DISTRICT 9 by (film review)
An interesting film that is about a race of aliens who appear over South Africa and get forced to live in slum-like
conditions. Many years later the munitions corporation, Multi-National United, is contracted to forcibly evict the
population. The person in charge of this, Wikus van der Merwe is then exposed to a strange alien chemical. The film
is gritty and realistic, and none of the actors particularly famous, which makes a refreshing change.
I remember the advertising being comprehensive for this film – posters all over the place, such as on phone boxes, and a rather good trailer, thus leading to quite a lot of hype. I expected a bigger budget film but this has been done on a relative ‘shoestring’ compared to most modern movies. The aliens are very realistic and believable with no bad CGI in sight. It starts off being shot as a documentary-style film then becomes more conventional later as the plot and action picks up. Wikus is a believable pathetic character as he is forced by circumstances to change his view towards the aliens and even come to rely on them.
Be warned, this is a gritty film which doesn’t shy away from violence, but it is nonetheless a very good film which leaves a strong impression in terms of the way it is filmed and the strong themes present throughout. Recommended.
FORBIDDEN PLANET: 50TH ANNIVERSARY TWO DISC SPECIAL EDITION by (film review)
Sometimes in life you see bargains and pass them by, later regretting your error, and sometimes there are bargains
that you just *cannot* pass by and you go for. Seeing the DVD of the 1956 classic FORBIDDEN PLANET - one of my
alltime favourite SF movies (there are only a handful of SF movies worth watching once let alone twice) - advertised
on Amazon for the ridiculously low price of £3.97 post free was such a time. The 50th Anniversary two disc version with
extras including ‘lost’ scenes cut from the released version! How could I resist? My VHS tape was looking very grainy
and faded so a couple of clicks later I sat back, having ordered it and looked forward to sitting down in a few days time
to rewatch a great movie though I puzzled somewhat over what was going to fill 2 discs.
The disc duly arrived 3 or 4 days later and I sat down about midnight with a bottle of Shiraz looking forward to enjoying the movie once more. Ah! Problem! Which disc has the movie and which one has the extras? Well, let’s just start with one of them. A black and white clip started off the disc – excerpts from THE INVISIBLE BOY, a movie made a year or so after FORBIDDEN PLANET that I’d heard of because they’d used Robbie the Robot in it. Oh, well, worth watching the bits with Robbie in it I suppose…. But, no, it was the complete movie based on a story by Edmund Cooper!!!. I hadn’t switched it off in disgust so it couldn’t have been that bad. To be perfectly honest, there were a few excruciatingly embarrassing bits. Next up was something called “Watch the Skies” which turned out to be a TCM Special on SF movies featuring George Lucas, Steven Spielberg, James Cameron to name just three, talking about SF movies – surprisingly very sensibly!. A fascinating documentary that lasted an hour. Oops, still more ‘extras’ but it was now nearly 3am and time for sleep. And I still hadn’t seen FORBIDDEN PLANET!
Evening two, Shiraz 2 and disc 2 – good old Will Shakespeare’s only SF movie! Well, no, he didn’t actually write it – Irving Block and Allen Adler wrote the story but Will sometimes gets unwarranted credit for it despite the fact that he didn’t even know what a robot was.
Although the sound was mono, it is now remastered into 5.1 Dolby Digital and the picture was 2.40 widescreen – almost the way it was shown in cinemas (originally 2.55). Superb picture and how glad I was to throw out my VHS tape! One slight disappointment – the version originally shown in cinemas was 98 minutes long according to Imdb – this DVD is 94 minutes. What’s missing?
My third session at this DVD revealed a complete episode from the TV series THE THIN MAN. This episode, “Robot Client” from February 1958 also features our old friend Robbie the Robot but plotwise it was transparent and the whole thing was very dated. But it was nice to see it. Other extras were THE MGM PARADE TV series, “Exploring the Far Reaches of FORBIDDEN PLANET” plus several cinema trailers of THE TIME MCHINE and other SF movies of the 50s. And don’t forget the ‘lost’ scenes and extra footage!
All this for £3.97????? Go buy!!!
STAR TREK by (film review)
Having grown up with the Star Trek franchise and various films, there’s always a little sense of excitement, rather like
with a new Bond film, when they release another movie, and this looked to be a real refresh of the franchise.
It features the beginning of the story of the characters from the original Star Trek series - Kirk, Spock, Bones et al - how they met and ended up doing what they do. The film kicks off with the birth of Kirk set against the demise of his father, and then shows him entering Starfleet twenty years later and being known as a trouble maker. At this point he is under Spock’s command, and they are not on friendly terms, but as disaster strikes on Vulcan the film starts pulling itself together, with the help of a familiar face from the future.
The plotline was ok. I’ve read a few reports about gaping plot holes here, bad science there, but this *is* Star Trek, so who expects anything to be perfectly explained? What I liked about this film is the reimagining of the characters. I felt the young actors who played the famous roles (especially Chris Pine as Kirk, and Zachary Quinto as Spock) were outstanding. The movie’s visuals and CGI effects were well done, which was to be expected considering the rather huge budget – a big step away from the effects used for the original series (it does look odd when the SF bits look more futuristic in their younger years than when they are established). Abrams, the director, had a tough job on his hands having to please the hardcore fans, general public and the studio, but I think he has done well here with what is a watchable, even appealing film with well-drawn characters and good performances from the young actors, and plenty of visuals and action scenes to be getting along with.
THE HANGING TREE by Ben Aaronovitch
For those of you who are unfamiliar with this popular and wonderfully humorous series, it is an urban fantasy set in
London. PC Peter Grant is a serving officer in the Metropolitan Police Force but he is also a trainee wizard, the first in
fifty years. He and Inspector Nightingale (his mentor) are expected to deal with any crimes the Met reluctantly accepts
may have a “supernatural” element. Some of the magical beings in London are incarnations of the various rivers of
London (hence the series title).
In this book, a suspicious death of a rich young woman in an expensive apartment in Hyde Park would not normally concern PC Grant. However, he owes a favour to Lady Tyburn (one of the more powerful Rivers) and as her daughter was present, Lady Ty wants her daughter protected. As Peter digs further into the case it becomes clear that the death links back to an old enemy, the Faceless Man and Peter is in grave danger as he tries to solve the case.
After book 5, which took place in the countryside, this is a welcome return to London where PC Grant (and it seems also the author) is back in his comfort zone. PC Grant’s “voice” – his hilarious and wry observations of the supernatural Londoners and the conventional police who have to grudgingly accept and deal with them is one of the great joys of this series. In particular, the characters of DC Guleed and the long-suffering DCI Seawoll are excellent and amusing. The story rattles along at a fast pace and plot strands from previous novels are brought nicely back into this narrative, so the overall series story arc progresses as well as the individual case in this book. I also like that there are some interesting new characters introduced who are clearly going to be important in the future books and who nicely expand the possibilities for story development.
The author also has allowed Peter Grant to grow, both personally and magically. He has gained power and experience although he clearly is not strong enough to take down the Faceless Man by himself. That confrontation is clearly intended to ultimately involve his master, Inspector Nightingale. Here however, is the one niggle I had with this book as I definitely felt that the author kept contriving unlikely circumstances just to keep the Faceless Man and Nightingale apart. That being said, for the many fans of this series, this is an excellent addition. If you haven’t tried this series before, it is well worth trying. Fans of Jim Butcher or Benedict Jacka’s Alex Verus novels will definitely find much to like. Carol Goodwin
WHITE MARS or THE MIND SET FREE: A 21st CENTURY UTOPIA by Brian Aldiss & Roger Penrose
There are two ways of writing a novel about a utopia: the more common is to demonstrate it as a going concern by
having a native of it explain things to a visitor (as in Thomas More’s original). Almost unique is to show the utopia
being set up, which is what Aldiss does.
The setting is a Mars lightly colonised by humans in the 2060s, when its 6000 inhabitants are suddenly cut off from Earth by Earth’s financial collapse. Quickly abandoning money, the colonists debate over how they should govern themselves, how their society should be structured, how lawbreakers should be treated, and similar problems. So the novel is partly an examination of what makes a utopia. Clearly, no form of government will satisfy all of the people all of the time, so part of the problem is deciding how dissenters should be treated.
The elderly Tom Jefferies is the main architect of these Utopian attempts, and also one of the novel’s two major narrators. The other is Cang Hai, a young Chinese woman who becomes Jefferies’ adopted daughter. (I must mention that the colonists include representatives o f just about every colour and culture on Earth, reminiscent of the old 1950s cliché o f a starship being sent out crewed by ten people from ten different nations. I didn’t believe it then and, despite Aldiss’s explanations, I don’t believe it now.) There are, alas, too many characters here, mostly minor, so it’s impossible for the reader to remember who’s who, and almost the only personalities, which come across, are those of the narrators.
An important thread of the novel (which provides its title) is the belief by most colonists and the authors that Mars must be protected from commercial exploitation and preserved for science, similar to Antarctica.
In particular, Mars must not be terraformed.
This is a novel containing clever plot twists, fascinating details of life in the domes, some drama, many references to that great utopian H.G. Wells and, unfortunately, too much impassioned argument about science and utopianism. It’s difficult to know how much influence Roger Penrose has had here, though he’s probably responsible for an extended section concerning the search for a subatomic particle called a smudge.
So WHITE MARS is a most worthwhile subject and a grand saga of Martian colonisation, which is extended, in summary form to cover the whole 21st century. It contains dozens of larger-than-life characters and a wonderful sub- plot concerning Olympus Mons. Without giving away too much I’ll tell you that utopia is eventually achieved, though in a very unexpected manner.
WHEN THE GODS CAME DOWN by Alan F Alford
Alan F Alford has joined a growing band of authors who are putting into doubt the basic message that religious
organisations are trying to perpetuate. As people are becoming better educated and the flow of information is
becoming more easily accessible, the dogmas of the church and some of the fundamental premises of Archaeology
are coming under attack. To the modern reader it is obvious that civilisation did not spring into being fully formed as
was taught in schools some fifty years ago but took a much longer process of evolution. Also that so-called pre civilised
man had a much better understanding of the world about him than was given credence.
The modem bible, which has undergone many revisions since the Authorised King James version, has been edited and altered so that it is a long way from any source materiel. Many of the myths and legends in the old testament were recorded from much earlier oral traditions and have no doubt been corrupted through the telling, or as Alan F Alford would have believe, that the theology of the old testament was constructed on half-truths and in some cases outright lies.
When gods came down presents an interesting hypothesis that modern religion is a dumbed down version for the masses of a much older religious truth. Also that earth was seeded by meteorites from a celestial body that exploded, eventually giving rise to the legends of ancient mythological gods who fought battles in the skies and came down from Heaven to Earth. Where the real truth lies nobody really knows but as Archaeology uncovers finds that do not fit into the comfortable niche that has underpinned our understanding of the rise of the human race more and more speculative hypothesis with surface. Some of the present ‘outlandish’ claims of other authors may yet turn out to be the bedrock of our future understanding, and long forgotten knowledge that has been lost or suppressed may still surface and give support to these claims.
This book must join the growing volumes of well-researched theories that are well worth the time to read for the interested reader.
SCATTERED SUNS by Kevin J Anderson
This book is pretty much the most anticipated book in my reading year - I know for a lot of folks, the sixth Harry Potter
book has brought near ecstasy, but not me. I like space opera. My favourite book of all time is space opera (DUNE by
Frank Herbert), and this series so far has been excellent space opera. So you can imagine my feelings when I received
this fourth and latest instalment in The Saga of the Seven Suns. And the one thing I can say to anyone about this
series is that it is getting better and better as every book comes out.
The battle has now been joined once and for all. Since Mankind launched the Klikiss Torch turning a gas giant into a new star and destroying the Hydrogue colony living within the planet, the Hydrogues have been attacking the ekti (fuel for space ships) harvester mankind has placed around the gas giants of many systems. And so far all efforts by Earth's military have failed to have any effect on the Hydrogues.
Mankind's ally, the Ildiran Empire has at least scored a victory although at a very great cost, with only a suicide attack being successful.
In recent times the Hydrogues have been becoming more belligerent, and have started attacking planets, wiping out both Ildiran and Human worlds, as well as attacking Theron, the home of the sentient World Forest - one of their ancient enemies.
Worried by the lack of success to report, Earth authorities have launched a campaign against the Roamers, a loose-knit group of human clans who live on the fringes of the main human empire (the groups have until now been on at least a tolerable relationship). This course of action at least giving the authorities the victories they need so desperate to report to the people.
And all this is not mentioning the Faeros (beings living within stars - enemies of the Hydrogues), Wentals (elemental water beings, also enemies of the Hydrogues), the Klikiss robots (insect-like robots made by a long dead race of insect-like beings), an Ildiran breeding program designed to produce a telepath capable of communicating with the Hydrogues, and a Civil War occuring within the Ildiran Empire.
This book is immense, both in terms of size (700 plus pages) and in scope - there is just so much going on. But it also manages to include all of these divergent plot strands without seeming overwhelming. It helps that the chapters are short (this would be so much harder to read with lengthy chapters) and the constant scene changes help drag you through the book.
The action here is simply incredible, this is a totally absorbing book.
The scale of this book is so huge, and yet as the action is told from the perspectives of individuals on the various sides of this conflict, the scale of it actually seems comfortable.
This series has everything, we have a first contact situation (or three), plus a major war between space faring species, political intrigue and betrayal, human settlers trying to make their way on new planets in good old frontier tradition, and even a love story or two going on in the middle. What more could you want? This is excellent.
Kevin J. Anderson is one of the top SF writers around today, and this book is further proof of his talent.
A VISION OF FIRE - BOOK ONE OF THE EARTHEND SAGA by Gillian Anderson and Jeff Rovin
Gillian Anderson will of course always be known for her role in The X-Files (yes, that Gillian Anderson!), but she has
since moved on to become a quite highly regarded stage and screen actress. In collaboration with established writer
Jeff Rovin she now makes what the publishers describe as her “thrilling science fiction debut” with the first volume in a
Saga of as-yet unspecified length. In point of fact, it may well be that Rovin has provided the majority of the writing
while Anderson's contribution is largely confined to providing her supposedly prestigious name to be put on the cover.
(See Ansible #328.)
It tells the story of how child psychologist Caitlin O'Hara is called in when the teenage daughter of India's ambassador to the United Nations becomes severely disturbed after her father survives an assassination attempt. O'Hara discovers that other cases of disturbed teenagers have occurred in such unlikely places as Iran and Haiti, cases which appear at first glance to be different although certain points of similarity are to be found. Eventually a connection emerges in the form of a kind of possession by a spirit force seeking escape from a fiery cataclysm and O'Hara also becomes affected. This volume ends with her having discovered something of the nature of this mysterious influence which seems to arise from a civilisation of the remote past in the Antarctic, but a full understanding will, obviously, not emerge until it is explained in the later volume(s).
Meanwhile, a highly secret and very powerful Group hidden within something called the Global Explorer's Club is pursuing its own agenda and clearly knows already a lot more of what is involved than O'Hara has yet discovered.
This is all a lot less thrilling than they would have us believe. The writing is pedestrian and the overall style and structure of the book are strongly reminiscent of a mainstream novel where the general lack of originality might be less noticeable. The characters spend a lot of time just talking and thinking about things instead of actually doing anything and trips to Haiti and Iran are described in unnecessary detail which contributes to the sense that it has all been padded out beyond the length the story is naturally capable of supporting. Learning more of what the shadowy Group are seeking to achieve might have made it more interesting or even exciting, but again that may have to await later opportunities for revelation.
There is perhaps some scope for subsequent volumes in The Earthend Saga to redeem the shortcomings of this one, but the signs are not hopeful.
DARK INTELLIGENCE by Neal Asher
DARK INTELLIGENCE is the first volume in the new Transformation series of novels by Neal Asher and is a very
welcome return to his popular Polity universe. In it we meet again a number of characters that featured in some of his
previous novels. These include Amistad, a scorpion war drone who through extensive upgrades to its AI systems has
become the warden of a Polity protectorate planet, Masada. This is the home of the Weaver, the only sentient
Gabbleduck (or Atheter), one of the previously thought to be extinct ancient races who occupied the galaxy long
before humans evolved. Much of the action in this book takes place there. Amistad had been given responsibility for
the dark (evil) AI, Penny Royal, whom in the previous Polity novel THE TECHNICIAN it was believed he had
rehabilitated by removing its eighth and evil state of consciousness, but is this true?
Penny Royal features strongly in this book and is feared and hunted by the other major characters for her past actions. Before capture by Amistad she was infamous for granting wishes, for a price, that not only met what was asked for but went far beyond. One thing though, Penny Royal always keeps her word.
The other major characters are:
The newly resurrected human, Thorvald Spear who was killed by Penny Royal during the Polity vs (alien) Prador war which ended over a century before the start of this novel.
Isobel Satomi who ran a successful crime syndicate in the Graveyard; the no man’s land between the Prador kingdom and the Polity before negotiating with Penny Royal for more power.
Sverl, a renegade Prador Captain Father, another of Penny Royal’s customers, who hides from both the Polity and his King in the Graveyard.
Blite, who is the owner and captain of a spaceship. He is duped into smuggling Penny Royal off Masada and chauffeuring her on her travels.
In addition there is a rich cast of supporting personnel.
In DARK INTELLIGENCE Neal Asher amply restates the excellence of his storytelling by skilfully entwining the story line of each of his characters into a very strong narrative that is set within a detailed and believable universe. This is an excellent book and an equally excellent start to a new series.
THE DEPARTURE by Neal Asher
Neal Asher here begins what is promised to be a long-running series featuring “The Owner of the Worlds”. This first
Owner novel is set mostly on a hugely over-populated
Earth in the mid-22nd Century. A totalitarian world government calling itself The
Committee has taken complete control and maintains and exercises its power through
every cruelty and atrocity that can be imagined. Onto this scene comes Adam Saul, a genius with a head full of
computer implants which enables him to bring down The Committee and destroy its powerbase.
The background to this narrative is hardly original, portraying as it does an extrapolation of current world trends such
as over-population, unequal distribution of resources and the kind of totalitarianism which leads to suppression of a
majority of the world’s population. These ideas have been explored before by numerous contemporary writers, as well
as others at least as far back as George Orwell’s NINETEEN EIGHTY-FOUR. Even the idea of mind/computer
interfacing has been seen before, although Asher takes it to a new level, one so high as to seem at times barely
On the whole, the book comes over as rather shallow and hastily contrived. Adam Saul had appeared from nowhere
two years earlier, with no explanation either of where he came from or what he did during those years.
