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Wednesday, 14 January 2015

River of Gods by Ian McDonald

I have no idea where I picked this up or why. All I know is that I found the title on my reading list last month, drew a complete blank and then decided, "Eh, why not?" So no pre-reading impressions this time, because my memory has shown its true colours for once.

River of Gods follows a large ensemble cast of characters, all converging on the Indian city of Varanasi as it approaches the centenary of Indian independence. Together, their individual plots combining to create a story of political intrigue, civil unrest and the dawning of new technologies that no-one is quite prepared to face. There's Shiv, a penniless gangster trying to claw his way back to power; Mr Nandha, a civil servant who polices illegal AI programmes, and his wife Parvati, who is trying to find happiness in her new marriage; Shaheen Badoor Khan, a prominent political advisor and furtive admirer of the controversial "nutes"; Najia, a journalist trying to find her big news scoop; Lisa, a scientist contacted by the US government to observe a strange phenomena in space; Tal, a nute who ends up with all the wrong people at all the wrong times; Vishram, a comedian summoned back home after his father makes a critical business decision; and Lull, a once-prominent AI researcher who just wants to disappear.
So, the good stuff. Holy cow, does this ever get involving. I was sceptical at first, as it does start quite slowly and does throw you into all the Indian terminology and slang. But as time went on, and these disparate characters got ever more intertwined, it just became so absorbing and interesting. There was little of what you could term wasted words, with the majority of plot points brought up returning later with greater significance and importance. If there was anything that could have been cut, then I would say that Parvati's plot thread might not have been strictly necessary; but at the same time, I would argue that she is the most normal, sympathetic and tragic of the characters presented, so she acts more as an emotional grounding, the everyday person caught up in the chaos. I know that one of my complaints in my last review, for The Difference Engine, was that it took too long to get to the plot, but somehow this gets the balance right; while I spent a good half of River of Gods wondering how everything all tied together, the way that it kept each character fresh and vivid in my mind and the regularity with which they were revisited helped to bring everything into something cohesive a lot quicker and easier than Gibson and Sterling managed. Additionally, it might just be me, but I found the change in setting to be quite refreshing. There's something about India and its culture that kind of fascinates me, so I was glad that the setting actually felt like it was in India, rather than generic American/European sci-fi set #42 with a spray of South-East Asian paint. Now I can't be 100% sure about the accuracy, but I thought that the religious divides, largely between Hindus and Muslims, in the country were particularly interesting to read about, and definitely something that I would consider reading more on.
On to the more negative aspects, I thought that towards the end McDonald started to focus more on one or two specific plot threads, leaving some feeling a bit unfinished. It's not a book-breaking point, but I do feel like these characters had their closure while I wasn't looking or something. Secondly, I thought that some science fiction elements included could have been written with maybe a little more depth. For example, you find out that genetic engineering has reached the point where some children are being born who will live twice as long and grow up half as quick, named Brahmin by the population at large. Their presence in the novel seems to largely be background flavour with no real significance, but you wouldn't know it by the attention that is focused on them sometimes. Again, a pretty minor point, but it does bug me a little.

Overall, a fantastic book that I would thoroughly recommend to any science fiction fan. It's a little slow to start and the glossary at the back is an utter necessity, but otherwise it's a really engaging read that presents interesting ideas and concepts in simple and uncluttered language. Definitely one to pick up. 4.5/5

Next review: Eldritch Tales: A Miscellany of the Macabre by H. P. Lovecraft

Signing off,

Sunday, 21 December 2014

The Difference Engine by William Gibson and Bruce Sterling

Ever since I got heavily into Steampunk during my time at college, The Difference Engine has been one of the books that constantly comes up as one of the genre's forerunners, something that everyone interested in Steampunk should read. So, when I actually got round to reading it, I was really looking forward to getting sucked into a world of adventure, fantastical science and bright hopes for the future.

