I think I have mentioned one or three times before on this blog that I simply don’t get on with Martin’s sprawling Fantasy epic series A Song of Ice and Fire. That doesn’t mean I dislike his writing, however. Fevre Dream remains one of my favourite all-time novellas – I cannot recommend it highly enough. So when I came across this offering by Gollancz, who rounded up this series of connected short stories and published them in a single volume in a very smart marketing move – I scooped it up with glee.
Haviland Tuf, an honest trader with his humble ship the Cornucopia of Excellent Goods at Low Prices, has agreed to transport a group of unpleasant individuals to an amazing and terrifying discovery made by the space archaeologist among them. Question is – will any of them survive the experience? And if they do, how does anyone cope with a thirty-five kilometre long ship devoted to producing terrifying plagues and monsters?
As any fan of science fiction knows – the recurring storyline of a scary-powerful artefact suddenly emerging from a previous era is as cosily familiar within the genre as a cup of cocoa. Martin takes the subject – and adds in his own quirky protagonist and individual take to produce this series of entertaining, humorous and thought provoking stories. His writing is sharp and enjoyable – I found Haviland Tuf an interestingly complex and contradictory character. He appears to be stolidly argumentative and pedantic, yet goes out of his way to help people who don’t seem to remotely appreciate his efforts. Though, you see flashes of the author capable of the dark twists infesting a book like A Feast for Crows in his depiction of Tuf – particularly right at the end, when the mood turns suddenly a whole lot sombre, as Martin raises some very sharp moral issues. At what point does an individual trample on the rights and free will of a whole society in order to save them from their own folly? Is it ever allowable? And where does that leave the idea of democratic rule if such a caveat becomes acceptable?
However, for most of the book, such issues bubble away in the background while Tuf’s adventures kept me captivated and amused – and on my toes. Right from the start, I had no idea where this story was headed, which was why I have gone to some lengths to avoid providing too many spoilers. I am personally allergic to them and recommend that you avoid the back cover blurb, which basically sets out the plot of the first story.
In addition to the outstanding protagonist, Martin has also peopled these adventures with a number of memorable supporting characters – my favourite being Tolly Mune, who makes several appearances in these stories. Eccentric and crafty, she is a great foil to Haviland Tuf and her story arc throughout the book is equally enjoyable and twisty. All in all, this is one of the best science fiction reads of the year, so far. Track it down – even if you, too, can’t cope with Martin’s magnum opus.