ODD IS ON OUR SIDE by Fred Van Lente and Dean Koontz(Illustrated by Queenie Chan)
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.
THE BLUE WORLD by Jack Vance
Originally published in 1966, this is still a good, fast moving story and stands up relatively well to the passage of time.
Vance has always been creatively ingenious. Here, twelve generations after a space ship crashed on a planet
completely covered with water, the survivors have used available, mostly plant, materials to make a reasonable life.
The only blight are the indigenous aquatic creatures that periodically raid the sponges that are grown as a food
supply. One in particular, known as King Kragen, is a monster and is placated as it chases away all rivals, but as it
grows, so does its appetite. One man thinks they should be trying to find ways of killing it.
Although, new readers will enjoy this book, there are some differences between this and more recent SF novels. THE BLUE WORLD is short, without the many complicated plot strands that can lose and confuse - its brevity is a strength, a technique lost to many writers of the computer age. But it doesn’t have the depth of characterisation now required in any serious novel of any kind.
The science is ingenious for the sophistication of more than thirty years ago.
Now, we would expect an author to have an even greater knowledge. Even though a moon is not evident around this world, there would be tidal pulls created by the sun, and as the planet is rotating, fierce currents and counter- currents would be generated as seen in the atmosphere of Jupiter which would lead to far more storms than are evident in the described situation. There is satisfaction in the knowledge that the terms the population of the Blue World give to their castes, lets the reader into a secret lost in the past. There are Swindlers (that swindle fish from the water), Hoodwinkers (who operate the communication system of lanterns and hoods - which are winked), Incendiaries, Besslers and many others which indicate that the crashed ship was en route to a penal planet.
Enjoy the skill of an old master, but don’t look too deep into the swirling waters.
ROLLING THUNDER by John Varley
This one came into my hands from a friend who knew I like John Varley’s slick style and fertile imagination, but at first
I refused, “already read it,” I said. That was my first mistake – I was thinking of RED THUNDER, first title in this series of
three (the second being, of course, RED LIGHTNING).
My second mistake was going on to read the book. Honestly, when it starts with the line, “Once upon a time there was a Martian named Patricia Kelly Elizabeth Podkayne Strickland- Garcia-Redmond” you know the author is pulling your leg. It might as well have been subtitled, “a homage to Heinlein juveniles”, and just to hammer-home the point the final sentences mention three of them: “I’m going to miss my home, the Red planet. But now I’m between planets. Now it’s time for the stars”.
The first book was quite a charming adventure for thirteen-year-olds; a couple of bright kids build a home-made rocket and rescue NASA’s Mars mission from disaster. The second title didn’t really have much point to it, and this one is teenage-magazine slush, with a heroine named ‘Poddy’ who gives roughly equal time to the awful aliens from Europa who are destroying the Earth and her nauseating sexual experiences. Why does a fine writer like Varley produce this sort of rubbish? Why does it get published? Why did I read it?
KITTY GOES TO WASHINGTON by Carrie Vaughn
A modern day world in which werewolves and vampires live alongside humans is the theme of this series of books by
Carrie Vaughn. This one continues the story of Kitty Norville ( now that’s a great name for a werewolf; why not Connie
or Molly?) as the second in the series, continuing the saga of Kitty, who has a phone-in radio show in America. She is
ordered to appear before a senate committee to determine the treatment of Weres and vampires in the US. Kitty soon
finds out that several of the senators have other agendas - some including the elimination of all supernatural creatures
like her. To make matters worse, Kitty isn’t sure which side the local vampires are fighting for.
It’s a fast paced entertaining read with well drawn characters, plenty of humour, and some clever plot twists. Not great literature, but I was interested enough to go out and buy the others in the series.
KITTY TAKES A HOLIDAY by Carrie VaughnThis is the third in the Kitty Norwell series by Carrie Vaughn, and carries on where KITTY GOES TO WASHINGTON left off. Kitty is in much need of some rest and recuperation and decides to take a holiday in a remote hunting lodge to write her autobiography. Her ‘secret’ life as a werewolf is no longer a secret, thanks to being shown on TV during the change. Most of her neighbours in Colorado treat her with suspicion and downright hostility, so Kitty isn’t too surprised when things start to turn hostile. First, someone leaves grotesque animal sacrifices on her front porch to curse her, then werewolf hunter Cormac shows up with an injured Ben O'Farrell, Kitty's lawyer, slung over his shoulder. Ben has been injured by a new and different type of shape shifter. All three of them have to face a new and complex situation, where not everyone is what they seem.
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.
SHADOWS OF THE SHORT DAYS by Alexander Dan Vilhjálmsson
This debut novel by an Icelandic author is set in an alternative Reykjavik where recent industrial developments are
starting to allow magical energy to be harvested and siphoned off, though the promised benefits are mainly diverted
to support a colonising military rather than to benefit the populace. The population of the city consists mainly of
humans and “huldufolk” (various magical humanoid people) who are refugees from a different dimension. Combined
resentment of the overseas regime which controls the colonial city, and simmering tensions and antipathies between
the various factions in the city, means that there looked to me to be plenty of scope for an interesting plot. Into that
set-up, the reader is then introduced to the two main protagonists; magic users, Garun and Saemundur, who have
been lovers in the past and who both dislike the restrictions of their society but for differing reasons.
Garun, as a mixed-race person has faced constant prejudice and this is her main driver in fomenting revolution. Her magic uses symbols and artwork (which have been enhanced using a liquid drug with thaumaturgical properties) to manipulate people’s emotions and behaviour. Saemundur is a gifted student at the local college, who is expelled for experimenting with unorthodox and reckless magical 11
techniques. He then goes down a dark path to develop his own magic, regardless of the cost to others (and himself). His actions also have a major impact on the rebellion, even though he has little interest or commitment to the cause.
Yet despite all the unique worldbuilding in this book, I found myself disappointed and struggling to complete the book. One of the major problems was that quite frankly I just didn’t care about any of the characters. Partly this is that, even recognising that the mood of the story is meant to be grimdark, I found both Garun and Saemundur to be very self-absorbed and callous of others, with violence and murder seeming to have little effect on them. Elements of their backstories which might have humanised them came far too late in the narrative to affect my dislike of them. Also, secondary characters were very thinly established and often seemed to me to drop into the story only to move the plot along. I also found the pace erratic and at times felt that the story had jumped forwards whilst missing out necessary connecting events.
Whilst the copy that I read was an uncorrected bound proof and hopefully these issues will have been addressed in the final copy, there were also some issues with missing words, word order and incorrect homophones.
In summary, whilst there is some good imagination in this novel, it felt to me that it still needed more work on characterisation and structure to achieve its full potential. Carol Goodwin
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.
A DEEPNESS IN THE SKY by 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. Chris Chivers
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.
ACROSS REALTIME by Vernor Vinge
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.
I, PHONE by David Wake
David Wake, an occasional Brum Group attendee, has already made his mark as a writer of one-act plays which have
been produced in the smaller theatres around the Midlands, and at the annual Easter SF conventions. In this respect
he has shown a marked talent for the absurd. This has been carried over into the writing of this novel and when
reading this book it is a requisite to watch out for literary allusions – beginning with the title.
