Monthly Archives: June 2012

Review of The Fourth Wall – Book 3 of the Dagmar Shaw series by Walter Jon Williams

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This book is told in first person present tense and this time, we are not in Dagmar’s viewpoint. The protagonist in this story is Sean Makin, ex-child star who at the height of his acting career was a household name and earned millions – which his parents have all taken. So as a failed adult actor, he is reduced to humiliating himself in shows like Celebrity Pitfight – think of Gladiators crossed with I’m A Celebrity Get Me Out of Here

4thwallWhen he meets Dagmar Shaw and is considered for the lead part in her latest film project, he thinks his dreams have come true. However, what Sean doesn’t know is that people often have a shortened life expectancy around Dagmar. Perhaps he should have paid more attention to the SUV that nearly knocked him down…

I’ve read all three books in this series. One of its strengths is that you don’t have to read any of the others to fully enjoy this particular book, where we have moved on. However, having read the first two, one of the pleasures was to see Dagmar through the lens of someone else – someone so essentially self-absorbed that she wasn’t particularly important to him. Until the end, that is…

So, change of protagonist; change of viewpoint and tense; complete change of scenario – gone are the politics and world-awareness of the first two books. Sean is only vaguely conscious there is a vicious war going on, as all his attention and energy is focused on Hollywood and events unfolding around him. Does it work?

Oh yes – this is an absolute joy. This is the book where Williams really hits his stride – and confirms for me just how uncomfortable he was with Dagmar as the main protagonist. Because Sean is inspired – there are layers in his characterisation that are wonderful, both tragic and hilarious. There were always occasional shafts of dark humour lancing through Williams’ other two books in the series – but in the character of Sean, Williams has given his readers an intimate and unforgiving insight into the life of a Hollywood actor. It is pathetic, funny and shocking by turns – all delivered in Sean’s pinpoint-sharp voice. The whodunit running through the filming is entertainingly twisty – I enjoyed the unexpectedness of the deaths and trying to work out who was the perpetrator.  And the fourth wall of the title?  This is the invisible barrier that the actors have to reach through in order to reach their audience.

There has been some criticism that the final denouement was something of an anti-climax. Which had me scratching my head, wondering whether we’d been reading the same book. I thought the ultimate twist provided by Dagmar was an amazing conclusion to the story – although I’ll concede that the whodunit discovery was slightly workaday. But surely, isn’t that the point? Isn’t that Williams playing a game with his readers – giving them a relatively bland payoff, as a caricature of a Hollywood-type ending? If he’d left it at that, then I think they have some cause for grumbling – but he doesn’t. He goes on to produce the real ending, which delivers an almighty punch.

All in all, this is one of the best books I’ve read in 2012. Sean is a wonderful creation and I’m hoping that Williams hasn’t done with him – I’d love another slice of Sean’s life. Please?
10/10

Review of Age of Aztec – Book 4 in the Pantheon series by James Lovegrove

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The date is 4 Jaguar 1 Monday 1 House; November 25th 2012 by the old reckoning. The Aztec Empire rules the world, in the name of Quetzalcoatl – the Feathered Serpent – and her brother gods. The Aztec reign is one of cruel and ruthless oppression, fuelled by regular human sacrifice. In the jungle-infested city of London, one man defies them: the masked vigilante known as the Conquistador.  Mal Vaughan, one of the Jaguar Warriors, who police affairs in London, is determined to track down and put a stop to the Conquistador – a determination honed by the knowledge that if she doesn’t deliver, her life will be forfeit…

ageofaztecThis is the fourth offering in Lovegrove’s wonderful series that has humans locked in a struggle with various unreasonable deities from different periods in history. As one review commented, Lovegrove is vigorously carving out a godpunk subgenre. So, the question has to be, does Age of Aztec live up to the high standard set by previous offerings in the series?

We follow the exploits of the Conquistador as he rebels against the might of the Aztec Empire for his own reasons – a personal tragedy that sums up, for him, all that is wrong with the current regime. Britain had been one of the last countries on the planet to fall under Aztec domination and as a patriot, the Conquistador – or Stuart Reston, to use his everyday identity – yearns for the country’s lost freedom. But as the chase between Stuart and Mal intensifies, the unique twists that Lovegrove has made his own in this series transform this book into something far cleverer and more memorable.

Readable and engrossing, this page-turner has its own share of dark humour as well as well-rounded protagonists that we care about. Lovegrove’s smart intellect shines through his prose and shows in the pin-sharp perfection of his pacing and plot structure. The startling backdrop – London simmers in equatorial heat as monkeys and creepers infest the streets with ziggurats littering the landscape – is well described without holding up the action. Which is just as well, because this book starts with a bang and doesn’t let up till the final, shocking climax.