Once he gets going as the proverbial one man wave of destruction the action is relentless and at times events are
almost obscured in a fog of blood and body parts, but the overall structure is completely one-dimensional with no
depth to it at all. The book ends with him having become the self-styled Owner and about to embark on whatever
course of action subsequent volumes in the series will recount. Meanwhile a subsidiary plot concerning a Mars colony
had seemed largely irrelevant until it becomes apparent at the very end that it might after all assume some
importance in what is to follow.
Asher has produced some excellent and highly-praised work in the past but it is hard not to feel that he has let himself
down here. Later volumes may be better as the series beds in, and it may become possible to look back on this as an
effective introduction to what is to follow. On its own though, not very satisfactory.
BUY JUPITER by Isaac Asimov
Originally published in 1975, this is a collection of Asimov’s lesser reprinted stories. Thus, within these pages you will
find gems, not easily available elsewhere. Unfortunately, not all jewels are valuable. Over the period covered here,
1950-1973, Asimov was prolific. His work appeared in many, eclectic places - not all of it was fiction. Also, a story that
was thought good in the 1950s would not necessarily stand up to modern competition. Of much more interest, are the
biographical notes that accompany the stories themselves, detailing when and why each was written and also some o f
the other events that were going on in Asimov's life at the time.
In general, these pieces are short in length containing just one idea and without the room to develop characters too any great depth. Some have been written, just to get a pun in the last line, such as "Shah Guido G" which tells o f the demise o f the space station inhabited by the rulers of Earth.
Very few o f the stories are memorable. I had read this collection many years ago, and only two were familiar. "Button, Button", a time experiment which, although successful, fails because the parchment the rare signature was written on, appeared too new. And the title story, "Buy Jupiter" in which the planets are used as galactic advertising hoardings.
This collection will only really appeal either to the Asimov completists, or to those interested in Asimov's biography.
ATOM by Steve Aylett
This is probably the latest trend. The next big thing after cyberpunk. Think of a more genre - oriented Jeff Noon and
you're on the right track. OK so the genre is the gangster novel (think of a futuristic Damon Runyon) but definitely
genre This thing positively reeks with style and flair. Pity it doesn't care much for plot and character.
The plot (such as it is): - Taffy Atom is a PI (probably stands for Private Investigator but could just be Private I). He has a goldfish that could scare off sharks (no matter what kind of heavy artillery they might be holding) and an outer office that could put the fear of God into a hardened criminal. He has been employed to find Kafka's brain by a local gang boss. Or is that a local gang boss's brain by Franz Kafka? Another gangster want's to find this brain simply because his rival wants it. There are more complications.
A bizarre comedy. Look out for the strange weaponry that look more like plot devices that mechanical ones ("Rather than actually stripping the subtext from the blast site it converted the wave range into a living Updike novel").
CREATION MACHINE by Andrew Bannister
This book as well as being the first stand-alone volume in a trilogy, is the author’s debut novel. It is set in an area of
space that is known as the ‘Spin’ which is described as being a thickly populated region containing 94 planets looped
in complex orbits around 21 suns. It is about 30 light-days wide. In addition, it is split into 4 distinct and separately
moving astro-geographic parts. While, as is indicated by the book’s title, the area is obviously a highly artificial
construct, no suggestion is provided as to how its stability is maintained.
Throughout most of the book the action alternates between two apparently unconnected storylines. In fact, on reaching the end I did not find any strong connection between these strands. The first of these follows Fleare Hass, a fighter of a failed dissident group, ‘Society Otherwise’, which has been defeated by the brutal and oppressive industrial dominated ‘Hegemony’ in which her father is a leading figure. Her narrative starts with rescue from imprisonment in a desolate monastery on a remote and inhospitable planet by a friend who has been turned into a cloud of sentient nanites. After escaping they meet up with 2 other survivors from ‘Society Otherwise’ and flee across the ‘Spin’ to a cluster of fallen planets known as ‘the Catastrophe Curve’.
The other strand follows Alameche Ur-hive, a senior member of the government of the brutal and despotic empire of the ‘Fortunate’ which rules the 6 planets of the inner region of the ‘Spin’ known as the ‘Cordern’. What happens in this section covers a plot to control a mysterious object thought to be one of the machines used to create the ‘Spin’ and hence having the potential to become a highly destructive weapon. Nowhere in the book is there any contact between Fleare and Alameche.
What did I think of the book? I’m ambivalent; to me the story of Fleare has too many dislocations. I kept thinking how and why did they get to that point. In contrast the inhumane tale of Alameche was more coherent. Towards the end of the book, new characters existing in computer simulations are suddenly introduced and these are critical to the apparent resolution of the ‘Creation Machine’ problem, but in a way that left me unsatisfied.
Did I like and enjoy the book? Well it was readable and moderately enjoyable but did not, in my opinion, live up to the standard I expected from the endorsements made in the publisher’s press release. That said, Andrew Bannister clearly has great potential as he has very good ideas and has created interesting characters and settings. Perhaps this is one of those books that grow on you on rereading. Also perhaps the next book in the sequence will reveal more detail and all will be made clear.
IMPULSE by Dave Bara
IMPULSE is book one in The Lightship Chronicles and is set in a galaxy recovering from a civil war that finished a
hundred and fifty years ago. This took place between the ‘First’ or ‘Corporate’ Empire and a group of secessionist
planets that wanted to leave that Empire. A decade before the action described in this book ‘the Historians’ a ‘Church’
group arrived in Quantar and Carinthia, two planets that had been on opposite sides in the war. Offering the gift of
lightships (interstellar craft) they persuaded these planets to join with Earth in a ‘Union’.
Just before the book starts a lightship, the Impulse one of three existing lightships, has just returned badly damaged from an exploratory trip to a neighbouring star, Levant. Lt. Peter Cochrane, son of the Quantarian Grand Admiral is quickly pulled off his planned first trip in the new lightship Starbound, promoted to the rank of lieutenant commander and transferred to the Impulse. The first problem to face him is that the Impulse is crewed by Carinthians and there is still some residual antagonism between them and Quantarans. After repair this ship is to return to Levant to investigate the circumstances of the attack. To further complicate things an historian accompanies all lightships and has overriding authority and access to technology that is not shared with the crews.
On return to the Levant system, the Impulse is attacked by both First Empire technology but also by something called ‘Founder’ technology. It appears that several hundred thousand years before the current period there was a human star empire that was destroyed by a mysterious enemy. Earth humans supposedly are the descendants of a lost colony of this empire. After surviving these attacks and while exploring this founder technology in one of the ship’s shuttles, Peter and his friends are stranded when the Historian on the Impulse shanghaies the ship and leaves the star system via a wormhole. It turns out that there is a schism in the ranks of the Historians. Fortunately the Levant system rulers are friendly and before you know it Peter is engaged to its co-ruler.
As you may gather the plot and characterisation is rather convoluted. I’m sorry to say that I did not find either the technology or plot believable. In addition the actions of the main characters especially Peter’s are, in my opinion, naïve, clumsy and do not meet the standards one would expect of persons in their position. A more experienced author may have produced a more satisfying tale.
ELVES ONCE WALKED WITH GODS by James Barclay
ELVES ONCE WALKED WITH GODS is the first of a trilogy by this prolific author. The many species of Elves (called
Threads) have lived in an unnatural harmony for over a thousand years on both their original home world and Calius
where this story is set. About 10 years before the present date they are forced to flee their home world to escape from
the demonic Garonin leaving about 100,000 behind to be slaughtered. Takaar, the elf who created the harmony and
lead the resistance to the Garonin, is blamed for the loss and has fled into the jungles of Calius.
Malcontents are working to destroy the harmony established by Takaar. On its formal repudiation, Elven society immediately and violently fractures with each Thread taking revenge for perceived slights and inequalities. Human mercenaries have been brought in to help re-establish the pre-harmony ruling Thread but, using magic, brutally take over and establish their own rule. In desperation, controversial steps are taken to recall Takaar from his exile; but will he be of help or a hindrance as in the 10 years since he was last seen he has gone mad?
As was to be expected of this author the book is competently written and moves along at a high pace with its many narrative strands being seamlessly woven together.
That said the plot did not grip nor the characters engage. I did not become interested in what was happening to the elves, either as a race or as individuals, until the end of the book when the story started to grow on me. Do I want to read the next part of the story, perhaps? Would I buy a copy? No.
RAVENSOUL by James Barclay
The Raven are back! The band of mercenaries for hire were last seen in DEMONSTORM and appeared to have fought
for the last time, but Barclay resurrects them for this one last battle. The star of the show is the ‘Unknown Warrior’, also
known as Sol, who is one of the last remaining members of the Raven left alive after the events of the last book. He is
paid an unexpected visit one night after several years spent grieving for his lost friends, and has to overcome his
disbelief to help reform the band and fight against the latest invaders, who appear to be even more dangerous than
the demons from before. It becomes apparent that he must make the ultimate sacrifice to save the world as he knows
As far as the plot of this book goes, from what we know of what has gone before, all the characters sacrificed themselves so the re-appearance in this book seems to take away some of the impact of this sacrifice somewhat. However, one can really imagine the fans cheering as their heroes come back one by one, and reunite to face even bigger, better bad guys! The author has an obvious fondness for his characters which is appealing when reading the book. At the same time he does not lose complete sight of the plot and the reader is drawn along with this.
Barclay writes well, so non-regular readers of his work will find the humour entertaining and the sufficiently fast pace will keep them interested, even if it all starts getting a bit metaphysical and surreal towards the end.
I enjoyed the book but it is one for fans really. Those who, unlike me, have read some of the others in the series will get the references to what has gone before, but this is a bit of a problem for newer readers. Maybe a list of Raven members and a summary of what has gone before might have been more helpful.
It is worth a read though and tempted me to read some of the earlier books in the series.
ABARAT II: DAYS OF MAGIC, NIGHTS OF WAR by Clive Barker
In the first book of the Abarat Quartet Candy Quackenbush was swept from her home in Chicken Town to the strange
world of Abarat. In this world, time is a place. Imagine a sundial where, instead of numbers around the edge, there are
islands. Each island is permanently at a particular time such as noon or two o’clock or midnight. All the people who
live here are strange. None of them look human. Candy has made friends with Malingo, an orange-skinned geshrat
who she freed from the slavery of the wizard Wolfswinkel. Candy has made enemies. She is also being pursued by the
minions of Christopher Carrion, Lord of Midnight. In this volume, Candy makes new friends and discovers she has
magical powers although she doesn’t know how they work. She also discovers that the reason why she has arrived in
Abarat and is having problems, is because the soul of a beautiful princess was hidden next to her own soul on the
night that she was born.
It is difficult to know who this book is aimed at. It is the kind of fantasy that youngsters would love, with all the weird characters. It is filled with over 125 full colour pictures created by Clive Barker. It would make a wonderful animated film. It is printed on thick, glossy paper so that the volume is heavier than expected. This and the price would probably put it out of range of many children, although it would make a superb present. At the same time, any adult prepared to get in touch with their inner child will also find a lot to delight them.
THE ESSENTIAL CLIVE BARKER by Clive Barker
I don't know how to classify this book. It's not a "best of' collection or a set of short stories. I wouldn't think of it as an
adequate introduction to the writer's work. I'm not even sure why it was published.
What you have here is a set of short sections from several very large novels taken to illustrate how Clive Barker writes. There is only one complete story here and that (In the hills, the cities) is less than 40 pages long and available elsewhere. If anything this seems to be an attempt at a text book for literature students. There are pieces of autobiography and commentary on how and why this was written. The fiction itself seems to be there only as illustration of the point. One for the student or the fan.
STONE SPRING by Stephen Baxter‘Doggerland’ is the name semi-officially given to a stretch of land which once linked northern Britain to what is now the Netherlands. About 6-8000 years ago, it was inundated by rising sea levels, which may or may not have resulted in part from a comet impact, and it now lies beneath the North Sea. It is this land that Stephen Baxter has chosen as the setting for his latest book, the first volume of the Northland trilogy.
THE MASSACRE OF MANKIND by Stephen Baxter
This novel is a sequel to H G Wells’ THE WAR OF THE WORLDS, and the new story revolves around the Martians
return to Earth in the 1920’s. Whilst other authors have previously written sequels, this version is listed as “authorised by
the H G Wells Estate” and I presume was timed to coincide with 2016 being the 150th anniversary of Wells’ birth. The
author, Stephen Baxter has previously written another authorised H G Wells’ sequel, THE TIME SHIPS which was a
follow-up to THE TIME MACHINE and marked the centenary of that book’s publication.
It is fourteen years since the Martians invaded England, and the world has changed considerably. Examination of wrecked and abandoned Martian machinery has led to significant advances in technology. History as we know it has changed as a consequence of the original invasion; most significantly, a recovering UK formed an alliance with Germany, and a “Schlieffen War” between Russia and Germany is still ongoing. The governments of Earth scan the skies, but as another close approach between Earth and Mars nears, they are confident that their progress and prior knowledge means that this time they are prepared for the Martians. But when another Martian fleet begins to land, it becomes obvious that the Martians have also learned lessons and adapted so that yet again mankind is in deadly peril.
Writing in another author’s world, especially one so well-known and iconic as this one, is always going to be a difficult task. What is done very well is the attention to the details of 1920’s geography, vocabulary and appropriate technology. It is clear that a considerable amount of research has gone into writing this novel, and I also enjoyed the little nods to other people or works connected to Mars, ranging from Schiaparelli through to Grover’s Mill.
The worldbuilding is excellent and like the original, there are some suitably gruesome accounts of the Martians’ treatment of captured humans. However, I found myself a little frustrated with the pacing. The first section of the book, which deals with the initial landing, consolidation and the flight of refugees is the most successful in my opinion. After that however, there is an interlude of a couple of years where the Martians in England spend a long time just consolidating this bridgehead, without any attempt to spread further, and I found the urgency and menace of the story evaporating in this section. Towards the later part of the book there are further landings around the world, and the pace picks up but it felt to me like there was then too little space left to give these invasions sufficient details and thus engage the reader.
Fans of Wells’ will appreciate that the narrative does link back and reference the original story. It also includes many of the characters from the Wells’ story, including the original narrator, Walter Jenkins and the artilleryman, although much of the tale is now told by Julie, the sister-in-law of Walter Jenkins. However, I felt that the major focus was on the plot and that thus the characters often seemed to lack depth and I often found it hard to care much about their struggles.
Finally, it was always going to be difficult to find an ending with equivalent impact to the original. Without giving away the conclusion, this story finishes with a resolution that feels a little too “easy” and hence unsatisfying, although there is a “epilogue” which leaves scope for future developments. To summarise, this is a “curate’s egg” of a book – there are some very good bits but other bits that didn’t work for me.
TIME by Stephen Baxter
This seems to me a more rambling novel than usual from Steve Baxter. Probably this is because it is not focused on
one story-line, such as a mission to Titan, or a Moon-mission using old NASA hardware, or. . .
There are actually three threads here: Reid Malenfant, who has a mission to get humankind into space, with or without NASA's help; the 'Carter Prophecy' which forecasts that we have only a couple of centuries to live before we become extinct like the dinosaurs, or worse, and the efforts to confirm that by receiving messages from the future (rather as in Greg Benford's TIMESCAPE) and to see what we can do to avoid it; and the 'Blue Children' — a sudden epidemic of children who are 'strange', vastly more intelligent than their peers, and appear to have a secret mission of their own, regardless of the authorities' efforts to control or segregate them (often using pretty horrific and inhumane methods).
The latter theme is of course not new in SF. We all know John Wyndham's THE CHRYSALIDS (MIDWICH CUCKOOS), television's THE TOMORROW PEOPLE. And so on. But they are essential to the story, and indeed play an extremely important role in developments. Oh, and they all wear a blue circle. Malenfant plans a mission to an asteroid — piloted by an intelligent squid. The squids, too. Have their own story, so I suppose there are four threads really. The asteroid, Cruithne, is actually Earth's second moon, though it has a very complicated orbit, and it seems to have something to do with Earth's eventual fate, according to a message from the future. It turns out that there is some sort of alien artifact there, with a link to the blue circle which obsesses the children, and to time itself (hence the title). But I won't give any more away; read it and find out for yourself. Baxter is never afraid to take his ideas to the limit, and to encompass vast distances in time and space, and this book is no exception, while his grasp of modern scientific theories is quite spellbinding.
Steve has one habit (about which I must ask him next time I see him) which I find irritating. No, not writing as if he is an American, using words like 'gotten' — and not just in dialogue — though this is a bit odd. No: it is the fact that he capitalises the words "Earth' and 'Moon' (quite properly, in my opinion, since they are proper nouns, though may authors do use lower-case for them.) yet uses lower case for 'sun'. What is the logic of this? It brings me up short every time I see it, and distracts me from the text I am supposed to be reading. Earth is our planet; 'earth' is soil. The Moon is our natural satellite and important to us because it lights our night sky and influences the tides, while 'a moon' is a satellite. But the Sun, as opposed to 'a sun' which means any star, is the most vital object in our Solar System since without none of the planets, or ourselves, would exist. All of them surely deserve capital initial letters. But if one must use lower-case, then at least let's be consistent. (Does anyone disagree? If so, please explain!)
THE MEDUSA CHRONICLES by Stephen Baxter and Alastair Reynolds
In one of his last stories – albeit one published some seventeen years before his death – Arthur C. Clarke told how
dirigible captain Howard Falcon was left crippled by a crash and was rebuilt as a cyborg. This enabled him to make a
voyage into the atmosphere of Jupiter where he encountered indigenous sentient lifeforms which he called Medusae.
That story ended with clear hints that one day there would be more to be told and now two of our leading SF writers have applied themselves to doing so in a story which spans several ensuing centuries.
As mankind begins to explore and develop the Solar System, increasing reliance comes to be placed on machines in which burgeoning artificial intelligence eventually moves on to completely autonomous self-awareness – aided and stimulated, it has to be said, by the intervention of Falcon.