I, PHONE is SF tainted with chick-lit. In this case it is not a bad thing. The entire novel is narrated by a technologically advanced phone (at least it was until yesterday) that has been named Jeeves by its owner, Alice Wooster. Alice lives in a totally consumerist society seduced into a virtual utopia. Two items of technology are essential, a phone and a headset. The phone contains an AI chip and is aware of the world around it even if reacting tangibly with it is almost impossible. After all it is contained in a small piece of hardware. It is more aware of the real state of its surroundings than its owner and has a similar relationship with Alice as the original Wodehouse characters did. Without her phone, Alice would have problems functioning. With the exponential rate of technological development, Jeeves is aware that he is likely to be superseded alarmingly soon – possibly within hours as a system called ‘full embodiment’ comes on line. The headsets mostly resemble glasses and allow the wearer access to a virtual world. Most consumers view the world through them on a continuous basis, thus with full embodiment they will see the shopping mall as a spectacular place in which everything they could possibly want is available. The reality, as Jeeves shows us, is of run down, scruffy buildings in dire need of painting and renovation, which instead of the cleanliness they appear to have are actually filthy and litter strewn.
What Alice wants is a real relationship with a man. She and her best friend, Jilly, go to dating bars in order to try to meet men yet they don’t really see the people around them as all, including Alice and Jilly, are effectively disguised as an movie star from early films such as BRIEF ENCOUNTER. They rely on their phones to get proper information for them. The plot really starts at one of these evenings when the man Alice takes home is murdered and Jeeves finds he has a memory of Alice doing it, even though he was switched off at the time. This allows Alice to go on the run through a semi-farcical series of events while Jeeves is trying to prove her innocence and become physically reunited with her.
For a debut novel, this is an ambitious project and perhaps tries to do too much. David Wake has tried to put everything into it and much will pass over the heads of the average reader. It is however, very cleverly written. At its heart is a futuristic thriller which employs extrapolations of the way technology is advancing in order to get its effects. At the same time it is a warning of what the technological classes could expect if they constantly desire the new gadgets and are intent in keeping up the superficial veneers offered by the new developments. It is also an indictment of the way in which people, especially the young, increasingly live life at second hand via their technologies and dwell in an increasingly artificial reality without making real connections between others in the real world.
Although this book deserves a wider distribution because of the bleak future it depicts and that we seem to be rapidly heading towards, its niche is probably amongst the small press and independent publishers as its intensity would overwhelm the average mass market reader (as the chapters are numbered in binary this in itself would be found off-putting by some). As a thought provoking book tempered by the farcical elements it is certainly worthy of consideration.
LENT by Jo Walton
The word ‘Lent’ is one of those that can have wildly different meanings. In the Christian Church, Lent is a period of
abstinence and reflection leading up to Easter. An alternative definition is the temporary gifting of an object. In this
novel, Jo Walton cleverly plays with both these definitions.
Many readers will be familiar with the name of Girolamo Savonarola if only for his association with the ‘bonfire of the vanities’ where people were invited to surrender unnecessary possessions for burning – sacrifices in the period of Lent. Savonarola was a Dominican brother and believed the way to heaven was through sacrifice and he preached for the simple, godly life.
He was burnt as a heretic in 1498.These are the facts and are easy to ascertain.
The first part of this novel follows the last six years of the life of Brother Girolamo as he struggles against sin. Where it differs from the reality recorded in our history books is the idea that Girolamo can see, and thence banish, demons. They are all around and he wants to strengthen the faith of Florence to keep them beyond the walls. As the novel opens, he and two other brothers are called to a convent to banish the demons besieging the place. In the library he finds what seems to be attracting them – a gem stone hidden inside a hollowed-out book. On his death, he finds himself in Hell and discovers that he is actually a demon. After a period of torture, he finds himself back where he started, visiting the convent to banish the demons but this time he remembers what he is. He can also remember everything that will happen to him in the next six years. For those reasons he doesn’t feel that being a Dominican is appropriate. This time, Girolamo is determined to do things differently in the hope that he can change enough things to be admitted to heaven rather than return to hell as a demon.
In one aspect, this novel is reminiscent of Groundhog Day in that events are repeated. Girolamo is not reincarnated but stuck in a loop. Each time he tries to take a different path looking for alternative routes through the last six years of his life. Always, he only becomes aware of his situation when he finds the stone in the book, making this event the touchstone. It almost seems to him that he is being played with, that he is only being lent to the human dimension to see how he will react.
This is a very clever book and deserves to have a wide readership.
DESTINY QUEST 1: THE LEGION OF SHADOW by Michael J Ward
The LEGION OF SHADOW is the first book in a new series titled Destiny Quest by Michael J. Ward. In order to review
this book I must first explain what it actually is. Do not be fooled by any Amazon descriptions; this is NOT a novel. It is
a game. Back in 1982 Steven Jackson and Ian Livingstone started a fad for fantasy themed game backs known as the
Fighting Fantasy series. The first was THE WARLOCK OF FIRETOP MOUNTAIN, which was very successful, selling
over 16 million copies, and which Michael counts as primary inspiration for Destiny Quest. The LEGION OF SHADOW
is Michael’s homage to, and attempt to revive the interest in, Fighting Fantasy-style games. The hero of THE LEGION
OF SHADOW awakes, following a battle, with no memory of his or her past. After accepting to undertake a quest from
the last wounded knight left alive (and who soon passes away) the hero soon realises he/she has strange powers that
stem from strange shadowy marks on their arm. While embarking on an adventure to understand who he/she is, the
hero ends up being pivotal to an invasion of the world by an evil sorcerer and has shadow world allies. In a book like
this the reader plays the part of the hero “With only a sword and a backpack to your name, you must discover your
destiny in an unfamiliar world full of monsters and magic”, to quote the blurb. The text is written mostly from the
second person perspective “Reaching the main square, you consider your options. Ahead of you is the local tavern…”
The book is split into numbered passages and at the end of each passage you are told to which paragraph you must
turn next, often with a choice. In the above example, if you want to visit the tavern, you turn to paragraph X, with other
choices made by turning to paragraph Y or Z. On top of this is a simple `Dungeons-and-Dragons-lite’ games system.
The reader records several statistics, such as speed, brawn and health, etc. on a hero sheet that can be photocopied
out of the book (or downloaded from the website). At various points in the story the book instructs you to fight various
opponents and monsters, which are given their own statistics. In order to resolve the fight the player follows the simple
rules, which involves rolling dice for the hero and the monster, adding them to the relevant statistics, and determining
who has scored higher. The loser loses one from their `health’, and so another turn ensues, with eventually either the
player or the opponent running out of health and losing the fight. Winning generally awards the player with
equipment which provides bonuses to the character’s statistics, and thus the player can go on to tackle monsters with
better statistics. Eventually, with the correct choices made and enough battles won, the player is in a position to take
on the final encounter and finish the game. This is roughly the same format as taken by WARLOCK back in 1982.
