Birmingham Science Fiction Group

Reviews - Authors U-Z

Contact us at
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. Fred Van Lente and Dean Koontz
Jack Vance
Carrie Vaughn
Joan D Vinge
Vernor Vinge
Ian Whates
Jen Williams
Neil Williamson
Connie Willis
Jennifer Willis
David Wingrove
Jack Womack
Chris Wooding
Roger Zelazny

Fred Van Lente and Dean Koontz

ODD IS ON OUR SIDE by Fred Van Lente and Dean Koontz

(Illustrated by Queenie Chan)
I’ve read Koontz’s novels ODD THOMAS and X LIGHT which are based on the life of Odd Thomas; a teen who can see ‘demons’ which accumulate before a major catastrophe and mass loss of life. Consequently stories of Odd are usually based on him having an insight into some sort of terrible event before it occurs.
This book is no exception in following that formula, although this is a very slim paperback/graphic novel aimed at younger teens.
In this novel, Odd sees the ‘demons’ accumulating around his town, and he soon identifies that there is a murder spree about to happen. Of course he manages to stop it with the help of his attractive girlfriend and his frequent supernatural visitor, Elvis Presley.
What’s great about this book is its accessibility for young teens. Odd is a character easy to identify with; a lowly fry- cook without much money, but who has a special ability.
The lowly by day/hero by night is a cliché that is so popular in the world of super heroes, simply because it draws readers into the possibilities of a mundane life made more exciting.
What let this book down is its general quality and the quality of the art work. The book is a paperback and black and white – yet this isn’t really reflected in the price (£7.99) which would stretch to a selection of glossy colour or better drawn black and white slim graphic novels. The art work itself is okay, a cross over between traditional comic art and manga, so certainly on trend for the younger market, but it is not innovative or exciting and in places seems very flat and formulaic.
All in all, ODD IS ON OUR SIDE is a quick fun teen read and was perfectly enjoyable in terms of story and plot. Personally, I am hoping that more publishers take this approach with novels, creating short graphic novels for younger audiences. There are of course many people that dislike comics and believe they are for children. I would argue that comics are a fantastic way to reach a new generation of SF fans. SF

Reviewed by Sam Fennell Aug-2011 Published by Harper Collins

Return to top

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. Tony Berry

Reviewed by Jul-2000 Published by Millennium

Return to top

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.

Reviewed by Jim Pearce Mar-2010 Published by Gollancz

Return to top

Joan D Vinge

COWBOYS & ALIENS by Joan D Vinge

Guess what this is about. Yes; the date is 1875, the scene is a remote frontier town in New Mexico, and savagely murderous alien invaders have landed in a spaceship and are terrorising the locals. Apparently they are chiefly there to obtain gold, but they are also not above abducting a few of the local townspeople as well, although it is not really clear what for. To eat, maybe. It falls to an amnesiac outlaw, a local rancher and a band of landless Apache Indians to band together and fight back. This unlikely alliance is assisted by a strange woman who has appeared seemingly from nowhere and turns out, unsurprisingly, to be far more than she appears! Eventually these improbable allies are successful and the alien ship is blown up as it attempts to fly away. (How often have we seen that before?).
This is actually the novelisation of the film of the same name; not the book from which the film is derived. As such, the writer – here, the highly competent, award-winning Joan D Vinge – has little or no opportunity to enhance the story, however much that may seem necessary, but is confined to providing detailed descriptions of sights and sounds which the filmgoer will be able to take in immediately. At the same time, however, there is the possibility of elaborating upon the thoughts and motivations of the protagonists to provide insights into their actions which the screen may not be able to show.
The result is not entirely successful. It works reasonably well in the action sequences, but the intervening bits are slow and insufficiently well-written to maintain interest until something else starts to happen. And what the action content, however dramatic and exciting it may be, whether on paper or on the screen, cannot disguise is that the basic story is trivial and little more than an assembly of cliches – SF cliches and Western cliches both – with scant originality on either side. Also, any need to provide a logical link between disparate events and situations has as often as not been ignored.
Whether the film – which, incidentally, features Harrison Ford and Daniel Craig in the two main roles – will appear any better than the book still remains to be seen at the time of writing. In the meantime, the book may or may not encourage an audience to flock to the cinema. On the other hand, it is hard to imagine that a potential reader who has already seen the film will want to bother reading this reminder of the story it tried to tell.

