Birmingham Science Fiction Group

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A selection of reviews from our monthly newsletter. These are sorted by the author's or editor's last name. Click on the name at the top of the page to take you to the section or just scroll down the page.
Brandon Sanderson
Lynsay Sands
Stephanie Saulter
Robert J Sawyer
John Scalzi
Rob Scott
Robert Silverberg
Clifford D Simak
Dan Simmons
Alison Sinclair
Nalini Singh
Angela Slatter
Gavin Smith
Olaf Stapledon
Brian Staveley
Theodore Sturgeon
Tricia Sullivan
David A Sutton
Steph Swainston
E J Swift
Adrian Tchaikovsky
Douglas Thompson
Lavie Tidhar
G X Todd
Tom Toner
Harry Turtledove
Kyle Turton
Lisa Tuttle
Jack Vance
Carrie Vaughn
Ian Whates
Jen Williams
Neil Williamson
Jennifer Willis
David Wingrove
Chris Wooding
Roger Zelazny

Brandon Sanderson

ELANTRIS by Brandon Sanderson

Although written in 2005 this is the first ever publication of ELANTRIS in the UK. Brandon Sanderson is well known within the UK as the author completing the late Robert Jordan’s epic Wheel of Time saga as well as for a string of his own novels. Elantris is a city once gleaming and pristine, the home of a godlike people who are the protectors of the country of Arelon. Now it is a stinking, crumbling wreck covered with dark slime and inhabited by pitiful wretches. Once you became an inhabitant of Elantris by succumbing to the ‘Shoal’ which turned your skin silver, your hair white and gave you the power to perform magic. Now the Shoal has been contaminated and its ‘victims’ have black patches on their skins and have been turned into the living dead who continually suffer pain and hunger. For the last 10 years it has made gods into beasts. This is the background to and a continuing thread of the story of Prince Raoden of Arelon and his promised bride, Princess Sarene of Teod, who arrives in the country to find that he has just ‘died’. But we the readers know that he has succumbed to the Shoal and has been banished to Elantris. Arelon and Teod have a common enemy - the Fjordell Empire - a fanatic religious hegemony that intends to rule the whole world. To further its aims now that Elantris has fallen, the Fjordell high priest Hrathen has been sent to the court of King Iadon of relon. Much of the book is taken up by his machinations and the efforts of Sarene to counter them as well as her efforts to make a place for herself in her new home now that her husband is ‘dead’. Although he is dead to the people of Arelon, Raoden strives mightily to improve the lot of the inhabitants of Elantris and to find out why the magic failed. As with all of his books Brandon Sanderson has populated Elantris with a rich and varied band of characters none of whom are surplus to the tale. Elantris started slowly and I was not impressed, but it quickly picked up and turned into a very enjoyable tale indeed.

Reviewed by Jim Pearce Dec-2010

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MITOSIS by Brandon Sanderson

Brandon Sanderson is a former winner of the David Gemmell Award for Best Fantasy Novel. That book, THE WAY OF KINGS was a brilliant, well-deserved winner. It would certainly have increased his popularity amongst readers. One can only suppose that that success is part of the reason behind this book.
MITOSIS is a beautifully produced little hardcover. The question remains, is it worth the money. Maybe to a collector. A general reader may feel cheated. MITOSIS is a 44 page novella. It is set in the same world as the novel STEELHEART. The idea behind it is that a number of people, called Epics are mutants with super-powers. Most of them use their talents the wrong way. Steelheart’s touch turned things to steel, resulting in a steel city. In the novel, he was overthrown by the Reckoners. In this short story, an Epic called Mitosis arrives in the city and has to be dealt with by the Reckoners.
His talent is that he is able to subdivide himself into an infinite number of clones. Kill one and there were plenty more to deal with.
The following pages in this book are very good drawings of three of the Epics that do not feature in ‘Mitosis’ the story, but along with their characteristics give a good idea what the Reckoners are up against. The final 25 pages of this slim volume are the beginning of FIREFIGHT, the sequel to STEELHEART.
At one point, samplers like this were given away at conventions, though marketed with an original short story, it could have become valuable that way. This will look good on the shelf. It is up you to decide if it is worth the money.

Reviewed by Pauline Morgan Mar-2015

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THE RITHMATIST by Brandon Sanderson

There is a knack for writing books in the category often referred to as Young Adult. Ideally, they should appeal to the younger reader but also be enjoyable for those who would never admit to reading children’s books. Often the thing that separates a YA book from a normal book is the age of the principal characters. These need to be on the cusp of adulthood with all the conflicting emotions that stage of development entails. Adult characters such as parents take a back seat for a variety of reasons although it is unwise to neglect their presence as they will shape the actions of the protagonists. Having a problem that only the young people can solve because of their talents, expertise or flexibility of mind can be a useful strategy. All this is wrapped up in a pacey narrative and skilful story-telling. THE RITHMATIST succeeds at all these criteria, admirably.
The setting for the action is an alternative world where America is a series of island states. Joel is a student at the Armedius Academy on New Britannia. His passion is Rithmatics. He really wants to be a Rithmatist but missed the ceremony that might have led to him being chosen when he was eight. The only reason he is allowed to study there is because his father was the chalk maker until his death. His mother is a cleaner. The other students who are not studying Rithmatics come from important or wealthy families. Joel is an exception, which immediately sets him up as an outsider and a member of the despised class.
Rithmatics is a science and phenomenon peculiar to this world. Practitioners are able to animate two dimensional figures on any surface by drawing them with chalk. There are attack and defensive shapes and lines. The better the drawings, the greater the ability to survive or retaliate in a duel. While most of it appears to be harmless fun, there is one island, Nebrask, which is infested with feral chalklings which can actually kill. Every Rithmatist has to spend time there keeping the world safe.
Joel is a Rithmatic nerd, spending his spare time reading about classic duels. He knows how draw the lines even though they don’t come alive for him. He sneaks into lectures that only Rithmatists are supposed to attend. This particular summer, he has to choose an area to study. He manages to get himself assigned as research assistant to Professor Fitch who has been given the task of trying to find out why some students have disappeared. Also assigned to the Professor is Melody, an annoying girl who is brilliant at sketching but rubbish at drawing the circles and lines a Rithmatist must draw accurately. Naturally, they start off by despising each other. Their relationship has its ups and downs but as might be expected in a YA book, it is the flexibility of young minds that looks at the problem from a different angle and it able to guide the adults in the right direction.
This is a book which oozes enthusiasm. Joel and Melody are complementary characters who spark off each other. Yes, they have their spats but at their age, that is to be expected. Not only do we have two beautifully drawn teenagers but the idea of Rithmatics is original and feels as if it could exist. A lot of thought and care has been taken in developing the science behind the discipline. This adds to the enjoyment of the book as it is peppered with the diagrams and illustrations that Joel and Melody spend their days with. This is a book that has to be highly recommended to anyone who wants a fast paced adventure novel. It will fascinate readers of all ages, not just the ones it was aimed at.

Reviewed by Pauline Morgan Nov-2015

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Lynsay Sands

LOVE BITES by Lynsay Sands

With so many books having been written about vampires it seems difficult to come up with a new idea. This one has. LOVE BITES is the first in a new series about the Argeneau family. The whole family are vampires. This is explained to the female lead, Rachel Garrett, as being due to nano-technology developed by the Atlantean people thousands of years ago. The nanos repair all the body’s damaged tissues, rejuvenating, preventing aging, producing longevity and increasing sexual performance. Unfortunately they use blood to do their work. Nice theory, pity it is seriously flawed. These vampires can have children.
The nanos as described would not allow that, and why would they produce hollow fangs in a ‘turned’ human?
The plot is simple. A man called Pudge is trying to kill Etienne. We are not exactly sure why he has a vendetta against the vampire, but twice within a week Etienne’s apparently lifeless body turns up in Rachel’s morgue. The second time, Pudge also arrives swinging an axe, intending to decapitate Etienne. Rachel gets in the way. Etienne saves her life by giving her his blood, starting the change of human to vampire. When his family comes to rescue him, they take Rachel away as well. Much of the rest of the book is about Rachel coming to terms with being a vampire, falling in love with Etienne and sex romps – until Pudge shows up again near the end.
Many of the aspects of the plot that would bring the novel up a level from just being an erotic fantasy are sidelined for the developing relationship between Etienne and Rachel. Even the family politics could have easily been strengthened without too much trouble. Although there are a lot of readers who like this kind of material, this author does not yet have the flair of Charlaine Harris or Laurell K. Hamilton which makes their work exciting to read.

Reviewed by Pauline Morgan Apr-2010

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Stephanie Saulter

REGENERATION (®evolution 3) by Stephanie Saulter

This third novel in the ®evolution series takes place nearly a decade after the events of the first two books (GEMSIGNS and BINARY). The genetically modified humans (GEM’s) freed from control of the gemtech companies, are recovering from their institutionalised lives, establishing families and forging new independent lives financed by using their unique specialised abilities commercially. This story focuses in particular on one GEM-controlled project, the building of a new tidal power station in the river Thames. This is run mainly by a group of amphibious GEMs called “gillungs” who are combining their ability to work underwater and a new Gem-developed method of energy storage (quantum batteries). However there are conservative factions who have ideological and financial reasons to not want the project to succeed and try both legal and illegal methods to achieve their aims. In addition, the gems’ old antagonist Zackva Klist is being released to house arrest – is this a coincidence and is she involved in this latest attempt to attack the gems?
As I have come to expect from Stephanie Saulter, in this third book she continues to write a well-paced story with lots of action. The future developments in technology and biology in particular are clever and believable and well integrated into the story. As with BINARY the author is not afraid to move focus from the main protagonists of the previous stories. Although the leaders of the opposing factions, Aryel and Zackva still have significant roles, the story concentrates to a large extent on characters from the first novel (GEMSIGNS). In particular, the gem couple Bal and Gaela and their family of two adopted children. These are the now nearly adult, Gabriel (whose mind-reading abilities were pivotal in GEMSIGNS) and his eight year old sister, Eve. It is their background and abilities which will be vital in uncovering and defeating the opposition. Some fans might be a bit disappointed that their favourite characters have a lesser role but I think that the emotional heart and depth of this novel is the consideration of the upcoming generation and the difference that being raised in a family rather than an institution will make to the gems. This is an excellent and thoroughly recommended story which examines regeneration on many levels. My only disappointment is that this might be the last I see of this world as there are so many characters and themes I loved and want to follow further.

Reviewed by Carol Goodwin Jun-2015

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Robert J Sawyer

FLASHFORWARD by Robert J Sawyer

This novel was originally published in 1999 but set initially in April 2009 when the Large Hadron Collider (LHC) was due for its first run in the search of the Higgs boson. Most of us can remember what happened.
In Sawyer’s novel everyone in the world experienced a vision of themselves twenty-one years on, at the moment the LHC was activated. The vision lasted for two minutes and the obvious culprit for the phenomenon was the LHC.
There were a number of deaths from people falling off ladders, down stairs and cars going out of control. The emphasis of the novel was the way in which people directly involved with the experiment coped with the after effects.
Michiko Komura’s daughter was killed by a runaway car in her school playground. She had been due to marry Lloyd Simcoe but in her vision she saw herself in Japan with a young daughter. Lloyd had been in bed with another woman to whom he was married.
They have to decide whether to go ahead with the marriage in the knowledge that it will fail. Theo Procopides does not have a vision. Detective work shows that he was murdered the previous day. While Lloyd believes the future is fixed, Theo desperately wants to believe that it can be changed and he will not die.
The problem with setting a novel so close to the time of writing is that the author is likely to get things wrong. Sawyer extrapolates but there are differences he couldn’t foresee. As a result the technical background dates the book. It perhaps should have been revised before reprinting.
The TV programme FLASHFORWARD claims to be based on this novel. The only obvious connection is that everyone in the world experiences a two minute glimpse of the future and one of the characters is called Lloyd Simcoe. There the resemblance ends.
The TV series is set in America rather than Geneva, the flashforward is six months rather than twenty-one years. There is a crime, but it involves a blue hand gang and lots of bodies and policemen. There are suggestions that terrorists or the Chinese are responsible.
Basically, the American producers have taken the one central idea and turned it into an American style cop show.
Although the book is dated, it has a scientifically plausible rationale at its heart and is internally consistent. The TV programme can be taken as a completely separate entity.