However, Michael seems to have had one or two new ideas he has added in to freshen the concept. For a start,
LEGION OF SHADOW is much bigger than WARLOCK, having 939 passages (and more if you want to download the
extras), to the latter’s 400. One of the new innovations is the map at the centre of the book. The player chooses which
passage to turn to (and hence what adventure to play through) by examining the map and picking a feature, each of
which has an associated passage number. In this fashion the player can play as much or as little as he/she likes,
although skipping to the later, harder parts of the book may prove difficult because the player’s statistics have not built
up enough to beat the encounters. The success of this kind of book relies on the feeling have having freedom of
choice to explore it. However, in the first act (of three) too few passages have been allocated to each adventure,
meaning that for a reasonable 9
story to be followed there cannot be too many choices, or the book will run out of passages before the story is told. This tends to mean that each passage ends with just one number to turn to. This renders the concept of different passages redundant; the text might as well just have been printed in one long passage, and the book is less exciting as a result. Happily, the allocation of passages in the second and third acts is far more generous, and the game improves significantly in these later sections. Unfortunately, because of this, I found the first third of the book fairly boring. The writing is extremely pedestrian and often stodgy. Without the interest of making lots of choices I found the first third a real chore to get through, and I can imagine people being put off by this. While the structure and game aspect gets better later on, unfortunately the writing does not. The basic plot, imagery and fantasy feels very generic, much like hundreds of other sub-Tolkien (or sub-Eddings / Feist / McCaffrey for that matter) novels printed in the last twenty years. I can remember enjoying WARLOCK and its sequels back in the 80s, but THE LEGION OF SHADOW doesn’t really seem to be as enjoyable as my memory of those earlier books. Admittedly, to put this in context, I have spent the last 25 years playing fantasy games of one sort or another, from Warhammer to Dungeons and Dragons, and it may be that I have seen so many creative and interesting scenarios LEGION simply pales by comparison. Maybe for someone new to the concept this game might be an ideal introduction, providing a simple and approachable starting point to fantasy gaming. This book was originally self-published, and Gollancz have taken it on due to its success. However, I do not think that THE LEGION OF SHADOW or the Destiny Quest series is going to start off a second fad for this style of game. It just does not add enough that is new to justify the cost of buying it over the current reprints of the old Fighting Fantasy games, which are half the price. Despite my feelings of nostalgia for this kind of game, I simply cannot recommend it based on the lack-lustre writing and generic setting. Fans of Michael J Ward might like to note that the second Destiny Quest book, THE HEART OF FIRE, is now out.
SUBJECT TWENTY-ONE (Tomorrow’s Ancestors) by A E Warren
Bringing back extinct hominids and Neanderthals in particular has been a theme explored by more than one SF writer.
These range from the short stories of Isaac Asimov (“The Ugly Little Boy”) and L Sprague de Camp (“The Gnarly Man”)
through to more modern novels such as David Brin’s EXISTENCE and HOMINID by Robert J Sawyer. A E Warren’s
debut novel, SUBJECT TWENTY-ONE is the latest addition.
Set in a future Earth, the human survivors of a global pandemic are limited to four cities or “Bases”. Elise is a member of the “lowest order” of humans, the Sapiens. They are strictly controlled via food and medical access by the less numerous Medius and the “highest” group, the Potiors. The difference in status is defined by their access to gene enhancements for their children – Sapiens get none unless lucky enough to win a monthly lottery, Medius can chose three for their new baby, and Potiors can have ten. Outside the Bases it is supposedly toxic and dangerous after years of devastation from pollution, habitat destruction and disease. The blame for all of this is laid firmly on the unreconstructed Sapiens who must “make amends” for their ancestors’ bad behaviour. They also cannot be trusted with responsibility due to their “inferior” abilities.
However, Elise is given a rare opportunity when she gets a job at the prestigious Museum of Evolution to be a Companion to one of a few Neanderthals now restored from extinction. The restoration of previously extinct lifeforms is one of the major projects of the Potiors, and that of restoring hominids such as Neanderthals is particularly prestigious. However, she starts to sympathise with her charge, “Subject Twenty-One” and realise how they are both subject to the arbitrary whims of the ruling group. Events develop that are a threat to both of them and she must make drastic choices to save herself, her family and the intelligent Neanderthals.
The plot of the book is quite enjoyable and moves at a reasonable pace with some exciting chases, escapes etc. although the ending felt a bit rushed. It is an easy, quick read with a linear narrative, told mainly from Elise’s point of view. That in itself is not bad but it means there is less insight into the other characters. In particular, this made me feel the villains especially lacked depth and nuance, and come across as one-dimensional rather than real, flawed human beings. While I would probably read the subsequent books in the series, in essence this is not something that stands out from the crowd for me.
THE COURT OF THE MIDNIGHT KING by Freda Warrington
Freda Warrington is a talented British writer who has yet to gain notice in the USA. This is a pity as, at her best, she
can rival the most acclaimed fantasy writers. This book is one of her best.
Currently, there is a vogue for historically-based fantasy or crime. Here we are taken back to an alternate fifteenth century. In the 1460s the country was unsettled, wars between the Yorkists and Lancastrians dominated politics, each insisting that their candidate was the rightful king of England. Katherine, visiting York with her mother is caught up in one of the changes of supremacy. Although her family is relatively unscathed, her new friend, Rafael, loses his father and later his home and (he believes) the rest of his family. For there is another conflict going on - between the male dominated Christian church and the female dominated pagan worship of Earth as mother. At the moment, the church in winning.
The novel follows the lives of both Rafael and Katherine, who, from their positions of minor nobles are able to observe the politics of the age which are leading, inevitably, towards the death of Richard the Third on the battlefield.
Richard himself moves in and out of their lives. Richard is portrayed as a good and charismatic character.
This is not a straightforward retelling of the times with a fantasy element tacked on. It is a subtle interplay between the politics of the time, the struggle of church against paganism and the hints that everything is not as inevitable as it seems.
This book is a delight to read.
THE OBSIDIAN TOWER: Book 3 of the Jewelfire Trilogy by Freda Warrington
Freda Warrington writes two kinds of books; adventure fantasy set in magical worlds and modern world supernatural (in
which I include her vampire novels and the sequel to DRACULA). This series falls into the former category. It is
difficult picking up the threads of a trilogy at the start of the final volume, especially when there is no synopsis. It is
easier if only the middle volume is missing. There are new characters, whose introduction has been missed, but on the
whole, the most important facts can be picked up by an intelligent reader.
The series began with THE AMBER CITADEL. When the king garners a tithe of workers from all corners of Aventuria to build his new tower, Tanthe's sister, Ysomir, is chosen. So she, Ysomir’s lover Lynden and his brother, Rufryd, decide to fetch her back. At this point, and for much of the first volume, this could be regarded as a standard, adventure fantasy. Once Ysomir reaches the capital, Parione, however, more interesting complications are added.
Sometime during the second volume, THE SAPPHIRE THRONE, Aventuria is overrun by Bhalidradomen, a race who suck the life out of the land.
The final volume, THE OBSIDIAN TOWER, becomes the story of how these creatures are defeated.
Unless it plays a major part in the middle volume, the concept of Jewelfire, the series title, seems greatly under- used. Fantasy trilogies need a lot of the unusual to stand out from the morass. This, unfortunately, hasn't quite got it, though it will be enjoyed by many.