The result is the machines uniting to constitute a mech civilisation (if that is the right word) which advances to the point of challenging human civilisation for ownership of the Solar System. Over the centuries Falcon observes this progressing, attempting to intervene here and there. Eventually, an ill-considered attempt is made to use an unwitting Falcon as a weapon against the machines which are now occupying Jupiter, but this backfires when Falcon discovers what has been done to him. Instead, he and a representative of the machines embark on an incredible and epic journey to the centre of Jupiter where they discover a gateway to a higher realm of organised intelligence.
This is indeed a worthy and successful continuation of what Clarke began. The earlier part of the book even captures some of the style of his writing, and a verbatim quotation from 2001 is just one of several oblique nods to his work. In due course scientific and technological wonders are deployed which in a present-day context are every bit as far-out as some of Clarke's ideas were in his own day in such books as CHILDHOOD'S END and THE CITY AND THE STARS – perhaps even more so.
Unfortunately, the final conclusion is somewhat open-ended, leaving one to speculate as to whether the intention is to make this the first in a series, or at least to leave open the possibility of a sequel. Be that as it may, it is a book well worth reading, and perhaps more than once in order to fully work out the timing and all the intricate and subtle nuances it contains.
BEYOND HEAVEN’S RIVER by Greg Bear
I have read quite a few Greg Bear books, and generally enjoy them as 'hard SF'. This will not become one of my
favourites, and if you're looking for a fast-moving, all-action, adventure story, this is not for you either. It is however a
thoughtful and well-researched novel and worth a read - especially if you are interested in Japanese history. Because
it revolves around the discovery on a distant planet of an ex-Japanese air force pilot who was involved in Pearl
Harbour, over 400 years after his birth in 1918. He links up with a rich female spaceship owner, who realises that he
holds some secret and spends most of the book trying to find out what this is. (It is never fully explained.) There is also
a tussle between three parties over the ownership of the barren planet on which he was found, now abandoned by an
enigmatic alien race.
Reading a book like this, I often wonder why the author wrote it. Bear does not seem to have any great philosophical point to make in this one, except perhaps the futility of life even when you have lived for 400'years.
But he does show a great knowledge of the Japanese culture and history - so did he write this simply to make use of, and show off the results of a life-long interest? I have wondered this about some of Stephen Baxter's lengthier diatribes, too!
Oh, and as an artist, I can't resist a comment on the cover. As with most Millennium books by Bear, the art is by John Harris, though it bears little relation to the story and was probably done for something else. But someone in the Art department has decided to spice it up with a digital Photoshop lens flare - which really doesn't work, since Harris's work is very painterly, and flare needs a photographic image. Hey ho! David A Hardy
WAR DOGS: ARES RISING by Greg Bear
First, a few words of explanation. At the November meeting I was surprised to see TWO science fiction books for
review; for months there has been only fantasy, and any SF was taken before I saw it! So I grabbed both of them. The
first one I started to read was ON THE STEEL BREEZE by Alastair Reynolds. I had no idea that it was the second in a
series, or trilogy. It doesn’t say so, or even suggest this anywhere on the covers. So I kept coming across things that I
didn’t understand. As a result I am handing it back, in the hope that someone else has read BLUE REMEMBERED
EARTH, the first in the series.
The other book I took was WAR DOGS by Greg Bear. Again, there is no indication that this is anything but a standalone novel, but it turns out that it is the first in a trilogy. Still, at least it is the first, so I read it, and perhaps I’ll be lucky enough to get the second . . .
On a future Earth, an alien race known as the Gurus has appeared, and is virtually controlling the human race by bringing gifts. They landed in the Yemini desert and made contact with a group of camel herders. From there they went on to hack into telecoms and sat links, raised money by setting up anonymous trading accounts, then published online a series of puzzles which whet the appetite of the most curious and intelligent. Within these were lurking ‘Easter Eggs’ – puzzles which led logically to brilliant mathematical and scientific insights. At this point the Gurus revealed themselves, through a specially trained group of intermediaries. Few people ever saw them, but soon they had made themselves indispensable. They came in peace – of course – but then they revealed the fly in the ointment: they were being pursued by deadly enemies, from sun to sun, world to world. And they needed our help.
These hostile aliens had already started to establish a beachhead in our own Solar System, but not on Earth – on Mars. Humans were already living there, so the task of defeating what were known as the Antagonists, or Antags, fell to the Skyrines, ie. Space Marines. The story is taken up by one of these, Master Sergeant Michael Venn. The Skyrines travel to Mars in space frames, protected by Cosmoline. The frames carry ‘sticks’ holding squads of Skyrines, which are dropped onto Mars from orbit. They make a bad landing, and Venn’s group is separated from the rest of their platoon. They receive information and data via their ‘angels’, but the Antags keep bringing down their orbiting satellites and generally messing up communications. Then they drop the head of a comet onto Mars, almost obliterating the Skyrines ...
The rest of the story is concerned with their efforts to link up with other Skyrines, stay alive, and to shelter in and hold on to a strange geological formation (which may be an ancient alien ship?) known as ‘the Drifter’, which seems to take the shape of a giant buried figure. There is a unit of female special ops who seem to be working to a different set of order to the Skyrines, a mysterious girl called Teal who belongs to a group of original colonists known as Muskies who live on Mars and almost consider themselves as Martians; and the overwhelming Antags. Many times it seems that they must surely die, especially when the Antags attack on the ground, but somehow most of them survive.
This is not an easy read, as the text is full of ‘Skyrine slang’, which is also of course US-based, so one often has to work out what is meant. At intervals the term ‘SNKRAZ’ appears between paragraphs. I checked to see if it is explained, but couldn’t find anything. So I put a note on Greg’s Facebook page, and he replied to the effect of “Military jargon – think SNAFU.” I’ll leave you to work that one out! I’m not a big fan of military SF, but this book rewards the effort of reading it, and I look forward to its sequels.
DAUGHTER OF EDEN by Chris Beckett
In the previous two novels in this series, we saw a society evolve from two shipwrecked survivors on the strange world of
Eden. This is a world with no sunlight but with a strange ecology of luminescent plants and animals sustained by
geothermal energy. A schism in the early descendants has persisted and as the humans have spread and multiplied
the ill-feeling between the two groups has festered. In this novel, we see this erupt into full blown war as the Johnfolk
attack the settlements of the Davidfolk at a critical time when many of the latter’s warriors are away celebrating a
significant anniversary. The story is told mainly by Angie Redlantern, a “batface” (one of the many colonists with facial
deformities) as she joins the other non-combatants of the Davidfolk as they flee to Circle Valley (the revered original
Landing site) hoping for protection from the missing warriors, and also in flashback as she considers her earlier life.
Once there she is witness to an event which will change the Eden peoples’ view of both their past and their future.
Whilst I don’t know that this is the last book in the Dark Eden series, there is certainly some sense in the narrative that
the story has come full circle. The events take place at the original settlement of “Circle Valley” as people return there
from the wider world and (without spoiling the plot) there is the challenge that new knowledge brings to the differing
beliefs they have about their origin and their societies.
Chris Beckett is an author who writes with both great imagination and depth. His creation of Dark Eden, its biology and society is one I have greatly enjoyed. His books are multi-layered, telling a compelling story which is at the same time a metaphor for many contemporary issues. In particular, in this novel it is the role and value of belief systems to people and the variety of ways they react if these are challenged. All that being said, whilst I still enjoyed this novel and believe it is exceptional writing, it is my least favourite of the trilogy. The problem I found myself having is that for the first time it felt that the message was less subtle at the expense of characterisation to some extent. Also, there were so many threads left from the second novel in particular that had hooked me that weren’t explored here and I found myself thinking as I read when are we going to get to this issue and then being disappointed when I reached the end and they were not addressed. Even with these caveats however, this is still well worth reading as a significant piece of SF.
MOTHER OF EDEN (Dark Eden 2) by Chris Beckett
In the first novel in this series, DARK EDEN (winner of the 2013 Arthur C Clarke Award (review in #506 November
2013) the author introduced us to the planet of Eden. Eden is a dark planet where life exists in oases of light and
warmth fuelled by geothermal energy. The first book told the story of a small human group descended from two
marooned astronauts and the schism over remaining at the landing site versus attempting to explore the dark.
MOTHER OF EDEN is set a substantial number of years after the events of DARK EDEN and the marooned humans
have multiplied and spread into new areas. They have split into various factions (based on the original dispute in
DARK EDEN) of which the two largest are known as Davidfolk and Johnfolk.
Starlight Brooking is a young girl from a small group who live traditionally. Seeking excitement, she persuades the group to organise a trading expedition to a distant settlement. Here she meets Greenstone Johnson, the guileless heir to the rich New Earth group. Smitten with each other, they agree to marry and she accompanies him back to his home with very little idea of the vastly different society she will find. New Earth is a very hierarchical and oppressive society with “Big People” and “Little People”. As the highest status woman, she wears Gela’s Ring (Angela, the original marooned astronaut) which is seen as a holy object by many. As she and Greenstone try to improve society, their naïve efforts are resisted by the vested interests of the powerful “Big” families and the “Teachers” (who control literacy and access to written knowledge). Matters come to a climax when Greenstone’s father dies and there is a resulting power struggle.
Chris Beckett is an excellent and intelligent writer who clearly understands the importance of “show not tell”. The strange, beautiful world of Eden is enchantingly portrayed and contrasts well with the ugliness of humanity’s behaviour. His characterisation is superb and I particularly liked that we see the flaws in the ostensible heroes of Starlight and Greenstone. However it is in the story-telling that this novel really excels. This multi-layered novel skilfully incorporates many issues into the narrative without heavy info-dumping or preaching. Whilst it looks carefully at discrimination in many forms, it is in its subtle consideration on how access to and interpretation of history shapes people and society that it is at its most masterful. I also loved that scattered throughout we see how small actions have the potential for large consequences over a long time scale. This is well-paced and eminently readable SF and heartily recommended.
CROSSWAYS (Psi-Tech 2) by Jacey Bedford
In the first book in the series (EMPIRE OF DUST) the reader was introduced to an economy dependent on the “gates”
(which control access to “fold space”) for most travel between solar systems. The gates need Platinum to work and this
along with most other resources is controlled by the ruthless mega-corporations. When the planet of Olyanda is
discovered to have substantial deposits of Platinum, the fledgling colony and the accompanying Psi-Techs (people
with technologically enhanced mental abilities) are an inconvenience to be eliminated.
In the second book, the remaining survivors of Olyanda have outmanoeuvred the mega-corporation and have negotiated a deal for refuge on the crimelord-run station of Crossways. However, they are still in danger because of their control of Olyanda’s Platinum and their possession of evidence of mega-corporation corruption. The two most powerful mega-corporations co-operate in an attempt to eliminate both the Olyandans and the Crossways station, whose independence has become a major irritant. In their attempts to survive and also rescue missing colonists and family, the Psi-Techs are forced to take more risks in the strange world of foldspace. In doing so they uncover more about the nature of foldspace. This offers them a potential opportunity to outwit their persecutors but at the same time introduces new dangers.
The second book in a trilogy can be the most difficult to write well. The author has to balance having an interesting story with the necessity of setting things up for the final volume. In this book, Jacey Bedford has succeeded excellently and yet again I thoroughly enjoyed her storytelling. She is still exceptional at characterisation; the two main protagonists (Ben and Cara) are competent, likeable and credible. This ability also shows in the “villain”, Crowder as he is not just a cardboard baddie – we see some of his self-justifications for his actions so he does not regard himself as evil. The story development is logical given the events of the first book (something often lacking in sequels) and is well-paced building to an exciting confrontation at the climax. If you like intelligent space opera, I thoroughly recommend this series and look forward to the final book NIMBUS.
EMPIRE OF DUST (Psi-Tech 1) by Jacey Bedford
I am sure we all know the saying that you should not judge a book by its cover and I think this is very true for this book.
I know that the fashion in book covers is different in the US compared to the UK market (and this book is published by
an US publisher) but the dull colours and too small details would not have attracted me to this book. Unfortunately,
that does a great disservice to this book as the story within the cover is excellent.
In the future, humanity has spread to many solar systems. Huge unscrupulous mega-corporations, more powerful than individual governments, control and compete for resources. In particular, they hunt for Platinum which is used to power the “gates” which access “fold space” and allow interstellar travel. Each company uses “psi-tech” agents, implanted with technology to boost their natural mental abilities including telepathy. Viewed as expensive assets, any psi-tech who tries to leave is usually hunted down and their abilities and often their sanity are destroyed.
Cara is one such psi-tech. Escaping with damning evidence, she is on the run from Ari van Blaiden, a powerful executive and former lover. Cornered on a small spacestation, she escapes with the help of Ben, a psi-tech navigator for a rival mega-corporation. Masquerading as his wife, she joins an expedition to establish a new colony planet. Initially released for colonisation by a “back to basics” group, the discovery of resources coveted by the mega- corporations means she is in a far from safe haven. Added into that, tensions between some of the technophobic colonists and the psi-tech supporting crew erupt into violence. Ben, Cara and the small team of psi-techs have to use their wits and abilities to survive all these threats and protect the fledgling colony.
This is a superb adventure story with well-maintained pace and tension. The plot structure is excellent as the reader sees the various threats develop and converge to a thrilling climax. To balance this, a lot of thought has also clearly gone into the construction of the characters. In particular, I liked the development of Cara, as she struggles to escape (both physically and psychologically) from what has clearly been an abusive and controlling relationship with Ari van Blaiden. I also appreciated the considered and slower growth of the bond between Cara and Ben.
This is a book that yet again proves that women can and do write first-rate science fiction. Now all it needs is a British publisher to sit up and take notice!
WINTERWOOD (Rowankind 1) by Jacey BedfordThe year is 1800. Mad King George is on the throne. Rossalinde returns to Plymouth after seven years of sailing the seas as a privateer. Her mother is dying, but even on her deathbed she still calls her daughter a pirate's whore, and won't forgive her for her elopement. But she does leave her one gift; a small box of ensorcelled Winterwood, alive with promise. And Rossalinde needs to keep it safe, as the only permitted magic is that licensed by the Mysterium.
THE REAPERS ARE THE ANGELS by Alden Bell
The best way of describing this book is a cross between Cormac McCarthy’s THE ROAD and Richard Matheson’s I AM
LEGEND but with zombies instead of vampires.
Unfortunately, it doesn’t approach the quality of either of these two books and distinctly second rate for two important
reasons. First is the layout. Experimental writing is not a problem.
Neither is the use of present tense throughout.
Since this is a third person narrative, the lack of punctuation for dialogue is an inexcusable affectation. It adds
nothing and confuses the reader.
The second major problem is the background. Twenty five years previously, the dead started coming back to life. It
was apparently universal and simultaneous as civilisation rapidly collapsed. Nevertheless, there are survivors living in
enclaves or, like Temple, the focal character, wandering the countryside.
Temple is fifteen and has never known a different world. Most of the novel she is fleeing from the brother of a man she
killed when he tried to rape her. The issue is that after a quarter of a century, cars found at the roadside still work, gas
stations still have plenty of fuel to be pumped out and stores still have edible food.
If we were watching the collapse of civilisation this would be acceptable but to still have electricity lighting the streets
of America after this period of time is highly over optimistic.
Although the plot line has merit, the novel is let down by everything else.
CHASING EMBERS by James Bennett
Once upon a time, a long time ago, Ben Garston didn't need to drink to forget. Known as Red Ben, he had lived for
far too long. Ben is sitting in the bar drowning his sorrows, bemoaning his love life and the loss of his damsel Rose,
when Fulk of the House Fitzwarren turns up, with vengeance in mind. He throws a tatty newspaper at Ben (who has
lived for centuries) detailing the theft of the Star of Eebe, a jewel housed in a NY museum centre; a jewel that is
supposedly an uncut gem which fell in a meteor striking the African continent over 3,000 years ago. Fulk tells Ben he's
reading his own death warrant. The 'Pact' is null and void. Ben isn't the only one anymore.
A fight ensues, as it tends to in these books, then expectations are thrown out the window. Ben becomes something ... else. Part grizzled noir PI in the vein of Raymond Chandler and Jim Butcher, (but in a modern setting), part dangerous creature, part heartbroken man, Garston is resistant to magic and can kick arse with the best of them. You find out what type of ‘thing’ Ben is pretty quickly, but it's a nice surprise and it's been a while since I've encountered such a mythology in a modern Urban Fantasy. It can be done badly, or it can be done well. Here, it's bloody awesome. Ben, in his alternate identity can hear, see, smell and taste everything. This makes Red Ben an excellent investigator, ally or adversary.
The senses are alive and Bennett accurately captures this. His writing is gritty, well-paced, darkly humorous and somehow lyrical. Bennett also knows his classic literature throwing in a Dickensian reference early on.
Amidst the narrative style of the novel, there's a whole plethora of quirky characters; the 'Three Who Are One' Coven of witches, or CROWS, a cult reluctantly following the Lore (outlawing magic) laid down by the Guild. Dwarvish Babe Cathy is like something out of the ROCKY HORROR SHOW or Twin Peaks; exotic, enigmatic and wholly entertaining. The entire novel is filled with adventure, misadventure, magic, mayhem, humour and surprises. Having also met the author at FantasyCon, he is as bright a spark as Red Ben. This is a series I shall devour in flames, with each new instalment.
NO ENEMY BUT TIME by Michael Bishop
Gollancz’s famous yellow book jackets were an automatic draw to Science fiction readers in the 50’s and 60’s, so the
inclusion o f Michael Bishop’s 1982 story No Enemy But Time into Gollancz’s Collectors’ Editions comes as somewhat
of a surprise.
When are dreams just imagination or when are they reality, these are the questions that a young Joshua Kampa has no answer for. But they finally lead him to a meeting with an eminent palaeontologist and the questioning of known facts and wisdom by Joshua. This meeting has far reaching consequences as Joshua is asked to join a secret project, which sends him back in time to the early Pleistocene period in Earth’s past. On the East African Savannah Joshua is to keep under surveillance and report back his findings of a group of hominids. Slowly the involvement of Joshua with this group of prehumans, Homo Habilis, goes beyond the bounds of his original remit. The consequences of his interaction with this band of prehumans is to have surprising results. The nitty gritty realities of a day to day existence and the long term survival of the group bring into focus Joshua’s troubled past. Through a series of flashbacks the troubles of Joshua's early life as an adopted child with the constant movement of his adopted family from military posting to military posting are brought into focus. The bigotry and racial abuse suffered by the child of a black father and Spanish mother start to fade and bring the harsh realities of the modern world into focus.
