I've decided to post book reviews every month instead of every quarter this year. Most of these reviews can also be found on Amazon.
In January 2009, I read the following books:
1. Island in the Sea of Time, by S. M. Stirling
This is one of those books that is often said to define its sub-genre (modern people thrown back in time to live amongst savages - it's a surprisingly common theme in bad scifi/fantasy), by an author who is a giant in his genre (alternate history). And it was pretty much what I expected. It has no literary merit whatsoever. The people in it have such oh-so-conveniently chosen skills and attitudes, the heroes are suitably heroic, the good guys are ever-so-good, the bad guys are particularly nasty and traditionally one-dimensional, and the fools are especially foolish. The plot is broadly predictable. And it was thoroughly enjoyable. It could have done with a bit of trimming, perhaps - a few scenes are completely unnecessary - but I recommend this book.
However, it has Sequels. I'm going to read them, but I'm not expecting them to be anywhere near as much fun.
2. Snowbrother, by S. M. Stirling
Oh dear. There are so many things wrong with this post-Nuclear-Apocalypse fantasy. Let's start with the cover art, which features a buxom wench in armour waving a sword about. In the book, she's wearing a helmet in that scene, but she's drawn without one so we can see her long hair and tell that she's definitely a woman. Because the breasts on her cuirass aren't obvious enough. Then let's look at the two cultures that this fantasy throws together. The good guys are oh so very good, being basically mediaeval hippies in tune with nature; the bad guys are oh so very bad - they're descended from the survivors of the Apocalypse's "strategic high command", they live solely for glory and war, they rape their slaves, and their shamen are cannibals. Ugh. What utterly unimaginative stereotypes. Then there are all kinds of other little bits that niggle at me: the made-up languages and names abound with apostrophes, scattered at random to make them seem alien. Technologies are explained which can't possibly exist (the repeating crossbow described would break the first law of thermodynamics) or are utterly implausible (people with an early mediaeval level of technology also have fibreglass-reinforced plastic). And then there's magic, in a story set quite obviously in the future of our world.
About the only thing that's any good about this train-wreck is that the bad guys win at the end.
3. Against the Tide of Years, by S. M. Stirling
This first sequel to Island in the Sea of Time was pleasantly surprising. It's basically the same as the earlier work, suffering from all the same flaws, but instead of disappearing up its own arse as so many sequels do, it's still enjoyable and the author introduces new people, places and things to keep one's interest.
4. On the Oceans of Eternity, by S. M. Stirling
This second (and final - so far) sequel to Island in the Sea of Time was unfortunately rather what I was expecting. There was no invention here, and secondary characters brought in to this volume were two-dimensional and lacked motive. The end felt rather inconclusive too. I was also irritated by the way the story skipped about. It is broken into chapters, but they seem to be fairly arbitrary. Each chapter is preceded by a short list of the places in which the action happens, and then within the chapter those jumps happen with no warning whatsoever. I found it quite jarring - there should be a sub-heading at the jump. Stirling might have done this in the earlier books too, but if he did I don't remember, so he must have done it better than in this one. So I'm rather disappointed. Still worth reading if you enjoyed the previous two books, but only to tie up the loose ends.
5. The Magic Christian, by Terry Southern
This is supposed to be a novel. It's not. At best, it's a collection of very short stories, linked by the theme of an incredibly rich prankster's cruel practical jokes. Some attempt at continuity is made, generally in a few paragraphs at the beginning of each prank, but it doesn't work. A couple of the short stories are very good, and actually worth reading, but the rest aren't. They're just too cruel to be funny. Don't bother with this book.