THE MARTIAN by Andy Weir
This SF book has been hugely popular both inside and outside the SF field. It has been a Sunday Times bestseller,
made the Richard and Judy list and is readily available on supermarket shelves, not the norm for most straight SF
books. With all this attention I was somewhat worried whether the book could live up to all the hype. Well I need not
have worried – this is a good old-fashioned SF book which is full of adventure, meticulous science research and a
The story is set in the near future. Shortly after landing on Mars, the six person crew of the third manned mission to Mars (Ares 3) are forced to evacuate due to a massive storm threatening the living base. In the confusion, astronaut Mark Watney is injured, separated and left for dead when his monitors show no life signs. He awakens to find himself marooned on Mars with no way to communicate and the next mission isn’t due for four years. Trapped on a planet where any mistake could kill him, this is a riveting story of his ingenious efforts to survive.
The story alternates between his “first person” log entries and the “third person” viewpoint of the Earth-based scientists and the homebound Ares 3 crew. Mark Watney as a character is well-drawn and immensely likeable. His log entries feel like a real person’s voice and his use of humour to keep himself going works very well. Importantly he is not perfect and he does make mistakes but his determination and perseverance get you involved and willing him to survive.
While the technical detail might put some people off, it does not feel heavy handed. In fact this is one of the major joys of this book to me. I love the puzzle of “How is he going to get out of this?” and the logical, real solutions he finds. I am not a physics/engineering expert by any stretch of the imagination but the technical accuracy seems right to me. The problems and solutions used feel incredibly well-researched and detailed and the author has clearly spent a lot of time trying to get things correct.
The novel has been described as “Robinson Crusoe in Space” and this is a very good description. It reminds me of some of the early hard SF I read and loved and which first got me into the field, particularly Arthur C Clarke’s A FALL OF MOONDUST or astronomer/writer Hugh Walter’s children’s Chris Godfrey series. If you like your SF with a good mixture of accurate science and adventure then this book is highly recommended.
DARK ANGELS RISING (Dark Angels 3) by Ian Whates
All of us, at some point have wondered what it would be like to have a super-power, even speculated what it might be.
Authors, whose only power is a way with words, may give their characters those powers. In urban fantasy, the power to
change shape or immortality are common. In the comics many of us read in our youth the superpowers may be the
result of a mutation but in science fiction there is always alien technology.
In the future Ian Whates has created, alien technology can be found in well-hidden caches. No-one is quite sure why they are there, or what the objects were intended for. By trial and error, some have proved to be useful, others highly dangerous. In PELQUIN’S COMET the crew of that ship find a cache with items which give the crew members superpowers. These are the Dark Angels. The second book in this trilogy, THE ION RAIDER, takes place ten years after the first when the crew of the Comet have gone their separate ways. Some of them are brought back together when someone appears to be systematically killing them. This time the book ends on a cliff hanger.
DARK ANGELS RISING begins with action. Saavi – known as Cloud – is able, when in her cloud chamber, to plot possible futures and guide the rest of the team towards the best outcome. Thus they are able to rescue Mosi from a torture chamber and reach Drake before he asphyxiates on the planet he has been teleported to. The place where they found the artefacts that give them the superpowers is Lenbaya. This is like the Eldorado for cache hunters, the ultimate cache.
At the end of THE ION RAIDER, it turned out that the alien creature known as Mudball, and that most assumed to be a kind of pet that hung around with Drake, is one of the Elders who created the caches in the first place. He is not as benign as they thought and has been manipulating them for a long time. Now there appears to be a race to reach and find a way into Lenbaya. Arrayed against the Ion Raider and crew are several formidable opponents all of which want the treasures they think they will find there.
This is pure space adventure. The pace is relentless, leaving the reader breathless, and the characters are engaging. In some respects, the trilogy would be better as one novel as some of the nuances are set up in the first volume and jumping in here with DARK ANGELS RISING would mean losing some of the coherence. The problem of putting all volumes under one cover would mean that two of the magnificent Jim Burns covers would be lost
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.
THE ION RAIDER by Ian Whates
Second books of either a trilogy or a series are notoriously difficult to write, especially if it is accepted that some
readers will not have seen the first book. Somehow information needs to be conveyed about the characters that
continue from one book to the other, the setting has to be re-established without boring previous readers and some
knowledge of what has gone before to prevent the reader wallowing in confusion. There are techniques and skills that
a good writer can use.
PELQUIN’S COMET introduced the far future SF setting and the principal characters. When THE ION RAIDER opens it
is about ten years later. The team known as the Dark Angels have scattered and are trying to lead lives under the
radar. Then someone tries to assassinate Jen (formerly Shadow) destroying her country retirement with Robin. She
hunts down the would-be assassin and in turn is hunted. Hooking up with Leesa (Hel N) she discovers that all the Dark
Angels are being targeted by a group called Saflik. They plan to alert the other members of the group. Some don’t
want to be involved.
Corbin Drake, their former captain, is an agent for the First Solar Bank. He leads searches for alien caches. These are
artefacts left behind by a vanished alien civilisation. The common assumption is that they were left for a following
high tech civilisation (in this case Humans) to give them a leg-up in their scientific understanding of the universe.
Some items have been useful but others are dangerous suggesting Humans are not yet ready for all the knowledge on
offer. He is sent to Enduril II where the claim is that the government has a cache but want to open it up as a tourist
attraction. It is the contents of some of these caches that have given the Dark Angels unusual abilities.
By the time Jen and Leesa arrive on New Sparta, intending to find Drake it is clear that his mission has gone wrong. It
was some kind of trap. Fortunately, Drake has left behind a back-up – the Ion Raider, a space ship that has been
mothballed for the last ten years. With a skeleton crew, they are in a race to find him.
In some ways, this is a typical space opera. There are many novels that have alien artefacts left for humans to exploit.
What is different here only becomes apparent towards the end of this novel and like any trilogy, this second volume
ends on a cliff hanger. The characterisation is good, the action well-handled but to fully understand the capabilities of
the Dark Angels, it is better to read PELQUIN’S COMET first., but has Ian Whates managed to get past the second
book syndrome? Yes, partly because of the time between adventures so that since the characters have moved on in
their lives, there is catching up to do between the protagonists. Also, as Jen, Leesa and Drake move between worlds
there is sufficient description to paint an adequate picture. It will be interesting to see how Whates deals with these
issues in book three.
Both these books are worth having on your shelves and they have spectacular covers courtesy of Jim Burns.
SKYWARD INN by Aliya Whitely
Some novels start the reader off at break-neck pace, while others take time to develop but end up none the worse for
the gentler start. SKYWARD INN is one such slow-burn novel. Initially it seems to be about a retired soldier, Jem and
her partner, Isley, an alien from the planet Qita. When a strange portal, the Kissing Gate opened in space some years
ago, humans travelled through and found the planet Qita, and its intelligent inhabitants. Greedy for new resources,
humans invaded Qita. However, the Qitans capitulated without conflict, leaving Earth free to remove what it wanted of
Qitan resources without explicit permission or compensation. One of the valued products is the local Qitan ales, which
only they know how to make.
At the start of the novel, Jem and Isley have both returned to Earth. Using Isley’s knowledge of Qitan brewing techniques and ingredients, they set up business in a local pub, the eponymous Skyward Inn and try to build a life together, despite pressures from local prejudice and Jem’s strained family links from her long absence. Jem and Isley clearly have a bond and love each other, but coming from two different species, they struggle at times which adds tension to the relationship.
