Monthly Archives: April 2011

Review of The Prometheus Project by Steve White

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This science fiction alternative history adventure has a really classic feel to it, starting as it does in the 1960’s, with Bob Devaney as a typically alpha-male ‘muscle for hire’ narrating the tale – and what a tale…

Bob Devaney was a Special Forces soldier in the early 1960’s – until a certain traumatic event, which he refused to discuss even with his superiors, caused him to leave the Army and set up his own security and investigative agency, employing only him.
Hired by a secret government agency to do undercover work, he was escorting a mysterious woman named Novak to the White House when they were ambushed by gunmen. Novak used a device that worked like an invisibility field to make an impossible escape – and then knocked Devaney out with some kind of ray gun. When he woke up, he realized that Novak was about to kill him for knowing too much – but suddenly she received a message: Devaney was to be recruited for something called the Prometheus Project.

prometheusprojectThe Project turned out to be the largest disinformation operation in history, targeted at the aliens who ruled the galaxy. A man named Inconnu had arrived in a damaged but highly advanced craft in the 1940’s claiming that he had escaped from a group of humans whom aliens had been studying, and it turned out that unless the Earth could convince the aliens that the planet had a unified government, and was armed with technology comparable to that of the galactic rulers, the Earth would be exploited as a primitive protectorate.

And there you have it – off we go on a roller-coaster adventure that had me reading into the small hours to find out what happens. An adventure that includes kidnapping, power politics with aliens and a really cool twist at the end that I didn’t see coming. White writes well – this could have so easily have descended into some clichéd retread, but instead bounces along with engaging gusto and freshness, aided by the first person narration of Devaney, reminding me all over again just WHY I love this genre so much…
It’s a big ask to write convincingly about first encounters with aliens. For starters, they have to appear different enough that the reader is convinced they could have evolved on another planet – or if they are similar, provide a solid reason for it. And the protagonists have to appear sufficiently awestruck, without holding up the narrative pace while they boggle over the enormity of their discovery. Add to that the fact that those of us who enjoy the genre will have read this scenario at least a dozen times before – and you begin to see why most modern science fiction writers tend to avoid this plotline. However, I think that White manages to pull it off extremely well – I particularly liked his explanation that the Space Race to the Moon was deliberately poorly handled, leading to its abandonment, so that NASA wouldn’t accidentally encounter the Project’s base on the dark side of the Moon…

Any grizzles? Well the one minor detail that jarred was that Chloe, Devaney’s love interest, refused to get up close and personal with him for fear of becoming pregnant. I found it difficult to believe that in the 1960’s any female sent on a long-term mission to another world wouldn’t have been automatically provided with some kind of birth control – after all, a form of the Pill had been invented in the 1950’s. It is a picky point, but in a book where I felt the world was constructed with care and attention to detail, this was the one bit that didn’t work.

Other than that, I heartily recommend this book to anyone who enjoys science fiction – for some of us it’ll be a misty-eyed trip down Memory Lane, reminding us all over again why we fell headlong for the genre. For the less aged among you, this gives a flavour of a time when we were all bombarded with news reports of flying saucers – when many of us truly believed that in the next decade or so, we’d be out among the stars encountering these beings for real… Heigh ho
9/10

Review of I Shall Wear Midnight by Terry Pratchett

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This is the fourth Tiffany Aching book from The Great Man and his thirty-eighth Discworld novel. If you are a fan, then you’re in for a treat – this is classic Pratchett, complete with all the special individual touches we enjoy from this unique author, including the famous footnotes.

