Friday, October 30, 2015

End Of The World Running Club - Adrian J. Walker

The End Of The World Running Club is a post-apocalyptic sci-fi piece by Adrian Walker. After a catastrophic meteor strike, an average suburban father struggles to cross the remnants of a shattered Britain - travelling with a motley crew of other survivors - trying to reunite with his family in time for them to be evacuated. It’s sometimes touching, occasionally appalling, and has some interesting thoughts to share on fatherhood, the nature of friendship, and a fresh look at how our world could end.

The shattered Britain in which we find ourselves is rather well done. The use of a meteorite strike avoids the problem of characters surviving in a radioactive wasteland, whilst creating enough social and geographic degradation to pose real challenges. The narrative starts shortly before any cataclysm, and Walker shows us a Britain which is at peace with itself, but perhaps a little complacent. The view of terraced houses, suburbs and corner shops evokesthe warm beer atmosphere of stereotypical modern Britain with some success.

Post-disaster Britain is another place entirely, and Walker applies some considerable descriptive talent to letting us know about it. Major urban centres descend into madness. Parts of the country are flattened, buried, or simply washed away. The scattered enclaves of civilisation include rural swathes, urban centres and military bases, and it’s to the author’s credit that each of these can be differentiated, and also feel real. The rural areas are isolated, poorly supplied, and horribly dangerous. The urban areas are typically heavily damaged, filled with a populace on the edge of madness, and horribly dangerous – but each feels distinct from the other.  It’s to the author’s credit that as the characters march across the length of Britain, each of their stops feels different from the last. That they’re surrounded by madmen, disease, and the promise of starvation or murder just adds a frisson to the proceedings.

Our protagonist, Edgar, is something of a slob at the start of the book. Unfit, living a life if quiet desperation, with a family which exists in a state of mutual  exhaustion. He’s sympathetic in his everyday humanity, in his definition of himself through seemingly petty issues, constrained by everything around him in a life which is comfortable, but unfulfilling.

After the End of the World, Edgar changes. The narrative is, from one perspective, the story of his travel from one end of Britain to the other, looking to catch up to his family. From another though, it’s about Edgar’s transition from a man without purpose into someone with a central goal, and his associated emotional growth. It’s to the author’s credit that they make this shift organic and believable, and more so that Edgar’s struggle with his definitions of fatherhood and his role in his family are approached with a hard iron sympathy.  We can feel for him, whilst wanting to give him a kick in the behind – whilst recognising his flaws in ourselves.  In any event, Edgar is a marvellously believable everyman, and his viewpoint, if not always sympathetic, is thoroughly affecting and rather readable.

The supporting cast range from  deranged lunatics  through people broken by their experience, to the core group of compatriots who surround Edgar. If the book is partly a story of his growth, it’s also a story of the relationship he has with them. Beginning as a motley crew, driven together by necessity, they slowly journey toward being a far more effective gestalt – and the raw emotional honesty that empowers this, and Edgar’s character journey, is extremely well written, and makes for a great read. We get less of a view of the antagonists they encounter on their journey, but the author gives us enough to make them seem plausible,

From a plot standpoint – the broader sweep is very effective. The journey  across the land is an excellent medium for smaller stories, and each of the palces that the group stop gives an opportunity to show  something new in the post-apocalyptic society. The whole tale jogs along nicely, occasionally picking up a burst of speed at critical moments – and making for an interesting and affecting read.

Is it worth reading? It’s not exactly a typical piece of apocalypse fare., but I’d say so. Watching Edgar’s journey toward a different view of himself, his family and fatherhood is marvellous; the apocalyptic backdrop gives it some much needed colour, and adds situations which make this a fast-paced and interesting read.

Thursday, October 29, 2015

Interstitial - End Of the World Running Club

Tomorrow we'll have a review of the End of the World Running Club. The central thread is that of a suburban father, struggling to travel the length of Britain after an apocalyptic event, to reunite with his family. It's a well paced sci-fi adventure, with some interesting meditations on fatherhood as well.

More in the morning!

Wednesday, October 28, 2015

13 Minutes - Sarah Pinborough

13 Minutes is a new psychological thriller from Sarah Pinborough. It centres on the relationship between a group of girls in their late teens, after one of them is found in a river, and declared dead for thirteen minutes, before returning to life with no memory of how she ended up in the river.

The setting is relatively confined – a relatively small-seeming British market town, with a focus on the school that serves it. Pinborough manages to convey the sense of tolerated and tolerable education through her prose. The atmosphere of the school accords with my (admittedly slightly dusty) memories of that time of life. There’s the teacher that half the school lusts after, and the clique of popular kids whom everyone looks to for leadership – and there’s the sense of evolution, as well. The school feels like a chrysalis, a place in which children are finding their feet, and moving into adulthood.

Still, this isn’t Saved By The Bell. The environment is, to put it mildly, poisonous. The cast of teens don’t all like each other – to put it mildly. There’s a feeling that each word, each step, is being judged and dissected. That every interaction is equal parts studied performance and emotional honesty. The world that these girls inhabit is one intimately familiar to school-leavers, one where decisions have an immediacy, a sense of urgency, where even the smallest choice feels like it may have life changing consequences.  Of course, sometimes it does.

