Sunday, January 29, 2012

Blood Follows - Steven Erikson

Blood Follows (2002) is the first novella in a series of stories centred around the characters of Bauchelain and Korbal Broach. These two made their first appearance in Memories of Ice (2001) where, among other things, they have a memorable confrontations with Quick Ben. So far, four novella's has been published and it was recently announced that Erikson has delivered the manuscript for a fifth, titled The Wurms of Blearmouth, to PS Publishing. To my knowledge no publication date has been announced yet. All of the novellas are set well before events in Memories of Ice and can be read independently from the novels. Personally I think have read up to Memories of Ice is a bonus though.

All of these novellas were published in small numbers by PS Publishing in the UK. The first three received a similar treatment in the US from Night Shade Books. I own a copy of the Night Shade Books edition of Blood Follows and it is an absolutely wonderful little hardcover. It was published in 2005 and includes a cover and interior art by Mike Dringenberg. It doesn't look like Night Shade Books will be publishing more of these however. An omnibus edition of the fist three novellas has appeared from Tor books in trade paperback in 2009 and they have published the fourth separately as well. Which is more than a bit unusual for Tor, they tend to prefer longer works. Now if you just want to read the text, you're probably better off with the much more affordable Tor editions but I have fallen in love with these limited editions. I'll be keeping an eye out for the PS edition of The Wurms of Blearmouth for sure.

In the port city of Lamentable Moll, Emancipor 'Mancy' Reese has just met with an stroke of bad luck. His most recent employer joins a line of prematurely deceased masters Mancy has served when he falls victim to a serial killer that has haunted the city for eleven nights. His wife, for whom social status is all important, is less than thrilled with the news. She demands he finds a new job immediately. This, of course, is more easily said than done but a notice of a gentleman looking for a manservant looks promising. Thus Mancy the Luckless makes the acquaintance of Korbal Broach.

Humour has always been an ingredient of Erikson's Malazan books but in these novellas they take the centre stage. Mancy is something of an anti-hero, one of those character where no matter what they try, you'll know they'll end up messing it up. His employers keep dying, his children are most likely not his own, his wife terrorizes him. Luckless doesn't begin to describe his misfortune. All of this he carries with an kind of resignation that adds to the comical effect. The Germans would call is schadenfreude I suppose. On the other hand we have two very competent charters, not used to failure. Sergeant Guld, the man investigating the gruesome murders that have been causing so much unrest in the city and of course Korbal Broach himself. Not surprisingly, Mancy finds himself caught between these intellects soon enough.

These novellas are generally much lighter reading than the enormously complex Malazan novels. I enjoyed this first Bauchelain and Korbal Broach a lot but when you get right down to it, they novella suffers form a problem that many other works of this length encounter as well. The number of words spend on it, don't really seems sufficient to do the story justice. The end is quite abrupt, maybe a little rushed. The introduction of the pursuer of Bauchelain and Korbal Broach could have used a bit more attention too I think. It's lean, dark and humorous. I enjoyed reading it but don't go into this novella expecting the same level of complexity or tragedy the Malazan series has to offer. They are written to highlight an other side of Erikson's writing and as such they are good reading.

Book Details
Title: Blood Follows
Author: Steven Erikson
Publisher: Night Shade Books
Pages: 121
Year: 2005
Language: English
Format: Hardcover
ISBN: 1-597800-04-X
First published: 2002

Thursday, January 26, 2012

Moxyland - Lauren Beukes

Lauren Beukes’ second novel Zoo City drew a lot of attention last year. It was nominated for a bunch of awards and raked in rave reviews by the dozen. I wasn't quite as lyrical about is as some bookbloggers but is was certainly an interesting work. Moxyland is Beukes’ first novel. It has received its share of attention in the wake of all the attention for Zoo City but I hadn't gotten around to reading it yet. It was originally published in 2008 by a South African publisher but I read the Angry Robot e-book edition. If you are considering buying a copy I suggest you go for the paper version. The epub I read had too many formatting issues for a professional publication. The text itself however, is very much worth reading.

In near future South Africa, you’re a nobody if you’re not connected. Without a connection, you can’t pay, don’t have access to public transport or numerous public places. Your cell is a wallet, passport and access to the all important virtual life all rolled into one. The providers of all this technology and entertainment are fiercely protective of their business and have seen to it that there is a huge amount of legislation backing them up. Violations of their copyrights and terms of service carry heavy penalties, including jail terms and, perhaps worse, being disconnected. Not everybody is pleased with the level of control corporations have over everyday life. Despite the repression, resistance is growing.

I must admit I had a hard time getting into this novel. Beukes employs four points of view, with chapters named after the point of view characters. They are all written in the first person and Beukes uses language to show us the circles and subcultures these characters move around it. It’s a fine piece of writing but it took me a while to get a handle on all four. Especially Toby, who uses a lot of slang, took some getting used to. I guess it didn't help he is a real prick (as more than one character points out to him over the course of the novel). Beukes is not so liberal with her use of Afrikaans and various African languages as in Zoo City though.

