Monthly Archives: September 2010

Review of Dragon’s Ring by Dave Freer

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dragon'sringThis enjoyable fantasy romp doesn’t pretend to break any moulds, concentrating as it does on dragonkind and their rule of Tasmarin, a plane cut off from all other worlds, where dragons can be dragons and humans can be dinner. It’s a place of islands, forests, mountains and wild oceans, filled with magical denizens. Fionn—the black dragon—calmly tells anyone who will listen that he’s going to destroy the place. Of course he’s a joker, a troublemaker and a dragon of no fixed abode. No one ever believes him—but he’s dead serious.

Others strive to refresh the magics that built this place. However, to be successful they need the combined magical forces of all the intelligent species, to renew the ancient balance and compact. There is just one problem. They need a human mage and dragons systematically eliminated those centuries ago. Their augury has revealed that there is one, and they seek her desperately. Unfortunately, she’s fallen in with Fionn, who really doesn’t want them to succeed. He has his own reasons and dark designs.

The part he hasn’t worked out is that she will affect his plans, too. Chaos, roguery, heroism, theft, love, kidnapping, magic and war follow. And more chaos.

If you’re a fan of Diana Wynne Jones or K.E. Mills, then you’ll enjoy Freer’s brand of adventure and humour. Although, it’s highly likely that you’re already familiar with his writing, as Dave Freer is no newbie. Since his first publication, The Forlorn, in 1999, Freer has co-authored a slew of books with the likes of Eric Flint and Mercedes Lackey.

His experience certainly shows in the slickness of the writing and deft handling of a fairly convoluted plot. The world building is adequate and Freer’s unfussy writing style stands him in good stead during the numerous action scenes, but his strength is in his depiction of Fionn. This character is certainly not a clear-cut ‘good guy’ and I appreciated the ambivalence that the reader shares with the human mage, as she tries to understand exactly what is going on. Although I wasn’t laughing out loud, I certainly smiled and chuckled at the sharp-edged exchanges that give the fantastic adventures an extra dimension. This was, overall, a pleasurable read with plenty of tension that had me reading far into the night to find out what happened.

Any grizzles? My one niggle is that I found the beginning of the book rather confused, with a lot of characters swiftly introduced. My husband had read it first and highly recommended it. Otherwise, I might not have persisted to the point where Meb’s story pulled me in. Given how strongly the plot develops, I do feel that Freer could have ironed out this crinkle. I so nearly didn’t get to complete this engaging book, which would have been a real shame.
7/10

Review of Why We Lie by Dorothy Rowe

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When was the last time you told a lie? Why did you do so? This interesting and carefully researched book delves into a destructive aspect of human nature that most of us spend a lot of time not thinking about. Rowe’s extensive experience as psychologist and evident interest in history, politics and science gives her a very broad basis for her fascinating insights into why we resort to lying from a very early age. Our sense of self is so precarious, argues Rowe, that we will do anything to preserve it – even lie to ourselves.whywelie

She has some sharp observations to make about those in her own profession who insist on continuing to follow the practices of Freud, even though his observations and studies have been superseded by modern techniques such as brain scans, which shows us that there is no inherent ‘inner core’ within each of us. Rather, our brain receives a mass of external information about the world around us and resolves this input into a pattern that we think of as ‘self’. However your ‘self’ is nothing like my ‘self’ because my touch, taste, hearing, vision and imagination that constitutes my sense of who I am, are quite different to your various sensory impressions. I found this first section of the book profound and absorbing as she explains just how we use lies to defend ourselves, make ourselves more likeable and bolster our own self esteem, in addition to preserving our fragile ‘self’. The explanations as to what impels people to lie were riveting and illuminating – I certainly recommend any student of human nature reading the book for this section, alone.

However, Rowe extends her analysis to the professions, business, religion and politics. By citing recent events, such as America and Britain’s ill-planned war on Iraq under the guise of seeking weapons of mass destruction, she contends that lies have cost lives and billions of dollars. She goes on to denounce the hypocrisy of bankers and businessmen who become enmeshed in scandals like that of Enron and more recently, the selling of sub-prime mortgages that led to the financial crisis which is currently making all our lives miserably insecure. Rowe is an Australian and it shows. She doesn’t pull her punches as she points the finger and wags it reprovingly at a number of well-known statesmen and financiers for their dishonesty and complete lack of guilt.

