FABLES AND FABRICATIONS by Jan Edwards
While being aware of Jan Edward’s considerable skills as an editor and co-publisher of Alchemy Press, I had not
previously read much of her own writing. FABLES AND FABRICATIONS is a collection of fourteen short stories
interspersed with poems. All of the stories have been previously published elsewhere although the haiku’s (three line
poems with a 5-7-5 syllable structure) are all original.
One of the problems I often have with single author collections is that the stories often become very similar. That is most definitely not the case here. While most of the stories could be classed as fantasy (with a couple of exceptions) the stories are pleasingly varied in subject and style, ranging from light humorous pieces through to some dark and emotionally affecting tales. It is no easy task to write well over such a wide range, and is a good reflection of the author’s significant abilities and imagination. I also like the prose style which makes very effective use of similies and metaphors so that they are evocative without being cliched. Whilst every story is not equally enjoyable, I feel this is more a question of my individual taste than anything inherent to the crafting and quality of the story.
One of my favourites is the first story, “Drawing down the Moon” which looks at the high price which must be paid for communicating with the dead. I really liked the shift from the mundane setting of a seedy café to the high drama later in the story. It also amply demonstrates the author’s ability to write credible female (and male) protagonists. Other favourites include; “Midnight Twilight” about a journalist searching for a mysterious creature in the remote Arctic, which again is very atmospheric; “The Abused and Him” which is not fantasy but paints a realistic and unsettling picture of the after-effects of abuse on a victim; and “Princess Born” which is a very funny re-writing of the Princess and the Pea fairy story. The author is clearly familiar with a lot of folklore, both British and European and plays with these themes very effectively in many of the stories, which appealed to me personally.
Regarding the poetry, I am always hesitant commenting but I did enjoy the Haiku in particular as one can see the real skill in capturing an impression or emotion in very few words.
This is a collection of thoughtfully written, wide ranging stories which I thoroughly recommend with the only caveat being that it is not for those who want science fiction stories.
LEINSTER GARDENS AND OTHER SUBTLETIES by Jan Edwards
The problem with reading a book of ghost stories is that you are always on the look-out for the ghost. It is harder to
surprise the reader but a skilled writer can do it especially if they make use of the full use of range of ghosts that
appear in literature. Many Victorian writers liked the idea of the vengeful ghost, the innocent who suffers at the hands
of the wicked and wants justice. Other ghosts don’t realise they are dead and don’t know that they have to move on,
while others are somehow trapped. Experiences that might be interpreted as ghosts may merely be a replay of events
with no spirit involved or a lost spirit from another dimension may not understand the havoc they are causing. There
are probably as many interpretations of the phenomena labelled ghosts as there are apparitions recorded. The
challenge is to make the supernatural unexpected rather than unexplained.
In this volume of fourteen ghost stories, Jan Edwards explores the nature of the ghostly event and finds ways of reinterpreting it. Many of these stories have their roots in folklore and urban myth; many reportings of ghostly sightings have already entered into the mythology of the haunted place. The title story, “Concerning The Events In Leinster Gardens” has the authenticity of the 1930s in both language and attitudes. It also draws on the scams that were able to catch out the unwary. Archie buys a ticket to a masked ball in good faith. From the moment of his arrival in Leinster Gardens, the reader is aware that nothing is quite what it seems. Gullible Archie is not so fortunate. The challenge is to spot all the tropes that Edwards is playing with.
Whereas, the house itself in Leinster Gardens can be regarded as the ghost, “The Waiting” would be regarded as more traditional with a house being haunted. It is the approach that makes it different, cutting between past and present.
A good way of solving the ‘which is the ghost’ problem is a bit of misdirection. Titles well-chosen can provide it as in “Nanna Barrows” a story narrated by a young girl, now an invalid after having recovered from diphtheria.
“April Love” gives us a choice of possible ghosts. Some, often weak stories, don’t reveal that the narrator is a ghost until the very end, leaving the reader feeling cheated. This doesn’t happen here as the narrative is third person but seen from the points of view of April and her two suitors. It is very carefully plotted to keep the reader guessing.
By default, ghost stories have an element of the past within them. Often it is a contemporary figure interacting with a spectre that has their origin in history. In most of Edwards’ stories, the setting for the events is also historical. “The Ballad Of Lucy Lightfoot” is an exception because it crosses boundaries. Lucy has returned to the place of her birth on the Isle of Wight to finish what started nearly two hundred years previously. The story manages to combine paganism, folklore, time travel and immortality yet still contains ghosts – though this time they are much harder to spot. Because of this, and its longer length it is my favourite in this collection.
“Orbyting” is very different and a complete contrast to the stories on either side of it. It has a very modern high tech, SF feel to it. Kat is part of a team of ghost hunters. When she returns to the office to retrieve forgotten keys she gets locked in. On screen, she is hunting a ghost but is it also hunting her?
Two stories here are very much of the traditional type. In fact, the idea of “R For Roberta” has been used before. It is an elderly man at the end of his life who is remembering the time in the war when the plane he should have been on didn’t return from its war-time mission. While in “Wade’s Run” two lost women are taken to a hostel after an accident by a helpful motorist, after he runs them down. Like “R For Roberta”, “Redhill Residential” has its roots in WWII when many airmen failed to return. Again it is the past impinging on the present, but this is a much more unusual and subtle story. “Valkenswaard” is another war-time ghost story but where death is violent and loss is both dreaded and expected the frequency of ghostly events is intensified. In this story, though, the apparition is closer to the one who experiences it. It could be regarded as a spirit who doesn’t yet know that the body is dead, or a spirit determined to keep a promise no matter what.
Most ghosts are perceived to have the same appearance as when they died. Some, who believe in a happy afterlife, imagine their loved ones at the peak of their Earthly fitness, so when the lover dies young, the partner living to ripe old age will be rejuvenated when they meet again. There are obvious flaws on this arrangement but that is no reason to think that a spirit is identical to the body they left with all the traumas of injury or sickness. In “The Clinic” this is something Sarah gets to consider when her younger sister dies. Young men are always ready to laugh at the tall tales of their elders. Whether they are ready to believe them or not doesn’t stop them daring each other, especially after a few beers, which is why in “The Eve Watch” the two youths celebrating their last night of freedom before being called up, are lurking in the churchyard. According to Jem’s Granfer, watching there for three consecutive years will grant a vision of those about to die. Here, we have an example of a predictive ghost, a messenger from the spirit world where the future is known.
The final two stories both deal with transformations, but in very different ways. In “Otterburn” there is a question as to whether there is a ghost here, a transformation or even a death. There is certainly a disappearance. The skill of the writing allows the reader to make their own decisions as to what has taken place on the river bank. With “The Black Hound Of Newgate”, there is no doubt that sorcery has taken place. In folklore there are many tales of ghostly black dogs roaming the countryside, often portending bad luck for whoever sees it. This one haunts Newgate Gaol. It is often postulated that we all have an animal inside us and that out human form is merely a veneer. The question this story asks is whether both parts of a soul die at the same time, or can one form become a ghost leaving the alter ego having a material presence. After a riot in the gaol, one man may have the chance to find out.
This book can be read simply as a collection of ghost stories, but on another level it exploring the variety of ghostly phenomena and asking the reader to wonder why we are so fascinated by them. Many of these stories are set in the past and Jan Edwards is very good at evoking an earlier era in a minimum of words. It is perhaps a volume to be dipped in to rather than reading straight through.
SCAVENGER ALLIANCE (Exodus 1) by Janet EdwardsSCAVENGER ALLIANCE is the first in a new SF series by Janet Edwards. It is set in the same universe as her previous Earth Girl series but some four hundred years earlier so it is not necessary to have read Earth Girl to enjoy this story. This novel looks at the early years after the establishment of interstellar portal technology. Most of Earth’s population has left in a massive, rushed exodus to new unpolluted colony worlds. With so few people left on Earth, infrastructure and technology have collapsed. The remaining people have segregated into “respectable citizens” who have left the cities and founded settlements in the countryside, and the “undesirables” that neither the settlements or the extrasolar colonies will accept.
TELEPATH (Hive Mind 1) by Janet Edwards
There is now a new kind of author – the hybrid. These are writers who have been published by mainstream publishers
but have later decided, for various reasons, to self-publish. Storm Constantine was one of the first, wanting to get her
earlier books back into print before going on to develop the independent publishing house of Immanion Press. Brum
Group member, Janet Edwards has joined this select band. After the success of her Earth Girl trilogy, she had a
following wanting to know where they could get hold of the next book. Publishing schedules of the major publishers
tend to put out only one book per author per year. Janet didn’t want her fans to wait that long, especially as she is a
prolific writer, so decided to produce the next books herself. While some authors need the input of various editors and
agents to make sure a high quality is maintained, it is pleasing to discover that Janet doesn’t. TELEPATH has the
same excellent production qualities as the Earth Girl trilogy.
Janet writes very effectively for Young Adults, properly embracing the sub-genre and placing her characters in peril, keeping the action going throughout. TELEPATH has a number of parallels with the Earth Girl trilogy. Both are set in far future societies and each has an eighteen-year old female protagonist who finds herself in a situation where she is an outsider having to prove her worth. In TELEPATH, the human population of Earth is gathered into huge, largely underground, complexes known as Hives. Each of these is as self-contained as a country. The Hives trade with each other and may be suspicious of each other’s motives. As in EARTH GIRL, much of the teen age years of the young people are spent learning independence and living in areas that largely exclude adults.
Amber, the protagonist of TELEPATH, and Jarra, the protagonist of EARTH GIRL, each begin the narrative reaching a point where their lives will change for ever. For Jarra, it is choosing the university course that will shape her adult career. For Amber, it is the series of tests that make up Lottery in the year she is eighteen. From the results of these she will be assigned a job for life, one that she is suited for and will enjoy, and will have the information she needs to carry it out imprinted on her brain. She will be very unlikely to ever meet her teenage companions again. Amber, though, turns out to have a very rare quality. She is a true telepath. As such, and only one of five in her Hive, she must be protected at all costs as she is the one who effectively will keep order. She will be able to find and track criminals so that they can be apprehended and dealt with by the Enforcers.
Amber discovers that she has a vast area, including a park, that is part of her quarters but that she has to share it with a team of Enforcers that act as her bodyguards, as well as medics, tacticians, cooks, cleaners. And she has to learn to control her new-found abilities. She has to be able to pick out from amongst the myriads, the criminal mind and direct her team to find them. She has to be able to shut out the unwanted thoughts of the others around her.
From her Lottery testing, Amber’s elite enforcers have been selected to conform to the profile she would be attracted to. Since she won’t be allowed to freely socialise, any partners would have to be found amongst those in her coterie and a telepath’s desires are paramount in keeping her happy. Thus, amongst the group is Forge, the friend from her teenage years that she was obsessed with, though he was never a boyfriend. Now she finds herself more attracted to Lucas, her tactical team leader because his mind fizzes with energy. When they attend a situation when a three-year old goes missing, incidents from her childhood begin to make more sense and an unexpected threat is exposed.
In this novel, Amber has to cope not only with the dramatic change in status that the Lottery’s rite of passage throws at her and the awakening of her own physical needs, but an imminent danger to her and her Hive.
Janet has done a good job juggling the need to write something different from her first trilogy while also keeping the elements that have attracted her fan base. Anyone who enjoyed the Earth Girl trilogy will love this. Like Jarra, Amber dances across the page with all the hopes and neuroses of any eighteen-year old. A good job well done.
ZENDEGI by Greg Egan
The opening third of this book is set in 2012 and recounts the visit of Martin, an Australian journalist, to Iran where he
watches a revolution take place resulting in the overthrow of the present tyrannical government. In parallel, a young
Iranian woman, Nasim, is exiled in America where she is engaged on a project aimed at working out how to transfer
the processes of real brains into computer programmes.
Fifteen years later, Nasim has returned to Iran and works for a software company providing totally-immersive computer games. She hopes to be able to develop her previous project to provide a degree of authentic pseudo- human autonomy to virtual characters in these games. Meanwhile Martin has settled in Iran, married an Iranian woman and has a son. His wife dies in a car crash and when he discovers he has cancer and is likely to die also, he concocts a plan to use Nasim’s technology to transfer his personality into a character in the computer games to which his son is becoming addicted, thus being able to stay with him while he grows up.
Perhaps this could have been a dramatic, even moving, story, but it fails. The ending is inconclusive and, apart from that, there are several auxiliary storylines which have only tenuous relevance to the main theme and are not resolved either, and several lengthy descriptions of Martin’s participation with his son in computer simulations which serve as little more than padding. The resulting totality is rambling, disconnected and ultimately boring. Plus, of course, the necessity to set it at a fairly specific time in the nearfuture means that the background to the story is all too liable to be overtaken by events (or more likely non-events). Why choose Iran as a setting in the first place?
It is probably no exaggeration to say that Egan has produced some remarkable work in the past, but no way is this more of the same. Not recommended.
THE CRIPPLED GOD The Final Tale of the Malazan Book of the Fallen by Steven Erikson
Steven Erikson is a very fine writer. However, before embarking on this massive tome it would be an excellent strategy
to refresh the memory about the characters and events in previous nine books in this epic. Without this it is very
difficult to get a picture of who is on which side in this clash of armies, where they fit into the overall scheme of things
and what the purpose of the war is.
There are plenty of things that will be appreciated by Erikson’s followers and the connoisseurs of the fantasy war genre. Many of the named characters are grunts, doing as they are told, fighting and dying wherever the army ends up. Women and men stand side by side as equals. It is a shame that all, officer and soldier alike, philosophise with coherent thoughts.
The living heart of the crippled god of the title is held in a well defended Spire on the coast. The purpose of the main army of this conflict is to capture it. To this end, the forces are split, one part heading north into the impassable Glass Desert, the other to skirt this area and come up to the Spire from the south west.
The book has all the hallmarks of a fine fantasy - intricate plot, magic, dragons, the undying dead, implacable foes – but is difficult to keep track of all the characters and their fates. The deprivations of the soldiers are outlined impeccably and they are still able to fight as well as a fresh soldier at the end. A book this size is a tremendous investment in time for any reader. Unfortunately I did not care enough about the characters or feel satisfied by the outcome.
THE FIRST COLLECTED TALES OF BAUCHELAIN & KORBAL BROACH by Steven Erikson
The three novellas reprinted in this volume first appeared as slim volumes from PS Publishing between 2002 and
2007 and are published together here, for the first time.
They form a trilogy of tales centred around the characters of the title. In most fantasy novels, the wizards tend either to be on the side of the heroes or are their evil nemeses.
Bauchelain and Korbal Broach are neither.
They are necromancers who the narrator is following around for a time. They are not nice people but they are not overtly wicked. They have a different outlook on life to ordinary people.
In “Blood Follows” the first of this trilogy, they are in the town of Lamentable Moll. There have been a number of bloody murders with body parts being taken.
Emancipor Reese has the misfortune of being the coachman to one of the dead meaning that he automatically loses his job. His wife Subly is not sympathetic, sending him out to look for another with the injunction not to come back without one. Drunkenly acting on a tip-off, he suddenly finds he has been hired by the necromancers as their manservant. He is delighted to find that the job entails travel and that the first job is to secure passage out of the town on the next ship. It means he has to leave his wife, and the town, behind.
The narrative continues almost immediately in “The Lees of Laughter’s End”. The ship the necromancers sail on is stolen, crewed mainly by deserting soldiers with little seamanship. The danger comes not from their ineptness but the fact the repairs have been carried out with nails from old burials in Lamentable Moll. They are imbued with the spirits of the dead and once the ship enters the red road – the lees - that leads to Laughter’s End, they begin to manifest. Also aboard is a lich and a child created from bits of people by Korbal Broach. He is a eunuch but is obsessed with procreation. His creation is a monster which escapes and adds to the mayhem.
The third story, “The Healthy Dead”, takes place a couple of years into their travels on dry land. The two necromancers and their manservant are approaching Quaint when they are asked to sort out a problem in the city. The present king has deposed his tyrant brother and set up a beneficent regime. Unfortunately, the effect is to restrain people even more as they are not allowed to do anything which is bad for them, such as drinking or fornicating or being noisy. Children who cry are taken away to the temple.
