Sunday, 27 December 2009

Inherit the Stars by James P. Hogan

This is the first James P Hogan book I have read and it is also the first complete ebook I have read,  a free download from the Baen Free Library. It is a good read, a scientific detective story about what happens when 50,000 year old human remains are is discovered on the moon. The novel is heavy on factual detail and light on plot decoration so it can get a bit wordy at times but it kept me reading to the end on the 2 inch screen of my mobile phone. Like all good detective stories you can have fun guessing whodunnit before the denouement of the plot finally reveals all. I am of a mind to look out for more James P. Hogan.

Saturday, 26 December 2009

The War of the Flowers by Tad Williams

An honest to goodness fairy story no less with pixies and pookas to boot from someone who has become one of my favourite authors. The protagonist of this tale gets whisked away to Fairie to discover all is not right in that magical realm. Fairy society has taken a wrong turn it seems and the sylvan glades of legend have been replaced with dark satanic power stations. This is a very entertaining read with genuinely unpleasant baddies that you long to see get their come-uppance. I won't give away any spoilers except to point out that it is a fairy story - draw your own conclusions.

Tuesday, 1 December 2009

House of Suns by Alastair Reynolds

This story is set millions of years into the future and mankind has expanded around the galaxy in many expanding and collapsing empires. The only constants are the "lines", clone families who persist through the millennia travelling around the galaxy and possessing almost god like powers (the ability to dam a star for example). An attempt to wipe out one of the lines sparks off an enjoyable romp through big concept sci fi. Generally very good but the ending is weak in my opinion.

Wednesday, 18 November 2009

The Druids by Morgan Llywelyn

I come from Celtic stock (pronounced keltic by the way whatever the footballers think) and growing up I learned about the rich social and cultural history of my tribal ancestors. Though the Celtic society was enlightened in many ways ( in relation to the status of women for example and a deep respect for learning) their fragmented tribal society was unable to resist the onslaught of Julius Caesar's Roman legions who's successful campaigns  purged Celtic culture from all but the most Westerly regions of Europe.

History of course is written by the victors so most of what we know of the Roman campaigns in Gaul comes from Roman accounts most notably those written by Casear himself.  It was therefore refreshing to come across this novel  purporting to tell the tale of Gaul's downfall from the Celtic side.

The novel started out promisingly. Llywelwyn's depictions of Celtic society match what I had previously heard and his choice of Druid for a main character allows him to draw upon a wealth of lore and mythology. Unfortunately the story itself quickly descends into soap opera. A fairly thin story is patched onto the known historical facts and the authors attempts to flesh the tale out with sex and magic are quite unconvincing.

When you already know that a story is going to end tragically it is very important that the author sucks you in and and gets you so engrossed in the story and its characters that you just have to keep reading to the bitter end. Llywelwyn's book falls far short of this and I nearly abandoned it many times for lack of interest. Only the fact that I have nothing else to read at the moment ensured that I finished this one.

Tuesday, 10 November 2009

Sacred Games by Vikram Chandra

Not the sort of book I usually pick up but this mammoth tome is a terrific read. This book is part detective story, part gangster story, part historical saga,  part social commentary, part love story and part reflection on human existence all set against the background of Chandra's outstanding multi-layered portrayal of the teeming cauldron of humanity that is Mumbai.

Chandra portrays a city with extremes of poverty and wealth, with festering religious tensions, class tensions and significant gender inequality, where corruption and patronage are endemic where the police and politicians are often indistinguishable from the gangsters,  and yet where there are still heroes and villains, and where human existence is still glorious in all of its multifaceted complexity. I was so fascinated by this book that I went to google to learn more about Mumbai and about Indian history, society and culture. The references I checked support Chandra's portrayal and some of the tensions Chandra refers to are starkly evident in the differing interpretations of historical events that can be found on the internet. 

As an example of the loving craftsmanship that Chandra has obviously poured into this book consider the fact that immediately after the main plot is resolved there is a chapter devoted to several minor characters who only appear briefly in the rest of the book but who's stories nevertheless deserve to be told.

