Sunday, 1 December 2013

The Last Unicorn by Peter S. Beagle

This 1968 tale of a unicorn's quest to find out what happened to all the rest of her kind has become a classic of fantasy literature. It took me a few chapters to get into but I found that it gets better as it progresses and the end is decidedly clever. I have no idea whether the simple fable is supposed to have deeper meanings but I found it a short and enjoyable read regardless.

The 13th Valley by John M. Del Vecchio

Intriguing Vietnam War novel by an author who was actually there. This tells a tale of a battle hardened unit of American infantry who fought their way into the jungle to root out an entrenched NVA base.  While the book includes some of the usual Vietnam tropes of self obsessed first world soldiers struggling to come to grips with life and death in the jungles of the third world it also has a lot more than that. These "Boonie Rats" are a highly educated group of young men who ponder about big questions in life,  philosophy and politics. At times all the introspection makes the book heavy going but there is real combat action in there too. Overall a worthy read.

Friday, 1 November 2013

The Last Ringbearer by Kiril Eskov translated by Ysrael Markov

"The Last Ringbearer" by Kiril Eskov takes a very interesting counter view to the original Lord of the Rings Saga. In Eskov's novel Sauron and Mordor were the good guys embarking on the early stages of industrial revolution in a land previously dominated by magic. Gandalf is a reactionary zealot who incites a genocidal war in order to annihilate Mordor before they grow powerful enough to upset the status quo. In Eskov's work the Lord of the Rings trilogy that we are familiar with is a white washed version of events published by the victors to cover up their atrocities. 

Sadly the work is not authorised by the Tolkien estate and is almost certainly in breach of copyright. Don't expect a commercial English translation any time soon. Markov's English translation is available for download as a non commercial e-book so I guess it falls into the legally murky waters of fan fiction or derivative works. 

Overall I have to say it was an excellent and engaging read that is worth reading as a piece of fantasy in its own right. It is a proto steam punk tale where haughty elves are trying to subjugate  human  ingenuity in order to prevent an industrial age from ever happening. Markov's English translation is rather excellent. The translated flows naturally without clumsiness or awkward phrasing.

 Eskov's story owes very little to Tolkien and nor do any of his main characters nor even his mythology. He has borrowed the names of background figures (like Gandalf and Aragorn) but they are very different people in this book than in Tolkien. The greatest plagiarism is  geography because Eskov's places and landscapes are those of Tolkien's Middle Earth. To be honest it is almost a pity that Eskov borrowed from Tolkien at all because the novel deserves to be read in its own right. Now unfortunately it does means that in the Western world with our rigid interpretation of copyright Eskov's rather good novel will remain an illicit pleasure for several decades to come. 

Thursday, 10 October 2013

The Lord of The Rings by J.R.R. Tolkien

This is a high fantasy tale about a magic ring and the motley crew of adventurers who must destroy the ring in order to save the world. It is well enough written but if you want surprises then look further afield for it appears as if Tolkien has borrowed from just about every modern fantasy author. If you have read any fantasy written in the last fifty years then you have seen all this before. Elves? Check. Dwarves? Check. Wizards? Check. Magic Rings? Check. Wise old Wizard? Check. Boy from humble origins who turns out to be the only person who can save the universe? Check. Valiant knights in shining armour and black black villains? Check.

It is a pity really because it actually is a rather good book.

(On a more serious note - I had to re-reading this classic trilogy because of a very interesting online course I am taking which explores the links between book, film and video game interpretations of Tolkien's masterpiece):

Monday, 19 August 2013

Spin by Robert Charles Wilson

Excellent sci fi story that starts with the Earth being suddenly enclosed in a membrane which slows down time for the planet. It isn't clear whether the creators of this membrane are malignant or benign. The membrane appears to protect the planet and it's inhabitants while it cocoons them. Strong storyline and interesting characters make for a novel that surely spawns a series.

Sunday, 4 August 2013

Poison Eaters and Other Stories by Holly Black

A collection of dark fantasy stories featuring elves and magic's and endings that are rarely happy ever after. The quality of the writing is uniformly good although the stories are so varies it is hard to sum the collection up in a few lines.

Machine of Death: A Collection of Stories about People Who Know How They Will Die by Ryan North, Matthew Bennardo and David Malki

A collection of short stories contributed by many writers in response to this comic by Ryan North. They explore the consequences of what happens if a simple machine existed which could tell people how they would die. Not when, just how and often in an ambiguous way.