I really should have kept Gibson and Sterling's background in Cyberpunk more in mind. This wasn't the bastion of optimism that I had been expecting, given the values of the genre. No, this was focused very much on the "-punk" part of the genre's name, set in a world of great progress and ingenuity that is hampered by class wars. Admittedly not as grim as many cyberpunk novels and films that I've seen, but it was still something of a shock. The main action follows three main viewpoint characters. The first is Sybil Gerard, the daughter of a former Luddite politician who has fallen on hard times in the years since his death. The second is Edward Mallory, a palaeontologist at the peak of his career after discovering a complete dinosaur skeleton. And finally, there is Laurence Oliphant, a journalist/spy based on a historical figure of the same name. The thing that bring these three people together is a set of punch cards that have been attracting significant attention due to their association with Lady Ada Byron, though no-one seems to have any real idea of their contents. I personally found it very hard to get through this, simply because the plot was so slow and circuitous. So many names and events turned up over the course of the novel that it was hard to keep track of when someone returned in the narrative; as such, I'm sure that there were events that should have seemed more significant, but weren't in my mind. And at the end of it all, I still had to consult Wikipedia to find out what those damn punch cards actually contained, as the reference that the narrative makes is somewhat outside of my sphere of knowledge. So would I recommend this? Yes and no.
Okay, so on the side of yes, I would say that if you're interested in the technological and political history of the Victorian era, the history of the Internet age and modern Science, then this will be utterly fascinating to you. I can only lay claim to these in passing, so there was a lot of content that completely passed me by, probably to my detriment. Despite this, even I found the world that Gibson and Sterling had created to be utterly fascinating. If you're looking for a completely comprehensive world that is simultaneously familiar to us as Victorian Britain and yet alien and weirdly advanced, then you can't go wrong here.
On the side of yes, it does meander quite a bit in its quest to follow the path of these punch cards, and can lead into sections that feel both pointless and kind of uncomfortable. Much as I am sure that a character would be reasonably sure to get drunk and stay with a prostitute overnight in the course of their life at that point, I am equally sure that I do not want to see said encounter. It seemed like it needed slimming down, especially in Edward Mallory's section of the narrative; I was honestly wondering whether it would ever end at some points.

Overall, it very much depends what you're looking for when it comes to novels. If you're looking for world-building and a more critical examination of the Victorian era and the Steampunk genre, then I'm sure that you'll get on with The Difference Engine like a house on fire. If you're looking for something a bit faster paced and the more optimistic side of Steampunk, then I would perhaps look elsewhere. I can appreciate both types, but I think that this might have been aimed at someone perhaps more intellectual than me, so I can't help but feel that I missed out on a lot. 3.5/5

Next review: River of Gods by Ian McDonald

Signing off,

Friday, 14 November 2014

The Forever War by Joe Haldeman

This one came with some mixed expectations. On the one hand, my track record with military science fiction is pretty much non-existent, so I really had no idea what I was getting myself in for. That's just a little bit scary. On the other hand, I'd heard almost nothing but praise for it, so at the very least I was starting with some of the most highly regarded military science fiction. My reaction at the end is pretty mixed too.

The Forever War follows William Mandella, a physics student in the halcyon days of 1996, who gets recruited into a war against an alien enemy, the Taurans, after an exploration ship is destroyed in deep space. The catch is that every time they travel to a new world to defend, their rate of time gets increasingly disparate from that of Earth's. When Mandella returns to the planet after what seems to him like two years, it has actually been over two decades; this time dilation only gets worse the longer he stays in space, with each new batch of recruits or civilians that he meets only seeming more and more alien in comparison to the time that he came from.
So, the good bits. First, it managed to make physics at least passably interesting, which is always a feat for me. And you really need to have at least a passing interest in that area of science for The Forever War to have any appeal whatsoever, considering that the main concept is hinged on it. Second, the combat scenes are fantastically written, with just the right balance of excitement and overwhelming sense of futility. They are utterly brutal, for varying different reasons each time, and Mandella is basically just thrown in at the deep end and praying for the best outcome each time. If you're more interested in the military aspect of the genre, I'd definitely recommend this. The main character is largely well-written too, likeable enough that the audience sympathises with his conflicting desires for the war to end and to not face what Earth has become, but detached enough that his survival makes sense.
So far so good, right? That's where my modern, liberal sensibilities come in to make things thoroughly uncomfortable for me. I didn't think that the sexual politics were written in a great way, which is why I hated how unavoidable it became as the book progressed. Okay, so minor spoiler here: when Mandella goes back to Earth, he finds that after a population boom that has taxed resources, the world's government is encouraging people to partake in homosexuality. Mandella is not comfortable with this, so when this element of society becomes more and more prevalent, it kind of feels like the book is making the point of "homosexuality = big, bad future". Add to that the implication that we will get to the point where sexual preferences can just be turned on and off? It's just all kinds of homogenous, stereotyped and uncomfortable. I know it was written in 1974, but come on. It's a book about a war in space. At what point would I have cared what the majority of the population's sexual preferences were? At what point would I have assumed that it was any different from the varied spread that we are currently aware of? It's a weird opposition between gay and straight, and I'm sure the world-building would have done fine without it. It may not bother other people anywhere near as much, but sexual politics is a subject that is close to my heart and cannot be messed with.