Reviewed by Pauline Morgan Jan-2010

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WAKE by Robert J Sawyer

This is the first book in Robert J. Sawyer’s ‘WWW’ trilogy. It was originally published as a series of instalments in Analog SF from November 2008 to March 2009.
The book is set in the present, and Caitlin Decter is a blogging teenager and a maths genius who has been blind since birth. She is invited to test a new visual implant which could give her full sight.
However, her visual cortex is so used to navigating paths on-line, that when her ‘eye-pod’ is implanted, instead of seeing the real world she sees a visual impression of the internet being streamed to her.
Slowly, she begins to detect a presence in the background – an intelligence that grows throughout the book naming itself ‘Webmind’.
There are two subplots to this book: a captive hybrid chimpanzee that begins to paint representations of his keeper, and a bird ‘flu pandemic in China which has caused China to shut itself off from non-Chinese websites.
Somewhat frustratingly none of the story arcs join up in this first part of the trilogy, which leaves the reader wondering if the main premise of the second volume will simply be joining up these story arcs, leaving the ‘Webmind’ plot itself rather lacking.
Overall, the themes of the book are emerging intelligence, consciousness and self-awareness. Caitlin’s increasing visual awareness and emergence into the ‘seeing’ world is mirrored by events in the other plots. Sawyer handles this well and throughout the book there are references to the theory of consciousness to make the story really credible.
The characters are likeable, although Sawyer’s portrayal of a teenage girl who has just been gained sight, is not wholly convincing, and the book is a little lacklustre in some places leading me to wonder if this is perhaps a trilogy that would have been a tighter and better paced single, larger novel. Webmind’s apparently self-selected Occam’s razor logic gives rise to some concerns that the trilogy might contain some all too familiar ‘Hal’ moments.
I must also echo Pauline’s comments from her review of Sawyer’s FLASHFORWARD in January’s Brum Group News that when books are set so close to the time of writing the author can get it wrong. WAKE already sounds a little out of date, especially in terms of its references to bird ‘flu and some of the ‘blogspeak’ and emoticons used.
The theme of the book is well presented and the book is a good page turner of a sufficient pace to keep the reader interested. The consciousness and mathematical theories are presented well so as not to alienate anyone not too familiar with those topics and avoid giving the reader that sense of reading a textbook. This book has been compared with SNOWCRASH by Stephenson and some of Gibson’s work, and although it has its appeal I don’t feel it is in that league. Finally, for me the ‘Webmind’ plot was not massively attention-grabbing, I was far more interested in the loveable painting chimp…

Reviewed by Sam Fennell Feb-2010

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John Scalzi

THE HUMAN DIVISION (Old Man’s War 5) by John Scalzi

The structure of a novel is often more important than the reader realises. Choosing the wrong approach can be a minefield. The reader has to be absorbed by the plot that the framework supports but at the same time, the out of the ordinary can add a dimension. Many novels, especially those written in first person, are linear starting at the beginning and ending… with maybe a flashback or two. Others have complex formats. Experimenting with structure can produce startling effects. THE HUMAN DIVISION doesn’t quite do this but the unconventional structure fits the book well.
In the first book in this series, OLD MAN’S WAR, we were introduced to an interesting concept. At the age of seventy-five, you could join the army. So, after having a good life on Earth and whatever the state of your health, you were promised a brand new, young body. The only set-backs were that it was green and you had to fight aliens. Most recruits died. If you survived ten years you got the chance to become a colonist. It was a tempting offer that many took. Since then, things have changed. Many of the alien races have got together to form the Conclave and put a stop to colonisation and human expansionism. The Colonial Union, made up of the human colonised planets, isn’t happy with this development. Earth is not happy either. Having discovered that the Union has deliberately kept advanced technology from the home planet, they are not going to allow the Union to recruit any more soldiers or colonists. As a result, the weapon in the arsenal is diplomacy.
THE HUMAN DIVISION is structured as thirteen separate episodes, each one of which can be read as a separate short story but need to be taken in the order laid out in the book. The whole has the feel of a novel as each episode progresses the story. The main human characters are Harry Wilson, who, although a technician is one of the Union’s green-skinned soldiers. He is assigned to the Clarke, a ‘civilian’ ship that is transport to the team of Ambassador Abumwe. Her deputy and Harry’s friend is Hart Schmidt. This team are regarded as a B-team, usually given low-priority ambassadorial missions but when another negotiating team is unexpectedly destroyed, they are drafted in to a crisis that could become a severe diplomatic incident. Failure to solve the problem could mean war.
Not all the episodes are from the point of view of members of this team, who prove themselves increasingly adept at getting results under pressure, but each one adds something to the overall picture. Even if the characters do know the exact nature of the climactic events, the reader will have a better notion, having gained an overview.
The book is cleverly drafted and each episode would easily fit within an anthology or magazine. The whole is an enjoyable read.
It should perhaps be noted that the book also contains two short stories, one of which takes place before the start of the novel.

Reviewed by Pauline Morgan Aug-2016

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Rob Scott

15 MILES by Rob Scott

The blurb on the front cover reads “A dead Marine captain, a forty year old secret, revenge from beyond the grave.” Of these three items one is true, one nearly irrelevant and one false. Elsewhere this is described as a horror story. If that makes you think of something fantastical or supernatural, you're probably wrong. This qualifies as horror in the same way as PSYCHO or SILENCE OF THE LAMBS. Some might call this a detective or crime novel but I'd debate that too. The crime here is in an unreported death and defrauding the welfare system and the detective isn't really detecting anything most of the time. The best description I can come up with here is ‘Thriller’. It's not a great one but it's a creditable try. Sam ‘Sailor’ Doyle is a police detective. He drinks a lot. He has a drug problem - pills he acquired in bulk some time before. He is on his first case as lead detective on a homicide. The case is gruesome. There are two mutilated and mummified corpses, a lot of feral cats and several dead farm animals. It looks bad but it will get a whole lot worse. By the end of the story he will have been badly scratched by cats, infected with bubonic plague and bitten by several poisonous snakes. There's also a 40 year old woman with the mind of a 6-year-old that could bring the plague to a major city and beyond. There are also sub-plots involving suggestions of biological warfare and a plot to murder a senior politician that don't really work. There are two real failures here. The first smacks a little too much of a Stephen Donaldson character. Fairly early on you realise that Sailor likes his beer and has a pill problem. That isn't really enough for him to keep reminding us exactly how much beer he has had and how many pills he has taken along with all the other medication that he's been shot up with. The second item seems to be a teaser for some kind of supernatural element that may develop into something in a sequel. Sailor feels responsible for the death of his sister years before. He didn't pick her up from the airport. She got a lift with friends and they were involved in an accident with a snowplough that killed them all. Throughout the book he hears voices and sees messages saying that his sister forgives him and that he should ‘find the girl’. They could be messages from beyond the grave but considering his physical state it's never suggested that they're anything more than delusions. If that's the truth, why are they there? All in all this is a good solid thriller that is probably the first of a series - the website is sailordoyle.com not something from the author's name. It could improve if Sailor gets over his substance abuse problems and they don't get sued by the people responsible for THE FRENCH CONNECTION.

Reviewed by William McCabe Oct-2010

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Robert Silverberg

DYING INSIDE by Robert Silverberg

At the May meeting of the Brum Group, one of the topics under discussion was, in effect: “How do you define SF and fantasy, and what is the difference?” This book (first published in 1972) is an excellent example of how difficult this question can be. It’s marketed under Gollancz’s ‘SF Masterworks’ banner, so it must be SF, right? Well, it certainly isn’t fantasy, because there are no dragons, wizards or elves. But then again, there is no technology in it either; no spaceships, or robots, not even time travel or an alternat(iv)e world – no science, in fact. But it is about telepathy.
A very literate and well-written book, as one would expect from Silverberg, this is entirely about the life of one man, David Selig, who can read minds (sometimes), but not transmit. The author explores, in great detail, what this would be like. You wonder if a girl fancies you? Just enter her mind and find out how she sees you. You can make a fortune out of the money market by anticipating what others are going to buy or sell – as his one-time best friend Tom Nyquist, who also has the power, does. The difference is that Tom embraces, enjoys and uses his powers to his advantage, while David constantly agonises about them. Oh, often he does enjoy them, especially when he is younger (who wouldn’t!), but he finds one girl who is completely blank to him, which puzzles and worries him, and indeed he has several sexual relationships which eventually end in disaster. And, of course, as in the old adage, by eavesdropping you may learn more about how others see you than you really want to know. . .
The problem, and the reason for the title, is that as he approaches middle age, David’s powers begin to become erratic, and fade. Since he has always felt an outsider, should he welcome ‘becoming normal’? Judith has always hated him because he could enter her mind and know what she was thinking; would their relationship improve now? A very unusual book, and well worth reading, especially if you are looking for something different.

Reviewed by David A Hardy Jun-2005

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THE BOOK OF SKULLS by Robert Silverberg

A strange book this, and strangely compelling. I picked it up because it was a book in the Masterworks series that I hadn’t read. I read the plot synopsis with a certain lack of enthusiasm. Four students discover a manuscript, The Book Of Skulls, which reveals the existence of a sect offering immortality to those who can complete its initiation rite They discover the sect is now based in Arizona and set out with the intention of seeking eternal life. People are only accepted in groups of four, and of those four, two must die for the others to succeed.
'Ho hum,’ I thought, and yet the first page yanked me in and I couldn’t put the book down. The viewpoints of all four students, Eli, Ned, Oliver and Timothy, tell the story. Almost immediately I knew which of the four I wanted to live and I spent the rest of the book in dread for the fate of my favourites.
The first half of the book tells the journey to Arizona, the second half tells of the sect and the initiation, but much more, the whole book is full of the passions, reasons, souls of the four students. In a field where characters are often subservient to ideas, this is a wonderfully balanced book, beautifully and subtly written, full of the ambiguity of life. At the end you wonder if it is immortality they have achieved and, if so, if it is really worth it.
Well, well worth reading and re-reading.

Reviewed by Yvonne Rowse Feb-2000

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Clifford D Simak

WAY STATION by Clifford D Simak

On re-reading this reprint of Clifford D Simak’s 1963 classic it is interesting to realise how far Science Fiction has come since early sixties. It also gives the reader a chance to revisit an old friend and go back to the style of writing that got people interested in S. F. in the first place. Even though this story is nearly forty years old it’s theme still holds up well against contemporary styles of modern S F. authors.
Set in sixties America in the poor rural area of the southwestern corner of Wisconsin it shows a lifestyle that has hardly changed since it was first settled by the white man. With the local people clannish and distrustful of outsiders Enoch Wallace is peculiar to say the least. For a man who fought in the American Civil War he still looks as though he is only middle aged. What few provisions he requires for his simple needs are brought out from the town by the local postman Winslowe Grant. His father built the farm that he lives in and it looks like any other poor rural dwelling in that neck of the woods. But Enoch is being watched by a person from the Federal Government who has unearthed some surprising facts about him. Not only is Enoch unusual, as is the farmhouse that he lives in. But what the watcher finds in the Wallace family graveyard is even more intriguing. Into this scenario comes a local deaf mute girl Lucy Fisher who seems to have extraordinary powers and rapport with the local wild animals. When Enoch Wallace helps the girl to hide from her abusive father things start to come apart at the seams and local attention is focused on Enoch, something he had been trying hard to avoid.
Way Station is one of the jewels in Gollancz's collector’s edition and ranks highly in the top 100 best novels of Science Fiction. This is definitely worth a re-read for older fans and well worth reading for the first time for younger members of the S.F. fraternity.

Reviewed by Chris Chivers Dec-2000

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Dan Simmons

OLYMPOS by Dan Simmons

Dan Simmons begins his tale in ILIUM and continues it in OLYMPOS. He uses the text of Homer as a starting point but by the start of the second book it is beginning to deviate considerably. The enactment of the Trojan Wars is a symptom of the problem that is escalating within the solar system. Superficially, Earth is a utopia: the million people still living there have an idyllic life, faxing themselves from one party to another. Orbiting above the planet are two orbital rings where they believe they are faxed for rejuvenation every twenty years, and after five rejuvenations will go permanently to paradise. One form of entertainment (reading and TV are things of the past) is the turin cloth. Placed over the face, it enables the viewer to live the Trojan Wars in real time. As might be expected, there are worms in paradise. Partly due to the activities of Harman and his friends in ILIUM, the voynix, who hitherto have been regarded at mute, harmless servants, begin a campaign of human extermination. No-one is safe anywhere.
Simmons is drawing on a number of sources for his inspiration. The Homeric Troy set on a terra-formed Mars with the gods at home on Mount Olympos provides an excellent vehicle for those posing as gods. They certainly have godlike powers even though these come from manipulating advanced technologies.
Closer to Earth the Tempest is played out with not only Caliban but Prospero and Ariel having roles in the events.
Significant to the unravelling of the situation are the moravecs. These were biologically adapted centuries before to survive in the harsh environments of the outer solar system. Mahnmut is at home in the methane seas under the crust of Europa and Orphu, his friend, is able to survive in hard vacuum. Mahnmut has a fascination for Shakespearean sonnets, so much so that his submersible is called The Dark Lady. Orphu has a predilection for the subtleties of Proust. They are sent to discover the source of the anomalies that have apparently changed Mars in an impossibly short space of time and the fluctuations in quantum fields that are in danger of destroying the whole system. It is by applying their knowledge of literature that the sense of the science is worked out. The book is extremely complex with the various disparate groups significantly affecting the others.
There are so many different elements in the two books that it has taken an exceptional writer to visualise them and bring them together into a coherent whole. Simmons plays with literature, language, science and drama, winding them together into an exciting adventure. Take nothing here at face value.

Reviewed by Pauline Morgan Nov-2005

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SONG OF KALI by Dan Simmons

Originally published in 1985, this was Dan Simmons first published novel. Here it is reprinted under the Fantasy Masterworks banner. Perhaps it should be labelled horror. It is, however a fine and evocative book which gave a good indication of the quality Simmons continued to achieve in later books.
From the start it paints a dark, claustrophobic picture of Calcutta. The streets are crowded, the people poor. Robert Luczak arrives with his Indian wife and small daughter at midnight. His visit is intended to be short. He expects to meet with and acquire a manuscript by a poet who was thought to have died eight years previously. Things do not go exactly as planned. He is taken to clandestine meetings in his effort to meet the poet, M. Das, and is told stories about the cult of Kali, the goddess of Destruction. The tales are horrific but could be the product of a fertile imagination. Luszac is sceptical. He is abducted. His experiences in captivity could be real or the result of hallucinations conjured by the drugs he is forced to drink. When he manages to escape he returns to his holtel to discover his daughter has been stolen. Then the real nightmare begins.
Like Luszac, the reader can take the fantastic elements as either reality, in the context of the story, or hallucination. The city, the events and the atmosphere are horrific whichever way you look at it. Without the label, this could easily have been a mainstream thriller. It is definitely a fine early novel of a master storyteller.