The Collectors’ Editions have some great titles in their list and No Enemy But Time is a worthy addition. A story that does not fall into the usual Science Fiction mould, it is a thought provoking book that shows that modern man and his ancient ancestors have more in common than most people think.
WHITE CAT by Holly Black
The world in which WHITE CAT is set is one in which people can be cursed by the touch of a magic worker. Magic
working is illegal and magic workers can have one of a limited number of abilities including being able to change
someone’s memories, charm them or even kill them. Everyone, workers and nonworkers alike, wears gloves so as not to
curse or be cursed. The ability to work magic doesn’t come without consequences, and workers suffer ‘blowback’ every
time they work.
We learn early on that the lead character’s brother can change the memories of others but loses his own in the process; his grandfather is a death worker missing the fingers on one hand after working a death curse; and his mother can charm people into believing she is someone else but loses her touch on reality as she does so.
This is a world where a worker’s talents are both feared but desired by many, and are a valuable commodity. Magic working runs in families and some worker families are like the mafia, or alternatively are ‘for hire’- contracted by mobs who need a problem dealt with.
The lead character, Cassell, is a troubled teenager at a private school with his fair share of teen angst and problems, notably a bad relationship with siblings, his mother being in jail, not fitting in at his private school and killing a friend when he was 14. He begins to have strange dreams and sleepwalking episodes featuring a white cat. We then follow Cassell getting involved with a mob trying to uncover the truth about the murder of his friend.
All in all, this book has all the right ingredients to be an enjoyable and involving read– mobsters, magic, memory manipulation and con-artistry. It’s a straight forward quick read, and introduces an interesting world with plenty of conflict that the author can capitalise on. Unfortunately just shy of a third in, it was very clear what the plot was going to be. It was simply very predictable, and even though this is aimed at a teen audience, I think most teens will quickly pick up the plot too. The book in places reads like a script. With such appealing topics this could easily translate into a television series or a film and through the book the reader gets the sense that this is maybe one of the author’s objectives after the success of her SPIDERWICK CHRONICLES, along with a desire to join the current trend in supernatural fiction.
Key themes in this book are memories and misdirection, topics which have the potential to be engaging and intricate, but the reader is left feeling that the simplicity of the plot doesn’t match the nature of the topic. I finished the book somewhat disappointed that I hadn’t been hoodwinked, duped, conned or kept guessing as to what original memories would reveal.
THE ARCADIAN CIPHER by Peter Blake & Paul S Blezard
I still remember the first film I ever saw based on the ideas of Erich von Daniken: I was amazed and completely
convinced. Since then I have learned to adopt a more sceptical outlook - just as well in view of the proliferation in
recent years of books about Ancient Mysteries, of which this is just one more example. Like others it is based on the
mystery surrounding the village of Rennes-le-Chateau in southern France. The authors now claim to have unravelled a
coded message contained in several seventeenth-century paintings to discover an ancient tomb which is nothing less
than the last resting-place of Christ.
Their conclusion centres round the message incorporated in the paintings, which are by several different artists, and depends on the application o f that message to modern maps, which must be better and more accurate than anything available then. If this is true, it represents a combination of draughtsmanship and cartography which would be a remarkable accomplishment for three hundred-plus years ago. Even so, it could be argued that the results are too good to be attributable to mere coincidence. Leaving that aside, however, one cannot help wondering why a message was compiled at all if the secret it contained was of such enormous importance that it should never be revealed. It became a futile exercise anyway, since the message was concealed so thoroughly that it has been lost until now.
The authors present a convincing argument and to be sure there is some hard evidence, including what is known of the Rennes-le-Chateau mystery, which defies any less controversial explanation. Something strange and inexplicable may have been going on in that area for two thousand years. Nevertheless, their case depends on their interpretation of that and other less definable evidence and some of that interpretation is speculative to say the least. The best way to deal with it is to regard it as entertainment and accept that it MAY be true, but only until a better theory comes along.
Viewed in that way the book is an interesting, even intriguing piece of work, and quite educational. It is full of fascinating history, although the presentation suffers rom a tendency for each chapter, like the whole thing, to start with a big bang and then to proceed somewhat anti-climatically. If anything, however, it is too crammed with detail and would perhaps have been better at the length of a Sunday supplement article.
I have not attempted to give it a star rating. You will like it if it is the sort of thing you like, but otherwise you may well think it unmitigated rubbish.
A TOLKIEN TAPESTRY by Cor Blok
Cor Blok is a recognised Dutch artist with a long association with illustrating J.R.R Tolkien’s works, most recently seen
providing the illustrations for the 2011 and 2012 Tolkien calendars. At first glance Cor’s artwork tends to draw criticism
from an audience more familiar with the works of Alan Lee, John Howe, Ted Naismith and the brothers Hildebrandt.
Cor’s illustrations of THE LORD OF THE RINGS (LOTR) are often described as childish and overly simplistic, which is
an interesting comment given the artist’s process of producing the pictures.
This book presents the complete collection of Cor’s LOTR pictures, and as such makes up a visual narrative of over 100
pictures not unlike a tapestry; hence the title. However, the first 40 pages or so present a series of essays by Cor written
to give an insight into the artwork. Firstly, it is important to note that Cor alters his style for different projects, and to
assume all his artwork has similar style to his LOTR illustrations is a grave error. Anyone who has seen the intricately
detailed and astonishing images from his IRON PARACHUTE project might not recognise the artworks as being from
the same artist!
The prose describes both the physical process of producing the pictures and the historical context in which they were
produced. The reader cannot help
but feel greater warmth for the pictures when one knows that Tolkien himself purchased two of the LOTR illustrations,
such was the author’s like for Cor’s works
(Cor visited Tolkien in 1961, and subsequently Cor provided the covers for the Dutch translations of LOTR in 1965).
Some of the text is given over to illuminating his inspiration by way of explaining the author’s fascination with LOTR.
Any fan of Tolkien’s books can give a similar exposition, but each is personal to the reader, and
insight into Cor’s interpretation is helpful in gaining a deeper understanding of
But the artistic interpretation goes deeper than simple fandom. Cor gives us an insight into his inspiration in
Barbarusian art, an area Cor was exploring when he discovered LOTR. His studies in this area caused Cor to realise
that an art style may be adopted consciously, for specific purpose, for many reasons (for example, when a comic artist
might adopt style to match the limitations of mass printing processes). Cor goes on to give examples of Barbarusian
artwork where the style is such to reduce the image to only the essentials necessary to convey the meaning, leaving
the rest up to the viewer’s imagination to fill in. An analogy might be the design of signs at an airport, where an image
must be simple and easily visible, yet must contain the meaning pictorially with the greatest clarity.
And it is this approach that Cor brought to illustrating LOTR.
Thus the pictures are not truly simplistic but instead the pictures follow a deliberate philosophy of representation.
Indeed, the physical process for creating the pictures is exacting and complex; involving Japanese silk paper painted
on both sides and then applied to coloured backgrounds when wet, an artwork process as technically demanding as it
sounds, but which results in luminous colours. Once the viewer is enlightened to the meaning in the style the pictures
become considerably more fascinating!
Given the above, I approached the pictures with renewed interest; given that the pictures attempt to present the story
at its barest essence, I resolved to try and interpret the story I know well from the pictures alone. True, some of the
pictures were so reduced that I misunderstood the scene, but in most cases the meaning leapt out in a slightly
wonderful way. Never again will I look at Cor Blok’s artwork quite the same way.
It is hard to say whether the reader should buy this book; certainly those interested in the art styles may find a lot to
enjoy, and maybe for the Tolkien fan who has found little to enjoy in the artist’s work might well discover something
new to appreciate. I cannot help but feel that the book occupies something of an odd niche. However, if you have an
appreciation for LOTR and fantasy artwork, this might be a niche of interest…
THE HEALER by Michael Blumlein
Every now and again a book surprises me. This is one of them. For when I picked up this book I was expecting a
completely different book to the one I read. In some ways I think I was expecting a tale along the lines of James
White's Sector General series with a slight twist due to the nature of the healers in this tale.
What I found in the pages of this book was a quite brilliant tale, one which had no problems not following its more expected path, preferring to strike out and find its own path.
It's a book which had no problems leaving loose ends, not clearing up after itself. For if bad things happen, then they happen and that's just the nature of the world.
Payne is a Tesque (short for Grotesque) a sub species of human, kept in virtual slavery by humans. And like his brother before him when it comes to the time of the testing he is found to be a potential healer and taken away for training, there being no choice for either him or his parents in the matter.
From that point onwards his life is not his own, and his healing talent is to be at the beck and call of any human who needs it, until he reaches the time of The Drain and his talent is exhausted.
But despite the fact that these healers are vital to the health of their human masters, they are despised and reviled - no human willing to spend time with them or consider them anything other than chattel.
This is an incredible book, full of exquisite prose. I know this may sound a little overblown but I cannot describe this book in any way else. It does nothing wrong for me.
Now, should you feel that you prefer your fiction all snug and cosy and want everyone to survive and have good lives (except any passing bad guys that is) then this book might not be the best thing for you to read.
EVOCATIONS by James Brogden
What factors help us to decide to try a new author? Reviews and recommendations from friends help but I have also
found that hearing someone speak and enjoying what they say can be a good (albeit not infallible) pointer to a writer
worth investigating. As some of you may remember, James Brogden is a local writer who was a guest at the BSFG in
March 2013. Since that appearance he has published two further novels (TOURMALINE and THE REALT, both
published by Snow Books) and this short story collection, EVOCATIONS (Alchemy Press). I must confess that I have not
read his novels but have enjoyed some of his short stories in previous anthologies.
EVOCATIONS is a collection of sixteen of James’ short stories, most previously published elsewhere with a couple of new additions. The stories all contain an element of the fantastical but are also rooted in the real (and mostly modern) world. Some of the stories also verge into horror.
The first story “The Phantom Limb” concerns an amputee who finds his phantom arm can reach into another world and is a short but effective little horror story.
In “The Evoked” we see the author’s Australian background combined with a consideration of the old meaning of the Winter solstice and the festival of Yule. There are lots of ideas in this story and I felt that whilst good it would have benefited from more space to expand.
“The Last Dance of Humphrey Bear” is one of my favourites. A child’s favourite toy (Humphrey Bear is an Australian Children’s TV programme) holds the last breath of a dead child. It has emotional depth and deals very sensitively with some dark themes.
“How to Get Ahead in Avatising” is a nice little satire on the price people may have to pay for fame and combines mythological archetypes with clever swipes at “spin” and personality worship.
“Junk Male” is about a couple of students who create a fake identity to reply to unsolicited post and the unintended consequences. This is one of the stories which illustrate the author’s ability to deftly combine humour with horror.
“The Decorative Water Feature of Nameless Dread” is another story I really liked. It is an affectionate combination of Lovecraftian monsters and Middle England. It is written with a light touch and I found it very funny.
“The Gestalt Princess” is a charming but unconventional love story which I enjoyed, even with a steampunk setting (of which I am normally not the greatest fan).
“The Smith of Hockley” and “If Street” both show another one of this author’s strengths – exploring the intersections between local locations and ancient things and people.
“Mob Rule” is probably my least favourite in the collection. The idea behind the story is good (difficult to describe without giving away the premise) but I just didn’t like any of the characters or the conclusion.
By contrast, the short story “The Gas Street Octopus” is excellent and the one-liner ending will make you smile (or groan, depending on whether you like puns!)
“DIYary of the Dead” is a first-rate horror story where the mundane is slowly “peeled back” to reveal the macabre.
“The Curzon Street Horror” looks at the arcane rites that might have been involved in the start of the railways in Birmingham and again shows Brogden using a local location as the starting point to something weird.
“The Remover of Obstacles” is about dodgy car mechanics that again looks at ancient things concealed beneath a modern veneer.
“Made from Locally Sourced Ingredients” is a ghoulish look at trendy restaurants and the advisability of knowing where your food comes from. Whilst not for the faint-hearted this is still a very enjoyable and ingenious story.
The final story in the collection “The Pigeon Bride” is essentially a fairy tale but in a modern urban setting. As with the original fairy stories, there is a grim element and a price to be paid for the “happy” ending.
An extract from the author’s novel, TOURMALINE ends the collection. It introduces a mysterious girl but is too short to give much feel for the story. A better guide would be the review published in BSFG Newsletter #507 (December 2013).
Based on this collection, James Brogden has an impressive imagination. He is exceptional at taking small everyday elements and transforming them into the bizarre. I also like his use of Midlands locations and how he connects the mythological past with the more “rational” present. His stories also demonstrate a mischievous and satirical sense of humour (including some clever puns) and were one of the things I really relished in this collection. On a minor note, there are no SF stories but that is the only reservation I have about recommending this book to readers.
THE REALT by James Brogden
Where do we go when we dream? How real are our dreams? Can we influence them? All questions that have
exercised minds down the millennia. Scientists have studied sleep, psychologists and oneiromancers have tried to
interpret dreams. Fiction has come up with a number of interesting ideas, including the suspicion that everything we
think is real is actually a dream. Graham Joyce’s first published novel, DREAMSIDE focused on the idea of lucid
dreaming, a technique by which dreams can be affected by the dreamer. That idea is also used by James Brogden in
this novel. The biggest dream cop-out was probably in the TV series Dallas where in order to bring back a character by
public demand, they had to make the whole of the previous series into a dream. Having the action ‘dreamed’ is not
the best approach to convincing a reader that they have a legitimate story to tell. Fortunately, Brogden avoids this
This is the second volume in a trilogy. In the first volume, TOURMALINE Bobby Jenkins finds himself on the other side of consciousness. There is another world, Tourmaline that some people can reach in their dreams. Those whose bodies lie in comas find a kind of freedom here despite being hunted by the authorities of this other place. Bobby, though, has physically passed through the membrane into the dreamworld. There he met Allie Owens and fell in love. At the end of TOURMALINE, the island-sized raft that Allie and the other coma victims have made their home is attacked by the authorities that want to rid themselves of these interlopers. Allie survives but Bobby is thrown back into the waking world, known here as the Realt. With him comes a monster which, initially takes up residence at the bottom of a Birmingham canal.
Back in the Tourmaline Archipelago, which is now embroiled in war, Allie’s concern is survival, especially as she finds that she is pregnant with Bobby’s child. Bobby’s intention is to get back to Tourmaline and Allie. Everyone has always been told that the two sides must be kept apart and nothing intrude in either direction or there will be dire consequences. Yet modern weapons have appeared on one side in the war. Bobby discovers that there are ways to cross over and that both sides – from Realt and Tourmaline – actually have a large chamber like an amphitheatre, where representatives from both sides meet and discuss issues. They are held apart by a dividing membrane. Bobby needs to get into the chamber to get back to Allie even though the division would be breached.
Meanwhile, the monster or araka, can manifest as several separate entities which take up residence in the brains of some of Birmingham’s criminal underworld and begin to create havoc, especially as their hosts now seem to be indestructible.
This is a novel which wanders in a number of directions before coming together as a complete whole and a grand finale. The most convincing aspects of it are the ones in the Realt, especially where the dark side of Birmingham comes to the fore. Without this, the novel would have much less impact. In a few places, the effects of subornation are described. These are events when a dreamer crosses over and brings with them the images of their nightmares. The novel would have been enhanced by more of these and their dramatic effects.
The concept of a dreamworld that has a reality of its own is an effective device for this fast-paced adventure that will provide a few hours of enjoyment to the majority of readers.
DARK SKY by Mike Brooks
DARK SKY is the second book in what promises to be an extensive sequence by this author. I have not read the first
one, DARK RUN. However, I am pleased to report that not having read it did not diminish my enjoyment of this book
one jot. It did not have any effect on the plot whatsoever. Where pertinent to this book and only then was any
reference made to what had gone before and this was no more than that which would be expected in any book.
In DARK SKY Captain Ichabod Drift of the star ship Keiko and his crew are enjoying some ‘R & R’ staying at the Grand House casino on the pleasure world, New Samara. Unfortunately, this does not last as the ‘crime lord’ who owns the casino, and also controls much of the government of New Samara, decides that their somewhat shady past makes them the perfect crew to carry out a small job for him. Receiving an offer they ‘cannot refuse’ Ichabod accepts, promising his crew that this side trip to the mining planet Uragan would be a quick in and out job and then they would be back at the tables with some welcome extra spending money. Naturally whatever can go wrong does go wrong and they find themselves stuck on the planet by a revolution and a horrendous dust storm. Cue for nonstop action with some interesting twists and turns.
I don’t want to say anything more about this book’s plot as this may diminish any reader’s enjoyment. But I will say that I thoroughly enjoyed it - something that I was not expecting when I first picked up DARK SKY, so much so that if I have the opportunity to read DARK RUN and any subsequent books in the series I will do so without hesitation. DARK SKY is good old-fashioned and thoroughly enjoyable space science fiction with a modern verve and an excellent cast of characters.
MYCROFT AND THE NECROMANCER by Michael R Brush
His interest in SF (as in the Professor Challenger stories) and Spiritualism notwithstanding, Conan Doyle eschewed
anything remotely fantastic in the Sherlock Holmes stories. Even “The Sussex Vampire” turned out not to be one. Now
that many modern writers are turning their hands to creating additions to the Holmes canon, tales involving more outré
events are beginning to appear, and Michael Brush has chosen in his first novel to delve into the supernatural with a
story involving werewolves, shapeshifters, vampires and faeries, etc.
In point of fact, this is not a Sherlock Holmes story at all. He is mentioned in passing, scarcely more than that, and as the title of the book suggests, the principal protagonist, or one of them, is elder brother Mycroft. He is presented here as very much a man of action, far from the reclusive man of inaction who is described in his first, and only major appearance in an original story. (“The Adventure of the Greek Interpreter”) There is some suggestion that his withdrawal from an active role in criminology was a deliberate choice arising from the events recounted here.
Briefly, the story concerns the unmasking and eventual destruction of a sinister death cult operating from a disreputable private club in London called “The Grinning Skull” and controlled from the country residence of the Necromancer of the title. Mycroft, ably assisted by the narrator of the story, one Fox Hungerton, and a hitherto unheard-of younger Holmes brother, Carmel, together with various others, both human and supernatural, and all supported by the staff of the Diogenes Club, leads the campaign to expunge this evil.
