Monthly Archives: January 2012

Review of Zoo City by Lauren Beukes

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This has been on my ‘to read’ list for some time – and obviously, when it won last year’s Arthur C. Clarke award, it got boosted to ‘must read’.

Zinzi has a Sloth on her back, a dirty 419 scam habit, and a talent for finding lost things. But when a little old lady turns up dead and the cops confiscate her last paycheck, she’s forced to take on her least favourite kind of job – missing persons.

zoocityAnd that’s the blurb. Which doesn’t really give you much of an idea about what the book is about – however trying to sum up this South African offering in a few lines was always going to be a big ask. Zinzi December is an ex-journalist trying to rebuild her life after having been involved in the death of her brother. But, in this alternate world, those who feel particularly guilty find themselves paired with an animal who may or may not contain the soul of the person they wronged. Beukes doesn’t spend a great deal of time on exposition, but the first person narrative is at times interspersed with other documents – and the academic treatise on the prejudice against ‘zoos’ is examined, along with its causes. Zinzi is bonded with Sloth, who she has to have reasonably close, or die a painful, terrifying death – but in addition, zoos have a gift. Zinzi’s is an ability to find lost things, which she visualises floating above people.

And the Zoo City? A slum area in Johannesburg, inhabited by criminals – mostly accompanied by their animals. This is a vivid and richly different world. I lived in Zambia for a chunk of my childhood and the African slang words and rhythms rang with authenticity, along with the slick, wonderfully worded metaphorical language. Being something of a word junkie, I just loved rolling Beukes’ phrases around in my mouth.

Zinzi leaps off the page with her sharp, street-smart attitude, underscored by the guilt surrounding her brother’s death and occasional shafts of regret for her lost life of privilege and parents… We don’t ever get to the bottom of exactly what happened to Thanda, her brother – or exactly what passed between Zinzi and her parents in the aftermath. Beukes drops a few allusions and the reader is allowed to fill in the gaps, which is fine with me.  Essentially, this vivid, scary world and the cast of eccentric characters peopling it have been crafted to tell a whodunit.

So – does Beukes’ plotline match up the excellence of her compelling world and richly textured prose? Well… no, not really. Not that there is anything essentially wrong with the narrative – there were all sorts of interesting little plot twists and cul-de-sacs that worked perfectly well, but were relatively ordinary. In contrast, her world and characterisation is superb, while her prose is mostly wonderful – the plotting would have had to be amazing to have matched that standard. This doesn’t take away what Zoo City has to offer – it is still dizzyingly good. But don’t take my word for it – if you are remotely interested in speculative fiction and haven’t already got hold of this book, then do so. It is one of those books that will still be discussed ten years from now as a benchmark read of 2010/11.

10/10

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Review of The Black Tower by P.D. James

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Here’s an admission – somehow I’ve got to this stage without reading a P.D. James… So I was reasonably pleased when I got given this volume of The Black Tower, which charts a slice of Adam Dalgliesh’s career. However, I didn’t rush to open it up – after all, I reasoned, I’ve seen the TV series, so I expect it will be a fairly uninspiring read, now that I know what’s in store…  How wrong can you be?

Commander Dalgliesh is recuperating from a life-threatening illness when he receives a call for advice from an elderly friend who the black towerworks as a chaplain in a home for the disabled on the Dorset coast. Dalgliesh arrives to discover that Father Baddeley has recently and mysteriously died, as has one of the patients at Toynton Grange. Evidently the home is not quite the caring community it purports to be. Dalgliesh is determined to discover the truth about his friend’s death, but further fatalities follow and his own life is suddenly under attack as he unmasks the evil at the heart of Toynton Grange.

And there you have it – the blurb. All fairly straightforward stuff. But what I hadn’t expected was the sheer excellence of James’ prose that bares Dalgliesh to our gaze, complete with all his doubts, vulnerabilities, minor irritations – along with his pin-sharp observations and ever-busy brain. Her scene setting is well balanced with the action and given through Dalgliesh’s eyes, so that we experience his observations about the ugly Victorian pile that is Toynton Grange and the eerie Black Tower. Having been born and bred in Dorset, I know the stretch of coast where James has more or less set the story and it is, indeed, atmospheric and weird.

This is not a breathless, action-driven story. Dalgliesh is debilitated, guilty and depressed when he arrives at Dorset and convinced that as soon as he returns to London, he will be retiring from the Force. So the mood is low-key and doesn’t get any bouncier when the Commander discovers that his elderly friend has already died. And so starts the steady trickle of wrongness that continues to build through this story. James is very good at continuing to ramp up the tension, so that I stayed up way past midnight to reach the denouement.