Wednesday, 14 October 2009

Stephen Donaldson: Mordant's Need, "The Mirror of Her Dreams" and "A Man Rides Through"

A standard medieval fantasy setting where mirrors are imbued with magical powers. A Realm slipping into chaos under threat from foreign powers and the machinations of traitorous mirror using imagers. A once heroic King who seems oblivious to his countries present peril and contents himself with playing checkers all day long. A young woman from our world who is transported to this fantasy relam through the action of a magical mirror and who despite her emotional frailty appears to have an important role to play in resolving the plot.

Despite the canonical status of his "Thomas Covenant" series I have a very limited tolerance for Stephen Donaldson. These two books, together telling the saga of "Mordant's Need", stretch that tolerance beyond breaking point. Yes they tell a complex and intriguing story set in a richly detailed world but two hallmark Donaldson flaws ruin any pleasure there is to be had.

Firstly Donaldson's heroes are weak to the point of utter incompetence. The plot is resolved more in spite of their efforts than because of them. Their main function seems to be to fill the reader with such frustration as to want to tear the book up.

Donaldson's second hallmark flaw is to pepper his stories with massively illogical twists and devices. Fundamental plot premises just don't make any sense. How does he get away with this? Fantasy is a nerd genre. We nerds like our stories to make sense.

These flaws are certainly also present in the better known  "Thomas Covenant" and "Gap" novels but to my mind those books struck a much better balance between enjoyment and annoyance.

Saturday, 3 October 2009

I am Legend, Serpents Reach, Vast, Spider World, Off Armageddon Reef

One of the main functions of this blog is to keep a record of the books I read so that I need not keep the books themselves. I am giving some books to a local charity sale in order to clear some shelf space but several of the titles pre-date the start of this blog so for posterity I am making a quick list here:

Richard Matheson, I am Legend: Famous tale about the last man left alive in a world of zombies.

C.J. Cherryh, Serpent's Reach: Don't remember too much about this first book of a sci fi saga. Something to do with an insectoid empire. I am pretty sure I enjoyed it.

Linda Nagata, Vast: Ultra High Tech Space fi.

Colin Wilson, Spider World The Tower: First volume of a fantasy series from one of the original "Angry Young Men" who also happened to be a very prolific writer.

David Weber, Off Armageddon Reef:  Great concept space opera, mankind retreat to an isolated planet where all technology is banned in order to try and hide from a savage alien race who annihilate any potential rivals. Within a few generations our history is forgotten and strict rules reinforce a pre-industrial regime.The story kicks off when an android awakens with memories of mankind's high tech past.

Saturday, 26 September 2009

The Dwarves by Markus Heitz

The original German version of this book spawned a best selling series on the continent and we can now enjoy it in a flawless English translation by Sally-Ann Spencer.

The tale itself is not particularly original. Think of a cliche about dwarves and Heitz has probably managed to cram it in: Small, stocky, stubborn, feisty bearded artisans living in underground cities who hate dwarves and elves. The list goes on. Indeed the novel borrows as much from the world of mmorpgs as it does from Tolkien and the main quest line to forge a legendary axe could have been lifted straight from World of Warcraft. For all that this is still a very entertaining read set in a well drawn world with lots of detail and sympathetic heroes. If the sequels ever get translated I will probably try to pick them up.

Wednesday, 16 September 2009

Gradisil by Adam Roberts

At one level this is a piece of hard science fiction about mankind's first tentative expansion off this planet and into space. In Robert's vision of the future these steps are not taken by Governments or large corporations but by individual pioneers flying up to low earth orbit in their own makeshift way. Robert's contempt for all things government and military is a dominating, almost suffocating theme of the book but his vision is credible and well drawn none the less.

The other side of this tale is a sweeping saga tracking three generations of one of these pioneering families, the titular Gradisil being the middle generation. A common theme of revenge runs through every generation and drives most of the plot (plots) of the book.

Good but not particularly easy reading. If you are looking for space adventures then the complex emotional drama may be off putting. If you reading for emotional drama then the space stuff may not suit.

Saturday, 29 August 2009

Dragon Master by Chris Bunch

This is actually a trilogy of three previously published books: "Storm of Wings", "Knighthood of the Dragon" and "The Last Battle".