The four main characters are all drawn to a nasty game of deception, resistance and illegal activities. One area where Beukes succeeds gloriously is creating a sense of suspicion bordering on paranoia. The corporations may have to means and legal right to monitor just about everything, there are always ways around such security screens. Hackers are still a step ahead of the people trying to close holes in security, the arms race between corporations and hackers is still in full swing. In fact, with the fierce competition between various corporations and despite severe penalties in contracts with employees, the lines between who belongs to what faction have blurred considerably.The whole novel is saturated with a sense of Big Brother paranoia. Online it impossible to tell who is looking over you shoulder or who is hiding behind a screen name until it is too late.

Beukes' views on the development of cyberspace and information technology is one that is at the same time disturbing and in serious danger of becoming reality. As commercial interests on the Internet become more important to the economy and absolutely vital to the entertainment industry in particular, the war between those who want more control and enforcement in cyberspace, and those who would keep the Internet 'free'. The penalty of disconnection for very severe violations has been discussed in various nations. Although I don't think disconnection would be anywhere near as severe a penalty as depicted in Beukes' story, the novel does raise the question if the net is becoming a necessity.

One of the things I found very interesting about the novel is that in between all the cyberpunk themes, Beukes' also includes the story of photographer Kendra. She is one of the people who have embraced the imperfections of analogue technology. Working with traditional film and chemicals, she incorporates them in her work. The element of chance, the random imperfections that can occur at any step of the process, even at the point of reproduction, are vital to her art. It's a bit reminiscent of the situation vinyl is still around in an age where CDs are on the way out. To reinforce this contrast, Kendra shows her work at an exposition that includes a work of art created by biotechnology. It's a prime example of the ideas and twists Moxyland has to offer.

I've just scratched the surface of the many ideas Beukes has poured into this novel. There are strange, and very unethical, forms of advertising, comments on narcotics, elaborate new forms of entertainment and dubious techniques of law enforcement and crowd control. Most of it seems disturbingly plausible, and all of it technically possible. Where the cross genre novel Zoo City contains a dominant fantastical element, Moxyland is a chillingly realistic view of the possible future. One that, despite the obvious problems with it, seems to be in the direction we're taking. Moxyland is a novel that takes a lot of time for all pieces to fall into place. I was doubtful I would end up liking this novel, but as the story progressed, I grew steadily more impressed with what Beukes has created. The novel requires a bit of patience but it rewards the reader with a very strong finale as well as lots and lots of food for thought.

Book Details
Title: Moxyland
Author: Lauren Beukes
Publisher: Angry Robot
Pages: 242
Year: 2009
Language: English
Format: E-book
ISBN: 978-0-85766-005-3
First published: 2008

Saturday, January 21, 2012

Tau Zero - Poul Anderson

I decided to sign up for the 2012 Grand Master Reading Challenge, organized by World Without End. The goal is to read and review a work by a different Damon Knight Memorial Grand Master Award winner every month. I decided to start with Poul Anderson, who was honoured with the award in 1998. Tau Zero (1970) is one of his better known works. It was nominated for the Hugo Award in 1971 but lost to Larry Niven's Ringworld. It is a very good example of hard science fiction, written in a time when the direction of the genre was being drastically changed by the arrival of new age authors. The novel is an expansion of the short story To Outlive Eternity which was first published in Galaxy Science Fiction in 1967. I'm not going to hold back on spoilers in this review, the title of the short story gives is one already anyway. You have been warned.

Fifty men and women are sent on the spaceship Leonora Christine to explore and, if possible, colonize a planet more than thirty light years away. To make the trip in a reasonable span of time, the spaceship has to approach the speed of light and make use of the time dilation effects that become appreciable at such speeds. Before deceleration can be set in, the engines needed to slow down the ship are severely damaged. Repairing them would mean shutting the acceleration engines off as well, which would result in a quick death from intense radiation. The ship's speeds keeps increasing, hurling the crew ever faster through space and time. Unless they can find a way to slow down the crew is doomed to live out their life on board the space ship.

Tau Zero is science fiction so hard it cuts diamonds. A physics lesson and a novel rolled into one. The publisher kindly provided the formula for the time contraction factor Tau, which equals the square root of 1 minus v squared divided c squared, where v stand for velocity and the constant c is the speed of light. In other words Tau equals zero when v equals c (everybody still with me?). In a more practical sense, the closer the speed of the ship gets to the speed of light, the larger the difference between time passing for the crew and time passing outside the ship. I understand that Anderson's use of Tau is a bit unorthodox but for narrative purposes it serves very well.

In a way, Anderson uses Tau to show us just how large the universe really is, something he is rather fond of doing in his other science fiction novels as well. As the velocity of the ship approaches the speed of light, minutes, hours, days, years and eventually aeons pass for every second of ship time. Galaxies are crossed, then clusters and super clusters to the point where time and distance becomes meaningless. In the end, Anderson takes us to the death of the universe itself and there a bit of speculation seeps in. The debate about the eventual fate of the universe is still raging, Anderson assumes the universe is cyclic and will eventually contract into a new singularity and expand again after a big bang. Although science has not come up with the proof for this yet, in literature the death and rebirth of the universe does make for a wonderful theme.