Reviewed by Michael Jones Sep-2011 Published by Tor

Return to top

Vernor Vinge


As advertised ‘The unmissable epic prequel to the Hugo Award winning A Fire Upon The Deep’, and a book I have not read. However after reading A Deepness In The Sky I think I must have missed something along the way. The story is a long but good read all on its own.
The tale is set within an expedition by the Queng Ho traders to an OnOff star that has remained a mystery to the races that inhabit the known galaxy. As the star is a variable no one has considered it worth the time and energy to mount a serious expedition in what could turn out to be a waste of time. But word has come back that there is a planet orbiting the star, which should not be there, considering the stars pulses of luminosity. The journey to the star can take many years by ramship so for many people it will be a one way trip. As the Queng Ho fleet decelerates towards the OnOff star another fleet manned by the Emergents is detected heading for the same destination. The stage is now set for a confrontation between the Emergents and the Queng Ho for the right to salvage what they could from the planet. The real joker in the pack is that the planet has a sentient race of spiders that hibernate during the great dark when the planets sun dims to nothing more than a brown dwarf.
The interplay between the two technologically superior groups and the native arachnids takes a long time to build up to its climax, and Vernor Vinge has deeply coloured each of the groups in loving detail. The story takes some time to get moving but is well worth sticking with as the pace of the action heats up. A Deepness In The Sky is an epic novel well written and a good read.

Reviewed by Chris Chivers Jan-2001 Published by Millennium

Return to top

A FIRE UPON THE DEEP by Vernor Vinge

I found this volume a little difficult to get into because it took some time to be comfortable with the range of new concepts propounded here.
Vinge's galaxy is layered into zones.
Most of the space-travelling sentient races live towards the edge, in the Beyond, where the laws of physics are different enough to allow faster-than-light travel and computer systems with a far greater ability than those we are familiar with. Earth is in the next zone, closer to the galactic core, called the Slowness. Some races have gone further out into the Transcend and become god-like Powers.
A group of humans, working in a long dead archive revive a Power which begins to destroy the civilisations of the Beyond. They were not entirely stupid as one ship did manage to escape from the disaster area and land on a primitive planet near the bottom of the Beyond, near the boundary with the Slowness. Here, after a bumpy landing, the ship is attacked by the indigenous species.
The children, Jefri and Joanna survive but wind up on opposite sides, both believing that the other is dead and the opposing group is the enemy. This race, marvellously portrayed, are pack animals. Each person consists of several dog-like members which are in constant telepathic contact and which cannot stray too far from each other without becoming disorientated and losing their intelligence. They have no hands but manipulate things with their mouths, demonstrating a perfect co-ordination between members. As children, Jefri and Joanna have the flexibility to adapt to their new environment.
Meanwhile, the Blight that is the new Power, destroys the worlds of the Beyond and Ravna, a librarian on the archive planet of Relay, begins to realise that the ship might have aboard the only thing that can counter- act the ravages of the Blight. She, Pham Nuwen (a human- seeming emissary of a Power called the Old One) and two Skoderiders (normally sedentary aliens resembling sea-lillies whose short-term memory is enhanced by the electronic skrodes that they ride), decide that their only chance is to reach the ship and gain control of the Countermeasure it carries. For both Ravna's party, who are pursued by a fleet of Blight controlled ships, and the children, whose friends are intent on destroying each other, it is a race against time.
This is an excellent, hard SF novel of a calibre that is becoming rare.

Reviewed by Pauline Morgan Apr-2001 Published by Millennium

Return to top


This book follows the trend of publishing together two manageable, but related, volumes as one doorstop. And with a new title. Maybe some people will make the mistake of thinking it is a brand new book. It keeps the author in the public eye at a time when the next opus is probably overdue.
This omnibus contains THE PEACE WAR from 1984 and MAROONED IN REALTIME from 1986. The common factor is bobbles. In the first book, anything dangerous or dissident has been surrounded by a silver sphere. The technology enables peace of a kind to be held, but what the enforcers do not realise is that the bobbles have a limited life. The main thrust of the story involves the complications that arise as the bobbles begin to burst, releasing the people and dangers that have been locked in stasis into the current world.
The second book extrapolates further.
Here a group of people are time hopping.
Every so often they emerge into realtime to look at the changed world. In one hop, when Marta gets left outside in realtime, this is regarded as a bizarre form of murder and Wil Brierson is asked to investigate.
Both these books are excellent and deserve reprinting. Well worth reading.

