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Sun, 21 Jul 2013

Bitter Seeds, by Ian Tregillis

The last time I reviewed a book which smashed together the second world war and magic I was not very polite about it. I can say far nicer things about this one. To start with, the cover art is better. It's still not great, but it is at least better. It also has sympathetic characters with real relationships and the story makes sense. Well, it makes as much sense as any story involving magic can.

The broad outline is that Evil Nazis created one of the Wunderwaffen before the war, by using training and electricity to create a handful of super-soldiers who have magical abilities. They all have different abilities, and look suspiciously like a comic book superhero team: there's the one who is super-strong, the one who burns things, the seer etc. The war goes badly for the good guys who have to, in turn, use magic to defend Britain. In a very nice twist which differentiates this from just about every other story involving magic, magic is not just something that some people can do like running fast or being good at drawing. It has costs. Very serious costs, which we see eating away at characters' consciences, bodies, and even sanity.

I do have a few bones to pick though. The book suffers from American Author Syndrome. Much of it is set in London, but he gets enough little details wrong to be very jarring. In particular there is the mortal sin of not using road names properly: a character talks of "Shaftesbury" and not Shaftesbury Avenue, and of "Trafalgar" but not Trafalgar Square. If the people speaking were Yankees this would be acceptable - it's an error that they make in real life. But they're not. These characters and English and German, both of whom speak of their streets by their full names - and Germans speaking English carry this excellent habit over into the foreign tongue.

I also have a problem with the inconsistent treatment of the seer's abilities, and what is done with them.

She is shown as being able to foretell the future, but somehow this also manages to let her know what the Chain Home radar stations are. Her intelligence is passed to the Luftwaffe, who promptly destroy them, thus winning the Battle of Britain, hence the British use of magic to defend the isles. But this is all rubbish. In reality the Germans had some idea what Chain Home was, and they did try to destroy it. They failed, because the open lattice structures were just about impossible to destroy using 1940 era bombs and bombing accuracy. And even if they had succeeded, Chain Home was but a small part of the air defence system. It's loss would not have lost the battle.

However, these are minor matters, the latter being necessary to set up the great struggle between evil and ... good corrupted into evil. I enjoyed it immensely, and will be reading the two sequels which deal with the cold war, in which the Soviets have captured the German super-soldiers and didn't stop at the Elbe but carried on to the North Sea.

Posted at 18:10 by David Cantrell
keywords: books | fantasy
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Thu, 4 Jul 2013

Intrusion, by Ken Macleod

This horrible dystopia sits firmly in the tradition of British science fiction from the 1930s to the 50s. It's an exploration of a society that, while being on the surface far less intrusive, is actually as controlling and conformist as anything Huxley imagined in Brave New World. And while there's no Armageddon, it's concerned with the little people, the middle class, their family life, and their un-looked-for struggle to survive against overwhelming events, in the vein of John Wyndham and John Christopher's "cosy catastrophes". And to cap it all there's even a touch of Orwell's 1984 as the protagonists are tortured into conforming.

One of the most important things to take from it is the idea that what might seem like restriction and control of just one section of society and so not something for everyone to be overly concerned about is actually a symptom of a far deeper rot and so we should all care. In this case it's women who are most obviously repressed, with an alarming lack of bodily autonomy and restricted from most workplaces because of the "dangers" of "fourth hand smoke" leeching out of the walls having been put there by smokers decades ago. The restriction is for the sake of their unborn, nay as-yet-unconceived children. This is, of course, justified. Using science! And that is my biggest gripe with the book. The justification is nonsense, and Hope, the protagonist, is supposed to be well-educated but blithely accepts it:

'But working in offices where people once smoked thirty years ago doesn't seem so risky [as compared to mining].'

'Oh, it isn't', said Crow. 'But it's still risky. That foul stuff leaks out of the walls and floors for decades.'

'Only in tiny amounts,' said Hope.

'Yes!' said Crow. 'That means it's actually riskier than smoking itself, because the amounts are so tiny. I mean, we're talking about femtograms per cubic metre. You know how small that is? It's smaller than a subatomic particle! When you had actual smoke particles in the air, you could at least cough ... these nano- and femto-particles can slip right between the molecules and into your lungs and bloodstream.'

'Yes, well I do understand that', said Hope.

This is especially ridiculous when we see that the society of the novel has a good grounding in physics, physical chemistry, and the behaviour of atomic and subatomic particles.

As the story unfolds we see that while the repression of women is the most visible repression - official policy even (although, of course, the state wraps it all in a veneer of deep concern for womens' welfare just as in the 19th century) - everyone else who dares to rebel even a little bit is also targetted eventually.