As you may have gathered, I really enjoyed this book – it’s one of my outstanding reads of the year, so far. But don’t take my word for it – grab a copy and allow yourself to be whisked up by the adventure. You’ll be thanking me if you do…
10/10

Review of The Hunger Games by Suzanne Collins

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I’d heard a lot about this book, so when I saw the trilogy on the book shelves, I decided to get it and see what all the fuss was about…

Post-apocalyptic America, now named Panem, is divided into Districts and ruled by the authoritarian Capitol who keep the downtrodden, hungry populace under control by working them extremely hard. To emphasise who’s in charge, once a year all teenagers between 13 and 18 have their names put forward for the Hunger Games. When her younger sister’s name comes up, tough huntress Katniss Everdeen volunteers to replace her, knowing it is probably a death sentence. There can only be one survivor. But Katniss has been surviving for most of her life…

hungergamesThe neat premise is based on the Greek habit of selecting young men and women as sacrificial tributes – and like these tributes, before the ultimate ceremony, the Hunger Games players are treated like celebrities. Given a team to dress them and offered food they could only dream of, they are trained and interviewed and every move and reaction they make is commented upon. Collins certainly points up the carnivorous aspect of modern-day fame as Katniss stumbles through this particular minefield. But it is all a preliminary to the Games themselves…

I took this book to read on a long train journey – an excellent choice, as it turned out. Because it has to be one of most compelling page-turners I’ve read this year. In first person viewpoint, Katniss’s experiences grabbed my attention from the start and pulled me into the book. It isn’t a demanding or difficult read – but then that isn’t what Collins set out to write.

Katniss is marked by having to become the provider for her family after her father’s sudden death, and Collins’ depiction of a character constantly driven by need was utterly convincing. She is wary, automatically suspicious and determined to do whatever it takes to be the one to survive. Even if it means learning to walk in high heels and clinging dresses. Even if it means appearing to be in love with the other District 12 candidate…

However, Katniss discovers it isn’t that easy. There are the other contestants – and the hard truth remains that in order to survive, they all have to die. Once the Games started, I had a strong idea how the story would go – after all I’ve been reading Fantasy for one or three years, now. This, after all, is a book designed for a less jaded readership than yours truly. But Collins confounded my expectations – and while the overall ending was, inevitably, not a stunning surprise, many of the events along the way were unexpected. This book is a masterclass in how to handle full-on action, by producing a range of different challenges for the protagonist – and give her some time to assimilate them, before moving on again.

No one has claimed this is Great Literature – but it is certainly beautifully judged as a piece of writing entertainment. And in amongst the adventure and drama, there are some telling comments about our celebrity culture targeted right at the audience who should be seriously considering what the media is offering them. For my money, again, Collins’ has the got the mix right. The message of the book is stark – if celebrity shows continue to pander to an audience’s basest instincts, then something like the Hunger Games is the result – right back to the Roman mob’s raw blood lust while watching gladiators kill each other. And when considering the likes of The Jeremy Kyle Show, the only difference between the Hunger Games and our present day attitude is our decision not to actually kill participants – we certainly have no compunction in watching other people emotionally eviscerated for our entertainment.

I thoroughly enjoyed this vividly written book and look forward to reading the sequel.
9/10

Review of The House of Velvet and Glass by Katherine Howe

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houseofvelvet&glassKatherine Howe’s impressive debut novel The Physick Book of Deliverance Dane was an enjoyable thought-provoking examination of the nature of witchcraft and mother/daughter relationships. She skilfully used the long shadow of the Salem Witch Trials in a fresh twist that had me pondering some of the issues she raised long after I finished the book. So, the questions has to be – does her new novel live up to this high standard?

1915, Boston. Sybil Allston is a young woman poised on the cusp of a tumultuous new century. But she’s living a life of quiet desperation with her father and wastrel brother in an elegant town house in the city’s plushest neighbourhood. Though her days are rich in creature comforts, she is still reeling from the loss of her mother and sister on the Titanic, which sank three years earlier.

Against this backdrop of Boston on the brink of change flash intimate moments of Sybil’s mother and sister on their final lavish evening on the Titanic, hours before the collision that would destroy the ship and claim their lives – lives revisited through the crystal ball of a medium.

