Monthly Archives: June 2010

Review of The Devil You Know by Mike Carey

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You’ve just put down the latest Harry Dresden instalment with a sad sigh, already missing the sharp asides from our hero. Cheer up, there’s another kid on the block – every bit as sardonic, hard-boiled-yet-vulnerable as Jim Butcher’s entertaining protagonist. Felix Castor. Apologies for those of you who have already discovered this series which apparently has been knocking around for a while, but I’ve only just tripped over Mike Carey’s world.

thedevilyouknowFelix Castor is a freelance exorcist and London is his stamping ground. At a time when the supernatural world is in upheaval and spilling over into the mundane reality of the living, his skills are in desperate demand. A good exorcist can charge what he likes. But there’s a risk: sooner or later he’s likely to take on a spirit that’s too strong for him. Then it’s game over.

Castor has been ‘retired’ for a year or more after a close encounter that he only just survived. But now old debts – of more than one kind – draw him back to the life he rejected, and he accepts a seemingly simple exorcism. Trouble is, the more he discovers about the ghost in the archive, the more things refuse to add up – and the more deeply he’s dragged into a world he really doesn’t want to know about. What should have been a perfectly straightforward job is rapidly turning into the Who Can Kill Castor First Show, with demons, were-beings and ghosts all lining up to claim the big prize.

Carey is an experienced writer and it shows. London is well depicted without the torrent of detail Kate Griffin gives us. The cast of characters are intriguing and suitably complex, with Felix Castor’s enjoyably sardonic narration giving us a front seat into a fast-paced story that offers up a series of surprises and interesting characters.. A word of warning, though. Carey’s writing is on grittier end of the urban fantasy genre. The use of strong language reflects this and although supernatural beings do crop up in Castor’s world fairly regularly, the thrust of the story is concerned with the grubbier end of human endeavours. What relieves the grim undertow is the dry, humorous asides to the reader. I also enjoyed the fact that Castor regularly wonders where the ghosts come from – and what happens to them after he’s expunged them from our world. Is he, in effect, killing them? It’s a question that bothers him.

Carey satisfactorily ties up all the loose ends, particularly those connected with the storyline. I know this has begun to sound like a bit of an obsession of mine, but I just hate it when a writer pulls you into their world, takes you on a journey and then strands you by not properly finishing off the narrative – something, I hasten to add, that Carey is NOT guilty of. Trawling the internet, I find that Carey has written four other Felix Castor novels, so I’m about to get hold of Vicious Circle, the second book in the series.
8/10

Review of The Dark Mirror – Book One of The Bridei Chronicles by Juliet Marillier

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Set in the far north of England, in approximately 500AD, this is the story of the embattled Priteni. Marillier based them on the Picts, who were wiped out of history by the end of the Dark Ages. Recent archaeology reveals them to have had a sophisticated society with developed art and a deep religious belief and interest in the animals and plants around them.

darkmirrorMarillier, as ever, weaves her knowledge and interest into a compelling story. Her version of High Fantasy pulled me back into regularly reading this genre and although there are others who do it equally well, there is no one in my opinion who does it better.

Marillier normally writes in first person POV, with a female protagonist. In this tale she has gone inside the head of Bridei, a young boy destined for great things. Taken from his family to live with the forbidding Druid, Broichan, in his structured household at the age of four, Bridei is often lonely and frightened. Until one freezing December night, he discovers a child on the doorstep. Bridei already knows enough to realise that she is no human baby, and immediately conjures a basic hearth charm to protect her from being rejected by the other members of the household. Fortunately the dour Broichan is away at the time, for the old man instantly dislikes and distrusts this unwanted intrusion onto his ambitious plans for Bridei and his training as a king-in-waiting. This doesn’t stop Tuala growing into a fey, adventurous child who adores Bridei. He, in turn, finds that she is the only person he can confide in. But, where does Tuala fit in Broichan’s grand schemes for Bridei? And what happens when she inevitably gets in his way?

If you haven’t yet encountered Marillier’s excellent Sevenwaters series, but enjoy well written, tightly plotted Fantasy in a strong historical setting, then I highly recommend this book. Marillier’s knowledge about the time shines through every page. Authentic details litter the everyday doings of these characters, without impeding the pace or obstructing the storyline.

You won’t find a host of sword-waving heroes dripping in lots of blood and gore. But when Marillier does give you action, the encounters seem all the more desperate because you really care about the characters. And war is constantly in the background. There is talk of it; discussions about how to deal with the aftermath by old warriors; long gruelling hours of practice and drills. Unlike many other Fantasy tales of derring-do, however, a dread of warfare and its cost to the society is depicted very clearly by those with most to lose. Interwoven amongst the everyday, is a strong blend of magic and Otherness that fans of Marillier will recognise. The power and ability carried by a few comes at high price. Magic is about blood and sacrifice and most right thinking people avoid it whenever they can.

This is a book about conflict. Circinn’s king has turned to the new Christian faith, creating a rift with other rulers who still hold to the Druidic traditions. This schism creates opportunities for the marauding Gaels. But there are also tensions on a more personal level. Ambitious contenders target Bridei. High-born women destined to be married off to secure treaties and produce heirs are bitter at their fate.

