Monthly Archives: December 2010

Review of Speed of Dark by Elizabeth Moon

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‘Absolutely compelling’ is Greg Bear’s verdict on the front cover. Generally I take those credits with a pinch of salt – but this time around, he is spot on. This unusual, thought-provoking near-future science fiction novel is the best thing Moon has written to date – and the lady is no slouch.

speedofdarkLou is different to ‘normal’ people. He interacts with the world in a way they do not understand. He might not see the things they see, but he also sees many things they do not. Lou is autistic.

One of his skills is an ability to find patterns in data: extraordinary, complex, beautiful patterns that not even the most powerful computers can comprehend. The company he works for has made considerable sums of money from Lou’s work. But now they want Lou to change – to become ‘normal’ like themselves. And he must face the greatest challenge of his life. To understand the speed of dark.

Moon has achieved a very difficult feat – she has managed to get right inside Lou’s head and give us an insight into someone who processes information in quite a different way, while continuing to capture our sympathy and understanding. Lou’s characterisation is masterful. The way we perceive the near future through his eyes and begin to appreciate the difficulties that he constantly has to overcome – his acute sense of smell and sensitivity to sound; his constant uncertainty as to whether he has accurately decoded the subliminal signals people give off; the way he cycles and recycles through ideas that concern him… I used to care for a little boy with autism and I found Lou completely convincing.

However as with the very best science fiction, this book is so much more than an entertaining, escapist read. This novel raises issues that are starting to smack society across the chops – issues that we should all be discussing and debating both at a personal and political level.  Of course, being the limited creatures we are, instead we obsess about the daily habits of a handful of celebrities and it falls to books like this one to raise this far more important matters. If a cure for autism does turn up, should high functioning autistic adults who are wholly capable of leading productive, independent lives consider undergoing such treatments? Especially as we’re talking about tampering with the brain…

And while Moon has selected autism as her example having raised an autistic son, this argument is already raging amongst the deaf community about cochlea implants. Many deaf people feel very threatened at the prospect of a cure that will remove them from the community in which they have grown up and with which they identify themselves – to the extent that they refuse to allow their deaf children have an implant. Others feel that deliberately preventing their children from taking advantage of a cure is being irresponsible, if not outright abusive.

I’m conscious that I’ve made this novel sound rather worthy and dull – and it’s not. Because Lou has several other issues to overcome, in addition to coping with this overarching challenge, and, besides, Moon isn’t a writer that does boring or pedestrian plots. So the result is a gripping, intelligent read that leaves you thinking about the issues it addresses long after you’ve finished it. Try it. It’s certainly one of my outstanding reads of the year – and one I’m going to continue recommending to anyone who’ll listen…
10/10

Review of Revelation – Book 4 of the Matthew Shardlake series by C.J. Sansom

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Like your whodunit with a twist of history? Well, look no further than one of our local authors, Chris Sansom. Those of you who attended the Writers’ Club meeting, will probably remember the tall, quiet-spoken ex-solicitor who matter-of-factly charted his meteoric writing career. On sending sample chapters of his first book, Dissolution, out to a number of agents, his work generated so revelationmuch interest there was a bidding war for it. And P.D. James agreed to write the foreword…

If you weren’t inspired back then to pick up this author’s work, I strongly recommend you do so, now. His sleuth of choice is Matthew Shardlake, who should have some sort of medal as the unlikeliest P.I. in the history of the genre. Master Shardlake is a hunchback, who has battled against his disability to become a lawyer – which is a greater achievement than you might think, considering that Sansom’s detective series is set in King Henry VIII’s turbulent reign. I have just finished reading the fourth book in the series, Revelation, and in my opinion it’s right up there with Dark Fire, my favourite.