However, for the reader there is a sudden realisation part-way through the narrative, that something much stranger is happening. The story changes pace and moves into more obvious science fiction territory. As what seemed previously to be minor details accumulate, they take on a new significance. A quiet, un-noticed but apocalyptic change has been developing (both for their small village and for Earth in general) and Isley and Jem’s expected lives and relationship will be altered radically.
In my opinion, this is one of those books which will totally divide opinion. The structure of the story is very clever, from the incremental ratcheting up of tension, and the scattering of veiled “clues” in the early narrative to the “reveal” in the latter part of the novel which upends expectations set in the first part. However, there is no denying that it needs patience and some may give up too early. Personally, I also found some of the characters irritating especially the relationship between Jem and her estranged teenage son, Fosse. It felt that a frank conversation early on could have sorted out a lot of later difficulties. While a character need not be likeable as long as they are interesting, Fosse (Jem’s son) was neither and his principal role seems to be mainly as witness to several events. From my point of view, my lack of connection and hence care for the characters was the main issue I had with this book. While I expect to see this book appearing on award lists, it’s hard to categorise and will not be to everyone’s taste.
Europa Suite I: THE AUTUMN CASTLE by Kim Wilkins
This is a fascinating book. It starts off in apparently normal surroundings, despite the occasional chapters devoted to
the murmurings of what is obviously a weirdo. A young woman, Christine, has chronic backpain and is haunted by the
death of her famous parents several years ago. She lives with a struggling artist in an artists' commune in Berlin. But
as me book progresses we learn what has happened to her long-lost friend who vanished years ago as a child, and how
they are connected to faeryland. Meanwhile the plot thickens as the psychopath with a thirst for faery bones stalks
This was a slow-grower for me. I have a bit of a soft spot for stories concerning fairies, witches and such-like, but to begin with the story seemed a bit sugary-sweet and rather concerned with all these too-beautiful people living in Berlin. I got rather annoyed with Christine's friends and her seemingly perfect boyfriend. But as the book went on, and I persisted, things get decidedly better, as her friend Mayfridh causes upheaval in her life in more ways than one, and suddenly there were more strands to the story than I had first suspected. This definitely added a bit more interest to the book.
So I would say stick with it. It does read at times a bit like women's literature (especially at the start), but in the end this turns out to be a mastery of gothic fairytale mixed in with ordinary everyday life. Kim Wilkins has a good knowledge of North European tales and legends, and mis shows throughout this book, which makes it an interesting step above others in the genre.
THE BITTER TWINS (Winnowing Flame 2) by Jen Williams
Sequels are hard, both for the author but also to some extent for the reader. I find this is doubly so when the first novel
has been one that I really enjoyed so there is an element of fear that it won’t be able to meet the high expectations
raised by the first. Thankfully, in THE BITTER TWINS, Jen Williams has clearly risen to the challenge and yet again
has written an intriguing and different fantasy story.
In the first book (THE NINTH RAIN) we saw a world recovering from the periodic invasions of a mysterious non-human
group called the Jure’lia. Actions taken during that first novel have led to the return of the Jure’lia but also of some of
the magical warbeasts that have been the only effective resistance to them. However, this time things are very
different. Both the Jure’lia and the warbeasts are weakened and depleted and it is clear that previous strategies will
not work for either side. Now the Jure’lia and the opposing forces (of humans, Eborans and the warbeasts) must search
for new resources and methods to enable them to succeed. In that search mistakes will be made by both sides, and
new threats will appear.
As with the previous novel, the characters continue to be a major strength in this novel. They are not perfect heroes or
indeed villains, unlike many other fantasy stories, and they have character flaws which add to their verisimilitude but
also drive some aspects of the story in a very consistent manner. The three main characters of Vintage, Noon and Tor
continue to hold the reader’s interest and newer or minor characters are also well developed. In particular, I like the
growing relationship between the Eboran, Aldasair and the human, Berm and also the continued verbal sparring
between Tor and Noon. Indeed, the realistic, unpretentious and often humorous dialogue is one of the highlights of
the book. Unlike some traditional fantasy authors, Jen Williams also shows the personal consequences to her
characters and is not afraid to put them through emotional and physical traumas and losses.
In the previous story, the origin and biology of the Jure’lia and (to a lesser extent that of the Eborans) was not fully
explained and was one of the different features of this book which I really liked. Here we start to unearth a little bit
more although not everything and again this is an aspect that I really like. The plot also continues to move along
towards an exciting climax at the end but with still lots to be resolved in the next volume. Once again if you are a
fantasy fan, then I heartily recommend this book.
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.
THE POISON SONG (Winnowing Flame 3) by Jen Williams
This is the third and concluding volume of Jen William’s excellent and different Winnowing Flame trilogy. The first
two books, THE NINTH RAIN and the sequel, THE BITTER TWINS were reviewed in #548 and #559 issues of the
BSFG newsletter. To do a quick recap, the world has been fighting an invasion by an aggressive, intelligent species
called the Jure’lia. The resistance led by Fell-Noon, a witch who can cast winnowfire; Tor, a long-lived Eboran warrior
and Vintage, a human scientist/adventurer have had some successes with the aid of powerful war beasts, but they are
limited in number compared to previous incursions. At the end of the last book they had inflicted enough damage to
cause the Jure’lia to retreat temporarily but with significant costs to them and their resources. Now in the brief lull, they
must seek new allies and methods in order to rebuild their forces. However, the Jure’lian Queen and the traitorous
Eboran, Hestillion (Tor’s sister) are also re-assessing their tactics and everything builds towards a dramatic climax. This
has been one of my favourite fantasy series recently. Jen Williams continues to be able to write a spectacular, exciting
story. There are some wonderful and thrilling confrontations and battles between the two antagonistic groups, yet
there is always time to look at the emotional and physical toll on the individuals in the story. By this third book, this
reader was very invested in the various characters and was on constant tenterhooks
empathising with their individual traumas and triumphs and wondering who would survive. Despite all this, the author still manages to leaven this with, where appropriate, the sarcastic, irreverent and humorous dialogue which has been another of my favourite features of this series. Another strength that I have appreciated, is that the author continues to examine the motivations and justifications of the “enemy” rather than just have them as black-hearted villains – as monstrous as they appear and the effects of their invasion are, the reader can understand and to some extent, sympathise with their drives. I shall miss this world and its wonderful, unique characters and definitely recommend the entire series to fantasy fans.
COMET WEATHER by Liz Williams
With so much available that is worth reading it is not surprising that some potential readers shy away from genres that
they may have encountered in their childhood especially when told “You don’t want to read that it's ...
SF/Fantasy/Romance/Literary (delete as applicable)’. Without trying something you cannot know whether it is to your
taste. This applies equally to books as well as food. Mention fantasy to most readers and they think either of the swords
and sorcery type of mediaeval world, or more recently the urban setting peopled with vampires and werewolves. Often
forgotten is that fantasy enters our childhoods in the form of myths, legends and fairy-tales.
In COMET WEATHER the four Fallow sisters have always accepted that what others would regard as fantasy is part of their lives. The house they grew up in lies in the shadow of Glastonbury Tor and they have often glimpsed women wandering through it and the grounds bearing plants and jewels. They know them as spirits of the Behenian stars (these are significant alchemical symbols). They accept the supernatural as ordinary.