This first collection seems to have a lot of entries submitted by geek celebrities from the worlds of blogging, web comics and video gaming but surprise surprise it turns out they can write and write very well. The stories have been selected to show a  broad range of implications such a death prediction machine could have. There are some common themes of course and a lot of them focus on damaging it would be for people to know in advance what will kill them. There are a lot of other clever ideas in there too though. I particularly liked the last story "Cassandra" by T. J.  Radcliffe who manages to drag in quantum mechanics and collapsing probability functions in his tale of one woman's attempt to save the world from her future.

A Case of Exploding Mangos by Mohammed Hanif

Highly entertaining comic novel that gives a highly fictionalised account of events leading up to the real life plane crash that killed the President of Pakistan General Zia in 1988. The crash which also killed the leader of Pakistan's military as well as the US ambassador to Pakistan has long attracted conspiracy theories  but Hanif sidesteps the old chestnuts and throws together his own humorous collection of plots and motivations.

As I said before the book is well written and highly entertaining but I have to be wary about recommending a book that plays fast and loose with historical events. I did not remember the plane crash or the circumstances surrounding it before reading this book so there was always a danger of artistic license being accepted for fact, particularly as time dims the memory of what parts of the tale came from where.  Happily this novel is sufficiently absurd that I am unlikely to forget it was fiction.

Saturday, 3 August 2013

Just a Geek by Will Wheaton

As a teenager Wheaton was a child star with an award winning film (Stand by Me) and a cult series (Star Trek The Next Generation) in his credits. At the height of his fame he left Star Trek to become a "serious actor". Sadly things didn't quite work out and fifteen years later Wheaton is an out of work actor struggling to pay the bills and support a family while constantly grappling with the thought that maybe quitting  Star Trek wasn't such a good idea. This entertainingly honest memoir details his struggles on the path to reinventing himself as a writer and blogger. Indeed the memoir borrows heavily on entries from his blog.

In addition to providing searingly honest insights into Wheaton's own struggles the book is an important record of an internet which may no longer exist. A time when geeks were still a major force on the web and blogging was a route to fame an possibly even fortune.

The Ascendant Stars by Michael Cobley

This final chapter of Cobley's Humanities Fire trilogy does an admirable job of tying up the many plot threads introduced in the first two novels. It even manages to produce an overall context which explains how the diverse stands tie together. I still think there are too many strands and too many characters crammed in to this short series however. Three volumes is just not enough space to adequately deal with all of the characters and their stories. The abbreviation required to fit everything in ensures the books retain a cracking pace but it also causes confusion and makes the tale less satisfying than it should have been.

I will certainly look out for more books by this author but next time Mr. Cobley please drop a few characters or add a few volumes.

The Fade by Chris Wooding

Intriguing world where the population has been forced underground by changes which made the light from their planetoids suns deadly. The heroine of this tale is a member of the cadre, an elite agent bonded to one of the ruling families of her faction. Her world view is shaken when her husband is killed in battle and she is taken prisoner nevertheless her unique skills ensure that she won't be out of the action for long.

I enjoyed this well written tale but I found the ending to be far from satisfactory. The outcome of the tale was not only obvious but to me also disappointing.

I don't know if this is the start of a series but it could be and perhaps we would get a more satisfactory ending in further episodes.

Saturday, 22 June 2013

A Memory of Light by Robert Jordan and Brandon Sanderson

I finally did it. I finished the Wheel of Time. It is only fifteen years since I embarked on this quest but those who joined at the beginning waited twenty three years for the conclusion of the monumentally epic saga. A saga that spans 14 books (plus a few short stories) and that has even survived the death of its creator.

Should you read the Memory of Light? Well that question is superfluous. If you have read the other 13 tomes in this story then you have no choice. You must read the conclusion. You can rest assured however that Sanderson has done a masterful job at bringing all the threads of this vast story together. All is tied up and all is finally resolved. Long time readers of the series will know that Jordan himself excelled at creating a rich believable world infused with complex characters and their equally complex and entangled storylines. He seemed almost unable however to close off any storyline. thread. Each new book introduced new characters and new plot threads to the despair of those of us who longed to see how the story turned out. Well Sanderson, working from Jordan's notes has finally told us. 

The bigger question really is whether or not I would recommend a new reader to start this saga? What is it all about really?