Each of these novellas descends into gory mayhem. The necromancers are amoral rather than evil; they follow the strictures of their chosen profession. The stories are packed with black humour, especially the third. Do not dismiss them just because they are fantasy. They transcend the genre.
THE TALES OF BAUCHELAIN AND KORBAL BROACH, VOL 1 by Steven Erikson
THE TALES OF BAUCHELAIN AND KORBAL BROACH consists of three short novels which are set in the author’s
extensive Malzazan Empire series following the (mis)deeds of two sorcerers and their manservant. Bauchelain, whose
principle hobby is described as the conjuring of demons, is the predominant of the two conjurers. His companion
Korbal Broach is a shape shifting eunuch and is described as an explorer of the mysteries of life and death and all that
The first story, “Blood Follows”, is set in the city of Lamentable Moll, and describes how Emancipor Reese, a down-on-his-luck manservant, otherwise known as Mancy the Luckless, meets and is employed by Bauchelain. As turns out to be the case in all of the stories mayhem and murder abound and a swift departure from the city is required.
“The Lees of Laughter’s End” follows on from “Blood Follows” describing their voyage on the ship Suncurl. Unfortunately, unscrupulous persons in Lamentable Moll sold the captain a batch of iron nails that once resided in the wood of sarcophagi in the barrows of Lamentable Moll - the self same barrows that are well known for restless spirits. As the story relates, “even the dead can sing songs of freedom”. As the ship enters the blood-red seas off Laughter’s End the spirits of the dead awake. Fortunately (?) for the motley (very) crew, Korbal has created an homunculus which is used to fight the awakened litch. The story ends on a cliff-hanger.
“The Healthy Dead”, the third and last of the stories, is set approximately four years after the actions outlined above. This is rather unfortunate as I would have liked to know how they survived the predicament lurking at the end of “The Lees of Laughter’s End”. In this story the trio is approached by citizens of the city of Quaint to rescue them from a catastrophic plague of goodness brought about by the city’s King Macrotus after his overthrow of his brother Necrotus the Nilile. They are successful, but in an unexpected manner.
These stories are dark, grimy and murky and none of the characters is likable but they are strangely compelling. They are very well written being full of weird and colourful characters such as Ably Druther, Heck Urse, Gust Hubb, Bird Mottle and Storkul Purge the Paladin of Wellness. Overall I rather enjoyed them and would, if I had the opportunity, read more of the adventures of this unsavoury trio.
WILLFUL CHILD by Steven Erikson
The first thing to do about this book is to forget the hype as the intelligent reader will immediately become suspicious.
Publicists only go overboard for one reason – they desperately want you to buy this book. The question to ask is why is
the hype necessary?
Steven Erikson has gained a huge following during the publication of his ten volume epic fantasy series, The Malazan Book of the Fallen. He has written another novel and a selection of stores in the same world. His best book by far is THIS RIVER AWAKENS, an exquisitely written novel about young people at an age when the decisions they make reflect the rest of their life. It was his first novel and only recently republished. First time round it didn’t spark the interest his fantasy has.
It should have done.
The first clue that this book, WILLFUL CHILD, is not High Fantasy, is the space ship on the cover. For a publisher to issue a book very different from an author’s usual output is always a risk. Some fans will take a look at the packaging and put it back on the grounds that they ‘don’t read that space stuff’. The first danger is losing the readers expecting more of the same. They need to be supremely confident that more of the reading public will look further than the name – the most prominent thing on the cover – and at least read the blurb. This is another problem in that names get associated with types of books and thus alienating those who might enjoy it when a writer goes off in a different direction.
Most of us readers of SF, whatever our era, have something that defines the beginning of that interest. For the older generation, it may well have been Dan Dare in The Eagle, for others, Dr Who, Star Wars or Fireball XL5. Erikson’s early influences obviously included Star Trek.
WILLFUL CHILD is both a parody and an homage to the TV series
The technology that enabled humans to venture into space was delivered by accident. A century later, Captain Hadrian Sawbuck gets his first command, the ASF Willful Child. He is younger than most captains and his attitude is that of a kid with a new toy. His first mission is apparently simple – to catch a smuggler. He doesn’t make the same mistake others would, but identifies the right ship. However his victory is short-lived as the AI doing the smuggling proceeds to take over his ship and sends it straight into a war zone and a series of diplomatic incidents.
The result is mayhem.
Anyone who is familiar with Star Trek will know some of the decisions the captain makes would not be tolerated in a modern navy – space or otherwise. For example, having all the significant command crew members on a hostile planet at the same time would be a courts martial offence, but then Star Trek was modelled after the adventures of Horatio Hornblower where a captain was expected to lead. Erikson exaggerates this trait in the antics of his hero.
The important thing about this book is that it should not be taken
seriously. It will appeal to those who enjoy seeing their fictional heroes parodied and those who like the idea of farce with spaceships. Anyone who expects this to be an SF version of Erikson’s epic fantasy will very quickly get the rug pulled out from under their feet. It is always good to try something new, whether as a reader or a writer, though this might not have made it to the bookshelves if Erikson hadn’t already got a formidable reputation.
ICE TOWER by Christopher Evans
Or is it 'ICETOWER'? I think so, because although the (rather nice) cover clearly says ICE TOWER, inside it is always
ICETOWER. While I’m at it, another couple of niggles about the cover. The front illo shows too young men standing
back-to-back on the top of a tower on which they barely have room to stand. This never happens. Also — and this
complaint applies not just to this cover, but one sees it everywhere (such as in Sad Café's 'Everyday Hurts'): it is not, as
it says here, "It's the same everyday." It should be "It's the same every day". Think about it (the copywriter obviously
OK, now to the book. I didn't know when I picked up this review copy that it is a juvenile. How would I? Only by reading the small print on the credits page can one find "a Dolphin paperback by Orion Children's Books". Surely children's books should advertise this fact on the cover, along with some guide as to age suitability? Notwithstanding, this is quite an entertaining, if short, read, and I was quite pleased with myself for working out the 'word puzzle' it contains, early on. Two boys, friends, but one having seemingly turned nasty, are on their way home on the school bus. It is snowing, and the driver leaves to make a 'phone call at the top of a steep hill. One of the boys fiddles with the hand rake, and they hurtle downwards. . . When Rhys awakes, his friend Jack is in some sort of coma, and he has to drag him around -- fortunately getting lighter and lighter — as he encounters a series of fantasy-type adventures in the Icetower, populated by animated paintings, a Shadowman, a Black Knight, a talking jackdaw who gives Rhys cryptic word clues, and various mythic beasts. Young teenagers should enjoy it.
Apparently this is one of the Dreamtime series, with other titles written by Stephen Bowkett, Jenny Jones and Colin Greenland. But each story is obviously quite separate and individual, except that, presumably, it takes place in this ’other’, dreamlike world.
A KINGDOM BESIEGED by Raymond E Feist
A KINGDOM BESIEGED takes place five years after the conclusion of AT THE GATES OF DARKNESS. In A
KINGDOM BESIEGED Pug, the magician and his colleagues in the ‘Conclave of Shadows’ are still investigating the
causes of the demon incursions into Midkemia and in this book a different aspect of the Midkemia saga is pursued.
There are two main strands to this story, one being the invasion of the Kingdom of the Isles by the Keshian Empire one of the other major nations in Midkemia. This is recounted by following separate investigations into rumours of something ominous happening in Kesh by James (Jim) Dasher Jameson and Sandreena, a Knight Adamant in the ‘Order of the Shield of the Weak’ the martial arm of the Temple of Dala.
The actual assault on the Kingdom’s western frontier is seen from the viewpoint of Martin conDoin the second son of the area’s Duke and a distant relative to the King of the Isles. Secondary to this, and no doubt to be enlarged upon in a subsequent book, the story follows Martin’s older brother Hal who is away from home at a ‘university’ for nobles on the Island of Roldem, the third of the major powers in this part of Midkemia. His experiences bring him into contact with Tal Hawkins (see the Talon of the Silver Hawk trilogy) and his son.
The second major strand concerns the two demons, Child and Belog, following the fall of the demon kingdom in which they live. Their part in this book concludes with a very interesting and unexpected development.
Minor strands involve Pug, the magician, Magnus his son, the Star Elves, Gulamendis and Laromendis, Amirantha and a number of other characters first seen in previous books.
In my review above I commented that the overall saga is becoming a bit tired and formulaic. Not so with this book – it is a welcome refreshing addition to the Midkemia chronicles.
AT THE GATES OF DARKNESS by Raymond E Feist
AT THE GATES OF DARKNESS is the concluding volume in the two-part Demon War series which began with RIDES
A DREAD LEGION. Actually the series started about 20 books earlier with MAGICIAN the first book set in the author’s
Midkemia universe, with one of the main characters being Pug, the magician of the above title.
As with all of Raymond Feist’s books AT THE GATES OF DARKNESS is a multistrand adventure following a number of characters in their epic struggle against the forces of evil; in this case a horde of demons and a mad magician (not Pug, he is a hero leading a secret group known as the ‘Conclave of Shadows’). This adventure climaxes in a battle in the Valley of Lost Men. As in the previous books, the forces of good prevail, at least temporarily. Other members of the Conclave active in this story include two Star Elves, Gulamendis (a Demon Master) and Laromendis, his brother who is a master of illusion and the Star Elves (the Taredhel), having been hounded off their world by the demons in the first part of this saga. These two and a human Demon Master, Amirantha, provide Pug with ‘expert’ support and research into demonology.
Another strand follows Sandreena, a Knight Adamant in the ‘Order of the Shield of the Weak’, the martial arm of the Temple of Dala. She and Amirantha have a troublesome history.
Other significant characters include General Kasper (See TALON OF THE SILVER HAWK), Creegan a Father Bishop in Sandreena’s order, James (Jim) Dasher Jameson the Head of Intelligence for the Kingdom of the Isles (one of the major nations in Midkemia). In the background is the enduring influence of Marcos the Black, Pug’s dead father in law.
After 20 volumes the overall saga is becoming a bit tired and formulaic, particularly during the last few books. That said the book is an enjoyable gentle easy read with many interesting characters. The Midkemia chronicle continues with A KINGDOM BESIEGED.
FLIGHT OF THE NIGHTHAWKS by Raymond E Feist
This is a complex book in some ways, full of ideas and characters – and it can take some thought to get your head
around it. It features a powerful mage and his sons fighting to keep peace as their enemies seek to thwart this,
especially the evil Leso Varen. Kaspa, Talwin and Amafi are three ordered by Magnus to find out the conspirators
against the emperor. But as they soon discover, the royal house contains those already bound to Varen’s service.
The book revisits the land of Kesh, which the author has already described in books such as the Riftwar saga. This point was rather lost on me since I had never read a Feist book before. I liked the family theme – Magnus is shown sending his sons into danger and often regretting this although it is necessary. The family bonds are shown strong and clear and I appreciated the sense of realism this brings to the story. There is some good repartee and scripting, the book flows well and does not come across stilted. There is a lot to follow in this book, so I found it had to be read carefully, or I would miss an important bit of plot! This could work against the book as the number of action scenes and complex plotting could prove too demanding for the reader looking for some light entertainment. I was mostly fairly satisfied though with this. I did however find the characters ultimately were not very memorable – a couple of weeks after reading the book, I am finding it hard to remember some of the more important ones. This is my main criticism of the book, despite the excellent use of action sequences, and my favourite part, the family bonding.
GUARDIANS OF PARADISE by Jaine Fenn
Jaine Fenn has embarked on an ambitious potentially nine-volume series of which GUARDIANS OF PARADISE is the
third. So far, each of them has a different flavour. The first of the series, PRINCIPLES OF ANGELS, was set in a highly
technical environment. The city of Khesh floats above the atmosphere of a barren planet. In it, we are introduced to
two characters. Nual is an angel.
This means she is a physically altered executioner. Taro lives in the undertow, the maze of walkways and hovels clinging to the underside of the city.
Volume two, CONSORTS OF HEAVEN, is very different in setting. It is an adventure on a low-tech world that has many of the trappings of a fantasy novel. It is only towards the end that it becomes clear that it has links with the universe of PRINCIPLES OF ANGELS. It also introduces the third character, Jarek, who is part of the triad that GUARDIANS OF PARADISE revolves around.
By the start of the third novel (providing you have read the other two) we know that Nual is Sidhe. This race was thought to have been wiped out a long time ago, to the great relief of humanity as they are extremely manipulative and have the power to bend minds to their will. Nual is young, in Sidhe terms and was little more than a child when Jarek found her aboard a derelict Sidhe mother ship, the only sane survivor of some kind of disaster – she didn’t know what. The Sidhe, however, want her either back in the fold or dead. They don’t care which. They have already, (in PRINCIPLES OF ANGELS) tried to use her friend and mentor as an assassin. Now they have sent a more blatant hit squad.
Jarek, by coincidence, arrives just in time for the shoot out. Once they have escaped, Jarek tells Nual and Taro that he has discovered the source of the ‘shift units’ that take space craft between systems instantaneously. They are the rewired brains of boys with a kinetic talent, bred for that trait on Serenein, the planet in CONSORTS OF HEAVEN. Despite the fact that it might eventually lead to the end of faster than light space travel, the three team up to find where these boys are processed and put a stop to their torture. If it also wipes out the Sidhe once and for all, they decide it is a price worth paying.
Whereas, volume one was an unusual, high tech setting with a deal of politics and volume two appeared superficially more like fantasy, this third volume is a more traditional space opera with a different kind of action and intrigue. Although Jaine hopes that each volume will stand alone, it is advisable to start with PRINCIPLES OF ANGELS in order to understand the full import of the series.
THE SHIPS OF ALEPH by Jaine Fenn
If you are going to start a new small publishing company, then it is vital to produce a quality product from the start and
this novella is certainly that. Tower of Chaos Press are a small independent publisher, run by Dave Weddell (Jaine
Fenn’s partner) and THE SHIPS OF ALEPH is its first publication. It aims to produce mainly short stories and novellas,
initially mainly by Jaine Fenn. THE SHIPS OF ALEPH was originally published as a limited edition chapbook for
Novacon 42, when Jaine Fenn was Guest of Honour. It is now being made available as an eBook by Tower of Chaos
A natural phase for children is the “Why?” stage, when they want to know the answer to everything about the world and how it works. Most people grow out of it but some adults retain that curiosity, not least among them many SF writers and readers. THE SHIPS OF ALEPH is a tale of that sort of curiosity and how far you would be prepared to go in pursuit of knowledge and truth. It is a science fiction story although it may not seem so at first. The narrator, Lachin grows up in a small fishing village. His enquiring mind and a lame leg leave him isolated from his peers. When the Duke announces a project to build a ship to explore the seas, Lachin is eager to join despite the prevalent mood that it is ungodly and thus doomed to failure. Thrown into the sea when the ship founders at the edge of the world he wakes up seemingly back in his home village although he is the only inhabitant. From there he faces a series of choices all of which involve remaining in his current state of knowledge or risking the unknown and ultimately a chance at another exploratory journey unimaginable to his earlier self.
I really enjoyed this story. The pace is quite gentle but keeps the reader interested. The characterisation of Lachin, as one would expect of Jaine Fenn’s work is excellent and he is a very believable and sympathetic character. Considerable attention has been paid to the structure of the story with the theme of journeys both spatial and intellectual integrated really well without detracting from the actual narrative – not an easy thing and one many authors don’t always manage satisfactorily. Although the story fits into Jaine Fenn’s SF Hidden Empires series, the story still works even without an awareness of these. As a final incentive to buy it also has a superb piece of blue-toned cover art by David A Hardy.
THE EYRE AFFAIR by Jasper Fforde
Jasper Fforde’s first novel is an alternate world crime-fantasy that’s clever in places but too silly to be enjoyable. It's an
example of an author putting every fantasy theme he can think of into the same novel. The result is a mish-mash of
unrelated and conflicting elements which lurches from one bit of contrived humour to the next.
The main plot concerns Tuesday Next (this is the narrator's name, I kid you not; if it offends you deeply you’d better stop reading now, because there’s worse to come) who works for LiteraTec, the Special Operations branch that deals with literary crimes.
She is pitted against Acheron Hades, an international criminal and superhuman figure, who specialises in stealing original manuscripts and changing them, causing all editions to be altered. Martin Chuzzlewit is the first to go, then Jane Eyre. The sequence in which Tuesday goes inside Jane Eyre to protect its integrity is original, mostly well written and would have made a fine novelette.