I’ve skipped a chunk of the blurb that reveals too much of the plot – this finely crafted historical exploration of some tricky subjects deserves to be read without any spoilers taking the edge off your enjoyment. Howe is adept at using difficult periods in our past to tease out some contemporary problems – and the subject of drug addiction seems somehow more shocking when set against long dresses and Edwardian manners. She also looks at spiritualism, which enjoyed a huge upsurge in popularity during and after the Great War, when so many were bereaved without proper closure with their young men buried in the mud of Flanders’ fields.

Once more, Howe’s apparently gentle style is deceptive – the comforting glow of the past is nothing of the sort. Sybil’s angry guilt-ridden grief traps her just as thoroughly as the corseted expectations that dismiss her as a spinster, fated to run her father’s home and nurse him in his declining years. As for communicating with her mother, or stop her brother from his self-destructive behaviour – how can she prevail?

The answer Howe provides had my jaw dropping. She plays with our expectations and then flips them round, so that someone we had considered as one type, in actual fact was quite different. So, fascinating as Sybil is, she isn’t the character that ultimately snagged my attention in this layered story. It is the self-made Captain Allston whose compelling story slowly unfolds throughout the book – and makes his indifference to the more staid Bostonian customs completely believable.

In fact, there was only one anachronism that initially graunched – as first class female passengers, Helen Allston and her beautiful young daughter would have been almost guaranteed to have seats in the few available lifeboats. But as Howe herself confessed that this was a liberty she took with the historical facts in the Appendix, then she gets a pass on that one. This is, after all, fiction. And with a book that so beautifully creates the febrile atmosphere of that difficult time – if Howe knowingly tweaks the facts to suit her purposes, that’s fair enough. Particularly as she reckoned her readership was sharp enough to call her on it. That is a large part of the joy of this book – Howe’s intelligence shines through this atmospheric tale, better still, her writing assumes her readers will keep up.

So, to answer my original question – in case you hadn’t already guessed – the answer is a resounding yes. The House of Velvet and Glass is a worthy successor to The Physick Book of Deliverance Dane. But don’t take my word for it – go out and get hold of a copy. You’ll thank me if you do.
10/10

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Brrrrrilliant covers!!

Science Fiction and Other Suspect Ruminations

(Uncredited cover for the 1959 edition of We Who Survived (1959), Sterling Noel)

One of many ways science fiction authors speculate about the end (or beginning of the end/or an apocalyptic hurdle) of the human race is the coming of an Ice Age.  Such an occurrence (induced by us or the arrival of a natural cycle) would cover our cities with layers of ice — conjure the disturbing images from Gilliam’s film 12 Monkeys (1985) or Roland Emmerich’s egregious The Day After Tomorrow (2004) — forcing us to evacuate to the more inhabitable zones.  Those left behind might eek out an existence, revert to a primitive state, or die out completely…

I have a review for John Christopher’s The Long Winter (1962) in the works —

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Review of Deep State by Walter Jon Williams

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This is the second book in the Dagmar Shaw series, exploring the cyberworld and its potential to change reality. This Is Not A Game started the trilogy off with a bang, when Dagmar, an alternate reality games designer, found herself in the middle of a violent revolution in Jakata which was the start of a series of brutal events that sucked her into a world of violence every bit as frightening as anything she has ever designed…

So – the question is, does Deep State deliver the same smart, cyber-cool storyline and enjoyable slices of humour?

deepstateDagmar Shaw is one of the world’s hottest designers of alternate reality games. She is the Puppetmaster and thousands of gamers are dancing on her strings. But when the campaign she is running in Turkey comes into conflict with the new, brutal regime, she realises that games can have very real consequences.

When an old friend approaches Dagmar with a project so insane, so ambitious, she can’t possibly say no, she is plunged into a world of spies and soldiers. As a nation hangs in the balance, the bullets become real and gamers start dying. In this world of intrigue and betrayal, the master player must face the possibility that she has, herself, been played…

Williams has certainly fixed the slight wobbles in Dagmar’s characterisation apparent in This Is Not A Game – I found her a much stronger, more believable protagonist this time around. I particularly liked the fact that despite her evident skills and charisma, she has been left with post-traumatic stress syndrome after events in This Is Not A Game. A pleasant change to find violence causing such believable mayhem in a fictional character…

As for the storyline – there were some clear parallels to the way social media was used during the Arab Spring and how Williams’ fictional characters decide to harness the likes of Twitter and Facebook to attempt to overthrow the brutal regime. However, this is a work of fiction and the fact that those similarities quickly break down under closer examination doesn’t particularly detract from the book, as far as I’m concerned. As long as Williams’ world persuaded me to suspend my disbelief for the duration of the novel, then I was more than happy to go along with the proposition that various staged gaming events could pose significant problems for a military regime unaccustomed to dealing with flash mobs.