Overall then, a largely successful novel. Fantastic combat scenes and interesting science that is let down, at least for me, by the outdated sexual politics. Probably worth at least one read by fans of the genre, either military or science fiction. 3.5/5

Next review: The Difference Engine by William Gibson & Bruce Sterling

Signing off,

Tuesday, 4 November 2014

The Guardians by Andrew Pyper

I had been looking forward to reading The Guardians immensely, as I have always had a bit of a soft spot for ghost stories. Then my mum gave it a read and wasn't hugely impressed. A bit of a hurdle, but then she and I have had wildly different opinions before, and who was to say that this wouldn't be any different?

The story follows main protagonist Trevor and his childhood friends in two separate, but closely interlinked, story-lines. In the past, it follows their teenage selves in the aftermath of the disappearance of their music teacher, and the terrible events that happen in the abandoned house in Caledonia street. In the present, they are in their forties, returning to their home-town after the suicide of Ben, the only one who stayed after graduating high school; whilst sorting through his late friend's belongings, Trevor finds himself having to confront whatever is in the abandoned house once more, lest it forever be a sword of Damocles.
It was okay. It kind of read like it had the potential to be a really great, grippingly creepy horror story about a haunted house, but was held back by certain elements that didn't quite work. So what did work, first of all? The haunted house was pretty much perfect. The idea that the more you spent in the house, or even just looking at it, would make you more and more unstable and thus willing to listen to the evil spirit within? Now that was a concept that I could run with. And it did produce some genuinely eerie moments that were the real highlights of the book. But of course, there have to be downsides.
The first thing that instantly bugged me was the writing style. It was a fairly casual tone, but at the same time, overly wordy and a bit on the flowery side. If he could describe something in one piece of imagery, the author would use two or stretch that one bit of imagery to the absolute breaking point. It very much reminded me of my own writing at the pre-edit stage, which is possibly why it annoyed me so much.
Secondly, the plot is dragged down by a part of the story-line in the past, which seems to make little sense even in context. Okay, so their music teacher, a pretty young woman, goes missing and Ben says that he thinks that he saw someone drag her into the haunted house, which is across the street from him; he can't be sure what he saw though, and it might not have even been human. Understandably, his friends are sceptical. So when he later says that he thinks that the person that he saw manhandling her was their hockey coach, what is their reaction? They pretty much instantly believe him. I find this a bit of a stretch of credibility really, especially since we as readers are kind of expected to just believe Ben as well, without any other evidence. Since I could never be sure that their suspicions were correct, it made what followed in that part of the story-line deeply uncomfortable. Don't get me wrong, I have seen main protagonists do worse, but usually the text is self-aware enough to know that what they're doing is wrong; here, it felt like I was supposed to sympathise, but it really didn't sit right with me. Also, there were a couple of things that made the crime-reader part of me want to scream, because they do some REALLY dumb things during their investigation that would surely get them caught and at least implicated in a crime, all in the name of keeping out of trouble. Very frustrating.