The sisters, all with different fathers, have different personalities, something that comes through clearly in the narrative. The eldest, Bee, still lives in the family home. She likes lists, is well organised and her lover is Ned Dark, the ghost of a seaman who sailed with Drake. Stella is a DJ, doing gigs around the world and is impetuous. Serena has a daughter and is a fashion designer. Her boyfriend, Ben plays in band and is the son of a family friend. The youngest, Luna, is travelling with Sam along routes frequented from times before Romany came to the shores of Britain. A year ago, their mother, Alys, disappeared. No-one knows where or why she went.
The sisters are drawn back home by a series of portents, the biggest one being the imminent arrival of a comet that last approached thousands of years ago. Also arriving is Nell, a cousin from America and an author. They may try to hide the more bizarre happenings from her but is likely she is more aware of them than they believe. Mixed up in events are siblings Tam and Dana Stare. Tam claims to be a friend of Ben’s family: Dana is currently and deliberately causing a split between Ben and Serena.
Caro Amberly is a neighbour and Alys Fallow’s best friend. She and Bee are organising an Apple Day around the time the comet is due. As all the family will be present, they are all roped in to take part in the celebrations. With the approach of the conjunction of Earth’s orbit and the comet, the sisters experience increasing mystical experiences. They are aware they need to find Alys and bring her home and avert the influence of the comet. They are unsure of the role the Stares will play but they all agree that it is likely to be malign.
Names in a novel are vitally important. If the name doesn’t match the character it strikes a false note. Here, the names of the sisters perfectly fit their personalities. The story is (mostly) told from the view-points of the four. Each (named) chapter is neatly told, not a word is wasted and each moves the plot and understanding on further. This book is delightful. It is a fantasy that veers away from the expected but uses myth to great effect. Read and enjoy.
PHOSPHORUS: A Winterstrike Story by Liz Williams
The first thing you notice about this book is the superb Jim Burns cover. Then you realise that it is only a quarter of
one panoramic painting. PHOSPHORUS is the third in a set of novellas produced by Newcon Press. This set has a
theme of Mars and the other three by Jane Fenn, Eric Brown and Una McCormack have the rest of the montage
between them. To get the full impact, you need to buy all four books and place them side by side. The contents of the
books, assuming they are the same quality as this one, are worth the money for the words as well as the covers. The
Mars depicted in Liz Williams works is a far future. The red planet has largely been terraformed and humans have built
cities linked by canals. The problem is that the cities of Winterstrike and Caud are at war. This is a society of women.
Men-remnants are banished to the wilderness and regarded as inferior. Reproduction is by cloning and genetic
manipulation. Those familiar with the novel WINTERSTRIKE will know some of the characters in this story. It begins
when Canteley is taken to live with her Aunt Sulie. As the war intensifies and the bombs fall closer, Sulie decides it is
time for the two of them to head out to distant Tharsis. There, on the plain beneath Olympus Mons, there is a very
ancient city. This isn’t just an adventure for Canteley as far out in space a ship carrying the last member of a warrior
race, Kesh is looking for a new planet to restart her race. They have come a vast distance over immeasurable time and
finally arrived in the solar system. Kesh has a choice of two possible planets and picks the red one. It is not necessary
to have read any of Liz Williams’ other work with this Mars setting as the characters quickly pass out of reach of the
centre of action familiar to those who have. Usually, for a story of this length you would expect one plot line, with a
degree of convolution. Here you get two. They are told in alternating chapters until close to the end when the two
stories intersect. The dichotomy does not distract from either part of the tale and it is surprising how so much is packed
into so few words. It takes skill to do this and if the other novellas in the series are even half as good, the project is a
WINTERSTRIKE by Liz Williams
I took this to review because the cover bears the legend: ‘A Crisis on Mars in the Far-Distant Future’. This is certainly
true – but it is so far in the future that the world bears about as much resemblance to the Mars we know as Burroughs’
Barsoom! Mars has canals (often frozen), though not in any Lowellian sense - they are the product of ancient
terraforming. But like so much else in this book, this is something we deduce; very little is explained, and we are left to
work out what’s going on from the context. Which is fine, but a little explanation would often help a lot.
The publishers and excerpts from reviews seem convinced that this is SF. Maybe, but not as we know it, Jim! Where we would expect technology, the inhabitants of Mars use ‘haunt-tech’. For security they use ‘weir-wards’. These all seem to be based on the Realm of the Dead: ghosts and spirits are in everything - machines, locks, clocks - and demons howl and gibber from the walls. . . People communicate by ‘antiscribes’, which seem to serve the same purpose as mobile or video-phones, laptops or computers. I said people, but actually I suppose this could be called a feminist book: because of the use of genetics men were eliminated long ago, Mars being run by a series of matriarchies, and women customarily marry women, babies being ‘grown’ rather created by any kind of sexual process. (Bad idea, I say!) But there are remnants of men, mainly living in the hills, including the genetically-changed vulpen. These repel most women, though one of the main characters is attracted to one. There are other Changed, too, such as aspiths, kappa and, worst of all, demothea, who have masses of tentacles, Gorgon-like, on their heads, which can whip out like lightning. And there are excissieres or ‘Scissor-women’, who seem to perform as militia or police, but communicate via wounds on their body-armour.
But what’s it about, you ask? Winterstrike is one of the main Martian cities, and is at war with Caud. (Geographically, or areographically, only the name Tharsis has survived of the Mars that we know). Each blames the other for the conflict, even when a bigger threat affects both of them. The story follows the adventures of three sisters living in Winterstrike: Essegui, Leretui (also known as Shorn after she consorts with a vulpen) and the younger Canteley, and their cousin Hestia Mar. Essegui and Hestia write their stories in the first person, which can be confusing. On the night of the Ombre festival Shorn is released from the room in which she has been locked for her transgressions, and goes on the run, chased by Essegui, part of whose soul has been stolen by a ‘majike’, Gennera Khine, at the behest of one of her mothers, the autocratic Alleghetta. (The other mother, Thea, is a weak-willed drunk).
Hestia is a spy in Caud, and searches for information in its ruined library. Here she finds the details of a weapon (whose nature is never really revealed) which she sends back to Winterstrike. She also finds a small ball which contains the ghost of the Library, which has actually been instructed to watch over Hestia, and several times helps her out of sticky situations. Secret experiments from the past start to rise from the shadows and threaten Mars with danger, and the weapon found by Hestia looms over them as retaliation. On her travels, Hestia goes to Earth (where there are still males), and just to complicate matters a Centipede Queen from Earth comes to Mars with her retinue. Meanwhile, up on the cliffs, the creatures of the Noumenon are organizing an attack in order to restore their figurehead to power in Winterstrike. There are other main characters, such as Mantis, who is one of the Changed, Peto and Rubirosa, and many lesser ones, adding to the complications.
There is no doubt that this book is well-written, and in its way original, but to me it is overly complicated and long- winded relying too much upon its mystical elements to be considered as true SF. If you like your reading to be obscure and require you to use your imagination to fill in the details, this may be for you. One final warning though: don’t start reading this book unless you are prepared to read at least two more. Although this is not explicitly stated anywhere, it is very clear by the end of the book that this is the first of at least a trilogy.