King Henry, recently widowed after Catherine Howard’s execution, is looking around for a new queen – and a certain good-looking widow, Catherine Parr, has caught his eye. Meanwhile, the Bishop of London, Bonner and the Archbishop of Canterbury, Cranmer, are locked in a power struggle, where the stakes couldn’t be higher – a heretic’s fiery death. When a colleague and close friend of Shardlake’s is horribly murdered, he finds himself, once more, sucked into Tudor power politics, with all its attendant risks…
The twisting plotline is a triumph of narrative tension with a satisfyingly surprising denouement. Shardlake, the chief protagonist and first person narrator, is beautifully drawn and we are reacquainted with other old friends, his sidekick, Jack Barak and his physician friend and ex-monk, Guy Malton.
But, for me, the best character in the story by far, is the Tudor backdrop. Sansom gives us a slice of historic London in exquisite detail – from the unusual weather conditions, to the social and religious difficulties afflicting everyday folk trying to earn a living. This account would be a respectable feat if he was writing a history book of the time – the fact that he manages to use his extensive knowledge in such a lively, natural manner, puts him right up there with the great writers of the genre, in my opinion.
So, as the nights lengthen, treat yourself to a late Christmas present and curl up by the fire with all the books in this series Dissolution, Dark Fire, Sovereign, Revelation and his latest – Heartstone. You’ll be thanking me if you do…
10/10

Review of Swallowing Darkness – Book 7 of the Meredith Gentry series by Laurell K. Hamilton

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It’s never ideal to start an established series halfway through – and I think my enjoyment of this erotic fantasy consequently suffered because I didn’t manage to get hold of the previous books.

swallowingdarknessMeredith Gentry, princess of faerie, is now pregnant with twins. Her uncle, the King of Light and Illusion, is claiming that he is the father after abducting her – and that her guards are a danger to her continued safety. Whereas the truth is that Meredith’s beloved guards are the fathers of her unborn children. After escaping, she returns to the lands of mortals with her guards, shaken and needing medical aid.

However, being pregnant has strengthened her claim to the Unseelie throne – placing her and anyone following her in acute danger. The deranged queen – her aunt – and her fanatically ambitious cousin aren’t the only threats. Conspirators throughout the faerie realm are plotting and counter-plotting against her. And somehow, Meredith must find the strength to protect her unborn children and her lovers. Or none of them will survive…

I like the complexity and bloodthirsty nature of the faerie world very much, where all sorts of creatures and beings are set against each other for genetic and historical reasons. The narrative is in first person POV and works reasonably well – Meredith’s character is well-drawn and sufficiently rounded to carry the story. The graphic sex scenes are well written, as is the action and fights which manage to zip along at a good clip and because some of the major characters die or become seriously compromised, you cannot relax too much in the knowledge that everyone will come away unscathed.

But I found the slightly high-flown language a bit intrusive. I know exactly why Hamilton has used it, but for me, it tends to compromise the narrative pace and, at times, comes across as slightly OTT. The other issue I have with the book is that Hamilton is prone to very detailed descriptions of her characters. While I appreciate that she needs to emphasise the other-worldiness of some her beings, there were times when giving us quite so much visual information definitely held up the pace. I found myself skimming across much of this material, particularly where Meredith is describing her lovers.

I am conscious that if I’d started this series at the beginning, by now I may well have been sufficiently pulled into the story progression to let these foibles slide by unnoticed. However, as I didn’t, I can only report my impressions. Nonetheless, if this particular sub-genre ticks your boxes, I would certainly recommend you make an effort to start this series at the beginning and work up to Swallowing Darkness. Her interesting take on the battling races within the faerie realm makes this a series worth following.
6/10

Review of ‘The Serrano Legacy’ by Elizabeth Moon

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I’ve been mooning during this last week – and no… I’m not baring anything in this bitterly cold weather. Or staring vacantly into space while dreaming of a special someone. No – I’ve been immersed in Elizabeth Moon’s world in this omnibus edition of the first three books in this excellent series – Hunting Party, Sporting Chance and Winning Colours.

serranolegacyHeris Serrano was an officer born of a long line of officers. A life serving in the ranks of the Regular Space Service was all she had ever known or wanted – until a treacherous superior officer forced her to resign her commission. This was not just the end of a career path; it was the end of everything that gave her life meaning.

Heris finds employment as ‘Captain’ of an interstellar luxury yacht. Being a rich old woman’s chauffeur isn’t quite the same as captaining a Fleet cruiser, but nothing Heris will ever do again could compare with that. Or so she thinks. For all is not as it seems aboard the Sweet Delight.
And there you have it – in next to no time, Moon has swept you up into Heris Serrano’s adventure as this sympathetic, well rounded protagonist leaps off the page with just the right mix of spikiness and vulnerability. Moon also excels at pacing, alternating the building tension with the action, so that I didn’t want to put this down – but read far into the small hours to get to the end of this blockbuster. Each story is sufficiently self contained so that if you’re not fortunate enough to have these books back to back, I think you would still be able to read them out of sequence and quickly find your bearings – a trick that many other writers seem unable to successfully manage.

