Friday, 16 September 2016

Drakenfeld and Retribution, by Mark Charan Newton


I don't read a lot of fantasy these days (of the swords, sandals and sorcery ilk, anyway) but Drakenfeld came well recommended so, when in the mood for something different, I decided to give it a try. There is the traditional pre-gunpowder feudal culture in the form of ten separate monarchies linked by a non-aggression pact overseen by the Sun Chamber, which maintains its own army and whose officers act as investigators. Lucan Drakenfeld is one such officer, a young man who has been working far from home with the assistance of Leana, a female warrior from another culture. He receives a message from the Sun Chamber to advise him of the death of his father, the resident officer in Tryum, the capital of Detrata and Lucan's home city, and to instruct him to travel to Tryum to tidy up his father's affairs.

Lucan has no sooner arrived than the King's sister is found murdered in a temple, locked from the inside. The circumstances appear impossible so Lucan has to use his wits to work out what happened. Another high-profile murder shortly afterwards tests his resources to their limits, and he is not helped by discovering that his father was not the pillar of respectability he had always believed. The rediscovery of the love of his life is also a major distraction. He eventually solves the problems, which all prove to be interrelated, although the finale leaves various loose ends, both personal and political.

I enjoyed this book: it is well-written with good characterisation, Lucan being an admirable and likeable hero although his right-on 21st century attitudes, especially towards women, seem a little improbable in this context. The ambivalent relationship between Lucan and Leana is intriguing; there is no more than a suggestion of possible magic, Lucan depending on his powers of logical analysis to unravel the plot; and the whole story has more of an adult feel than usual (although not in the sense of being sexually explicit, which it isn't). There is just one scene in which gruesome events take place (curiously, that is the very first one, so there is a risk that some people might be put off). If I were interested in writing fantasy, this is the kind of story which I would want to be able to write. I read it quickly and immediately sent off for the sequel, Retribution.

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Retribution continues the story of Lucan and Leana, who have now left Detrata for the neighbouring state of Koton and specifically its capital city, Kuvash. A mystery about a missing priest soon becomes a murder enquiry, followed by a second and a third – and Lucan is racing against time to discover what links these high-profile killings before there are yet more deaths, against a background of increasing inter-state tension. So far, so much the same as the previous book, although the story is not as gripping as the plot is less complex and Lucan is not put through such a tough emotional mill.

What did surprise and disappoint me is the writing style, which is distinctly inferior to Drakenfeld. The first hint of this is on page 1, with the sentence: "The sudden deluge delighted them and their faces creased in innocent delight." The repetition of "delight" is a little jarring. I noticed many occasions on which the word choice, if not incorrect, seemed inappropriate for the context or for the speaker, and one (repeated) error in which "vagaries" is used when it is clear that "vagueness" was the meaning the author wanted to convey. Sentence construction can also be rather clunky, as in this extract from pages 3 and 4:

A figure tramped quickly up through the swamp-like gardens of the station post. As she marched along the deck her boots thudded on the wet wood. It was my companion Leana. She took the steps up towards me two at a time. Her wax coat was sodden, even though the journey to the gatehouse to check for any new messages was short. A thick leather cylinder was clutched in her hand.

All of this meant that my enjoyment of the book kept being undermined by shortcomings in the writing. I was left with the impression that Newton might have worked out the outline of the plot then passed it to some less talented writer to flesh out. At the very least, the writing needed much firmer editing to achieve the polish of the original book.

Curiously, Newton doesn't seem much interested in the series. His own website lists Retribution as "coming soon" (it was published in 2014), and while the conclusion leaves various loose ends which clearly set up a third volume, there is no sign of this appearing.


Sunday, 21 August 2016

Restart: trilogy conclusions and failures


Having bowed out from the constant pressure to keep reading or watching SFF in order to feed this weekly blog, I have been relaxing by catching up with lots of detective stories for a change, both ancient and modern. However, I still feel the itch to comment on what SFF I've come across, so I've decided to try to post a summary once a month, starting now.

Ancillary Mercy, by Ann Leckie 

The final volume of the author's multiple-award-winning trilogy, the first two (Ancillary Justice, and Ancillary Sword) having been previously reviewed here. The story continues directly from the second volume without any intro or recap, so it is better to read all three in fairly quick succession unless you are blessed with a better memory than mine. For more detailed information about the series, I refer you to my previous reviews.

This volume continues the high standard of the series and brings it to a satisfactory conclusion while still leaving the door slightly ajar for a follow-on series should the author so wish. To sum up; a good series well worth reading, but not as great as its reputation and awards might suggest. I found it rather too slow and deliberate in its pacing to be a real page-turner and the events in the story are already fading from my memory, but then I like some excitement in my SFF.

Honour's Knight and Heaven's Queen, by Rachel Bach 

These are the second and third of the Paradox trilogy, the sequel to Fortune's Pawn which I reviewed last month. They continue the tale directly – this trilogy is really one continuous story. The plot remains inventive and exciting, with a lot to commend it, but the sentimentality defines its audience. The second volume is better than the first in this respect, with only one overdone romantic scene, but the final book's fairytale ending wallows in feelgood, happily-ever-after emotion. A great series for those who enjoy a kick-ass heroine combined with a large dollop of girlish romance, disappointingly cloying for anyone else.