This is no dewy-eyed gloss on a lost, glorious past but far more grittily political and aware. I am just waiting for the library to send me Blade of Fortriu, so I won’t have to wait too long for the next slice of life in this gripping series.
9/10

Review of The Last Colony – Book 3 of the Old Man’s War series

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If you enjoy military sci-fi with an intriguing world, lots of action and a protagonist whose bone-dry humour makes you grin even as blood and bullets are flying – then Scalzi’s Old Man’s War series should be on your ‘Must-read’ list. Not least, because Scalzi’s fascinating angle makes these books interesting even if you aren’t a major fan of the sub-genre. That said, I wouldn’t advise starting with The Last Colony as there are several major plot twists in each book to keep the narrative tension humming. Although if you do decide to dive in at Book Three, Scalzi has incorporated a masterly summary of ‘the story so far’, which I wish other authors of multi-book series would emulate.

lastcolonyA citizen of Earth, seventy-year-old John Perry, enlists as a Colonial Union soldier after the death of his wife. As promised, his consciousness is uploaded into a highly efficient body in the peak of condition. However, there is a catch to this renewed youthfulness. Perry discovers that out in space, Humanity is surrounded by a variety of other intelligent beings all wanting to colonise the same limited number of suitable planets. The result is bloody warfare. After serving his allotted time, Perry, his wife and adopted daughter finally settle down to live peacefully as administrators and farmers. Until the Colonial Union ask Perry and Jane to head up a new colony.

But en route to their destination, Perry realises that things don’t add up. The Colonial Union have provided more food than is usual for a seed colony and there is a hold full of obsolete equipment. When they arrive to discover that the planet filling their viewscreens isn’t the one they had planned on settling, it starts to become apparent that the Colonial Union are playing a dangerous game of hide and seek with the newly formed alien alliance – and their little colony is the playing piece…

Perry is definitely a cut above the average protagonist. His sharp humour and intelligently drawn character pulls the reader in – and compares favourably with Robert Buettner’s Jason Wander series, which by the fourth book seems to have run out of impetus. This is partly because Scalzi’s series doesn’t merely offer the reader more of the same in each book. The issues surrounding uploading human consciousness into a new body are thoroughly explored in the previous two books, while this tale examines the political situation that Scalzi has created. In most military sci-fi, politics and politicians are only a micron further up the villainy scale from whatever alien foe our valiant forces are fighting. And this series is no exception. If anything, Scalzi is even more grittily cynical about the casual manner in which the Colonial Union sacrifice their troops.

I very much like his world, where Earth is allowed to stagnate in a relative backwater, producing cannon fodder for the battles raging around the surrounding universe in cloned bodies equipped with progressively more sophisticated survival traits. While the action and frantic tempo required in this sub-genre never falters, Scalzi nevertheless manages to raise some issues regarding the morality of using human beings – and some aliens – in such a cold-blooded manner. It’s a neat trick to pull off and I am now looking out for his other books.
8/10

Review of Rollback by Robert J. Sawyer

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If you enjoy reading science fiction stories where the big scenarios are played out on an everyday human level, then Sawyer is your man. This novel interweaving the two big subjects of alien encounters and rejuvenation is centred on a long, happy marriage between two likeable, highly intelligent people.

Dr Sarah Halifax decoded the first ever radio transmission received from aliens thirty-eight years ago. Now, a second message is received and Sarah, aged eighty-seven, may hold the key to deciphering this one too – if she lives long enough.

rollbackA wealthy industrialist offers to pay for Sarah to have a rollback – a hugely expensive rejuvenation procedure. She accepts on the condition that Don, her husband of sixty years, gets a rollback, too. That process works for Don making him physically twenty-five years again. But in a tragic twist, the rollback fails for Sarah, leaving her in her eighties.
While Don tries to deal with his newfound youth and the suddenly vast age gap between them and his wife, Sarah, heroically struggles to figure out what a signal from the stars contains before she dies.

The relationship between these two is poignantly portrayed as the rollback levers a chasm between Don and Sarah, despite a lifetime of closeness and shared memories. The original message from the aliens that Sarah decoded turns out to be interestingly different – leading to a lot of speculation as to why they sent a message in that particular format. Sarah battles with ill health to try and unravel their answer which they’ve encoded – again.

There is a lot of flashback to particular points in the Halifax marriage, so we get to know these two characters throughout their lives. Sawyer depicts both protagonists with sensitivity, drawing the reader into their awful dilemma. I found it a moving and riveting read most of the way through.

However, you may have sensed a BUT, and you’d be right. The trouble with this book is the ending. I think that Sawyer also got very involved with these two characters – to the detriment of the book. Without giving any spoilers, the ending is plainly unrealistic. I cannot see any way that Gillian’s siblings would be able to wander freely amongst the public – unless the human race has a wholesale personality transplant sometime in the near future.

Does with mean that Rollback should be avoided? No. If it hadn’t been for the Epilogue, this book would have earnt a 10 from me. The rest of the book is strong enough to weather Sawyer’s inexplicable slide into sentimentality – but I do recommend that you give the Epilogue a miss…
8/10