So much for the synopsis and my political ranting. I suspect that, as is often said of Sir Thomas More's Utopia, you can find something to suit your own pre-conceived notions (I'm too polite to call them prejudices) in any dystopian or utopian novel.

Of course, to be a good novel we need more than a sound political basis and auspicious antecedents. We need an entertaining story whose world and plot make sense, and we need it to be inhabited by people. Macleod, as expected, does just fine. I have minor quibbles about a couple of points in his world - the unwarranted acceptance of ridiculous pseudo-science mentioned above, and the efficacy of "The Fix", the seemingly magical pill whose acceptance the whole story revolves around. And, again barring the above, the characters are people, not just puppets obedient to their master's will. They have doubts, fears, love and joy, and they behave and speak believably.

I have no hesitation in giving this book top marks.

Posted at 22:49 by David Cantrell
keywords: books | fantasy | sci-fi | thriller
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Sun, 2 Sep 2012

The Last Wish, by Andrzej Sapkowski

According to the cover blurb, Sapkowski is "a European superstar". This is either untrue, or tells us nothing good about contemporary European fiction writing.

This loosely connected collection of short stories contains a couple of interesting re-imaginings of standard European folk-lore (plus a whole bunch of monsters where all he's done is make up a name - they get mentioned in lists but never seen), but you're always left with the impression that very little is actually happening. What's more, you won't feel a single solitary thing for the only real character. If you're stuck for something to read then this might be worth paying pennies for, but that's all.

Posted at 15:05 by David Cantrell
keywords: books | fantasy
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Sun, 12 Aug 2012

The Meat Tree, by Gwyneth Lewis

I'm a Londoner, and so I avoided the Olympics. I avoided them in north Wales, and on on the way there I needed to stop for a pee. I pulled over at the next place on my route that looked like it had a bog, the Erwood Station Craft Centre. It's a typical trashy little tourist-trap selling ugly, overpriced knick-knacks, and uglier, overpriceder bad art. But, having used their bog I felt it would at least be polite to have a cup of tea and have a quick look to see if there was anything worthwhile there. I was quite surprised to find that there was. Amongst dreary books about Welshism there was a small series of books which stood out by dint of having had an actual graphic designer work on their covers, and one of them in particular grabbed my attention because of its bizarre title. A quick glance at the cover blurb and a read of the first couple of pages sold it to me.

Just about the only piece of Welsh literature of any significance is "The Mabinogion", a collection of mediaeval tales and myths, first translated into English in the 19th century. I've actually read it, and I can tell you that it ain't that great. It's not awful, just ... not great. It's so mediocre and hum-drum that while I do know that I've read it, I don't remember a single thing about it. "The Meat Tree" is part of a series supposedly re-telling the tales from the Mabinogion in a contemporary way, and is a science fiction short wrapped around the tale of "Math, son of Mathonwy". The original tale seems to be (based on a synopsis I read on Wikipedia) mostly present, and doesn't really make much sense, but the way that it is presented here works around that problem. In Lewis's tale, a badly matched pair of "wreck inspectors" board a derelict space craft and attempt to figure out where it came from and who its missing crew were. There's no sign of them, but there is a VR entertainment system, which just happens to have this weird mediaeval tale loaded into it, which they play in an attempt to find messages from the original crew - with awful consequences.

Lewis is primarily a poet, not a novelist, and her excellent command of language shines through. And in an authorial afterword she enthuses about science fiction and how she'd wanted to write it for so long. She makes a couple of elementary mistakes that any fan of the genre should spot, but I'm not surprised that the publisher didn't spot them, as they mostly seem to publish poetry and Welshism. This is an excellent first work of science fiction, and I hope that Lewis stops wasting her time with Welsh poetry that will be read by no-one, and uses her prodigious talents to write more stuff like this, stuff that normal people will read.

Posted at 22:24 by David Cantrell
keywords: books | fantasy | sci-fi
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Thu, 19 Jul 2012

The Emperor's Edge, by Lindsay Buroker

Several months ago I reviewed Buroker's "Flash Gold" and "Hunted", two short stories that were nearly free on the Kindle. They were pretty damned enjoyable anyway, and at their price point I was willing to overlook any minor weaknesses. And, as has happened so often now, a cheap (or free!) short story introduced me to another great self-published author.

The Emperor's Edge is similar to those shorts. It's not set in the same universe but it might as well be - it's another steampunky world with a little bit of magic, although this time the action is set in a city instead of on a wild frontier - and it has a capable, likeable central female character. There's grime, crime, corruption and heroism, and you almost (but not quite) believe in the setting. The action is exciting throughout, making it a good page-turner, but there are also clear boundaries between segments, so you won't be too upset at having to put it down at bedtime.