That's quite a lot of physics and cosmology for the reader to take in. The more experience science fiction reader will have come across these elements before. Alastair Reynolds for instance, include much more exotic science into his works. Anderson explains the physics clearly, even the more counter intuitive elements of relativity, but spares us quantum mechanics. Personally, I enjoyed the scientific passages a lot. That is my personal taste however, it will no doubt put some readers to sleep in a few pages. This novel requires some interest in physics and cosmology to really appreciate.

One might think that this would be enough science for a single novel but Anderson also throws in quite a lot of detail about the Bussard engine of the spaceship. This theoretical way of propelling a ship was first proposed in 1960 and has appeared in a number of science fiction novels by such authors as Larry Niven and Carl Sagan. It is basically a fusion engine which uses the minute quantities of free hydrogen in space to propel the ship. There has been a lot of debate about whether or not a ship powered in such a way would actually be able to reach relativistic speeds, but it's an ingenious idea anyway. Again Anderson explains the design of the engine and its limitations, which play a large part in the efforts to slow the ship down, very clearly. I thought the engineering was a bit less interesting than the cosmology but it is central to the plot and Anderson makes sure not to overdo it.

Hard science fiction has a reputation of paying less attention to character and character development. For Tau Zero that is definitely true. I guess you could consider the two people we meet in the opening chapter, the compassionate Ingrid Lindgren and the brusque Charles Reymont to be the main characters. They appear to be the people who keep the crew together and sane as Earth becomes an ever more distant memory. They are mostly people dealing with problems of the crew's morale and organizing efforts to solve their technical problems. Although towards the end of the book things get a bit more philosophical (the death and rebirth theme does have an effect on them), there is very little in the way of development in their characters.

Most of the novel is set in space so the future history of Earth is not all that important. We do get a glimpse of a society where Sweden has become the centre of power in the world after a nuclear war that almost doomed the planet. IKEA everywhere, surely this must count as a dystopia. Anderson, American of Danish descent, also weaves in some reverences to Scandinavian mythology, something that returns in many of his novel. It's a bit of an odd contrast really, the cyclic nature of the universe as described in this novel, reminded me more of Hindu mythology.

According to the blurb on the cover, James Blish considers this book the ultimate hard science fiction novel. There is something to be said for that. I have rarely read a novel with such rigorous scientific underpinnings. Anderson had a degree in physics and in other novels it is quite clear that he thought about the properties of fictional planets he created. In Tau Zero he takes it way beyond that and makes physics the main character. The scope of the novel, in time and space is almost beyond comprehension (something the author points out several times in the text). Anderson takes hard science fiction as far as it will go, in that sense it is the ultimate novel in this particular sub-genre. That being said, it does not escape the shortcomings generally associated with the sub-genre. I'd say it is a must read for fans of hard science fiction only.

Book Details
Title: Tau Zero
Author: Poul Anderson
Publisher: Gollancz
Pages: 190
Year: 2006
Language: English
Format: Mass Market Paperback
ISBN: 978-0-575-07732-4
First published: 1970

Wednesday, January 18, 2012

Aces High - George R.R. Martin

Aces High is the second mosaic novel in the long running Wild Cards series. It is one of four volumes published in 1987, this series certainly got off to a flying start. Contributing authors to this volume are Lewis Shiner, Roger Zelazny, Walter Jon Williams, Melinda M. Snodgrass, Victor Milán, Pat Cadigan, John J. Miller, Walton Simons and George R.R. Martin himself. The edition I read is a recent reissue by Tor. Unlike the 2010 reissue of the first volume, Wild Cards I, it does not contain any new material. Wild Cards I is in essence a collection of short stories set in a shared world, making it relatively easy to include new material. Aces High is a more ambitious work in a way. It features a strong overarching story. Although the individual contributions of the authors are still clearly recognizable, Aces High blends them to a greater extend. It reads much more like a regular novel than the first book in the series.

The appearance of the Wild Card virus in the wake of world war II has proven beyond a doubt that extraterrestrial life exists. One member of a sentient alien race, Dr. Tachyon, has become a well known figure in New York society but his species is far from the only ones to inhabit the galaxy. In the 1980s, one of the most feared races in the universe makes an appearance. The semi-sentient swarm has been known to strip planets bare on sentient life and it intends to do so with Earth. In the mean time, a group of Aces with phenomenal powers is hatching a plot to gain control over the planet. And here too, alien technology appears to be part of the plan.

It's quite a shift in focus from the exploration of Wild Card powers and the integration of Wild Cards victims in American society seen in the first volume to threatening the alien invasion in the second. All of it is very much in the style of the comics that inspired the series in the first place, but does take some getting used to. The malicious nature of the swarm is ever present in this novel, in true comic style, these aliens are a nightmare come true. The authors play on the fear of insects many people harbour and enlarge it to create, among other things, a number classic comic style fighting scenes. That is not to say the authors stick to the comic clichés entirely. They can't resist twisting it a bit here and there.