Alas, Fforde clutters up the novel with the Crimean War (still in progress after 130 years), time travel, vampires, black holes and relativity, conspiracy theories, the genetic recreation of dodos as pets, a lot of ESP powers, violent literary disputes, bureaucracy and romance. His characters, many of whom suffer from ridiculous names like Paige Turner, Dr Runcible Spoon and Ossie Mandias, 7 have no substance, while his baddies (no redeeming features) seem to have stepped out of a comic book. The result is a novel that's unduly difficult and unrewarding for its first half, with too much bad humour.
Fforde is a promising writer but a clumsy and inexperienced one.
Apparently there will be a whole series of Tuesday Next adventures, but I won't be reading them. Chris Morgan
TIME AND AGAIN by Jack Finney
In this long but tightly packed book Jack Finney brings to a climax the ideas he had been exploring for a few years
previously in a number of short stories. The basic idea is to dress a man in ninety-year old clothes, fill his head with
ninety-year old thoughts and put him in a ninety-year old building from which he will be able to step out into the New
York of ninety years ago.
From this beginning the story branches out into three or four intertwined sub-plots with sufficient unexpected twists to keep the reader guessing until the last possible minute - the ending is inevitable (especially in relation to the previous stories already mentioned) but it remains in doubt even until the last chapter. If there were nothing more to it than that it would still be a good book, but to dismiss it in this way is to overlook the meticulous research and sincere enthusiasm with which the author writes of that bygone age, conveying an irresistible impression of a far better time in which to live and belong.
It is a pity that the illustrations, which are important to the story, have not been reproduced better, but that is only a minor fault which cannot spoil a wonderfully satisfying read. An excellent book by a sadly underrated author.
MERRY-GO-ROUND and Other Words by Bryn Fortey
In choosing a book to purchase, a number of factors are taken into account, either consciously or subconsciously. The
cover is always one.
Good ones draw the eye and give a hint of what kind of book will be found between the covers. An intriguing title may well cause the book to be taken off the shelf but in the age of the celebrity the name of the author may well be a deciding factor. So it is my job to help you decide if Bryn Fortey is a name worth watching out for. For some of you, the question uppermost in your minds will be ‘Who?’ For those of the older generation, brought up reading such volumes as the FONTANA BOOK OF HORROR, or the historians of horror fiction the name may be more familiar.
This collection can be regarded, not just as a tribute to the author but also to the enduring quality of horror fiction. Stories published early in the last century by greats such as M.R. James are still thought of with affection and still hold insights into human behaviour. So, too, do those printed more recently. A good story should not be judged by the era when it was written. Bryn Fortey’s fiction, as represented here, covers a period from the 1970s to the present time. Within these covers you will find twenty-one (or perhaps twenty- two) stories and six groups of poems.
The discrepancy in the number of stories relates to the first and last pieces. ‘Shrewhampton North-East’ is a ghoulish little story revolving around the nightmare of train travel. In this case the narrator and his mother are stranded at the eponymous station along with nine others, some of whom have been waiting for three days. ‘Shrewhampton North-West’ which resolves the situation owes much to Lovecraft.
Here the title story is second for aesthetic reasons. One thing I would like to have seen in this book is the first date of publication of each story. This is because ‘Merry-Go-Round’ has a number of familiar themes and knowing how they fitted into the history of the horror genre would give an indication of the degree of originality.
The collection also contains science fiction. ‘Ithica Or Bust’ belongs to the school of zany science fiction that only those with a good grasp of ancient Greek myth will fully appreciate.
‘Remnants’ is a very different kind of science fiction, dealing with the issues arising when a colony ship crashes on a planet. Instead of everyone pulling together for survival, nastier basic instincts have surfaced. To add to the unconventional approach, Fortey brings the reader in towards the end of the attempt to survive, allowing him to play with the unexpected. ‘The Oscar Project’ begins in a bleak, dystopian future, for which many blame Christianity. The main character is conscripted to work on a project to view the past, until an accident allows him to interact with it. Despite certain similarities to Moorcock’s ‘Behold the Man’ the approach, origins and motivations of the characters are different.
Music plays an important part in this collection, both the stories and poems. ‘Denton’s Delight’ follows jazz saxophonist Hal Denton, on the downward spiral after hitting the big time too young. Now without the creativity he once had – until he plays at a South Wales Jazz club.
Vampires who feed on things other than blood? This is the inspiration behind ‘The Pawnshop Window’. On the day they buried Louis Armstrong, another trumpeter remembers what might have been - a poignant story. Other musically themed stories include ‘First Words’ where Fortey is blending at least three disparate ideas into one brief story. It shouldn’t work, but somehow, it does.
Perhaps the stories with most impact are those that take a small idea and paint it in such a way to set the reader thinking about the possibilities. In ‘Wordsmith’ best-sellers are taken from the depths of the psyche of the insane. Another seemingly small idea drives the horror behind ‘Skulls’. Eric Brown’s superpower is the ability to recognise who will die soon; that person’s head appearing as a skull.
Poems are often far more personal than fiction. A good poet, and
Bryn Fortey is one, often expose more of themselves through poetry than any other kind of writing, including autobiography. They give an insight into the soul of a person. The poetry here is divided into six groups. The first, highly personal and poignant, are messages to his wife and son and as such, we are privileged to be able to share them. The second and fifth groups show Fortey’s passion for music. Science fiction images and ideas can sometimes be conveyed more powerfully in just a few words. The third group does this, especially ‘A Taxi Driver on Mars’. Those in the fourth group begin with two memories, the poet looking back from his autumn years before looking the other way, wistfulness followed by a trip into darkness with ‘Nightfall’ - a poem to produce shivers. The final ones provide a sense of dread a fitting group to be placed just before the final story.
If I have any criticism of the poetry, it is the layout. Where a poem goes onto more than one page, the other part would have been better on the facing page so that whole of the structure can be seen with one glance.
Often the structure of a poetic form adds to the appreciation of the word pattern.
Always with an author that a potential reader might not be familiar with, the question remains – why should I buy it? For anyone who values quality poetry, that is one good reason. For others – these stories have variety but the best of them show how a range of ideas can be meshed together to form small gems. Not everyone will like all the stories but it is worth savouring the best, and trying to figure out how Fortey manages to juxtapose the impossible and make it work.
ROOK SONG (The Gaia Chronicles 2) by Naomi FoyleThe first novel of this series, ASTRA (reviewed BSFG #514) was the story of a young girl growing up and gradually discovering that the perceived utopia of her country (Is-Land) is in fact a controlling, totalitarian society. As a child she is persuaded to avoid a gene-modifying “Security Shot”, which all the village children are to receive as she is told it will limit her intellect. The consequences of this decision ultimately lead to disaster for her and her foster parent, Hokma. At the end of the story she is exiled from her country, still suffering from the physical and mental effects of the “memory pacification” brainwashing to which she has been subjected. The first novel had given very little detail of the outside “Non-Land” other than as somewhere which was intent on destroying or infiltrating Is-Land.
THIS ALIEN SHORE by C S Freidman
I hadn’t heard of C S Friedman. I wasn’t excited by the blurb, ‘ A cross between cyberpunk and Star Wars.’ But hell, it
was SF and it was sitting among a box full of fantasy so I picked it up.
I instantly warmed to her acknowledgement of Cordwainer Smith’s inspiration. Almost immediately I realised that a comparison with Star Wars was an insult to this book, a book with a complex and fascinating background and intriguing characters.
The first faster than light drive, used to establish colonies on every planet in reach, also worked irreparable genetic damage on anyone making the journey. The resulting people, called Hausman variants, hate the Earth which cut them off without a lifeline in fear of infection of the human gene pool. This is the basic background, peopled with aliens and monsters that are human, Guildsmen who are the only beings capable of piloting ships through the ainniq, at huge cost to their sanity, a vast computer web and a proliferation of interconnected lives.
Against this background, Jamisia, a young woman with biological brain-ware more valuable and extensive than would seem reasonable and a cast of intrusive characters in her head, is fleeing assassination and attempting to understand herself. Kio Masada, Gueran, is also attempting to understand something, a computer virus infiltrating the web.
It really would be pointless to try to explain more. The story is too rich and complex for reasonable synopsis. Go out and buy it immediately.
THE NEMESIS LIST by R J Frith
Already established as a short-story writer, Frith won a 2009 competition aimed at discovering new talent: this book is
It tells the story of a boy taken from his family at age five to (unwillingly) take part in a secret and illegal project using drugs and mental conditioning to enhance its subjects’ mental abilities – “We’re going to make you clever” he is told. After eleven years the project is overrun by Government troops but he escapes, finding himself in possession of an enormous fund of knowledge which he hardly knows how to use; eidetic memory and a degree of telepathy, plus a burning desire for revenge. This much is recounted in a series of flashbacks, the main narrative being concerned with a period another five years hence when he has become a target for both a Government agency probably wanting to reproduce the experiments that created him and a rebel group wanting to use his powers for their own ends. With the help of an uncertain ally whose life he once saved, he escapes both, albeit perhaps only for the time being.
On the face of it then, a reasonably lively and exciting space-opera-science-fiction piece, with plenty of spaceships, space stations, guns and fighting. Look more closely however and you can start to see the joins – the main theme of an experimental child who grows into a disturbed young adult is far from original and in general one tends to feel one has heard it all before Fortunately, there are both enough action and enough originality to keep the reader interested in what will happen next.
Less fortunately, the book is not always that well-written, perhaps betraying the author’s limited experience; after all, it is his first full-length novel. The use of flash-backs has already been mentioned, but one quite important story element is effectively overlooked altogether. The storyline is confusing at times and there is a general impression that he has incorporated elements of explanation as and when the need arose instead of working the plot out in advance. Also there is a bit too much of people sitting around in rooms thinking about things or talking about what to do next, instead of getting on with it.
None of which is to say that this is any sense a bad book. It is well worth reading and holds the interest well and such parts as may seem derivative are drawn from the very best sources. As a new and up-and-coming author Frith will be certainly bear watching and the sequel this first book cries out for should be eagerly anticipated Michael Jones
DARK UNIVERSE by Daniel F Galouye
The problem with classic science fiction is that it so often dates so very badly.
The greatest vision of the future can go desperately wrong when history takes a different turn. Nightmares of science become jokes when science decides that isn't how things are. What good is it to have a great futuristic novel when you need to look on it with nostalgia? This suffers from all of this and loses so much in the process. We have here a future where the 3rd world war between the great nuclear powers actually happened. A science that still believes evolution is accelerated by irradiation. Even more than this we have plot lines that have since become cliches.
This is the story. WW3 happened. People retreated to the deep bunkers (remember the coal mines of Dr Strangelove). In one of them something went wrong. The lights went out and people adapted to the dark. Some started to see in the infra-red, others lost any understanding of light. As "what if?" stories go, this is a good one but it carries to much baggage and one plot device that should be a surprise (the "monsters" that are taking people) is something I (at least) saw through much too soon.
Not really for the under-30's.
THE VESUVIUS CLUB - Graphic Edition by Mark Gatiss, Ian & Guy Bass
This is the comic book version of Mark Gatiss' period adventure novel.
The pictures are by Ian Bass and letters by Guy Bass (his name does not appear on the outer cover). The page count is complicated as the numbering starts on the fifth page of the comic and does not appear on every page. The count at the top includes all of the inside illustrated pages whether part of the story, fake advertisement, or additional illustration.
The plot is fairly simple in this version. Lucifer Box, artist and resident of 9 Downing Street, is a secret agent of the British Empire in the Edwardian Era. Here he investigates the death and/or disappearance of several leading vulcanologists (Volcanoes, not rubber) and strange events in Naples. The story also involves an orgy in a club, drugs, a plot to destroy a large part of Italy and ‘Purple Zombies’. There's no real subtlety, not many surprises, and the characters are paper thin.
It seems obvious that this was an attempt at a period ‘James Bond’ or ‘Avengers’ style spy thriller. The smart lines, the choreographed fight scenes, the immaculate costumes are all there. The problem is that it seems half-hearted in so much of what it does. There are names from obvious puns (Tom Bowler, Bella Pok) but only a couple of them. There's a deliberate attempt to put the book in a period (there's a ‘cover’ dated May 1939) but there are illustrations that wouldn't have passed a censor until the 1990s and subject matter that wouldn't have been acceptable until at least the 1970s. And the only way you know the zombies are purple is because it says so (only the cover is in colour).
This book is not particularly smart or funny. It doesn't even have that odd sense of humour from THE LEAGUE OF GENTLEMEN (Gatiss was one of the writers/creators). As a pulp fiction style comic book it's OK but nothing more.
ASH A SECRET HISTORY by Mary Gentle
I have always liked this author's work, although some of her books have been a bit strange, to say the least. She has
taken a new direction several times and here she has surpassed herself to produce something entirely new and
There are two stories in this book. Nominally, the main one is that of Ash, who lived her brief life as a leader of mercenary soldiers in the second half of the fifteenth century. As her story unfolds it looks as though a supernatural element is creeping in, but this effect is subsequently found to arise from an unknown mediaeval technology. One suspects that it might even be extraterrestrial, but when the truth is revealed it is something entirely different, possibly worse, and the book is still only half way through.
The second story supplements this by including between the chapters correspondence exchanged between author and publisher as the writing of the book progresses. The author draws on previous versions of Ash's life, supplemented by translations of hitherto undiscovered manuscripts and illuminated by archaeological research. While this goes on, however, historical records are changing before his eyes and it becomes apparent that the history in which Ash lived may not be our history. In fact, it may be that the past itself has somehow been changed, with fragments of the ‘'lost" past lingering on or reappearing in our present. Even his book, the book we are reading, becomes affected so that only this one copy survives. It has become part of its own story.
Although the major part of the book, the story of Ash, appears to be Fantasy it would be wrong to dismiss the whole as such. The real story is actually the modern one, and that is very much Science Fiction. And what a story it turns out to be!
The only criticism I could make of ASH would be its inordinate length, as the writer displays an encyclopaedic knowledge of mediaeval dress, weaponry, warfare and way of life generally. This is highly instructive, and together with one feature I particularly liked - that instead of a stilted reproduction of mediaeval speech the characters' words are "translated” into twentieth century idiom complete with four-letter words - gives an amazingly authentic atmosphere, but the sheer amount of detail does slow up the narrative in places and some of the early parts of the book can be rather slow going. However, in the later chapters the pace picks up as the two stories, one Fantasy and the other Science Fiction, mesh to produce a staggering climax as alternate histories collapse together to produce one present day.
If you only buy one more book this year, make it this one.
FINAL DAYS by Gary Gibson
It is no exaggeration to say that British writers such as Reynolds, Hamilton, Asher and Banks are coming to lead the
world in the production of far-future space fiction and with his latest book Gary Gibson continues his bid to stake his
place in this illustrious company.
He has set it in 2235 when, through the advent of wormhole technology, more than a dozen interstellar colonies have been linked to Earth. Most writers employing this kind of scenario either overlook or choose to ignore the fact that, according to the rules of Minkowski Spacetime, two points separated in space by, say, ten light-years are also separated in time by ten years. Gibson however has exploited this principle to enable the wormholes to be used for time-travel into the future; however, the idea that two-way travel will be possible is rather less plausible. Be that as it may, he has here employed the concept in its own terms to good effect in this story.
As well as the colonisation effort, explorations in space have uncovered a huge network of wormholes left by some other intelligent race or races and some investigation has taken place. A site one hundred trillion years in the future has been visited and some future technology recovered. However, it has been discovered that both the Earth and the Moon-based terminal of the local wormhole network will be totally destroyed within ten years. Both things may be connected, but how? And will it be possible to prevent or reverse this course of events?
Leaving aside these exciting and dramatic aspects, the book is generally well-written and provides a convincing and fascinating portrayal of life in a world filled with futuristic communications, transport and weapons. Less happily, the story is told in alternating segments from the point of view of at least four leading characters, one of whom is present in two versions of himself including one from ten years in the future. Keeping track of them all, seeing how they interact and anticipating how they will continue doing so, is not always easy. Each individual story comes to some kind of conclusion by the end of the book, but which of those conclusions will best serve the interests of humanity as a whole remains unclear.