Of course, creating a big old build-up is all well and good – but the catch is that then, you have to deliver a suitably strong climax. Does James tick that box? Oh, yes – she certainly does. I’ll remember the ending of this chilling thriller for a very long time. All the more for her implacably calm pacing and pitch perfect control. Want to know how to write a superb crime whodunit? Read The Black Tower. It’s an engrossing, readable thriller written by a master craftswoman at the height of her writing powers – and if you haven’t read it, you should… really.
10/10

Review of EBOOK Storm Over Warlock by Andre Norton

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This book is the first one in the omnibus edition of Norton’s work, Visions of Distant Shores: An Andre Norton Collection, containing seven of her novels. I uploaded it onto my Kindle for the princely sum of 77p.

stormoverShann Lantee is left stranded on the alien world of Warlock after the Survey camp where he works is wiped out in an attack by the Throgs, beetle-like beings so alien no one has figured out how to communicate meaningfully with them. Shann was signed up to feed and clean out the animals and perform all the lowliest tasks. He hasn’t been trained to survive on an alien planet. How will he manage to stay alive in this hostile environment against the most voracious and implacable enemy humankind has encountered?

This book was first published in 1960, but I have to say that it doesn’t feel like it. Norton’s straightforward, unfussy style is evergreen and her characterisation – refreshingly for one of the earlier sci fi writers – is well developed. She manages to keep the narrative pace right up and her scene setting is excellent. In short, she is a technically accomplished writer who has absolutely nailed recounting a cracking adventure story set on an alien planet. I enjoyed the steady growth of her protagonist throughout the story. Shann Lantee has been brought up hard – coming from a world where there are few prospects. He was the dogsbody who happened to be performing one more grubby thankless task when the Throgs struck. Worse, he’d been targeted by one of the younger members of the Survey team, who made it his business to constantly bully Shann and get him into trouble with the Survey leaders. Understandably, he is both relieved and guilty to discover that his tormentor is one of the Throgs’ victims. He hasn’t been specifically trained in the survival skills that other Survey members specialised in, but he isn’t totally without resources. One of those grubby tasks is to tend for the two genetically enhanced wolverines who are trained to hunt out the local wildlife and warn the Survey group of anything dangerous crashing about in the undergrowth – a real boon when all sorts of things crash about in the undergrowth, other than the Throgs.

From this strong opening, when we immediately bond with Shann and care about his predicament, we watch as he steadily gains in confidence while dealing with a variety of challenges throughout the story. For anyone struggling with how to structure a novel, this is a textbook example of how to achieve an exciting, readable story – and yes, the ending also satisfactorily ties up the dangling ends, while affording an opportunity to take the plot further.

This is only the second Andre Norton book I’ve read – but I would have happily paid a whole lot more than 77p to have read this one gem. And there’s six other books in the omnibus… More than worth every penny, even if the rest turn out to be real stinkers. And from what I’ve read so far, I’ve no reason to believe that the lady wrote stinkers… If you are a bit broke at the start of 2012 and looking for a bargain, quality read to add to your Kindle, then I highly recommend Visions of Distant Shores: An Andre Norton Collection. Happy Reading!
9/10

Review of Transformation Space – Book 4 of The Sentients of Orion by Marianne des Pierres

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Transformation Space is the last book in this sweeping space opera by des Pierres, so clearly if you haven’t read the previous three books you need to go back to the start of the series and track down Dark Space. However, if you’ve been waiting for this final instalment, the question has to be – does she deliver on the previous excellent storylines that have propelled this series to such admiring attention?

Mira Fedor’s pregnancy seems to be proceeding at an inhuman pace and the sedate acceptance of this state of affairs by her bizoon, transformationspaceInsignia, is as much an irritation as it is comfort. It seems clear that the extropists’ procedures have had an unforeseen effect – but will her child be more than human? Or less?

Meanwhile, the galaxy-wide conspiracy that has plagued the Orion League for so long is revealed. The conspirators stand unmasked, but is there time to prevent their carefully laid plans from coming to fruition? And even if there is, how many of the Orion Worlds will pay the price for their leaders’ blindness?

The pieces are all in play; all that remains is for each side to commit to its endgame. But there’s one question nobody has thought to ask: will ‘god’ play by the rules…?

