Most of these reviews can also be found on Amazon.
In the second quarter of 2008, I read the following books:
1. The Outstretched Shadow, by Mercedes Lackey and James Mallory
This is high fantasy - magic, unicorns, knights, demons, the works. I don't normally buy such things as my experience is that the genre is overwhelmingly unimaginative and poorly written. This was yet another of my freebies from Tor though, so given that I didn't have to spend any of my hard-earned cash on it, I thought I'd give it a go. And I was mostly right, it is unimaginative. But it's well-written. The authors have made the protagonist a whiny little shit of a teenager, and he really does come across like that. Of course, the story is flimsy with far too many coincidences and superpowers that just happen to manifest themselves at the crucial time - but this is fantasy, and there's magic, so just suspend your disbelief, alright? If you like fantasy, buy this. If you don't, then it's at least worth looking for in the library. I was sufficiently impressed that I'll track down the sequel second-hand at some point.
2. Blindsight, by Peter Watts
Hard sci-fi with a dash of horror, where the tech is an integral part of the storyline instead of just being a backdrop. And there's also a wide range of characters, some likeable, some hateable, all feeling fleshy and real, and some interesting philosophical musings. The author backs it up with copiously referenced notes at the end about the science used, much of which has at least a grounding in current knowledge and research. The author has made the book available online under a creative-commons licence after not getting much distribution in physical form - why the publishers dropped the ball on this I have no idea. And by the way, since Watts put it online for free, demand has apparently soared, and it's been re-printed, so it shouldn't be too hard to track down a copy and pay money for it. Please do so.
3. Starfish, by Peter Watts
Wow, Watts has put a lot of stuff up on his website for free. Starfish explores a somewhat similar setting to Blindsight (see previous review). The characters are even more dysfunctional and hateable than in the later novel, and the first three quarters of the book are inventive. Unfortunately, the end falls into the rather tired cliché of an Evil Corporation oppressing the characters For The Good Of Humanity. A shame. Mind you, it does give him a hook on which to hang the next story in this trilogy.
4. Maelstrom, by Peter Watts
Maelstrom is the sequel to Starfish (see previous review) and carries on pretty much at the exact point that the previous book left off. I'm not entirely convinced by his technological extrapolations, but that's a hazard of reading fiction involving a subject that you're an expert in. No doubt my mother has the same problem with books whose crucial plot elements involve embroidery. Again, a good beginning and middle is let down by its ending. But again, the scene is set for the final installment in the trilogy.
5. βehemoth, by Peter Watts
The final part in the "Rifters" trilogy carries on where its predecessors left off, and in much the same style. The exception is that being the end of the trilogy there's nothing to hang off the end and so that redeeming feature that the others had is missing. The plot moves slowly and is confused. Conspiracies within conspiracies and some really quite tasteless scenes of torture only detract further from what is at best a mediocre book. And that's my conclusion about the whole series - some great ideas, but poorly executed. Not worth buying, so I'm glad I didn't.
6. Lord of the Isles, by David Drake
Extruded Fantasy Product, which very closely follows the formula of "[fantasy name 1], a young [peasant occupation] in the kingdom of [fantasy place name 1], has his world turned upside down when he discovers that he is the heir of [fantasy name 2], a legendary [heroic occupation]. This awakens incredible [powers / skills / magic] in him, which is immediately put to the test, as [fantasy name 2]'s ancient enemy [fantasy bad guy name] and his army of [fantasy monsters] converge on [fantasy place name 1] to destroy the heir and steal the throne. Can [fantasy name 1] survive a perilous journey to [fantasy place name 2] in order to find the [powerful item] that will save both him and his kingdom?" (thanks to this guy for ths summary). Worth reading? Well, the story progresses in small chunks, like it was written for serialisation in some pulp magazine. That makes it suitable for mindlessly filling a few minutes a day on a bus. So yes, worth reading. Not worth paying full price for though.
7. Crystal Rain, by Tobias Buckell
The background that Buckell uses for this story makes a refreshing change from the normal run of science fiction, most of which is derived quite clearly from western European (and by extension American, which is as near as damnit the same thing) societies. Buckell uses the Caribbean instead. The opposing societies - and the reasons that they are in opposition at all - are inventive, characters' motivations and actions make sense. All round it's a jolly well-written and well-told yarn. I suppose that the ending could be seen as being somewhat deus ex machina if you were to read a plot summary, but with all the little details scattered earlier in the book it isn't really like that. Worth paying for (although this was yet another Tor freebie), and I'll be ordering its follow-up "Ragamuffin".
8. Sun of Suns, by Karl Schroeder
A story of pirates and a desperate search for treasure, with a sub-plot of resistance by a conquered people (this isn't explored in much depth and only eally serves to make one of the main characters' backgrounds a bit more interesting). The setting is a world of a several thousand mile bubble of air floating in space, which contains several miniature suns, the control of which defines nations. There is negligible gravity and for reasons that are never made clear, electronics don't work. This leads to dramatic if somewhat silly action, with jet-powered wooden airships, sword-fights in 3D, and so on. If cut judiciously it would make a great feature-length film - probably best done as a cartoon though, as shooting a whole feature to appear to be in zero G would be very hard. There are some minor inconsistencies in the environment (another reason to film it as a cartoon - cartoon physics are somewhat more forgiving!), and minor plot threads left dangling, but over all it's great fun. Recommended, and added to my shopping list.