For the kind of reader likely to encounter this review the book has the potential to be of interest. Unfortunately, it is quite badly, almost amateurishly, written. The general construction and plotting are confusing and illogical and moreover, errors of grammar and punctuation are not uncommon, phraseology can be clumsy and the choice of words is often infelicitous to say the least. Although it is supposed to have been written in 1887, the writing reflects neither the style of the period nor that of Conan Doyle himself.
These faults may or may not limit the appeal of this book in the horror/supernatural market at which it is presumably aimed. On the other hand, true dyed-in-the-wool Holmes aficionados will probably recoil aghast at everything in it. Michael Jones
CHALLENGER UNBOUND by Michael R Brush and S G Mulholland
There has been a tradition of writers, especially those honing their skills, to add to the adventures of their favourite
characters. Children do it every time they play with the characters and other toys from films and TV programmes, such
as Thunderbirds and FROZEN. Most stories either stay under the bed, or turn up in fanzines shared with others with the
same enthusiasms. Some writers such as Storm Constantine, encourage such fan fiction and allow the best to be
published in books, and others, such as Star Trek, develop a franchise of officially sanctioned novels by respected
authors. When a favoured writer has been dead long enough for their work to be out of copyright, there is an
opportunity for other enterprises such as PRIDE AND PREJUDICE AND ZOMBIES. CHALLENGER UNBOUND, with the
blessing of Conan Doyle’s estate, has taken the irascible Professor Challenger as the centre of a series of short stories.
While the project is a worthwhile enterprise, I have some issues with this particular book. It is not the fault of the editors that no female writers submitted stories. The question is whether this is a reflection of the appeal of the character or whether enough publicity was done in the right places. What is less forgivable is the typesetting of the book. Anyone who opens a book, real or electronic will know that you do not leave a line-break between paragraphs. It makes the book very annoying to read, and encourages a reader picking it up to put it straight back on the shelf. Proof reading could have been a little more rigorous as well (Challenger’s daughter has different names in different stories).
Those familiar with the original Professor Challenger stories, especially THE LOST WORLD, will have some familiarity with many of the characters that appear in these pages. Anyone meeting them for the first time here may wonder who they are as there is an ingrained assumption that the reader is in the know. There is an added confusion in that there has been no attempt to put these stories in any kind of chronological sequence. There is also no kind of cohesion in the selection of the stories. Two, including the first in the volume (‘The Last Expedition’ by Simon Kurt Unsworth) feature the death of Challenger, and of these, the better written is the second, ‘The Death of Challenger’ by Steve Lockley. This story has some interesting features, but I wasn’t convinced that this could only be a Challenger story. This is a problem I had throughout. Too many of the stories could not honestly say that they could be nothing else but part of the Challenger sequence.
In one of the original Challenger stories, the Professor came up against an inventor, Theodore Nemor, who invents a disintegration machine which Challenger deems too dangerous to exist and so destroys it. Yet, three of these stories make use of this invention. I would be wary of one use of it, but this is too many and causes an internal conflict within the structure of the anthology as a whole. Challenger might have been disingenuous; his chroniclers should not be.
A dilemma that a book like this has is whether the stories should stylistically copy the original, or have narrative brought up to date with more modern approaches. One positive thing these stories have in common is they have all tried to keep to the vernacular that Conan Doyle used.
This could have been an interesting addition to the Challenger portfolio if it had had a tighter editorial control on the content of the stories. As it is, it doesn’t work for this reader.
FARLANDER by Col Buchanan
This is the first novel from a new author who is still learning. He’s got a few things right: the pace is fair and the
characters aren’t entirely stereotypes but there are obvious good guys and obvious bad guys; the plot runs smoothly
and doesn’t drag anywhere. The characterisation is reasonable but could do with more depth.
Let’s start with the good stuff…
Ash is a trained ninja assassin working for a sect that exacts retribution when any of its clients are murdered. He’s getting old and his even older master has decided he should take an apprentice.
Nico has been living on the streets of Bar-Khos since he ran away from home. It’s hard enough on the streets but Bar-Khos has been under siege for the last 10 years and many of the people are starving. Nico finally resorts to theft but in choosing Ash to steal from he has chosen the wrong person.
Suddenly he finds he has two options – go to jail or become the assassin’s apprentice.
Kirkus is the heir apparent to the Empire of Mann. His mother is the Matriarch of the religious order that controls most of the world. The order is based on some pseudo-Nietzchean ideal that actually encourages senseless casual violence and murder. He’s just become Ash’s next target.
The story takes Ash and Nico on a mission to kill Kirkus who is protected by the best that the empire can provide. Where the story fails is in the background which is a bit of a disaster. The siege on Bar-Khos takes up a great deal of the book even though it doesn’t merit it once the central characters have left. The siege is much like something from our Middle Ages. The city is protected by multiple large earthworks that would stop a frontal assault and keep all but the biggest guns far enough away to render them useless. Since there is some kind of restriction on supplies of gunpowder, no-one could build any gun powerful enough to be effective against that. There are enough details of the various attempts to undermine the walls to explain why these fail. When Ash and Nico leave the city it is by airship. This kind of airship appears to work like a 15th-18th century warship complete with cannon that flies.
During the voyage it is explained that the Empire of Mann has a whole fleet of these warships and that the strategic importance of Bar-Khos lies in it being both an active seaport and an active airport. There is no explanation at all as to how a city under siege manages to remain an open port or why an empire with a major air fleet should be bogged down in a ground assault on a city that has no protection from above.
This is far from the only detail that hasn’t been properly thought out. The story opens with something set in a frozen wasteland that is shown on the map as coastal and halfway up the map. Places further up and down are described as temperate so this seems wrong. Maybe some of this is to be explained in later volumes of the series but I can’t really see how.
This is an adequate novel if you don’t pay too much attention. Think about it too much and it falls apart.
GOD OF CLOCKS by Alan Campbell
GOD OF CLOCKS is Alan Campbell’s final book in The Deepgate Codex series following SCAR NIGHT and IRON
ANGEL, reviewed by myself in the Brum Group News (issues 457 and 458 respectively).
SCAR NIGHT described a gothic horror setting which played host to a fantasy tale. IRON ANGEL widened Campbell’s fantasy world and showcased his ability to craft interesting characters with so much twist that there may be little left of anything else left. Through the first two volumes I found the author to be capable of inventive ideas and sometimes gripping action, but also often bogged down in over emphasised description.
This third book is much closer to the second than the first; indeed it feels as if they might have been written back to back. Rather than more wild creation, the vistas opened up in the second volume are here developed further. So, too, are the characters that were introduced in IRON ANGEL, all of whom gain greater depth here, making them rather more interesting. The story carries directly on where IRON ANGEL left off (the latter having been something of a cliff- hanger).
I think it is notable that the invention in this final volume is, perhaps a little less wild than in the previous volumes, but it is also seems considerably better conceived. One or two of the concepts in GOD OF CLOCKS are actually thought provoking (!) and satisfyingly complex. This is helped by this volume, being the final, providing all the answers and finally making sense (of sorts) of some of the more improbable seeming concepts introduced earlier.
Overall I feel that Campbell improves his writing throughout the trilogy; the third book feels tighter, with the description better balanced by the action (for anyone who missed my previous reviews I felt that the first book was so steeped in gothic horror imagery that the description overshadowed everything else, leading to an often rather turgid read).
GOD OF CLOCKS inherits its storyline directly from IRON ANGEL, and so does not meander like the former book. The plot winds pleasingly through battles in hell, personal journeys and an interesting quest through time to a reasonably satisfying conclusion. And the final question has to be: can I recommend the whole series? Well, I consider that the notably atmospheric setting and the highly curious characters will probably make it fairly memorable in comparison with many other fantasy `epics’, so I give this a tentative recommendation. Just be certain of what you are getting into – if you laugh in the face of high page counts, and fancy a trilogy steeped in blood and souls, this is quite possibly a pleasant diversion for you. Otherwise, I must suggest staying away…
P.S. I must note a particular personal criticism; if you are anything like me, you will expect that after some 1400 pages I expect a chapter or two at the end to show how the characters recover or otherwise live on after the grand climax; a 2 page epilogue following the very pages that resolve it all simply will not do to provide closure!
CHILDREN OF THE MIND by Orson Scott Card
Regrettably, this is a "do not start from here" book. This is the fourth volume of the Ender saga, the others o f which
will stand alone. Children of the Mind is a direct continuation from the third, Xenocide, and you need to be familiar
with the characters and what has gone before to gain full understanding.
Ender's Game told the story o f a boy, Andrew Wiggan (the Ender of the title) who was tricked into destroying an entire alien species. He reappears in Speaker for the Dead centuries later, his life prolonged by interstellar travel on the world of Lusitania, invited there to Speak the life of one of the colonists. It is a planet which has a native sentient species but it is only during this book that the relationship between the alien species. It is here, that Ender finds a home for the only surviving Hive Queen (from the species he reputedly slaughtered).
Xenocide introduces new characters; Wang-mu whose planet is populated by a high percentage of people suffering from a genetic illness, and Jane a computer entity.
Children of the Mind follows the attempts o f Wang-mu and Peter (an Ender replica) to stop the fleet that is on the way to destroy Lusitania.
The other problem is to save Jane. The system that is her life-support system is to be shut down to purge her from the system. The solutions make fascinating reading.
The first two books in the series won Hugos and should therefore be on everyone's reading list, the quality o f the writing here does not disappoint either.
NAAMAH’S KISS by Jacqueline Carey
This is the seventh book in the Kushiel’s Legacy series and the first following the life and adventures of Moirin mac
Fainche born to the Maghuin Dhonn; the folk of the Brown Bear, the oldest tribe in Alba.
Once there were great magicians born to the Maghuin Dhonn but now, only small gifts remain to them. Moirin possesses such gifts - the ability to summon the twilight and conceal herself and the skill to coax plants to grow.
The book follows her life from childhood on being raised in the wilderness by her reclusive mother. When she is about ten she is taken on a visit to Clunderry for a Midsummer’s Day festival and Moirin learns how illustrious, if mixed, her heritage is. She is the great granddaughter of Alais the Wise, child of the Maghuin Donn, and a cousin of the Cruarch (Ruler) of Alba. She also learns her father was a D'Angeline priest dedicated to serving Naamah, goddess of desire. It is during this visit that she starts to sense the presence of unfamiliar gods in her life; the bright lady, and the man with a seedling cupped in his palm.
When Moirin undergoes the rites of adulthood, she finds divine acceptance, but her destiny lies somewhere beyond the ocean. Traveling to Terre d'Ange she finds her father, develops her talents, becomes an intimate of the Royal Court, being distantly related to the ruling family, and almost dies. Here she finds that her destiny requires her to travel with a visiting Ch’in philosopher who is summoned back to his homeland to save the life of a blindfolded warrior princess. When she arrives she finds that more is at stake, the fates of nations hang in the balance.
Moirin’s story will continue in NAAMAH’S CURSE to be published later in 2010.
For once I concur with the comments on the back of the book. I found it hard to put down, a most enjoyable read; the text flowed easily, leading the reader through the life of a likeable heroine, and all the characters were well described. The fact that this was a book of over 600 pages was no burden. In addition, the fact that this is the seventh book in a series is not a hindrance to enjoyment as stated earlier, this is the first book following the life of Moirin mac Fainche and as such easily stands alone. I highly recommend it to potential readers. Jim Pearce
THE WATCHTOWER by Lee Carroll
It didn’t surprise me to find that Lee Carroll is the pseudonym for two Americans.
They have fallen into the trap that even highly respected writers encounter when trying to set novels in other countries
and other times. They get it wrong.
This book is written as two parallel sections. One deals with Garet James, a modern American woman who has fallen
in love with a vampire only to discover that the original focus of his affections was her fourhundred year dead
ancestress. Marguerite was an immortal fey who gave up her immortality to be with Will Hughes at the same time as
was trying to become immortal to be with her and was tricked into becoming a vampire by John Dee. One strand of
the narrative relates Will’s original quest for immortality, the other follows Garet’s search for a way to make Will mortal
again. Although the modern sections may well have been visited and recorded accurately by the authors, there are so
many inaccuracies in the English Tudor sections to make the novel extremely irritating. To compound matters, one
character, who has an extensive part, is referred to only as ‘the poet’ when patently this is supposed to be Shakespeare.
Also, the only place that states that this is the second volume in a trilogy is in the acknowledgments, which most
people do not read. Instead it drops you straight into the middle of the story with so many issues in the past lives of the
characters that it is difficult to understand where they are coming from.
WORLD’S END by Mark Chadbourn
I should first declare a slight bias - I’ve been a fan of Mr Chadbourn since I read his second novel NOCTURNE some
years back. At the time I bored all my friends recommending and enthusing about it and published rave reviews every
where I could.
WORLD’S END, subtitled “Book One of the Age of Misrule” is (amazingly) every bit as good as NOCTURNE. Not as atmospheric perhaps, but every bit as enthralling - and with more volumes to come!
Drawing heavily on Celtic myth and British folklore in general, and Arthurian legend in particular (I’d love to see Chadbourn and Robert Holdstock discuss their differing approaches to these topics on a con panel sometime!), Chadbourn tells a tale of the end of the Age of Reason.
As technology and science begin to fail Jack Churchill and Ruth Gallagher are forced to embark on a desperate quest for four “magickal” items from the previous Age of Magic. If they find these there is a chance that there might be a place for humanity as the old order returns - but there are no guarantees and the big question is can the ancient “gods” be trusted?
If you’re into dark, apocalyptic fantasy this is definitely for you, if not try it anyway - Chadbourn is a powerful storyteller and he might just convert you!
A CLOSED AND COMMON ORBIT by Becky Chambers
This is a sequel to the 2016 Clarke Award-nominated THE LONG WAY TO A SMALL, ANGRY PLANET (reviewed in
March 2016 newsletter #534). The original novel was a fun space opera which followed the mixed human and alien
crew of the Wayfarer on a long voyage to build a new hyperspace tunnel. It was full of both different alien species and
personalities, all trying to live harmoniously in a galactic civilisation. Its major strengths were the detailed
construction of the differing alien races and cultures and the many diverse, interesting characters. A CLOSED AND
COMMON ORBIT is set in the same universe but wisely in my opinion, choses to move on from the crew of the
Wayfarer. Instead it concentrates on two characters who, although appearing in the first book, were more minor
characters. The story starts with the artificial intelligence, Sidra awakening in a synthetic body designed to pass as
human. In her previous existence, she was a ship’s AI, her sole purpose monitoring and caring for a ship’s crew.
Unfortunately, and unintentionally, during the transfer process, her personality was reset to the factory standard so she
is totally unprepared for her new life and must rapidly learn and adapt to her new situation. This is further complicated
as the galactic civilisation does not allow AI’s to exist independently and if her existence is revealed, she will be
destroyed. However, Sidra is not alone. She is sheltered and guided by Pepper, one of the engineers who helped in
the transfer process, who as we gradually learn knows quite a bit herself about starting over in a completely new world.
The title of A CLOSED AND COMMON ORBIT refers to two astronomical concepts. A closed orbit is an orbit that repeatedly returns to the same starting point. The common orbit of the title refers to two bodies sharing the same orbit. These are an elegant description of the structure and narrative of this story. It alternates between two stories, that of Sidra and also of Jane 23, a child slave who escapes from her enforced labour. As the reader swings between the two narratives, we see the parallels and common themes of their lives which eventually converge together.
This book is more reflective and focused than the previous novel, which might not suit everyone, especially those who may be disappointed that their favourite, more flamboyant characters are absent. However, I personally like that the author has the courage to produce something different rather than taking the perhaps safer option of sticking with the same characters and situation.
Despite this change, the writing still has many of the strengths of the original. The characters, whether alien, human or AI are credible and not clichéd. Again, whilst there is an enjoyable and interesting plot the novel is not solely focused upon action but also upon the value of caring and supportive inter-personal relationships as well. The author also retains the ability to craft characters that the reader deeply cares about, not only Pepper and Sidra, but the alien Tak and the AI, Owl among them. It subtly promotes the message that the best societies are those which value and respect all sapients equally whatever their differences. This second novel clearly shows a writer who is growing in confidence and ability from an already impressive debut. This is very good, stylish and character-driven SF with emotional depth from an author not content to rest on her laurels but to dare something different.
THE LONG WAY TO A SMALL, ANGRY PLANET by Becky Chambers
This entertaining space opera has an interesting route to publication. The author funded her writing time via a
Kickstarter appeal. It was then successful enough in the highly competitive self-published field to be offered a
publishing contract by Hodder (UK) and Harper Voyager (US).
The Wayfarer is a dilapidated old spaceship which builds hyperspace tunnels between solar systems. When young Rosemary Harper joins its mixed human and alien crew she is looking for a break from her privileged but troubled past and a chance to see more of space than the narrow confines of the Solar system. Soon after she joins, the admittance of a new species into the galactic alliance provides them with a unique and lucrative opportunity. The Wayfarer is hired to build a new high-speed tunnel to connect the new species’ system to the galactic network. The only catch is that the tunnel needs to be anchored from the new system, which means a long outward journey through war-torn and unstable systems. The challenges along the way uncover secrets from all the crew’s past as they work together to survive the threats along their route.
The main enjoyment for me in this book is the characters of the various crew-members and the development of their relationships. This is a crew that is diverse in the extreme, and has credible aliens with different morphology, biology and cultures from the human representatives in the crew. The alien crew-members include a six-legged chef and medic, Dr Chef; the reptiloid pilot, Sissix; a navigator infected with a symbiotic intelligent virus, Ohan and an intelligent AI running the ship’s systems, Lovelace. The human crew members also have very different personalities; the new member, Rosemary, at first quiet and over-awed but who grows in confidence; the reclusive and emotionally distant life-support technician, Corbin; the scatter-brained but brilliant engineer, Kizzy and her partner-in-crime, the smart-mouthed but friendly computer technician, Jenks and finally the long-suffering captain, Ashby struggling to keep them all in order and in business. Unlike many space operas, this is an optimistic story. Although there are hardships and losses, what is gratifying is the way that the crew do work together and support each other including, very importantly, emotionally as well as practically.