Space opera tends to be epic in scope; storylines often sprawl across galaxies, while the characters tend to be larger than life and eccentrically different from the folks you brush shoulders with in Sainsburys. Let’s face it, that’s the attraction – a true escape from the everyday and mundane. Transformation Space certainly sustains the fast pace characterised in the earlier instalments, which is a plus – tying up various loose ends often silts up the final book in multi-volume series. Furthermore, des Pierres also manages to keep control of her disparate cast of characters, ensuring that they all grow and develop in varying ways after the adventures they endure – I particularly enjoyed watching Thales and Trin undergo some interesting changes, as well as following Mira’s steady growth in confidence. Overall, I think she handles closing this hectic adventure very well with most of the storylines and characters resolved to my satisfaction.

If you’re sensing a ‘but’, however, you’re right. For me, the single hole in this final book in the series is the disappearance of the Entity. I’m aware that it went missing, but having been such a feature of the earlier plot, it was something of a disappointment at how fleetingly it appeared in this book, given its pivotal importance to the storyline. Having said that, I’m aware that the whole series is a vividly depicted, ambitiously plotted piece of work and this is the only area where her sure touch stutters slightly. Overall, this is an entertaining, well executed series and Transformation Space – a worthy winner of the 2010 Aurealis Award – brings it to a successful conclusion. If you’re a fan of classic space opera and haven’t yet encountered The Sentients of Orion, take the time to track down this impressive four-book series – you won’t regret it if you do.
9/10

Review of The Last Family in England by Matt Haig

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After reading The Radleys, I picked this offering off the library shelves thinking that I’d appreciate an amusing, smart read at the start of 2012. Hm. Well that didn’t work out…

lastfamilyinenglandPrince is an earnest young dog, striving hard to live up to the tenets of The Labrador Pact (Remain Loyal to Your Human Masters, Serve and Protect Your Family at Any Cost). Other dogs, led by the Springer Spaniels, have revolted. Their slogans are ‘Dogs for Dogs, not for Humans’ and ‘Pleasure not Duty’. Mentored by an elderly Labrador called Henry, Prince takes his responsibilities seriously, and as things in the Hunter family begin to go badly awry – marital breakdown, rowdy teenage parties, attempted suicide – his responsibilities threaten to overwhelm him. And down in the park it’s even worse. Henry has disappeared: Falstaff the Springer Spaniel wants to lead Prince astray… What will he do next?

I got sucked in by the comedic cover and Jeanette Winterson’s description that the book is fabulous and moving and funny and strange. And – yes – she’s absolutely right, it’s all of those things. It’s also poignantly sad.

Haig writes in first person viewpoint as Prince, the idealistic youngster, straining every nerve to live up to the lofty ideals of the Labrador Pact. His depiction of the world from a dog’s view with the emphasis on scents, hearing and decoding human body language certainly allowed me to suspend my disbelief for the duration of the book, which is crucial to the success of the story. And there’s plenty going on – we see a slice of family life just before the Hunter’s world starts to spiral away into crisis mode.

Haig holds the tension masterfully, allowing the series of secrets that rock Prince’s world to surface, one after the other. Nothing is as it seems. Prince finds himself surrounded by mounting difficulties at home; Henry is no longer around to give him advice and Falstaff’s carefree joie de vivre becomes ever more tempting… Even the family cat advises him to step back, not to get too involved in human affairs. But Prince is still driven on by his sense of duty.

This isn’t a long read. Each chapter is only a couple of pages long and event move along at a breathless clip. The language is pared down and the short, simple sentences allow a great deal to be packed into the modest word count and it can easily be read in a single sitting, if you so wish. As with The Radleys, the action is interspersed with extracts from a how-to manual – in this case it is The Labrador Pact that Prince has learnt by heart. The denouement isn’t a shock, Haig has heavily foreshadowed it, but I was surprised at the final twist which adds an extra slice of sadness to the ending.

The simple writing style is deceptive – Haig is dealing with some hefty issues in this slight book. At what point does loyalty become a lethal liability? Is unrealistic idealism a dangerous luxury in a world where cynical selfishness appears to be the norm? Because, of course, this book is actually nothing at all to do with dogs – it is about choosing how to live your life. Are you going to bounce through like a Springer Spaniel, carefully avoiding any commitment? Or shoulder responsibilities even if they buckle you in the process? Even those of us who have knocked about the world for a while should sometimes take the time to reconsider their choices – and I personally think that this should be required reading for every teenager in the land.
10/10

Review of The Devil in a Forest by Gene Wolfe

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A copy of this classic was a gift from a talented friend of mine whose opinion I value, so clearly it had to go right to the top of my reading pile – and I’m not sorry that it did as it started my 2012 list on a really high point.