Reviewed by Pauline Morgan Aug-2005

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Alison Sinclair

Cavalcade by Alison Sinclair

“Cavalcade” is a First Contact novel: I’ve always enjoyed First Contact stories, from “The Mote In God’s Eye” to “To Serve Man”, possibly because the event might conceivably happen at any time, rather than waiting for (say) the discovery of FTL drives, time machine technology, force field projectors or the turning all of the spare minerals in the Solar System into a whopping big Dyson Sphere. So how does “Cavalcade”, nominated for the Arthur C Clarke Award, bear up?
Well, Alison Sinclair’s writing style is a bit of a bugger to get your head round, for a start. It’s a bit like J G Ballard’s, very dry, laconic and somehow faintly odd, and also reminded me of Ramsay Campbell, in that something important is often casually slipped into the middle of a sentence and you don’t notice the implications until you think “hang on a minute...” and go back and re-read it. Also, the paperback is quite a thick one and when I opened it they’ve set it in a pretty small font, so the novel is, TARDIS-like, bigger than it looks on the outside. Having said all that, though...
An extra-terrestrial ship enters Earth’s orbit. After weeks of Mankind trying all sorts of ways to communicate, the aliens finally reply, in the form of an invitation. They are, they say, representatives of a mixed community of sentient species which have been exploring the galaxy for millennia and any humans who wish to join them are welcome: after which nothing more is heard from them. A wide variety of people take up the aliens’ offer and, on the night, all of the thousands of volunteers are transported to a huge organic chamber within the ship, edged by caves and tunnels, including scientist Stan Morgan and an official NASA/Army Team. All digital watches have stopped, whereas someone’s clockwork watch shows that two and a quarter hours have been lost in transit. It soon becomes apparent that nothing electronic works - palmtop computers, torches, radios, even a man’s pacemaker and the resus kit which fails to save him and although no food has been provided, their alien hosts are nowhere to be seen.
Much like the characters themselves, you are very much dropped in at the deep end of the book - within the first three chapters a dozen characters have been presented, with hardly any background detail, leaving you to find out even the most basic things about them as you go. The volunteer humans find themselves left with just their own supplies and little of the trappings of civilisation, and since they have all chosen themselves, and as such haven’t been screened for any kind of suitability, they are of wide and differing backgrounds and social strata: so you have organisational and military types, criminals, pregnant girls, on-the-run murderers, medical and scientific specialists, cat owners, anarchists and a growing, exclusively female society, all having to deal with apparent comfortable imprisonment, and implied hidden alien captors, in their own ways.
However, their hosts are testing their human guests: with experimentation, the walls of the caves can be drawn upon, moulded or tunnelled through, and it is found that more chambers exist, each housing more volunteers. Each chamber’s occupants have been grouped together so all the principal English speakers are all together, as are all speakers of Spanish, or Arabic... which leads to historic enemies having to live closely together. The alien environment begins to produce food for the guests, and as people explore, they start to discover more about, and how they must learn to communicate with, their mysterious alien hosts...
“Cavalcade” has few in the way of new First Contact ideas to present, but did I find myself warming to, and being drawn by the interesting predicament the volunteer humans find themselves in, so I sort of liked and enjoyed it. Alison Sinclair’s style of writing doesn’t have an easy or appealing rhythm, and I assume that her Laptop has a Thesaurus Generator which is occasionally turned on as she writes - infrequently, what reading momentum has been built up is shattered as (I hope for her sake) without her knowing, her PC replaces a five word phrase with an obscure multi- syllabic word, forcing a hasty grope for the dictionary.
Also, having been abruptly dropped in the story at the beginning, 1 found the novel accelerating in pace as all sorts of things start to go pear-shaped on the ship, only to have everything all of a sudden go all right again in the space of one page and a postscript - so a swift and sketched-over finish too. Still, I’m a Fake Fan, so what do I know? Give “Cavalcade” a try if you fancy filling in the gaps yourself, pondering on a few new ideas and learning the occasional new word that you’ll never use again.

Reviewed by Malcolm Jefferies Feb-2000

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Nalini Singh

ANGEL’S BLOOD by Nalini Singh

This is one of Gollancz’s new line of erotic fantasy romances. Americans at the present have twin fascinations with vampires and angels.
ANGEL’S BLOOD manages to combine both.
Elena Deveraux is a vampire hunter. She doesn’t stake them but captures them and returns them to the angel that is their owner. In this world, there is a symbiosis between angel and vampire. Only angels can Make vampires. In return they serve a hundred year indenture to the angel, unless sold on. Angels are possessive and do not like their property running away.
Elena is hunter-born. She can scent and track her quarry and has gained a high reputation. As a result, when Raphael, the archangel of New York, needs a hunter, he demands her services. Her task is to hunt down the archangel of Eastern Europe who has gone rogue. Angels are not human: Raphael is powerful and arrogant but is fascinated by the human hunter who seems to have a death wish, refusing to be submissive in the presence of creatures that could crush the life out of her in an instant.
This would be enough to form the basis of a good supernatural thriller, but as the purpose of this line of books it titillation, the archangel Raphael is portrayed as an exceptionally beautiful specimen of maleness so every so often the action has to pause so that Elena has the opportunity to try and resist his sexual charms. Later, the novel becomes sexually explicit.
By preference I would have liked to see this as a second or third book in the series in order to understand better the work of the Hunter’s Guild and build Elena’s character before her meeting with Raphael. Also there is a sense of “stop the action, we haven’t had any sex for xxx pages”. The action and romance do not always dovetail neatly enough.

Reviewed by Pauline Morgan May-2010

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Angela Slatter

CORPSE LIGHT by Angela Slatter

CORPSE LIGHT Is the second of Angela Slatter’s Verity Fassbinder series and the first that I have read. The action takes place in and around Brisbane, often referred to as ‘Brisnyland’.
Verity is a halfbreed with a ‘Weryd’ father and a ‘Normal’ mother. She has gained no special powers from her father, apart from abnormal strength which is of no real use to her in this book as she is 8 months pregnant. However, despite this she is still required to solve problems (the less exciting ones) for the Weyrd Council. The case on which this book revolves around is an insurance claim. This sounds pretty harmless, but it is the third one in three months and for ‘Unusual Happenstance’. This covers all purpose hauntings, angry genii loci, ectoplasmic home invasion, etc and is not the sort of thing that a Normal would claim for. Despite the claimant’s house being inundated in mud she insists that she does not need or want help. Then just to keep Verity busy she is required to investigate a spate of dry land drownings, no connection to the mud problem, but what do you think!
Verity’s investigation leads her to Chinatown where she is confronted on a number of occasions by kitsune assassins. One 10
of these clashes sends Verity into premature labour. Fortunately, she is rescued by a mystery woman with a very sharp sword and extremely fast reflexes. You would think that giving birth and consequently having a very young daughter to look after would put an end to her investigating. Oh no, she has an overdeveloped sense of responsibility and continues on. Thank goodness that her partner is more than willing to step in and look after the child (and for breast pumps!). The above could sound a bit OTT and yucky, but it’s not, the storyline works. One thing in its favour is that it is not an all action romp, but a tale involving people defending their everyday lives.
There is a strong list of supporting characters mainly Weyrd but with a leavening of Normals. As with many books which are later in a series there are several references to previous activities, which Verity probably dealt with in the first book, VIGIL. Thankfully Angela Slatter’s storytelling is strong enough that these events do not confuse or frustrate the reader, in fact they add to the richness of the tale. While this book is good enough to be read as a stand-alone story, it is more than clear from the ending that there is another book to follow. This is RESTORATION due in 2018.
I quietly enjoyed this book and based on that I want to read both the first and the next in the series. For your information VIGIL was shortlisted for the Locus Best First Novel Award and in addition Angela Slatter is the award- winning author of eight short-story collections.

Reviewed by Jim Pearce Sep-2017

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VIGIL by Angela Slatter

Jo Fletcher books (an imprint of Quercus) is fast becoming the publisher to go to for high quality, award level genre fiction. So, team up multi-award winner author Angela Slatter with her first full length novel, and you have pure gold.
Verity Fassbinder has her feet in two worlds; daughter of a human and a Weyrd, she can walk in both worlds. Though she doesn't have much power herself, her ability to walk between worlds is a valuable asset. This lands her the job of keeping the peace between both races and ensuring the Weyrd stay hidden.
The Council of Five act as a sort of government for the Weyrd now living in this analogue city of Brisbane. Most of the Weyrd (often fleeing persecution) have arrived over in the past from whatever old country they came from and established themselves. Verity's ex- 'Bela' (full name of Zvezdomir 'Bela' Vlad Tepes (you may recognise the name)) turns up at Verity's door one eve, looking drop-dead gorgeous as usual, if a little bit goth. He's arrived in a distinctive purple taxi cab driven by Ziggi, her usual chauffeur (Verity was injured during her last job for Bela and now sports a limp hence the transport). Verity clambers into the car, complete with shrunken head Gris-Gris in the window, to find one of the Council of Five sitting there. Over twenty children have gone missing, some normal, some Weyrd, and the Council of Five and Bela, who is there as chief spy/cop/enforcer want to hire her to find out where the children have gone and who has taken them.
This is a solid Urban Fantasy set in an 'other' Brisbane where the Weyrd blend in as the homeless, the drunk, the disenfranchised and the alternative community. Angela Slatter's voice, though distinctively unique and hers, reminds me a little of Jim Butcher (Dresden Files) and Seanan McGuire (The Incryptid and October Daye books). Predominantly because Slatter combines high-octane, fast-paced action with PI Procedural, a whole host of wonderful creatures (not just bog standard vampires and werewolves), a cracking sense of humour and a deeper thread running through it. That thread? Racism, prejudice and treatment of other. Slatter isn't afraid to veer towards the issue of how 'other' is often treated and her cast of characters is wonderfully diverse. Add to this the ongoing tension between Bela and Verity (how can he really be her ex when she blooming well works with him?) and how this affects her, and you have a great addition to the genre, and one I predict will last the long haul.
A smashing book which kept me reading through the night, as in, couldn't put down! Splendidly written too.

Reviewed by Theresa Derwin Oct-2016

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Gavin Smith

THE BEAUTY OF DESTRUCTION by Gavin Smith

I almost did not finish reading this book; after 30 to 40 pages I thought that it was not for me, being too odd and confusing. Then I thought again, I had obtained the book from Carol as I had previously reviewed Gavin Smith’s first book VETERAN for the BRUM Group back in March 2011 and rather enjoyed it. So I decided that I had a responsibility to both Carol and Gollancz, who had kindly provided the book for review, and should persevere with it. That said I’m glad that I did as the more I read the more compelling and enjoyable it became.
THE BEAUTY OF DESTRUCTION follows three distinct strands. The first is set in ‘Ancient Britain’ actually the Iron Age pre-Roman invasion and describes the fight of a disparate group of warriors and ‘druids’ against the ‘Dark Man’, Crom Dhubh and his magically enslaved minions. The second describes apocalyptic action taking place ‘Now’ i.e. 20th/21st century and follows the fight by two humans augmented with alien technology (tech) against another dark man (Mr. Brown) and his augmented minions in an increasingly dystopian world being turned into a Lovecraftian nightmare. Thirdly, there is the also dystopian far-future strand entitled ‘A Long Time After The Loss’; presumably the Loss is that of Earth described in the ‘Now’ section. Not unexpectedly, there is also a ‘Dark Man’ in this strand, called the ‘Patron’. The story proceeds in cyclic tranches; strand 1, strand 2, strand 3 then back to 1 again. While it is still compelling there are some disjoints in the narrative, however these tend to be resolved as the story progresses. There is fast and furious violence throughout, but without this there would be no story. I am pleased to note that unlike some stories there is a definite ending to the three tales as the strands come together at the end of the book.
In THE BEAUTY OF DESTRUCTION Gavin Smith has demonstrated an exceptional and febrile imagination and talent and after a shaky start I thoroughly enjoyed this book and can recommend it to others. Jim Pearce

Reviewed by Apr-2016

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VETERAN by Gavin Smith

Violent from the start, but not excessively so, this is the author’s debut novel and is set approximately 250 years after the Final Human Conflict which is referred to throughout the book as FHC (the author regularly uses acronyms, one or two of which were unclear). It is a badly damaged world in which sea levels have significantly risen part drowning coastal cities and, in addition, there are some large radioactive areas. Some cities are completely controlled by criminal gangs.
The main character, Jakob Douglas, is a special services (augmented) veteran of the war against Them, the genocidal aliens locked in a 60-year-old conflict with humanity. He is forcibly reactivated by Major Rolleston, his former boss on Dog (Sirius) 4, whom he hates, to investigate and resolve a code eleven xenomorphic infiltration.
Tracking the injured and dying alien, Jakob finds out that it calls itself Ambassador and is possibly on a peace mission. Chased by Rolleston and his pet assassin extraordinaire, Josephine Bram, aka the Grey Lady, Jakob flees with a teenage hooker turned hacker.
During his travels he meets and teams up with a hacker trying to create God in the internet, a cyborg pirate king metamorphosed into a sea demon, and various special services veterans some of whom are old friends. On the way he learns that a friend who he last saw on Dog 4 is still alive and is a captive of Rolleston. The rescue mission takes him and his team to the bottom of the sea and the top of the sky, then beyond.
An interesting cameo is the battle and subsequent destruction of a space warship ‘Warchilde’ that bears a resemblance to that of ‘Thunderchilde’ in H G Wells’s WAR OF THE WORLDS.
This is an enjoyable SF tale featuring well developed and, yes, likable (but damaged) cast of characters and is highly recommended. The only downside, if it is one, is that the book does not resolve Jakob’s mission. It would be a shame if the author did not write a sequel, especially as Rolleston and the Grey Lady are still at large.