This series of books was written back in the early 90’s, but Orbit’s smart move in reprinting this omnibus edition proves their pedigree because these novels wear their age well. Indeed, I’m willing to bet that the current crop of women writing successful space opera – the likes of Mary Rosenblum, Marianne de Pierres and Laura E. Reeve, for example, have read and enjoyed Moon.

On a practical note, the only major glitch in my enjoyment has been hefting a brick-sized book running to some 1,100 pages while reading in bed. But I’d better get used to it – the other four books in the Serrano series are also available in two further omnibus editions, which I’ve already ordered from the library…
9/10

Review of Feast of Souls – Book 1 of Magister Trilogy by Celia Friedman

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Looking around for an honest, straightforward fantasy tale? Something vampire-free? A story smoothly told with intriguing characters and an interesting magical set-up that makes you want to track down the next book in the series? Then this might well tick your boxes.

feastofsoulsMagisters from across the known world are gathering for an unusual meeting. King Aurelius has summoned them to heal his dying son, who has fallen victim to an incurable wasting disease. The King has demanded an explanation and a cure, yet appearances are deceptive. It’s clear to the initiated that a magister is responsible – but the Order remains quiet and organises a manhunt to silence the culprit.

And while men are distracted, strangeness is stirring in the world. An ancient evil is rising in the north, but the old warnings are long forgotten. Only those carrying the Protector bloodline feel fear and their numbers are few. So the powerful will soon find themselves playing a new and more dangerous game.  The magic in this world is hard won and those who wield it pay the highest price – or do they? Magisters are able to harness magical forces without burning up their own soulfire – and as such live a very long, long time, while witches are unable to attain their level of mastery. One witch, however, is determined to break the taboo and become the first female magister, ever. Will Kamala succeed in her ambition?

Friedman has been writing for a while – and it shows. Told in third person multiple viewpoints, her style is smooth and unfussy and her main characters are depicted with sufficient depth to keep the reader caring, without impeding the tempo of her narrative. All in all, it’s an accomplished, solid work. But for me, the defining aspect of this series is the world – which is unusual as I’m normally a sucker for a strong yet complicated protagonist. The setting up of the magical rules pulled me into the story and I found the necessary background in order to make it work was introduced effectively enough to be the page-turner for me.

I’m looking forward to reading the second in the series, The Wings of Wrath, and was pleased to see that the last book in the trilogy is scheduled to be published sometime next year.
8/10

Review of Terminal World by Alastair Reynolds

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Reynolds is one of the foremost hard science fiction authors around these days and anything he writes is worth reading. Most of his previous work is set out in space, a looong way in the future, peopled with enigmatic, post-human characters. However, his writing style appears to be changing – Century Rain was set far closer to home and Floyd, the main protagonist, was sufficiently complex yet familiar to make me really care what would happen to him. In Terminal World, Reynolds gives us Quillon, another intriguing, likeable character with his own set of secrets.

Spearpoint, the last human city, is an atmosphere-piercing spire of vast size. Clinging to its skin are the zones, a series of terminalworldsemi-autonomous city-states, each of which enjoys a different – and rigidly enforced – level of technology. Horsetown is pre-industrial; in Neon Heights they have television and electric lights…

Following an infiltration mission that went tragically wrong, Quillon has been living incognito, working as a pathologist in the district morgue. But when a near-dead angel drops onto his dissecting table, Quillon’s world is wrenched apart one more time. For the angel is a winged posthuman from Spearpoint’s Celestial Levels – and with the dying body comes bad news.