Bunch's work can be described as military fantasy. The first two books read like a first World War novel with magic substituting for artillery and fledgling squadrons of dragons taking the role of untrusted bi-planes. A familiar theme is that of incompetent generals clinging to outmoded beliefs failing to grasp how new developments have changed war.

Good stuff. An enjoyable read.

Wednesday, 19 August 2009

The Court of the Air by Stephen Hunt

Interesting steampunk fantasy set in a three layered world. Rogues and other misfits live underground beneath the normal world while the secretive court of the air flies overhead. The court watches over all and pulls strings behind the scenes to keep their territory in good shape.

Hunt's steampunk writing probably sits about half way between the lightweight Neil Gaiman and the morbidly heavyweight work of Mieville. All in all its not a bad compromise. Entertaining.

Wednesday, 29 July 2009

Roger McBride Allen: The Depths of Time

First novel of a space opera saga with themes of terraforming and time travel in which the hero gets trapped in the future by the edicts of the Chronologic Patrol who police any potential causality breaking time travel.

This book is OK but not great. If high Sci Fi is all about Big ideas and low Sci Fi is all about action packed space adventure then this book tries to do both but doesn't succeed brilliantly at either. Allen does have two "big ideas" in the book but neither is very well thought out and it is easy to pick holes in the way Allen handles them. The novel fares better as a low SF adventure in space but is still a bit slow moving. I'm not rushing out to but the sequel but if I stumble across it I'll probably pick it up to see how the plot develops.

Sunday, 19 July 2009

Ronan Bennett: Havoc in it's Third Year

Bennett's tale is set in England of the 1630's a time when the country is falling into the grip of puritanism. The hero is a diligent coroner who has managed to achieve his position despite having unpopular religious leanings. Unfortunately it is obvious from the outset of the book that his inherent honesty and humanism will inevitably bring him into conflict with the spirit of the times.

The book starts with a murder mystery that the coroner has undertaken to get to the bottom of but what follows is dark and unsettling, at times realistic and at times surreal. I don't want to spoil the plot but the way in which the author deals the original murder mystery is either careless or deliberately provocative or a clever piece of misdirection. I can't make my mind up which but the book is otherwise a very well written, thought provoking read. Just don't expect to come away filled with love for your fellow man.

Holes by Louis Sachar.

Teenager Stanley Yelnats believes his hole family is under a curse so he is none too surprised to be is arrested for a crime he didn't commit and sent to a slave labour camp masquerading as a correctional institute.

I can thank my 10 year old daughter for introducing me to this book from her school summer reading list. It's a terrific fable, very entertaining and very clever. I read it in a day and enjoyed every minute.

Tadd Williams: Shadow Play

The Shadow March saga continues. There isn't really a sharp delineation between the first and this second book and I find it hard to remember where one ends and the next begins. The series touches on George RR Martin territory with its political intrigues but these are really overshadowed by the fantasy elements.

Tadd Williams: Shadow March

My Tadd Williams love affair continues with the first book of his latest saga. Set in a fairly traditional fantasy universe of magic and swordplay this has all the hallmarks of Williams rich storytelling and deep characterisation. An interesting feature of this saga is the very complex mythology that Williams has constructed which is slowly revealed through half remembered snippets of sometimes contradictory myth and legend that permeate each chapter. Being lazy I have given up trying to puzzle these out and just wait till the plot reveals what really happened but I am sure some folk would find it interesting.

Longwided as is usual for Williams of course, but worth it in my opinion.

Monday, 22 June 2009

Andrew Smith: Moon Dust, The Men Who Fell to Earth.

Like Andrew Smith I am a child of the 1960's. I can remember my family crowded around a snowy black and white television to watch Neil Armstrong take humanity's first ever steps on an alien world. Thirty years later I stood beside the giant Saturn V rocket in the Cape Kennedy Space Center and that remains one of the most inspiring memories of my life. We live in an age when many otherwise sensible folk swear the moon landings never happened and most under the age of 40 couldn't care less whether they did or not but I believe that the moon landings were mankind's greatest ever adventure.