Reviewed by Jim Pearce Jun-2010

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Olaf Stapledon

STAR MAKER by Olaf Stapledon

With an introduction by Brian Aldiss and rave reviews by various literary luminaries, this book is considered to be one of the most influential works of SF ever written. William Olaf Stapledon (1886-1950) was a pacifist and philosopher whose first published work of fiction was Last and First Man, another seminal SF novel, although Stapledon never knew he was even writing SF.
Written in 1937 Star Maker is an astonishing work o f imagination: a man stands on a hill in England, looking at the stars, and then finds himself leaving his body and flying outwards from Earth through the cosmos. No explanation is given for this and none is needed; we don’t even know his name. Eventually he discovers alien life on another planet and comes to reside in the mind of one of them. When he leaves this world, several years later, he takes the mind with him on his travels, and so they go, linking with more minds and growing in power, until this huge force, maybe thousands strong, ranges up and down the whole o f space and time. The book flags a little here, as one set of strange aliens and their society is described and then another, and then another. Impressively inventive, yes, but get on with it already. Eventually, o f course, they decide to go and find the Creator and say hello. On the way, as the groupmind becomes ever more attuned, they discover that not only are the planets intelligent, but the stars, nebulae and even entire galaxies are sentient. Bloody hell. This is where Stapledon’s truly cosmic imagination goes into overdrive, and it’s easy to see how he has influenced so many other writers. I ’ll let you find out what happens when they finally confront the Star Maker and his works.
The wealth of ideas in this book is really too much to take in on one reading. I first came across it when I was quite young and found it pretty baffling. Not surprising really. Although limited by 1930s understanding of cosmology, it is still a remarkable work and well ahead of its time (at one point Stapledon describes interplanetary war where entire races are destroyed with atomic energy, and this was written years before the Manhattan Project). Even today it is still up there with the best. Highly recommended.

Reviewed by Tony Berry Apr-2000

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Brian Staveley

THE PROVIDENCE OF FIRE by Brian Staveley

This is the second book in Brian Staveley’s excellent Chronicle of the Unhewn Throne. In October 2014 I had the pleasure of reviewing THE EMPEROR’S BLADES the first book in this series (see Brum Group News Issue 518). In my review I stated that “In this his first published book Brian Staveley has proved that he is already a master of his craft so much so that this is one of the best books I have read this year.” THE PROVIDENCE OF FIRE confirms my opinion of the quality of his storytelling and leads me to favourably compare him to Robert Jordan and his seminal Wheel of Time series. Although, as I understand from information available to me when writing my 2014 review, there are to be three volumes in this chronicle there should be little chance of reader fatigue when the story concludes in the next volume.
In THE PROVIDENCE OF FIRE the story continues seamlessly from where THE EMPEROR’S BLADES concluded; following each of the Emperor’s Blades’ i.e. his two sons and daughter as they each in their own way fight to find out why he was murdered leaving his empire in turmoil. Kaden, the reluctant heir tries to find aid firstly with a group of warrior monks and then from the Empire’s nobles but only to find damaged fanatics and weak querulous reeds. The warrior second son, Valyn is harried across the windswept steppes beyond the Empire’s northern boundary where he is captured by the nomadic Urghul and their blood-mad leader. Meanwhile the Emperor’s daughter Adare first of all flees the Empire’s capital city and his murderer to gain an army with which she hopes to bring the murderer to justice.
As in the previous volume Brian Staveley has created a well-crafted situation populated by realistic characters both ‘good’ and ‘evil’ introducing some intriguing new characters creating surprising allies. In these he shows that in some instances ‘evil’ may have at least temporarily a ‘good’ objective. But can their help be trusted as the providers certainly have their own agendas? Ominously the gods are stirring. Again progress is a struggle for the siblings, there being many twists and turns in their tales.
As with THE EMPEROR’S BLADES Brian has created a masterful and rich tapestry blending the action into a compelling story, which as I previously stated is the type I like best. I look forward to the follow-up and expect that it will be as equally enjoyable as the previous two books in the series

Reviewed by Jim Pearce Feb-2015

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Theodore Sturgeon

THE DREAMING JEWELS by Theodore Sturgeon

Theodore Sturgeon was one of the star authors of the so-called “ Golden Age “ of the forties and fifties, although he often wrote on controversial themes, such as homosexuality for example, and this tended to prevent his work from being as widely accepted at the time as it deserved. Nevertheless, some of it bears comparison with the greatest. Unfortunately, the selection of The Dreaming Jewels from among his handful of novels for inclusion in Gollancz’s “ Sf Collector’s” Series was not a good choice. I had never read it before, although I was familiar with a fair amount of his other work. I was now disappointed, to say the least.
The story is that of a boy, Horty, who has been affected as a child by the eponymous jewels, an alien lifeform apparently common on Earth but generally unrecognised. He runs away from his adoptive home and joins a travelling freak show where he unknowingly comes into contact with an adult who has discovered the jewels and would use their powers, and Horty, for his own wicked ends. Horty escapes, learns about himself and the jewels and with some help from his former freak friends kills the bad guy and exacts revenge for his cruel upbringing.
So far, so good - this has the potential to be a nice little coming-of-age story with an s f element in the form of contact with aliens. Unfortunately, there is no explanation of the Dreaming Jewels - neither their origin, their nature nor even their purpose - they are merely a device introduced to allow the construction of a story about psi powers. Moreover, it is carelessly plotted and casually written, with lame characters and ill-described scenes and events. Sturgeon did much better than this with similar basic themes and I cannot recommend this as an example o f what he was capable of.

Reviewed by Michael Jones Dec-2000

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Tricia Sullivan

OCCUPY ME by Tricia Sullivan

Tricia Sullivan is an Arthur C. Clarke Award-winning author. Unlike some awards that are decided by popular vote, this one choses the winner by a panel of peers, reviewers and enthusiasts, people who know something about good writing. They don’t only look for books that are well written, they also want to find books that push at the boundaries of Science Fiction. Any genre that does not do this either stagnates or dies; the western is a thing of the past and the traditional romance is predictable. To keep a genre vibrant, authors need to work at the cutting edge. That doesn’t mean that everyone will like or understand what they do.
To encapsulate the plot will make it sound mundane. This book is anything but. It begins with an appendix to the instructions for an HD waveform launcher. Instantly, the reader is wrong-footed because it is unclear what this device is though it turns out to be integral to everything else that happens. Don’t, however, expect clear explanations. Writing in the second person is rare though some novelists have done so to great effect. Sullivan uses it to good effect when Kisi Sorle is the viewpoint character. He is an orthopaedic surgeon who has been persuaded to care for the very wealthy Austin Stevens during his dying days. He is hoping the remuneration will enable him to build clinics in his home country of Kuè. Except that his body has been hijacked. There are spaces in his memory when another persona takes control. So he doesn’t know where the briefcase that he suddenly finds in his possession comes from.
First person passages are from the point of view of Pearl. Her first recollection of arriving on Earth is the inside of a derelict fridge. She, though, is an angel. Well she has wings which are mostly not in this dimension. Pearl is not what most people would expect an angel to be like. She becomes part of the Resistance. What they are resisting is entropy and they do it with small kindnesses. A brush of her invisible feathers can soothe, which makes her an ideal air steward. Except for the time when Kisi is on her flight and she recognises his briefcase as hers. There are also third person passages. And a pteranadon.
Confused? Don’t despair. The central plot concerns the briefcase, what it is, what it does, who owns it and who can open it. There is also an element of corporate greed.
This is the kind of book that will cause many readers to give up but it is well worth persevering with. It doesn’t quite matter if you don’t understand everything, it is more a case of following the drift. This is a book for the discerning reader who likes a challenge. Pauline Morgan

Reviewed by Aug-2016

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David A Sutton

DEAD WATER And Other Weird Tales by David A Sutton

David Sutton may be a local author but he has an impressive pedigree as a writer and editor (one I must admit that I was not aware of until I read this book). Based on these stories I have been missing some very accomplished storytelling. David Sutton is the recipient of the World Fantasy Award, the International Horror Guild Award and twelve British Fantasy Awards. He has been writing since the 1960’s and also owns the small press company, Shadow Publishing.
This collection contains eighteen stories dating from 1976 to 2015, including two completely new stories. The stories display an impressive imagination and vary extensively in theme although all contain some element of the fantastical or weird. This is a very strong collection and although some of the stories are horrific they are usually subtle and build tension very effectively. Refreshingly they also do not rely upon nasty things happening to young women (or men for that matter) which is one of my pet aversions. Unusually I don’t think I could name one story that I didn’t feel of some merit.
With eighteen stories I can only describe some of my favourites to give you a flavour of the book. The first story in the book, “The Fisherman” is set in a remote Welsh village and revolves around the mysterious disappearance of a fisherman’s wife and what he might be obsessively fishing for in the remote bay at night. The author’s use of metaphor and vocabulary is lovely; short but precise and has a Bradbury-esque feel to it at times.
“Mind-Forged Manacles” is a science fiction story set in a future Australia and the confrontation between a “polluter” - an aboriginal woman protecting a nature reserve, and the company man sent to clear her land for industrial exploitation. This story is multi-layered with physical and ideological conflicts between the protagonists which leaves you thinking even after the conclusion.
On a lighter note, there is also “Innsmouth Gold” which is an homage to H P Lovecraft’s Cthulhu stories. Whilst the story of an adventurer after bootleggers’ gold who discovers the macabre inhabitants of the abandoned town works well without an awareness of Lovecraft, the little “Easter eggs” for those readers familiar with his work add to the fun of this eerie story.
Finally, there is the eponymous “Dead Water” which is set in the salt marshes of the Camargue in France. It concerns two bird watchers who get lost at dusk amid the narrow causeways and salt pools and stray into a prohibited area, much to their regret. The story starts with a light tone and gradually very effectively builds menace.
This is my favourite anthology for quite some time and I would emphatically recommend it if you like speculative fiction.

Reviewed by Carol Goodwin May-2015

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Steph Swainston

ABOVE THE SNOWLINE by Steph Swainston

This is Swainston's fourth novel and is a prequel to the previous trilogy. It is set around a century before the start of her first novel. It is still a first person narrative but it is now split between multiple narrators instead of the same one throughout. This manages to give a stronger sense of the different characters than she had managed previously although her usual voice, Jant, is still by far the strongest. This also helps to cover the fact that there seems to be a lot less going on this time around
The story begins with the death of a Rhydanne hunter at the hands of a farmer. The farmer is only protecting his stock but that is not how the Rhydanne see it. There are no farmers in their territories and the concept is alien to them. So Dellin, the dead hunter's partner, takes the matter to ‘the silver man’ (the emperor) who assigns Jant, his messenger, to negotiate with the new force that has arrived in their lands. The story expands to include political intrigue, an attempted coup, guerilla warfare and even a love story. There are complicated relationships, commercial negotiations and a suicide. All of these plot lines are built up slowly and any more detail than this could be taken as spoiling the plot. Even some of the things I have mentioned, aren't fully realised until very late on.
The writing is up to Swainston's usual, fairly high, standard and adds some depth to one or two of the regular characters. There are a few times where the background could do with more explanation for new readers but, since this was issued at the same time as the omnibus of the previous trilogy, that probably isn't an issue.
The thing most likely to put off fantasy/science fiction readers is that there is nothing new to the background. In fact, the SF/Fantasy elements here are all but irrelevant. Change a few details here and there and you could have an historical novel or something very like it. The series' regular genre ingredients are all but absent. The insect war is mentioned once but plays no part. There is a little more about the nature of the immortals but nothing that hasn't been in the previous books. This is still a very good book but not the place to start and the one least likely to appeal to the SF reader.

Reviewed by William McCabe May-2010

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NO PRESENT LIKE TIME by Steph Swainston

It's unusual that a sequel or second part of a trilogy will improve on the first book. This is no exception. The things that were different and innovative in book one are just a little older here. Many of the characters and settings are the same. Things that were explained in book one aren't gone over again. This saves time but it means the book doesn't hold up so well if you haven’t read the earlier volume. The biggest problem is that there isn't anything new here that lives up to the first book. All of the best ideas here were done better in book one. All that's really new here are a couple of points of plot that look like a set-up for something in the next book.
Once again, our focus is on Jant, the immortal messenger of the Circle and the only man on his world that can fly. Now the war with the insects is over, life returns to normal. Competition for a place among the immortals returns. This results in the defeat of the swordsman Gio, but he will not take his defeat gracefully. He raises an army and attacks the Circle. Meanwhile, Jant is sent with a ship to start up relations with a newly-discovered island 3 months distant. On his failure and return, the failed rebellion takes to the sea in the hope that they can take this new island for themselves.
Although the book is well-enough written and a fair story, so much of this reflects back to the earlier story (THE YEAR OF OUR WAR) that it loses in comparison. Plot points like Jant's addiction and the resolution to the story are so close to the original that I wonder if it was worth doing again. Maybe it's just the filler in the middle of a trilogy.

Reviewed by William McCabe Apr-2005

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E J Swift

TAMARUQ (The Osiris Project 3) by E J Swift

TAMARUQ is the third book in The Osiris Project trilogy. As this is the third book in a series, some description of the preceding two books is necessary although it is always difficult to try and do this without giving away too much to those who have not read them.
In the first novel, OSIRIS we were introduced to the sea city of Osiris. Osiris was built as a technological showcase and a living place for the elite. However then there was a devastating war and the refugees fled to Osiris and now the city is brutally divided into the opulent East, where the original settlers live and the poverty stricken West where the refugees have been permanently quarantined for decades, with only a few “uplifts” ever able to cross over to the East. The Osirians believe they are the only humans left alive. Continental land is thought un-inhabitable after being scourged by bio-engineered diseases and the sea is un-navigable because of immense hyperstorms. Adelaide Rechnov, spoilt granddaughter of one of the founders and Vikram Bai, from the slums of the West both become advocates for change but the fledgling rebellion ends in disaster.
In the second book, CATAVEIRO we learn more about the fate of the rest of the world and the after-effects of the war. A boat from Osiris is ship-wrecked on the South American coast with only a single survivor. This arrival disrupts the fragile détente between the surviving regimes and the survivor becomes a pawn that everyone has an interest in controlling. Osiris is not alone and in this book we uncover some of the reasons why Osiris had remained isolated and out of communication.
In this third book TAMARUQ Osiris is revealed to all the world and various continental powers compete for control of its resources. However it is the returning shipwrecked refugee and the secrets uncovered by a Patagonian pilot, Ramona that hold the key to saving both Osiris and the rest of the world.
E J Swift is a relatively new writer. Her previous work, before this trilogy, was short fiction (published in Interzone magazine and anthologies from Jurassic London and NewCon Press). Her short story “Saga’s Children” was shortlisted for a BSFA Award. What E J Swift does very well in these books is establish a well-thought out and believable world and the effects on the people who live there seems realistic. The closed, small world of Osiris is contrasted very well with the vast, lonely continent of South America.
Although I enjoyed this third book, in attempting to re-connect these two contrasting scenarios, it felt like there were too many story strands and some did not get the attention that I felt they deserved. My favourite of the trilogy was the first as I found the complex society of Osiris and the characters more appealing and was less engaged when they were not the only focus. That being said, this is a very ambitious and well-written SF trilogy by a talented writer who I would happily read more of.