Deep in a forest wilderness lay a village so humble, so insignificant, that only a handful of people knew it existed – yet it was here that a mighty battle was waged in the endless struggle between Good and Evil.
Led by Fate into the timeless struggle were:devilintheforest
WAT the savage and charming highwayman…
MOTHER CLOOT the cunning and cruel possessor of mysterious powers…
BARROW MAN the awesome spirit of a long-dead warrior… and
MARK not yet totally seduced by Evil, not yet totally convinced by Good…

And there you have it – the back cover blurb. As you can see they did things slightly differently back in 1976 – for starters they didn’t see fit to tell you at least half the plot although there were lots of capital letters and slightly portentous pronouncements due to the Tolkein effect still rippling through the genre at the time. And the blurb gives no insight whatsoever as to what the book is actually about. Neither does the cover. I was expecting major battle scenes… nasty armoured beasties lurking around every tree… which simply doesn’t happen. It’s SO much better than that.

Told in third person limited pov from Mark’s viewpoint, this little book gives you a slice of the gritted business of surviving in an isolated community that has seen better times when their religious shrine brought in a steady stream of pilgrims. But now, thanks to the depredations of their very own highwayman, Wat, that trickle has all but dried up and everyone is having to tighten their belts. A lot.

Mark is an orphaned fourteen year old apprentice to the village weaver. Which means he often goes hungry and has learnt to take care of himself – something that stands him in good stead when a foray into the forest with the innkeeper’s daughter turns into a dark and dangerous adventure. Where his future and very soul is at stake…  Wolfe has a trick of utterly subsuming you into his created world. We accept that Mark spends a large chunk of time so hungry that his stomach gripes with the pain. That he has to always pick his words carefully to the adults around him, because there is no one who innately cares about him. We learn just how unnerving Mother Cloot’s behaviour can be – and what Mark does when he comes across a murdered man…

The huge forest rustles with hidden food and threats, the river offers fish and the risk of drowning – and threading through all this is the scalding knowledge that life is precarious and cheap. And Mark has been caught between forces that he cannot hope to prevail against. All this occurs without an ounce of sentimentality and in just over 220 pages, Wolfe produces a gripping adventure that had me reading faaar into the night to discover what would happen to Mark, and Wat and Mother Cloot. The writing is pin-sharp and exquisite, with wonderful dialogue, superb scene setting and an interesting cast of characters, who are initially offered up as ciphers – and then, refuse to behave as you’d expect.

So Mark is less defiant and more accepting of the clear injustices that Life has dealt him; more suspicious of nearly everyone and their motives for being friendly; and very aware of the occult and dark forces in play around the village. Mother Cloot is a tough, wise old woman – and then something else a whole lot darker… As the violence escalates and events spin out of control, this tale gripped me and would not let go. And by the end, I felt I had a far clearer understanding of what it meant to part of an underclass in a small village during the Dark Ages – despite the fact that I have a teaching Degree in History and regard myself as reasonably knowledgeable about that period.

As you might have gathered, this 1970’s offering mightily impressed me and confirmed what I’ve always known – that superb writing is timeless. If you enjoy excellent adventure Fantasy in an historical setting, then hunt down this little book – it’s worth the effort.
10/10

My Outstanding Reads of 2011

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If you can stand it – just a couple of stats; I read 86 books during 2011 and started 5 more that I didn’t complete. My definition of outstanding as a book is firstly one that sticks in my memory – this is quite a big deal as I have been known to hand a book across to my husband with the question, ‘Have I read this, before?’

In addition, an outstanding read has to have added something to my creative inscape, or provided me with food for thought. There are a couple on the list that didn’t seem to make a profound impression at the time, but have lodged in the back of my brain like a burr. Most of the books are extremely well crafted – I have spent too many years poring over manuscripts to tolerate poorly written work, but there are a few with major flaws that still made the cut on the grounds that they have the X factor – that indefinable something that quickened my pulses and had me arriving at the last page still wishing there was more…

I thought I’d share these with you, in case you’re looking for something really special to start your 2012 reading list.