Reviewed by Pauline Morgan Apr-2001 Published by Millennium

Return to top

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 Published by NewCon

Return to top

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 Published by Headline

Return to top

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 Published by NewCon

Return to top

Connie Willis

BLACKOUT by Connie Willis

Connie Willis’ latest book is published in two parts, the second half entitled ALL CLEAR being due for UK publication later this year. The basic framework is a future (first introduced in her 1982 story “Fire Watch” and featured also in two previous novels: DOOMSDAY BOOK and TO SAY NOTHING OF THE DOG) in which historians from Oxford University travel back through time from the mid-21st Century to various historical eras to carry out observations and research. Presumably their scholarly dissertations on what they have seen and learned are intended to form an archive of historical knowledge for the edification of future generations.
BLACKOUT mainly follows three of these historians who travel separately to England in 1940 to observe aspects of WW2, including the London Blitz and the Evacuation of Dunkirk. Almost from the outset things start to go wrong in various small ways with their planned activities and as they variously struggle to cope with these problems and the difficulties and dangers of wartime England they begin to realise themselves cut off from their own time. The resulting narrative can be complicated and, at times, difficult to come fully to terms with as it switches from one time and place to another to follow these main characters. Additionally, it brings in a few others who appear subsidiary but may yet have some important part to play in bringing about a satisfactory final resolution for all concerned.
Although ostensibly a science fiction novel in a historical setting, this book can also be viewed as an historical novel with some science fiction connotations.
As such it is a stirring and dramatic evocation of day-today life in wartime England as experienced by people who might as well be foreigners there, and for whom no amount of training and preparation can really be sufficient. The day-to-day minutiae of this life are either brilliantly and comprehensively imagined or meticulously researched: we are supposed to believe the latter but occasional linguistic anachronisms occur and some details are described, particularly with reference to railway trains, which would be more representative of life in the USA than in England. Such mistakes are few, but enough to mar the intended appearance of 100% authenticity.
The story and books referred to above won between them several major SF Awards and BLACKOUT/ALL CLEAR has already won a Nebula to add to Willis’ already substantial trophy collection as well as being nominated for Hugo and Locus Awards. Its merit is thus firmly established and to be sure the criticisms outlined above could be described as minor in the overall context of the work. The only remaining reservation is that the author’s insistence on exploring and describing every possible detail has resulted in almost inordinate length – after all, these 610 pages constitute only half a book!
Perhaps final judgement might be reserved until the appearance of ALL CLEAR here in the UK; when the totality of both volumes can be assessed as one. Until then BLACKOUT can certainly be described as a major achievement. Only those who lived through it and experienced it at first hand can truly appreciate what it was like to live in a country at war and it is made clear in an afterword that a deal of information was obtained from talking to such people. As such it is deserving of being carefully read, regardless of whether the reader’s primary interest is the science fiction aspect: it may be that SF will come more to the fore in the second volume.

Reviewed by Michael Jones Aug-2011 Published by Gollancz

Return to top

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 Published by Amazon

Return to top

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 Published by Del Rey

Return to top

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 Published by Del Rey

Return to top

Jack Womack

GOING, GOING, GONE by Jack Womack

Sometimes writers create alternate visions of the world as it is. In such worlds the characters tend to speak in languages that we can’t necessarily understand. Take CLOCKWORK ORANGE, for example - it came complete with its own little dictionary of slang. The problem here is that you don’t get the dictionary. The invented language isn’t so far from English, it may even be something in regular use in some American ghetto (or university) but it is used enough to irritate.
This is a novel of alternate worlds.
Mostly, just one but, towards the end, there’s a couple of others. It is always New York, though.
The central character tests drugs for the government. Not the medical-breakthrough cancer-curing kind but the psychedelic minddistorting sort that you drop on the enemy in times of war. It is no wonder that he’s seeing things: or, at least, one thing. It seems to be a ghost but there are some really heavy women on hand who seem to know that it is something more than that. It’s someone from an alternate reality - and so are they.
It would have been nice to have some of the plot lines start at the beginning and go all the way to the end, but none of them seem to. The fact that the whole universe changes in the last few pages sees to that.
Nothing really seems to go anywhere except away. Difficult and unsatisfying.

Reviewed by William McCabe Apr-2001 Published by Voyager

Return to top

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-2011 Published by Gollancz

Return to top

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 Published by Gollancz

Return to top