Overall, a book that had potential, but was just okay in the end. The characters were serviceable and did what they should, but little more. The story was similarly average, with a few twists that I wasn't expecting, but more than a little stupid plotting to balance them out. The haunted house sections were fantastic, all the more so for being surrounded by generally more mediocre parts. I really wish there had been more focus on the house, instead of the rest that didn't work so much. 3/5

Next review: The Forever War by Joe Haldeman

Signing off,

Tuesday, 28 October 2014

A Long Long Sleep by Anna Sheehan

I knew very little about this book when I first received it, other than what could be gleaned from the blurb. The only other thing that I had to go on was that the person who gave it to me was so liberally applying praise that I was almost surprised she didn't get tongue-tied. I'll admit, the memory of her enthusiastic take on the book was the main thing that stuck, as the blurb was not really enough to make me pick it up otherwise.

A Long Long Sleep follows Rosalinda Fitzroy, a girl who wakes up from stasis to find that 62 years have passed. Her presence forgotten after the deaths of her parents, Rose must now navigate a world in which not only are her parents and her first love gone, but has also gone through some pretty major upheaval after a series of pandemics have ravaged the human population. While she tries to adapt to this new life, she may have to confront what is left of her past before one of the remnants comes back to take whatever she has left to lose.
Holy cow, I did not expect this to be so good. It's a bit of a slow start, as both the reader and Rose have to get used to a strange new world that we've been basically dropped in, but the writing is surprisingly engaging and lures you in slowly but surely. By the end, I was crying like a little girl. That might well be because the ending decides that after all the excitement is through, it'll batter what's left of you with all of the feels. ALL of them. It is a tad on the predictable side, although I wasn't able to completely foresee all of the twists, so it kind of met a nice balance of surprise and making me feel smart. The only real problem I have with it is that some of the plot's details are revealed towards the end in a way that doesn't make much sense; it kind of feels like the author got stuck on how she was meant to reveal the main bad guy and applied a liberal dose of handwaving and desperate hope.
The characters are the main strength of A Long Long Sleep, and it's the desire to see them come out okay that makes it as emotionally powerful as it is. The three main people to talk about are Rose and her two school friends, Bren and Otto. I could talk about her first love, Xavier, but that could very easily stray into spoiler territory, so I shall refrain from doing so here. Rose is our main protagonist and the narrator of the majority of the novel. She starts off very fragile and passive, qualities that I first assumed were because of the shock of waking up to find that over 60 years have passed. But as the novel goes on, you begin to realise that there's a lot to Rose's personality that she denies herself and the main plot largely corresponds to her internal journey to understand what made her this overly passive, self-loathing person and how to grow out of it. The descriptions of what made her this way were probably what endeared her to me most, because, while I may not have gone through situations anywhere near as awful as she did, I completely understand what it feels like to think that you're worthless after people tell you this constantly. It's not a comfortable journey to read about, but I personally found it to be an incredibly cathartic one.
Possibly the most fascinating character is Otto, a boy who was part of an experiment involving genetically modified human embryos and has had to fight his whole life just to be considered human. I found him particularly interesting because the combination of the whole "having to fight a legal battle to be granted personhood" and the fact that he is effectively mute, communicating primarily through touch telepathy and instant messaging, reminded me really strongly of some of the politics that I've come across in researching autism and other disabilities. Earlier in the year, I was diagnosed as being on the autism spectrum; since then, I've been looking more closely at a community that I had had tangential connection with all my life, but never really knew a huge deal about. As a result, I've found a lot of politics involving trying to prove to particularly stubborn and bigoted people that autistic people are just as able to live full and healthy lives as their neurotypical brethren and should be allowed to do so unmolested. I imagine that anyone who could be considered disabled, particularly those with invisible disabilities, would find Otto's story particularly engaging, but I can, of course, only speak from my own experience. In particular, I liked the way that his telepathy is handled. After briefly communicating with Rose in this way, he refuses to touch her throughout most of the book, because he finds her mind frightening and overwhelming. It very much reminded me of the reactions that I've gotten in response to sensory overload and that deliberate withdrawal from the offending stimulus felt very real to me.
The only one left to really discuss is Bren. He was most definitely the weakest out of the main characters. He's an overall nice guy, dependable, reasonably pretty. He fit the kind of Prince Charming role and had the hint of an underlying inner conflict about what he wants his future to be, but he seemed kind of underdeveloped compared to Rose and Otto. Basically he's inoffensive but bland.