Martin himself has a big influence on the final shape of the novel. He edited the whole, wrote a piece on the Great and Powerful Turtle, who is suffering from a mid-life crisis and a serious case of a broken heart, and wrote the connecting interludes on Jube, the newspaper selling alien passing as a Joker. It's quite obvious that a lot more editing has going into this volume than if the first one. The stories in Wild Cards I can, with a little background on the premise of the world, be read independently, in this novel too much of the context would be lost. It gives the authors in the first volume much more room to have their own voice and style shine though. This novel is edited to a smooth whole. Depending on your preferences, that can be either a good or a bad thing. Personally, I don't think the series would have survived as long as it has without introducing this kind of structure to the mosaic.

Some of the Aces and Jokers appearing in the first volume show up again. Besides the aforementioned Great and Powerful Turtle, one of the more notable Jokers is the Sleeper, originally a character created by Roger Zelazny. The Sleeper is one of the characters I enjoyed most in the first volume but despite Zelazny returning to him, he feels a bit more bland this time around. His contribution is a fun read but it doesn't include the tragedy of his condition in the way that the first story on this character does. I guess he is one characters who did not benefit for the new approach.

Melinda M. Snodgrass has no problems taking us back to the Dr. Tachyon of the first volume. A character even more tragic than the Sleeper but also very flamboyant in his way. Dr. Tachyon is pivotal in the eventual resolution of the plot and I think he is one of the more interesting characters in the novel. Another character that worked very well for me is Fortunado. Lewis Shiner's introduction to the story is a very dark and foreboding piece of writing, introducing us to the mysterious masonic lodge and the red pennies motive that will play an important part in the rest of the novel. A wonderful bit of writing.

I guess this volume signals change for the reader. It exchanges some variety and distinctness found in the first volume for a more solid story arc in the second. I don't think the series would have lasted twenty-five years and produced twenty-one volumes (I understand there is a twenty-second in the works continuing the Fort Freak story line). It also shifts the focus a bit from the Aces and Jokers to the various alien races that inhabit the Wild cards universe. Maybe doing both at once is a bit too much of a good thing but who can resits a dose of horrific extraterrestrials, superheroes who are both tragic and heroic (and never end up with the girl) and some fine over the top fighting scenes to keep the adrenaline going? Aces High is both massively entertaining and a solid foundation for the rest of the series. I can't wait for the reissue of the third volume: Jokers Wild.

Book Details
Title: Aces High
Author: George R.R. Martin (editor)
Publisher: Tor
Pages: 399
Year: 2011
Language: English
Format: Paperback
ISBN: 978-0-7653-2616-4
First published: 1987

Sunday, January 15, 2012

Direct Descent - Frank Herbert

One of the projects I've been working on pretty much from the start of this blog, is reading and reviewing all of Frank Herbert's novels not set in his Dune universe. Last year, for reasons not quite clear to me, I didn't get around to reviewing a single one. Very strange considering the trouble I went through, to acquire some of the less well known novels. Direct Descent (1980) is one of the novels I haven't read before. It hasn't been reprinted in ages, the most recent edition I could find dates from 1988. Given the quality of the work, I am surprised it got reprinted at all. It is by a fair margin the weakest novel by Frank Herbert I've read.

In the far future the whole of Earth's interior has been taken up by a gigantic library. Ships travel the known universe to collect information about just about everything and bring it back to Earth to archive it and make it available to the entire galaxy. The first and foremost rule of this organization is the always obey the government whomever that may be. A rule meant to underline the institutes strict neutrality. But what if the government sends its warships at you? How can you defend yourself armed with archives full of useless knowledge and a policy of strict obedience?

Direct Descent is expanded from the short story The Pack Rat Planet, which first appeared in Astounding in December 1954. It is one of Herbert's earliest science fiction stories, published before his first novel The Dragon in the Sea (1956). It's not the only short piece Herbert expanded to a novel. He did the same with the Lewis Orne stories which were turned into The Godmakes (1972) and The Green Brain (1966) was originally a shorter piece too. I've tried to find the text of the original story but apparently the copyright on this one hasn't expired yet. My guess would be that the original story is part one of the novel, with a part two added later.

Although this work is usually listed as one of Herbert's novels, I doubt it actually exceeds forty thousand words. My mass market paperback edition has 186 pages, of which at least 80 are taken up by pencil drawings credited to one Garcia. Name doesn't ring a bell with me but given the absolutely dreadful cover (that poor fellow looks like he is about to throw up), perhaps that is for the best. I didn't think any of the interior illustrations were particularly inspired work either.

To be hones,t I am amazed that Herbert published this. Or that it was the same man who wrote The Dosadi Experiment just a few years prior, and went on to produce three more popular Dune novels. It simply lacks just about everything that makes Herbert's work interesting. Besides the idea of the gigantic library, which apparently came to Herbert after visiting the Library of Congress, there is very little in the way of worldbuilding or interesting scientific or philosophical concepts present in the novel. Where Herbert's works are usually filled to overflowing with ideas, for some reason he doesn't use the main strength of his writing in this novel. It brutally exposes how little is left when you take that away.

