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Tue, 1 Feb 2011

January 2011 in books

Some of these reviews can also be found on Amazon.

In January 2011 I read the following books:

1. The Time Patrol, by Poul Anderson

This collection of short stories has a major problem. All stories which feature travel into the past have this problem, and these, which have it to a very large degree, it being the core of the fictional world Anderson has built, have it in spades. That is, it doesn't deal very well with paradox. Sure, paradox is something that the characters worry a lot about, but in the end they mostly ignore it, and go ahead and create the "causal loops" that they worry so much about, and apparently get away with it every time, which is Quite Irritating.

Other than that, they're mostly "OK", but only "OK". There's only one story that particularly stands out as being very good ("The Sorrow of Odin the Goth"), and none that stand out as being very bad. At their best, these stories contain sympathetic, believable characters who struggle with internal conflicts between what they must do, what they want to do, and what is right; at their worst they are entirely predictable and would only serve as a brief diversion to read once and then forget, with all of the characters' casual breaking of the fundamental rules of their organisation forgiven. To his credit, Anderson generally portrays the cultures of the past sympathetically, with even Evil Conquistadores being shown to be people with motivations and not just thoughtless automatons that merely hack and slash and burn - they do evil because they think it's for a greater good, not just for kicks and greed.

Anderson wrote eleven stories set in this world, of which nine are collected here. A later edition with a slightly different name apparently includes one more story, so you may prefer to buy that instead. And there is one other book-length story published seperately. However, on the strength of this book, I have no particular desire to buy either of 'em.

2. Scratch Monkey, by Charles Stross

Long before Charlie Stross became a household name - or at least a household name amongst sci-fi readers anyway - he wrote this novel-length story. It's never been published apart from on his own website, although there will be a very limited edition later this year.

It's not really surprising that it's not been published either. It definitely counts as "juvenilia", and, like great composers' juvenilia, there are definite signs of greatness, but it ain't quite there yet. There are also shared themes with some of Stross's other early work - namely the Singularity and how mere fleshy creatures become, at best, toys of their AI progeny. It is undeniably imaginative, with an engaging story. One of the characters (but only one, the leading lady) has a well-developed background and motivations. However, while the story was engaging, at no point did I ever engage with her. Stross fixes that in his later books, which have sympathetic characters, as opposed to merely believable ones. I can't unreservedly recommend this, and I certainly couldn't recommend that you buy it, were it available in a mass-market edition, but given that it's available online for free - go! Have at it!

3. Red Seas Under Red Skies, by Scott Lynch

The Lies of Locke Lamora was a wonderful book, the author's first, and by all accounts a good seller. I was therefore somewhat perturbed when my copy of this sequel arrived. Same type face, same size pages, same size margins, 80-odd more pages. "Oh dear", thought I, "did he do well enough to have been let loose without an editor"?

But I need not have worried. It's a rollicking good story that keeps up a good pace all the way through, with lots of little twists and turns. It is perhaps not quite as dense with drama as the prior installment, but this allows more time for the development of a larger cast of characters. I did think for a while that the story was getting just too complicated, too multi-layered, with too much deception going on and that the delicate structure would collapse - not just collapse in the world of the story, but also collapse into an untidy mess of a story - but it didn't. There are a few tricky moments, but overall Lynch carries it off.

While it does not quite attain the heights of perfection achieved by the first book, I still give it five stars and my recommendation.

Posted at 23:15 by David Cantrell
keywords: books | culture
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