Monthly Archives: July 2012

Review of Cibola by James H. Cobb

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I’m a sucker for a really cool spacescape on a book cover – and this offering shouted READ ME, so had to be plucked off the shelf. And I’m very glad I did…

Being the cop on the beat is never easy, especially in the 22nd century, where mankind has the capacity to reshuffle the heavens and humanity and even reality itself is a matter of opinion. Just ask Free Marshal Gain Chandry of the United Nations Law Enforcement Authority, who is about to take the wildest ride of his career – and maybe even his life.

cibolaFresh from his latest assignment chasing smugglers, Chandry is handed the Cibola Project, The Johannesburg United Metals Combine is using the largest space vehicle ever built, the robotic mass driver tug MD-24, to move a gold ore-laced asteroid into near-Earth orbit. If the project succeeds, it could revolutionize cis-lunar industrial civilisation. If it fails, the resulting ecological catastrophe could be the greatest since the extinction of the dinosaur.

And someone wants Cibola to fail.

Is it a deep, multi-layered and meaningful treatise into the possible dangers that lie ahead of humanity? Nope. It’s a great, escapist romp written by an experienced author with an engaging protagonist, Gain Chandry. That said, there are some really nice touches. I think Cobb has managed to depict deep space mining more effectively than many other sci fi writers. I enjoyed his world and the characters – and as for the whodunit, I really didn’t see it coming. However, I wasn’t wasting too much time and energy trying to unravel the plot – Cobb’s fluid style whisks the story along at a good clip and I read it in one greedy gulp.

Like all enjoyable whodunits, as well as a good spread of suspects, Gain is part of a team – however, this being the 22nd century, his side-kick isn’t your average human companion… This cyber-buddy is a great wish-fulfilment. I want one, too! Someone who can subsume him/herself into any system with a plug and switch; someone who doesn’t need to breathe, or eat; someone who can keep you company and kiss it better when it all goes wrong…

Overall, this is great fun and my only sadness is that I cannot find any kind of sequel or follow-up to this entertaining offering. Hopefully, Cobb will see the error of his ways and provide Cibola with a follow-up book. Please??
8/10

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Science Fiction and Other Suspect Ruminations

(Gaylord Welker’s cover for the December 1952 issue of Astounding Science Fiction)

Gaylord Welker’s cover for the December 1952 issue of Astounding Science Fiction appeared in my best sci-fi cover post a while back.  Although I rarely recycle images, whenever I see his masterful cover I’m impressed with the sheer desolation and desperation of the scene.  Inspired by the image I set off to find more covers depicting crashed spaceships (alien or human on Earth, the moon, distant planets….).

Hannes Bok’s cover for Campbell’s The Moon is Hell (1951), Hubert Roger’s cover for the February 1939 issue of Astounding, Earle Bergey’s cover for the November 1952 issue of FantasticStory, and Walker Brook’s cover for the 1953 edition of Simak’s First He Died (variant title: Time and Again) are thematically similar but less successful.  The others include one of my personal favorites (not one of the best by a…

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Review of The Red Men by Matthew de Abaitua

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Being a shallow sort, I was lured into picking this book off the shelves by the sheer elegance of the cover (kudos to Snow Books for this outstanding effort, by the way…) and was rewarded by discovering an unexpectedly thought provoking treatment that will – I feel – be with me for longer than usual.  This near-future literary thriller is remarkably prescient, given its attack on corporate aspirations and thinking, as it was published in 2007, well before the series of grubby scandals that rocked the banking world.

A police helicopter hovers above Hackney. Snipers surround the siege house. Fascinated, Nelson edges forward to watch the advanceredmen of the negotiator: a robot, uncannily tall and serene, designed to empathise with the despair that has turned a bitter executive into a cornered gunman. But the robot is too late; an explosion engulfs the house. As Nelson watches the burning machine burst out onto his street, he realises that the world has shifted beneath his feet; a strange and unexpected future has arrived on his doorstep.

Welcome to the adventures of young father Nelson Millar and his friend and manic poet Raymond Chase in the imminent technologies of tomorrow. Nelson unwillingly works on a project that threatens the nature of democracy, the simulation of a town and its citizens to create the ultimate focus group. Meanwhile, Raymond is hired to assist the mysterious Red Men, digital copies of the rich and powerful whose vile appetites and hatred for real life soon lead to murder.