In "Moon Dust" British American Smith documents his personal quest to track down the remaining moon astronauts and find out what happened to them and to probe their thoughts feelings about the moon landings. This is not a book about what happened or they got to the moon. This book about why they went and what it means today and whether or not we should ever go back. Terrific stuff.

Wednesday, 20 May 2009

Empire Rising by Sam Barone

I must admit to being initially disappointed by this novel. It purports to be historical fiction set at the dawn of civilisation, a period of history about which I know very little but would like to learn more. Unfortunately the only history in this novel is a few names of people and places borrowed from the real history of the Akkadian empire. Everything else is pure Hollywood style fiction. A Connecticut Yankee at the birth of civilisation if you like. Apart from a few gratuitous sex scenes neither Gary Cooper nor Jimmy Stewart would be out of place in this novel.

However ...

Once you get over the lack of any real history the book turns out to be an entertaining read with plenty of action and intrigue and a few big battles thrown in for good measure. I think I will put Barone on my B-list of heroic fantasy. This novel never comes close to the brilliance of David Gemmell but there is enough in it to justify picking up the other books in the series. I should point out that I inadvertently skipped the first book of Barone's Akkadian series: Dawn of Empire but this second book reads just fine as a stand alone novel. .

Sunday, 17 May 2009

Moshin Hammad: The Reluctant Fundamentalist

This award winning short novel left me feeling somewhat dissatisfied. It concerns the tale of a bright young Pakistani who graduates top of his class from a top US college and aspires to a glittering career in the world of business only to crash headlong into the new realities and new world visions that came about following the events of September 11. This is a higely important topic but unfortunately I found it very hard to empathise with the main character. His subsequent actions struck me as being the height of idiocy. The main motivation that comes across from the novel is a self centred self destructive jealousy. In Hammad's favour I should acknowledge his clever device of putting the reader into the book as listener to the tale being related by the main protagonist. This works well and by the end of the short novel you are no longer just a listener but active participant. Sadly this ending , though clever, is not enough to rescue the rest of the unsatisfying story.

Tad Williams: Otherland, Sea of Silver Light

Final volume of this terrific saga resolves all plot threads and ties everything up very satisfactorily. All in all I highly recommend this saga as an entertaining mix of fantasy, Sci Fi with a dash of cyberpunk thrown in for good measure. The virtual world setting allows all of those elements to fit together seamlessly. Be warned though that these books are long, far far longer indeed than is required to flesh out the plot. The pay-off for for wading through all 4000 plus pages though is a story filled with extremely well drawn characters. Williams populates his stories with credible living breathing actors who are a far cry from the shallow stereotypes that normally fill genre novels.

Tad Williams: Otherland Mountain of Black Glass

This third novel in the Otherland saga is a big improvement on the second. Having set the scene and fleshed out his characters in the first two volumes Williams is free to advance the plot once more and he does so masterfully. Very entertaining and with a few unexpected twists thrown in for good measure.

Sunday, 19 April 2009

Tad Williams: Otherland, River of Blue Fire

This second novel in the Otherland saga took me a long time to finish which is not a good sign. This large volume (700 pages +) fleshes out the story world somewhat but advances the plot by very little. I can't help feeling that this whole book is unnecessary and with tighter writing the important parts could have been squeezed into the other volumes. On the plus side William's characterisation remains head and shoulders above the wooden stereotypes we are more used to in Fantasy novels and the overall saga still retains my interest. I have already started on book 3 which happily seems to be progressing at a faster pace.

Aside: There is an Otherland MMO currently in development. I hadn't realised this until I spotted this article in Massively. Sounds very interesting, since the books are largely set in a virtual world they give lots of scope for mmo type stuff. One feature of the novels that I hope is replicated is the ability to move between completely different sim worlds. You could be flee from a battle in Ancient Egypt and tuumble into a HG Wellsian London. More information here.