The world-building is excellent and the journey introduces us to other characters and civilisations than just the crew members. Although the main focus is on the crew, there are plenty of events which keep the story flowing at a satisfactory pace. It is evident that substantial effort has gone into planning the complex inter-relationships both within the crew and the differing galactic races. The author has exceptional imagination and as a debut novel this is extremely impressive. Although the word might not be quite appropriate given the aliens in the plot, it is the humanity and emotional depth of this novel which I really liked. Although an enjoyable space opera, it might not suit anyone who prefers an all-action type of narrative. And finally, in case it has got lost in all the above, it must be emphasised that this book is great fun and extremely readable.
A CALCULATED LIFE by Anne Charnock
This SF novel is set in the near future. Super-intelligent Jayna works for a big corporation sifting through vast amounts
of data to predict future trends. Jayna is hardly ever wrong and the company has made large investment profits
following her guidance. However there is something different about Jayna, which the reader only slowly discovers and
thus she struggles to comprehend her fellow workers. When her forecasts start to go wrong she believes the data
accessible through the company is too limited. She tries to gain a better knowledge of people and society around to
help but this leads her into dangers and uncovers hidden unpleasant aspects of a society which had previously
seemed benign and utopian.
I found this book difficult to get into at first, mainly because we are given little information at first about the society and Jayna. However it repaid perseverance and I found I thoroughly enjoyed the incremental, slow accumulation of details which fitted perfectly with Jayna’s pursuit of knowledge and emotional development. Although very intelligent, Jayna’s experience is very limited and she is socially awkward. This makes it hard to find her sympathetic at first but as she slowly builds information and begins to question society and her place in it she becomes a fuller and more interesting character. The book looks at the nature of what it is to be human and how much “genetic engineering” should be for the benefit of the individual or the state. I also liked that a lot of people in the society, especially the privileged, do not see the problems and are quite comfortable with the status quo as this seemed realistic.
This book is very well-written and constructed and is worthy of far more attention. Anne Charnock is a very successful journalist and foreign correspondent with articles published in The Guardian, New Scientist and the International Herald Tribune amongst others. This experience shows in the quality of this literary SF. Others obviously agree as it was nominated for the Philip K Dick and Kitschies Awards in 2013. It is not the type of science fiction which dwells on a lot of technical details so is possibly not for the hard SF fans. That said the development from today to the future in this book seems very believable.
I am not always a fan of literary SF but this book repaid persistence and was of a very high quality. Its slower pace is not for everyone but fit with the main character and her journey. As good SF books should do it speculates on the effects of future developments on humanity and gets you thinking.
THE ENCLAVE by Anne Charnock
In this novella, Anne Charnock returns to the near future United Kingdom of her first novel, A CALCULATED LIFE
(which was a finalist for the Philip K Dick Award). In that novel genetic engineering was aiding the establishment of an
elite, with access to upgrades for intelligence, antisocial behaviour etc. whilst the majority are denied these and form
a struggling underclass. Whilst A CALCULATED LIFE looked mainly at the privileged through the eyes of a naïve
“simulant” Jayna, this novella looks in more detail at the general population, living on minimal support and surviving
on a mixture of wits and intimidation.
The story is told mainly from the viewpoint of two characters who live in an “enclave” outside the city, where like a shanty town most of the available jobs are menial or dirty, and people are constantly scrabbling to make a living. These two characters are Caleb, a bright and enterprising twelve-year old refugee and Ma Lexie, a young widow who is barely tolerated by her husband’s gang family and surviving by using young children without parents as child labour to recycle thrown-away clothes and scraps to eke out a living. Caleb was “recruited” by a scout for the gangs from a travelling refugee group after he lost his mother and he now works in Ma Lexie’s group. When Caleb manages to catch Ma Lexie’s attention with his designs for improving clothes, she promotes him and this allows him a little more freedom to plot an escape. Both characters are simultaneously victims and manipulators. Ma Lexie may control the children’s lives but she is in turn controlled by the gang who at any time could take away her “business”. She promotes Caleb for her own advantage but also in a desire for company and someone to look after her. This is a society where everyone uses everyone.
In a short 59 pages, Anne Charnock constructs a very believable world which could easily be extrapolated from current events. This is an excellent example of “show not tell” – it touches on many serious issues whilst still keeping the story paramount and is more effective for leaving the reader to think and draw their own parallels. The characterisation is superb – one is both sympathetic and repulsed by the actions of the characters. The prose is first- rate – precise and sharply accurate, building up a wealth of detail via small observations. It is not a work where the technology is at the forefront, or with a large amount of “action” (although events do happen and there is a very definite plot). and thus, may not suit fans of more traditional SF. However, in my opinion, Anne Charnock in this novella has shown yet again that she can write extremely intelligent and thought-provoking SF.
GIVE ME THESE MOMENTS BACK by Mike Chinn
GIVE ME THESE MOMENTS BACK is an anthology of short stories by British Fantasy Award nominee, Mike Chinn
who is also I believe a member of the Birmingham Science Fiction Group. This collection of eighteen stories covers a
very wide range of subjects. Whilst most have a supernatural or horror theme, there are also a couple of contemporary
stories and a couple which fall into the science fiction area.
The short story form is not everyone’s cup of tea as the limited length does tend to expose any flaws in a writer’s technique. With an experienced disciplined writer however they are a very effective method of storytelling. In this collection the author is excellent at establishing a sense of place and also atmosphere. The stories show a wide range of ideas and imagination. The story often arises from the location and is not using the lazy, standard tropes of many other writers.
I am not a fan of slasher-style horror and this collection demonstrates how unnecessary that is and how more disturbing it can be to leave some things to the readers’ imaginations. Instead the stories develop from an initial disquiet, with incremental revelations which build to the final often nasty conclusion without complying with a superfluous obligation to go into graphic detail.
As with any collection of stories, there will always be some which appeal to a reader more than others. All I can do to give you a bit of a flavour of the book is to briefly describe a few of the stories. Those which I most enjoyed were “Welcome to the Hotel Marianas” which is clearly influenced by the old TV show Voyage to the Bottom of the Sea (clearly acknowledged in the notes at the end of the book) but which takes a dark turn, “Harbour Lights” which looks at the disadvantaged in a Barsoomian-type society and my favourite, “Kami Ga Kikoemasu” about a Japanese whaling boat haunted by a spirit monster (with again nods to MOBY DICK). There were also a couple of stories which I also did not like. I feel that the author writes women characters less well and their portrayal in two stories in particular (“Brindley’s Place” and “All Under Hatches Stowed”) made me personally uncomfortable.
WRITING AND ILLUSTRATING THE GRAPHIC NOVEL by Mike Chinn
The title says it all, or almost all. Long-standing BSFG member Mike Chinn has put together a book of the A-Z of
writing, illustrating and selling the graphic novel minus the basic technique of drawing, the assumption being that the
reader can already do this although he does go into materials, colours, computer graphics, etc., and more of the tricks
and techniques of presenting the material. He discusses the various sub-genres, the devices, such as framing, used to
guide the reader (viewer) through the story, styles of artwork, writing, note taking and just about everything from
conception to conclusion, all illustrated profusely. In fact the book could almost serve as a basic illustrated dictionary
of the graphic novel.
Because Mike is not teaching drawing per se but its application, someone like me, whose drawing skills are very basic, can also learn from his book. I've always understood graphic novels to be comics for adults (?), a view reinforced by the covers seen in bookshops but they are more than that, having the characteristics of the written novel although with a different emphasis. And it's interesting to note how many of the techniques used depend on a knowledge of the interactions between the human brain, mind and eye, techniques used in advertising, particularly in posters. Which leads me to a slightly worrying conclusion.
The human mind cannot imagine what it has not experienced. If an author writes 'The alien had a head like an oozlum' the reader would be perplexed but if he wrote 'like an eagle' the reader would understand. It does not have to be firsthand experience either - a photograph or sketch will serve as experience. And experience is learning, and learning moulds the personality. Which means that, within limits, a written novel is only a recombination of experiences, although constant rereading will have some effect on the reader. Graphic novels on the other hand are stories set visually in pictures, which are effectively second-hand experiences. Although the reader 'knows' these do not reflect reality as does the sketch of an eagle's head, they will have more effect than just the written word.
This means that it's not impossible for an avid viewer to develop over time a perception of life that is distorted. This probably won't matter too much where pictures of elves are concerned but blood 'n' guts 'n' general mayhem is a different matter. I believe there was some form of legislation in the '50s regulating the content of comic books; nowadays with the much greater ease of production and distribution perhaps graphic novelists should consider the influence that they have on their viewers.
This review seems to have developed some way from its initial sentence so I'll conclude by saying that Mike's book is not only helpful and informative for the budding graphic novelist but its of interest to anyone interested in visual 'story telling'.
For the price of a couple of paperbacks you can't go wrong!
VALLIS TIMORIS by Mike Chinn and Sir Arthur Conan Doyle
Copyright is a tricky minefield to navigate. Different countries interpret it differently. Once an author dies, there is a
period of time before their works become out of copyright. It means that the publications can be reprinted without any
royalties paid or permission required from the estate. It also means that characters created by the out-of-copyright
author become available for further adventures involving them to be penned. Sir Arthur Conan Doyle is out of
copyright and his most celebrated character, Sherlock Holmes, is in the public domain. As a result, the BBC have
created a modern version of Holmes which worked brilliantly.
Adrian Middleton has taken advantage of the situation by creating a series of books under the general heading of the “Moriarty Paradigm”. The brief for his authors includes using the original Doyle text and not only adding to improve the flow for a modern reader but to place the story in a parallel universe. The basis for this treatment by Mike Chinn is THE VALLEY OF FEAR.
The first thing to note is that this alternative Holmes is set against a steampunk background with a network of aerostats (dirigibles) across the world. Man has also reached the moon. Otherwise, it sticks very closely to the original concept for the first two sections of the book.
In both VALLIS TIMORIS and THE VALLEY OF FEAR, Holmes receives a mysterious letter from one Porlock. This is a coded warning which actually arrives too late since Holmes and Watson are shortly summoned to investigate the death of John Douglas of Birlstone Manor House. In both books, this investigation takes up the first part of the book. Chinn, however, deviates from the original script by adding a race across the English countryside between a train and an aerostat.
The next section in both is an account of how Douglas made the enemies who pursued him from America to his English retreat in order to seek revenge for a perceived betrayal. While Doyle’s account is set in a god-forsaken corner of America, Chinn has transposed the action to the moon. Same story, different place. Doyle finished his short novel with an epilogue. Chinn takes that and folds inside it an expedition by Holmes to the moon to seek the missing pieces of the puzzle.
The question is not whether this book is well written – it is – but whether it enhances the body of work that already surrounds Doyle and Holmes. The steampunk development works well and since the movement has its roots in Victorian technology it is entirely possible to envisage Holmes and Watson inhabiting this universe. For those who are not intimately familiar with Doyle’s stories, then this version is enjoyable. The purists may wonder why, since almost the whole of Doyle’s text has been incorporated into this volume. I have yet to be convinced that this is a worthwhile approach. Having said that, I did enjoy Mike Chinn’s additions.
GREETING CARBON-BASED BIPEDS by Arthur C Clarke
In the six decades that Arthur C. Clarke has been involved in Science Fiction the growth of the modern world has
evolved beyond all recognition. Some of the changes have been down to Arthur C. Clarke himself.
This book is a collection of essays and short stories concerning the way that technology has evolved with an ever faster pace and the way that Science Fiction writers have tried to predict the future, not always correctly, in their writings. As one of the Grand Old Men of S.F. Arthur C. Clarke has been involved with both the fiction and the Science fact that at the turn of the 21st century invades more and more of our daily lives. His reminiscences of the way that cience treated S.F. in the 40’s and the early 50\s are a reminder of the ostrich head in the sand syndrome. Some of the essays on the early years are quite humorous as well as very revealing about the perceived wisdom of what the future would hold for the world. As technology changed the world so the way that ordinary people viewed Science Fiction changed, from an attitude of scorn and derision to one of wary respect. Some of the essays in the chapters dealing with the 60’s and 70’s show how the start of space exploration showed the ordinary public that the imagination of the Science Fiction writers in the 20’s and 30’s was now becoming an every day reality. Not all of the essays deal solely with technology but they encompass the attitudes o f ordinary people and the politics that shape peoples lives. The concerns of rising religious fundamentalism and the damage that it can cause by keeping people ignorant and in fear and poverty when their lives can be helped by technology is also touched upon.
Interspersed through the book are stories of Arthur C. Clarke’s love of Sri Lanka and his adventures of skin diving in the seas around the island. The range of topics discussed are wide ranging and varied from his work on screen adaptations o f his novels and television programs to his work with NASA and his drive to promote outer space. Arthur C. Clarke has been called the Prophet of the Space Age and is classed as the most visionary and versatile thinker of the 20th Century. It makes one wonder that if a person with such talents was in charge of the world were would the human race be today?
Greetings Carbon-Based Bipeds is a unique insight into the thinking behind a rare imagination and well worth a read.
SUNSTORM by Arthur C Clarke & Stephen Baxter
I enjoyed this one more than the previous volume, TIME’S EYE, mainly because although I do usually enjoy
‘alternate reality’ stories, I’m not a great fan of historical novels, and although I’m sure all the undoubtedly well-
researched material about Genghis Khan and Alexander the Great is very interesting, I prefer my hard SF to be about
science. Actually, although it is helpful to have read the first novel, it is really quite a separate story, so not essential.
In TIME’S EYE people from very different time-periods, including subhumans and Rudyard Kipling, are suddenly thrown together on a shattered Earth by what appears to be alien intervention, revealed only by the presence of gleaming, spherical ‘Eyes’. Of these people, only Bisesa Dutt, formerly working for the United Nations from within the British Army in Afghanistan, manages to return to her ‘own’ time on 9 June, 2037 – the day after she left, but having aged five years. And on the very day that an immense solar flare causes widespread damage to all types of electrical systems, traffic chaos, communications, and general alarm, injury and death.
The scene moves to the Moon, where a slightly dysfunctional genius called Eugene Mangles is the only person to predict a much more catastrophic solar event in April 2042, which will destroy the whole Earth, ejecting as much energy in a day as we normally receive in a year. Naturally, from this point onwards much of the action concerns attempts to convince the powers-that-be that this is a real danger, and deciding what, if anything, can be done about it. Here we meet Siobhan McGorran, the Astronomer Royal, to whom falls the task of coordinating this effort.
Two major computer AI systems run virtually all utilities systems, communications, etc. On Earth, it’s Aristotle; on the Moon, Thales. Both originated in the 20th century with something like Google. It is decided that the only way to even attempt to save Earth is to build a huge shield far out in space, creating a sort of artificial eclipse which will protect Earth from at least the worst of the radiation. To have any hope of making this work a new AI will be required: Athena. Now, remembering 2001 and Hal, you will probably be expecting these AI’s to spring some surprises. Well, maybe; I won’t spoil it for you. But certainly they are vital to the story, and the book is exciting and satisfying, with many touches which are recognizably the characteristic work of both authors. A real page-turner.
I have one small gripe. Clarke always capitalized Sun, Earth and Moon.
Quite rightly, since they are proper nouns, and all rather important to us! So by what logic does Baxter (who did all of the actual writing) do so with ‘Earth’ and ‘Moon’, but not ‘sun’? It jars every time I read it.
THE LIGHT OF OTHER DAYS by Arthur C Clarke & Stephen Baxter
The title is taken from a story by the late Bob Shaw, to whom the book is dedicated, but it has little to do with Shaw's "
slow glass ". The concept behind the book is a camera ( for want of a better word) which can be used to view any
event anywhere in space or time at the will of the operator. This is not a new idea: a similar idea was used by Isaac
Asimov in 1956 in a story entitled " The Dead Past " and before that in 1947 by the less well-known T.L.Sherred in a
story called " E For Effort
Like Clarke's previous collaborative n ovel" The Trigger " which I reviewed in these pages about a year ago, this one takes a new science-fictional idea and looks at its likely effect on people and society. The writers have provided a pseudo-scientific explanation for the working of the device by basing it on the use of wormholes, a concept not available to the previous authors I have mentioned and as one would expect, the explanation sounds quite plausible, at least on a surface level. However, the main purpose is not to provide an account of the device itself but rather to describe the consequences of its introduction. It all takes place in a near-future world affected by social, political and physical deterioration, complicated by the advent of the "Wormwood ", a 400-kilometer astronomical body due to impact the Earth in five centuries' time. Society and people do adapt to the wholesale introduction of " WormCam " technology, but the Wormwood turns out to be something of a red herring having little effect on the eventual outcome.
Asimov's 1956 story ended with the frightening realisation that uncontrolled use of such a device would mean the end of all privacy. This book takes it from there to produce a penetrating and revealing insight into what might happen when everyone has to conduct their personal lives in a world made of glass, while open government becomes a reality, war becomes impossible and history, including the origin of all religious beliefs, is exposed to scrutiny. These developments are fascinating. Stories of history are given a new realism and there is a striking review of the four billion year story of human evolution with a new nd unexpected suggestion for the origin of life on Earth. Eventually, humanity itself becomes changed at the most fundamental level.
I feel sure that however the collaboration between the two writers may have taken place it was left largely to Baxter to wind it up and the ending has his authority stamped all over it, even though the sheer extravagance of the whole remains typical of the best of Clarke. Whether I am right or not, the result cannot be accounted as anything but a total success and is a book not to be missed.
MISSION OF GRAVITY by Hal Clement
Has anyone in the group NOT read this one? MISSION OF GRAVITY is pure, concentrated science fiction as-it-used-
to-be, a problem story on a fascinating alien world. The storyline takes us across the face of Mesklin, the ‘poached-egg’
planet where temperatures are below -100C and a day is only 18 minutes long. Our hero is Barlennan, a sort of giant
centipede, who captains the sailing-ship Bree from the Rim, where gravity is ‘only’ 3G, across roiling seas of liquid
methane and through many adventures to the remote pole, where gravity approaches a crushing 700G.
The point is to stay faithful to science as-we-know it, using as baseassumptions the astronomical data about the (then-recently discovered) superjovian companion of 61 Cygni, with no tricks, no dodges, and no super gadgets in the last chapter. “Playing the game”, Hal Clement called it, as he did the math and tried to make sure his physics and chemistry were scrupulously correct. You can’t have an alien environment much stranger than this!