Firstly a health warning – the initial chirpy tone and thread of black humour running through this book gets steadily darker. It is compelling, clever and terrifyingly plausible. It is also savagely violent. As a sharp and accomplished writer, de Abaitua is completely capable of delivering a nuanced, satirical take on the subject. For instance, it is Nelson Millar’s determination to provide a steady income for his young family that sucks him into working for Monad – not his earlier freewheeling ‘creative’ days working as editor for the magazine Drug Porn… While the technological details, such as the robots, Dr Easy and Dr Hard, are enjoyable – it is de Abaitua’s pinsharp observations of human nature that make this an uncomfortably standout read for me.

The impact on Nelson of being subsumed into corporate life, while forced to spend long periods apart from his wife and child, rings all too true in a world where families have to face these dilemmas on a daily basis. He has the stunning misfortune to have to deal with a number of executives who could all be labelled as ‘the boss from Hell’, from the charismatic figurehead, Hermes Spence, to Stoker Senior whose testicle transplant is an attempt to keep himself ever-young and virile – and his immediate superior, and the bullying Morton Eakins. Not to mention the unspeakably horrible Red Man, Morty…

Any grumbles? I’m not a fan of the limited omniscient viewpoint and there were times that I felt hopping between viewpoints in the same scene compromised the degree to which I identified with the characters. While I fully concede that Nelson managed to still bounce off the pages, Raymond’s character seemed particularly undermined by this treatment and at times, I found myself skimming the scenes which featured him to get back to Nelson… Given de Abaitua’s evident skill, I do think that this is an avoidable glitch.

Other than that, though, I think this book is a powerful glimpse into some of the possible dangers that our children may face. And as a cautionary tale about how the corporate ethos can pervert and twist the best-intentioned objectives, it is chillingly accurate. It should be required reading for all Bob Diamond and all his cronies…
8/10

Review of The Impossible Dead by Ian Rankin

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This is the second outing of Malcolm Fox of The Complaints – the very unpopular Police Force internal affairs department. So – having ousted his famous and far more charismatic policeman, Inspector Rebus – does Rankin manage to establish Malcolm Fox in our affections as a suitable replacement?

Malcolm Fox is back… Fox and his team are investigating whether follow cops covered up for Detective Paul Carter. Carter has been found guilty of misconduct with his own uncle – also in the Force – proving to be his nemesis. But what should be a simple job is soon complicated by a brutal murder and a weapon that should not even exist.

A trail of revelations leads Fox back to 1985, a year of desperate unrest when letter-bombs and poisonous spores were sent to government offices, and kidnappings and murders were plotted. But while the body count rises the clock starts ticking, and a dramatic turn of events sees Fox in mortal danger.

Fox’s superiors are keen to see the investigation into Carter’s misdemeanours wrapped up, but Fox is a thorough, scrupulous impossibledeadcharacter who is driven to dot the i’s and cross the t’s… And it is trait that leads him away from the initial investigation into the thicket of Rankin’s plotting that plunges us into a torrid time in Scottish history – the mid 1980’s. On the face of it, Malcolm Fox should be too boring to be an effective protagonist. He doesn’t appear to have any huge character flaws, doesn’t drink and isn’t particularly moody or unreasonable as a boss… His Achilles heel is his sense of inadequacy as a police officer and a desire to – maybe – prove to the officers in charge of the increasingly long trail of murders that he is every bit as good as they are. Maybe, even, a bit ahead of them… He doesn’t even have the grace to have any kind of love life – and although he has a stroppy sister and an increasingly frail father, his relationship with both of them is a completely normal mixture of love and resentment. And that is his strength – Malcolm Fox is recognisable as the chap next door and as such, a protagonist we want to see prevail.  As in all the best long-running series, we also follow the fortunes of the cast of supporting characters – in this case, Tony Kaye and Joe Naysmith. The moments of light relief come from the relationship between them and once more, Rankin gives us subtle, nuanced characters who are believably complex and three-dimensional.