I also found the violent response all too believable – along with the evident ramping of tension, consequences and costs. Another feature of this book I thoroughly approve of – is that when people die, it is treated as a major event that leaves everyone shaken and upset. There are still the gamers and their response to what is going on – although it did occur to me that if you hadn’t first read This Is Not A Game, you may be slightly scratching your head at their appearance, which is a lot more piecemeal and less coherent in this novel. However, unlike many series, I do think that you could comfortably read Deep State without having read the first Dagmar Shaw adventure.

All in all, this is an entertaining slice of near-future action that may have some similarities with totalitarian regimes and their reluctant populations. However, I don’t recommend it on the grounds that it has any political significance – I’m not convinced enough that Williams’ has sufficiently nailed the underlying tensions and sheer complexity of Turkish society for that to be the case. But as an enjoyable piece of fiction, it is certainly worth reading – and is far more than a placeholder that second volumes all too frequently end up being.
9/10

Review of Down To The Bone – Book 5 of The Quantum Gravity series by Justina Robson

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This is the concluding volume to Robson’s interestingly original take on a world peopled by demons, elves and fae, after the quantum bomb detonated in 2015 tore through the fabric keeping different worlds apart. Earth is now Otopia and humankind are having to rub shoulders with the likes of elves and demons.

downtotheboneWhatever you do, though, don’t pick Down To the Bone off the shelf and expect to get engrossed in the story without first reading at least the first in the series, Keeping It Real – and even then I think you would be significantly short-changing yourself if you didn’t continue with the series. The cool cover and arresting strap line, I think, sells these books short. Neither pure erotic urban fantasy escapism, nor cyber-punk dystopian adventure bulging with gismos, the Quantum Gravity series borrows tropes from both camps. There’s a fair bit of serious science fiction embedded within this apparently classical fantasy world, and Robson’s main character, Lila, has a very familiar feel if you are a sucker for urban fantasy – complete with some steamy sex.  So, has Robson succeeded in satisfactorily concluding this ambitious, genre-melding series?

The gap between the worlds was so thin in places, you could nearly step across without meaning to… Lila Black can still turn into a lethal war-winning machine with the merest thought but she doesn’t work for the agency any more. Problem is, she has no idea what to do next. Teazle is a demon who may have become Death’s Angel. And Zal is a has-been elven musician without a band. They don’t add up to much that when they get together major stuff goes down. And now the dead are walking, the veil between the worlds is tearing and if it fails altogether all bets are off. Someone has to do something and it looks like it’s going to have to be Lila. Is attitude enough to get you through life and death? Will it get you a happy ending?

As with most series, the tone in this last book is a whole lot darker than it was in Keeping It Real, but there is still plenty of humour – I particularly enjoyed the fairy who spent her time arbitrarily fashioning herself into Lila’s clothing. Robson manages to create sufficient vulnerability for her main protagonists despite their staggering powers to evoke the necessary narrative tension and it is in the final instalment that we get a full, final slice of exactly what she has been aiming for throughout the series.

Has she succeeded in bridging the gulf between cyber-punk and classical fantasy with her own particular mix of both? Absolutely. Her nods to fanfic, gaming allusions and hardcore science fiction exposition tick all the boxes in that genre set, while her characterisation of all her main protagonists, particularly Lila as the can-do, conflicted heroine, provides the emotional engine driving the plot forward that is often missing in hard-core science fiction stories. The whole series has been such a roller-coaster, epic ride that this final volume needed to provide Robson’s unique brand of angst-filled action in quantum quantities to provide the necessary, satisfying conclusion. And as far as I’m concerned, she succeeds in fulfilling that requirement, too.

Any niggles? Not sure if it’s actually a flaw, or a necessary by-product of Robson’s ambitious writing, but her style is very dense. This is not a skim-read, brain-snooze book – you need those little grey cells standing to attention to fully appreciate Robson’s world-building and crafting. During the action scenes, Robson’s pacing is perfect but at times during the character interactions, I found I needed to slow down and reread sections, or I missed something crucial. I noticed this when reading the last two books and I’ve come to the conclusion that as I generally zip through an urban fantasy far faster than a hard science fiction read, it was my expectations pressing the ‘go’ button, when I needed to ease up. Rereading this series from start to finish would be a satisfying treat – and something I don’t often consider. But then, encountering a series like the Quantum Gravity isn’t an everyday reading experience, either. Give it a go – love it or loath it, I guarantee you won’t have come across anything else quite like it.
9/10