Tiffany is older, but Life isn’t getting any easier. She is working flatout in treating the sick – both animal and human, laying out the dead and interceding in local quarrels. In short, the duties of a typically busy witch. It doesn’t help when Roland announces his engagement to a highborn girl with blonde hair and delicate features. Neither does it help when the Nac MacFeegle, who insist on shadowing her every move, decide that she needs their help. Because something has been awakened. Something foul smelling and evil Ishallwear– something that moves amongst people and turns them against witches. Once more, it is down to Tiffany to save the day. But despite the fact that she is older and wiser, there’s every chance she’ll not succeed…

We meet up with a bunch of old friends in this book – the Nac MacFeegle are as hilarious as they ever were; Granny Weatherwax and Nanny Ogg feature as they give Tiffany what help they can; we also meet up with Eskarina Smith, the female wizard who featured in Equal Rites and discover what has happened to her in the intervening years. I got the sense that Pratchett is tying up some dangling ends in this story and saying farewell to some of his most beloved characters.

There are familiar Pratchett themes in this book—the importance of thinking for yourself, rather than accepting what you’re told; of doing the right thing whatever the cost; the notion of community; endeavouring to leave things better than you find them… Which all sound very worthy and rather stodgily dull. But this is Pratchett’s genius—he manages to wrap up such fundamental, worthy ideals in stories that sparkle with wit, humour and adventure. This one is no exception.

And there is, of course, the overarching idea that runs throughout this particular sub-series of the Discworld books – the notion that stories and belief profoundly impact on everyday life, affecting even those who are more sceptical. Pratchett’s contention is that humankind cannot cope with Life on almost any level, without overlaying it with a veneer of the mystical, amazing and macabre. This theme is embedded in all the Discworld books to some extent – but is at the core of all the Tiffany Aching books, as Tiffany is the sceptical one who is frequently amazed at the lengths people will go to preserve their ideas and beliefs. The myths that have grown up around Miss Treason are an amusing example.

Pratchett has a wide cast of characters that people the Discworld, but I suspect Tiffany is one of his favourites. She certainly is probably his most lovable heroine, with her unassuming courage and strong common sense. I don’t believe there are any more Tiffany Aching books planned – and if this is, indeed, the very last one, then Pratchett has completed the series on a suitably strong note.
10/10

Review of The Modern World – Book 3 of The Castle series by Steph Swainston

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I picked up this book (known in America as Dangerous Offspring) because I’d heard some interesting things about Swainston as an author – people either seemed to love or loathe her – and I decided it was time I made up my own mind. At the very least, she would be an interesting read and as she is part of the ‘New Weird’ movement – apparently – it would give me a better idea of exactly constitutes the New Weird…

Written in first person viewpoint, it gives a slice of the adventures of Jant, a flying immortal messenger. Jant’s role is vital as the Empire is engulfed in a stalemated war with an aggressive insect race. The gripping and disturbing Prologue is a flashback when Jant was involved in an ambush many years earlier. If action scenes in grisly detail tick your boxes, then this book is certainly worth consideration. However, it’s so much more than that.

If I understand it correctly, the New Weird movement is trying to break away from fantasy worlds stuck in Tolkein-like landscapes, where people move around on horseback and battle elves, dwarves and suchlike. They are supposed to include aspects of our modern existence, like drug-taking, fairly explicit sex with characters not classically heroic, but far more nuanced. Hm. Ok. Somewhere between classical and urban fantasy, then… Why couldn’t they say that? In fairness to Swainston, I’ve read her protests about sub-dividing the genre up too much and it seems that she regards herself as a straightforward fantasy writer.  What is undeniable is modernworldthat she is an outstanding writer. I didn’t start this book with joy in my heart. Being the shallow sort, I’m unduly influenced by book covers – and the UK cover of this one has to qualify as one of the dreariest offerings, ever. Once I opened it, the tiny font didn’t enthuse me, either. However, I persevered – and I’m very glad I did. Because this is one of the best written fantasy books I’ve ever read.