The two parts of the novel are only very loosely connected to each other. Other than the setting and the nature of the threat (government trying to pull the plug on the Library) there isn't a whole lot that connects the stories. Herbert made no attempt whatsoever to turn this into one novel, he just added a second story. I don't think it ever appeared in a magazine but it could be read independently. Both plots are pretty straightforward and in both instances the policy of strict obedience serves the library well. I guess you could see this work as satirical, a government not in control of it's own creation. If satire was what Herbert intended, the Jorj X. McKie stories succeed a lot better in that.

This novel is without a doubt the worst think I've read by Herbert. It's a very weak attempt at expanding a short story that barely had enough body to make it work in the short format. Some people feel that Herbert's skill as a writer usually cannot keep up with his insights and ideas, a few even go so far as to declare anything beyond Dune unreadable. Personally I am a bit more tolerant of what are usually considered flaws in his writing. In this novel however, I have failed to find anything that usually appeals to me in Herbert's work. I guess the completist will want to read it anyway, but if you are not, don't feel bad about skipping it.

Book Details
Title: Direct Descent
Author: Frank Herbert
Publisher: Ace Books
Pages: 186
Year: 1981
Language: English
Format: Mass Market Paperback
ISBN: 0-441-14903-0
First published: 1980

Saturday, January 14, 2012

Reading Challenge

I don't usually participate in these kinds of things. I like to pick my own reads as much as possible and keep the content on Random Comments varied. One of the things I mean to do is read more SF classics this year and the 2012 WWEnd Grand Master Reading Challenge seems to fit that resolution perfectly.

The goal is to read one book by one of the authors who has been awarded the Damon Knight Memorial Grand Master Award. A different author each month. The list of winners includes many of the greats of the genre, one book a month by one of these authors should be manageable. I'm starting with Tau Zero by Poul Anderson, a novel that has been on the to read stack for a while now. Expect a review sometime next week. I'll have to have a look in the bookcase to see what else I can dig up. Suggestions are welcome of course.

Interested in joining? Check out this blog entry over at Worlds Without End for the details.

Thursday, January 12, 2012

Wizard of the Pigeons - Megan Lindholm

This is the ninth out of ten books Lindhom wrote under this pen name, before moving on to her Robin Hobb alter ego. The tenth, Cloven Hooves (1991) is unfortunately out of print so I have no idea when, or if, I can get my hands on that. There is a fairly recent Dutch translation but I would rather read the original. Wizard of the Pigeons (1986) is still available as mass market paperback. I got a copy last year and as usual is spent too much time on the to read stack. Once again I am impressed with the diversity of Lindholm's writing. This book is again unlike any of the others I've read. I guess you could call it an Urban Fantasy before the werewolf boyfriends took over, or maybe magical realism would fit better. It is a very good book whichever genre label you prefer.

For those who can see it, Seattle, the Emerald City, is a place of magic. Living by his own rules, Wizard makes a living on what opportunities the city offers. He has elevated scavenging to an art and appears comfortable in his life as Wizard. Soon it becomes clear that all is not well in Seattle however. A ghost form Wizard's past is threatening the city and he is the only one who can stop it. His past is pulling at him to leave the magical existence he's built for himself and reintegrate in the mundane world, but doing so while this threat remains unchallenged would threaten more than just Wizard's life. He will have to confront and defeat this creature to save the city. He knows he has a chance of doing so, if only he could stick to the rules of his magic.

When we meet Wizard, he is a man without a past. Even his name is gone and he tries very hard to keep his own past at bay. Even claiming that he cannot remember what he was before he became Wizard. He's a perfect example of the unreliable narrator and one of the strong points of this novel is how Lindholm uses this to build her story. It is clear early on that Wizard is a homeless man and that much of what he perceives as magic are tricks that help him survive on a day to day basis. He invents routines that keep himself safe and relatively comfortable. They are ways to allow himself to ignore the abject poverty in which he lives and hopelessness of his situation. There are a few things that cannot be explained by denial or self preservation however.

His magical talent is called Knowing. When people talk to him, once in a while Knows things about them and is compelled to answer their question or provide a solution to their problem. This magic is not free, in order to use it, Wizard must abide by a lot rules; a celibate life, never to carry more than a dollar in small change on him and feed an protect his pigeons to name a few. This is another area where Lindholm mixes reality and imagination. Part of Wizard's rules are designed to keep people away from him. He never lets anyone near and is very careful not to have his hide-out discovered. When someone does manage to get close, his past inevitably comes calling. The story develops a second layer once details of his past as a Vietnam veteran emerge, one that is even more heartbreaking than the magical side of the tale.

Wizard is not the only one able to see and use the magic of the city. We meet three more people with magical abilities in the city of which Cassie is closest to Wizard. She introduced him to Seattle's magical side and has her own taboos associated with using her magic. Cassie is an intriguing character, often confusing Wizard (and the reader) with the roundabout way in which she tries to explain things to him. The way Cassie's behaviour and the resolution of the novel both come back to their respective taboos, real and imagined, is some of the best Lindholm has written. As usual, she uses her characters hard, Lindholm is not a writer who likes straightforward happy endings.