If Quillon is to save his life, he must leave his home and journey into the cold and hostile lands beyond Spearpoint’s base, starting an exile that will take him further than he could ever have imagined. But there is far more at stake than just Quillon’s own survival, for the limiting technologies of the zones are determined not by governments or police, but by the very nature of reality – and reality itself is showing worrying signs of instability…

This fascinating world is sliced up into zones that change the rules at sub-atomic levels, therefore in some zones nothing more sophisticated than steam engines will work, while in others the level of technology is far greater. And then, there is a large dead zone, where nothing lives.  This is a complicated world that isn’t perfectly understood by anyone living there. Quillon, however, becomes uniquely qualified to discover as much about it as anyone else, especially once he is captured by the Swarm, a large community of people who constantly travel by airship.

As ever with Reynolds’ work, the scope of this book is ambitious and as I found myself swept up into Quillon’s initial plight, I thoroughly enjoyed the ride. Steampunk isn’t a particular ‘thing’ of mine, but the Swarm’s journey through the newly exposed zone that was previously impenetrable for five thousand years, is one of the main highlights of the book. And it’s a book that is packed with incident and unfolding information about this original and interesting world. The ending satisfactorily tied up many of the main storylines – so long as this is the start of a new series.

I haven’t seen any indication that Reynolds intends to write more books featuring this planet, but if he doesn’t, then there are far too many dangling threads left waving in the breeze. In Terminal World, he has laid the groundwork for a whole raft of really interesting scenarios, which never get more than a fleeting mention, such as exactly how the zone changes will affect the skullboys, Horsetown or the Celestial Levels. What exactly was Spearpoint for? What will happen to the Swarm? These are questions that Reynolds raises – and never really properly answers. If Terminal World isn’t a one-off offering, then that’s fine; I’ll just wait for the next slice of steampunk adventure to hit the bookshops. However, if this is it – then, Reynolds is guilty of seriously short-changing his readership.
8/10

No matter how many words the inuit have for it…

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I’m aware that on my FB page and Twitterings, I’ve come across all cranky about the latest snowfall. And in many ways – yes – I’m ????????????????????????thoroughly fed up with the whole business. I LOATHE being cold. Not only do I find it physically painful, the sensation of frozen numbness seems to sink into my soul and along with aching fingers, feet and ears, all the joy in my life congeals into misery.
During the infrequent bouts of snow in recent years, I’ve had a couple of incidents where I’ve skidded and/or spun the car. Fortunately, I haven’t hit or bent anything – but the whole business has left me very reluctant to venture out on four wheels. So as the flakes spun in a never-ending stream out of the sky all day yesterday, I was looking out on a slew of broken appointments, missed meetings and gatherings – not ?????????????????????????to mention my apprehension when my train-driving husband had to leave the house in the wee small hours to turn up for his shift.

But… it was beautiful. And highly unusual. Parked as we are, right on the bottom edge of the UK mainland, we escape most of the snow – and when it does fall, it’s normally a damp, slushy sprinkling that occasionally is bad mannered enough to freeze overnight into an icy covering that throws everything into chaos for 24 hours. This time, though, those ‘occasional flurries’ the Met office promised us, with ‘a depth of 1-2 cm’, in reality mushroomed into nearly continuous snowfall for a whole day and night. The flakes were, admittedly, tiny. But still… this is the south coast of England, for goodness sake! We put up with overcrowded shops, schools and doctors’ surgeries; permanent traffic jams; overpriced everything – especially housing; and the scornful dislike of the rest of the country. What’s the point of living here if the weather isn’t sometimes a bit warmer?

As the snow continued to stack up on the garden furniture, I grabbed my camera and ventured into the garden. I’m not a photographer, lacking the technical skill or knowhow, but I am a very keen snapper. And seeing it through the camera lens, this white stuff was a revelation… Fluffy and sticky, this snow heaped up on leaves, berries and branche????????????????????????????s in implausibly tall mounds until the wind whirled it away. Gathering it up in your hands, the flakes didn’t immediately thaw like the normal stuff we get, but lingered in a well mannered heap, almost with the same consistency as the fake aerosol version – which I’d always despised as being completely unreal. My garden was transformed into a fairyland of caster sugar hummocks that, this morning, glittered in the amontillado-tinted sunshine.

So I’ll still grumble at the mess it’s making of my life… I’ll still be relieved when I’m no longer trundling along ice-caked roads… However, there’s a glistening perfection to the lining of this particular cloud that has me taking an involuntary breath every time I glance out of the kitchen window.