Well it is the story of a humble farm boy from a backwards village who finds his simple world disrupted by evil and who is led away on an adventure by an experienced magician (albeit a female one). The once humble farm boy discovers that he is the subject of prophecy and that he must develop his own latent powers to eventually confront a terrible evil that lives in a dangerous mountainous region in order to save the world. 

Sound's original? Of course not. But I believe that Jordan's re-telling of the monomyth is the most important version since Tolkien.  Jordan lacks the scholarly erudition of Tolkien but he makes up for it with incredible depth and the complexity of his world and his story lines. Yes the saga has flaws. Some of them deep. While the first few books of the series are completely enthralling it loses its way a bit in the middle. Even the confusing middle books however are rich with details and depth. Now of course with Sanderson's help the series draws to a stupendous conclusion. Of course you should read this. If you care about fantasy you should read it. If you care about storytelling you should read it.

Thursday, 13 June 2013

The Magician's Apprentice by Trudy Canavan

This book is apparently a prequel to Canvasbacks successful Black Magician  trilogy. There is a lot to like about the book. War, wizards and magic make a compelling setting. Canavan also writes well and her characterisation is strong. However certain niggles got to me. Given that the while theme of the book is about t a small nation pulling together to fight ought an invasion from a large aggressive neighbor the strategic and tactical ineptitude of all involved is upsetting. Some of this can be attributed to the unpreparedness of the nations involved but I can't shake through the idea that Canavan reality hasn't thought through the idea of warfare.

For example the countries rely for offence and defence entirely on a simall group of wizards. The book does emphasise how powerful wizards are, effectively invulnerable to conventional weapons while capable of wreaking enormous damage. Invulnerable that is until that is until they run it of magic which typically happens a short while after the start of a major battle. A few cavalry men with lances could prove handy at running down these exhausted wizards or even some archers to apply pressure to their magical shields. Yet Canavan chooses to employ her glass cannon magicians without any escort of conventional troops at all. That is ridiculous. These magicians are supposed to be aristocracy. They should at least have personal guards for dealing with non magical threats.

Wednesday, 22 May 2013

Invasion: Book One of the Secret World Chronicle by Mercedes Lackey, Steve Libby, Dennis Lee and Cody Martin

An alternative history where superheroes (meta humans) have become common place since the second world war and an organisation called Echo strives to harness their powers for good. Things begin to go awry when  echo bases all over the world are invaded by power armoured super soldiers bearing the swastika logo. This book has a surprising number of authors and yet it all hangs together well. It is a thumping good read and I am keen to continue with the rest of the saga.

EDIT: I just found out that the Secret World Chronicles were originally released as a series of podcasts available from here:
This is both interesting and perplexing. I am torn as to whether I should continue the series by listening to the podcasts or by reading the book version.

Nimbus: A Steampunk novel by B.J. Keeton and Austin King

What a terrific new world these authors have created. A world where humans have been forced to live on islands in the sky in order to escape a deadly cloud of corrosive gas that covers the surface of the Earth. Trade is done via airship and precious water needs to be harvested from storm clouds. There is a pretty exciting adventure story in here too. The novel also features strong characterisation, easily overlooked in steam punk / fantasy novels but so important for hooking you into the story and the world. A word of advice though - I didn't really like the prologue, I felt it was weak and out of character with the rest of the book. Just keep reading it gets much better as you go on.

Thursday, 4 April 2013

Orphaned Worlds by Michael Cobley

This second book in Cobley's Humanity's Fire saga stirs thing up a bit.  Word has gotten out about the ancient  artifact on the planet of Darien and a plethora of groups organic and machine, real space and hyperspace want to use it for their own means. Just about all of them are converging on the once backwater world. This makes for a great story with many complex layers but it is in danger of getting confusing. It almost feels as if Colby's stage is too small for the number of actors upon it. At times it seems pretty clear who are the main heroes and villains to watch but then another thread unravels and you begin to wonder if the main plot is happening elsewhere. Is this masterful story telling or is it just a lack of discipline by the author? It remains to be seen how the final novel ties it all together. I am certainly interested enough to want to find out.