The city of Seattle is described in colourful detail in this novel. Wizard has an eye for its beauty and the the history that shaped the city's appearance. I think people who are familiar with the city will get a lot more out of this aspect of the novel. Wizard's perceptions allow him to spot opportunities easily but also serve to give the reader a glimpse of what the magical Seattle would look like. While the novel shows the Emerald City at its best, Lindholm is equally capable of turning Seattle into a grey, rainy and depressing place or a hostile and threatening one, suiting Wizard's mood in such scenes. The Wizard is sensitive to the mood of the city and Lindholm's descriptions reflect these moods very well.

Wizard of the Pigeons is a novel with many layers. Do you choose to see Wizard as a Vietnam veteran suffering from post-traumatic stress syndrome or a figure not unlike Merlin? It is a story of unrequited love, a magical quest or facing a dark past? Is Seattle magical or mundane? Is the city sheltering him or is he protecting the city? Lindholm leaves the reader a lot of room to interpret the story but nonetheless manages to write a conclusion to the story that makes all the elements fall into place. The author packs a lot into this slim volume, most of it just under the surface of the main narrative. The author does not provide all the answers, you must go digging for your own. Every novel I read by Lindholm strengthens my opinion that these books are seriously under appreciated and this one was no exception. A definite candidate for this year's best of list.

Book Details
Title: Wizard of the Pigeons
Author: Megan Lindholm
Publisher: Voyager
Pages: 298
Year: 2002
Language: English
Format: Mass Market Paperback
ISBN: 978-0-00-711256-2
First published: 1986

Monday, January 9, 2012

City of Light & Shadow - Ian Whates

City of Light & Shadow is the third volume in The City of a Hundred Rows. As with the second volume, City of Hope & Despair, I got an ARC though publisher Angry Robot's fabulous Robot Army. I'm not entirely sure how many volumes Whates means to write in this series but it may be more than three. This one certainly provides a measure of closure for some of the story lines started in the previous two volumes but it also leaves plenty of opportunities and unanswered questions to write more. The series is one that suits publisher Angry Robot perfectly, refusing to stay within the confines of one genre, it contains elements of urban fantasy, steampunk and increasingly, the more classic epic fantasy. It's a very interesting mix but as with the previous two books, I am left with the feeling that perhaps Whates didn't get the most out of the unusual setting he created. It is highly readable, fast paced and entertaining novel nonetheless.

Tom has managed to reach the goddess worshipped by the people of Thaiburley, only to find out she expected to be awoken much earlier. Time is desperately short and soon, Tom's mind is crammed with every bit of knowledge he needs to possess to save the city from doom. The goddess is using him hard and Tom begins to wonder if perhaps he spends a bit too much time listening to others. Kat in the mean time, realizing their extinction is only a matter of time if they keep on going as they have, is preparing to settle her Tattooed Man in one of the vacated street-nick territories. First there is a bit of unfinished business with the Soul Thief to attend to however. Business that will take her in some of the most dangerous territory in the under-City. A region known as the Stain.

One of my remarks on the previous two volumes is that Tom is a bit of a passive main character. He needs others to tell him what to do and then he does them, usually without argument. In this book that is slowly beginning to change when Tom starts to wonder what he wants with his life and how he should employ is powers. Of course he is in way too deep now to back out but it is still a sign he is growing up. One of the things he questions most, if the origin of the goddess (and her brother). This is one area where Whates leave a lot of room to expand his world. He hints at a whole universe besides the world Thaiburley is located in. I guess Whates might well be thinking of adding some more science fiction elements in later volumes.

Where Tom is struggling to understand and harness his powers, Kat is facing up to the burden of leadership. Something she doesn't do with good grace to be honest. It is one thing to be a kick-ass pit fighter, leading a group of people into battle is quite something else. Whates shows us the inner turmoil and how it contrasts with the tough face she puts on in dealing with her own people as well as members from the Kite Guards. Kat can be a bit overbearing at times, especially when she's wrong and doesn't want to admit it, if she wasn't too handy by half with a sword someone would probably have spanked her by now. It is a great way of showing how young these characters are though.

Dewar, the man who Tom has had to leave behind on his way to the goddess, also makes an appearance in this novel. After Tom cuts him loose he decides it is time to settle a few old scores. We come to know a bit more of the neighbouring nation of the Misted Isles. Unfortunately his visit is very brief. Politics appear to be particularly vicious in this part of the world and Dewar's history entirely isn't cleared up yet. I did think a bit more of a link between the activities of Dewar and events in Thaiburley would have been nice though. Dewar's actions do have an impact on Thaiburley, or at least when the novel ends it looks like they will, but nobody in that city appears to be aware of what is going on there. It's the story line which contains the most obvious unresolved bit of business I guess. It wasn't that I didn't enjoy Dewar's ruthlessness but his story is so disconnected from the rest of the tale at this point, that is felt like reading two separate stories at times.