Fortunately, author Gibson is already hard at work on the necessary sequel and hopefully all will be explained. In the meantime, this first part of the story can be recommended as well worth reading.
THE NECKLACE OF THE GODS by Alison Goodman
This young adult fantasy is the second by the author set in a Chinese Empire-type world. The first book, THE TWO
PEARLS OF WISDOM, describes how a young girl, Eona, becomes a Dragoneye, able to manipulate wind and water
to nurture and protect the land. As females are not allowed to be Dragoneyes, Eona has to masquerades as a boy,
In THE NECKLACE OF THE GODS Eon’s gender has been revealed and as the Lady Eona, the first female Dragoneye in hundreds of years, she is a major player in a counter rebellion against the usurper High Lord Sethon. Full of well defined characters the book describes how, along with fellow rebels Ryko and Lady Dela and others, she finds Kygo, the young Pearl Emperor. As his forces are greatly outnumbered he needs Eona's powers to help him recover his throne. Unfortunately for him, Eona has little idea of how to use her powers requiring tuition from the treacherous Lord Ido (the only other surviving Dragoneye). Her attempts to use her power, although well intentioned, often have disastrous consequences for others. This results in those whom she is trying to help doubting her motivation. As a further complication she is attracted to both the Emperor and Ido. The final battle is well described with some interesting twists and turns.
Although this is a second book in a series the characters and the situation are well enough described so someone who has not read THE TWO PEARLS OF WISDOM can easily follow the story. It is full of action, passion, evil and treachery including some from an unexpected source. It is well written although in a somewhat ‘soft focus’ style. This is probably because it is aimed at the young adult market.
It should be noted that these both books have alternate titles. THE NECKLACE OF THE GODS also being published as EONA: THE LAST DRAGONEYE and THE TWO PEARLS OF WISDOM as EON: RISE OF THE DRAGONEYE
THE GEARS OF MADNESS by Iain Grant
Steampunk is a strange phenomenon. It is a combination of nostalgia and alternative science. While some exponents
of the sub-genre want to take science back to the Victorian Era, some use it as a jumping off place for another
direction of development. A few turn it into a genuine alternative history along with a different physics. Iain Grant is
one of the latter.
This collection of seven stories started life as a series of adventures only available on the internet. This book brings them all together to form an ongoing narrative. The sub-title is “The Collected Sedgewick Papers”. This is not quite an accurate description even though there are links between them. Many, though not all, are purported to be from the memoires of Mr J Cadwallander and mostly concern the situations he was dragged into by Professor Erskine Sedgewick at the start of the twentieth century. There is enough in the basic relationship between the two men to wonder if the initial inspiration was Conan Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes stories.
In this world, as is consistent with some of the beliefs of Victorian natural philosophers, the space between planets is not a vacuum but stratified layers of aether. To get between the layers there are a series of locks through which ships can travel. The first story in the book, set in 1902 is “The Angels of the Abyss”. When something strange seems to have occurred in one of these space-locks, Sedgewick inveigles himself and Cadwallander onto the expedition to find out what is going on. They find that the cylindrical structure has been invaded by alien beings which manifest as angels but are deadly to whoever touches them. It is during the events here that Cadwallander loses an arm, which is replaced later by a very efficient mechanical one.
“The Pearl of Tharsis” set a year later introduces the adventuress, Mina Saxena, who has a place in several other of these stories. Sedgewick and Cadwallander are on Mars when a sandstorm downs their flying machine. They and the passengers and pilot take shelter in a labyrinth of caves. Mina has suffered the same fate, but sees an opportunity to hold the professor to ransom. Music, though lures them deeper into the caverns where they encounter Chioa Khan (an alias of Aleister Crowley). Here a god-like being has summoned people by supernatural means to a perpetual party where no debauchery is forbidden.
Mina tells the next story. In “The Well of Shambala” she has attached herself to a British expeditionary force in Tibet, which sets out to investigate a temple in the mountains. They have a limited time as by a certain date, the artillery on a space platform will shell the Russian forces in the area. What they find is literally, out of this world.
“The Bridge to Lemuria” uses several meanings of the word bridge in its execution. There is an actual bridge across the North Sea that is being built to link Britain with Belgium. It is almost complete when a murder sends Sedgewick to Yarmouth to investigate Edward Klein, the architect of the project. Where the two halves join in the centre he has constructed an arch of chthonic design. The finished construction is intended, not just as a bridge between countries, but between eldritch worlds. It is worth noting that Mina Saxena is initially accused of the murder that sets the events in train.
At first “The Shadow Under London” seems unconnected with the rest of the stories other than the narrator, Inspector Wilmarth who was the arresting officer in “The Bridge to Lemuria”. He is called in when his cousin is accused of the murder of a doctor working in the tunnels that will become a deep underground railway. The only connection with Sedgewick is that the nurse working there is his niece. Like several other stories in this collection the resolution involves eldritch gods.
“The Herald of the Ancients” and the title story, “The Gears of Madness”, are actually two parts of the same, longer story but written separately due to the original format. They bring together a number of characters from other stories, including Mina Saxena and Chioa Khan and rearrange the alliances seen earlier. It is a tale of gods and aliens.
While these stories belong to the steampunk genre, they also have a Lovecraftian influence as each contains monsters or monstrous beings masquerading as gods. Grant has obviously had a lot of fun creating this world and playing with history and historical characters. While not overtly humorous, the breakneck pace makes them highly enjoyable. Pauline Morgan
TELL NO LIES by John Grant
Story-tellers are good at lies. It is their stock in trade. A good story-teller is able to be convincing while being a master
of misdirection. The reader is sucked in to the power of the tale before realising that everything is not how they
expected it to be. In some cases this leads to a “groan effect” as a twist is revealed that, although unexpected is
provided without the clues that on looking back were present. A subtle bard leaves the reader with a feeling of
satisfaction. John Grant belongs to the latter school. Thus it is often difficult to discuss the themes and tropes within his
stories without the game away. From this selection of his work it is clear that he is a clever writer. These twelve stories,
from a period of ten years from 2004, provide a good showcase for his skill.
A common factor with many of these stories is the first person narrator. In “Q” the narrator is Cello, the Deputy Director of the CIA. She is in post because the president and her boss have been killed in a “terrorist” attack. That background is just there to put her in the right place for the rest of the story. Part of that is to examine a project her predecessor was involved with; the other part is philosophical concerning the nature of God. It is a lot to unpick in a short story and a reader might well be frustrated by all the things left unsaid.
There is scope here to build the background and make a longer story with more pace. As it stands, it is in stasis.
“Baited Breath” is a total contrast and full of humour. Again there is a first person narrator but the voice is very different. He and his wife, Natalie, discover that they have an infestation of dragons. These are small, mouse-sized dragons but they do breathe fire and they leave fluorescent droppings about the place. They have exactly the same problem as if they were mice – how to get rid of them.
Artists and poets use “found” objects in their work. A glimpse of the unusual can spark off ideas in a story-teller’s mind. “Two-Stroke Toilets” is an example that has generated a science fiction, time-slip story. When the narrator and his wife come to live in a small English village they discover that it has a gateway to the past. Although the narration is straightforward it generates;9 other issues, suggesting that the nature of time is more complex than most think.
Even Grant’s seemingly frivolous stories have a serious vein running through them which is not always apparent until the end is reached. Children have wild imaginations and the ability to invent imaginary situations which they enter in a way that becomes alien to most adults. “Commander Ginfalcio Beeswax And The Menace From Deneb” is one of these scenarios in which young Harold believes implicitly and the adults humour him – up to a point. A well- crafted story has a turning point at which all our preconceptions change. It may come at any point in the story and in the best ones, it sneaks up on us without us realising it. Grant does it here, and in many of the others included in this volume.
This volume ends with tongue-in-cheek humour. All the title character of “Benjy’s Birthday” birthday wants for his thirteenth, is a universe – the latest must-have for all the kids on the block.
Summing up, Grant likes to use the first person as he can play with the idea of the unreliable witness. It is easier to surprise the reader if the narrator is discovering things at the same time giving the stories a subtlety that using third person might not have. Many contain an element of the supernatural but the concepts are not too wild for the non- genre reader to appreciate. Not all the stories here will suit all tastes as in some Grant has a tendency to philosophise slowing down the pace with exposition. A volume worth dipping into.
HAWK & FISHER 2: FEAR AND LOATHING by Simon R. Green
Reprinted as a collection this is three stories about two cops Hawk and Fisher a husband and wife team that would give
Dirty Harry a good name. Written in classic “city cop” crime style the back drop is pure fantasy. While this is the second
collection of stories about Hawk and Fisher they are self-contained and it is not necessary to have read the first
collection. A good read for the beach or train this holiday.
9TAIL FOX by Jon Courtenay Grimwood
Sergeant Bobby Zha is a policeman in San Francisco. He is investigating the murder of a supposed burglar by a
young girl who couldn’t even hold the gun steady. He is also looking into the story of a dead baby told to him by a
crazy homeless man. Then he is shot dead. After a dream of a celestial fox Bobby wakes to find that he is now Bobby
Van Berg, just woken from a coma after more than a decade with a fortune in compensation. He acquires fake ID that
says he’s working for various government agencies and in very little time he is investigating his own murder. Is it
connected to the shooting or the dead baby or both? Why does his partner deny he was there?
This is really a detective thriller. There’s a central plot point that is definitely fantasy and the final revelation involves the sort of SF that you’d find in James Bond but, as a whole, this is a detective novel.
Grimwood is a pretty good detective/thriller writer. His plots are solid although sometimes convoluted with plotlines that just appear out of nowhere. As such, this is probably his best to date. On the other hand this is the least SF/Fantasy yet. If you haven’t read any of his books yet and you’re not worried about it being anything more than a good thriller, this is a good place to start.
And for the fans… there’s always the fox.
END OF THE WORLD BLUES by Jon Courtenay Grimwood
Grimwood has settled down to be a good writer of near future thrillers.
Admittedly, this volume and his earlier STAMPING BUTTERFLIES have elements that are very far future but in both, most of the action is firmly based ofnan Earth that with very little imagination looks like a probable tomorrow.
What is exotic is his choice of arena. Kit Nouveau is an ex-rock band member. At the start of the novel he is living in Japan with his artist wife, running an Irish bar.
Most of his patrons are exiles, many of them bikers. He ambles through life.
Everything begins to fall apart when someone tries to kill him. The attempt is thwarted by a street entertainer/beggar, a young girl who calls herself Lady Neku. Kit’s bar is bombed and his wife is killed in the ensuing fire. He discovers that she had never registered the marriage in Japan so the property he thought he owned is not legally his and also that his wife’s sister has married into a family that is the Japanese equivalent of the Mafia. To compound his troubles, his ex-girlfriend’s mother seeks him out. Mary is thought to have committed suicide six months earlier but her parents believe she may be alive and they want Kit to find her.
Kate O’Mally has built up an extensive underworld network. Kit finds himself in the unenviable position of working for one set of gangsters while another set wants to kill him. Following him, first to England, then Holland, is Neku who has her own reasons for wanting to protect him.
And the end of the World? Woven between chapters is the story that Neku tells us, about her flight from the future where the Earth is dying, her family is dying and she is fleeing from a marriage of convenience. The world Kit has known in Japan has ended with the destruction of his bar and the death of his wife. All the principal characters experience an element of World’s end in their lives. For some of them there may be an opportunity for rebirth.
This is an excellent, fast paced thriller and well worth reading.
STAMPING BUTTERFLIES by Jon Courtenay Grimwood
There is a theory that if a butterfly stamps it’s foot in the Amazon, a hurricane will develop a world away. The idea is
that even the smallest of actions can have a profound effect. Similarly, so can inaction. Each decision we take,
however small, can have greater consequences for other people. This is a concept worth keeping in mind while
reading this book.
The story is told as three separate narratives – past, present and future.
In the period from 1969 into the mid seventies, a young Arab boy struggling to survive in Marrakech becomes involved with musician Jake Razor. When we first meet him, he appears to have only one arm, though it transpires that it is tied behind his back to prevent him using it. In Muslim society, using the left hand is unclean. Many of the things he does are in order to protect Malika, the girl who lives in the rooms below those rented by his mother.
The present is either near future, or a slightly alternative one. They revolve around Prisoner Zero. He made a rather feeble attempt to assassinate the president of the United States. At first, the question is whether the man is sane.
He refuses to speak so they have no idea who he is. Then it is noticed that the symbols he has daubed on his cell wall are of mathematical importance.
Unfortunately, someone washed them off before they can be fully recorded.
In the far future, the Chinese have colonised a complex of planets orbiting one central star in the form of an unfinished Dyson sphere. On one of them, the Forbidden City has been meticulously recreated. The current Emperor, who seems to be selected in a similar way to the Dalai Lama, has decided that he is the only real person and that everyone else is computer generated. However, a young woman by the name of Tris, is on her way to assassinate him.
At first, these three intercut stories seem to be disparate. As the novel progresses, the links between them begin to emerge. It is a cleverly constructed novel and well worth reading.
FOREVER FREE by Joe HaIdeman
In 1974 Joe Haldeman accomplished the rare feat of scooping both Hugo and Nebula awards with his first novel THE
FOREVER WAR. It was a story of war in a relativistic universe where soldiers are sent out to fight battles which will take
place so far in the future that they hardly know what they will find and return to a world in which the family and friends
they knew are now long dead.
In this long-delayed sequel William Mandela and his partner Marygay, who survived the Forever War together against all the odds, are living with a handful of other veterans on a remote colony of an Earth changed beyond recognition. In the centuries during and since the war the human race has evolved into Man, a group mind like mankind’s former enemy the Taurans with whom they are now at peace, the war having turned out to be merely a misunderstanding. William and the other ex-soldiers discover that they are being kept and supported as a kind of genetic reserve in case Man has to change the direction of its evolution, a situation from which they determine to escape.
Their attempt becomes a disaster and they are forced to change their plans completely and head for Earth. There they make a discovery about the Universe and their place in it which overthrows everything they ever knew or believed right down to the most fundamental concepts of understanding.
Although well-written and based on an amazing idea this book left me surprisingly disappointed. The revelation with which it is finally wound up is over-contrived and the eventual conclusion is inadequately worked-out. It is a long time since I read THE FOREVER WAR but my recollection is first that it did not need a sequel and second that it exhibited a freshness, a novelty, which gave it a dramatic impact which is lacking here. I wanted to read it because it is a sequel to an earlier book which mightily impressed me, but that on its own is not enough
SKIN TRADE by Laurell K Hamilton
SKIN TRADE is the latest (17th) of the Anita Blake Vampire Hunter novels. These are set in a world where vampires
and were-animals exist and are part of society.
That said there is a love/hate relationship with them being thought of as monsters by some ordinary humans.
Consequently they have second class legal and ‘human’ rights and can be executed for minor as well as major offences, as long as a warrant has been issued by a court.
Anita, currently a US Federal Marshal, hunts transgressors and executes warrants, so successfully that she is known as the Executioner by these supernatural species.
At the start of the series Anita is convinced that these creatures, especially vampires, are monsters but this viewpoint gradually changes and by the start of this book believes they, like humans, are mainly responsible citizens but also, like humans, some are monsters. The reason for this change of view lies in her, initially very much against her will, becoming involved with Jean-Claude the vampire Master of the City of St. Louis and becoming his human servant.
This has developed her psychic powers, physical strength and powers of recovery from harm, but has also cursed her with Jean-Claude’s ardeur which has turned her into a succubus needing to feed on sexual energy. Consequently she does not believe that she is human anymore and at one stage in SKIN TRADE she requests two vampire brothers (sent as body guards by Jean-Claude along with others to protect her and act as psychic food) to kill her if the ardeur overcomes her and she becomes evil.
SKIN TRADE opens with a bang when Anita receives a parcel containing the head of a Las Vegas cop. It has been sent by Vittorio, a very powerful vampire serial killer, who she first came across in the novel INCUBUS DREAMS. Only stopping to get her vampire hunting kit, she flies off to Las Vegas where she meets up with three other Federal Marshals who have featured in previous novels. There she is immediately embroiled in local police politics when the Las Vegas SWAT team psychically tests her ability to work with them and not put them in danger. In addition she is interrogated by detectives as if she is a suspect/accomplice of the killer. Fuelling this attitude are rumours about her morals and that she is a publicity hound. It does not help that she is petite and cleans up well. She wins around the SWAT team, but the local under-sheriff and detectives continue to treat her as a suspect.