DARKER THAN YOU THINK by Jack Williamson
Originally published in 1948, this is one of the Fantasy Masterworks series. Williamson deserves his reputation as a
Master in the field and for the time, this was probably regarded as an outstanding book. It should be read as an
example of what was achievable 55 years ago. Unfortunately, time has caught up with some of the ideas.Will Barbee
meets April Bell while he is waiting for the plane of an archaeological expedition to touch down. He is a reporter and
she also claims to be one. He is attracted to her, and wary. Her behaviour seems strange, she seems too expensively
dressed for a cub reporter and she is a rival. The returning expedition claims to want to make an announcement of
enormous import before they leave the field, but their leader dies on the tarmac before anything vital is said. Barbee
suspects April had a hand in the death, though he is not sure how. He is torn between his fascination for this woman,
and the fact that the archaeologists are all friends from his college days.
April then reveals that she is a shape shifter, and informs Barbee that he is also, and the thing that the archaeologists brought back with them is a weapon against ‘their’ race. At first he believes himself to be a victim of hallucinations, but is gradually convinced. In the rest of the novel they have to destroy the contents of the chest the artefact is in, even if it means killing Barbee’s friends.
It is not a surprise that Barbee is a member of this ‘other’ race and much of the novel is a fast-paced action adventure with sinister overtones. What might have been cutting edge once, isn’t any longer. It is worth reading but only for light entertainment and to see how good SF/Fantasy was before many of us were old enough to read.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
SEVERIAN OF THE GUILD -The Complete Book of the New Sun by Gene Wolfe
The Books of the New Sun (The Shadow of the Torturer, The Claw of the Conciliator, The Sword of the Lictor and The
Citadel of the Autarch) here collected as Severian of the Guild, is not an easily approached volume. It comes
complete with high recommendations; “established classic”, “influential text”, “voted… one of the greatest fantasies of
all time”, etc. Even the most seasoned reader of fantasy must approach such with trepidation, surely?
The story itself is told in retrospect by the main protagonist (thus establishing a mode used by other authors since) who can tell the story most accurately by virtue of his eidetic memory. The world of Urth is a science-fantasy, that is to say, a fantasy using the trappings of science fiction. It is a fantasy of the far future, where one can find the detritus of past scientific achievement scattered amongst the inns and riding beasts, long adapted to other uses by people who view that same science as ancient legend.
Severian himself has been described as an uncomfortable character to be the protagonist. A member of the torturer’s guild since before he can remember, he has, like Thomas Covenant of Stephen Donaldson’s epics, committed questionable and grotesque actions. However, whereas Thomas Covenant committed heinous acts because he did not believe in the world around him, Severian of the Guild has an altered morality born of his upbringing. To Severian, his actions are the essential services performed by the Guild of Torturers. Therefore I find Severian the more sympathetic character of the two, as he is true to his belief in his place in the world.
The text is quite challenging in its own right. Where many author’s fantasy is easy to read, enjoyably light but sometime forgettable, Gene Wolfe is a member of that rare class of authors who could make a shopping list feel like fantasy because of his use of the language. Wolfe’s writings would feel contemporary with the works of Tolkien or Peake, such is the texture of his writings.
The books are littered with motifs common to fantasy; growing up, sex, betrayal, murder, exile, battle, monsters, etc., but presented in unusual ways and juxtaposed with each other in original ways that strike the reader as feeling 1970. Kapp's short story "Lambda One" was adapted for the TV series Out of the Unknown in 1966.
He was the Guest of Honor at the 1980 British National Science Fiction convention in Glasgow.
entirely unique. You may need to put more effort in to read these books than the majority of fantasies, but you are going to remember these books over and above many others also.
If you read these books, I judge you would be unlikely to regret it. All fantasy novels try to show you a different world, succeeding to a lesser or greater extent.
The Books of the New Sun sits at the top end of this scale, with very few contemporaries. I believe that this book lived up to my (high) expectations, but not necessarily in the ways I imagined it would. Difficult to describe, hard to imagine prior to reading, and hard to imagine the genre without it afterwards. An established and influential classic indeed.
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
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.
RETRIBUTION FALLS by Chris Wooding
There used to be a form of SF loosely defined as Science Fantasy in which there was a strong technological element
but almost anything the plot required - even magic and the supernatural - was possible provided it was given a veneer
of scientific plausibility. Maybe we just didn’t understand the science yet. So it is on the unknown, un-named world
where this is set. The semi-feudal, semi-medieval civilisation uses electricity and petrol and has airships fitted with
machine guns but there are also elements of the supernatural. In particular, some individuals practice the art of
harnessing unearthly beings to their will, although this daemonism is generally frowned upon if not actually illegal;
nevertheless use of this art is a very necessary plot device.
In the middle of this scenario we find Darian Frey, captain and owner of the airship the Ketty Jay. With a crew of malcontents and misfits, each with a hidden secret of some kind, he makes a precarious living any way he can, trading, smuggling and even dabbling in outright piracy. Offered a job which will pay him enough to retire he jumps at it. What he does not know is that there is a plot to overthrow the Archduke, the nearest there is to a planetary ruler, and the commencement of the plan is to assassinate the Archduke’s heir and make Frey the fall guy. With everyone’s hand against him he must stay alive long enough to discover what is going on and how to demonstrate his innocence by laying the blame where it belongs. He does so, of course, but (also of course) it is a close thing at times and there is a satisfying amount of suspense involved.
By the end of the story Frey and the members of his motley crew have each achieved some sort of apotheosis, if that is not too strong a word, having discovered mutual understanding of their own and each other’s problems and become a loyal and supportive band rather than a bunch of individuals interested only in themselves. It is possible however to see that as the icing on the cake so to speak and read the book as a (fairly) cheerful adventure. It is very inventively written, the main characters are real, rounded personalities, and it holds one’s interest from beginning to end, although it can be hard at times to escape the feeling that things happen the way they do more to help the author out of a difficulty than to further the story in a reasonably plausible manner. (It also helps that most of the opposition are, like the Imperial Stormtroopers in the Star Wars films, so useless with a gun that they couldn’t hit a building if they were standing inside it.) It makes for an entertaining read: all good knockabout stuff as the crew of the Ketty Jay lurch along from one predicament to another before coming to what I felt was a rather anti-climactic conclusion.
FINAL NOTE: RETRIBUTION FALLS is subtitled “A Tale of the Ketty Jay” and is the first volume in an open- ended series - not a serial or trilogy. I won’t be holding my breath. Michael Jones
THE FADE by Chris Wooding
This story is set in vast undergound caverns beneath the surface of a moon of a giant planet orbiting in the system of a
double star. Here dwell various apparently human-derived races who were forced to retreat from the surface when the
stars became much hotter than previously. Now, two of the leading races are fighting a bitter and seemingly endless
war. It is told from the point of view of a female soldier, a kind of super-ninja, who as well as being a ruthless killing
machine can on demand serve as a spy or an assassin.
At the beginning of the book she is fighting in a vicious battle which ends with her and her fellows betrayed and she taken prisoner. Following is the story of her escape and seeming rehabilitation as she attempts to achieve vengeance for her betrayal and personal loss.