It’s difficult to convey how well Pinborough has done here – but the school that her characters inhabit feels exactly right. It has everything that made schools such a joy, and such an awful trial, for everyone involved, and it seems all too real.

The main focus of the narrative is the relationship between Tasha, the girl who was found floating dead in a river, and then revived – and her old childhood friend, Becca. The former is the champion of the popular group, a mover and shaker in a school hierarchy where reputation is everything. The latter is a firm contrast – less concerned with popularity, more concerned with being herself. We get to spend a lot of time in Becca’s head, in particular, and the tone seems pitch perfect. There’s a wry warm, and a feeling of intelligence, overlaying a broad streak of insecurity. This tone is backed up in her interactions, especially with Tasha, the girl whom she was once closest to, who most wanted to impress.

Tasha is a different beast, Initially, she comes off as traumatised by her immersion in the river. There’s a sense in her interactions with Becca, and with their supporting cast of friends, that she’s not sure who she is any more. This personal uncertainty is interleaved with the broader theme of childhood overthrown, characters moving past childish things and into the harder, but perhaps less judgmental, world of adulthood.
Impressively, the text covers a lot of emotional ground. There’s love. There’s betrayal. Both felt with a kind of soaring agony, which comes through the text and punches the reader in the metaphorical gut. But there’s quieter moments too – affection to or from parents, for example, mixed with a sense of their fallibility. There’s a darker strain running through it as well; there’s a lot of jealousy in the dialogue here, and it carries the passion of youth, intermingled with the dread seriousness of adulthood – and  the associated consequences.

In any event, the entire narrative is an absolutely masterful character piece. We get to see the way that individuals think about themselves and each other, and I’ve rarely been so immersed in a character and their world – and, on some occasions, horrified by both.

From a plot standpoint…well, getting into any detail might induce spoilers. The book starts with the mystery of how Tasha ended up in a river and died, though. That mystery is chased through the text, with red herrings, confusion, and even some investigative insight – and as a central pillar of the narrative, ti hangs together, keeps your interest, and also manages to keep you guessing all the way through. The whole plot is a byzantine maze of plot, counterplot, lies, illusions, and mosaics of truth – and it’s absolutely glorious to read, and very hard to put down.

Is it worth reading? Yes, absolutely. It’s got a solid, tense plot and some wonderfully drawn characters, living in a world which feels all too terribly real. Give it a try!

Tuesday, October 27, 2015

Interstitial - 13 Minutes

Tomorrow we're talking about Sarah Pinborough's psychological thriller, 13 Minutes.
It's an absolute masterclass in character, tension, and tight plotting - thoroughly enjoyable stuff.

Monday, October 26, 2015

Down Station - Simon Morden

Down Station is a new fantasy novel by Simon Morden, perhaps best known for his Metrozone series. It follows a small group of people flung through a portal from London, and into a strange new world, as they come to terms with their situation, and each other.

The world of Down is an interesting one. Our group of characters are cast onto it, as if onto a foreign shore, and with a similar lack of understanding. Morden makes Down feel like a large space, once where getting anywhere is going to take a little while, and doesn’t flinch from the details that make this plausible – the characters are initially concerned with survival, with supplies, with how to acquire and prepare food. It’s a world which, to them, begins as a seemingly endless emptiness. It doesn’t stay that way of course – our cast of travellers quickly meet a host of native inhabitants, some more friendly than others.

Our view of the world shifts alongside the characters, learning more as they do. It’s a land filled with mysteries – one where habitation appears to have declined, and where strange, possibly magical and certainly lethal creatures hold sway. There’s a sense of wonder which Morden evokes, as the characters become more familiar with the world, but not yet of it. Each discovery is new, exciting and intriguing – but at the same time, potentially dangerous. Morden’s world is one sculpted with care. The role humanity plays, the society our party finds themselves in, are all plausible whilst unfamiliar. The sweeping vista that the characters have before them both befuddles and beguiles them, and it’s a credit to the author that it can do the same to the reader.

From a character standpoint, the focus is on a pair of young adults - one a Sikh engineering student, the other something of a reprobate – and their relationship with the world, the rest of the group, and each other. As part of a diverse ensemble, both have their quirks – I was a particular fan of the girl, who is struggling to work a minimum wage job and keep her nose clean to escape detention, and finds that on this new world, she’s entirely responsible for herself. Morden plots out the character journey wonderfully, giving us a troubled, undeniably intelligent, but angry individual, and looking at how they adapt and change in a world which requires self-confidence and self-reliance. She moves organically over the course of the book to be, if not a more pleasant human being, certainly with greater self-awareness.  This shift is done well – it feels like there’s learning and character growth visible across the pages. It helps that she’s a great character to read – largely intolerant of other people’s nonsense, typically pragmatic, but with a central core of compassion  and humanity to act as a counterbalance to these traits.