Definitely a flawed novel in regards to plotting and some of the characterisation, but it packs one hell of an emotional punch. I would recommend it simply for the joy of getting to know Rose and Otto. It's a good place to start teen readers with science fiction, especially those who are less concerned with worldbuilding and more with engaging characters. If you get triggered by scenes of emotional abuse, you might want to skip this though; it can get pretty scary at times. 4.5/5

Next review: The Guardians by Andrew Pyper

Signing off,

Saturday, 25 October 2014

Fire and Thorns by Rae Carson

I've been looking forward to this book for quite a while now. Why? It was the first fantasy that I had ever seen that was set in an Arabian-style world, as opposed to yet another generic pseudo-Medieval, pseudo-European excuse for lazy writing. It meant different customs, different kinds of heroes and heroines. And I was really in need of a change.

Fire and Thorns is the first book in a trilogy of the same name, in which we follow the adventures of Princess Elisa. She lives in a world where once every century, God bestows upon someone a Godstone, a living jewel in their navel, that acts as a sign that they have been chosen for an act of great heroism and faith. Elisa is the current bearer of the Godstone, and at sixteen she has done little to prove that she is worthy of God's faith. She does little but pray and study ancient texts, and her crippling feelings of inferiority regarding her own abilities expresses itself through comfort eating. The first scene in the book is her ripping her hastily sewn wedding dress through bulk alone. She only feels worse when she is given away in political marriage to a man who won't even acknowledge her as his wife in his home country. But she finds that her time of service is much closer at hand than she ever imagined, and that she is in possession of greater strengths than she ever dreamed.
There is something incredibly comforting about having the main protagonist be an obese teenage girl. Not only is the humiliation of not fitting into your own clothes realised here in uncomfortably familiar detail, but it actually addresses something that you don't really see in much fiction. Fat people very rarely being the main protagonist, or in the main cast at all, and all that jazz. It confronts a weird social perception that people seem to make between weight/body shape and skill/intelligence. When Elisa starts the book, she is treated with condescension, with people more impressed than should really be warranted when they realise that she has an incredibly sharp academic and strategic mind. She has spent her entire life learning about classical texts, including texts on military strategy, and yet they're surprised by the evidence that is presented to them. Because of events in the text that I shan't spoil, she slims down quite drastically by the end. At which point she is suddenly everybody's favourite person and taken much more seriously. Admittedly, her actions up to that point must have had some impact, but maybe not quite so drastic. I guess I was just really charmed by Elisa, who really comes into her own over the course of the narrative, though I did feel somewhat predisposed towards liking her.
The plot is pretty cool, with a nice mix of political intrigue, adventure, quest and even a little bit of romance. It's pretty slow in the first part, where it's mainly courtly intrigue, but that has never really been much of an issue for me. I love courtly intrigue, so I was loving it. The second part ups the pace a fair bit and moves away from the intrigue and more towards the adventure and military sort of aspects. It took me a bit longer to warm to this bit, but still enjoyable. The romance was the most obviously weak part of the narrative. There are two main love interests, but neither go anywhere. The first is her much older husband Alejandro, which, given that she's sixteen, puts him maybe in his 30s or 40s. Either way, he's incredibly beautiful and charming, but initially has no interest in her and is pretty spineless. The second is a comrade that she meets in the second part, who seems to love her almost from the start, despite his friends' doubt in her. He's pretty sweet. Neither go anywhere and the endings of both romantic sub-plots is pretty swift and brutal. More realistic I guess, but at the same time just a tad bit confusing. My gut wants a romance sub-plot to be realistic-ish, but with an ultimately happy ending. Fire and Thorns sort of started the sub-plots, then did take-backsies and I don't know how to feel about it. In either case, the romance aspects seemed more rushed than other parts of the narrative even when they were there, so I wasn't too gutted when they were abruptly cut off.
The fantasy elements were really cool. The way that the Godstone instinctively acts towards friendly and not-so-friendly intentions, the way that Elisa can activate it through prayer, the further-reaching consequences of previous bearers' Godstones now that they aren't part of a living body. The main enemy of the narrative, the Inviernos, were kind of interesting, but not really explored much. I wanted to know more about them, what they wanted, how they lived and such. But nope. All we got was "they're pale and burn people with evil blood magic." Kind of took a page from Dragon Age there, huh? Maybe more will turn up in the following books, but it would have been nice to get a little bit more concrete info than "they're evil, run with it".