Monday, 6 April 2009

Otherland: City of Golden Shadow by Tad Willliams

Tad Williams is a good writer and not just in a Science Fiction / Fantasy sense. He writes very readable prose with very well developed characters that stand up well alongside the best of contemporary non-genre fiction. Otherland is Tad's take on Cyberpunk and "City of Golden Shadow" is the opening volume in this saga. The book was written in the mid 1990's and William's cyberspace is more down to earth than Gibson's angular vector graphic inspired visions from the previous decade. In many ways Otherland seems like Second Life with added multimodal input. There is even an mmorpg described in the book that is not dissimilar to the games we play today (Hardcore afficionado's will be pleased to note that Williams' mmorpg has perm-death). A good adventure story set in an engrossing world with well drawn well written characters. All in all a very good read if a little over long.

Sunday, 15 March 2009

The Mamoth Book of Extreme Sci Fi, edited by Mike Ashley

I find it hard to give an overview of an anthology, particularly one as diverse as this whose stories were chosen specifically because they are unusual. Their very diversity makes it hard to consider the book as a whole. Some of the stories were very good and I cannot remember any bad ones so I guess that makes it a good anthology overall. The list of authors is varied and includes many illustrious names My personal favourites from the collection included Geoffrey Landis's "The Long Chase", Ian McDonald's "The Days of Solomon Gursky" and Greg Bear's "Judgement engine." The last story in particular takes a very ambitious position, set as it is at the end of the universe and deals with big questions of philosophy.

Saturday, 14 February 2009

Richard Morgan: Altered Carbon

This an interesting blend of noir detective story and Cyberpunk with a hard jawed cigarette smoking anti-hero righting wrongs in a futuristic setting. In this future world digital transportation of human personas has become commonplace and physical bodies have become trade-able commodities. An intriguing corollary of this is that spaceflight is generally unnecessary. Instead you just hire a body at your destination and transmit your persona to it. The story keeps up a cracking pace and it makes for an enjoyable read but I felt that the whole affect was let down somewhat by the way the flawed hero softens as the book progresses. By the end of the book I felt he was more Wuss than Tough guy - not what I expect from my anti-heros.

Tuesday, 27 January 2009

Peter Hamilton: The Fallen Dragon

A stand alone novel from the creator of Nights dawn. Space opera with a small dash of future philosophy thrown in. There were times when I struggled to keep reading this. For most of the middle section of the novel I wasn't sure who was good who was bad, which characters I liked which characters I didn't like. George R.R. Martin can do moral ambiguity and still keep your interest in his characters but in this book Peter Hamilton can't. Nevertheless there is a good story in there with plenty of clever stuff. Example of the clever stuff: A couple of hundred years after the invention of faster than light space flight the age of space exploration is fizzling out because it has turned out to be uneconomic. Recommended if you are prepared to put in a bit of effort to get to the end.

Saturday, 17 January 2009

Mark Haddon: The curious incident of the dog in the nightime

Another book I started reading by accident and a very good one at that. This book is tricksy. For the first few chapters you think you are reading a light hearted whimsical view of the world from a the point of view of a teenager suffering from a form of autism. It is only when you are about half way in that it dawns on you that this is not a light hearted tale at all. It is deadly serious and very very good. Well recommended. Has lots of clever maths in it by the way as the narrator is a whizz at maths even though he is incapapble of empathy.

Monday, 12 January 2009

Garth Nix: The Fall

I must be regressing. I am reading yet another Young Adult fantasy. This book came free with a box of cereal as far as I recall, I read a few pages and hey ... it was pretty good. Lots of imagination in this first book of Nix's Seventh Tower Series. A young "Chosen" in a world that is veiled from light falls upon hard times when his father disappears with the families only proper sun stone. Without the stone our hero is likely to be booted out of the elite chosen ranks so he must set out on a desperate adventure to find one. Good stuff and with magical shadows it is somewhat in the vein of "His Dark Materials" but not nearly as dark.

Saturday, 3 January 2009

George R.R. Martin: Deamsongs Volume II

The second volume in this retrospective from the creator of Ice and Fire. This is just as good a read as the first volume although for different reasons. In the first volume I found the retrospective bits more entertaining than the stories. In this volume, perhaps reflecting Martin's developing craft as an author the stories are much stronger and the retrospective bits are more forgettable. For fans of Ice and Fire who missed Robert Silverberg's Legends collection this volume gives a second chance to read the Ice and Fire prequel "The Hedge Knight".