Our other protagonist is, at least initially, calmer, more sure of themselves. Both character journeys are centred around understanding the self; our Sikh engineer begins more sure of themselves, and finds events conspiring to strip that self knowledge back to a central core, paring back to the essential, and the previously unknown. He’s also quite an enjoyable read – a believable refusal to let go of values which might be a disadvantage in this new world, mixed with an empathetic understanding of those around him make for a gentler, but perhaps more effective character. Again, Morden gives his protagonist responses to circumstances which seem to work – there’s no out-of-the-bule changes here, more a series of gradual movements as he becomes something new – perhaps even something heroic.

The protagonists have a fairly small but marvellously portrayed supporting cast around them. I particularly enjoyed the Slavic railywayman who accompanies the engineering student  - his caustic comments and ruthlessness made for a nice contrast to the more humane central duo. The remainder of the commuter group gets a bit of time, but is largely overshadowed by that given to the antagonist; I won’t go into detail here for fear of spoilers, but fond that their driving goal, and the logic behind it, felt believable, if not exactly sympathetic.

The plot starts frantically, as our cast make their way to Down station; the frenetic pace slows a little as our group explores the world in which they find themselves, but spikes of danger and the excellent characterisation kept me turning pages. As the group moves inland, however, the narrative takes off.
There’s magic, murder, betrayal, and a series of revelations which shifted they way I thought about the characters, and the world. I’ll say no more, to avoid spoilers, but the journey that our heroes take through the world of Down is fraught, intriguing, and thoroughly compelling – I couldn’t put it down .
Is it worth reading? The world is an interesting and well realised one. The central characters are believable and feel entirely human (though I would like to see more of the supporting cast in the sequel). The plot rattles along nicely, and kept me enthralled to the last page – so yes, I’d say so.

Friday, October 23, 2015

Interstitial - Down Station

On Monday, we'll be looking at Simon Morden's "Down Station", a fantastical novel in which a group of commuters and railway employees find the,selves stranded in a strange new world. There's magic, excitement, chases, swordfights, and a lot of fantastically written and diverse characters thus far.

More on Monday.

Thursday, October 22, 2015

The Shards Of Heaven - Michael Livingston

The Shards of Heaven is a historical fantasy by Michael Livingston. Set during the struggle for power after the death of Julius Caesar, it merges that period of historical conflict with more fantastical elements.

The world of The Shards of Heaven is at once familiar and alien. Livingston does a great job of showing us the humanity of his characters, whilst lending them enough attitudes from the period to make them feel unusual. In any event, this is the world of Rome Unconquered, moving inevitably from Republic to Empire. Though Rome itself gets less time than I’d expected, it has a palpable presence through the rest of the text as an idea, as a state of mind. There’s a cruel vitality to Livingston’s Rome – a power which will shape the world.

We also spend quite a bit of time in Egypt. Livingston gives us a more languid contrast to Rome, an Empire perhaps overly sure of its power. There are sections set in Alexandria which set out to show a bustling metropolis – with some success. They also show a world ensconced in protocol, with elaborate ceremony sitting alongside wavering heat hazes and scholars in the Great Library.

Livingston’s prose is spare, but effective; he manages to make the period environment feel alive, without becoming over-elaborate. Moving from Egypt to Rome, from battlefield to library, each feels concrete, the backdrop to our protagonists actions made believable by them, and also reinforcing them. It may rely a little on the reader filling in the blanks with their own conceptions of the period, but overall, it’s a well crafted display of the Roman world on the cusp of change.

Speaking of characters – this is a text which isn’t afraid to make use of historical personages. Augustus, Caesarion, Anthony, Cleopatra and a host of others make appearances, some more fleeting than others. The main focus, however, is split between Caesarion and Juba, a fictional adopted brother of Augustus.  Juba is a wonderfully conflicted character. Adopted as a child after a Roman conquest, he has close familial ties with the highest society that Rome can offer. At the same time, he remembers his natural father, and the devastation wreaked on his home by the legions of Rome. This raises a conflict of identity which at ones drives and torments him, as he becomes ever more ruthless in service to his goals.

Caesarion, by contrast, is a rather more familiarly heroic figure. He’s uniformly pleasant, enjoying the company of guards, equals, and his younger relatives. I suspect he’s also kind to small animals. He’s less conflicted about his role, though more impacted by the events of the text. That said, each of the decisions we’re given from him makes sense, and he feels more like a person than an archetype – still, I’m hoping there’s room for a bit more complexity in any sequel. He works as a character by being intelligent and intelligently written, and being sympathetic; there’s hidden depths there as well, it would have been nice to see more of them.

Both characters are ably assisted by a sprawling supporting cast. Again, it would be great to see some of these characters given more room to grow into themselves – Caesarion’s precocious younger sister, for example, is a delight to read; her scenes are filled with some clever dialogue, and some even cleverer actions. Still, overall they serve their purpose, giving us context and texture for the world and the protagonists.