But true ‘hard’ SF isn’t seen very often these days, too difficult when softer options seem more popular, cyberpunk and wide-screen baroque, not to mention telepathy and – dare I say it – all those bloody dragons. MISSION OF GRAVITY is over fifty years old now, Hal Clement’s action sequences and dialogue were never very dramatic even then, and maybe our field has moved on? It’s a classic of course, no doubt about it, but then so are BLEAK HOUSE and THE PICKWICK PAPERS and most of us don’t read them for fun any more, do we? So I’d be interested to know what newer readers make of this book.
SALVO edited by Lynn M Cochrane
People can write for many contrasting reasons and the intended audience can be very different for different pieces.
This book evidences this very well; this is a showcase anthology of work by the Cannon Hill Writers’ Group, a local
writers’ group and includes work by several Brum Group members including Theresa Derwin, Jan Edwards, Lynn
Edwards (as Lynn Cochrane), Chris Morgan and Pauline Morgan (as Pauline Dungate. It is always difficult to review
something which is so varied, both in themes and styles. This little book contains over 50 pieces of prose and poetry
and obviously there will be some that suit some people more than others. It also needs to be borne in mind that the
writers themselves have very differing levels of experience, ranging from some very new to writing to some who have
been professionally published. That being said I did find many pieces which I enjoyed and although I have not
enough space to
discuss every piece in detail I will try and provide an idea of the variety and highlight a few of the works which I liked.
The poems and prose here contain a mixture of pure fiction, some
clearly autobiographical pieces and some clearly very personal stories.
Although the majority of the work is in real world settings, there is some science fiction, fantasy and horror.
In the science fiction realm there is ‘Nanna’ by Margaret Miller which starts with an old lady telling children her story of the colonisation of
a new planet. Although using familiar themes it is still well-written and builds a believable and likeable character. ‘The Harrowing’ by Lynn Cochrane is a study of a disaster but observed subtly from the side-lines. It concentrates on ordinary characters slowly adjusting their lives due to civilisation collapse, and the actual detail of what has happened is only inferred from its effects.
There is also some horror and fantasy although for some of the
stories the boundaries are a bit blurred. Theresa Derwin has a funny little story called ‘Mikey’ which starts as an interview about discrimination, but with a twist. There is also ‘The Hag’s Piano’ which is very atmospheric but would benefit from expansion – although to be fair it is billed as an extract.
For fantasy fans there is ‘A Woodland Dream’ by Helena Hempstead, a
modern variation on the theme of A MIDSUMMER NIGHT’S DREAM.
Of the more mainstream work, I liked ‘September 1st 1939: Evacuation’ by Joyce Lancashire and ‘Memories of Trains’ by Z. Burszytn which both feel like very personal recollections of war memories. They may not be the most polished but the recall and recording of these memories is clearly important to the authors and does engage the emotions.
There were also various stories which used humour, of which the most amusing in my opinion was ‘The Start of the Habit’ by Chris Morgan, about two ladies with awful husbands.
Finally, this volume contains a number of poems in various styles,
including rhyming, non-rhyming and even a haiku. I have difficulty
assessing what is good or not with regards to poetry and am hesitant to offer an opinion. I can only say that some did not work for me but I certainly enjoyed some of the poems. I liked ‘The Vigil’ by Helena Hempstead and ‘Rook’ by Elaine Oakley for the emotions they captured which felt very real. Lastly, but by no means least, the collection ends with an excellent poem by the late Joel Lane called ‘The Chosen Woodlouse’ which in just three short verses contains a lot to think upon.
X7: A SEVEN DEADLY SINS ANTHOLOGY edited by Alex Davis
Putting together an anthology with a theme is not easy. The idea behind X7 is simple – a story for each of the seven
deadly sins. Something like this cannot be an open anthology, authors have to be invited to take part and be assigned
their sin. Then the editor has to keep all fingers crossed that not only does the story fit the sin, but the quality is of an
acceptable standard – even the best authors can produce duffers sometimes.
There are good things and not so good things about this volume. The first thing a reader wants to know is who wrote the stories. This is missing from the contents page as is any indication of price from the back cover. Each story is frontispieced by a line drawing. Some of these are quite effective but are better reproduced smaller and in colour as cards on the front cover.
Lust is represented by Nicholas Royle’s “Dead End”. It begins with a man on holiday in France with his mistress. This could be a straight forward story of illicit sex, but in a horror anthology it is reasonable to expect something nasty to happen. Sin needs to be punished. Royle is a skilful writer and salts clues naturally into the story. It does, though, seem a little rushed towards the end.
Amelia Mangan introduces us to Envy in “If I Were You”. Edwin has discovered that he has a younger sister who was not given up for adoption as he was. He wants to be her, so much so that he is stalking her, observing everything that she does and copying it.
There have been a number of stories of dining clubs whose members seek the ultimate taste experience. None perhaps are quite as revolting as “Gravy Soup” by Simon Clark. This story represents Gluttony. It is the reluctance of some members of the Gymnasium Supper Club to share the secret of the best, most addictive food ever that has Gordon Clumsden sneaking around graveyards at night. This is the grossest story in this volume.
“The Devil In Red” by Alex Bell represents Wrath. Although this story is cleverly and skilfully written it is the most problematic in the context with its theme. Joshua Ackland is a defence lawyer. The client he sees on this day is obviously guilty - he was caught carrying a sack containing some of his wife’s body parts. He claims that the woman he killed was not his wife despite contrary evidence. I can’t quite equate deliberate acts with wrath. It is, though, an intriguing supernatural story that needs a bit more substance.
Simon Bestwick bases his tale of Greed, not on an individual person but the corporate greed of mankind. In “Stormcats” it is that vice and the disregard of the consequences that have led to the situation that Aaron and his family find themselves in. They flee rising floodwaters (caused by global warming) to a cottage which becomes an island. The fight for survival becomes surreal as Aaron reaps the effects of greed.
Pride can take many forms and seems a relatively innocuous sin. The problem comes when pride causes hurt to other people. In “Walls” by Gaie Sebold, Darren is proud of his beautiful wife. Most people would want to show off the things they take pride in. However, Darren keeps Chrys shut away, inventing excuses as to why she mustn’t go outside. From the start there are clues suggesting that all is not as it appears. According to the saying it seems reasonable to expect that Darren is heading for a fall. It’s a good story but the pride aspect of it could have been stronger.
“Seagull Island” by Tom Fletcher is a slothful story. It doesn’t do much but those in the grip of sloth don’t do much either. The narrator spends the whole story lying on a rock by the sea. Although I like a story that goes somewhere and has a bit more action, this offering is the epitome of sloth. Its shape totally encompasses that state.
Seven stories, seven sins. Some work better than others but in any anthology that is a given. All stories veer to the horrific side of life and for the most part the characters are exhibiting human frailty. There will be at least one story that all readers of horror fiction will
appreciate whether or not they feel it encompasses the sin it intends to depict.
THE HOUSE OF BINDING THORNS by Aliette de Bodard
THE HOUSE OF BINDING THORNS is the sequel to THE HOUSE OF SHATTERED WINGS. The reader is again
returned to a ruined Paris, devastated and polluted after a magical war between opposing Houses of Fallen angels
and their client magicians. In the first book, the House of Silverspires and the characters who lived there were the main
focus. In this book, the attention is shifted to a rival house, Hawthorn and its leader, the Fallen Asmodeus. Whilst
House Hawthorn was not as badly affected as House Silverspires, there were some significant consequences.
Asmodeus’ long-term lover, Samariel was killed and Asmodeus has reclaimed the human alchemist, Madeleine from
House Silverspires. Madeleine had hidden there for twenty years after escaping from a bloody coup within House
Hawthorn which brought Asmodeus into power. Madeleine and Phillipe, another main character from the previous
book, both have a pivotal role to play in this book.
During the first book, a hidden kingdom within the waters of the Seine was discovered. Ruled by shape-shifting water dragons (Rong), their magic is different in nature to the Fallen. House Hawthorn, seeing the opportunities, is trying to negotiate an alliance, which will be sealed with a dynastic marriage between Asmodeus and a royal prince. The water kingdom needs the alliance as they are weakened by various forces including magical pollution from the previous war but also by the prevalent use of smuggled angel essence (which corrupts the user) from the surface. When representatives of Hawthorn visit the Imperial Court to negotiate, they uncover opposition to the alliance from factions within the Kingdom and the Fallen, which ultimately threaten not only the alliance but the continued existence of the Kingdom and Hawthorn as well.
As good sequels do, this book expands from the narrow confines of one House to consider the wider environment of Paris. We see as a contrast to the Houses, the harsh life of the people who do not have their protection. They, the dragons and the Fallen all have a major role to play in the final outcome. In particular, the Annamite (Vietnamese) population who came as a result of France’s colonial occupation of their country feature strongly, both as the houseless but also as the magical, Imperial court beneath the river. This contrasting of Western and Eastern mythologies, magical and political systems is one of the refreshing and interesting aspects of this series. There is also a clear allusion to the Opium Wars between the British and the Chinese in the real world. As before the worldbuilding is unique, detailed and enthralling. If I have a criticism, it is similar to the last book in that I found myself far more interested in some characters than others, and felt there was more depth to them than the book had time to explore (in particular the interplay between the charismatic ruthless Asmodeus and the quiet but more moral Prince Thuan) but hopefully that will be in another book. If you like fantasy which is intelligent and definitely non-formulaic, then I would absolutely recommend this book.
THE HOUSE OF SHATTERED WINGS by Aliette de Bodard
The HOUSE OF SHATTERED WINGS is set in a ruined Paris. This is a world where angels fall periodically to Earth,
their wings removed and with no memory of why they have been cast out. These Fallen are suffused with magic and
gangs of humans will kill them to gain temporary magical powers although like all drugs, eventually angel essence
will kill the user. To protect themselves, the Fallen band together into Great Houses. These compete in ruthless and
Machiavellian power games which resulted some years ago in a Great War. This has left Paris devastated, its river
polluted and the humans forced into either scratching a living or if skilled, gaining protection from the diminished
houses. At the start of the story, House Silverspires rescues a newly fallen and disoriented angel, Isabelle from a gang
who want to kill her for her magical flesh. They also capture a strange man, Phillipe who seems more than human and
who has a mysterious link to Isabelle from having ingested some of her flesh.
While under house arrest, Phillipe and Isabelle unwittingly unleash a malign entity that hides in shadows and progressively stalks and kills the members of House Silverspires one by one. Phillipe, as the activator of the “curse” now starts to have visions, which are clearly someone’s memories. These memories show the house in earlier times, its missing and charismatic leader, Morningstar and his betrayal of the originator of the curse. The shadow killer is clearly the revenge of this person and is meant to bring about the total destruction of House Silverspires. As the other houses manoeuvre to take advantage of the stricken House, Phillipe is forced reluctantly to try and unravel the nature of the creature and the identity of the betrayed Silverspires member.
I found this very much a novel of two halves. In the first half I thoroughly enjoyed the world-building which is superb and detailed – the crumbling and derelict Paris and the diminished but still warring Houses work very well. The organisation of the Houses and their human and Fallen members are interesting and the slow reveal of the absent Morningstar and the consequences of his actions keep you engaged. However once the initial threat is uncovered, it felt to me like there was a significant loss of menace and pace. There is still a threat to the House but as they have been “off-stage” for too long, their ultimate revelation feels anticlimactic. It also felt to me that the characters’ motivations and actions were less credible and inconsistent with their previous characters – for instance, Morningstar and the head of House Hawthorn, Asmodeus. Also several plot points feel either unresolved or incompatible with earlier established facts – especially the relationship between Isabelle and Phillipe. I have read some of Aliette De Bodard’s SF short stories which I have thoroughly enjoyed. This book again demonstrates her impressive imagination but sadly the ending did not live up to the promise of the beginning.
THE THIEF-TAKER’S APPRENTICE by Stephen Deas
This is the first of a series following the life of Berren, a fourteen-year-old boy living in the city of Deephaven. Berren is
a thief who has the nerve to steal the purse of Deephaven’s most feared thief-taker, Syannis. Impressed by this,
Syannis hunts down Berren and buys him from his vicious gang-master/owner Hatchet. The book then follows Berren’s
first few months as the thief-takers apprentice.
The book is well written and is easily read but is a linear depiction of Berren’s story, lacking the varied strands that
often gives a book breadth and makes it come to life. For instance, although Syannis is a very successful and
potentially interesting character, how he goes about his business, discovering vital information, is largely unreported.
So overall, I found the book was somewhat bland and disappointing. At one stage I thought to myself that this book is
more for young persons and not adults. It was therefore not
surprising that when I finally read the press release, as I did not wish to be over influenced by it, I found that it was
aimed at young adults. This was not apparent from the information on the jacket. Reassessing my conclusions, it is not
a poor book and young persons (young teens) should gain a good deal of enjoyment from it. However, I still think that
widening its scope to follow the lives and experiences of some of the other characters more closely would make it a
much better and exciting read.
ANDROMEDA’S CHILDREN edited by Theresa Derwin
ANDROMEDA’S CHILDREN is an anthology of SF stories with the theme of strong female protagonists who “challenge
the tropes of female characters in the majority of science fiction”. Some of you may remember that a book launch for
this book was also held at the October 2015 meeting of the Brum Group.
Perhaps the most glaring issue with this book lies not within its stories but in the many errors that are common throughout. It feels that the text has been put through a spell-checker but not proof read before final printing. This does the authors a grave dis-service as it is very distracting and pulls the reader out of the flow of the story. These numerous errors include missing words, missed or inappropriate punctuation (including apostrophes) and the wrong homophones (ie words which sound similar but have a different spelling and meaning) of which the most noticeable example is the first story “Desert Storm” which is listed as “Dessert Storm” in the header of each page.
The anthology contains thirteen stories, of which only five are by female authors. That is not to say that male writers cannot write good female protagonists – for example, the story “Golden Age” by James S Dorr in this anthology is a nice character study of an older woman looking back on her long life. Nevertheless, with this theme in particular, I would like to have seen a bit more of an equal ratio given that there are many excellent female writers out there.
Whilst some of the stories do feature interesting female protagonists, others do not feel like they live up to the remit of “challenging the tropes”. The stories that I liked included the following; “Desert Storm” by Pauline Dungate, in which we find that some things are universal, especially pompous individuals who need taking down a peg or two. “Being Ready” by Lynn M Cochrane, where the protagonist negotiates cleverly with her alien captors, and “To the Altar” where two women from opposing sides agonise over the ethics of whether to bomb a country into submission. What the four stories mentioned above understand, in my estimation is that strong should not just mean aggressive.
Unfortunately, some of the other stories in this collection miss this point, and feel that the definition of “strong” female character merely involves someone who beats somebody up (“Cut and Run” by David Perlmutter) or callously kills people (“Enlightened Soldier” by Matthew Sylvester and “Shelved Desires” by Damon Cavalchini). My least favourite story in the whole collection, “Electric You” by Damon Cavalchini, also suffers from this trope but in addition also dwells too much on a princess who distracts the “bad guys” with her attractive body and reads like bad E E ‘Doc’ Smith – not exactly “challenging the trope”.
The remaining stories in the collection all have some merit but I feel that they could have been more polished – some need a little more emotional depth whereas others are good ideas but would have benefitted from a little more attention to plot logic or research.
HER DARK VOICE edited by Theresa Derwin
It is always good to welcome new, independent publishers to the field, especially those prepared to produce
anthologies of new stories. It is a pity they have to go through a steep learning curve before the product is right.
Knightwatch Press is a relative newcomer to the playground and is still learning the rules. This is one of their early
volumes and, as such, exhibits many elementary mistakes. It does, though get some things right. It is better to begin
with the positive.
This book, subtitled AN ANTHOLOGY CELEBRATING THE FEMALE VOICE, was produced to raise money for the Breast Cancer Campaign, all profits going to that organisation. For that reason, all those involved gave their services without charge. There are twelve stories here (not ten as stated in the forward) and all but two are previously unpublished. They range from contributions from well-known authors such as Jaine Fenn and Liz Williams to the relatively unknown. Most of the stories are worthy of being included in almost any quality magazine and, unlike many anthologies these days, there is no particular theme, the only connection being that all the authors are female and the stories are of a sinister bent.
Normally, it is good practice to have the strongest story as the first in a volume, for the simple reason that this is what a potential reader will look at first (other than the cover) and decide whether or not to buy. The second strongest goes last. It is a shame that this convention was not used as the weakest story in the whole volume (“Honour Among Thieves” by Lynda Collins) kicks off the book. It doesn’t help that the final story “The Tenant Of Rosewood Abbey” is also by Lynda Collins. Although this is a far better story it could be further developed and there are other female writers who would have been happy to contribute to this volume.
It is not all bad news. There are some delightful stories here. “Fear Not Heaven’s Fire” by Jaine Fenn is not only powerfully written but the kind of story that I would expect in an anthology with this title. The narrator is a strong, female character; a blind nun who discovers a man hiding beneath the convent granary. In a mediaeval setting when the power of faith was stronger, still not all those who took the veil necessarily did so as a vocation.
The idea of these stories is to have a dark edge. That is certainly true of “The Clinic” by Jan Edwards. The sister of the narrator is in the last stages of Motor Neurone disease. Sarah wants the ordeal over and when she is made an offer to resolve the matter, she seriously considers it. This is a story with subtlety. Jacey Bedford’s story, “Kindling The Flame” is much less so but is still an entertaining piece of writing. The cover of the book is an illustration from the story – but more about that later.
The title character in Gaie Sebold’s “Ice-Cream Man” definitely has a demonic bent and is looking for an apprentice. This is a powerful story, and shows how low some youths can sink because they think that no-one cares. “Cyndy And The Demon Asmodeus” by Rhiannon Mills is almost another demonic recruitment story. Although not particularly sophisticated it still has a lightness of touch.
There are some writers who retell old tales in a different fashion, others who invent their own myths. Misa Buckley belongs to the former, as in her “Siren Shadows” a young man is lured to a night of lust with what he thinks are three beautiful women. Liz Williams belongs to the latter. Her “Blanchenoire” is a fable. Blanche is approaching adulthood, and lives in a world that is totally monochrome. Events change her perspective and allow colour to enter the world. Williams is a complex writer and even within a story this short there are themes that need teasing out. Nothing here is superficial. Lynn M. Cochrane’s “Leaf Green” also plays with myth but in a very different way to the other two. This story feels like a fragment of something longer.