In the previous two volumes, Whates has already shown that he likes to keep the story moving. City of Light & Shadow is a fast paced, fairly straightforward novel, one that does not sacrifice pace to add a bit more detail. Personally I think that is a bit of a missed opportunity, given the interesting setting Whates has created. The nature of the city of Thaiburley becomes a bit clearer, but its history remains as confused as Tom's memory of them for the most part. There is not denying that the fast pace and plentiful action scenes make for a very entertaining story though. It's one of those books you blaze though in a day or two. It is not the most challenging series of books I've ever read but the series is definitely beginning to grow on me. No idea if there will be one but I think I'd like to see a fourth book.

Book Details
Title: City of Light & Shadow
Author: Ian Whates
Publisher: Angry Robot
Year: 2011
Language: English
Format: E-book
ISBN: 978-0-85766-191-3
First published: 2011

Friday, January 6, 2012

Saints Astray - Jacqueline Carey

Jaqueline Carey's novel Santa Olivia was one of the surprises of 2009 to me. Published in 2009 between Kushiel's Mercy, the final volume in her Imriel trilogy, and Naamah's Kiss, the first in the Moirin trilogy, it broke away from the rich fantasy setting of the Kushiel series and introduced a bleak, near future setting with a distinct post-apocalyptic feel to it. A break from fantasy clearly did Carey good. It was fresh, interesting and surprisingly successful. Obliviously there had to be a sequel. Carey delivered the manuscript for this sequel pretty soon after the publication of Santa Olivia but had to wait for a publication slot to open up in the publisher's schedule. Almost two and a half years after Santa Olivia, the sequel Saints Astray was published. It turned out to be a lot lighter read than Santa Olivia in many ways.

After their escape from Outpost no. 12, or Santa Olivia as the town used to be called, Loup and Pilar make their way to Mexico City were various people are interested in talking to them. A US senator looking into the Outpost situation, their existence is still being denied by the military, wants them to testify when he has gathered enough proof. Loup also receives an offer to work as a body guard, for which her superhuman strength and speed make her supremely suited. After a visit to her cousins in Mexico, Loup and Pilar decide to accept that offer but despite the luxury and glamour of their new life, the plight of the people in Santa Olivia and Loup's genetically manipulated cousins keeps drawing their attention. Something must be done to rectify that situation.

Santa Olivia was a pretty dark novel. It portrayed the poverty and severe shortages as well as abuse of power in the confined setting of this one small community. In Saints Astray the whole wide world opens up to Loup and Pilar. Girls who have never experienced any kind of luxury, suddenly find themselves in a world where a lot is possible. What's more, they quickly acquire the means to enjoy these luxuries and are not afraid to spend their money, or anybody else's for that matter. It gives the whole novel a bit of an air of wish fulfilment.

Something that adds to this is their new career in security. Having the only genetically modified bodyguard in the business does not come cheap and soon Loup and Pilar are introduced into the world haute couture, rock stars and spoilt little rich girls. Unsurprisingly, the two turn out to be very good at their job. I must admit the was the story unfolded in the opening chapters of the novel is so predictable I feared the worst for this novel. Things get a bit better when Loup develops a kind of celebrity of her own. Attention that will help her bring the injustice of the situation in Santa Olivia and her own precarious legal status in the US to light.

Somewhere around the halfway point of the novel, it clearly shifts into a more serious mode. We leave the big spending, glamorous secret agent part of the novel behind and move into territory that is a bit more science fictional. The US is portrayed as a fairly closed country. One that, after the pandemic that swept across the world decades earlier, is still ruled by paranoia and where state security is seen as a great excuse to cover up all sorts of dubious practices. It could be seen as criticism of the way security in a post 9/11 world is seen as an excuse to curtail all kinds of liberties. Loup's own legal status is perhaps even more interesting. It delves into the question if one can actually own DNA (or the patent to genetic alterations I suppose). There have been science fiction novels that dig a lot deeper into this. Most notable is probably Paolo Bacigalupi's The Windup Girl. Carey mostly uses this matter to turn Loup's situation into a civil rights struggle but the consequences of considering DNA property go far beyond that.

Although not a particularly challenging read, there is only one thing that really bothers me about Saints Astray and that is the relationship between Loup and Pilar. Both of them seem to be in need of constant confirmation that the other still loves them. it's a scene that, in one guise or another, returns frequently. In fact, just about every time a remotely attractive secondary character shows up. Their love for each other is then confirmed in a round of  spectacular sex which, in case you are wondering, is not described explicitly. For that you really want the Kushiel novels. It sounds like the two of them have a lot of fun confirming their love for each other but I don't think the reader needs to hear about it quite so often.

I didn't enjoy Saints Astray as much as I did Santa Olivia. As a sequel, this novel comes with expectations the first novel was not burdened with and it simply does not live up to mine. That being said, if you take this novel for what it is, a light, somewhat fluffy read, it is not a bad read. This novel is fun in the way a James Bond movie is fun. Not because it is realistic but because it's an entertaining bit of daydreaming. If that is the sort of thing you are looking for, Saints Astray will work very well.