The plot starts a little slowly, though the pacing begins to pick up about halfway through the text. The inclusion of the magical elements in amongst the historical is a bit clunky; there’s a lovely section in the back half of the book where a more minor artefact is located in a very organic way, which I wish had been shown as an approach elsewhere. Still, the magic, when used, makes for some quality action scenes. There’s some great battles in here too, and the character drama is entirely believable. I applaud the scope of the author’s narrative, and their technical prowess in making their battles feel  like the reader is right there in them; I would have liked a few more character scenes, but what was there worked to keep the story rolling. In the end, the historical sections felt authentic and compelling, and carried the necessarily less authentic scenes with magical artefact shenanigans.

Is this worth reading? If you’re in the mood for a historical novel laced with fantastic elements, I’d say so. The plot’s an interesting read, the world feels close enough to the Antique period to be believable, and the characters are authentic and entertaining. It has a few flaws, but the text, overall, is definitely worth your time.

Wednesday, October 21, 2015

Interstitial - The Shards Of Heaven

Tomorro we'll have a review of Michael Livingston's historical fantasy, The Shards Of Heaven. Set at the start of the Roman Imperial period, it looks at how the inclusion of magical artifacts (the titular Shards) might have impacted the shaping of the new Empire. It's got some great battles and interesting characters - and is quite a fun read.

More tomorrow!

Tuesday, October 20, 2015

Two of Swords (Part Nine) - K.J. Parker

Two of Swords is the new serialised novel by K.J. Parker. The first nine parts are available now, and run to about eighty pages each. Further parts will be made available on a monthly basis. I’m going to try and put out a review for one of the currently available, and then review each new part in the month where it becomes available.

Part Nine brings us back to Telamon, a wetwork specialist for the Craftsmen. She has a dry wit, and an ability to react quickly which makes her a pleasure to read –e specially in dialogue. She also has a tendency to get dragged into appallingly dangerous tasks, and a sort of tired amorality, which strikes a wonderfully dissonant note alongside her love of beauty and literature. There’s something to be said for an individual who can ruminate on the interpretation of classical literature one minute, and casually slit a throat the next.

In this segment, she’s paired up with Oida, whom we’ve also seen before. He’s a spectacularly successful composer, a bridge between the Eastern and Western Empires in their civil war, and, at least in Telamon’s eyes, completely insufferable. On the other hand, he has a ready wit, gives as good as he gets in their exchanges, and seems to have less hidden depths and more hidden chasms. It sometimes seems like even Oida doesn’t know who Oida is, and Telamon is similarly baffled.

The relationship between the two is the heart of this segment. It’s a great read as well. The dialogue is sharp – sharp enough to cut yourself on at times. Both parties spend a lot of time together, and their jostling, arguments and rapprochements are highly entertaining.  At the same time, there’s a sense of two people struggling to articulate themselves in a genuine way, beneath a veneer of detachment that is required in their positions. Parker manages to portray both Telamon and Oida as quietly fragile people, encased in personae which do not allow that fragility, that humanity, to surface. It’s intriguing to watch the flickers of something different under the layers of expectation. There’s a wonderful discussion around the nature of reasons, and the way in which there are layers of truth issued for every purpose – only the third of which is the ‘real’ reason. Both characters are cloaked in various layers of reasons, some of which they use to mislead both each other and themselves. It’s a masterclass in drawing characters in a few pages, exposing their nature whilst simultaneously keeping it behind a curtain. By the close, it feels as if we know Telamon and Oida better – and that they know themselves better as well. Though with Parker, either or both of those may be misleading.

Laced around the character drama which is the centre of the text, are a variety of adventures for Telamon. The covert mission she ends up engaged in is fast paced, with a sense of tension seeping through it which transfers to the reader. There’s enough action here to keep anyone entertained, and it acts as a nice counterpoint to the verbal sparring happening elsewhere in the text. It also has what looks like consequences for other parts of the plot – at least as much has currently been revealed. I’m still not entirely sure where the narrative as a whole is going, but this fusion of clever, interesting and intriguing dialogue, and action with weight and consequences is extremely compelling.

By now, you’ve already decided whether you’re enjoying Two of Swords as a whole; I will say though, that this is one of the stronger parts so far, and I enjoyed reading it immensely.

Monday, October 19, 2015

Interstitial - Two of Swords (Part Nine)

Tomorrow we'll have another in my ongoing series of reviews of K.J. Parker's "Two of Swords", which is being released in instalments as a serial novel.  Part Nine came out a week or so ago, and takes us back to the relationship between our favourite mysterious assassin, and the probably-not-just-a-genius musician, Oida.

More tomorrow!

Friday, October 16, 2015

Made To Kill - Adam Christopher

Made To Kill is the first in a new trilogy by Adam Christopher. It’s set in an alternate Los Angeles in the 1960’s, and follows Ray Electromatic, the last robot and licensed private eye, as he investigates a case of murder and intrigue.

As alluded to above, theLos Angeles  we see in Made To Kill seems to be a slight divergence from our own. For example, Grauman’s  Chinese Theatre exists in both worlds. But in Made To Kill, humanoid and non-humanoid artificial intelligences exist in the form of robots, though they struggle with analogue technology. In another example, President Kenndy is said to be negotiating to place nuclear warheads on Cuba, where in our own world, that action was taken by the Russians.  So the L.A we see is similar, but subtly different. The author manages to make these small changes deftly enough that they sit on the edge of the reader’s consciousness – over time, they build up to produce a picture of a world different from our own, but nothing feels glaring on the page; we’re largely inducted by degrees.