Reviewed by Carol Goodwin Jul-2015

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Adrian Tchaikovsky

A TIME FOR GRIEF (Tales of the Apt 2) by Adrian Tchaikovsky

This is the second companion volume of short stories set in the world of the kinden; humans who possess aspects or abilities related to a particular arthropod. As well as these abilities, much thought has clearly gone into other aspects of the structure of the world. Like a real world, there are people with different physiologies and cultures which provide a rich foundation for diverse characters and conflicts. All of this I think gives it a unique flexibility for expansion and variety when writing further works within the setting.
The first collection focused on stories set mainly before the events in his novels (the Shadows of the Apt series), specifically the twelve-year invasion of the lands of the Dragonfly Commonweal. In this collection, the stories are set later, in the peace that followed – although peace is a relative term and certainly does not necessarily equate to prosperity or contentment for many. Indeed, a lot of the stories deal with the ongoing consequences and effects of that war on individuals. The move to a later time period does mean however that if people have not read the novels there are a few “spoilers” although with the exception of one story, “A Time for Grief” these are minor and the stories stand on their own for any reader who has not read the novels.
As in the previous volume, the tone and themes are varied, unlike many collections which become too similar. There are studies of ordinary characters who may be heroic but are also human with many faults and impure motives. One example is the first story “Loyalties”, where an exiled and rejected ant-kinden, Balkus finds he is a better man than he realises when he wrestles with the possibility and consequences of revenge. In a similar vein, but a very different story (“The Last Ironclad”) sees a once valued and proud warrior brought low by obsolescence and defeat finally regain pride and purpose when his back is to the wall. Both show the author’s ability to write flawed but relatable characters. Another favourite “Queen of the Night” is completely different in style. This starts off as a very funny story of an amateur dramatic group producing a rediscovered uncut version of a famous opera, but shifts well into a re-awakening of something darker from the past. As hinted at in the title, the parallels with Mozart’s THE MAGIC FLUTE are intentional and add to the amusement. The author rings the changes again in a couple of other stories (“The Naturalist” and “Bones”) that both look at the pragmatic and ruthless spider-kinden and their willingness to suppress knowledge for their perception of the greater good. Here the protagonists are not heroic or even sympathetic but they are believable and intriguing. Although I have listed some favourites, I did not find one story without something to enjoy. The prose is precise and effective, so that the characters and scenes are very effectively established within the tight word limits of a short story. The author is also a true storyteller, with proper plotting and structure to the stories. As before I find these tales reminiscent of David Gemmell, with credible and three-dimensional characters with both faults and virtues. Highly recommended.

Reviewed by Carol Goodwin Jun-2017

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CHILDREN OF TIME by Adrian Tchaikovsky

For those of you who are unfamiliar with his work, Adrian Tchaikovsky has written, amongst other things the well- regarded 10-volume Shadows of the Apt series which is a fantasy where different races of people have the aspects/abilities of real insects. His new book CHILDREN OF TIME is Science Fiction but the author’s fascination with arthropods clearly was the inspiration behind this story as well.
Two thousand years after human civilisation tore itself apart in civil war, the ark ship Gilgamesh and its cargo of hibernating humans is desperately trying to find a new home. Earth is poisoned, damaged and dying. Patched together from bits and pieces of salvaged old technology that present humanity cannot replicate, the ship is heading for Kern’s World. This planet was terraformed and seeded with life in the final days of the old civilisation. What they do not know is that the Kern’s World project was also an attempt at species uplift. The world has been seeded with a nanovirus which was designed to accelerate the evolution of intelligence in the offspring of infected individuals. The original aim had been to work with monkeys but in the chaos of the civil war, the launch was sabotaged and only the virus is safely deployed. On the planet the virus infects the available fauna. In particular, the hunting spider, Portia labiata has the mental capacity and flexible behaviour that allows the virus to work most effectively.
The story then alternates between the humans on the failing ship and the developing spider civilisation as both species head towards a confrontation which will decide which of the “Children of Earth” will inherit this new world. The story rattles along at a good place and kept my interest all the way through.
I enjoyed this book immensely. The spiders are well devised so that although they are clearly “alien” (ie not human) they are still sympathetic. I particularly liked that their approach to problems and their technology is clearly influenced by their non-human biology so it is different to humans. The author has succeeded admirably in a difficult task of making what many people see as scary into something fascinating instead. It is very refreshing to see them not just as the monster in a story. The story of their progression reminded me of an old favourite of mine, John Brunner’s THE CRUCIBLE OF TIME in which an alien race evolves from primitives into starfarers.
The other main strand of the story, of the humans confined to the decaying spaceship is also well written, as we see them divide into factions as their resources dwindle and the technology fails. As with the spiders, they are interesting as characters and the plot feels credible. The author cleverly shows the similarities and differences between the two species so that towards the end I found myself wanting both species to “win” even as they head towards an inevitable confrontation. Unless you are an arachnophobe, I would definitely recommend this book.

Reviewed by Carol Goodwin Nov-2015

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SPOILS OF WAR by Adrian Tchaikovsky

Every reader has their favourite authors and Adrian Tchaikovsky is one of mine. He recently won this year’s Clarke Award for his SF novel, THE CHILDREN OF TIME. Before that though, he is most well-known for his 10-volume Shadows of the Apt fantasy series,
This collection of short stories is a companion (using the same background) to that series. For those unfamiliar with his work, in the original series the world is populated by different races of humans, called kinden who have aspects/abilities based on a particular insect; Wasp-kinden can “sting”, Fly-kinden are small but can fly rapidly etc. It is set in a time when the Apt, those able to think scientifically and use machines are in the ascendant against the more traditional rulers, the Inapt who have more mystical abilities. In particular, the militaristic Wasp Empire is on a campaign of invasion and conquest.
In this first volume of Tales of the Apt, the stories focus on the experiences of individuals set mainly against the backdrop of one of the major events of the novels, the twelve-year invasion and conquest of the Dragonfly Commonweal by the Wasp Empire. Whilst having read the novels adds some extra background, the stories work well as stand-alone pieces and the only thing the new reader really needs to understand is the central concept of the different kinden races.
Not all successful novel writers have the ability to write good short stories, but here the author demonstrates that he excels in both fields. The stories feature a range of characters, ranging from rich to poor, the noble of heart to the self-centred and amoral yet all feel real and complex. The characterisation is exceptional and there is always some aspect of a character that the reader sympathises or identifies with whatever their faults in a way that reminds me very much of David Gemmell. Adrian Tchaikovsky also avoids the trap of too many collections/anthologies in that the stories here are varied both in tone and theme, from dark through to wry humour. For example, in “Ironclads” we see elite soldier Sergeant Varmen’s heroic defence of his crashed aircrew and of the growth of respect between enemies whereas in “Camouflage” the story is of Cari, one of the Pioneers, the lowest group in the Wasp army, who perform all the dishonourable, despised but necessary tasks of war. Doubly isolated by her job and her disfigured, ugly appearance, her patient and delayed vengeance earn her the admiration of the lieutenant who narrates the tale. In another change of tone, I thoroughly enjoyed “An Old Man in A Harsh Season” which reads very much like a Spaghetti Western, where an old warrior is challenged to a duel but is aided by an unlikely group of allies all for their own selfish reasons. All in all, a very entertaining and unusual collection which I thoroughly recommend.

Reviewed by Carol Goodwin Oct-2016

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THE BEAR AND THE SERPENT (Echoes of the Fall 2) by Adrian Tchaikovsky

In the first novel in this series THE TIGER AND THE WOLF we were introduced to a world where individual tribes could “shift” into the shape of their totemic animal. That story concentrated on Maniye, a young girl with dual heritage and her struggle to reconcile the warring animal spirits (tiger and wolf) within her and also to escape from the political ambitions of her wolf father and tiger mother.
In this second novel, Maniye and a group of other misfits from the tribes travel back to the lands of the River Lords, to help Asmander support his friend, Tecuman’s bid for the throne against his sister, Tecumet.
There are two main plot strands in this novel. The first is the battle for control of the throne between the twins. Normally the priests of the snake clan would determine the succession, but the priests are also split into factions. The second thread stays with events in the North, where Loud Thunder (from the Bear tribe) cajoles and manipulates the bickering tribes into forming a common army against strange invaders. These have a mysterious ability to strip the human spirit from people, leaving them trapped as unreasoning animals. These invaders are an enemy from the past, one which the people of this continent clearly fled from many years ago.
As I expect in an Adrian Tchaikovsky book, both the characters and the unfolding plot keep the reader engaged and absorbed. His combat sections are also again excellent. The tactical advantages and adaptations to fighting style for differing “shifting” abilities are well-thought out and integrated into the action. There is necessarily a wider focus in this sequel and the different, more advanced civilisation of the River Lords, which is explored in more detail, is a fascinating contrast to the Northern tribes. That said, I preferred the sections dealing with Loud Thunder. This is probably as his character has a lot of emotional development. I enjoyed seeing his doubt in his abilities and yet how he still brings the tribes together through thoughtfulness, consulting others and forming alliances, not just with brute strength. Depth of characterisation is one of this author’s great gifts and we see it also in other characters such as Maniye, who grows in confidence and ability and with Asmander who must deal with his internal conflicts about the changing relationships with his father and his two childhood friends, the rival claimants to the throne. Another aspect of this is that people are never just ‘black or white’ heroes or villains. “Good” characters sometimes do nasty things, allies may be dangerous and even the “villains” may not necessarily see themselves as wicked, although the invaders’ motivations and origins are still to be fully explored in the third volume. While the series can be enjoyed without having read his previous Shadows of the Apt series, those who have will start to see little hints and links back to that series, which add to the experience. Once again, an intelligent, entertaining book with depth.

Reviewed by Carol Goodwin May-2017

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THE TIGER AND THE WOLF (Echoes of the Fall 1) by Adrian Tchaikovsky

For someone who is so prolific, producing thirteen novels and numerous short stories in around 8 years, Adrian Tchaikovsky is never content to rest on his laurels. Whenever I read an Adrian Tchaikovsky book I know that I am going to find something unique that is never just a clone of a popular trend.
However, when I read the blurb for this, his latest novel and that it was about a tribe of wolf shapeshifters I was momentarily worried. Shapeshifters, particularly wolves have become a popular and in my opinion, over-used trope, particularly in the romantic end of the urban fantasy genre. Thankfully that is not what this novel is about and I found something which, true to his record, was extremely enjoyable.
In the world of this novel, clans have a totemic animal whose shape they can assume and whose spirit they attempt to emulate and please. Maniye is the daughter of a Wolf clan chieftain, but she is an outsider in her tribe and tolerated purely as a pawn in the political ambitions of her father. She also hides the secret that due to her unique heritage, she can take on both wolf and tiger shapes. Refusing to follow her father’s plans, she escapes with the help of a prisoner, the snake priest, Hesprec. Pursued by her tribe and also fighting the tiger and wolf parts of her which vie for dominance, she must try and find her place in the world and freedom from her father.
One of the major strengths of this book is in the characters. Nobody does everything right and even with the antagonistic characters, such as Maniye’s father, Akrit, the reader sees the credible emotions and motivations which have led him to his present position, whilst still disagreeing with them. As with his other novels, the author’s love of biology is used to inform the animal side of the characters. Although a fantasy, the integration of animal and human abilities and behaviours feels natural and credible.
Another thing that has clearly had a lot of thought behind it is the fighting sequences, and the way in which characters rapidly switch or “step” between their different forms for tactical advantage.
I also liked that as previously mentioned, the author avoids a lot of clichés. There is no great romance or complete ‘happy ever after’ ending, even though there is a satisfactory resolution to the book. The story has excellent pacing and succeeds admirably in the tricky task of combining emotional depth with an exciting action-packed plot. Thoroughly recommended, even to those of you who are normally allergic to most fantasy!