Book Details
Title: Saints Astray
Author: Jaqueline Carey
Publisher: Grand Central Publishing
Pages: 356
Year: 2011
Language: English
Format: Paperback
ISBN: 978-0-446-57142-5
First published: 2011

Tuesday, January 3, 2012

Pushing Ice - Alastair Reynolds

A new year, that means new year's concert by the Wiener Philharmoniker, ski jumping in Garmisch-Partenkirchen and an Alastair Reynolds review on Random Comments (for no other reason than that I say so). I'm afraid I missed the first two (anybody know who won the ski jumping?) but I thought I'd make it one out of three at least. Pushing Ice (2005) is a standalone novel. It is not set in the Revelation Space universe and as far as I can tell it is not related to any of his other works either. On his website (see FAQ), Reynolds mentions that there may one day be a sequel though. The universe may not be familiar to the reader, it is space opera on an intimidating scale. Fans of the Revelation Space novels, will recognize a lot of those books in Pushing Ice. Unfortunately, I don't think this novel gets close to the best the Revelation Space universe has to offer.

The year is 2057 and humanity has escaped the Earth's gravity well. The outer planets and asteroid belt are frequently visited by mining ships, of which the Rockhopper is one. When Saturn's moon Janus inexplicably leaves orbit and heads out of the solar system in the direction of Spica, a star in the constellation Virgo, the Rockhopper is the only ship close enough to have any chance of intercepting the moon. Their fuel situation is precarious however, they might have enough for the return trip but it'll be tight. The crew has to make a difficult decision. Seize the chance of a lifetime to explore what can only be an alien artefact, or play it safe and return home. The majority of the crew feels the chance cannot be wasted and the Rockhopper sets out on a journey that will take them far beyond their wildest expectations.

Especially early on in the novel, the story is very technical. It's clearly influenced by Arthur C. Clarke and goes into detail about such matters as propulsion, fusion engines and data traffic over vast distances. A bit later on relativistic effects also make an appearance. One thing that doesn't get explained, or maybe I just missed it, is the sustained 5G acceleration the Rockhopper experiences in the wake of Janus. The way they find out about is is very ingenious but what happened to inertia is unclear to me. The technical side of this novel has many existing scientific theories behind it. You can't just treat is like Star Trek techno babble and that makes it an interesting novel for a hard science fiction fan. In other novels Reynolds mixes in elements of Noir, (Century Rain and The Prefect) or Steampunk (Terminal World, a novel I have yet to read). Not in this book, it is pretty much uncut (new) Space Opera.

It has to be said, there is more than a bit of soap opera in Pushing Ice. A bitter conflict between the ships captain Bela Lind and her friend, confidante and Rockhoppers chief engineer Svetlana Barseghian erupts early on in the novel and carries on throughout the entire story. I liked the way Reynolds used it to show the reader that data doesn't always reflect reality in the way we think it does early on in the novel. Later on however, sheer stubbornness takes over and both ladies do such profoundly stupid things that I wouldn't have been surprised in if Bela's evil twin sister had made an appearance. Rest assured, she doesn't.

As usual, the scope of the novel is impressive. It reaches into the far future and introduces several alien species. I guess you could say Reynolds offers another explanation for the Fermi Paradox (if the chances of intelligent life developing elsewhere in the universe are so large, why haven't we found them?), which is central to the plot of Revalation Space. By keeping strictly to the human point of view who, despite the distance they travel, remain very sheltered for most of the novel, it never develops beyond a theory though.

The limited point of view may be a bit of a let down for some readers. Where in the Revelation Space books Reynolds develops a detailed future history, the one in Pushing Ice remains very vague. Contact with the rest of humanity is lost early on and the exact location of the Rockhopper's crew is in question for a lot of the novel. The alien cultures they encounter are not that eager to divulge such information either, if they possess it themselves. Motives, histories and capabilities remain very uncertain. The universe is a dangerous place, so much is obvious, but it remains a very mysterious place as well. I guess Pushing Ice is not a book for people who like their stories neatly tied up. There is more than enough unexplored territory for the a sequel.

Pushing Ice was an entertaining read, a remarkably quick one in fact. I usually have to take my time with Reynolds. Entertaining is not the same as good though. The first half of the novel is a very interesting read read for fans of hard Science Fiction but the second part, when long term survival starts to look more likely, is overshadowed by problems with the characterization and the ever lurking danger deus ex machina at the hands of mysterious alien races. The novel simply doesn't even get close to works like Chasm City, or the more recent novella Troika. Entertaining yes, but nowhere near the best Reynolds is capable of.

Book Details
Title: Pushing Ice
Author: Alastair Reynolds
Publisher: Gollancz
Pages: 517
Year: 2008
Language: English
Format: Paperback
ISBN: 978-0-575-08311-0
First published: 2005

Sunday, January 1, 2012

I Caved and Created a Twitter Account

I'm not a great fan of this particular service but I guess it is time I get dragged into the new decade before it is over. For those of you who like that particular social medium, I can now be found on Twitter ( No followers looks a bit sad so please help me get rid of that dreaded zero ;) I promise to keep it updated :P I'm afraid I haven't overcome my aversion to Facebook yet. Maybe next year.