Christopher’s prose, in this case, also evokes that of Hammett or Chandler. The world is seen with a kind of terse, biting clarity, which is nonetheless very detailed. We follow our protagonist down the sun-drenched boulevards, through traffic jams, and into disused hotel rooms, and each of those things is given it’s due. There’s a sense of sunlight, mixed with grime, and a feeling of retro-futurism, which infuses the text. All of which serves as a contrast to the viewpoint character, and their interactions with that world. Christopher’s L.A. is a believable one, with stylistic flourishes which make it fit perfectly with the mood it’s seeking to portray.

From a character standpoint, our protagonist, Ray Electromatic, is also reminiscent of great detective’s past. He’s got the drawling delivery, incisive analysis and humour of Marlowe, and the pragmatism and willingness to mix it up of The Continental Op. He’s also a robot, but we won’t hold that against him. It does mean that he only has a twenty-four hour memory, which serves, initially, as a rather entertaining dramatic device. Over the course of the text, Ray develops somewhat – especially given his mechanical origins – and we get a sense of something shifting within his character.

He’s backed up by an intriguing supporting cast – including Ada, the ruthless and acerbic super-computer, whose portrayal in Ray’s mind as a woman with a cigarette and her feet on a desk is a delight to read. There’s also a whole swathe of Hollywood stars, government agents of various levels of competence, and some Russians. I’d say the only real issue here is that the villains of the piece don’t get as much room to grow as they might. It would have been nice to explore their drivers in more detail. On the other hand, the text works as written, and the focus remains on Ray, so this is a minor complaint.

Plot-wise, the text begins in the same mode as a thirties detective story – there’s even a mysterious woman bringing in a strange request. As these things do, this quickly spirals out of control. Eventually it becomes a wonderfully bizarre mixture of pulp-esque mad-science, Red-Scare era scheming, and the occasional outbreak of fisticuffs – all constrained with then thirties mode. It’s an eclectic but effective narrative mixture, and makes for an odd but thoroughly entertaining read.

Is it worth reading? I’d say so. It feels like it really is opening up the ground for further books in the series, but it’s also compelling enough in its own right. The central mystery is intriguing, with enough red herrings to keep me guessing throughout, and the characters were well-drawn enough to keep me reading. So yes, give it a try!

Thursday, October 15, 2015

Interstitial - Made To Kill

Tomorrow we'll look at Adam Christopher's latest. It starts as a detective novel, set in an alternate Los Angeles in the 1960's, and is fronted by a robot-turned-P.I. It's got a great mood so far, and the plot is suitably twisty (and twisted).

More tomorrow!

Wednesday, October 14, 2015

Space Captain Smith - Toby Frost

Space Captain Smith is the first in Toby Frost’s Chronicles of Isambard Smith series. It’s sci-fi comedy, mixed with high adventure, in a world where the British Empire is a space-faring power, with all the social attitudes of the 19th century. It’s a no-frill adventure story, which is also sometimes pretty darn funny.

The world of Captain Smith is one that is both different and familiar. On the one hand, it’s quickly established to be a world of high technology. There’s blasters. There’s soaring, graceful ships, leaping across the stars. There’s aliens. There’s intergalactic Empires. Frost manages to make us aware of some of these things through inference, though others – such as the provision of spacegoing ships – are integral to the plot. As our protagonist stumbles from disaster to catastrophe, he runs afoul of a great many things which are strange, and often wonderful or terrifying in their novelty.

And then there’s the familiar. Our protagonist starts off in the British Empire. Except that this British Empire has several star systems under it’s belt. It also has rather a lot of starships and guns, which take the place of cannon and navy. What it’s kept hold of, however, are Victorian social mores. This is handwavingly explained at one stage, but it’s perfectly acceptable as an entertaining conceit. The British march around the place, being rude to aliens, and occasionally saving the universe. It’s a place instantly familiar to anyone who ever read or watched Sharpe on television, except with ray guns instead of rapiers.

The characters are an interesting mix. The eponymous Captain Smith is a braggard, with a heart made, if not of gold, then at least of tin. He, deliberately one assumes, embodies the best and worst of what could be thought of as British characteristics – proud, shading to arrogant, determined to be fair, but willing to press an advantage. He gets a smidge of development over the course of the narrative, largely coming to regard other members of his crew as at least marginally valuable. There’s a gradual shift toward a slightly more humane character, and it’s represented in both actions and internal monologue – it’s slow, believable, and makes for surprisingly affecting reading.

Smith is ably assisted by his ships crew – including a runaway android, designed for dubious purposes, a murderous alien, who regards lethal missions as a sort of holiday, and a mysterious woman, whose main talent appears to be being a bit of a hippy. They don’t get quite the sense of an arc that Smith does – but there is a growing sense of camaraderie and a sense of acceptance running through the text, which was nice to watch growing udner the characters noses. They still don’t feel fleshed out enough, but they’re more than collections of traits, so overall, I shan’t complain too strongly.