Tried and Failed

Three books I started recently but failed to complete:

Aurora by Kim Stanley Robinson (published 2015): I started this in view of the favourable reviews it has received, but managed to get no more than a quarter of the way through it before deciding that I simply wasn't engaged enough to want to carry on. I've found this with KSR before, in that I struggled through to the end of Red Mars and didn't bother with the two sequels. I'm not quite sure what the problem is, but his writing style seems rather flat and dull to me, with the narrator doing a lot of describing and explaining; there's never any feeling of excitement in getting back to the story. I just have to accept that KSR is one writer I'm never going to appreciate.

Station Eleven by Emily St John Mandel (published 2014): a few weeks after giving up on it, I had completely forgotten what this was about. However, some hasty re-reading reminded me that it is essentially a post-apocalyptic tale, although it starts with beginning of the disaster, caused by the global spread of a lethal disease. I don't much enjoy this kind of story so it has to be outstanding to gain my approval, but the author failed to draw me into it.

Starbridge by A.C.Crispin (published 1989):  Earth's first encounter with an alien race when two starships meet. I'm not sure what put me off this one, I think it was the precocious young heroine cosily establishing her own relationship with an alien. There was somehow too much self-satisfaction coming through. Like the Paradox trilogy, it seems to have been aimed at teenage girls.


Saturday, 9 July 2016

Posting suspended

After nine years and just short of 500 posts, I have decided to suspend posting on this blog.

There are two reasons for this, which reinforce each other. One is that I have some non-SFF writing projects I am determined to complete but am making very little progress with due to lack of time (and I'm not getting any younger). The other is that I have gradually found writing reviews becoming a chore that I have to slog through rather than a pleasure.

I will leave this blog site in existence because the many book, film and TV reviews it contains may remain of interest. Who knows, I may even revive it at some point if my priorities change.

In the meantime, thank you to my readers, especially those who have stuck with me for many years. Keep reading SFF - I certainly will!

Saturday, 2 July 2016

Fortune's Pawn, by Rachel Bach


Fortune's Pawn is the first of the Paradox trilogy, the others being Honour's Knight and Heaven's Queen. They form one continuous story, following the adventures of Deviana Morris, an armoured mercenary living on another planet – Paradox, long before settled by Earth – in the far future. She is very ambitious and committed, determined to be selected for the Devastators, the armoured royal guard of the Sainted King of Paradox. Powered and armoured suits feature a lot in this story and Devi's is a top-grade model, packed with sensors, able to protect her against almost anything and giving her enormous strength, speed and endurance. Even though she is still in her twenties, Devi has already had an impressive career but needs more experience to qualify, so she signs up with Brian Caldswell, a commercial trader and owner of the ship the Glorious Fool, who has a reputation for getting into all kinds of trouble and losing a lot of his crew.

And what a strange crew they are. Caldswell himself seems normal enough, but his navigator is an alien from an avian species, his doctor is a different, reptilian, kind of alien of a species that likes to eat humans, the cook (who rapidly becomes Devi's love interest) is a handsome hunk who is suspiciously good at combat, Devi's cabin mate is a dreamy young psychic girl, and the captain's young daughter seems to be so autistic she is almost catatonic.

The ship and her crew are soon involved in a whole sequence of mysterious adventures and it becomes clear that they are not conventional traders at all. Devi has to earn all of her combat pay in a series of brutal fights while trying to control her forbidden passion for the cook. The book ends on a major "reset" with the mysteries unexplained.


I read this in two sessions and quite enjoyed it, but I found it a bit lightweight and superficial and became rather tired of the overblown romance element. Overall, the book struck me as being targeted at female Young Adult readers and I was not intending to read the sequels. However, in searching to see what the other two novels were about I came across this review of the trilogy: http://girlsincapes.com/2014/04/09/review-paradoxtri/ which exactly reflects my feelings about the first book but goes on to say that the next two are much better. So I think I might persevere after all.

Saturday, 25 June 2016

This Alien Shore, by C. S. Friedman


I have to confess that I had never heard of C S Friedman until this book was selected as one of the monthly reads of the Classic Science Fiction discussion group (https://groups.yahoo.com/neo/groups/ClassicScienceFiction/conversations/messages) . On checking her website I see that she has published a dozen novels so far, starting in 1986, most of them being grouped in series. This Alien Shore, published in 1998, is one of her stand-alone stories.

The story is set in a complex far future in which humanity's first attempt to reach the stars caused massive, permanent and inheritable genetic damage to the crews, resulting in a wide range of different human Variants being created. In panic, Earth closed down instellar travel, abandoning numerous Variant colonies to their fates and earning their hatred in consequence. Much later one Variant culture, the Guera, develops a specialised sub-type able to cope with the sanity-wrecking and highly dangerous method of hyperspace travel called the ainniq – a space populated by hostile monsters known as the sana. Spacecraft can only access the ainniq via nodes in space, so cultures grow up in vast artificial habitats close to the nodes, made by stripping planets of their resources. The Outspace pilots form a Guild which maintains a monopoly on space travel, and the Earth humans are reluctantly tolerated in the new interstellar culture which develops.