9. The Four Just Men, by Edgar Wallace
Edgar Wallace was a hack. This, the first of his very many crime novels, is at heart a reversed rip-off of Sherlock Holmes, whose adventures were entertaining Strand readers at about the same time. Instead of a brilliant detective bringing justice to criminals, we have brilliant criminals bringing their own brand of justice to those who deserve it. The criminals themselves are likeable enough. However, their characters and motivations are barely sketched out. Indeed, it is two of their victims who are, so to speak, painted in colour when everyone else is merely sketched in pencil. And where in a Sherlock Holmes story you would, by the end, know exactly what happened and how, the reader of this story has very little idea how the Four Just Men knew, for example, how their target was guarded. Even so, the very short story is an enjoyable enough read, let down by the very last page, which is a terribly inept attempt at clearing up all the loose ends. As the author died a long time ago, the book is out of copyright and available from manybooks.net to download for free in several formats. I recommend grabbing a copy.
10. The Black Cloud, by Fred Hoyle
Hoyle is most well-known as an astronomer. However, he also dabbled in writing science fiction. And, I'm sorry to say, he wasn't very good at it, at least if this, his most well-known story, is anything to go by. The story itself is actually a fairly imaginative and well thought out example of the catastrophic fiction so popular with British authors of the time - doom, gloom, a new ice age. But it's the wooden characters, the wholly implausible actions of those "off-stage", poor dialogue and over-long expository sections that consign this to the dustbin of literature. As an example of its sub-genre it's interesting, but as a story it ain't. Only recommended for collectors.
11. We, by Yevgeny Zamyatin
It's unfortunate that this tale of emancipation and discovery in a dreary ultra-totalitarian state, one far beyond what Orwell or Huxley later wrote about, is so difficult to engage with, because I really want to like it. It's beautifully written and the protagonist's anguish feels real. But I just couldn't, and have, after carrying the book around in my pocket for a good few months reading a page here and there, eventually admitted defeat. I'm not going to finish it. Even so, although it's not for me the underlying quality is obvious. I hesitate to recommend buying it, but it's worth finding in your local library. It is also available online here in an English translation.
12. Spirit Gate, by Kate Elliott
Another electronic freebie from Tor - and if it was on paper I'd have never even considered picking it up. The cover art is just terrible, almost as if it's designed to make people not read it - it's a badly drawn (and I mean *really* badly drawn picture of someone strapped to an eagle with some shitty faux-tribal ... thing in the background. Frankly, I'd be embarrassed to be seen with it. The story itself, however, isn't too bad. There's rather too many loose ends and a few concepts and events that are merely mentioned in passing yet are apparently terribly important to the characters. Maybe they'll get cleared up in the sequel, but it seems to me that a good book should stand alone. Also the geography is somewhat confused, making it hard to keep track of how one place is related to another, and the broad sweep of the story is hardly original. On the other hand, it's easy to read in small chunks on the train. Don't buy it at full price, get it second hand and if you don't like it, leave it on a train for someone else to read.
13. Ventus, by Karl Schroeder
First impressions are rather disappointing - it looks like it's going to be a hum-drum fantasy with a sci-fi explanation, and takes a long time to get going, all the while interspersed with some expository sections that make one really worry about whether the plot will be allowed to naturally develop. Thankfully, things improve about a third of the way in, and while the story still doesn't feel fully developed (to be fair it is the author's first book) it does at least become entertaining. Unfortunately you never get a feel for the main characters. In fact, it's a very minor character, one who another editor could well have insisted was cut out, who is the most interesting. The "birth" of a conscious AI and its crisis of confidence is handled deftly, and I wish it had been introduced earlier and had a bigger role to play. Overall, I'm glad I read this, but also glad it was a free download from the author. If I'd bought it based on the strength of the author's other work, I'd have felt somewhat cheated.
14. The Magician's Nephew, by C.S.Lewis
There's a new Narnia film coming out soon, and seeing the ads on the sides of buses reminded me that I'd meant to re-read the series, because of all the fuss about it being supposedly christian propaganda dressed up as childrens' entertainment. This is the first (chronologically speaking) book in the series, and is apparently the one that Lewis wanted people to read first. I didn't spot any glaring propaganda. Sure, there's a creation myth, but christians hardly have a monopoly on that. Indeed, they stole theirs, so if Aslan's creation of Narnia counts of christian propaganda, then the bible must be babylonian propaganda. Anyway, the book itself is a very short, quick read. Recommended for children, and for adults who remember reading it when they were smaller. If the rest of the series is of the same quality (and my memory from umpty years ago is that it is) then Narnia is one of the classics of childrens' literature that everyone should own, and put it on their shelves next to Winnie The Pooh. You do own Winnie The Pooh, right?
15. Butcher Bird, by Richard Kadrey
A fantasy with refreshingly little magic at least to start with, and what there is is - again, at least at the beginning - fairly original. Unfortunately the story just doesn't hang together very well. It feels like the author had several good ideas (and many of them are indeed very good), wrote a scene around that, and then glued them all together with some cut n paste mythology. As a novel it just doesn't work. Sorry.