From a plot standpoint, this is an old fashioned adventure. Smith and his crew leap from the jaws of death repeatedly, often by accident. They’re also quite good at leaping into the jaws of death, and that’s usually not on purpose either. There’s malevolent aliens, irritating bureaucrats, and a galaxy to save. It sets off at a fairly swift pace, and charges ahead throughout – it felt like you didn’t have room to breathe at times, but perhaps enough breath to keep up. The jokes are laced thick and fast through the dialogue and the situations the cast find themselves in – and whilst some of these do fall flat, some raised a chuckle, and several got a real laugh. It’s a rarity to find this fusion of adventure and humour, and Frost has pulled it off quite well.

Is it worth reading? Well, if you’re in the mood for that sort of adventure-tale in space, with a lashing of laughter, then yes, I’d say so. It’s a great popcorn read, and I’m eyeing the sequel with some interest.

Tuesday, October 13, 2015

Interstitial - Space Captain Smith

Tomorrow we're going to look at Toby Frost's space adventure Space Captain Smith. It's a mixture of high sci-fi action and some surprisingly excellent humour. With that in mind, it's been a fun read thus far.

More tomorrow!

Monday, October 12, 2015

The Mongoliad (Book One) - Neal Stephenson et al.

The Mongoliad started life as a serial novel, in the tradition of Dickens, combined with a multi-author collaborative approach, in the tradition Several of the authors involved have a solid pedigree as long as your arm (for example, Greg Bear, Neal Stephenson), and others are doing their debut work.

In this case, the work is centred around the potential fall of Europe to the Mongol horde in 1241. Whilst initially billed as an alternate history, it felt more like historical fiction; whilst there do appear to be some `alternate' insertions, they blend seamlessly into the narrative. Within the broad narrative sweep of the collapse of Europe, the reader is given several core character viewpoints - one a steppes-warrior embedded within the city of a Mongol Khan, struggling with the differences between city and steppe, power and responsibility - and the other, a group of knights in a military order, on a journey to attempt to prevent the end of western civilisation.

Each chapter is relatively short, as one might expect from a serialisation - and whilst this does mean there are a few bumpy prose transitions, it also means that each chapter is admirably focused. The reader is moved along sharply, each page bringing a new action, a new consequence, a new insight into a character, a new twist.

Perhaps the only real complaint about the above approach is the conclusion; whilst this is `Book One', it ends rather abruptly; it feels more as if the latest serial `episode' has finished, rather than the narrative coming to a fluid conclusion. It may be worth bearing in mind that this abrupt end might charitably be described as a cliffhanger - if the reader wants narrative closure, they will have to get the next episode in the sequence from the author's website, or wait for the next book to be published. The cliffhanger nature of the text is hardly unique, but seems a bit abrupt, even in a genre prone to similar narratives.

Perhaps the greatest thing about this collaboration, for me at least, was being unable to tell where one author left off and another began. The prose was uniformly tight, focused, and flowed nicely. The dialogue fitted, and each character had a sufficiently distinct `voice'. The world was drawn cleverly, and skilfully evoked.

Overall, as a text, this works very well. Each piece is integrated, and the authors seem to have blended their talents together to create something new and exciting, whilst managing to avoid - or at least ameliorate - any individual flaws. This is a fast-moving, page turning text; I found it gripping, and rather difficult to put down.

Certainly worth reading, and highly recommended for both alternate history and historical fiction fans - just bear in mind the continuing serial nature of the work.

Friday, October 9, 2015

Interstitial - The Mongoliad (Book One)

Monday will see a review of the first book of The Mongoliad, the shared world anthology set in an ever-so-slightly alternate history of the Mongol invasion of Europe. It's got a lot of men hitting each other with swords, some plausible historical logic, and a fairly interesting plot.

More on Monday.

Thursday, October 8, 2015

A Vanishing Glow - Alexis Radcliff

A Vanishing Glow is Alexis Radcliff’s debut novel; it’s an interesting blend of fantasy – gods and kings, aristocrats and prophecies – and a more steampunk-esque aesthetic. It’s got a lot going on - there’s politics, brawls, stand-up swordfights, some nice character moments, and rather a lot of explosions.

The world that Radcliff gives us, the Federation of Ghavarim, is a complex one. Brought together at the close of a conflict a generation before, the disparate parts of the Federation chafe against each other, and against the rule of their High Sovereign. Whilst the nobles argue over power, and the direction of the federation, those beneath them in the hierarchy have other concerns. The West of the Federation is industrialising – setting up factories for everything and anything they can think of. The East is more resistant, and meets the introduction of factories, and the decline in traditional labour, with riots and the smashing of machines. It’s an economy reminiscent of Britain in the 1800’s, but with an important difference – the industrialisation is powered by a kind of magic.