Engineman by Eric Brown Paris is vividly described as a fading city, overrun in parts with alien vegetation as the population enginemancontinues to move away to more thriving places, both on and off Earth. The previously bustling port and centre of the bigship industry is sliding into inexorable decline. And just as parts of Paris are no longer vital, neither are the Enginemen – those once elite corps of men and women whose brainwaves ‘pushed’ the bigships into the nada-continuum while in a trance-like state called the flux, allowing the ships to travel thousands of light-years in a matter of weeks and months. However, once interfaces were invented so that people could actually walk or drive through to colony planets, the Enginemen were obsolete and unwanted…

The book explores the plight which echoes that of generations of men and women through the ages who have found their skills are suddenly redundant. This is science fiction at its best – looking at contemporary issues through a futuristic lens. This amazing world and the spiky protagonist have stayed with me, even though I didn’t really like the ending, overmuch – the rest of it was so very strong I have included it.

theradleysThe Radleys by Matt Haig This intriguing take on vamps is one of the selections of More 4’s TV Book Club 2011. Life with the Radleys: Radio 4, dinner parties with the Bishopthorpe neighbours and self denial. Loads of self denial. But all hell is about to break loose. When teenage daughter Clare gets attacked on the way home from a party, she and her brother Rowan finally discover why they can’t sleep, can’t eat a Thai salad without fear of asphyxiation and can’t go outside unless they’re smothered in Factor 50. With a visit from their lethally louche uncle Will and an increasingly suspicious police force, life in Bishopthorpe will never be the same again.

The writing is aptly sharp with a thread of black humour running through the book. Haig’s descriptions are vividly arresting, as the gripping storyline keeps the pages turning until you reach the end far too soon.

Banners in the Wind – Book 3 of The Lescari Revolution by Juliet E. McKenna This is the final instalment in this intriguingbanners series where McKenna decided to see what would happen if the downtrodden masses and squeezed middle men revolted.
A few stones falling in the right place can set a landslide in motion. That’s what Lescari exiles told themselves in Vanam as they plotted to overthrow the warring dukes. But who can predict the chaos that follows such a cataclysm? Some will survive against all the odds; friends and foes alike. Hope and alliances will be shattered beyond repair. Unforeseen consequences bring undeserved grief as well as unexpected rewards. Necessity forces uneasy compromise as well as perilous defiance. Wreaking havoc is swift and easy. Building a lasting peace may yet prove an insuperable challenge.

For my money, this book is the best of the trilogy. This was always an astoundingly ambitious project – to depict a full blown revolution through the viewpoints of six characters. The fact that McKenna succeeded so well is down to the fact that she is an experienced, skilled writer whose epic Fantasy has always been character-driven.

familytradeThe Family Trade by Charles Stross This start to his alternate historical science fiction series proves that Charles Stross is an outstanding talent and – unsurprisingly – won the 2005 Sideways Award for Alternative History, as well as a nomination for a Locus Award.

Miriam Beckstein is happy in her life. She’s a successful reporter for a hi-tech magazine in Boston, making good money doing what she loves. But when she receives a locket left by the mother who was murdered when she was an infant, the knotwork pattern hypnotises her. Before she knows it, she’s transported herself to a parallel Earth, a world where knights on horseback chase their prey with automatic weapons.

I love this world, where Miriam is constantly cold away from her modern comforts. Where, as a thirty-two year old, she is regarded as a dowager – almost past her prime purpose, which is to make an advantageous match and provide plenty of babies also capable of world-walking. The heroine is enjoyably complex with a completely understandable reaction to the shock of switching between the two worlds.

The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks by Rebecca Skloot This non-fiction book has become an international bestseller, henrettalackscharting a remarkable story that consumed the author for a decade.

Her name was Henrietta Lacks but scientists know her as HeLa. She was a poor Southern tobacco farmer whose cancer cells – taken without her knowledge – became one of the most important tools in medicine. The first ‘immortal’ human tissue grown in culture, HeLa cells were vital for developing polio vaccine, helped lead to important advances like invitro fertilization and gene mapping, and have been bought and sold by the billions. Yet Henrietta herself remains virtually unknown, buried in an unmarked grave.

Now Rebecca Skloot takes us on an extraordinary journey, from the ‘coloured’ ward of Johns Hopkins Hospital in the 1950s to East Baltimore today, where Henrietta’s children and grandchildren live, and struggle with the legacy of her cells. Over the decade it took to uncover this story, Rebecca became enmeshed in the lives of the Lacks family – especially Henrietta’s daughter Deborah who was devastated to learn about her mother’s cells. She was consumed with questions: had scientists cloned her mother? Did it hurt her when researchers infected her cells with viruses and shot them into Space? What happened to her sister, Elsie, who died in a mental institution at the age of fifteen? And if her mother was so important to medicine, why couldn’t her children afford health insurance?

cobratrilogyThe Cobra Trilogy by Timothy Zahn In a very smart marketing move back in 2004, Baen gathered together this fine series of books and put them into an omnibus edition.