Reviewed by Carol Goodwin Apr-2016

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Douglas Thompson

THE RHYMER: AN HEREDYSSEY by Douglas Thompson

I am in favour of writers taking risks and trying experiments with their writing. One of the best is Stephen Hall’s THE RAW SHARK TEXTS in which he plays with words and concepts as well as presentation. It is a delightful book. It is also good that there are publishers that are willing to take the risk and publish experimental work. Douglas Thompson’s THE RHYMER is an experimental work.
There is a folk tale of a Thomas Learmont in the thirteenth century who was taken away by the Queen of the Fairies. Though he stayed in her realm for seven years, no time has passed in the real world. When he returns, he is given the gift of prophecy but can only deliver his predictions in rhyme. This is the story that forms the basis of this novel and many of the elements that are featured in ballads written about Thomas’s adventures are woven into this text. The cover, and the incidental images at the start of each section make it clear that the narrator’s journey is a mental one with the trappings of reality.
The novel opens with the narrator, having travelled on foot for some time, finding a deer on the road that has been recently killed by a car. He carries into the centre of the next town along the road and lays it at the foot of a war memorial. In a nearby pub he meets Weasel, the first of characters that recur in various sections. Weasel calls the narrator Nadith and says he has a brother, Zenir, a successful artist who passed through the town a few weeks ago. Thus, begins the narrator’s journey as he attempts to catch up with his brother, only to find him moving ahead of him each time he thinks they are about to meet. In each place, their names, appearances and histories are slightly different. Nadith claims to wear a different face in each place he passes through. Only slowly are the clues given as to the true nature of the whole situation, some of which relates to the device he has taped to his chest.
The novel itself has a surreal quality to it and will not be to everyone’s taste. My issues are more with the style rather than the concept woven within the text. Dialogue is produced only as italics and without the accepted punctuation. The result is long paragraphs and pages exhibiting the denseness of a text book. It is an uninviting format. In keeping with the theme of Thomas the Rhymer, there are a lot of rhymes within the text. This is not poetry – far from it – but at times the technique becomes overwhelming and annoying. I would have preferred it if the style had been kept for the narrator’s speech and that of other characters to have been contrastingly normal. The plethora of, often nonsensical, rhymes gets in the way of the story and inhibits character development.
The structure of the novel itself is problematical. While some of the effects, and the understanding the reader ultimately has of the shape and reason for the pattern of Thompson’s story, there are opportunities missed. The illustrations indicate a journey through the various cognitive and reflexive parts of the brain, something that would be difficult to put in the narrative as Nadith is unaware of the structure. He visits regions known as Suburbia, Industria, Oceania, Sylvia, and Urbis in turn though the diagrams don’t have the regions next to each other as he passes across the borders. The parts of the brain have different functions and although there are differences in the landscapes, it would have been nice to have these correlating with those of the brain. If the author intended there to be a relationship, it is not obvious to the reader.
While there will be readers who appreciate this book more than I do, I still applaud Thompson for trying something new, and the publisher for taking a chance with it.

Reviewed by Pauline Morgan Mar-2017

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Lavie Tidhar

A MAN LIES DREAMING by Lavie Tidhar

When a book is nominated for an award, it is worth looking at, even if only to find out why others think it is exceptional. Admittedly, no-one will ever agree what is the best book of the year. This is as it should be, since if we all liked the same thing, life would become boring as there would be no dissention, no discussions and no debates and however a prize winner is decided, there will always be the voices that declare the wrong decision has been made. So, what has made this book float to the surface for consideration for a 2015 BFS award?
The start of the novel encapsulates the seedy PI scenario beloved of US crime writers of pulp fiction, such as Dashiell Hammett. This down at heel investigator lives in London in 1939. It soon becomes clear that this is an alternative 1939. Hitler did not become the chancellor of Germany and we are not on the verge of World War II. In fact, Communist Russia has invaded Germany and the fascists have joined the Jews in Exodus, many ending up in England. This PI goes by the name of Wolf, but it is soon clear that the once potential dictator has sunk to following adulterous husbands and finding missing people. Then a hated (by him) Jewish woman turns up willing to pay over the odds for him to find her sister. People smuggling is not a new phenomenon. Jewish families paid large sums to be smuggled out of Germany as the Communists despise them as much as the Fascists do.
If this was just a novel about Wolf’s investigation, then it would merely be a well-paced action thriller. It isn’t. There is much more to it.
Many of us, at some time or another have created stories in our heads. Children do it all the time in play. Many grow out of it as work and responsibility take over. Authors don’t. Only by imagining what characters are doing and how they will react in particular situations can the story take shape. Scenes are plotted mentally, long before they appear on the page.
In the 1939 more familiar to the reader from history books or TV documentaries, Shomer is incarcerated in a Concentration Camp. Before this he had been the writer of pulp detective stories, now he is just another Jew. At night, when others sleep, he creates stories in his head. In one, Hitler didn’t rise to power but fled to London along with his henchmen. Familiar names such as Hess, Goebbels and Goering lurk in this new society which is watching the rise of Oswald Moseley, the potential next Prime Minister. It is elements like this that remind the reader of the works of Philip K. Dick, especially THE MAN IN THE HIGH CASTLE, where in an alternative world scenario, the Nazis overran the world and an author is writing a story in which Hitler was defeated.
To call this a delightful book, would do it a disservice. None of Shomer’s imagined characters are likeable. He has all kinds of misfortunes befall them, especially Wolf. At the start, a reader might wonder why these men who tried to exterminate Jews, have been given a relatively easy exile compared to the life which Shomer and his fellows are experiencing. Shomer, though, has a very devious fate awaiting Wolf. What is totally unnecessary, though, are the end notes which make the book appear to be a primer for school children.
This is a book that fully deserves to be on an awards shortlist.

Reviewed by Pauline Morgan Oct-2015

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G X Todd

DEFENDER by G X Todd

DEFENDER is set in a post-apocalyptic America which will be familiar to any reader of this type of novel. Anyone who is acquainted with Stephen King’s THE STAND, THE WALKING DEAD or the FALLOUT computer games will recognise the setting. Where it does differ is in the reason for the collapse of society. In this novel, it began when people suddenly started hearing voices in their head. In many cases, the voices persuaded them into acts of violence – to others or against themselves. Now some years later, society has collapsed and the population has been decimated.
The story starts with a meeting between the two main protagonists, Lacey and Pilgrim. Lacey is a teenager who has been living a sheltered life in an isolated farmhouse, protected by her grandmother. Now that her grandmother has died, she needs to move and try to contact her older sister and young niece. When Pilgrim, an older drifter passes by the farmhouse, she persuades him to escort her to Vicksburg where her relatives lived. Pilgrim has a traumatic past, large parts of which he does not remember in detail and also has a Voice companion, although in his case the voice seems to be benign. As they travel, they fall foul of an organised group of misogynistic and brutal thugs who are collecting anyone who hears a voice on behalf of the mysterious Flitting Man.
This is the debut novel by a local author and is competently written and readable, although in my opinion it does not quite live up to the high praise on the cover (from John Connolly and Lee Child). I also found it a little strange that a UK author would choose such a US setting. That being said, I enjoyed the story enough that I would be willing to read the sequel and hope that the story will develop into something more individual and unique. There are enough allusions and foreshadowing to hint at a larger story to be uncovered in the next volumes (this is the first in a four-part series) whilst still coming to a definite conclusion at the end of this volume. The nature and origin of the voices is not revealed (presumably this will be in later volumes) so it is still not clear whether they will have a SF or Fantasy based origin. From my personal point of view, I hope it is not a supernatural one as this would make it too similar to THE STAND etc. Worth a try if you like post-apocalyptic fiction.

Reviewed by Carol Goodwin Jan-2017

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Tom Toner

THE PROMISE OF THE CHILD by Tom Toner

I suspect the reception for this novel will be very clearly split into two camps – those who love it and those who hate it. It is a space opera set in 14,647 AD. Humans have spread across the galaxy, now occupying a 1300 light year diameter sector. They have never found any sentient aliens. Instead humanity is now divided (or “prismed”) into various sub-species with different adaptations. At the apex of power are the Amaranthine “Immortals”, kept alive and un-aging by some kind of drug/medical development. Their Emperor is the oldest of them who is still sane and their extended lives have allowed them to develop significant mental powers such as teleportation etc.
The story is told mainly from the viewpoint of three different characters. Firstly, Lycaste, a beautiful young man who has inherited a rich estate and lives a bored and unfocused life until an unintended crime forces him to go on the run. Secondly, there is Sotiris, a high status immortal who becomes involved in complicated politics (by someone called Aaron Long-Life) to replace the present Emperor. Finally, there is Corphuso, an inventor who has designed a mysterious, powerful device called the “Shell” or “Soul Engine”. This machine and its hapless inventor are fought over and passed between different factions.
However just extracting this much sense from the story takes a lot of effort and it takes a long time before the three strands start to come together and we finally begin to see the connections. The author has a good vocabulary and there is some excellent prose. However, the pace is almost glacial with a lot of dwelling on small scenes which do not always appear relevant to the plot development. While some will love this slow unravelling, others will find it exasperating and often perplexing (and I tend to fall into the latter camp as I prefer more structure and energy in the fiction I enjoy). Also I personally found the characters lacking in emotional depth and it was difficult to really care what happened to them. For a SF novel it is also very light on actual scientific detail and it felt like something which will appeal to those who appreciate style over action and emotional involvement. The author is clearly talented but this book takes significant time and effort to read and will not be to a majority of people’s taste.

Reviewed by Carol Goodwin Dec-2015

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Harry Turtledove

HOMEWARD BOUND by Harry Turtledove

Has anyone else in the group read this one yet? I bought the American hardcover edition from Amazon, but then I’m a fan of Turtledove’s various alternate-world series. Oh yes, he pads them out unashamedly and every time he finishes three in a row he changes the title and starts a new – but continuous – trilogy. So this is actually the eighth book in the ‘Worldwar’ sequence, if you’ve been following it, in which those uppity Earthmen manage to go from V2 to STL interstellar travel in about sixty years, and then spring an even bigger surprise on the poor, dumb alien Lizards – though we see it coming about 100 pages before they do.
I think this is the weakest in the set, mainly because it has moved a long way from all those fascinating juxtapositions of the earlier books. There’s little action, endless talking, and the Lizard’s planet isn’t a very interesting place.
Despite the cover blurb on the paperback I doubt if this is really the “enthralling climax” to the series; the last chapter is left completely open. A tip for new readers - the title “Homeward Bound” is a play on words - the human spaceship is bound for the ‘Home’ world of the alien Empire! Peter Weston

Reviewed by Dec-2005

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WALK IN HELL by Harry Turtledove

In this the second book in the Great War series Harry Turtledove has continued his excellent alternate history of the First World War. In the first book ‘American Front’ the stage is set as a divided America, (read How Few Remain) with the Union and the Confederacy still at odds with each other, are drawn into the fighting between Germany and the Allies in Europe.
With the Union on the German side and the Confederacy supporting the French and British cause, North America is set to fight the civil war all over again.
With British help the Confederacy has managed to stave of a naval blockade by the Union forces and stalemated the Unionist push to recapture the Confederate South and so bring to a conclusion a long and painful history of a nation divided. The South has a sad lack of manufacturing facilities while the heavy industries of the North can out produce the South at every turn. However the North is fighting on two fronts with the British in Canada threatening to invade and head south as well as the dash and elan of the Southern troops. Throw into this melting pot the internal war against the Mormons in Utah for the North and the Slave uprising under the Communist banner in the South and the outcome is as the First World War became a bloody killing ground. With the advent of mechanisation the means for death and destruction become even more impersonal, with poison gas, aircraft and tanks appearing on the battle lines.
Harry Turtledove has continued his well-written first book in the series, interweaving individuals from all backgrounds into an extremely strong narrative. The characters take on a life of their own with an individual’s story developing as the circumstances of war around them change. From humble slaves caught up in rebellion to pompous generals who have little or no grasp of modern warfare Harry Turtledove captures the essence of the individual superbly well. It is with no wonder that Harry Turtledove has built a large following of readers interested in alternative history. Walk in Hell is a definite must read.

Reviewed by Chris Chivers Oct-2000

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Kyle Turton

INFECTION by Kyle Turton

In the days before DVDs were common and eBooks were yet to be a figment of the imagination the only way to recapture the film you’d just seen and enjoyed was to hope that someone produced a book of the film. Many of these were written by contracted writers who were given the script and a deadline. The manuscript had to be finished for when the film came out and the author had to guess about the visuals that would eventually be seen. The deadline didn’t allow for deep character development. The rationale of these slim volumes was to remind the reader of what they had seen and act as an aide memoire to a pleasurable evening out. This book, INFECTION, reminds me of these books. Unfortunately, these days, readers want much more from their reading matter and in order to compete with the likes of Netflix and Kindle a richness and authenticity of setting, plot and characterisation is needed.
INFECTION is basically a zombie movie script. Four newly qualified medics go on an archaeological dig and one of them, Chris, discovers a box in a cave. As in all the best horror films, he opens the box and takes out the stone inside. Back home, while the four are preparing to head off to their new jobs, Chris becomes ill. The others leave him at home while go out to celebrate their futures. By the time they return, he has bitten the landlord, attacked a cop and been shot. The landlord is taken to hospital and begins the chain of infection that turns the population of New York into ravenous zombies and sets the others on path to put an end to the situation. As this is a horror novel, more casualties amongst the group of ‘heroes’ can be expected.
If Infection was a 90-minute film, the issues I have with it as a book would fade in to the background. With print, there needs to be far more substance. Much of the time I was wondering who the actual view-point character was, and whether the story was being told from the correct perspective. Although it is not called that, the initial prologue says too much about the mechanism that the plot revolves around. Exactly half-way through the book, two new characters turn up who not only know the history of the artefact causing the problem, but how to resolve the situation. Not only is it too late to bring in these crucial characters but they are the ones that need to impart the knowledge so that the reader keeps pace with the remaining medics rather than knowing the rationale from the start. This removes the mystery that should have been at the heart of the story. I would also have liked to see the artefacts that the newcomers, David and Charlie, need to collect for the final solution, and more of the issues acquiring them threw up.
The kick-off point of the novel is when the four (Chris, Hannah, Kayleigh and Johnny) all go on an archaeological dig. I found myself with a huge credibility gap at this point; not about the finding of the artefact but the dig itself. It was a plot convenience rather than a researched reality. This is where more description would have been welcomed. Everything before this point was slow, domestic background which would have been better served interspersed within the rest of the text. There is, at the beginning in particular, too much of the author telling us the situation rather than showing it. Having said that, much of the banter between characters is enjoyable, even if it was insufficient to differentiate between them.
An irritating aspect of this book was the lack of proof-reading as punctuation, in particular, was not up to the standard I would expect from the literate. As a personal thing, I dislike books that leave a line between paragraphs. It is clumsy and looks unprofessional, though this might be due to an inexperienced type-setter rather than the intention of either author or editor. And a question for the author – why are the surnames of the characters so rarely given?
I wanted to like this book, as I believe that independent publishers need to be encouraged. If it had been twice the length, the author would have had the space to develop his characters and settings to a greater depth.