Buroker's policy for her stories, it seems, is to give the first one in each series, including this one, away for free. I've always known that books are a drug, and in doing this she is following the honourable precedent set by many a dealer. I think I'd give it four stars anyway, despite there being little depth to the story or characters, simply because it's so damned entertaining, but at the price I have absolutely no hesitation whatsoever.

Posted at 00:20 by David Cantrell
keywords: books | fantasy | kindle
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Wed, 9 May 2012

Through Struggle, the Stars, by John Lumpkin

... or, as I immediately thought, Per ardua ad astra. An apt title for this story, and the Latin version even shows up in the text, with the institution bearing it being a direct descendant of the Royal Flying Corps, who are congratulated on their far-sightedness.

It's a tale of a young man who enlists in the military with all kinds of gung-ho ideas about what he wants to do, but who ends up, sulkily and largely by accident, as an intelligence officer - and finds that he thoroughly enjoys it. The world-building is intriguing and largely consistent, but the characters are a little flat. But for less than two quid I can't complain. It was enjoyable, and even if it's a bit of fairly mindless cheese, it's good value for money.

Posted at 00:06 by David Cantrell
keywords: books | fantasy
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Tue, 1 May 2012

A Dance With Dragons, by George R. R. Martin

Blimey, Martin don't half go on! This is the fifth volume in his ongoing epic fantasy series "A Song Of Ice and Fire". It was originally intended to be part of volume four, but because of Martin's uncontrollable logorrhoea that got split in two because it was simply too big to print. Once split, the first half, which became volume 4 "A Feast for Crows", was still a hefty 976 pages. We then waited five years for this, the second half. Martin obviously took the opportunity to fiddle with it and no doubt substantially rewrite parts of it. The resulting fifth volume ended up so big that in some editions it was itself printed in two volumes, called "Dreams and Dust" and "After the Feast".

It's fairly clear where he's fiddled too. A Feast for Crows ended up being just about events and people in the southern half of Westeros (Martin's fictional world), and A Dance With Dragons was supposed to simply be the northern half of the same story, with events happening in parallel. It didn't work out quite that way. All of the first half (Dreams and Dust) and some of the second (After the Feast ) is parallel to A Feast for Crows, but not all of it, with action in the last third returning south and happening after A Feast for Crows had finished. Confused? Actually, you won't be. The temporal shenanigans are handled well.

What is still a bit confusing is, just as I criticised in A Feast for Crows, some of the relationships between people. Us modern denizens of a democratic capitalist world just aren't used to keeping track of feudal relationships and having family and clan relationships be so important is alien to us. No doubt my primitive ancestors of four or five hundred years ago would cope much better with this than I can - those of them who could read! I occasionally found myself having to turn to the genealogies in the back. It's good that they're provided, but it's irritating that they're necessary.

Characterisation is excellent. They are all real, as are the places they inhabit - you can almost smell the fear, filth and food, and feel the cold of the far north and the blazing heat and thirst of southern oceans. If anything, this is even better done than in the previous volumes, and so you would expect me to give it higher marks than A Feast for Crows. But I'm not going to. Yes, it's marginally superior in that regard, but the prolixity and the poor planning evident in the haphazard splitting of volumes bugged me. It only bugged me a bit, but on top of that, there's a sense in which nothing much of consequence seems to happen in A Dance With Dragons, as if everyone is holding their breath. And, now that I look back on the previous volume, I have the same feeling about that too - there was lots of rushing around and busyness, but little of it to much great purpose.

Posted at 18:31 by David Cantrell
keywords: books | fantasy
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Sat, 21 Jan 2012

Fantasy and Science Fiction Magazine, Kindle edition

Magazines are one of the staples of science fiction, with many authors getting their first break from them before going on to writing full-length books. Trouble is, they're almost impossible to get hold of. Newsagents don't carry them. Some bookshops do - not many, but some - but they never promote them, instead on the rare occasions that I've found them they've been hiding amongst a load of fashion rubbish. Just about the only place you can reliably get them is in sci-fi specialists like Forbidden Planet, but even then you have to make sure you get to the shop on the right day every two months lest they sell out before you get there - and you have to put up with going to Forbidden Planet too.

So when I saw that Amazon were doing magazine subscriptions on the Kindle, and that one of those magazines was Fantasy & Science Fiction I didn't really have any choice, I had to buy it. And given that Kindle magazine subscriptions include the first copy for free it's a no-brainer.

And I'm so glad I did it. My first copy was chock full of well-written short stories. If one or two were a bit sub-par that doesn't really matter, especially given that once I start paying it'll only be £0.99 a month, about a third of what it costs on paper - it's an absolute bargain, and you should subscribe immediately.

Posted at 14:29 by David Cantrell
keywords: fantasy | kindle | magazines | sci-fi
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