Whether you agree with her analysis or not, this book is a readable, thought provoking reflection on our society and a basic faultline in human behaviour that Rowe argues, we should all consider taking more seriously.
8/10

Review of Horizons by Mary Rosenblum

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Suffering from a lack of sparkling, solidly good science fiction? Enjoy Lois McMaster Bujold, Elizabeth Moon and C.J. Cherryh at their very best? Fear not, I’ve found you another candidate.

horizonsAhni Huang is hunting for her brother’s killer. As a Class 9 Empath with advanced biogenetic augmentations, she has complete mental and physical control of her body and can read other people’s intentions before they can even think them. Faced with deceptions behind deceptions, Ahni is caught in a dangerous game of family politics—and in the middle of it all lies the fate of her brother.

Her search leads to the Platforms, which orbit high above Earth. On the Platform New York Up, ‘upsider’ life is different. They have their own culture, values and ambitions—and now they want their independence from Earth. One upsider leader, Dane Nilsson, is determined to accomplish NYUp’s secession, but he has a secret, one that, once exposed, could condemn him to death.

When Ahni stumbles upon Dane during her quest for vengeance, her destiny becomes inextricably linked to his. Together they must delve beyond the intrigue and manipulative schemes to get to the core of truth, a truth that will shape the future of the Platforms and shatter any preconceived notions of what defines the human race.

This is absolutely my favourite kind of science fiction. Rosenblum’s characters, particularly her apparently invincible and wealthy protagonist, Ahni, lead the action. All the main characters are pleasingly complex and whisk you into an interesting and intricate plot backlit by a beautifully developed world littered with enjoyable details.

However, what lifts this excellent read from the common herd are the issues that Rosenblum addresses in her story. All the best science fiction, in my opinion, gives us some believable insights into some of the dilemmas that future technology will pose for our descendants. Rosenblum shines a light on some of the problems that are starting to loom uncomfortably close—such as genetic manipulation; cloning; what defines humanity and the faultlines along which humankind will divide. While there is nothing particularly original about these subjects, in the light of the scientific advances the likes of Michio Kaku is predicting in his book and TV series, Visions, the more discussion and thought we give to these matters, the better.

All in all, Horizons is definitely one of my favourite science fiction reads in the past two years and I’m hunting around for more of Rosenblum’s work.
9/10 stars

Review of Triumff, Her Majestt’s Hero by Dan Abnett

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In a peculiar twist of circumstance, I ended up reading this book directly after Christopher Priest’s The Separation. Both are alternate histories, both are a blend of fantasy and science fiction – although Priest’s book won’t own up to the fantasy element. However, despite sharing the same genre, the overall approach and style couldn’t be more different.

This alternate history has Her Divine Majesty Queen Elizabeth XXX on the throne and Her Majesty’s vast Empire is run by alchemy truimffand superstition, while the Church and Court factions tussle over the dwindling supplies of magic. With deep dissatisfaction in Spain at England’s supremacy, these forces combine in a deadly mix against Her Majesty. And Rupert Triumff, swashbuckler, drinker and gentleman of fortune, finds himself in the forefront of a desperate effort to save Queen and country. But he also has a dark secret of his own…

This romp presupposes the discovery of magic by Leonardo di Vinci has halted scientific and cultural advance, so that Her Majesty’s subjects in 2010 would be just at home in Elizabeth I’s London. The holes in this premise large enough to comfortably engulf a coach and four ceased to bother me fairly rapidly. I just relaxed into the madcap enthusiasm of the yarn and enjoyed myself. Abnett clearly knows his 16th century fairly well – and various puns and jokes made me grin, although at times I felt he was trying a trifle too hard… But I’m also aware that humour is highly subjective. Robert Asprin’s books give me a headache and I’ve never managed more than the first page of a Piers Anthony book.

The POV is somewhat odd, with a first person narrator who seemed to be absent throughout most of the story. But this is a relatively picky point. The pace is nicely judged and although the book chops from scene to scene in fairly swift succession, I didn’t find it obtrusive or annoying – which is a plus-point as this ploy often has me hurling books across the room. However, the world-building is a delight. Abnett’s florid description and detail is what makes this book zing off page and grab you by the throat. The characters are largely two-dimensional, but that really doesn’t matter. They suit the world, which is the real star in this book.

Abnett’s other strength is writing action and fight scenes, which is what you’d expect from a highly experienced author who has dozens of comic books and novels already to his credit – a fair number of them written for the Warhammer worlds. It’s not a branch of fiction I venture into, but my husband has reported that while the quality of Warhammer books is variable, Abnett’s books are some of the best he’s read. Abnett has the ability to write clear, exciting action prose, lacing the scene with farce and/or real tension as necessary.