A very well written book, if a little simple at times. Definitely something to get teens into fantasy, especially girls. I would have killed for a protagonist like Elisa when I was younger. I'll probably pick up the next book in the series if I see it, although this does stand on its own quite nicely. 4/5

Next review: A Long Long Sleep by Anna Sheehan

Signing off,

Saturday, 18 October 2014

White Crow by Marcus Sedgwick

I had heard interesting things about Marcus Sedgwick's books, particularly Midwinterblood and My Swordhand is Singing. So when one of the books that I got from Gollancz was his book White Crow, I was mildly intrigued, though the blurb was a bit too vague for my tastes. I might well have picked up another of his books because of the cool titles, but otherwise this might well have been an author that would have passed me by.

I feel like this could have made two really good books. There are two main plot-lines that the reader follows. A modern day story of Rebecca, a girl who has retreated to the countryside with her father after some scandal has made him something of a pariah, and her strange "friendship" with local girl Ferelith. This is juxtaposed with a story set two centuries before, chronicling the experiments of a priest and the newest member of his parish, Dr Barrieux, as they try to determine once and for all what is in the afterlife. Both are set in the village of Winterfold, a seaside settlement that used to be a hub for trade, but has been eaten away over the years as the sea erodes the cliffside. While both plot-lines work and have some thematic ties, I don't think that both were essential for the book to have. As it was, there were problems in both that I think could have been remedied by dropping one or the other entirely. In both, there was a lot of story to get through and half as much space needed; there were certain things that I thought would get at least some explanation, but were still only vaguely alluded to by the end, which I will discuss below.
So, the modern story-line. I thought it was kinda toothless. Yeah, there is something a bit unnerving about Rebecca's friendship with Ferelith, but I knew so little about them as individuals that it fell flat. Yes, I know a little bit about Ferelith's unfortunate family history, and yes I know a little bit about what drove Rebecca and her dad to leave London for this village in the middle of nowhere. There are two problems with this. One, I still only know what is essentially a cliffs-notes version of their pasts, nothing actually resembling details, hows and whys. Two, they don't really have much beyond their pasts, so I know how they react to personal tragedy, but nothing about what they're like in day to day life. Heck, it was so poorly conceived that by the end, I can tell you more about Ferelith, the girl who is supposed to be mysterious and strange, than I can about Rebecca, the girl who is presumably supposed to be the audience surrogate. Additionally, by the end of the modern plot, it didn't really feel like much had really been achieved. Sure, Rebecca gets a bit of emotional closure, but that didn't resonate anywhere near as much as the author wanted it to; see above point.
On balance, I did prefer the historical plot, which makes its own failings all the more frustrating. But first, the things that I liked about it. Mainly, I liked that it was a genuinely creepy story of two men trying to meddle in realms that they cannot and should not understand, with a build-up that is absolutely full of suspense. The thought of an entire book about a futile and dangerous attempt to find evidence of an afterlife is one that fills me with glee. The problem with this was, again, the characterisation, even more so than in the modern story-line. If I could have heard more about the tantalising backstory elements that the author tempted me with, instead of yet more hypocritical whining from the priest character, then this could have been enough to save the book entirely. I wanted to know more about Dr Barrieux's dead wife and child, more about the cult that the priest grew up in before he found God, more about the village's growing suspicion. Instead I got the priest repeatedly angsting about how he finds it so easy to visualise Hell, but not Heaven.

Overall, this was an exercise in how it is often better to have one simple idea fleshed out really well, rather than two stories smashed together and told only competently. If it had just been the historical plot given the space and characterisation that it needed, then I would have been an extremely happy bunny. As it was, I'm just annoyed that there was so much unrealised potential. I did briefly consider saying that it might be due to the age range it was aimed at, but that's just insulting teenagers. Teen fiction should be richer than this. 3/5

Next review: Fire and Thorns by Rae Carson

Signing off,