The colony worlds Adirondack and Silvern fell to the Troft forces almost without a struggle. Outnumbered and on the defensive, Earth made a desperate decision. It would attack the aliens not from space, but on the ground – with forces the Trofts did not even suspect. Thus were created the Cobras, a guerrilla force whose weapons were surgically implanted, invisible to the unsuspecting eye, yet undeniably deadly. But power brings temptation… and not all the Cobras could be trusted to fight for Earth alone.

It sounds like just one more super-soldier adventure with warfare the staple and the protagonist spending his days dealing with a deadly enemy and corrupt officialdom on his own side… But it isn’t. Oh, there’s plenty of action, alright. Written with plenty of verve and tension – but the book quickly shoots off into another direction, exploring the far more intriguing political and social aspects of having a bunch of surgically enhanced fighters within a community. While they may be capable of saving a planet from a deadly alien invasion – what happens when the threat goes away and the majority of your force has survived the war?

The Way of Kings – The Stormlight Archive Book 1 by Brandon Sanderson A health warning comes with this book – it is a wayofkingsbeast at just over a 1000 pages. So if you enjoy curling up in bed with your fav read, you may have to rethink how you hold/balance this breeze block edition – I know I did.

It is a mark of Sanderson’s writing skill that I was held throughout this monster – huge tomes of high fantasy are not high on my list of favourite reads, and I picked this up fully expecting to get about halfway through and then lose interest. However, in addition to effective characterisation, Sanderson’s world is fascinating. I loved the landscape, complete with original ecology and unusual wildlife – as well as a complicated, tortuous history and conflicting religious beliefs.

coldmagicCold Magic – Book 1 of The Spiritwalker Trilogy by Kate Elliott This engrossing offering is the first of Kate Elliott’s latest world – and if you’re a fantasy fan you’ll know that she is one of the leading talents in the field. She is excellent at providing interesting, multi-layered worlds and is also adept at producing satisfying complex characters – a combination that doesn’t always go together. As they approach adulthood, Cat Barahal and her cousin Bee think they understand the society they live in and their place within it. At a select academy they study new airship technologies and the dawning Industrial Revolution, but magical forces still rule. And the cousins are about to discover the full ruthlessness of this rule.

And, make no mistake, this is a rich and interesting world. Elliott herself describes it as “An Afro-Celtic post-Roman icepunk Regency fantasy adventure with airships, Phoenician spies, the intelligent descendents of troodons, and a dash of steampunk whose gas lamps can be easily doused by the touch of a powerful cold mage.” So do we gain a sense of the full layered intricacy of this world through Cat’s eyes? The blunt answer has to be – no, we don’t. Not even after reading the second book in the series, Cold Fire, do I get a sense that I’ve done more than graze the surface of this fascinating world. Am I bothered? Not, particularly, no. If Elliott chooses to roll out a world of this richness and then only play in a corner of it, that’s hardly going to impact on my reading pleasure – unless she doesn’t produce a sufficiently interesting storyline with a convincingly complex cast of character. And she does.

Twisted Metal by Tony Ballantyne This is a story all about robots, living in a robot world. But before you embark on this novel– twistedmetalknow that the grim cover is far closer to the tone and style of this book than any cosy childhood memories you might harbour of Metal Mickey…

Penrose: A world of intelligent robots who have forgotten their own distant past. A world where all metal, even that of their own wire-based minds, is fought over – a valuable resource to be reused and recycled. Now full-scale war looms, as the soldiers of Artemis sweep across the continent of Shull, killing or converting every robot to their stark philosophy. Only the robots of Turing City stand in their way. Robots who believe that they are something more than metal. Karel is one such robot. Or is he?

Ballantyne has pulled off a nifty trick, here. He has produced a credible world of metal beings who are gendered – the male robots provide the wire that the females can twist and weave into a mind that powers the average robot for somewhere between thirty to forty years. However, females in Artemis no longer take time to think and decide exactly what traits they are going to include into their children’s minds – they are indoctrinated into the ethos of Nyros, that all minds are only metal, so each robot’s needs and wishes is subordinate to the State. I’m sure this is starting to ring bells amongst the non-robots amongst you… While the action scenes and carnage surround the war are depicted with clarity and power, this book is so much more than a military shoot ‘em up romp.

hundredthosandkingdomsThe Hundred Thousand Kingdoms – Book 1 of The Inheritance trilogy by N.K. Jemisin Yeine Darr is an outcast from the barbarian north. But when her mother dies under mysterious circumstances, she is summoned to the majestic city of Sky – a palace above the clouds where the lives of gods and mortals intertwine. There, to her shock, Yeine is named one of the potential heirs to the king. But the throne of the Hundred Thousand Kingdoms is not easily won, and Yeine is thrust into a vicious power struggle with a pair of cousins she never knew she had. As she fights for her life, she draws ever closer to the secrets of her mother’s death and her family’s bloody history.