What Rankin also offers in this book is a real cracker of a plot. From an apparently straightforward investigation into a dodgy copper, the tale spirals off into a labyrinthine tangle that had me second-guessing who would be the next victim and/or perpetrator – until I just ran with Rankin’s master storytelling and enjoyed the ride. Which leads to an unexpected denouement and exciting climax. By the time I was two-thirds through the book, there was no way I was going anywhere until I’d discovered who had done what to whom…

Exactly what you want from police procedural thriller, really. So – in answer to the original question – yes. Malcolm Fox is a fitting replacement to the fiery Rebus – in fact I think I vastly prefer him. But, don’t take my word for it – if you haven’t already had the pleasure, give yourself a treat and a break from the appalling summer weather and curl up on the sofa with The Impossible Dead – you’ll thank me if you do.
10/10

Review of Shadow Prowler – Book 1 from The Chronicles of Siala by Alexey Pehov

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Epic fantasy isn’t my absolute favourite sub-genre, but what caught my eye about this offering is that it is written in Russian and translated by Andrew Bromfield, who was also responsible for translating the enjoyable Night Watch series by Sergei Lukyanenko. It shadowprowleris always a refreshing change to find speculative fiction written from outside the Western perspective.

An army is gathering thousands of fell creatures joining forces from all across the Desolate Lands, united for the first time in history under one black banner. By the spring, or perhaps sooner, the Nameless One and his forces will be at the walls of the great city of Avendoom. Unless Shadow Harold, master thief, can stop them.

As is apparent from the back cover blurb, there isn’t a stunningly original setup in this adventure – what makes it stand out is the protagonist and first person narrator, Harold. I particularly enjoyed the early part of the book, where we follow Harold’s escapades around the city of Avendoom. The voice is strong, quirky and more than a tad subversive. The adventure into the magical wasteland of Avendoom is filled with tension and incident – while Harold leaps off the page. However, as the story gathers pace and Harold is caught up in the machinations of the Nameless One, this originality somewhat fades.

What replaces it is Pehov’s interesting take on the other races. Maybe I’ve spent too much time painting Warhammer miniatures, but I was fascinated by his worldbuilding – in his version, the Orcs are the original race that regard themselves as the Master Race and everyone else who came after them as subverted rejects who need to expunged from the face of the Earth… Fanged elves take some getting used to, as well. Other than that, the story follows fairly standard fare – there is a certain artefact that Harold needs to acquire in order to allow the Elves, Goblins and Humans to stand a chance against the Orcs. So – guess what? He sets off with a small party of handpicked companions to hunt it down… As cosy and familiar as a patchwork quilt. The book ends on a cliffhanger, just as Harold has to face the challenge. So… would I bother to pick up the sequel?

Actually, yes I would. I found Harold an interesting and amusing protagonist and whether it is the Russian dimension or not, there is a range of subtle interplay between the rest of the party – particularly the court jester Kli Kli, the other standout character – which makes me want to know what happens next.
8/10

Review of Mockingjay – Book 3 of The Hunger Games by Suzanne Collins

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This is the third book in this Y.A. dystopian series that was such a runaway success. Katniss Everdeen has survived the Hunger Games. Twice. But she’s still not safe. A revolution is unfolding, and everyone, it seems, has had a hand in the carefully laid plans – everyone except Katniss. And yet she must play the most vital part in the final battle. Katniss must become their Mockingjay – the symbol of rebellion – no matter what the personal cost.

mockingjayHonourable mention must go to the unsung hero who did the blurb. This series is all about plot, despite the very strong protagonist at the heart of the action – and yet no one has seen fit to give away any major plot points on the back cover, which would have been all too easy. Well done, Scholastic – you certainly get a gold star from me over this. Would that other publishers were so careful of their authors’ content.

So… the first two books created plenty of tension, full-on action and a painful ongoing love triangle. As well as making harsh, pertinent comments about the exploitative nature of our current celebrity culture. Has Collins managed to sustain the energy and strong plotlines through to this final book in the trilogy? Does she manage to produce a sufficiently strong ending after the climactic moments her readers experienced throughout The Hunger Games?

It would have been so easy to fluff this book. Decide to go for a safe option – give us the Hunger Games, again, for instance. Ease up on her poor put-upon heroine. Lapse into the odd treacly moment, or turn her into a Mary-Sue construct who – somehow – manages to have the fate of Panem hinging on her personal agenda…

Fortunately for her readership, Collins is far too adept a writer to commit those sins and for my money, Mockingjay is the best of the series. It doesn’t take a huge stretch of imagination to visualise how quickly minor celebrities get trapped by their ‘image’ in much the same way that Katniss finds herself boxed in by becoming the poster child for the rebellion against the brutal regime running Panem.