The case is complicated by her discovery that one of Vittorio’s cohorts is a weretiger and is also married to Bibiana a were-tiger queen who has her own agenda regarding Anita. In addition, Anita has previously been infected by were-tiger lycanthropy which makes he sensitive to Bibiana’s powers. This also makes her vulnerable to Marmee Noir the Mother of All Vampires, a very ancient vampire imprisoned somewhere in Europe, who coverts her body as a means of resurrection and is prone to attack when Anita’s defences are weakened.
Overall the book is highly readable and full of action from start to finish. It is amazing how much can be crammed into a very short timeframe. As has been identified by other reviewers Anita is a complex and well developed character.
While it is strongly recommended that whole series be read in chronological order, this and the other novels are good stand alone reads.
MANHATTAN IN REVERSE by Peter F Hamilton
This new book brings together a number of stories published since Hamilton’s first collection A SECOND CHANCE AT
EDEN, although several earlier pieces, including the Novacon 27 Special “Softlight Sins” remain uncollected.
The first, and longest, story “Watching Trees Grow” is set in an alternate history where Rome rules the world, albeit in a
much more enlightened fashion than in Keith
Roberts’ PAVANE. Here we find electric cars on the streets by 1830, the Solar System explored by 1920 and
interstellar colonies established by the end of the 20th Century. The world is effectively run by a handful of great
families for whose members
rejuvenation brings near-immortality and the story follows the efforts of one
family member over two centuries to solve a murder and to bring the perpetrator
to a justice which is at the same time humane and devastating.
Two other long stories feature the detective Paula Myo who played a significant part in the Commonwealth Saga
comprised of PANDORA’S STAR and JUDAS UNCHAINED. In “The Demon Trap” she is instrumental in bringing an
unpleasant, though well-deserved, retribution to a multiple murderer, while in the title story “Manhattan In Reverse”,
written specifically for this collection, she becomes involved in a case in which familiar themes of First Contact and
Uplift both come into play.
The remaining four stories are all much shorter and explore a variety of issues, albeit in what at first sight appears to
be a relentlessly downbeat fashion. There are no happy endings and the protagonists do not always get the
conclusions they might think they deserve, although the reader may think differently.
To say that “Watching Trees Grow” is the stand-out story in this collection, worth the price of the book on its own, would
be less than fair to the rest of the collection. It comprises a varied and well-balanced selection of stories, showing both
severally and collectively that Hamilton is as accomplished a writer of shorter work as he is of his blockbuster novels
and series. Highly recommended.
PANDORA'S STAR / JUDAS UNCHAINED by Peter F Hamilton
PANDORA’S STAR is part one of The Commonwealth Saga a vast undertaking in two huge volumes, the second
being JUDAS UNCHAINED. The saga combines a lot of elements, not just from science fiction but from other genres
as well. It begins with the discovery of a revolutionary technological development. Just as the first manned mission
lands on Mars, Nigel Sheldon and Ozzie Isaacs build a prototype wormhole generator which takes them almost
instantaneously to Mars. Space travel becomes obsolete overnight as humankind spreads out from Earth stepping from
planet to planet via the manufactured wormholes. There is no need to control the population, surplus people can just
move on to another world. There is no need for war. If you don’t get on with your neighbour you can settle a new
planet along with those who think the same way as you do. You can live on one planet and commute to work, via a
wormhole, to a job light years away. Rejuvenation, too, becomes commonplace.
When your body begins to fail, the clock can be turned back and youth can be restored but with all the experience of age retained. Death holds no fear. With a regular memory download a new body can be cloned and the memories restored to it, should the old one become too damaged for revival.
This sounds like a recipe for Utopia. The problem is that people are still human. They still have the same ambitions, jealousies, obsessive behaviours they always have had. There is still interpersonal conflict. So, one element of the novel is a detective story. Paula Myo is the best detective in known space. She has always caught the perpetrator of any case she has handled, with one exception.
She has been obsessively pursuing Bradley Johansson and Adam Elvin for well over a century. They are terrorists who believe that an alien known as the Starflyer has infiltrated the highest echelons of government and is manipulating humankind for its own nefarious ends. Johansson, she believes, is paranoid. He is also cunning. She suspects that someone is tipping them off as they always seem to be able to slip past her.
It is also a political thriller as the Burnelli family vie for influence. There is adventure as Ozzie Isaacs sets off to explore the Silfen paths. The Silfen are an alien race which seem simple and peace loving. Electronic gadgets tend not to work on the worlds they occupy and there are rumours that they have ways of moving from planet to planet without the use of wormholes.
This is a society that has become dependent on wormholes. Then Dudley Bose, an astronomer at a backwater university makes an alarming discovery. It has been known for a long time that a pair of star systems has been surrounded by an impenetrable shield. At first it was thought that these were Dyson spheres so the systems have been generally known as the Dyson pair. Bose discovers that the shields around the systems appeared instantly and simultaneously. The question is, are these force fields? And have they been erected to keep something in, or something out? Because of the distance the only way to investigate is to build a space ship and visit. The expedition is commanded by Wilson Kime who was on the only manned space flight to Mars. What he and his crew discover is not good news.
This is a very complex plot, and by the end of the first volume, the strands are only just beginning to come together. Some, as yet, seem unconnected from the whole. Hamilton does not introduce random factors without a very good reason and in JUDAS UNCHAINED the final links are made. Although there is a tendency to lose sight of characters during the narrative, they are strongly enough portrayed to be quickly remembered. It becomes more of a problem if the books are read with a time lapse between them These are very large books and require a lot of investment of time to read them. On the plus side, reading Peter Hamilton is enjoyable.
THE TEMPORAL VOID by Peter F Hamilton
The best advice that can be given is, don’t start from here! This is the second of two enormous books, the first being
THE DREAMING VOID.
The universe is a vast and extraordinary place.
With development of wormhole technology, longevity and re-life processes, the human race has expanded well beyond the solar system, encountering strange celestial objects as well as aliens. Some of the characters have also been encountered in Hamilton’s previous duology, PANDORA’S STAR and JUDAS UNCHAINED. Although it is not necessary to have read these two volumes, to have does help to understand some of the references which otherwise go unexplained.
The focus of these novels, and a projected third, is the Void. It has been observed for centuries but so far it hasn’t revealed its exact nature. Inigo has been dreaming, in detail, about a young man called Edeard who lives on a planet where electronic technology is impossible, but all have psychic powers of some kind. The dreams pass to other people via the gaianet - linked to the enhancements that most people have to exchange information. The belief is that the dreams come from within the Void. A faction called Living Dream has grown up around the Dreamer and their leader, Ethan, plans to take the followers into the Void to find enlightenment. To help them, they need to find the Second Dreamer and will go to any lengths in their search. The Second Dreamer is Araminta who spends much of the novel trying to keep ahead of the invading snatch squad.
As with all of Hamilton’s novels, it is not as simple as this. In the midst of the mayhem, Paula Myo is trying to track down Troblum who says he has important information for him but who, in a firefight with the Cat (a resurrected opponent of Paula’s), disappears.
In many ways there are two novels here; the story of Edeard and his attempts to clear his city of criminals, and the problems the Commonwealth has in trying to stop Living Dream’s pilgrimage which, it is feared will cause the Void to expand and swallow the galaxy. And there is a hostile force of invading aliens on the way. Although some strands of the plot seem to be tied up by the end of this volume, there are a lot more loose ends hanging about for volume three.
THE LORD OF THE RINGS: A READER’S COMPANION by Wayne G. Hammond and Christina Scull
As most Tolkien fans are aware Douglas A. Anderson’s ANNOTATED HOBBIT (1988) is a very well thought of and
much appreciated book, and many of Tolkien’s readers have often wished that the weightier sequel could get a similar
treatment. Wayne Hammond and Christina Scull have undertaken the task to provide almost exactly that, although it
soon became apparent that, due to the length of TLOTR and the enormous amount of annotation that could be
applied, such a project would require a tome coming to many thousands of pages.
Therefore instead we have the READER’S COMPANION, which is essentially the annotations published on their own, to be read alongside the main text.
As the authors explain in the introduction the popularity and depth of TLOTR have lead to an enormous number of related references to mythology, academic works, books, essays, films, music and websites, amongst other more obscure links. The purpose of a reader’s guide such as this one is to highlight interesting or explanatory facts and links as they are encountered as one reads TLOTR. In fact, so great is the wealth of related detail that the book, by necessity, can be considered a `boiled down’ distillation of the available material.
Given that this alone runs to 894 pages, one can only try to imagine how large a complete set of references could be, assuming that such a work could actually be possible in the first place… The entries themselves are clearly and concisely written, even if sometimes the actual links are quite obscure. By way of example, the first annotation, concerning the word `Hobbit’, naturally arises from the first line of “Concerning Hobbits” at the beginning of TLOTR, and gives us potential etymologies of the word hobbit, making reference to English (and Old English) folklore, Tolkien’s own remarks on the subject, the Oxford English Dictionary, Christopher Tolkien’s History of Middle Earth, folklore in older Germanic languages such as Gothic, and a wide variety of other works, as well as the authors’ own, not inconsiderable, investigations and speculations upon Tolkien’s writings. If this is the `boiled down’ version the thought of the full material scares the willies out of me!
So, why exactly have I given this a 5 star rating? The magnitude of the achievement cannot be overestimated, and the book certainly lives up to its aims.
For a true Tolkien fan (such as I), this is an almost indispensable volume, filled with fascinating insight. But I must append a warning to my recommendation; the casual Tolkien fan may find this a step too far, being perhaps a bit too intense to read `casually’ alongside TLOTR. Indeed, the READER’S COMPANION deliberately assumes that the readers has already read TLOTR, and, due to the complexity and extra detail of this work, it is not recommended that a first time reader of TLOTR attempt to use this at the same time. There is quite enough depth and detail to enjoy in TLOTR the first time around without trying to add more! Nonetheless, for anyone looking for more, especially in terms of understanding much of Tolkien’s process of creation, or for those who are just fascinated by TLOTR and all to do with it, I cannot recommend this enough.
HARDYWARE: THE ART OF DAVID A HARDY by David A Hardy and Chris Morgan
(includes a foreword by Stephen Baxter)
I became aware of David Hardy’s space art in 1972 when I obtained my first copy of CHALLENGE OF THE STARS, the
book Hardy produced in collaboration with Patrick Moore. I had just begun experimenting with astronomical
illustration and until then the only work I’d been exposed to was that of Chesley Bonestell, whose work I’d sought out
since I’d been in grade school, and Ludek Pesek, whose paintings I knew only through his appearance in a 1970 issue
of National Geographic. While all three approached their subjects with the same integrity and respect for scientific
accuracy, as artists they could hardly have been more different.
Bonestell’s hyper-realism was so intensely compelling that it seemed to set the standard for the solar system itself. When the lunar landscape did not turn out to be as spectacularly Alpine as Bonestell had depicted it, it really seemed as though it was the Moon that was at fault, not the artist.
Pesek, on the other hand, never tried to pretend that his paintings were anything other than the product of his hand. This gave his astronomical art the appearance of plein air paintings - they possessed a casual naturalism made them look for all the world as though they were painted from life.
Hardy’s artwork is a little harder to pigeonhole. Their brilliant colors and simple, bold designs have a decorative quality that irresistibly reminds me of the landscapes of Thomas Hart Benton and Grant Wood. They have a vigor and immediacy that is enormously appealing.
Occasionally, this simplicity works against Hardy and a few of his paintings appear cartoonish . . . Looking rather like the backgrounds for an animated cartoon.
Fortunately, these are very much in the minority and the book contains not only some very fine paintings, but some of the best astronomical art done in the latter half of the twentieth century. There is for instance his beautifully- colored image of a terraformed Mars, a Dante-esque hydrogen volcano on Titan, his cover art for VISIONS OF SPACE, which in some ways a definitive space painting, ‘The Way It Should Have Been’, Hardy’s homage to hero Chesley Bonestell, ‘Proxima’s Planet’ and the absolutely exquisite Tapetus: A World in a Rock’. Unfortunately, one of my favourites is missing from the book - other than as a small reproduction of its appearance on a German SF magazine cover: the painting of the seismic exploration of Saturn’s moon Titan that may be one of the best paintings of Titan since Bonestell’s classic 1944 depiction.
It is hard to realize that David Hardy is one of the senior members of the space art community . . . Perhaps the senior member if we limit ourselves to astronomical art (his youthful appearance - he looks a decade younger - may perhaps be due to his passionate interest in rock music. Then again, perhaps not). Bom in 1936 he has been working as a professional astronomical artist for nearly fifty years, making his first sale when he was 18 years old when he contributed eight black and white illustrations to Patrick Moore’s SUN, MYTHS AND MEN . . . At the same time beginning a life-long relationship with the famed astronomer. There appears to have been no aspect of commercial art in which Hardy has not worked. After a stint in the RAF, he worked in the Design Office of Cadbury’s where he created packaging and advertising art for the company’s candies (working in a space theme whenever he could). He went freelance in the mid-60s and has since contributed artwork to virtually every imaginable medium, from book and magazine covers to record album sleeves and video games. He has made his name, however, not so much from his commercial work but from the nearly twenty books that he has illustrated - many of them of his own devising. The most outstanding of these undoubtedly being CHALLENGE OF THE STARS, a book that was created with the conscious intent of being an homage to the 1949 Chesley Bonestell-Willy Ley classic, THE CONQUEST OF SPACE.
This, as I said, was my introduction to Hardy’s work and was very much a major influence on my early attempts at space art.
Looking through the book again vividly recalls the excitement I felt the first time I saw them. This is perhaps one of the uniquely special qualities of his work: its ability to excite and inspire even after years of familiarity.
The subjects of Hardy’s books have not been limited to astronomy. There has been DINOSAURS and ANIMALS FROM THE DAWN OF TIME and a series that included ROCKETS AND SATELLITES, LIGHT AND SIGHT, AIR AND WEATHER and ENERGY AND THE FUTURE. THE FIRES WITHIN, a 1991 book about volcanoes, may be one of his very best works and includes some of the finest renderings of volcanoes and volcanic events I’ve ever seen. In 1990, Hardy created VISIONS OF SPACE for Paper Tiger, a pictorial history of astronomical and space art. This oversize volume featured the work of virtually everyone who has worked in the genre for the past century, all accompanied by literate, meticulously- researched, highly-readable text. It, more than anything else, underscored Hardy’s passionate devotion not only to his art but to the entire genre of astronomical painting.
HARDYWARE is a handsome volume, typical of Paper Tiger’s fine work, attention to detail and exquisite color reproduction.
The selection of art is profuse - perhaps too profuse, since neither animals nor humans appear to be Hardy’s forte. The text especially is fine, combining extensive excerpts from interviews with the artist along with a comprehensive commentary by Chris Morgan that together succeed in bringing Hardy vividly to life. If there is any serious fault it is in the almost useless index, which lists only the titles of Hardy’s paintings. With such a rich, extensive text, it’s frustrating not to be able to look up names, events or places.
DEAD IN THE FAMILY by Charlaine Harris
This is the tenth novel in the Sookie Stackhouse series and follows on directly from the events chronicled in the
previous book DEAD AND GONE. In DEAD IN THE FAMILY Sookie is still recovering from being tortured during the
Fairy War when her home arrangements are disrupted by her housemates leaving. No sooner have they left than she
succumbs to a request from her surviving fairy cousin who then moves in. As if that was not enough her lover’s vampire
sire arrives out of the blue with a major problem in tow.
Further complicating the situation is an unforeseen outcome of her granting a favour for the Shreveport werewolf pack and the local ramifications of the two natured (werewolves, etc) revealing their existence to the ‘normal’ human population.
On the positive side her brother Jason seems to be growing up at last and acting responsibly.
The book is a good, straightforward, enjoyable read covering the complicated life of a likable heroine whose helpful good nature, determination and occasional pragmatism sees her and those she loves through the difficulties depicted in this book. It certainly will not disappoint fans of the series and should encourage those who have not read any of the previous books to try them.