She isn’t particularly original in her world-building. There is an Empire, ruled by a rather scary, unpredictable character who is utterly authoritarian. There is a viciously effective insect race who have been waging war on the Empire, which isn’t going very well. Fantasy fans won’t be boggling in amazement at either of these storylines – or at the notion that an elite band of immortals who report directly to the Emperor are at the heart of the battle. Immortality is staple fare in both science fiction and fantasy. What makes Swainston stand out from the crowd is her very effective, powerful character depiction. By the end of the novel, I found myself genuinely moved when one of Jant’s immortal colleagues loses their ability to live forever. After reading literally dozens of books portraying characters with extended lifespans, this is the book that gave me the greatest insight into what that might entail.

I’ve also read plenty of books with an airborne protagonist. But Jant’s vivid description of the landscape beneath him as he flew long-distance to deliver a message to the Emperor, was a joy. Jant isn’t the kind of person I generally like – he’s got a reckless streak, with self- destructive tendencies, but Swainston’s writing had me right in his corner. By the way, the fact that it is the third book in a series is no cause for concern. Unlike far too many other authors, Swainston is capable of writing a completely self-contained storyline, while using characters who have featured in her previous work. I wasn’t even aware it was part of a series until I Googled her. And if you enjoy detailed, intelligent fantasy that is compellingly told, then don’t let the lacklustre cover and unfriendly print size put you off…
10/10

Review of The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet by David Mitchell

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I encountered David Mitchell’s book, Cloud Atlas, and was blown away by the ingenuity, inventiveness and sheer audacity of the writing. How could anyone have started such a book imaging he could pull it off – and then succeed?

The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet is an historical novel, set on a tiny man-made island in the bay of Nagasaki. This island of Dejima was the sole gateway between Japan and the West, in the guise of the Dutch East India Company, for some two hundred years. The enclave was where two cultures rubbed shoulders and misunderstood each other. And in 1799 a young clerk, Jacob de Zoet, lands on the island with the intention of making sufficient money to return to Holland and marry his fiancée in five years’ time. Instead, he loses his heart to a beautiful but scarred Japanese midwife.

While the love story winds through the book it isn’t the engine driving the plot – what lies at the heart of this boisterous roller-coasterthousandautumnsofjacob is the gulf yawning between the Japanese and Europeans. However, I’m not going to say too much more about the plot, because it would be all too easy to throw in a couple of inadvertent spoilers in a storyline that had me gasping aloud in surprise a couple of times. Mitchell plays with his readers expectations by throwing in a few curved balls which I certainly didn’t see coming… Although, you might as well take curved balls in your stride, because almost everything else in packed into this novel.

It takes a while to pick up pace as the reader is plunged into Mitchell’s extravagant prose while he depicts this extraordinary world and his beautifully drawn characters, who leap from the page with three-dimensional vividness. The sense of immediacy is helped as the story is narrated in third person, present tense and I’d advise you to relax and enjoy the richness and complex detail, for once things start kicking off the tale whips along at a cracking rate, with all sorts of double-dealing, corruption and dirty deeds afoot. And Jacob finds himself caught up right in the middle of it all…

The writing is wonderful. In these days of pared back prose bereft of descriptors, Mitchell’s exuberant style is a breath of fresh air. And while the story couldn’t be more different from Cloud Atlas, we do get a glimpse of some of that virtuosity in a wonderful prose-poem describing Nagasaki near the end of the book. Yes – before you ask – it does work…

So… any niggles? Well, there’s one. Captain Penhaligon hoves into Nagasaki bay in the last quarter of the book – and I fell in love with him. However, we never learn his ultimate fate after he finally sails out of the plot and it’s the one dangling end that I personally would like to have seen tied up. But, set against the sprawling, complicated landscape of rival interests and clashing personalities, it is a relatively picky point. Mitchell manages to bring this epic tale to a satisfactory conclusion – and when we finally get the long, hot summer we richly deserve, I’m going to take a few days off, loll on the garden swing and re-read this book to once more get lost in Mitchell’s luscious prose. Do yourself a favour – grab a copy of this book and dive in.
10/10