All this is set against the detailed and excellently realised background of a strange world and its totally alien flora and fauna. It is so well described as almost to banish the doubts one might otherwise feel about the plausibility of it all.
I might have liked the book better had it not been written mostly in the present tense, which I always think is a very contrived affectation, even if it does in fact pass largely unnoticed (so why bother?). Worse still, it is laid out so that it begins with Chapter 30: subsequent chapters count down to 0 and are interlaced with a series of flashback chapters counting up to 40 but in reverse order as regards the times to which they refer. Again - why? - although it is possible to detect some underlying connections if one studies hard enough.
In fact this is probably a better book than I have made it sound. It has a fascinating background, characters one can empathise with, moments of excitement and a dramatic and unexpected denouement. Most of all, the more effort you are prepared to put into reading it the more you will get out of it.
THE IRON JACKAL by Chris WoodingThis 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.
LOST GODS by Micah Yongo
This is an ambitious and detailed debut novel which works well, apart from a few minor caveats. Unlike many
traditional epic fantasies which use a Western setting, this novel is set in an Arabic/African influenced secondary world
that works well. Neythan has been raised since childhood to be an assassin by the mysterious Shedaim group. When
he and his fellow trainees and friends are sent out on their first mission, something goes drastically wrong and he
wakes to find his friend Yannick dead and his other friend, Arianna fled (and presumably guilty of the murder). Blamed
for the killing, he pursues her, motivated by both vengeance and a need to understand her betrayal. As he travels, he
discovers the world is far more complex than his sheltered upbringing has shown him. The Shedaim are shown to be
state assassins who help maintain the rule of the Sharif over the conquered lands of the empire. The new Sharif
however is only a boy and various factions, both political and magical, are manoeuvring to take advantage of his
inexperience. As the story builds to a climax, the hidden and suppressed history of both the empire and Neythan
personally prove critical to revealing and countering the threats to the lands and people who live there.
The author packs a lot into this book of 432 pages. There are politics, ancient magics, pursuits and threats, loyalties that are challenged and tested, and the growth of the younger characters especially as they react in different ways to the drastic changes from their expected lives. The book is well-paced with lots of action and the story moves along with an energetic plot that keeps the reader engaged and interested. The prose in particular stands out for me; it is economical yet precise and evocative, which really adds depth and a highly visual realism to the world. If the book has a fault, it felt that at times there was so much going on that it would have benefitted from being longer to allow more exploration of some plot strands or minor characters. Another minor niggle, and I know there are divided opinions on the subject, but I felt the book would have benefitted from a map as the plot covers a lot of terrain.
Altogether, this is a promising first novel. It reaches a satisfying climax whilst still leaving many unresolved mysteries. I look forward to seeing how the author ties together these ongoing plot strands and character dilemmas in the next book (PALE KINGS).
PALE KINGS (Lost Gods 2) by Micah Yongo
PALE KINGS is the second book in an African/Arabian-inspired epic fantasy series. In the first book, (LOST GODS) five
junior assassins were sent on their first mission but everything unravelled and they, and the Shedaim Brotherhood
they regarded as their family, were left scattered (or dead). As they travelled, they discovered that many of the things
they had been taught about their world and its history were untrue or incomplete. In this second book, the enemy of
the Five Lands starts to move. Border cities are destroyed by strange destructive beasts and the supernatural nature
and identity of this enemy becomes clearer. The young assassins, and Neythan in particular, prove pivotal in
uncovering the nature and the means to counter this threat and also in protecting the young Sharif.
In reviewing the first book in this series, (LOST GODS in #574 of the BSFG newsletter) I said it was a promising first novel and I looked forward to seeing how the author developed the ongoing plot strands and mysteries. Thankfully PALE KINGS retains many of the elements I loved in the first book. More of the history and causes of the events in the story are revealed whilst still leaving much to be explored and consolidated in the next book. On one level this series uses many of the familiar elements of epic fantasies such as special bloodlines and magical objects that will be key to defeating the supernatural invaders. However, it takes these traditional components and produces something more distinctive and unique. The story has a complex and occasionally, a non-linear narrative which raises it above many run of the mill fantasies. There are many characters and points of view for the reader to keep track of but they do for the most part feel like “real”, believable characters and not just dropped in to drive the plot along. That this work so well feels to me because of the clear effort and details involved in the worldbuilding and the character construction. Also as before, the quality of the prose is something that really added to my enjoyment of the book – it is pin-point accurate and evocative without intruding or slowing the flow of the narrative, which is a rare skill. Having said all that, this is still a well-paced story interspersed with exciting and menacing scenes as well, and is one I thoroughly enjoyed. The author has built well on the promising start of his first novel and I would recommend it for those who enjoy intelligent fantasies. My only caveat is that it is a book which demands the reader pay attention so may not suit all readers.
DAMNATION ALLEY by Roger Zelazny
Maybe this was not the best choice of book for me. I am not a fan of post-apocalyptic books/films, finding them all
depressingly similar and pessimistic, and a bit of a bother to plough through. However I decided to give this one a go,
attracted by the reputation of the author, and the rather, well, yellow appearance of the Gollancz book - from the
‘Collectors Edition’ series.
It does not take long to read - rather a relief after the 1000-page plus fantasy tomes I have been focusing on recently! It is about an ‘anti-hero’ called Hell Tanner, one of the last of the Hells Angels, after the nuclear wars that have left much of the Earth uninhabitable and the abode of some fearsomely mutated creatures and weather conditions. One of the two main centres of civilisation left, Boston, has been hit by a plague and is going to perish unless the state of California can send some antibiotics. Being a social outcast and very unpopular with the authorities, Hell is volunteered to undertake a journey beyond all journeys, unwillingly yet strangely compelled.
The good points about this were the strong characterisation and description which really brings to life what America is now like. The howling storms, the monstrous creatures that barely resemble what we know, the craters and soaring radioactive heat, all this is vividly described. Hell is portrayed exactly as he is, a nasty piece of work out to help nobody but himself. The characters he conies up against become alive as important parts of the story, instead of becoming part of the background overshadowed by a strong piece of characterisation as the lead character. This is impressive and not what I was expecting.
The bad points are possibly my own personal gripes. I found the setting in America a bit restrictive, though I could understand that as far as the story went, the characters, and therefore the reader, would not be able to go or see outside the setting. I would have liked to know however what the world was like outside, was it as badly hit, or was the war mainly fought in America. What was the sea like, as well? These and other questions constantly came to mind. Another problem for me was that I felt the impossible terrain, played up by the survivors as being suicidal to attempt, prove not to be too big a problem for Hell, who swans through the most fearsome of obstacles without a scratch, while his (deliberately nameless) companions meet their predictable ends. This was a bit of a letdown for me, as 1 was looking forward to seeing exactly what those monsters and firestorms could do.
I was also unhappy with the ending, feeling it was a bit of a predictable comedown after such promise in the earlier parts of the book. But despite this, I did enjoy the book, it gave me something different to think about - would the world end up like this at all? And being a fan of seeing examples of nature taking control, I really appreciated the world Zelazny has drawn.
An entertaining read, in conclusion, though by no means perfect. Vicky Cook
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. Yvonne Rowse