Jamisia Shido is a young woman living in a habitat in orbit around the Earth. She is looked after by the habitat government following an accident which killed her parents and left her psychologically damaged, hearing voices inside her head. She escapes when the habitat is attacked, and is horrified to discover that the attack had been aimed at seizing her. Something had been done to her – something to do with the bioware inside her head – which powerful forces believed gave her the potential to navigate the ainniq, breaking the Guild monopoly.

In a separate plot thread, the Guild is seen to be facing other problems; a highly sophisticated computer virus has been released which attacks the bioware of the Outspace pilots, killing them and threatening interstellar travel. A legendary Gueran programming expert, Masada, is recruited to hunt for the source of the virus and find a way of destroying it. His search takes him to Paradise, a vast artificial habitat, where expert freelance hackers have also been studying the virus.

Meanwhile the frightened and confused Jamisia has also turned up in Paradise after various adventures, still pursued by unidentified enemies. The voices in her head have developed into a dozen very different personalities who occasionally fight for control of her body; notably Raven, a tech expert and pilot; and Katlyn, a seductress able to spin her way into any man's affections (the descriptions of the subtle ways in which she achieves this being amusing and all too convincing!).

Ultimately the two main plot threads combine as the tale accelerates towards a rather rushed  finale, my main criticism being that the guilty virus designer is flagged up a little too obviously before the revelation, although that doesn't spoil the enjoyment.

This is a long story which contains many intriguing elements, particularly the nature of the Gueran society and their strange face-painting symbolism indicating status and personality types. It has something of the flavour of Dune in its depiction of a far-future civilisation, albeit without Herbert's staggering and baroque inventiveness. Hard SF combined with good characterisation and an engaging heroine, This Alien Shore is well worth reading and I have added the author's name to my approved purchase list.


Saturday, 18 June 2016

Interzone 264


In this May-June issue of the SFF magazine there is the usual varied crop of reviews of both print and screen. The former includes Central Station by Lavie Tidhar, a setting already familiar due to the inclusion in previous issues of Interzone of five short stories set in this universe. I did remark in one of my reviews that we seemed to be getting an entire novel in instalments, so this is presumably it! A reprint of an much older novel is also reviewed: Dreamsnake by Vonda N McIntyre, wiunner of both the Hugo and Nebula awards in 1979. I remember reading this one, although I don't now have a copy. I do have a couple of others by the same author; The Exile Waiting (1975) and Superluminal (1983). I don't recall anything about them, but the back-cover blurbs sound interesting so I may well blow the dust off them soon. Also of interest is a best-of-short-fiction collection of stories by James Morrow, Reality by Other Means. I can only recall having read one book by Morrow - City of Truth - which is a satirical classic I greatly enjoyed, so I might well get hold of this one.

Of the screen reviews, the most notable is High Rise, simply because it gets two bites of the cherry – a slot in the usual reviews section by Nick Lowe, plus a longer analysis by columnist Nina Allan. This is based on J G Ballard's 1975 novel (makes a change from all the adaptations of Philip K Dick stories) and is warmly received by both reviewers, so it goes on the "must watch" list.

Now to the short stories:

Starlings by Tyler Keevil, illustrated by Richard Wagner. At 22 pages this one is classified as a novelette. It is set in a future in which an advanced power system proves to have terminal unintended consequences for life on Earth, kicking the atmosphere into a runaway process which will eventually turn it into another Venus. The story focuses on a mother who has given birth to a genetically-modified perfect baby who will become one of the passengers of a starship being sent to another planet to begin again. It is a well-written story but is mostly about her grief at having to give up her baby, with the SF plot mostly providing background.

Breadcrumbs by Malcolm Devlin, illustrated by Richard Wagner. A strange fantasy about a city which reverts to nature, changing its inhabitants as it does so.

Mars, Aphids and Your Cheating Heart by James Van Pelt. A philosophical tale about the connectedness of things, featuring sand grains on Mars, a ladybird, an unhappy wife attending a séance, and a private detective gathering evidence to satisfy a husband's suspicions.

Lifeboat by Rich Larson, illustrated by Martin Hanford. Colonists on a distant planet prepare to leave as a robotic alien fleet – the synthetics – approaches to destroy the world, as they have done to many others. One spacecraft waits until the last minute, thereby collecting high fees from desperate refugees. The future for humanity seems grim, but there may be a strange way out.

The Tower Princesses by Gwendolyn Kiste. A bizarre tale concerning girls who wake up one morning and find that they are enclosed within their own individual tower from which they can't be removed, and how their peers relate to them.

Rich Larson's story appealed to me the most (no surprise, it's the closest to conventional SF!) but I was also intrigued by Van Pelt's tale.