GRAVE SECRET by Charlaine HarrisCharlaine Harris has a big following and it is easy to see why. Her books are easy to read page turners told as a straightforward, first person narrative. GRAVE SECRET continues the adventures of Harper Connelly and there is not a vampire in sight. (Her other series featuring Sookie Stackhouse features vampires strongly).
RUNEMARKS by Joanne M Harris
There are cynics who like to claim that mainstream writers are using SFF and Fantasy tropes who know nothing about
the genre and are intent on reinventing the wheel. To accuse Joanne Harris of this would be a grave mistake. General
readers will know her for such books as CHOCOLAT and BLACKBERRY WINE but many will not realise that her first
two books (SLEEP, PALE SISTER and THE EVIL SEED) were contemporary novels with a mythological theme
threading through them. With RUNEMARKS, she is returning to her roots. Most people will have an idea of Norse
Mythology and the culmination that is Ragnorak. What isn’t told is what happens afterwards, especially to the ordinary
people of The Middle Worlds. In RUNEMARKS, Harris explores the fate of the surviving gods. In the five hundred years
since Ragnorak The Order has become the religious focus. They worship The Nameless and each village has its
Parson who is in charge of the Good Book. Inside are all the rules people
have to live by. One of these rules stipulates that anyone with a “ruinmark” (runemark) will be Cleansed (i.e. killed). Maddy Smith has one in the palm of her hand, so whenever anything goes wrong, it is obviously her fault. Seven years before, she’d met an Outlander who called himself One-Eye. He knew plenty of stories and she persuaded him to teach her magic. Now fourteen, One-Eye persuades her that in return for his teaching, she can do something for him. He wants her to go into the World Below and fetch an artefact called the Whisperer, for him. The World Below is the place where goblins live. She persuades one of them, Sugar-and-Sack, to lead her because she had forced him to give him his true name. When she reaches the place where the Whisperer is, she meets a youth who calls himself Lucky. She quickly discovers that that he is really Loki, the trickster god. As the plot twists and turns, Maddy and Loki find that they need to go to the Netherworld to release Thor if the balance between Order and Chaos is to be restored. It would be difficult to call this a teen book, even though Maddy is only fourteen, or YA despite this being a kind of Rite of Passage tale. Maddy learns a lot about herself and discovers more about the reality of the world that she lives in than most would want to know, including who she really is. As a mythical fantasy, it deals with a number of issues including identity, loyalty and the dangers of religious tyranny. It is an adventure, and it is fast-paced and fun. An enjoyable read
THE STAINLESS STEEL RAT JOINS THE CIRCUS by Harry Harrison
The first Stainless Steel Rat story was published in 1957 and was a fresh and original tale featuring the eponymous
hero, also known as 'Slippery Jim’ DiGriz, a professional criminal who was forced to turn interstellar law enforcer to
escape the consequences of his misdeeds. It became a book, followed over the years by half a dozen more and now,
after a hiatus of about twelve years, here is another instalment in the saga - presumably the last, since it concludes
with Slippery Jim’s avowed intention to retire and concentrate on writing his memoirs (!). Before that he has taken on
and defeated a master criminal who begins by ostensibly employing to solve a series of mysterious robberies but turns
out to be a con artist intending to avail himself of the Rat’s talents and use him to perpetrate a monumental
I must confess to having been somewhat disappointed. Tastes have changed in thirty-odd years and SF has perhaps become more sophisticated (I certainly hope I have). Thirty years ago the stories had something new to say and Slippery Jim DiGriz was a worthy addition to the pantheon of great SF heroes. By contrast, this latest one seemed short on originality and lacking in excitement. Obviously the ending was never in doubt and on the way the hero’s smug cleverness became a trifle boring. Even the jokey style has lost its lightly amusing touch and become heavy- handed. I seized this book in eager remembrance of past glories, but living on past glories is not enough and without something new to say an ongoing series is in danger of becoming too formulaic.
That said, it is not all bad. Harry probably couldn’t write a really bad book if he tried and there is still plenty here to satisfy. Wait for the paperback though.
BLACK MAGIC SANCTION by Kim Harrison
This is the latest episode in the continuing saga of Rachel Morgan who is feisty, totally loyal to friends, honourable
and merciful to enemies…. and is a witch. As with the previous novels in the series, this book is full of fast-paced,
nonstop action from start to finish.
At the close of the previous book she was ‘shunned’ by the witch community for allegedly being a black witch and dealing with demons. In this story she is under attack by the coven of moral and ethical standards, the group who legalized her shunning (they also use ‘legal’ lethal white magic). This tale also chronicles her running battle with Trent Kalamack, a closet elf and mega rich businessman/ criminal/politician and the demon Algaliarept. An ex- boyfriend turned thief is also involved.
After a number of kidnap and arrest attempts the coven is successful and she is sentenced without trial to imprisonment in Alcatraz (a good prison for witches as it is surrounded by salt water which destroys spells).
Here, prisoners are drugged to prevent them attempting to cast spells with the more dangerous ones being lobotomized. Rachel is also threatened with genetic slavery as coven members covet the magic potential of her unborn children. Fortunately for her
she has very good friends to rescue her quickly.
As with all the previous books in this series BLACK MAGIC SANCTION is highly readable with well-defined and enjoyable characters and can be enjoyed if read out of sequence. That said, it would be better to read it in chronological order as this will provide useful background information and further flesh out all of the characters. I eagerly look forward to the next episode.
PALE DEMON by Kim Harrison
This is the latest episode in the continuing saga of Rachel Morgan set in a world where witches, werewolves, pixies,
vampires, fairies exist alongside humans, all fear the demons. She is feisty, totally loyal to friends, honorable and
merciful to enemies and is also a witch. The book follows on from the events chronicled in BLACK MAGIC SANCTION
(reviewed in June 2010).
Required to travel from Cincinnati to San Francisco to have her ‘shunning’ by the witch community for allegedly being a black witch and dealing with demons, formally lifted and forced to travel overland instead of by plane as she would of course prefer. To make things more fun she is persuaded to take with her, Trent Kalamack, a closet elf and mega-rich businessman/criminal/politician whom she loathes but is at the same time strangely attracted to. Her other companions on this trip are her partners, the pixie Jinx and the live vampire, Ivy. To further complicate things along the way they pick up Vivian, a member of the witches governing coven, who spies on her and reports back to her coven colleagues. As with the previous novels in the series, this book is full of fast paced non-stop action from start to finish with mayhem dogging her journey across America. This takes the form of elf assassins, and a daylight-walking, soul- eating demon who has just escaped his 2000 year old prison. As usual, while she does not instigate the violence and only tries to defend herself, her friends and bystanders, she is blamed for it. However, when it comes down to it, who is called upon to save the world from this monster? Yes, Rachel.
As with all the previous books in this series, I found PALE DEMON to be very well written, highly readable and full of well defined and enjoyable characters. Like its predecessors, it was a joy to read and I look forward to rereading it many times. I hope that there will be another book in this series
ANIMA by M John Harrison
Two novels, previously published five years apart, are here collected in one volume. They are described on the back
cover as ‘his two classic love stories’, but apart from this somewhat tenuous thematic link they share little or nothing of
incident, characters or even setting.
THE COURSE OF THE HEART purports to tell the story of three students who were led by an older man in some act – scientific experiment, secret ritual or arcane rite - that is never made clear what, which affects their future lives in unspecified ways. Two of them marry, then divorce, the woman dies of cancer while the man suffers a breakdown. Only the narrator seems able to keep his life in any sort of order, but he has forgotten where they all started from. One is left wondering what it has all been about.
SIGNS OF LIFE manages to be more accessible and is a better book. The firstperson narrator, Mick ‘China’ Rose, and a mate start a business dumping illegal medical waste. He meets and falls in love with Isobel and as their relationship flourishes so also does the company, becoming legitimate and successful. Then he loses Isobel to a business client who will help her to realise her childhood dreams of flight. The firm collapses in bankruptcy and Isobel returns but the renewal of their relationship cannot survive the changes in her and the book ends on an uncertain note with the best of China's life now behind him. He has lost Isobel, his mate and his business, but maybe he has found himself.
Both stories, but especially the first, are written in a curious, choppy style, flitting to-and-fro between various past and present narrative threads which sometimes makes it difficult to pin down the precise order of events or even to determine the time frame in which they are set. In THE COURSE OF THE HEART one encounters passages repeated almost word-for-word in different places, and I also felt I recognised bits taken from earlier short stories although I no longer have that book so I was unable to check it out. Harrison’s writing here is at its best in passages of, at times, almost lyrical description, but the narratives are not strong and both stories suffer from this – the first one more so.
Harrison is not exclusively a Science Fiction writer and in ANIMA he is about as far from SF as he gets. It is worth reading as a work of ‘Literature’, but the true SF aficionado will find it of limited interest.
INVASION by Eric L Harry
I must admit I ’d never heard of Eric L. Harry before, nor if I had would his previous “military epics” (ARC LIGHT and
PROTECT & DEFEND) have appealed to me. (The term “military epic” when describing an SF novel, perhaps unfairly,
always reminds me of the appalling David Drake series “Hammer’s Slammers” ) But as I frequently enjoy “alternate
history/world” stories I decided to give it a go - I’m glad I did, this is a rattling good yarn.
The increasing political and economic strength of China force the West to make a number of seemingly innocuous concessions, including the dismantling o f the West’s comprehensive Spy Satellite network. As the Chinese expand throughout South East Asia the West, naturally, turn a blind eye - the Chinese provide a welcome stabilising effect in these previously worrisome areas. The West continue their policy of defence cuts in this increasingly war free world.
It is only when China turns its attention to the Middle East and swiftly conquers the precious oil field that the West suddenly becomes concerned. But, reduced to stone age, ground level, intelligence gathering, the West finds that the Chinese have the advantage of total surprise. When China brutally conquers Israel and Tel Aviv is razed by nuclear power the EC mobilises.
It is now that the lack of reliable military intelligence proves decisive - when the massed naval forces of Europe are destroyed by the sudden appearance o f a totally unknown Chinese fleet. The EC swiftly capitulates and China is free to turn its attention to the US. Within weeks the continental US has been invaded and America finds herself fighting for survival.
It is a testament to the writing ability of Harry (a descendant of Mark Twain according to the cover blurb) that this unlikely scenario comes across as eminently believable in this novel. (It would be interesting to hear the views of someone who knows China quite well, such as Brian Aldiss, on the plausibility of the events depicted …) It takes a lot these days to get me cheering on the Yanks (sick as I am of Hollywood’s apparently concerted effort to re-write all recent history in a pro-American/anti-British manner - “special relationship” indeed!) but I did here. This is ideal holiday reading, perfect for long train journeys or on the beach - I may even check out his earlier works.
THE DOOR INTO SUMMER by Robert Heinlein
This is one of my favourite Heinlein books (along with The Puppet Masters).
Unlike Stranger in a Strange Land or Time Enough for Love, this is still quite readable. It’s a nicely constructed time-travel, wish-fulfilmerit novel, like Time Enough fo r Love, but without the icky quality of that book.
Dan Davis is one of Heinlein’s hero-engineers, and he’d certainly be my hero for inventing Flexible Frank, the perfect house-keeping machine. According to Heinlein all women want a slave to do the cleaning for them. I certainly do.
Jilted and defrauded of his business by Belle, his erstwhile fiancee, he investigates the possibility of the Long Sleep as a subtle revenge. Being a red blooded Heinlein sort of guy, though, he changes his mind and decides to fight for his rights. Belle has other ideas and forces him into the Long Sleep. He wakes thirty years later to find a number of his inventions in common use but with a mystery surrounding their ownership.
This is an unusually sunny book for Heinlein with little of the right-wing paranoia so common. The women are either low-down rats or splendid competent women with blind spots. And there’s a cat. Reading Heinlein I’m tempted to say, ' To hell with the allergies, I need a character like this in my life.’
This is a great summer feel-good novel. Give it a go.
DUNE (new illustrated edition) by Frank Herbert
There can be few fans who do not know of DUNE, which has been around now for some thirty-five years. The raison d
’etre of this latest edition is the addition of the dozen illustrations created by John Schoenherr for the original
magazine serialisation, illustrations which author Herbert is said to have preferred over all others. As to whether it is
now enhanced as a reading experience by their inclusion, I have reservations. Although artistically attractive, they are
impressionist rather than representational and do little to provide the reader with a believable visualisation of how
people and places looked (or will look!) in that faroff future world. For that one must look to the De Laurentiis/Lynch
movie of 1984 which, whatever its other faults, constituted what can only be described as a stunning visual
The story of DUNE is immense in scope, dealing as it does with the emergence of a Messiah to lead the human race to a new future, his existence the result of a deliberate, though covert, programme of selective breeding over many generations. His story is set thousands o f years from now against a complex background o f religious manoeuvring, political intrigue, commercial machinations, inter-family rivalry and planetary war. However it is not an easy book to read. It is incredibly detailed, with appendices and a glossary to explain what may not be immediately obvious, and the reader dare leave no sentence unremarked in case some seeming trivial fact or casual remark may assume later significance.
Nevertheless, anyone prepared to put in the effort to understand it fully will find it a rewarding experience. Although it might not quite justify the claim on the front cover that it is the greatest science fiction novel o f all time, it should certainly be on everybody’s list of the top ten.
However, this review must chiefly consider it in the form of this new illustrated edition. It is probably not worth buying it for the illustrations alone but, what I said earlier notwithstanding, it is adorned by Schoenherr’s paintings and if you have not already read it - and you should! - this version is the one to have.
HOUSE CORRINO by Brian Herbert & Kevin J Anderson
This is the final volume in the “ prequel trilogy” to DUNE, the first two volumes of which I have already reviewed in
these pages. What can I add to what I have said before - that it is written well enough but not as well as the late Frank
Herbert would have written it, and probably different from what he would have written anyway.
As it is, what we have is a tediously long (about 1800 pages in all) account of how several people got to where we already knew they were going to be anyway. There is, of course, a lot of new material, but whether any of it is necessary or worthwhile remains open to argument. Personally, I have found it fairly interesting, but I doubt that I shall attempt to remember it all, or to reread these books, next time I feel like reading DUNE again.
I have also managed to put my finger on one fault that has made me uneasy throughout: that the books are divided into chapters of, on average, about six or so pages, each successive chapter dealing with a different character or narrative thread.
Since there are about ten of these running concurrently it makes for an irritatingly choppy style and one is tempted to dodge back and forth in search of a decent degree of continuity. One does in fact feel a distinct lack of a coherent narrative thread or a significant underlying message.
To sum up: if you really want to read this you may not be too disappointed, but if you need someone else to decide for you - don't bother.
PRELUDE TO DUNE: HOUSE ATREIDES by Brian Herbert & Kevin J Anderson
When Frank Herbert died in 1986 he had already started work on a seventh novel in his Dune series. Now Brian
Herbert, in collaboration with Kevin J. Anderson, has taken on the continuation of his father’s work, but instead of that
seventh book they have chosen to write a prequel trilogy beginning some forty years before that first epochal novel.
(There is a hint that the seventh book may be completed also at some later date.)
Brian Herbert has obviously immersed himself totally in the saga of Dune and this new volume dovetails perfectly with those already published. The original Dune gave a sense of historical background and from one point of view it is interesting to see where in this background the characters are coming from and how the alliances and rivalries that shaped events in that book came to be.
The earlier lives of several characters who become major players in Dune (Duke Leto, Baron Harkonnen, Liet Kynes, Duncan Idaho, Emperor Shaddam, etc.) are followed and doubtless subsequent volumes will fill in the gaps still remaining. However, it must never be forgotten that it is not Frank Herbert recounting these events and there is no guarantee that they are exactly what was in his subconscious over thirty-five years ago. One has to wonder whether it is right for another hand to take up the pen that he was forced to lay down, however high the motives with which it is done.
I have to say that neither Brian Herbert nor Kevin Anderson seems to be a writer of the calibre of the late Frank Herbert. The book is put together very well and the actual writing is competent and very readable, but the sheer depth which made Dune a milestone in SF, a ground-breaking novel which won both Hugo and Nebula awards, is not there. Nevertheless, despite the reservations I have expressed, it is an interesting and worthwhile addition to the Dune saga.