Collins also continues to pull off those jaw-dropping moments which I certainly didn’t see coming – particularly the shocking climax. I sat down intending to give myself a small slice of Hunger Games magic – and was still reading hours later when I had a stack of other chores calling for my attention.

I find it particularly impressive the way that Collins manages to immerse her readers in the adrenaline-fuelled action, without making that the sole purpose of the books. There is passion and action without resorting to the eroticism of Twilight. And a sharp commentary that shines an unforgiving light on our Western culture. Collins certainly intends her readers to compare current middle-class American concerns with those sweet natured make-up artists from the Capital that work on Katniss. It is also refreshing to encounter all-action heroes, such as the Hunger Games’ survivors, who have been significantly damaged by their experiences. While Collins doesn’t flinch from depicting violent fights and deaths, she also shows there is always a price to pay for those left standing. And often that price is too much.

As for the romantic interest that wound through all three books – does Collins manage to conclude this satisfactorily? Absolutely. Along with the heartbreaking reason behind her choice…

If you want a masterclass in how to construct a classic plot, with the necessary action interspersed by introspection and exposition setting up the next scene – and a sudden unexpected twist thrown into the mix at intervals, then have a good, hard look at The Hunger Games series. Particularly this final book. It is provides a fitting conclusion to an exceptional series.
10/10

Review of Catching Fire – Book 2 of The Hunger Games by Suzanne Collins

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Against all odds, Katniss Everdeen and Peeta Mellark are still alive. Katniss should be relieved, but now there are whispers of a rebellion against the Capitol – a rebellion that Katniss and Peeta may have helped create. As the nation watches Katniss and Peeta, the stakes are higher than ever. One false move and the consequences will be unimaginable.
I read The Hunger Games on a train journey and couldn’t get the book out of my head – despite the fact that it wasn’t aimed at my age group. The tense page-turning action and unexpected twists had haunted me, as well as Collins’ spiky, conflicted heroine, Katniss. So – was Catching Fire going to be able to sustain the excellent story-telling skills Collins’ demonstrated in The Hunger Games?

If readers are expecting Katniss to be remotely upbeat about their survival after The Hunger Games, they are quickly put straight in the opening section. The whole experience has left Katniss traumatised. And once the ‘victory tour’ gets under way, that trauma becomes something else. For there are clearly signs in some of the Districts that the inhabitants are becoming restive under Capitol’s brutal control – and when President Snow has a private word with Katniss and makes it clear that he holds her liable for keeping any sort of rebellion in check, she realises that her responsibilities haven’t ended with keeping her family safe and Peeta alive… Hundreds of lives may depend on how she acts and what she says during their tour.

As for her relationship with Peeta and Gale… Snow points out, she now has to take a certain course in that direction, as well. I was gratified to see a complete lack of the self satisfied wriggling that occasionally accompanies a three-cornered relationship in some urban fantasies. Anyone who has been in that situation will know that it is generally a miserably painful business.

It is a lot harder to pull off a successful middle book in any trilogy than Collins makes it look. There has to be plenty of progression and action, sustaining the strong start that a best-selling first book has achieved, with sufficient exposition so that anyone reading the books out of sequence isn’t completely flailing around, yet without exasperating the reader who has the sense to read them in the proper order (something I rarely manage to do…). And the ending is particularly tricky. There has to be a complete story arc within the trilogy, yet with a couple of trailing plot points to ensure your loyal readership cannot resist rushing out and getting hold of the third book at the earliest opportunity. Collins gives a masterclass in getting this balance right. The concept of the whole series is neatly apt; her characterisation of Katniss is very strong with a compelling narrative voice – yet, I still think that Collins major talent lies in her ability to craft a classic story structure that pulls her audience into her tale.

I had resisted the pull of Chasing Fire by reading a couple of other books between The Hunger Games and its sequel on the grounds that often by reading a series of books by the same author, I become sensitive to the writer’s foibles which inhibits my enjoyment of his/her work. But as soon as I completed Chasing Fire, I reached for Mockingjay – I had to know what happens next. So if you’ve decided to avoid The Hunger Games series because you generally find books with a lot of hype surrounding them are often a disappointment – yet enjoy character-led near future, dystopian science fiction, then I strongly recommend you seek out this series. It’s worth it.
9/10