Written in first person viewpoint, we are immediately sucked into a world where nothing is as it seems and the impossible and improbable occur at least a dozen times a day. Jemisin manages to sustain the tempo, while juggling a cast of outstandingly difficult characters in a bizarre setting and suck us right in to this page-turner until the climax and denouement – which I didn’t see coming. At no time did I feel that I was in the hands of some newbie feeling her way into this novel-writing business. She writes as if she’s been doing this all her life. As if she’s written a good dozen books and got another batch still cooking in her head. I surely hope so – because with a debut like this, I’ll want to jump into her worlds, again.

Room by Emma Donoghue This was short-listed for last year’s Man Booker prize and won the Rogers Writers’ Trust Fiction Prizeroom for 2010. I got hold of the book after hearing Donoghue’s interview for Radio 4’s Women’s Hour when she mentioned that she was inspired on hearing about five year old Felix in the Fritzl case.

Jack is five and excited about his birthday. He lives with his Ma in Room, which has a locked door and a skylight, and measures eleven feet by eleven feet. He loves watching TV, and the cartoon characters he calls friends, but he knows what he sees on screen isn’t truly real – there’s only him, Ma and the things in Room. Until one day, Ma admits there’s a world outside…

This account could so easily have lingered on the grimness and sheer horror of their existence – but seen through the filter of a small boy, whose young mother has determined to shelter her son as much as possible from the worst aspects of their imprisonment, it becomes something else. Jack’s narrative gives us a fascinating insight in the ability of humankind to survive in a highly difficult situation.

wiseman'sfearWise Man’s Fear – Book 2 of The Kingkiller Chronicle by Patrick Rothfuss It is the second day of the Chronicler’s visit to the small country tavern where our hero has tucked himself away, with his loyal Fae companion, Bast. The second day when he continues to tell his own life story – the true version… Or is it? Kvothe is the classic unreliable narrator, several times admitting that he has a habit of embellishing his reputation. At the start of this very long narration, we return to the University where we last left him battling enemies and pernicious poverty.

To be honest, I started the book with a distinct lack of enthusiasm. However, it didn’t take long before I was once more caught up by Kvothe’s charm to relax and let the Rothfuss magic do its stuff. He is a remarkable writer. At a thousand pages, this doorstop should be a lot stodgier and boring than it is. We have Kvothe’s recollection of a multi-talented, vibrantly youthful version of himself interspersed by a number of interruptions, where a poignant counterpoint is the burned out innkeeper, whose motivation in telling his tale seems to be to setting the record straight before his death. Or is it? Bast, his concerned companion, is still something of a puzzle – although we get a strong sense that he isn’t what he appears to be… The central theme of what makes a reputation and the nature of fame – a classic for fantasy fiction – is approached with intelligence, while the world is a masterpiece of interesting details that ensure it is convincingly complex.

Yellow Blue Tibia by Adam Roberts Konstantin Andreiovich Skvorecky was one of a group of Russion SF writers called together yellowbluetibiaby Josef Stalin in 1946. Stalin, convinced that the defeat of America was only a few years away, needed a new enemy for Communism to unite against. Skvorecky and the others were tasked with creating a convincing alien threat; a story of imminent disaster that could be told to the Soviet peoples. And then after many months of diligent work the writers were told to stop and, on pain of death, to forget everything. Little is known of what happened to the writers subsequently but in 1986, Skvorecky made a dramatic reappearance at Chernobyl claiming that everything that he and the others had written was coming true. His assertion was widely disbelieved but Skvorecky claimed (tastelessly many believe) that the Chernobyl disaster and the destruction of the Challenger space shuttle conformed to the pattern set by Stalin’s scenario. Skvorecky believes that alien invasion is ongoing.

Roberts deftly portrays a Russia suffering a crisis of confidence with everyone scrabbling to cope with Gorbachev’s cataclysmic changes involving perrestoika against a backdrop of crumbling Communism. It isn’t a pretty picture – especially filtered through the viewpoint of an aging, burnt out ex-alcoholic. By rights it should be unremittingly grim enough to make the likes of Dan Simmons and Roger Levy look pink n’fluffy in comparison. However Roberts leavens the underlying awfulness of his subject matter and backdrop by dollops of humour, to the extent there are laugh-aloud moments in this book, which veers from moments of acute danger, high farce and reflections on the dreadful circumstances within a couple of pages without jolting the reader out of the story.

thousandautumnsofjacobThe Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet by David Mitchell This 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 tiny 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 epic, boisterous roller-coaster is the gulf yawning between the Japanese and Europeans. 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. 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…

Rivers of London by Ben Aaronovitch It isn’t that often I come across London-based Brit fantasy. This offering is a quirky, riversoflondonenjoyable adventure with lots of pace and humour, which nicely leavens the gorier moments. Peter is a coolly unflappable mixed-raced young Londoner with a very low boredom threshold, who is good at thinking on his feet. His laconic narrative, along with the long suffering observations about the labyrinth of police paperwork and procedures adds an extra twist of enjoyment to this tightly plotted piece of supernatural high jinks.