PRELUDE TO DUNE: HOUSE HARKONNEN by Brian Herbert & Kevin J Anderson
Brian Herbert & Kevin J. Anderson here continue the work they began in HOUSE ATREIDES and will conclude in a
third volume still to come - the prehistory of Frank Herbert’s DUNE saga. I said when I reviewed the earlier volume that
it was “an interesting and worthwhile addition to the Dune saga “, but on reflection, and having waded through
another six hundred pages, I find I am not so sure.
The point is, after all, that DUNE was begun with the characters and situations already in existence and fully- formed. One never wondered why characters in the book were the way they were or how they got there, but simply took everything as a given. It is now moderately interesting to read about events in the preceding years but, as I hinted before, there must be doubts as to how close this back story is to what Frank Herbert would have written himself if he had lived long enough and ever wanted to do it.
Having said that, this book, like its predecessor, is well enough written, but lo-o-ong. I found it somewhat tedious as the various characters progressed their lives without actually seeming to get anywhere. The trouble is of course that one has already read DUNE and one knows where and how they are going to end up anyway. Why, then, is it necessary to go through such an excruciatingly lengthy account of events which turn out to be of only moderate importance?
If you are desperate to have every scrap of writing connected in any way with the Dune story, or if you want a good long book to read and are not too bothered what it is, maybe this is for you. Not otherwise. Michael Jones
THE ROAD TO DUNE by Brian Herbert & Kevin J Anderson
The late, great Frank Herbert seems to have been one of those people who never throw away any piece of paper with
any form of words on it and when he died in 1986 he left an enormous archive of letters, notes, drafts, chapters,
outlines etc., much of it concerned with his DUNE novels. His son Brian has devoted himself to studying all this
material and has, as well as a biography of his father, produced two trilogies of prequel novels co-written with Kevin J.
Anderson. I have reviewed several of them in these pages and found myself less than overwhelmed, so much so that I
made a point of avoiding the last couple.
Now they have come up with this, which is for the most part more specifically based upon the material left behind by Frank. It divides fairly simply into four sections: starting from the back of the book, these are – Firstly (or lastly, I should perhaps say ) four of their own short stories. One of these is the first story they wrote together based on the DUNE saga; it is connected to the events in the original book and is quite a good tale. The remainder are connected to their own later novels and I found them to contain little of either interest or merit.
Secondly, a baker’s dozen of scenes and chapters written by Frank but omitted from the novel as finally published, together with a further four deleted from the first sequel DUNE MESSIAH. It is explained that these scenes were trimmed from DUNE for the original magazine publication to make it fit better into the editor’s requirements for the lengths of the instalments, but were never reinstated for the subsequent book publication. Presumably, Frank would have had the opportunity to do so but decided against it, and his decision must be accorded some significance. Indeed, one can sometimes see why he chose not to bother bringing them back. Some clearly do not fit and would have had to be extensively revised; nevertheless they are on the whole illuminating and helpful if read in conjunction with the original book(s). Here on their own, however, they are somewhat out-of-place.
Next, a series of letters and notes recounting the original conception of DUNE and the processes of getting it published, first as a serial in ANALOG and then, after many unsuccessful attempts, in book form. This part is perhaps of some interest to an SF historian, but the ordinary day-to-day reader (even an SF reader ) will probably find it less than fascinating.
Last, but not least, a full-length (220 pages) novel entitled SPICE PLANET put together from outlines and drafts left by Frank Herbert himself. I did wonder whether it was in fact the mythical ‘seventh DUNE novel’ which has previously been mentioned elsewhere, but this is not made clear and may not be the case.
What it is, is a preliminary version of DUNE, abandoned by the author while still far from complete. He then started all over again with a radically different concept. Reading it, I was constantly comparing it in my mind with the infinitely better real thing of which this is a pale shadow, looking for familiar characters and events and mentally correlating them with what ‘really’ happened. In comparison it seemed a trivial work, shorter and lacking the depth and subtlety of the final version, and not nearly so complex, engrossing and well-written.
All-in-all, this book stands in relation to the original novel like the bonus disc you get with the ‘Director’s Cut’ of a movie on DVD. There are the deleted scenes, the production notes, the ‘making of’ documentary and even the original release version. Nobody would want the bonus disc without the feature, many would not want it at all, and few would bother with it more than once – all of which comments I feel apply equally to THE ROAD TO DUNE. I hope I have explained enough to enable you to decide which category you fall into – I will only add that rather than a book to be enjoyed in its own right by a casual reader this is more one to be studied by a dedicated DUNE enthusiast who may find something worthwhile in it.
HORNS by Joe Hill
There are not many books that are exquisite in conception and execution. HORNS is a rare one.
A year after the rape and murder of his girlfriend Merrin, Ig Perrish spends the night drunk and doing unspeakable things. He wakes up to find that he has grown horns. He discovers that not only do people seem unaware of the horns but they confess all the wicked things they would like to do and ask him if it is okay to do a particular sinful thing. His current girlfriend tells him she wants to get fat so that he will leave her, then asks permission to eat a whole box of doughnuts. Looking for help, the receptionist at the hospital tells him all the things she would like to do to the mother of a screaming child, and asks his permission. He gives it and stands back to watch the mayhem.
He learns unpleasant truths from his family, the people he thought were supportive when Merrin was killed. Most of them think he did it. Then he discovers that skin contact with others transfers their darkest secrets to him. In this way he discovers what really happened on the night Merrin died. Then he wants revenge.
Superficially, this could be described as a horror-fantasy novel. It is also a very poignant, character-driven novel about the effects the death of the woman he loves can have on a man. Horns have different meanings in different cultures, so does the concept of the devil. Many of these are explored here. Just as life has many different facets, so does this novel. There is humour and betrayal, the joys of young love as well as a certain amount of grue. What it is not, is predictable.
There are unexpected twists in the structure of the plot as the truth is revealed.
Whatever you normally like reading, give HORNS a go. If nothing else, you will enjoy the sheer quality of the writing.
DRAGON HAVEN by Robin Hobb
The best of Robin Hobb’s fantasy novels are internally consistent: they have an internal logic that makes sense within
the parameters that she sets. There is magic but it is subtle, not some powerful force that can be wielded by a
practitioner of the dark arts. The magic contained here is possessed by dragons. These dragons are effectively sentient
aliens that can have a symbiotic relationship with humans. There is a sense, though, that the world belonged to
dragons before there were humans around. But that was a very, very long time ago.
There is a lot that humans do not know about their world, that they are only just beginning to discover: the life cycle of dragons for example. They hatch on islands and the juvenile state of the creature is a semi-aware sea serpent.
Then, travelling up the Rain Wild River, they make cocoons on particular beaches and emerge fully formed dragons. At least, that is what is supposed to happen.
In THE DRAGON KEEPER, the first book of this particular series, the last dragon, Tintaglia, has rounded up the last sea-serpents and led them to the cocooning grounds. Unfortunately, those that do emerge are deformed, unable to fly or care for themselves. The local people attempt to feed them but they are a burden on the small provincial town. A group of misfits has been detailed to look after the dragons on their way up river in search of the legendary city of Kelsingra, which some of the dragons remember from their ancestral memories.
When DRAGON HAVEN opens, they are well on their way and the tensions between the mixed group of travellers is already present. City-bred Sedric wants to gather some dragon parts and head back downriver to make his fortune and elope with Alise’s husband. Alise is falling in love with the river barge captain and is torn between her duty and her heart. Greft, one of the dragon keepers is trying to claim leadership of the party. Jess, a hunter is not above blackmail to achieve his ends.
The stresses are compounded when a surge in the river’s water sweeps all away. While most of the dragons manage to wedge themselves amongst the trees until the waters subside, dragons and keepers are separated or lost. For several characters, this is a turning point, discovering what they really want. As they travel onwards it becomes clear that not only have attitudes changed, but so have the dragons and their keepers, not just mentally but physically as well.
This is an excellent, fast-paced novel with characters that exist on many levels. It is not just an adventure in a fantasy world, but adds to the knowledge of this world that Hobb has visited many times before – in nine other novels. Pauline Morgan
SHAMAN’S CROSSING Book One of The Soldier Son Trilogy by Robin Hobb
Robin Hobb has made her reputation in writing large, complex fantasy novels. This is the first of her latest series and is
set in a completely different world from any of the others. She has taken the old concept that the first born son
inherited, the second entered the army and the third entered the Church, and hardwired it into her society.
After a successful war, the king of Gernia elevated some of his soldier officers to the nobility, granting them land, titles and equal status with their elder brothers. In some areas, particularly the capital, this is an immediate recipe for tension. Nevare Burvelle, the second or soldier son of one of the new nobles, is the narrator of this volume. He grows up out in the countryside, well away from the politics of state. At one point, in order to teach Nevare the ways of the enemy, his father puts him into the hands a defeated native shaman. The shaman agrees to train the boy but has his own agenda. Although the results are not exactly what his father expected, Nevare does learn some useful survival skills but is also introduced to some of the native mysteries.
Later, Nevare is sent to the academy to learn the skills required of a cavalry officer. It is here that he discovers the penalties of being part of the new nobility. The life at the academy is not meant to be easy but he and the cadets from similar backgrounds find they are targeted for punishment more frequently than the old nobles sons.
The novel has limitations because it is being narrated by a youth who has never been involved in politics and has been brought up well away from them. The background to his situation is given to us in large chunks as he would have learnt as history in the school room. He is the butt of the situation rather than being in the centre of the intrigues. The section in the desert with the shaman is the most interesting part of the volume as it introduces the element of magic that doesn’t come to the forefront of the action until much later. We are given hints that this episode in Nevare’s life is important but until the end it’s relevance is obscure.
It is unfortunate that much of this volume is spent within the academy as this is a very familiar plot element with all the stereotypes one would expect from a boarding school situation. The writing, though, is confident and mostly the reader is carried along by the plot. It does not, however, come up to the standard expected of a Hobb novel. Pauline Morgan
THE DRAGON KEEPER by Robin Hobb
This is the first of a new trilogy set in the world of the Farseer, Live Ships and Tawney Man trilogies. It is set in the
Rain Wild River where a tangle of sea serpents have made a perilous journey to the cocooning grounds, the first in
Many have died along the way. But the creatures which emerge from the cocoons are not the powerful, shining dragons of old. Stunted and deformed, they cannot fly and become an intolerable burden to the Rain Wilder River inhabitants.
Not only are the dragons changed by the hostile conditions of the area, so too are many of the human inhabitants. One of which is Thymara who should have been exposed at birth and left to die.
She is fascinated by the return of dragons and when there is a call for Dragon Keepers to aid them to find their lost ancestral home, she and a group of other mutant misfits volunteer.
The other main character is Alise Finbok who due to an unhappy childhood and even more unhappy marriage has devoted herself to the study of artifacts relating to dragons. Invoking a clause in her marriage contract, she journeys upriver to study and talk to the dragons arriving just in time to join their expedition. Accompanying her as an aid, companion and chaperon is Sedric, a longtime friend and now secretary to her husband. He has his own agenda.
Supporting the travellers is the liveship Tarman, and its captain, Leftrin who is developing an amorous interest in Alise.
While the book is a completely new and standalone adventure, and as such it is unnecessary to read the previous books, it does follow on from events in the previous series and as such knowledge of these could add to the reader’s enjoyment. However, that said, the book is very enjoyable and I look forward to reading the next part of their stories in volume 2.
THE INHERITANCE by Robin Hobb & Megan Lindholm
THE INHERITANCE is a collection of short fantasy stories and novellas by Robin Hobb (RH) and Megan Lindholm (ML)
who are, for those of us who were unaware, one and the same person. The stories have been written in two very
different styles both in length and content. Those from ML are much shorter and set within widely different
backgrounds, while those from RH are of novella length and take place in her Six Duchies world in which she has set
three trilogies plus the Rain Wild Chronicles of which only two volumes are currently available.
Of ML’s stories I particularly like “Silver Lady and the Fortyish Man” in which an aspiring but failing writer reduced to working in a Sears department store meets a pleasant looking, somewhat tubby, balding, fortyish man who introduces himself as Merlin and changes her life.
“Finis” is a vampire story but with an interesting difference; while “Strays” is the tale of how a neglected and put- upon warrior princess metamorphoses into a queen and hopefully a much better life.
The RL novellas include the “Inheritance” from which the volume is named and relates the manner in which a ‘wizardwood’ pendant contrives to enable a young woman to gain revenge for her grandmother on the man who destroyed her life and fortune; but not in the way she expected: wizardwood being the cocoon in which sea serpents change into dragons. Over a long period of time, because of the magic of the dragons, this wood becomes sentient. See the Liveship Traders trilogy and the Rain Wild Chronicles. Also by RH is my favorite story, which is “Homecoming” and describes the desperate trials and tribulations of the first settlers in the Rain Wild Valley which tear apart many relationships while building some unlikely ones.
While I am not a great fan of short stories, THE INHERITANCE is a collection I greatly enjoyed as I have all of Robin Hobb’s work that I have read.
MIDNIGHT ROBBER by Nalo Hopkinson
A second novel from the winner of the Locus / John W Campbell award for best new writer and one that is on the final
ballot for this year’s Hugo Awards.
This seems to be an attempt to make a solid science fiction story out of versions of old Caribbean legends. More than likely the ‘legends’ themselves are only stories told in a particular style.
This is the story of a young girl taken by her father, the mayor of a small colony on a distant planet, into exile on a prison colony in a separate dimension when he is convicted of murder. Once there he abuses and rapes her until, on reaching majority, she kills him. She escapes into the forest full of dangerous beasts to live with the other sentient species on this world.
Once she moves into the forest she quickly becomes a legendary character (something like Robin Hood) and there are pieces inserted here and there from this supposed mythology.
While the general story and the legends are fairly well-written there are some flaws. The frequent use of patois can make some things difficult to understand, and there are some oddities to the grammar that I can’t explain either. The legendary status is achieved in a matter of a few months (and only a quarter of the book) on a world of small settlements separated by dense and dangerous forest and seems prepared for a radical change in nature should the story continue.
STARBORN (Worldmaker 1) by Lucy Hounsom
On the day Kyndra is set to be welcomed into adulthood, her village’s celebration is ruined when she accidentally
breaks the relic at the heart of the ceremony. When the same day a disastrous storm causes havoc, Kyndra is made the
scapegoat and only escapes with her life due to the magical intervention of two mysterious travellers. However, their
aid comes with a cost and reluctantly, Kyndra has to agree to leave the village with them.
The strangers wield powers drawn from the sun and the moon and come from a hidden citadel called Naris. They are investigating a magical phenomenon, the Breaking that is destroying places across the land. Believing Kyndra’s visions may be connected to the Breaking and that she has the potential to become another Sun or Moon wielder, they take her back to their hidden city. In a city divided into rival factions who want to either use or destroy her, Kyndra must struggle to access her latent power and to determine the truth behind the dangers facing her world. Epic fantasy can, to me at least, feel an overcrowded field and it can be difficult to produce something original which still pleases fans of the genre. This author does seem to have managed well with this tricky balancing act. In particular, the believability and depth of the characters is excellent. The main character, Kyndra shows a pleasing growth in maturity from someone being pulled along to someone who actively makes her own decisions. The other characters are also well-delineated and have their own issues which makes them more rounded and interesting.
The story builds well as Kyndra and the reader gradually reveal more about the history and politics of Naris. The climax reaches a satisfactory conclusion whilst still setting up future possibilities for a sequel. This book has been compared with Trudi Canavan’s Black Magician trilogy. Whilst fans of that should certainly find much to like, I think this book is superior and an impressive debut.
JOHANNES CABAL THE DETECTIVE by Jonathan L Howard
This is a book that cannot make up its mind what it is. It appears to be set in a late Victorian version of Eastern Europe
populated with a variety of small fictitious Balkan-type states. The three involved here are Mirkarvia, Senza and
Katamenia, though Ruritania (the setting for Anthony Hope’s THE PRISONER OF ZENDA) gets a mention in passing.
These places, though antagonistic towards each other seem to have hybrid cultural roots as both Spanish and German
honorifics are used randomly and names include Russian patronymics. No-one has difficulty communicating, even the
English members of the cast.
There is an element of the steampunk tradition (but without the steam) as aerial transport is provided by four- winged insectile entomopters and a levitating aeroship resembling a flying aircraft carrier.
