hadn’t anticipated the consequences of their nanites acquiring intelligence, there are some unforeseen consequences of the setup of the society as proposed in this novel. Take the issue of the adult, functioning bodies for the memories to be re-coiled into. Where do they come from? If everyone has the right to be backed up and re-coiled there will not be enough to go around, especially since it is suggested that you might have to spend time waiting in an inferior model. Since children are still being born, there is an increasing need for spares which have to be ‘grown’ and stored somewhere. They would have to have blank minds in order to receive the new one otherwise the old one would have to be wiped before the new personality is inserted. Is this murder? The side-effect of Genetechnic’s development of Bliss is a ready source of vacant bodies – or there would have been if the nanites hadn’t developed intelligence and a sense of selfpreservation
The recoil system is the development of immortality
While other authors have used a similar system of downloaded backup up copies of a person into a new body there have been qualifiers, such as the new body having to be a clone of the original rather than being constructed from cloned tissue. Most of us will be familiar with the feeling of weakness after spending several days in bed with flu. It seems strange, then, that when Carter is re-coiled into a (well-muscled) body that hasn’t been used before it is capable of fighting and running
Since a lot of the action happens outside space-craft with characters wearing vac suits, garments that are designed to prevent the very small oxygen molecules from escaping, yet somehow, there intelligent nanites can penetrate such a suit without damaging it. And if they can, why would they need to drill three holes in an airlock hatch to escape from the ship? Would the self-repair function, which is probably also based on nano tech, allow in the invaders? If a body’s nanites, which are present to heal and repair, detect the alien nanites, would it attack them as anti-bodies would fight germs? Or do they turn traitor and gang up on the human mind? For those who enjoy the action in this novel, these thoughts won’t affect their enjoyment. Ignoring these, there are stylistic problems. The dialogue is riddled with ‘said bookisms’ – the practice of using any word other than said. The other big problem is one of technology. The novel opens with an excellent and intriguing firstperson narrative showing the events that kick-start everything later, yet Carter has no memory of these events when he is re-coiled. This is partially solved by Carter having sent himself a video of the events
In itself this is able to set the scene but it is in the wrong place, particularly as it has all the emotional content the dead coil could not have put into a video, even one of full VR immersion. Many of the technological extrapolations are familiar from other books like data fed directly to implants in the brain but that doesn’t invalidate them
This, then, is a book that will appeal to the escapist SF reader but may frustrate one who wants more careful consideration of the consequences of putting a particular development at the forefront of the action.
BODYGUARD OF LIGHTNING & LEGION OF THUNDER by Stan NichollsThere is a world, where all the other-world creatures, such as
ORCS: BAD BLOOD by Stan Nicholls
Once again the pages run with blood, intestines flop to the ground and heads are severed. The orcs are on the
At the end of the first trilogy they had found themselves in a world where there were only other orcs. They did not have to struggle for survival. They could settle down. In fact, Stryke, captain of the Wolverines war band, has taken a mate and fathered two potentially fearsome hatchlings. What the members of the band have not admitted to each other is that they are getting bored.
There is no real fighting. Then a human staggers from a cave bearing the instrumentalities that are the key to the other worlds. They learn that their old mistress, the sorceress Jennesta is still alive and is rebuilding her empire in a different realm. This is a land where orcs are the dominant species, but they are weak and, with only a handful of exceptions, have lost the will to fight. A relatively small force of humans has swept in and subjugated them.
Enter the Wolverines. Prepared to cut a swathe of mayhem through the countryside, their main purpose is to get Jennesta. If they kill a lot of humans and rouse the orcs from their pacifist stupor, then that is a bonus.
Despite the copious quantity of bloodshed and killing, this is a joyous book.
The orcs are having fun. Fighting is what they do best and they thrive on it. Back, too, is the ferocious dwarf Jup, now with an equally fierce wife, Spurral, Haskeer, willing to pick a fight with anyone and anything, and Coilla, the only female orc with this warband. There are a few new faces including Wheam, a cowardly orc who only wants to be a bard, and Pepperdyne, a human who has allied himself with the orcs in order to be near the instrumentalities. At present he seems to be the only decent human in the whole realm. That is likely to change.
Although it is probably better to have read the first trilogy, a lot of enjoyment can be had if you start here.
QUICKSILVER TWILIGHT by Stan Nicholls
A 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.
There are two empires in conflict with each other, both tyrannical in their own ways, and a resistance movement who wants to be out from under the yoke of both.
At the end of the second volume, the rebels were preparing to leave for an island where they intended to live in isolation and let the rest of the world fall in on itself. However, just before departure, a series of raids lead to the arrest, slaughter or dispersal of the rebels. In QUICKSILVER TWILIGHT all the threads salted through the previous two novels have to be pulled together and some kind of resolution reached.