We spend much of our time in the capital of the Federation, and Radcliff manages to convey the sense of a city struggling into modernity very well. That said, it would have been nice to see more of the city; it’s worth noting also that whilst the text is generally inventive, there’s a few parts of the environment that may feel familiar to long term fantasy readers – a criminal organisation running the underclass of the city. A young man brought to prominence against his will. On the other hand, these familiar spaces carry some unique stylistic flourishes, and they manage to defy expectations on enough occasions to keep things interesting. They certainly don’t register too strongly amongst a swathe of world-building that feels  distinctive and original. There’s some asides around the idea of marriage and morality as well, and it would be nice to see those explored in greater detail

From a character standpoint, we’re largely split between two protagonists. There’s the young hero, struggling to live up to family expectations, who gives us a view on the political situation and the broader scope of several actions. There’s also a young female sapper, who begins the text trying to become accepted into the military demolitions division, before things change  for her rather rapidly.
The hero-prince came off as slightly too self assured, too confident in his own righteousness. On the other hand, given the age of the character, this is entirely plausible. It did make some of the political scenes hard to read, watching other characters dance around our hero. The author gives us enough insight into the character that we can empathise with him, and get a handle on his personality, his beliefs, needs and expectations; I would have liked to see a few smaller shifts of character, as events unfolded, but as presented, he comes off as…well, heroic. Sometimes annoyingly so. But Radcliff isn’t afraid of showing the consequences of raw heroism, and those can be downright brutal – I hope to see more character shifts in a later book. Still, as presented, he’s consistent, and enjoyably straightforward to read.

The sapper is, from a character point of view, the one I found more interesting. She begins , from the reader point of view, as a blank slate, with a suggestion of a complex past. This is quickly joined by further character forming actions, and she becomes increasingly conflicted, Watching her journey, physical and mental, across the narrative was a pleasure – Radcliff presents someone able to change, who is both willingly and otherwise changed throughout the text. It helps that she’s pragmatic, and lacks any ostentatious heroism to go with her obvious basic decency. Her view, of the lower strands of society, outside the cities, is sympathetic, and her overall character is both entertaining and heartbreaking to read – the author’s done a good job here.
The supporting cast includes weary soldiers, men held together by magic fuelled machinery,  the occasional journalist, and the perhaps less rare killer. All seem to have enough room to contribute to the plot, and in some cases they get enough room to grow – our sapper’s companions are a case in point. On the other hand, I’d have been delighted if they’d had more room to grow.

The plot – well, as ever, I won’t get into detail for fear of ruining it. I will say that it ramps up relatively quickly. There’s a couple of interesting central mysteries (though I  managed to get ahead of one of them), and in trying to solve those, our protagonists and their supporting cast run into a great many problems. The politics is largely alluded to, rather than seen close up, but the mood of scheming flattery is spot on. The action scenes are fast-paced , and often explosive. The plot has some promise, and it delivers on that; the narrative was compelling enough to keep the pages turning, and I’m determined to give the next volume a try.

Is it worth reading? It’s a rambunctious and enjoyable piece of fantasy. It’s got some original ideas, and they flow together well, into a fascinating read. I’d like to see more, but that’s presumably what any sequel is for – so yes, pick this one up, it’s worthwhile.

Wednesday, October 7, 2015

Interstitial - A Vanishing Glow

Tomorrow we're going to be talking about Alexis Radcliff's debut fantasy, A Vanishing Glow.
It's got action, adventure, and hijinks! There's also several explosions, some in depth character exploration, and a fascinating world.

Tuesday, October 6, 2015

The Penitent Damned - Django Wexler

The Penitent Damned is a short prequel story to Django Wexler’s Shadow Campaigns series. It uses a largely different cast, and is thematically distinct, but gives the reader an impression of the broader world, wrapped in a fast-moving heist story.

The world of Wexler’s Shadow Campaigns is one which is seen, in the rest of the series, through the lens of war. Armies march across deserts, generals seek to preserve or overthrow governments. Politicians plot for power behind the scenes. And a thread of the supernatural runs through it all. The Penitent Damned takes place in this world, but rather than on some blasted plains amidst an army, it’s an urban piece. Wexler takes us to the capital city, and manages to make it come quietly alive. Why quietly? The larger portion of the text takes place during an attempted theft, and so everyone is moving rather quietly. Despite that, we’re shown enough of the city through internal monologue to make it feel like a sprawling metropolis, in contrast to the environs in which our protagonist finds herself.

On which topic, the local environs for the theft are very well portrayed. We’re given enough description to build out the environs (in this case a library), but left to fill in the gaps with imagination. Still, Wexler spins up a location which is both foreboding and intriguing – perfect bait for a cat-burglar. 

Which is exactly what our protagonist is.  Alex is a thief with talent, a desire to make a name for herself, and some not entirely natural skills.  She’s a great protagonist, in the short time we have with her – wry, pragmatic, with a learned sense of caution, and a slightly larger streak of inherent rashness. Her interactions with her mentor are a pleasure to read – the older, more experienced thief trying to fight a sense of greed with a sense of dread - and the pressures that he and his pupil place on each other lead them to make some interesting decisions. What we see of Alex’s character is consistent and well crafted – she’s got a strong internal voice, which flows out to the reader in a convincing tone. It would have been nice to have given the supporting cast a little more room to grow as well, but that may be the constraints of the format, rather than anything else.