Peter’s relationship with his enigmatic superior Detective Inspector Nightingale has clearly got legs. For starters, they live in a spooky neo-Gothic fortress, complete with a creepy housekeeper, (think Mrs Hudson with sharp teeth…) and a running gag about the odd combinations that turn up in the packed lunches. One of the major characters in this book is mentioned in the title – London. Not only does Aaronovitch use some of the major tourist sites as backdrops to some of his set pieces, he also casually drops in actual café names and walks his readers through real neighbourhoods. In addition, he has woven the city’s history into this very contemporary tale – a really neat trick, as London’s past is part of its everyday richness. The patina of history lies as thickly as the traffic fumes along many of our capital’s streets – and Aaronovitch deftly mines this historical treasure trove to underpin his tale of mayhem and chaos. All in all, this is a readable, accomplished novel, crackling with energy and humour.

prometheusprojectThe Prometheus Project by Steve White 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. Bob Devaney was a Special Forces soldier in the early 1960’s – until he is recruited into something called the Prometheus Project, which turns out to be the largest disinformation operation in history, targeted at the aliens who ruled the galaxy.

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, White manages to pull off 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.

And there you have it, my reading highlights of 2011. If you want to read the full reviews, they are archived on the blog – better still, go and read the books… and let me know what you think.

Review of Capacity – Book 2 of the Recursion trilogy by Tony Ballantyne

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This apparently innocuous book comes with something of a health warning – it’s not a light read and if you’re trying to read with one eye on the computer/TV/games console, then this isn’t the book to attempt such multi-task tricks.

capacitySociety in the 23rd century runs smoothly and peacefully with the aid of Social Care operatives such as Judy 3. Meanwhile benevolent AIs, under the control of the near-mythical Watcher, seem to have solved all humankind’s problems, and with their aid humans have begun to explore the surrounding universe. But why does every AI that visits the planet Gateway commit suicide within just hours arriving there? Justinian Sibelius has now arrived on the planet to try and find a reason. Yet how can someone with merely human intelligence solve a puzzle that has defeated minds far great than his own – even that of the Watcher himself?

And what if the Watcher should turn out not to be as benevolent as people once believed?

This book bites into some really chewy subjects – the issue of VR versus the ‘atomic’ world, for instance. If a VR construct of a person is imprisoned and repeatedly raped and tortured, does that constitute a crime? Judy 3 of Social Care would argue – yes it does. However, the construct Kevin, who feels no conscience whatsoever, would claim that because he can easily clone yet another construct, then each one is worthless. What does this do to the issue of permanence and immortality? Who decides how humankind will age in this stable environment? And how does the right of the individual stack up against the needs of the many?

Ballantyne also examines the nature of intelligence, both human and non-human. As the complicated plot skips its non-linear path back and forth, he throws out a welter of information about this intriguing society where humankind is now in the hands of robotkind, who make the major decisions for them. But what then happens when for some reason, these apparently invincible AI’s with their ability to manipulate human emotion and behaviour, start malfunctioning? Who will be able to cope?

It is certainly an intriguing, thought provoking book that I’m very glad I picked up and read. But… I do think that Ballantyne has packed at least a couple of book-sized plots in this complex story and while I think he’s covered the concepts very well, I felt that I wanted to know more about all of his characters – with the exception of Judy, who I think is a triumph, given just how Other she is. However, Helen, Kevin and even Justinian could have done with a bit more character complexity and depth for me. It doesn’t help that while most of the time, Ballantyne’s prose is accomplished and effortlessly stylish, there were times when the dialogue became a bit clunky as the characters attempted to explain/expound their views regarding these weighty subjects.

That said, this book honourably fulfils one of the major briefs of science fiction – to look at major philosophical and moral issues that will probably affect our future and unpack them in a fictional backdrop. And for anyone who is at all interested in the possible future of our race against an increasing trend to resort to automate more and more aspects of our lives – this is a must-read.
8/10