There are a lot of important characters and Nichols has to decide whose story takes precedent, especially as they are now scattered. Reeth Caldason suffers from disturbing dreams and berserk rages. He has pledged to support the rebels in their struggle for freedom but also needs to find a way of living a normal life, especially as he has fallen in love with Serrah, one of the freedom fighters. In a lull between battles, the two of them, with Kutch, an apprentice sorcerer, head out to sea in search of the Clepsydra which is rumoured to be the Source of magic and knowledge. Tanalvah is heavily pregnant and full of remorse. She betrayed her friends in the hope of saving her lover, who had already been sent to the galleys. Her shame is enhanced by the fact that her friends welcome her and smuggle her out to Diamond Isle where they intend to make a final stand against the combined Empires. To add complications to the plot, the flow of magic seems to be faltering. This is partly due to a new player in the field. Zerreiss is a charismatic Northerner who is moving steadily south at the head of an army. In whatever region he conquers, the magic dies.
The novel carries the plot from the previous two volumes well and resolves many of the situations set up within them. The biggest problem with the book is that there is too much being crammed into the one volume. .Many of the strands are rich enough to have deserved being developed at greater length. This is a consequence of having so many significant characters scattered throughout the text. Often the strongest and most fascinating parts are almost throwaways.
The floating cities and their mad prince are both a symptom of the underlying malaise of this world and a delightful diversion to the main thrust of the plot. On the down side, and probably due to the condensation of the overall story, Tanalvah’s angst does get a little wearing.
While the series as a whole is worth reading, this volume will not stand alone and should only be read in its proper place in the sequence otherwise the relationships between the characters will not be fully understood.
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.
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.
A MAN OF SHADOWS by Jeff Noon
One of the occasional joys in reviewing books for the BSFG is in finding a gem that I might otherwise have missed.
Jeff Noon’s A MAN OF SHADOWS is for me, one of those books. I know that his previous novels, VURT and POLLEN
had been reviewed in previous issues of the newsletter (May and June 2013 respectively) and been highly praised.
However, whilst aware of his reputation, I must admit that I had not previously read any of his work.
This is a novel that combines elements of both Science Fiction and the fantastic into something unique and
enthralling. John Nyquist is a private eye working in the strange city of Dayzone/Nocturna. The Dayzone portion of the
city is kept permanently brightly lit by a vast ceiling of lamps, whereas the other half of the city, Nocturna is kept in a
perpetual night of minimal light and artificial “constellations”. At the boundary between the two is the strange,
unplanned and menacing Dusk zone. By banishing all the natural indicators of time passing, many time zones can
exist simultaneously to suit individual and more importantly corporate needs. This multiplicity however has deleterious
effects not only on the people but on the nature of time itself. When Nyquist is hired to find a missing girl, he
becomes caught up in protecting her from mysterious enemies. As he pursues her from day to night to dusk, it becomes
clear that her fate is connected to the very existence of the city.
This is a work of superb imagination and inventiveness. The precise and beautiful prose builds up an image of an
intricate and complex world through many small details. Additionally, the character of Nyquist is well written,
sympathetic and recognisable to fans of film-noir detectives such as Philip Marlowe or Sam Space; down at heel, a
drinker, a rule breaker but ultimately good. The connection between the black and white nature of the city and the
traditional detective story works well, particularly with the setting of a 50’s-style technology. I enjoyed the dual puzzles
of how this strange world functions and the unfolding mystery of the significance of the missing girl.
Despite all the complexities of the book, it is well paced with a story that keeps the reader engaged and unwilling to
put the book down till the end. With its mixture of strange and scientific ideas and themes, it feels to me to come
closest to Weird fiction, and would appeal to those who like China Mieville or Jeff VanderMeer in particular. Another
adventure featuring Nyquist (THE BODY LIBRARY) is due to be published on 3rd April and I am looking forward to
reading it immensely.
CREEPING JENNY (Nyquist Mysteries 3) by Jeff Noon
The first two books of this series featured a long-suffering and dissolute P I, John Nyquist, and were set in an
alternative 1950’s in two strange cities; Dayzone (where there is no darkness and time behaves strangely) and
Storyville (where the boundaries between fiction and reality were blurred). The three books are loosely connected and
can easily be read in any order.
In this third volume of the Nyquist Mysteries, detective John Nyquist moves out of his urban “comfort zone” from the previous two novels and into the countryside. An anonymous package of six blurry photographs has led him to the strange (and what else would you expect in a Jeff Noon novel) and claustrophobic village of Hoxley-on-the-Hale. The photographs link the village to his long-lost father but his investigation will be far from straightforward. With the shift from an urban to a rural background, there is also a shift from the film-noir tone of the previous books to that of folk horror.
Nyquist’s enquiries are hampered by the insular villagers’ suspicion of outsiders, but also by their daily activities which are dictated by the specific rules applying on a succession of Saint’s Days. These include a day when everyone must stay inside, another when no-one is allowed to speak and other even stranger rules. When the first person he talked to is found dead, it becomes clear that someone is determined to hinder his investigation and prevent him finding the truth about his father.