That said, the villains are appropriately menacing, and in some instances, downright creepy. There’s the occasional moment of dialogue which sent shivers down my spine; there’s something about villains with sensible, but appalling motivations – Wexler does a great job of making his a combination of convincing and terrifying.

The plot is tightly packed into it’s relatively short number of pages. There’s betrayal, double crosses, chase scenes, fights, and some seriously cool magic. The author keeps the pace steady, gradually ramping up, so that the slow burn of the early pages is balanced by frenetic action later on. It’s a fast read, and one which was difficult to put down – because I wanted to see how it ended. The text promises an adventure with edges, and Wexler  delivers on that promise.
Is it worth reading? If you’re looking for more of the Shadow Campaigns, yes, absolutely. If you’ve not read them before, this is a great introduction to the kind of mood and style that those books employ to such great effect. Either way then, it’s certainly worth your time – I just wish there was more of it.

N.B. if you need further encouragement, at time of writing, the kindle version is currently free on Amazon UK and US.

Monday, October 5, 2015

Interstitial - The Penitent Damned

Tomorrow we're going to take a look at one of the short stories Django Wexler did as a prequel to his Shadow Campaigns series, titled The Penitent Damned. With the new book in his series out, and with the short story currently free on Kindle, it seemed like a good time. It's a heist story, filled with the action, magic, grit, and solid characterisation that have given Wexler his reputation - and a thoroughly enjoyable read.

More about that tomorrow.

Friday, October 2, 2015

The Wee Free Men - Terry Pratchett

The Wee Free Men is the first of Terry Pratchett’s Tiffany Aching books in his Discworld sequence. It’s pitched at slightly younger readers than his broader body of work, but it has enough nods to the older demographic to make it perfectly enjoyable. It’s also, almost of course, very, very funny.

The Discworld, where this book is set, is a giant disc, carried on the backs of four elephants, themselves carried on the back of a giant turtle, as it swims between the stars. It’s a world where things can exist because people believe in them, spinning their stories into physicality by sheer force of will. A world of magic, and terror – but also one where people are still people, with all the petty nonsense and small triumphs that entails. And in this world, we’re taken to a small place, in the middle of, effectively, nowhere. Pratchett imagines a land filled with the hardy, pragmatic, common sensical shepherds – and those who are willing to guide those men. The place, though, is a wonder – looked at through the prism of Tiffany Aching’s younger eyes, the place feels alive. It has iron for bones, and soft grass and cheese for blood.  Pratchett’s in good form here – his descriptions are lyrical, but also precise, descriptive without falling into the danger of being flowery, and the voice they’re presented in has just the right pitch of curiosity and certainty. The Chalk, as it’s known, seems to have a sense of history to it – and a sense of beauty, and a sense of the comfort of the every-day.

There’s other places too – an excursion is made into a land of fairies; here the tone is far more grim. The fantasies are darker (though unlikely to terrify young-teen readers), and has the kind of sparkling, hard-edged, dreadful lucidity of a nightmare. Pratchett sets out to scare, without horrifying, and to give us a world with consequences, without making it brutal – and succeeds brilliantly.
The main focus of the book is the young Tiffany Aching, whom we first see preventing her brother from being eaten by a water monster, by less than mystical means.  What we see of Tiffany is charming, punishingly clever, and ever so slightly ruthless. It’s a wonderful portrayal, letting the reader see different aspects of the character, and emphasising that each of those aspects come together to make someone uniquely human. Not, perhaps, always entirely likable, but a person, nonetheless.

If Tiffany is the mind behind this book, cutting through problems like a buzzsaw, then the Wee Free Men are it’s heart. Tiny, blue, and filled with a level of amiable rage, these creatures look up to Tiffany. They attempt to help her out as much as possible, whether it be with well-meant but often hilariously inapt emotional advice, or in stand-up fights. They’re also given a startling amount of emotional depth, and deftly handled such that each feels unique, and the emotions that they, and the reader, feel, come across as genuine. That they’re given a broad brogue to speak in is simply icing on the cake(it does make the text fun to read aloud though).

The plot centres on Tiffany’s relationship with the Wee Free Men, and their quest together to retrieve her small, sticky brother from the grip of the Queen of the Fairies. Not to go into detail, this actually works very well – the whole thing rattles along nicely – the need to work together, and to retrieve someone, acting as solid plot hooks. It’s a fairly straightforward journey, but the emotional depths it opens up en-route are surprising, and well done. It’s a well paced adventure, mechanically, and a great deal of fun to read.

Is it worth reading then? Yes, absolutely. It’s a heartwarming and touching adventure, which also happens to be stormingly funny, for both adults and younger readers.

Thursday, October 1, 2015

Interstitial - The Wee Free Men

Tomorrow we're going to take a look at the first in Terry Pratchett's 'Tiffany Aching' sequence, titled The Wee Free Men. It's pitched at younger readers, but so far it's had all of Sir Terry's trademark humour and narrative depth left intact, and been a thoroughly enjoyable read. More tomorrow.