So, this is a mixed bag of stories, some excellent, some enjoyable and a turkey. But readers don’t always agree with an editor’s choice. The downside of this book revolves around two factors, cover and layout. The cover illustration is amateurish, drawn by an artist who, in this instance, shows no skill in illustrating the human form. Covers sell books. This deserved better. The other big issue is inside. The content list fails to acknowledge the authors – a huge omission – and the author biographies at the end are too detailed. On a personal note, I find the actual layout of the text a little annoying. I prefer a larger indentation at the start of paragraphs, but it is consistent throughout.
Whatever the shortcomings of this volume, the important reason for buying it is that had been produced to aid a very worthwhile charity. You don’t have to read the book, just buy it as a contribution.
SEASON’S CREEPINGS by Theresa Derwin
These days, when people talk about pocket books, they mean note books that tuck into a pocket or bag, or in the case
of Americans, the publishing imprint that has given us popular series such as Buffy or Star Trek. They were made the
right size for the pockets of coats, before fashion banished them. This is a pocket sized book, but you probably wouldn’t
want to be seen reading it on a bus.
This slim volume was actually published before Christmas and would have made a good stocking filler for the horror fan in your family. It contains six pieces all with a creepy slant.
The first offering, “Fifty Hades of Grey”, is a short story with a topical slant. Most people will have heard of the Fifty Shades… books and film even if they have not admitted to reading or watching any of them. Many phenomena have corporations cashing in with merchandising. Four women, friends for nearly forty years, meet up to exchange Christmas presents. Ange presents the others with a small, naked male doll labelled, “Grow Your Own Mr Grey”. They giggle over it, as the instructions urge them to leave the object in water overnight. Once her friends have left, Jo submerges hers in the bath, just to see what will happen. Later that night, she wakes to find a six-foot, gorgeous naked man in her bathroom. Although she initially accepts the unexpected gift, the demon she has grown has underestimated the modern woman. The story itself is nicely told but its topical nature and some of the references in it might date it quickly and, even in five years’ time, the reader might not appreciate all the subtleties.
“Twas the Night” is a parody on the original verse but extremely topical. It was obviously written with passion and anger so it is possible to forgive its short-comings. It is the kind of thing that would appear in a newspaper at the time of the events. The shame is that it will date even more quickly than “Fifty Hades of Grey”.
In contrast, “The Red Queen” has an historical setting. Elizabeth Barton is enamoured with the stories of Charles Dickens. For some reason she determines to make his acquaintance and assist him in his writing. What he doesn’t know is that this is the vampire story in the book. The main problem is that this story is far too short. It lacks the space to exploit the richness of the setting. Dickens was a writer who had a talent for story-telling. This story should at least try to capture that. It would also have more impact if the final curtain had come at the time Dickens had embarked on his unfinished opus, EDWIN DROOD.
With this author, it would be unsurprising to have a collection without a zombie story. “Night of the Living Dead Turkey: Death From Beyond the Gravy” fulfils this role. The biggest pun is the title and gives an idea of the kind of story that follows. Basically, a mutation of avian flu causes a turkey, plucked and oven ready, to resurrect (one assumes it still had a head). The spread of the plague is fast and is told in emails and newspaper reports. It is a good attempt to be different but again suffers from its brevity.
“Last Christmas” uses another of the familiar horror tropes but to tell you which one would spoil the punch line. The male narrator is the one who usually cooks Christmas dinner and he and his wife, Alice, invite unattached friends. One of them, Dave, runs off with Alice, leaving her husband to plot revenge. This story works well at this length.
The final piece, “A Contemporary Christmas Carol” returns to the Dickens’ theme and is a short rant by Scrooge against his creator in modern idiom.
This little book is probably best read with a glass of Christmas cheer and an inclination to be amused. As with most humour it will not appeal to everyone. And if you are sensitive about the language children in your household read, keep it out of their reach.
WOLF AT THE DOOR by Theresa Derwin
Modern writers of horror have a difficult problem. Gone are the days of sitting around a real fire in a room lit by
candlelight, with the wind howling outside and rats scratching in the walls. It is made harder by the authors who have
taken the traditional scary monster such as the werewolf and the vampire and turned them into cuddly, misunderstood
creatures. Not only does the present-day horror writer have to repossess some of the things which scare but to find new
ways to send that frisson of fear racing up the spine. In WOLF AT THE DOOR, Theresa Derwin has tried to do that in
these ten short stories.
As might be expected from the title, the eponymous ‘Wolf at the Door’ involves werewolves. Sam is a werewolf who hasn’t actually ‘changed’. He was infected while working for a facility that captures rogue super-naturals like vampires and werewolves. He is attracted to his councillor, Lesley, who is not what she seems. She tells him things about the research going on in the centre and together, they decide to put a stop to it. This is a romance that contains familiar tropes.
Anyone who knows Theresa will be aware that she has a ‘thing’ about zombies, so it is not surprising to find several in this volume.
‘Dirigible of the Dead’ has a steam-punk setting. The narrator and her small son are travelling from London to Birmingham by dirigible when passengers in economy class begin eating each other. ‘Ring And Rage’ is a more contemporary story. For those who know the Ring and Ride system, it is ideal for those who cannot use other means of transport to get to places like the supermarket. The disabled narrator is joined by a group from a sheltered housing complex. At the supermarket, they start turning into zombies. Here, there is a rationale for the change whereas in the former story, it goes unexplained. ‘Abuse of the Dead’ is a different take on zombies. Here, they are not flesh-eating monsters but dead members of the community with similar rights to the living. Some though, treat them as slaves or in the same way children were exploited in earlier eras. In this story, the narrator is a crusader for the betterment of the dead, working to expose those who would abuse them, for whatever reason.
There is a very thin line between a supernatural experience and being mentally ill. In ‘Muse’ it is left for the reader’s judgement as to whether Mark is actually being guided by a supernatural being, or it is a case that he has stopped taking his medication. ‘Pound of Flesh’ has the same kind of tone. This time it is a question of body image and the narrator is seeing how she would look if she carries out the self-mutilation that seems very logical to her. Whichever way it is read, both of these stories lead to the protagonist carrying out acts that a sane person would not contemplate.
Ghosts that appear in supernatural fiction can take many forms. Some are benign, some deadly. They have a purpose such as revenge, or may have lost their way to the next world. In ‘The Things I See’, the narrator sees the ghosts of murdered children. She always has, but has found that no-one believes her. They show themselves to her because she nearly became a victim like them, and they are trying to get a message across, through her.
Of these and the three other stories in this volume, ‘Pound of Flesh’ is the one that is the most satisfactory. Derwin has excellent ideas but in most cases, the stories are too short, needing a longer treatment to explore the idea more fully. As it is, the short scenes in several cases make the story line muddled. The other problem with this book is that the layout makes it frustrating to read, with, mostly, no indents to paragraphs. What makes it worse is that some stories start off being laid out conventionally, only to slip back into the annoying pattern. This is easy to spot if the final copy is checked. It spoils the appearance of the book and I know this publisher can do better.
A SCANNER DARKLY by Philip K Dick
This book seems to be a piece of near-biography masquerading as science fiction. It seems to be the story of a group
of people sharing a house somewhere in California. They all seem to be petty criminals and drug addicts. There is a
lot here about the affects of various drugs (many of which might be fictional) on the mental state of the participants.
The great theme is that of dissociation. Many things are not what they appear to be. The central character is an undercover policeman searching for the source of a new drug. His main lead is through an addict living with several others in various states of dependence. Except that he is that addict. Either the drug that he is taking has produced this dissociative effect or maybe it has something to do with the working practice that means none of his co-workers know that he is this person. In losing touch with his other persona he becomes more suspicious of it hastening his own descent into (insanity?). A strong enough story but how much is life and how much is fiction?
IN MILTON LUMKY TERRITORY / MARY AND THE GIANT by Philip K Dick
Philip K Dick was one of the best SF writers. He produced some of the most inventive material in the genre. He had a
wicked sense of humour and generally threw in the odd unexpected twist before the end of any story.
Sometime in the 50s he also wrote these mainstream novels. They remained unpublished until he died in the 80s. Where his SF was inventive, dark and comic, this is dull, grey and lifeless. This isn’t an attempt at literature, it’s mediocre 50s pulp fiction. This isn’t even up to the likes of Harold Robbins let alone any literary writer of the period.
There isn’t a great deal of difference between the two books. Themes recur, characters seem to be different versions of the same person, even large lumps of plot seem to be duplicated.
Our ‘hero’ (the strongest male character) has been travelling with his work for some years and is now settling down. He is buying all our part of a retail business. As a result of this he meets the ‘heroine’. She is either a business partner or an employee. There is a relationship there that never really seems to work properly. She has a lot of trouble making decisions and sticking to them. This proves financially costly to him. There is also an age gap that keeps them apart.
They seem to break up and things are settled in a final chapter that seems to be a clear break from the rest of the book.
In IN MILTON LUMKY TERRITORY our ‘hero’ is Bruce Stevens.
He’s been working as a buyer for a discount retail store in Reno driving up and down the country looking for goods that can be bought cheaply and in large quantities. He meets Susan Faine who was his school teacher years before and now owns half of a secretarial agency and typewriter supplies shop. She is divorced with a young daughter and wants to take more time at home. She wants him to buy out her business partner and build up the retail side of the business so that, in a few years, she can just do some of the secretarial work from home. They are soon married but it isn’t a terribly stable marriage. Then there are a lot of cheap typewriters that seem to be the way to make the retail business pay. Things are never that easy. Somewhere in all this is Milt Lumky - a seriously ill salesman who is the only one that can find the cut-rate typewriters and Peg Googer a onenight stand that Bruce kind-of regrets.
MARY & THE GIANT begins with the arrival of Joe Schilling. He’s been in the music business for years and he wants to open up a small record shop in a small town and retire. Things are complicated when Mary Anne Reynolds applies for the job of assistant in the shop. As soon as he offers her the job she changes her mind because she thinks he’s coming on to her. Their relationship is little more than a series of collisions. They have a dinner date. She works one day in the shop. They have a one-night stand. He rents her an apartment and they set about painting and decorating. The painting is never finished and she moves out without having spent a night there. She leaves town. In the background are Carleton Tweany a giant blues musician, various other downbeat would-be musicians and hangers on and an accidental death at a party.
It was once said that Phil Dick SF novels could never be filmed because too much of them were just people sitting around in rooms talking. Those stories had action sequences as well. These don’t. These are just back catalogue mediocrities published to cash in on a famous name.
Second Variety by Philip K Dick
Another collection of short stories from the complete collection (Volume 2). It is all good solid stuff with all of PKD's
usual tricks - the heavy sense of irony, the twist at the end of the tail... - but there's nothing that really stands out here.
In some ways it loses from the lack of oddities as in the first and third volumes but if you can take this sort of thing and
still be constantly surprised then that should not be a problem. It's all good stuff from one of the best writers of the
genre but it can start to feel a little predictable after a while.
The collected stories Volume 1 - Beyond lies the Wub & Volume 3 - The Father-thing by Philip K Dick
So much is said about PKD and his novels, they talk about the darkness and the paranoia and how difficult things are.
Add to that the recent films that owe more to Raymond Chandler and Dashiell Hammett and it isn't terribly surprising
that nobody's really paid attention to this stuff These are short stories published in the first half of the fifties. There isn't
a great deal of difference in style and quality throughout (although there are inconsistencies) and the standard is
The style that everyone called paranoia shows up very consistently here. Most of the stories have a plot that involves someone trying to take over the world / universe and usually the revelation that things aren't being run by the people you thought they were. The most surprising thing is the discovery of PKD's strong sense of humour. The heavy irony runs throughout, attempts to control the world are averted by the most unlikely candidates (small boys, stuffed toys). Some things resurface in other fiction (the one about the animal that says to the people about to eat it "the taste is good, very fatty but quite tender" (Beyond lies the wub - 1) and others are merely silly (The eyes have it -3) and there's always the twist at the end like something out of the old "Twilight Zone". Those who think comedy should be harmless could learn a lot here. The rest of us can just have a good laugh.
FOR THE WIN by Cory Doctorow
The genius of Doctorow’s writing is the way that he can convincingly inhabit the world
of the game-obsessed youngster. For most kids of today, having a job where you would be paid to play computer games all day would be some kind of heaven. In this near future world, they can do just that. On-line games are big business and experienced players are needed. If only it were that simple…
Leonard is a sixteen-year-old American. He calls himself Wei-Dong and hangs out in cyberspace with a gang of Chinese players. His father is not happy and tries to send him to a military school. Leonard runs away and gets a poorly paid job playing games. Mala and her army earn enough to get a better deal in the slums of Mumbai. One of their tasks is to help paying customers get their avatars up to higher levels where the in-game rewards are greater. They and Matthew’s gang in China are also gold-farmers. There are players out there who will pay real money to have virtual items credited to their in-game characters. The gold-farmers get them, their bosses sell them. It is big business. It is a commodity market. Real fortunes can be made or lost. The players like Mala and Matthew work in sweat-shop conditions.
Then they are approached, during battle, by Big Sister Nor, who plays out of Hong Kong. She wants better pay and conditions for the workers. She proposes a Trade Union, the IWWWW,
Much of the novel is the struggle to unionise the workers and get recognition. This is a realistic, gritty and at times, bloody novel. Just as the original workers’ unions had to fight for survival, so do these characters. Game-playing is not always fun.
Although this may look like a young adult book, it has some deeply disturbing passages involving brutality and exploitation. These things are probably going on right now, in the places Doctorow describes. He has changed the parameters but the message is the same. Act now.
Hidden inside a thoroughly enjoyable fast paced book is material that should make any civilised reader think.
MAKERS by Cory Doctorow
Good science fiction writers are able to take present trends and extrapolate into a plausible near future. All of us can
see that if certain companies are unable to innovate, they will disappear from the market place. Digital technology
has tolled the death knell for film photography and power sources are moving away from the usage of chemical
batteries. In MAKERS, Doctorow starts with the merger of Kodak and Duracell to make Kodacell. Landon Kettlewell,
the CEO of the new company, calls a press conference not only to announce the new arrangement but also to outline
a new method of doing things. Instead of one, unwieldy and vulnerable company, they are looking for innovators with
perhaps one product idea that can, with sponsorship and guidance, be made developed into something commercial.
Suzanne Church, a local journalist, is invited to follow the progress of one of these new setups. Her move to Florida is meant to be short-term as she posts all the details of the work of two entrepreneurs, Lester Banks and Perry Gibbons. They are assigned a business manager to help with the financial side of the enterprise. The team is a success but with any new innovation there will be others who will try to copy the designs and flood the market with cheap versions.
To keep ahead, new concepts must be developed.
Moving a completely different direction, they run into a trademark battle with Disney.
With a near future setting, this is an excellent look at the way that big business conducts itself and the tricks the unscrupulous will get up to. It is also a demonstration of the power of the internet. There are villains, inside and out of the Disney Parks corporation, in particular a nasty, mean-minded journalist whose favourite pastime is to make inflammatory comments on the internet against his opponents. It is a pity that he is about the only English character. There are excellent cameo characters, like the Goth youth who calls himself Death Waits but the main characters tend to escape. They are too busy doing things and driving the plot to be fully fleshed out. On the whole, this is a good example of inventive science fiction.
Lord of the Isles by David Drake
David Drake has made the switch from straight Science Fiction to fantasy with remarkable ease. In this the first book of
a trilogy? Quadrology? He has set the four main characters in a cosmic chess game, which takes them on a journey
through a number a different planes of reality. Along with Tenoctris a female wizard, who has been moved a thousand
years into the future, Garric or-Reise and his sister Sharina and his friend Cashel and his sister Ilna are forced to leave
Barca’s Hamlet on the Island of Haft. As they leave the only home they have known for the outside world, they are
initially pawns on a chessboard, in a cosmic game played by unseen players. But unlike pawns they come to realise
slowly that they have more powers than anybody realises.
As an introduction to an epic fantasy, Lord o f the Isles, sets a cracking pace with a number of different strands well woven together. The characters are somewhat familiar in the fantasy mould, but even for all that they set the stage for the adventures that come their way. With some of the other principle characters such as Nonnus a solitary figure also from Barca’s Hamlet, the treacherous Queen and the Hooded One an evil wizard, they pull the cosmic powers that rule the destinies of the islands around the inland sea together in a tale of mystery and intrigue. Lord o f the Isles is a well-crafted book, which does not loose its way in telling an epic tale.
There is plenty of detail without getting bogged down and the story moves with a nicely feel of timing.
This is definitely one for all fantasy readers, with the promise of more to come in the following books.
Queen of Demons by David Drake
Queen of Demons continues the story of Game, Sharina, Cashel, ilna and the sorceress Tenoctris, started in the first
book in the series Lord o f the Isles. After the defeat o f the ancient sorcerer the Hooded One in a great battle the
game should have been won, but the cosmic chess game continues. Game, who know knows that he-is from the
ancient bloodline of King Lorcan who hid the powerful Throne of Malkar, which is the prize that the players of the
game want. King Carus the last of the rulers of all of the isles, before they split into warring kingdoms, and who’s ghost
guides Garric towards re-uniting the isles into one coherent whole, but Garric has a long road to travel before this can
pass. His friends Cashel and Ilna who are halflings also have powers that others want, and his sister Sharma are forced
into different paths travelling through alternate realities before they are reunited. But in the background lurk the ever
present forces of darkness that still want to use the main players in the saga as pawns in their own game.
With the second book in David Drake’s epic fantasy, Lord o f the Isles, the Oueen o f Demons manages to keep the pace set in the first novel going, without the usual drop off the second novels in a trilogy sometimes suffer from. Even though the plot line is somewhat predictable the characterisations do not suffer. The adversities that the main characters have to deal with are dealt with in a competent manner, along with several novel twists on the fantasy theme. David Drake is definitely making a mark for himself in the Fantasy field and he has moved himself up a notch from his straight Science Fiction novels.
Time and the Gods by Lord Dunsany
This is the second in the series of "Fantasy Masterworks" (although there is no note of what number one was).
This is in fact a collection of 6 books of short stories published early in the last century (20th, that is). These vary between the mythological style of translated Greek and Roman myth and the traveller's tale but all of it seems to be original. This is one for those that think the modern fantasy writers are imaginative or inventive. There is not a great deal of detail here and you won't find any real depth to the characters but the story-telling has style and each story fits into it's allotted genre.