(It would have been a good idea for the cover artist to consult the book before drawing a gas-filled airship). Although distinctly an adventure of the Englishman Abroad type, the style of writing fits with chronicles of the turn of the 19th century, it is spoilt by too many modern colloquialisms. This is clearly envisioned as an alternative history. It could also have done with intelligent editing as there are factual mistakes and undisciplined changes of viewpoint.
While the presence of the machines indicates retro-fantasy, the main character, Johannes Cabal, pushes it towards horror as he is a necromancer. He claims to be searching for a cure for death, hence his grotesque experiments and ability to bring the dead back to life if only for a short while. It is his hunt for a particular book, the Principia Necromantica, that sees him beginning this adventure in a Mirkarvian dungeon awaiting execution for the theft of it. After Count Marechel offers him a reprieve in order to further his own nefarious plans, Cabal manages to escape, disguised as a minor civil servant, aboard the aeroship, The Princess Hortense. There he meets an old adversary and becomes embroiled in a murder mystery before the real mayhem recommences. So from a ‘boy’s adventure story’ it changes to an ‘Agatha Christie’ and evolves into a ‘James Bond’ adventure (there are spies all over the place). There is an added short story at the end which parodies Indiana Jones.
This novel is billed as ‘comic’; unfortunately, although it is witty in places and contains a degree of farce this is not particularly humorous. The previous book featuring Johannes Cabal had a much more original plot. This one is tired.
JOHANNES CABAL THE NECROMANCER by Jonathan L Howard
Jonathan L Howard’s debut novel is the first of what promises to be a successful series of black comedy fantasy novels.
The protagonist, necromancer and brilliant scientist Johannes Cabal, has made a Faustian pact with the devil but wishes his soul returned. His lack of soul has been impeding further progress in his scientific work and research. The Devil, delighted at the prospect of a new deal with Cabal that might provide him with sufficient amusement to alleviate his eternal boredom, agrees to a new deal; the return of Cabal’s soul in exchange for 100 others within a year. Gleefully the Devil throws an infernal travelling carnival and a ration of black magic into the pact to ‘help’ Cabal in meeting his end of the bargain. Cabal uses this black magic to create some unnatural and peculiar characters as the carnival’s attractions. Cabal also enlists his charismatic and crowd-charming vampire brother to assist in the promotion of the carnival to entice unsuspecting carnival-goers from which Cabal endeavours to recruit his quota of souls.
Cabal is not a hero. He is driven to obsession for necromancy, lacks morality and is an exceptional snob. There are one or two moments in the book where the reader begins to think that Cabal may be empathizing with another character, but these end in chillingly nefarious deeds and conduct. This not only reinforces the reader’s perception of Cabal, but rather satisfyingly ensures that any ‘he’ll-turn-good-by-the-end’ clichés are avoided. However, although occasionally alternating between liking and loathing him, the reader somehow ends up rooting for Cabal by the end of the book.
Howard makes clear that his inspiration for this novel is Ray Bradbury’s SOMETHING WICKED THIS WAY COMES, the early sixties fantasy horror set in a town visited by an evil carnival. Lovers of this cross-genre classic would no doubt find Howard’s comic response to the question ‘where would an evil carnival come from, anyway?’ a fun tale.
This is not laugh-out-loud comic fantasy akin to Pratchett’s Discworld series or Butcher’s Dresden Files. More fittingly it is witty, dry and somewhat clever. If there is a criticism it is that sometimes the comedy is too clever, or that the occasional scene seems to have been constructed purely to place a clever gag into the book.
Another criticism is that there is a large gap after the first third of the book. The carnival goes from having gained 3 souls in one chapter, to only having two more to collect in the next chapter with just a paragraph to summarise the best part of a year. This was a little disappointing, and when coupled with an ending that came a little too quickly, the reader could be easily forgiven for wishing that there had been another 100 pages or so to this book.
Despite any criticisms, the book is a swift, peculiar and entertaining read which is well resolved at the end. The reader is left with enough of an interest in the characters and the hint of a plot that will arc over subsequent novels to leave them looking forward to reading the next one. JOHANNES CABAL THE DETECTIVE will be released in July this year and I for one shall look forward to the next instalment of this most quirky and macabre of comedies.
THE COMPLETE CHRONICLES OF CONAN by Robert E Howard
I originally thought that this would be a nice simple review until I heard Rog saying that he'd had a customer ring up
and ask if this was the same as the two volume omnibus edition of Robert Jordan's Conan stories!!
So rather than just review the book, I decided to also place it in context… The book itself is a collection of REH's 21 Conan stories as well as three drafts, a synopsis, two verses and a fragment together with an article on the Hyborian Age, notes on the people of the Hyborian Age and Stephen Jones' Afterword on REH and Conan… and is also one of the best book bargains of recent publications at £18.99 For a writer who died at the age of thirty (by his own hand), Howard had an incredible influence on the world of fantasy writing. He has probably influenced most non- Tolkienesque fantasy by virtually originating the ‘Swords and Sorcery’ genre. He started writing as a child and tried to turn professional at fifteen although it would be another three years before his first story was accepted by the influential pulp magazine WEIRD TALES… and that was what Howard was… a pulp writer paid by the word, no great literature here but he could tell a story, and he quickly became very popular over the twelve years before his death with his best work transcending its pulp origins.
During his short career he wrote almost every type of pulp fiction: Horror, Sports, Western, Historical and Detective but it's his fantasy and Conan in particular, that ensured his memory will endure. Over the years since he died, his work has been reprinted so many times in hardcover, paperback and comic format that he's probably only outsold by Tolkien.
For anyone who reads Sword and Sorcery or any form of heroic fantasy, you must read this collection of Conan stories… and for anyone familiar with Howard's work, get this volume to replace your mouldering paperbacks or to read instead of damaging your expensive collectable reprints. Heroic warriors, magic, evil sorcerers, beautiful slave girls to rescue, kingdoms to seize, dark gods and civilizations from beyond the dawn of history… Conan has it all. And don't be fooled by the movies, the real Conan is Howard's in these stories… other media versions are pale imitations and so are most of the third party Conans written by other authors since Howard's untimely death.
This volume celebrates the Centenary of Howard’s birth and is bound in imitation leather and beautifully illustrated by our guest speaker this month – Les Edwards.
JACK CLOUDIE by Stephen Hunt
This is the fifth novel set in a world where steam reigns supreme. At least it does in the Jackelian Kingdom. A Jack
Cloudie is a sailor on one of the country’s airships. When Jack Keats is condemned to death for nearly pulling off the
greatest bank robbery in history, he finds his sentence commuted to service in the Royal Aerostatical Navy. His ship is
the Iron Partridge, regarded as the worst and unluckiest ship in the fleet. The ship’s mission: to fly into enemy airspace
and find out where they are getting their lifting gas for a new fleet of airships.
The basic difference between Jackels and the Cassarabian Empire is their attitude to technology. While the former have embraced the steam age and welcome members of the race of sentient steam men for their skills, the latter’s technology is biological in nature. Womb mages create strange animals to fulfil the roles machinery would normally take. They are obviously skilled at manipulating DNA. In this novel we begin to get a clearer idea of the history of this world. It has seen, and lost, far more sophisticated civilisations than are currently warring with each other. These are remnants of something long gone.
There have been hints in previous novels but here it is rising to the surface.
Although having the same setting as other novels, this one can easily be read without prior knowledge. One familiar character, Jared Black (here introduced as John Oldcastle) stalks these pages, running, as usual, straight into mayhem. Written in the tradition of pulp fiction the plot twists can get a little silly at times but ultimately is a fast, furious romp. Pauline Morgan
SECRETS OF THE FIRE SEA by Stephen Hunt
Love it or loathe it, the term ‘steampunk’ now defines a category of science fiction. Anyone who was at the last
Eastercon would have seen the wonderful costumes worn at the Steampunk Ball on Sunday night and seen the
inventive accoutrements. Victorian SF such as that written by Verne would have been classed as steampunk as
exponents of the genre write with a level of technology roughly equivalent to mid-Victorian.
This is the fourth of Stephen Hunt’s novels set in a world where steam is the principal motive force and electricity is a wild, dangerous beast.
There are clues that once, millennia ago, there was a highly technological civilisation that tore itself apart. Very little evidence of it remains.
One familiar character plays a part in this novel: Commodore Jared Black.
He is captain of a u-boat hired to take passengers to the island of Jago in the Fire Sea: Ortin urs Ortin is the new ambassador from Pericur, a nation of bear-like sentients; Nandi Tibar-Wellking is a student going to Jago to consult the archives; Jethro Daunt is an ex-parson turned detective going to pay respects to the Archbishop of the Circlist church (they deny the existence of gods) and Boxiron is a steamman, a sentient humanoid being whose body runs on steam. They arrive at a crucial time. Trade with the island is declining because there are easier trade passages that involve not crossing the Fire Sea, the First Senator appears to be becoming unhinged and the Archbishop has been murdered. Caught up in these events are Hannah Conquest and Chalph urs Chalph. Hannah is the ward of the Archbishop, left behind when her parents were killed. It is their work in the archives that Nandi particularly wants to complete. Chalph is Hannah’s friend.
Both are shocked when Hannah is drafted to the turbine halls, a place where emanations from the machines cause deformations in the workers.
Jago is a disputed island. All the settlements have been at the fringes, near the warmth of the surrounding magma sea. The ursine Pericurians claim it is holy land while the humans claim it by right of occupation and have the defences to assert that.
It would be easy to pick holes in some of the concepts and to find familiar elements in the text but the overall effect is a good solid adventure in an unusual setting.
EUROPE AT MIDNIGHT by Dave Hutchinson
When a book has been well-received by readers and critics, there is always the temptation to produce a sequel, even if
the original intention was a stand-alone novel. In the best cases, there are enough intriguing ambiguities to form a
second volume. It doesn’t mean that the same characters will be present (though the readership may want them) but
the story will be set against the same background.
At the end of EUROPE IN AUTUMN, Hutchinson’s first novel, there were enough opportunities to create something new – some authors feel a need to produce a similar plot but this is not what Dave Hutchinson does. In EUROPE IN AUTUMN, the focus was on Rudi, an Estonian chef working in Poland. Across the continent, society has been breaking up into smaller and smaller countries and polities making travel inconvenient. Rudi is also a Coureur, moving information and/or people from one state to another. Rudi is not the focus of EUROPE AT MIDNIGHT.
This begins with an innocent seeming scenario on a university campus. One of the lecturers, who introduces himself as Rupert of Hentsau, is fishing when a woman paddles past in a kayak. Slowly, it becomes apparent that this is not an ordinary campus, but a huge, city-sized place and there is no way out. Some think that there must be an escape route but there is no evidence that anyone has ever escaped. Then the woman, Araminta, reveals that she knows a way out, because she has come from the outside. A number of things happen simultaneously. The Science Department plans a coup and Rupert heads out along the river to prove or not, Araminta’s claims.
This is a novel seem from two perspectives. Rupert’s is first person, but there is also a third person narrative from the point of view of Jim Baines, a detective who is sent to Nottingham to investigate a stabbing. Jim is attached to a special unit that has been looking for clues to the existence of the Community of which the Campus is a part. As Rupert recovers, he finds that Jim believes his story and that he can never go back.
Like most good novels, there are a number of tangled threads. The idea of the independent small states is well established but one in particular is of interest to the authorities. The Republic of Dresden-Neustadt built a very high wall around its polity and nothing goes in and out. Many are curious as to who lives there and what is going on. The Community decides it wants to negotiate joining the rest of Europe. It is a strange place that should not exist and seems to sit within the folds of space, concurrent with the land around it. There are only a few places where people can cross over and their co-ordinates are closely guarded. To add to the mixture is The Line which is a country in itself and runs across Europe.
This is a complex novel, building on the enigmas left at the end of EUROPE IN AUTUMN and providing more to be explored in the next novel. A thoroughly good read that deserved its shortlisting for the Arthur C. Clarke award.
EUROPE IN AUTUMN by Dave Hutchinson
Predicting future political trends is difficult. As Charles Stross has now found not everything turns out the way you want
it. Several of his novels will now have to be regarded as alternative histories. Not that Stross will be particularly worried
as there is a fine tradition in alternative histories. Extrapolating current trends into a relatively near future is an
interesting exercise. Currently, there seems to be a desire for ethnic groupings to desire autonomy. Whether or not this
is economically viable depends on the strengths of the group. Dave Hutchinson has taken this trend to extremes and
postulated a Europe divided into ever decreasing blocs which may or may not have free movement across borders.
EUROPE IN AUTUMN is set largely in Central Europe and centres around Rudi, an Estonian cook working in a Polish restaurant. It’s not an easy life but he’s reasonably content. Max, the owner, pays protection to keep in business. It’s an accepted part of the system in a Europe where the authorities think they have better things to do. Rudi is able to move more freely across borders than most Polish nationals and with less suspicion so he is asked to go to the small state of Hindenberg and bring back a message from Max’s cousin. This is the start of a new career. While still working at the restaurant he is trained as a Coureur. Using a carefully constructed set of aliases, Coureurs smuggle documents and people across the borders faster than going through diplomatic channels.
This is a novel that starts off well. The seediness of the characters, settings and plot structure is reminiscent of a realistic spy thriller – far more gritty than the Bond novels. These are people that most would not notice as any good spy ought to be. Rudi’s frustration at the tedium of his initial training is shot through with reality. The first third is well written, pacey and holds the attention, everything that a good thriller should be. These qualities don’t diminish but as Rudi gets deeper into the role that has been elected into, the plot becomes more episodic. The result is something that could easily be turned into a many-part TV series. It has the same quality. There is a cast of regular characters who have developing roles and face changing dilemmas. There is the mysterious Zone. This is an area on either side of a railway line that crosses Europe and which steadily becomes the focus of Rudi’s activities. This is the story arc which creeps into the episodes, unnoticed at first but heading towards the big denouement in the final episode. For this reason, it is a shame that Hutchinson has confined himself to a single novel. Some of the episodes feel as if they want to be expanded and made more complex. A trilogy would have been nice. A longer series would have made the readership sit up and take notice.
EUROPE IN WINTER by Dave Hutchinson
Dave Hutchinson is a writer capable of threading together a number of genres to make an unusual whole. This may be
the third book in the series but is sufficiently discrete for it to have won this year’s the BFSA Award for best novel.
Anyone who has read the first in the series will be familiar with Rudi, the Estonian chef who works in Poland and was recruited as a Coureur des Bois in EUROPE IN AUTUMN. He plays very little part in the second volume but is back here as a central character. EUROPE IN WINTER, however, starts with a bang – a very big bang. Running east to west across this Europe is a railway line. The Line is a country in its own right and to travel by train, a passenger has to become a citizen. For this reason, rather than stations there are consulates. (There is only one in Poland.) Someone has managed to blow up a train in the tunnel through the mountains of Eastern Europe, to the inconvenience of almost everyone.
This is a Europe that exhibits a number of other strangenesses. The Community is a whole country enfolded within the English landscape. It exists in parallel with the rest of Europe with only a selected number of places to pass from one to the other. It exists in the same way fairyland exists in some fantasy novels. The community, though, is in diplomatic discussions with the aim of joining the rest of Europe – except that knowing who to negotiate with is difficult as the continent has disintegrated in to many states and polities each with their own idea of government.
One of the states that became ‘of interest’ in EUROPE AT MIDNIGHT was the Republic of Dresden-Neustadt. No one knew what went on within the very high walls that surrounded it, and everyone was curious. The suggestion here is that it contains vast computing power that runs through various scenarios to predict the most likely. The question is whether that is the source of the dream Rudi has when he reprises a visit to the restaurant by a gang of Hungarians, followed by an impossible visit from his older self.
The spy-thriller element is strong throughout. Although Rudi doesn’t do much work for the Coureurs any more, he is drawn to a clandestine meeting with a man offering him information. He is not the only person who was offered the information so when he sees his contact being arrested, he steers the other person, Gwen, away from the area. When Rudi’s father dies, he is given a box of some of his father’s effects. The contents draw him into a mystery that started far in the past, and since someone seems to want him dead, Rudi’s stubborn nature makes him wish to unravel it.
This is a novel with a complex plot line which skilfully connects places and characters from both earlier novels and never heads in the direction expected. It is a book deserving of being read more than once in order to pick up all the nuances hidden within.