If sword fights set in Shakespeare’s London do it for you, then this is a must-read book. And even if you don’t think you’d enjoy it, I’d still urge you to give it a go. I read it in one sitting, and it managed to put a smile on my face and ease the pain of a newly sprained ankle.
4 stars

Review of The Separation by Christopher Priest

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I’m a fairly decisive person. But, very occasionally, a book has me seriously conflicted. The Separation is one such novel. Priest is an interesting and powerful writer with a very individual voice. He is fascinated by the notion of an unreliable narrator – and he doesn’t regard himself as a science fiction or fantasy writer. He’s best known as the author of the book The Prestige, which was made into the successful film. Here in The Separation are many of the themes that we found in The Prestige – a double-hander between two close-knit people bound by ties of love, envy and eventual hatred.

Set against the background of World War II, this book explores the wartime experiences of the Sawyer twins, who had won a bronze at the Berlin Olympics in 1936. Both with the same initials, their story is researched by Stuart Gratton, based on primary source material given to him by Angela Chipperton. Gratton’s interest is sparked by a comment he comes across in a memo from Winston Churchill, who mentions J.L. Sawyer, who is both a conscientious objector and RAF fighter pilot. It isn’t until a long time into the book, we realise that it shouldn’t be possible for Angela and Stuart to meet, as they are both from different timelines. What they do have in common, is that their father is J.L. Sawyer…

theseparationAnd that’s as much as I’m going to say about the plotline. Did I say plotline? Hm – the word tangle would be more accurate. Priest certainly weighs in on the literary end of the genre – and although I’ve seen the book described as science fiction, for my money it’s probably the heftiest attempt at alternate history/ies I’ve ever read. There isn’t a single alternate strand running through the book, rather a series of them. Priest constantly reprises the confusion between the twins with other major characters – Churchill has a double to perform his morale-raising public appearances and there is also confusion surrounding Hess and his identity.
As the war progress – in one timestrand, it ends in 1941 after Churchill signs a Peace Treaty with Hess – both men find the constant, bruising conflict frays at their ability to cope. They seem to surface from a nightmarish swirl into pools of lucidity, which constantly shift, throwing up alternatives. I was gripped with the need to find some resolution in this morass of confusing parallel worlds – and I give you due warning, there isn’t one. Priest doesn’t toss his bewildered readers any kind of lifeline. It’s up to you to make up your own mind as to exactly what is going on. Is this some kind of mental hallucination brought on by the brothers’ traumatic experiences? Or a dystopian view of multiple realities, all with their own grim denouement?

What Priest does provide in super-abundance, is detail. Loads of it. We have sheafs of documents from Churchill and his office. There are letters and diary entries from all the main protagonists. Joe and Brigit’s isolated cottage; Jack’s experiences as a fighter pilot; Joe’s time working with the Red Cross – these are all described minutely. Priest’s sense of the time is pitch-perfect and he obviously has extensive knowledge of what was happening during the War. Repeated phrases and events, in different contexts with different outcomes cycle and recycle through the book, making it almost impossible to keep track of exactly how many alternate realities actually surface. If you have an interest and knowledge in the period, you might like to play games at spotting exactly which point Priest deviates from the historical reality.

For me, a big problem with this book is that the twins are prickly, quarrelsome, rather aloof and not terribly likeable – despite their undeniable courage and strong moral standards. And because of the impenetrable plot, you don’t really ever get a real handle on the supporting cast. Brigit, Joe’s German wife and the cause of the twins’ feud, came closest to eliciting my sympathy. But even her actions towards the end of the book seem rather random and unexplained. And this is the book’s weak point. This is a demanding read – and on an emotional level, there isn’t much reward.

However, it certainly provides much brain-food. Priest’s formidable, rather cool intellect is on display in crystalline clarity throughout this book. Has he succeeded in pulling it off? My honest answer – I’m not really sure… I would have liked to care more about the Sawyer twins; I would liked a tad less complexity and cris-crossing of timelines; I found the ending overly abrupt and not entirely convincing – there were other timelines that provide a more satisfactory conclusion to the book, in my opinion.
But I’m willing to bet that I shall still be mulling over this book when many others will have faded into the furniture. Particularly the malign effect of the war on the brothers, which I feel is a powerful, rather under-reported theme running throughout the book. Priest is fond of using a sudden, shocking breakdown of order as a catalyst to some of his temporal confusions in his work – and WW2 certainly provides that in spades…

So, is it a great, if flawed book? Or a good book, overloaded with too much plot or detail to make it anything more than a hefty, rather confusing read?

7/10 or 9/10? – I simply cannot decide!