This book uses many of the tropes of folk horror – specifically strange customs in a small, isolated community. As well as the various weird practices imposed by the Saints’ Days, there are also two mysterious “spirits” that the villagers are afraid of – the Tolly Man (who wears a mask made of twigs from the poisonous myre plant) and the female spirit of Creeping Jenny, who can grant wishes but requires “something” in return. There is an annual festival centred around the Tolly Man figure and some of the people allotted to play the role clearly suffer a mysterious and sinister fate. There are definite echoes of THE WICKER MAN here: those of secrets hidden from an outsider, the sense of the protagonist not seeing his danger in time, whether the enemies are all mortal, and a definite feel that Nyquist might end up as a scapegoat or sacrifice.
Jeff Noon does not write like anyone else and while I love these books, I fully recognise they are not for everyone. They take concentration as the reader is, like Nyquist, trying to put clues together and discern what is happening in a world with very different rules. It could be argued that Nyquist is a proxy for the reader (though I think he is also a fully drawn character). As with Jeff Noon’s other Nyquist books, amidst the many disparate events and characters throughout the book, the author still manages to sew it together into a strong narrative. I love the depth of imagination and detailed worldbuilding and the way he draws you into a surreal, ambiguous and bizarre reality. His prose is also unique and at times has a poetic and lyrical quality. All of this makes it very hard to categorise – it’s certainly not what is commonly called fantasy. I guess the nearest comparison would be to the weird fiction of authors such as China Mieville or Jeff VanderMeer, so if you like those you might enjoy this.
NB For those who don’t know (and I was one until I went googling), Creeping Jenny is a fast-growing plant which can become invasive.
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
THE BODY LIBRARY (Nyquist Mysteries 2) by Jeff Noon
When I reviewed the first book featuring private eye, John Nyquist (A MAN OF SHADOWS) in March this year (#558) I
stated that I was looking forward immensely to reading this sequel and thankfully, it is just as enjoyable and intricate
as its predecessor.
The first novel saw Nyquist trying to find a missing girl in the strange neon-lit city of Dayzone where day and night exist permanently next to each other, time is distorted and strange things happen in the unplanned border region of Dusk. In THE BODY LIBRARY Nyquist has moved to the city of Storyville. This is another strange city, one obsessed with story and narrative and where the boundaries between fiction and real life quickly become blurred. This is a city where everyone wants to tell and listen to stories. It is a city with a vast bureaucracy of “Narrative Officers” who watch and where necessary change people’s lives to fit what has been decided is the main narrative of the city’s progress.
Hired to follow a man, Nyquist enters the mysterious Melville tower block. Attacked by his quarry, he wakes to find a dead body next to him. Disoriented and confused, he is unsure of the reality of the strange people and events that then occur as he tries to flee the building. All he remembers clearly is a missing woman called Zelda, and that everything is linked to the strange book, the eponymous The Body Library. Constructed from cutting and pasting other novels together to form a new text, its pages appear to have psychotropic properties and the ink can infect people with a progressive, fatal illness which manifests as words appearing under their skin. Finding himself infected, Nyquist must race against time to unravel the mystery and menace of the book. Yet again, Jeff Noon shows his amazing imagination and wonderful writing skill. He plays with prose and structure and yet still achieves a rare balancing act of managing to also have a strong narrative and characters, although the reader does have to pay attention and work to follow what is happen. Like the tower in the book, the narrative unfolds more in a labyrinthine manner than a straight path but is more enjoyable because of this. This is not my usual type of reading but I love it; the puzzling out of what is happening, the weird but fascinating worldbuilding, and the sheer enjoyable “intoxication” of all the extraordinary ideas and images such as “alphabugs” (each bearing a single letter) and all the literary allusions including buildings/districts eg Woolf Housing Estate, Kafka Court etc. I have deliberately not given more detail of the characters or the plot, as a substantial part of the pleasure of reading this book is the gratification of unravelling and connecting disparate events. This is a book that does not fit easily into any particular classification but should definitely be winning awards.
VURT by Jeff Noon
VURT 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!
The main character (hero) Scribble is obsessed with rescuing his sister Desdemona who is trapped within one of the plethora of Vurt worlds in exchange for an alien blob. There are specific rules covering the exchange of persons and or objects between a Vurt world and reality. In pursuit of his objective Scribble and his friends (the Stash Riders) Beetle, Bridget, Mandy and Twinkle stumble from one outrageous situation to the next. All the time they are pursued by the police especially the 'Shecop' Murdock. Along the way they are aided and abetted by a rich cast of outrageous and exotic characters none more so than the enigmatic Vurt guru 'Game Cat'.
In addition to the original VURT novel the current edition, published on the 11th April 2013, contains 3 short stories set in the same world.
VURT is not normally a sub-genre of SF that I read but it is so well written with well-fleshed characters that it insidiously drew me in and would not let go. I was hooked, caring about what happened to the characters and had to finish this tale as quickly as possible. After experiencing VURT I can only conclude that Jeff Noon must have one of the most fevered and inventive imaginations possible and look forward to reading POLLEN, its sequel.
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.