Wednesday, 27 March 2013

Seeds of Earth by Michael Cobley

The human residents of Darien think they may be the only surviving remnants of humanity 150 years after they fled planet Earth as it succumbed to an alien onslaught. Their universe view gets turned upside down however when an envoy from Earth arrives with the news that humanity was saved from destruction by a major galactic player called the Hegemony. Things get a lot more complicated when it turns out that Darien is home to an ancient artefact of incredible power. The residents of Darien both human and indigenous are caught in the middle but can they do anything to survive the onslaught of powerful forces coming for their artefact? First book of a major space opera saga. I love this kind of stuff so don't expect an objective opinion. I think it is great.

Friday, 22 March 2013

The Icon by Frederick Forsyth

It is the late 1990's, the Russian economy has collapsed. An iconic new figure is likely to sweep the boards at the forthcoming elections but he and his party have an altogether more sinister agenda. A motley group of former spies know the truth and are going to try and stop him. This thriller is something of an oddity. It is a 1960's style spy thriller set in Russia in the late 1990's that strongly references Germany in the 1920's. There is not a mobile phone in sight and computers play a very minor role. This isn't one of Forsyth's better novels but it is still a cracking yarn written by a master story teller.

Saturday, 2 March 2013

Billy Connolly's Route 66

I am conscious that my reading tastes have become limited so I deliberately avoided the fantasy and Science fiction shelf on my last visit to the lending library and picked up this road trip account by a Scottish comedian instead. Connolly is a very funny man on stage so it was surprising to find that the book is rarely laugh out loud funny. It is really just a personal account of his trip along this once great but now sadly decaying road. The book is all about the characters he meets along the way such as the Amish craftsman who seems to have discovered the secret to a happy life. The book is a lightweight but enjoyable read. One of the most striking themes is the conflict between Connolly's genuine respect for the down to earth people he meets and his utter loathing of their middle American conservativism. He is literally incoherent at times, resorting to babble to describe some of the examples of conservatism he comes across. Yet he consciously avoids poking fun at people even where he vehemently disagrees with their views. This makes it quite a gentle book for a comedian to write. 

Tome of the Undergates by Sam Sykes

Enjoyable hack and slash fantasy from an author I haven't read before. This tale of a band of unsavoury adventurers who somehow take on the job of saving the world from demons is heavy on blood thirsty combat but not so big on world building.  It is the first book of the Aeon's Gate trilogy so perhaps the world will be described more completely in the sequels. One noteworthy point is how closely the characters stick to D&D conventions. There is a mage who needs uninterrupted concentration to cast his devastating spells and who must rest after casting a few of them. There is a cleric who heals. There is a rogue who hides in the shadows and stabs his foes in the back. Despite these and more obvious stereotypes Sykes fleshes out his characters well with their own individual traits and quirks. Most of these quirks are genuinely nasty by the way. Don't come looking for unfettered heroic goodness in this story.

Friday, 8 February 2013

Blonde Bombshell by Tom Holt

Somewhere out there on a planet far far away canines have evolved into a technologically advanced species. About a thousand years more advanced than us if truth be told. All of which would be fine if some of the the doggies hadn't taken an intense disliking to Earth and sent a couple of planet buster bombs to wipe us from the face of the universe. Luckily Earth has some rather unexpected allies so all hope may not yet be lost. 

This book was an unexpected delight. Genuinely funny science fiction that is also very clever from an author I had never heard of. The story is fairly lightweight and the science is full of holes but point of this book isn't to make you think it is to entertain and make you laugh. Highly recommended.

Side note: I can't help thinking the title of the book is rather unfortunate. Although it is cleverly appropriate to the plot of the book it gives a very misleading impression of what the book is about and I think it may put off prospective readers.Just google "Blonde Bombshell" and see how many pages of pulchritude you have to go through before you find any mention of Tom Holt.

Sunday, 3 February 2013

Wiseguy (aka Goodfellas) by Nicholas Peleggi

The original book that gave rise to the terrific gangster movie "Goodfellas". A true story giving fascinating insights into the world of organised crime in the 60's and 70's. Based on the confession of an insider., the book doesn't leave you with much sympathy for the crooks. They lived a life of total disregard for others even for their own friends. The most depressing thing about the book is the ease with which they manage to get their own way using corruption and the threat of violence. Nevertheless it is a gripping read.

The Mountains of Mourning by Lois McMaster Bujold

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The Warriors Apprentice by Lois McMaster Bujold

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Boneshaker by Cherie Priest

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The Complete Hammer's Slammers by David Drake

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Gardens of the Moon by Stephen Erikson

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Pirate Cinema by Cory Doctorow

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