Reviewed by Pauline Morgan Mar-2017

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Lisa Tuttle

THE CURIOUS CASE OF THE SOMNAMBULIST AND THE PSYCHIC THIEF by Lisa Tuttle

The Victorian era has a fascination for many writers, and readers. Like now, it was a period of great change, when a different kind of technology was spreading at an enormous rate through society. Then, as now, some embraced it in its totality, others thought the reshaping of the world was going too fast, and were reluctant to consider the implications. Looking back can be a means of making sense of the present. Some mainstream authors travel into the dark underworld of crime, whereas genre writers have invented a whole new scenario, that of Steampunk, where Victorian era science and technology is taken to the ultimate extremes.
Lisa Tuttle’s THE CURIOUS CASE OF THE SOMNAMBULIST AND THE PSYCHIC THIEF has elements of the former but adds touches of fantasy. The novel begins with Aphrodite Lane making a hurried exit from Scotland. She had been there with a friend at the behest of the Society for Psychical Research (a real and continuing organisation), to investigate a haunted house. She leaves because she discovers that her friend is faking evidence. Arriving back in London, she had a dilemma. In 1893, a lone woman with little money would be in need of a job and lodgings. She had neither but by chance she comes on an advertisement in a newsagents of a detective requiring an assistant. To her surprise and delight, she not only gets the job but a room and board in the house of her employer, Jasper Jesperson.
Their big break comes almost by accident. The household is running short of money so Jesperson goes to talk with the landlord who agrees to give them more time to pay the rent if they will solve the problem of his sleep-walking son- in-law. In the meantime, there have been some inexplicable burglaries and then, Gabrielle Fox, the woman whose behaviour caused Miss Lane to leave Scotland, arrives to hire them. She is concerned that several genuine mediums have disappeared. Yes, there are people with genuine psychic powers in this version of Victorian London, unfortunately, there are more fakes than the genuine article. Gabrielle dos not want her new protégé to suffer the same fate.
Tuttle has caught the manners and ideals of the era of her setting but her characters are all from the middle and higher echelons of society. There is no attempt to delve into the dark underbelly of the city. This is a genteel novel as crime is just as rife amongst the privileged though their motives are different. Jesperson and Lane are very likeable characters who are well counterpointed by Miss Fox and friends.
This is a welcome addition to the historical crime genre and the inclusion of mesmerism and stage magic add the touch of fantasy that Tuttle’s readers have come to expect. It is not overdone so should keep the general crime aficionado on board for the climax. A thoroughly enjoyable read.

Reviewed by Pauline Morgan Sep-2016

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Jack Vance

EMPHYRIO by Jack Vance

On the planet Halma, Ghyl Tarvoke, son of a wood carver, grows restless with his life and starts to ask too many questions. The inhabitants live under a strict Feudal system: machines are forbidden, as are cameras, recorders and any means of mass production, including the printing press.
The workers labour to produce artefacts by hand, for which they are paid a meagre price by the merchants, who then sell them off-planet for a fortune. The Lords who govern the land literally look down on the commoners from lofty towers; only they are rich enough to travel to other worlds.
Ghyl is fascinated by the legend of Emphyrio, which tells of a time when the people were enslaved by an alien race. Emphyrio led a revolt against the invaders and eventually drove them from the planet, so why do the inhabitants live in servitude now? When Ghyl’s father is killed for printing leaflets, Ghyl takes the name of Emphyrio and starts his own revolution against Halma’s oppressive regime, Vance’s strength lies in his ability to paint a convincing picture of an exotic society, with plenty of detail about its laws and customs, people and places. He even throws in a particularly silly religion. Because of this the story builds slowly; anyone looking for instant action will be disappointed, but those who like to immerse themselves in a Strange culture will find it particularly satisfying. The action does come in the final part of the book, when Ghyl and his fellow-conspirators hijack a spaceship and escape Halma. But things don’t turn out the way he planned. Despite hardship and betrayal he does eventually learn the truth about the history of his world, the fate of Emphyrio, and the mysterious Lords. The denouement is perhaps a little too quick and easy, but still, it’s all Good Stuff.

Reviewed by Tony Berry Jul-2000

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Carrie Vaughn

KITTY’S HOUSE OF HORROR by Carrie Vaughn

This is the seventh in a series started by the publication of KITTY AND THE MIDNIGHT HOUR in 2005 chronicling the adventurous life of Kitty Norville who hosts a radio talk show during which she dispenses advice about all things supernatural. She is also a celebrity werewolf coming out on the air about three years before the date of the adventure set in the current book.
At the start of this book she agrees to appear on TV’s first all-supernatural reality show alongside other shapeshifters, psychics, vampires and a sceptic. It is to be located in a Montana vacation lodge out in the middle of nowhere. All goes well for the first few days until one morning they wake up to find out that the electricity’s been cut off, the production crew has vanished and there’s no phone or transport away from the lodge. It does not take long for the body count to start rising. Is one or more of the houseguests in league with the murderers? Can Kitty and the others escape or fight back and overcome the killers? Of course she can, as the eighth book, KITTY GOES TO WAR, is due out later this year.
I found this book an enjoyable easy and quick read with no side plots or unpredictable developments to extend interest and provide mystery. If you are interested in reading this book I strongly recommend that you try the first six, reading them in order as this will provide a good introduction to Kitty and a number of the book’s other characters. Jim Pearce

Reviewed by Mar-2010

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Ian Whates

NOW WE ARE TEN: edited by Ian Whates

This anthology was released in July this year and (as implied in its subtitle) was issued to celebrate the 10th anniversary of NewCon Press. In the harsh world of independent press companies, to successfully survive for 10 years is a rare achievement. Indeed, NewCon Press has not only survived but has received many awards for the quality of the fiction it has published.
Whilst many anthologies contain mostly collected stories which have been previously published elsewhere (with a few new stories as an enticement) all the stories in this book have been specifically written for this volume. Anyone familiar with the British SF/Fantasy field will recognise many of the authors in this collection, such as Peter F Hamilton, Jaine Fenn, Eric Brown and Ian McDonald etc although it also includes excellent stories by some less recognised but quality writers.
The anthology includes both SF and Fantasy stories with a loose theme of 10, which leaves plenty of room for significant variety between the stories. In my opinion, this is one of its strengths as too restrictive or narrow a theme can result in too many similar stories which can leave a reader dissatisfied. This is most definitely not the case here.
The first story, “The Final Path” by Genevieve Cogman is an enjoyable story where adults trying to shield their children from dangers outside their walls fail to see the seductive menace infiltrating via the children’s computer games. Whilst not wholly convinced of its plausibility, I did like the structure and the role-playing games (RPG) elements.
“Women’s Christmas” by Ian McDonald is a wonderful observational piece about five sisters who meet up every Epiphany (or Women’s Christmas which apparently is a real festival) and consider their aunt who emigrated to the moon and has financed them all. In a short story it covers a lot about the gulf (both physical and emotional) between those who leave and those who stay behind and this emotional content gives it true heart.
“Pyramid” by Nancy Kress takes a little while to get into but it repays patience as the reader slowly realises it is a very clever allegory about writing, in particular SF/Fantasy. Identifying the references and metaphors in this story was a large part of its appeal to me and will be to many readers.
“Liberty Bird” by Jaine Fenn is ostensibly about privileged families racing space yachts for prestige, but also addresses multiple issues such as duty versus desire, having the courage to defy society’s expectations and the hope for change.
“Zanzara Island” by Rachel Armstrong is set in a near-future polluted Venice and has themes related to biotechnology. However, I found it confusing and hard to follow the narrative or discern the “message” of the story.
Eric Brown is one of my all-time favourite writers and in contrast to the last story, I was thoroughly entertained by his story, “Ten Sisters”. It concerns clones raised as spare parts for a rich businesswoman but they have their own ideas about that! It is clever, witty and amusing and has a plot consistent with the personalities of the participants. “Licorice” by Jack Skillingstead has an unreliable narrator, so that the reader is never quite sure whether the protagonist could be a creator of universes or merely mentally ill and deluded. Unreliable narrator stories are not my favourite type of story and whilst competent, this story left me not particularly concerned about the reality or otherwise of the conclusion.
“How to Grow Silence from Seed” by Tricia Sullivan is a complex story which I think will really divide readers. It is a story which brims with ideas, which some people will love, but it throws the reader in at the deep end with little explanation and the constant new and hard to follow concepts can distract from following the central narrative. Although it didn’t quite work for me, I would not be surprised to see it as a great favourite of other readers.
“The Time Travellers’ Ball” by Rose Biggins is a story in 10 words only. With so little room for manoeuvre, it is very much to the author’s credit that she writes a very clever and amusing little story.
“Dress Rehearsal” by Adrian Tchaikovsky tells of a theatre company which travels across dimensions and the perils in an extra tenth performance. It is nicely plotted and atmospheric, where the reader knows that something is not right but the reveal is nicely concealed.
“The Tenth Man” by Bryony Pierce is another competent story, which reminded me of old magazine stories. There is a “mad scientist” locked up in an asylum who may have multiple personality disorder or be possessed by personalities from different universes. Whilst a little predictable, it was still amusing.
“Rare as a Harpy’s Tear” by Neil Williamson is a fantasy story told in 10 tears. Based on Arabian mythology, I really loved the use of language and vocabulary in this story. There is a very effective slow build-up of information and emotion and the reader really sympathises with the aching sadness of the “monster” in the story.
“Utopia+10” by J A Christy was about a man’s urge to provide food in a polluted world but was one that I just did not find particularly entertaining.
The next two stories “Ten Love Songs to Change the World” by Peter F Hamilton and “Ten Days” by Nina Allan both deal with time travel. I like the concept of the first story where certain people can only travel back mentally so it is their conversations/ideas that can change the past. The second is more traditional, where a woman tries to travel back in time to save a woman wrongly hanged for murder. It is a well-written story but did not hook me particularly on an emotional level.
The final story in the collection is “Front Row Seat to the End of the World” by E J Swift. I am a fan of E J Swift’s Osiris Project trilogy and here again she shows her excellent writing skills. When there are only ten days till the certain destruction of the Earth, in the tradition of Nevil Shute’s ON THE BEACH it expertly observes how ordinary people might react and focuses on whether a mother can heal the rift with her estranged daughter.
In summary, this is an outstanding collection of stories. There are some superb stories which I fully expect to see on award lists and whilst not everything is to my personal taste, (nor do I ever expect it to be in an anthology) there is a much higher than normal percentage of stories of first-rate quality. Its diverse range is a major strength and provides a splendid introduction if needed to some skilled contemporary SF/Fantasy authors.

Reviewed by Carol Goodwin Sep-2016

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Jen Williams

THE NINTH RAIN (The Winnowing Flame 1) by Jen Williams

In my experience, there are still too many fantasy novels which lazily relay on the same tired old tropes. Refreshingly, in the NINTH RAIN, it is clear that here is an author who has avoided this and clearly put a lot of thought into constructing a unique world with engaging characters.
Eight times the Jure’lia have invaded the world. Nobody knows where they come from or what they want. Each time, the long-lived Eborans and their war beasts have led the fight to defeat them. But after the last invasion was repelled, things changed. The giant tree which both nourishes the Eborans and births their warbeasts died. The desperate Eborans then harvested blood from their former allies for nourishment, only to discover this gave them a wasting disease. With the Eborans and their tree dying, there are few left to fight another invasion.
Against this background, the story centres around three main protagonists. Lady Vincenza ‘Vintage’ Grazon is a rich, older woman who after years tending her family’s estate, is now free to indulge her curiosity about the scattered remains of the Jure’lia war machines, Behemoths. These distort plant and animal life around them, and are also haunted by transparent and deadly “parasite spirits”. She has hired one of the now feared and despised Eborans, Tormalin as a bodyguard. Tormalin has left his home city rather than watch everyone slowly die from the plague that is now killing his race. They encounter a young fell-witch, Noon who is fleeing the sinister Winnowry. Any girl born with the “winnowfire” ability is caught and locked away, where their power is harvested and used to produce highly coveted drugs. Vintage is also aware winnowfire can be used to hurt the parasite spirits, so agrees to shelter the witch from her pursuers in exchange for protection during archaeological excursions. Their activities and the actions of Tormalin’s sister who is trying to revive the Eboran’s giant tree, both hasten the return of the Jure’lia but also start to uncover the Jure’lia’s secrets and possibly their vulnerabilities.
The characters are a major strength in this novel. Vintage in particular is a favourite - a mature woman who after years serving her family, decides to go her own way and do what interests her. She is academic and scholarly, independent and at times annoyingly single-minded. I also liked that the biology and unknown origin of the invading Jure’lia was a feature. Their motivations and thus their behaviours are not human and part of the interest in the novel is trying to work out their purpose. I liked that there was a non-human enemy.
As well as the above, the plot is extremely well-written and well-paced. The various plot strands of the Eborans, the humans, the Jure’lia and the role of the fell-witches are intriguing and you start to see how they are connected whilst still leaving plenty to be uncovered in the subsequent books. If you are a fantasy fan, then I would highly recommend this book and am looking forward to the sequel.
Reviewed by Carol Goodwin May-2017

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Neil Williamson

SECRET LANGUAGE by Neil Williamson

When perusing job ads, so many of them demand that the applicant should be a good communicator. It can be taken as read that a writer tries their best to be such but down the ages there have been many attempts to create secret languages, understandable only to those in the know. The Victorians had their language of flowers – the contents of a posy being carefully chosen to convey a message, perhaps of love. Before that, in Regency England, the way a fan was held or manipulated told a suitor whether or not their attentions were welcome. According to Neil Williamson, in the second story in this volume, the way a stamp is positioned on a letter or postcard is significant. This story, ‘The Secret Language of Stamps’, has the mark of the old masters such as M.R. James in that it begins innocently, here with the relationship between landlady and lodger. When he goes abroad for business he sends her postcards. Gradually, the situation becomes more sinister as, though he is reported dead, the postcards continue to arrive.
One of Williamson’s passions is music. A number of the stories here reflect this and many of them have horrific elements. ‘Sweeter Than’, though, is an engaging story about the music of life and relationships and the different tempos they have at varying times in a life. ‘Arrhythmia’ on the other hand is the rhythm under-lying life in a dystopian world. Steve has been born to it but like many young people he tries to break away from the beat and rebel. Most personal rebellions end up in failure and the paths you think you are trying to avoid (the ones the parents took) have a habit of returning. ‘Pearl in The Shell’ contains the interesting, and soul-destroying idea that only a handful of songs are different enough to be copyrightable. In this scenario, any piece of music with only a faint similarity has the royalties paid to the originator of a riff. The way around it is fast sampling. The Vistas crew have the idea that a songwriter who have recently died, might have invented something new and they intend to steal it. The story is an indictment of the current trends in the music business and the recent plagiarism cases. ‘Killing Me Softly’ is crime. The victims are apparently committing suicide, after practicing for a local karaoke competition. Doloreta Siwek is the DI in charge of the investigation. Involved is a siren and it is only her knowledge of mythology that stops he succumbing as well. ‘This Is Not A Love Song’ considers love songs as epitomises three stages of a romance, but breakups hurt so Michael wants only the falling in love part. To that end he seeks out a DJ and a club that provides that. The problem is that it is addictive. The last music based story is ‘The Death Of Abigail Goudy’ is a story about echoes of the past and how music can invoke them.
The other stories in this volume cover a mixture of genres. ‘The Posset Pot’ is a post-apocalyptic SF story. The world has been devastated by the appearance of bubbles which form around people and objects and vanish taking anything inside them away. There are a number of theories as to what they are or where they came from but survival is the main concern of the only two people who seem to be alive in the ruins of Glasgow. ‘Lost Sheep’ is more of a space opera with Danny, the pilot of Hope to Die discovering a long lost generation ship while on the run from the authorities. The occupants have long been genetically modified to survive but have the skill of weaving patterns that tell stories into their carpets but they also seem to have been at all significant events in history. Both these stories have a well thought out background and it seems a pity to waste it on a short story. In both there is scope for more set against the same backgrounds.
‘Silk Bones’ is a kind of apocryphal story. Ria has found a way to forget the bad things she has done by whispering them to a bone, wrapping it in silk and burying it in snow. After traumatic events, people often bury the memories deep in their minds but as Ria discovers, they are not gone and there is always the danger of them resurfacing and the original events being relived. This is a clever story as is ‘Deep Draw’. This, though, is very different. It is a good choice for the first in this volume as it is about telling stories. As Vincent Deluca tells his story to a barman, an empty carafe fills with what is apparently water.
All the other stories in this volume are worth reading but the stand out one is ‘Fish On Friday’. It is an extreme portrait of the nanny state. In an independent Scotland the government has decided that everyone should be fit and healthy. To that end, legislation has been passed that requires everyone to do the required amount of exercise and only order food from a specified list. Ninety-three-year-old Ms MacArthur has breached the rules by not ordering any fish. This is a transcript of the phone call that reprimands her. It is tongue-in-cheek and delightful. The book is worth it for this one alone. There is, however, a wide range of stories and there is something for everyone here.

Reviewed by Pauline Morgan Oct-2016

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Jennifer Willis

MARS HO! (Mars Adventure Romance Book 1) by Jennifer Willis

The premise is simple; a Big Brother style competition for a Mars Mission.
Applying to join the first manned colony to Mars there are over twenty finalists who make it into a fake Mars biodome in Arizona, which doubles as the Martian land for the contestants. Amongst the group who move into the "house" are Lori, who has dreamed of going into space, and Mars, since childhood; Mark, apparently aloof but handsome USA version of a Bear Grylls; the annoying already married couple, the Blocks; and April, who is pretty much a genius but hides a secret that may get her kicked out from the competition.
Make no bones about it, this is SF Romance, and I picked it up for fun. But what I grew to really enjoy about is the intentional critique of diversity issues (straight binary (male or female) heterosexuals only allowed and who are predominantly white USA residents). But behind this facade for starters, is a person who is asexual when the idea behind the programme is to populate Mars.
April, the genius, had created a matching database to tell her who to flirt with in order to make the journey to Mars. Only 8 finalists will make it. The double entendre of Mars Ho - as in Wayward Ho and 'Ho' being an American term for 'tart' - is again intentionally used to parody the plethora of reality shows. The 'host' Gary, is typical of the smiling white-toothed, tanned TV stud, the coffee is sponsored by particular companies, as are most of the products used by the group, in order to finance the mission, and amidst the romance, there's actually some really clever SF Parody and comedy.
Now, I'm no scientist, but for me, the technical aspects felt possible, such as the 3D food printer in which ingredients are added to make somewhat edible gloop, and the atmospheric stuff and science relative to Mars also felt plausible for the lay-person reader.
Lots of hiccups and accidents occur through the trials, some of them the kind of evil actions you would expect from TV executives desperate to get ratings. But these incidents or technical failures allow for a good dose of human drama.
One line that stood out for me, perhaps it's a quote, was "life lived beyond fear is a marvellous thing,” and that seems to be at the heart of the book in respect of love and missions to Mars.
Jennifer Willis' writing style is effectively emotional without turning it into mush, the parody elements were funny and the relationships believable.
Overall, 'Mars Ho' was an unexpected gem, and I'm definitely checking out more of her work, considering she has appeared in the 'Women Destroy Science Fiction' issue of Lightspeed, a magazine most SF Fans should be able to recognise as high quality.

Reviewed by Theresa Derwin Oct-2017

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David Wingrove

THE EMPIRE OF TIME by David Wingrove

Themes and approaches in writing often tend to go in cycles, with a particular idea cropping up not once but several times in quick succession. One of the currently popular settings seems to be Russia. Jaspar Kent’s quintet of vampire novels is set during the Romanov dynasty (his vampires are bad news) while Peter Higgins has opted for a Russianesque background for his fantasy trilogy. David Wingrove is another travelling in the Steppes. None of these writers is influenced by each other, the books being written entirely independently from each other.
Wingrove doesn’t stick only to Russia but wraps his story up in time travel, paradox and an ongoing war between the Russians and the Germans. Otto Behr comes from a time far in our future even though the opening scenes are set in the thirteenth century. Otto and his kind are agents that travel backwards and forwards in time with the express purpose of either changing the time-line, or preventing the Russians from doing so. Both sides have singled out key historical figures or battles and put agents in place to influence the time stream. If they are killed, someone else will change events so that they do not die in that time or place. Sometimes, they may have to relive an event a number of times before the right result is achieved. This is the case for Otto when he meets Katerina. She is the daughter of a Russian fur trader and he falls in love with her. She, however is promised to another man. Otto has to change events frequently in order to eliminate his rival. This is strictly against the rules as forming relationships with the local people can jeopardise the time line.
This is a novel that has been meticulously planned. Not only is an intense knowledge of past events needed to keep the time-stream flowing smoothly but an idea of what might have happened if events had happened differently. Little other than Russian and German history is considered here but considering the times that attempts have been made to invade and capture Moscow, the narrowing of the perspective to just these two nations seems justifiable. Wingrove has also had to consider the future narrative as at one point Otto has to ensure that the breakthrough that enabled time jumping actually happened. He is a warrior. At times he has to be ruthless.
The story-line could have become extremely confusing with the shifts in time and changing events but it is to Wingrove’s credit that this does not interfere with what is a fast paced action thriller, touching down at various places in history. As time loops around his characters, so the seemingly trivial does, or will, gain importance as the story unfolds.
This is the first book of a trilogy so it is inevitable that there are strands that are unresolved by the end. Nevertheless, this is a very enjoyable read.

Reviewed by Pauline Morgan Jan-2016

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THE OCEAN OF TIME (Roads to Moscow Book 2) by David Wingrove

Time, from our perspective is a one-way system. Yes, there are the old saws of history repeating itself, but it is never meant literally, only that humans have a habit of not learning from their mistakes. Writers, though, love the idea of playing with time. Exponents of historical fiction have a tendency to re-write the past (it makes better fiction), literary archaeologists search out documents that tell different stories from the ones we traditionally accept. The Science Fiction writer plays with time itself. In THE TIME MACHINE, H G Wells built a machine that would travel in time and despite there being no scientific suggestion that this can be possible, writers have continued to do so. Often the scientists that discover the technique are from our far future, such as in Kage Baker’s Company novels. Sometimes they can only be observers, sometimes they attempt to change the past. David Wingrove has melded some of these tropes in his Roads to Moscow series.
In the first of the series, THE EMPIRE OF TIME (reviewed in January 2016 newsletter), we were introduced to the concept of a war down the time lines between Germany and Russia. Otto Behr, the narrator is a time traveller from the German camp. He, like others of his trade, has a focus implanted in his chest, pressure on which will take him back to his far future base. At the end of the first book, he had fallen in love with the daughter of a Russian merchant, and by manipulating time managed to marry her, posing as a German trader. His real reason for being in Novgorod in 1289 is political. He has destinies to alter but right now he is more concerned with the love of his life. He has to keep Katerina secret from his superior because he would order her killed, or at least, wiped from the time-line. Otherwise she would be a hostage that could alter the course of the war.
The first part of THE OCEAN OF TIME sees Otto and Katerina travelling overland towards Moscow. At this time, it is not the capital of Russia. What should be a straightforward journey begins to unravel when they are attacked and to keep Katerina safe, Otto uses an anachronistic weapon. He explains to her what and who he is, thus committing a heinous crime – according to the rules he is supposed to live by.
This is not the only part of history that the two empires are meddling in. Certain key turning points have been identified, one of which revolves around the battles of Frederik the Great. Otto doesn’t like him as a person but he has to win the wars he has embarked on unless the tide of time is going to change in favour of the Russians. Otto is committed to time-hopping if he is to keep Katerina a secret, and he can only go back to her at intervals. Just to confuse matters, he is sent to California in 1952, to meet Philip K. Dick.
The most enjoyable parts of this volume involve the time-hopping and the attempts to change history. The first section, where Otto spends most of his time in old Russia with Katerina is less interesting, partly because there have been a lot of novels recently featuring historical Russia and the countryside is becoming over-populated with writers. As a second volume of (at least) a trilogy, this is well written and enjoyable.

Reviewed by Pauline Morgan Mar-2016

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Chris Wooding

THE IRON JACKAL by Chris Wooding

This is the third instalment in the ongoing saga of Darian Frey, captain and owner of of the airship the Ketty Jay. Having come out of the last book in a reasonably secure and prosperous situation, he now takes on a new criminal commission working for his bitter rival Trinica Dracken, the woman he left at the altar years ago. The job appears simple: to rob a train and steal a priceless historical relic. It appears at first to go off quite successfully with copious gunplay and general mayhem. Unhappily, Frey mishandles the situation and ends up subject to a daemonic curse which can only be lifted by returning the relic to the place from whence it was originally removed. And that means he has to steal it all over again, which turns out to be much more difficult than the first time. Fortunately he has the loyal and unstinting assistance of his crew, a bunch of former misfits and inadequates who have begun to work almost as a properly functioning unit. Together they fight their way across the planet to the ruined city of a long-lost former civilisation, and the curse is lifted. Hurrah! There is a degree of originality but no great depth here, just a series of exciting adventures for Frey and his crew as they struggle to survive, lurching almost uncontrollably from crisis to crisis and knocking off a few bad guys on the way. Something of an old-fashioned pulp thriller in other words, set in exotic surroundings with a touch of the supernatural thrown in but not much by way of advanced science or weaponry, nothing more advanced than rifles and shotguns (plus a useful magic cutlass). This volume works reasonably well on its own in that knowledge of the previous books in the series is not essential, although it does help a little here and there. As it is, a few loose ends remain unresolved – will the crew stay together? Can they keep one step ahead of the authorities? Most importantly, will Darian and Trinica get back together? Wooding has promised one more book in which these questions should be answered and which may be the last on the subject. Or maybe not.

Reviewed by Michael Jones Dec-2010

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Roger Zelazny

THIS IMMORTAL by Roger Zelazny

Another quite wonderful book and, apparently, Zelazny’s first novel.
Goodness! This is a book with richness and depth; as New Worlds is quoted as saying on the cover, ' vivid and elliptical’. This book is a startling reminder of why the ‘New Wave’ was so powerful.
This time the aliens are the Vegans and we’re the poor relations in the galactic empire, embarrassingly backward. Most of us have emigrated and live as lowcaste immigrants in astounding luxury. Many of the few remaining humans on Earth are employed as caretakers, looking after the remaining cultural sites.
Conrad Nomikos, the viewpoint character and hero of the book, is Arts Commissioner for the planet. Apparently immortal, apparently almost human, Conrad is forced to escort an important Vegan on a tour of the remaining Wonders of Earth, along with a rag-bag of other-humans.
The plot is tight and well-constructed but the joy of this book is the glorious images. I love the filmed deconstruction of the pyramids, the film to be run backwards, and the inevitable outrage at this desecration. This is a beautifully written book full of sly jokes (‘Armageddon has come - not with a bang, but a chequebook.’) I ’d have published it in the masterworks myself. Go out and buy it immediately.

Reviewed by Yvonne Rowse Oct-2000

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