Saturday, 19 November 2016

The Rook, and Stiletto, by Daniel O'Malley


Present-day London is the base for a centuries-old secret intelligence organisation, headed by people with a range of supernatural abilities, which supports the government in various ways including suppressing any uncontrolled supernatural occurrences.  These elements of contemporary urban fantasy in The Rook are not entirely original, you may think, and you'd be right. But the quality of a story lies in how the plot is handled, and this one is done very well.

A young woman gains consciousness and realises that she is standing in a park in the pouring rain, badly beaten and surrounded by dead bodies. She also realises that she has no memories at all, and has no idea who she is. She soon finds information, most particularly letters in her pocket from Myfanwy Alice Thomas, the first starting:  "Dear You, the body you are wearing used to be mine."

Following an information trail left by the letter-writer, the new Myfanwy gradually realises that she has some remarkable powers and that the previous occupant of her body was a senior officer (a Rook – they like chess names) in the Checquy, the aforementioned secret intelligence organisation. The old Myfanwy had received occult advanced warning about what was going to happen to her, which was the result of an attack by an unknown senior person in the organisation, so had prepared for her successor. New Myfanwy, with the help of the copious guidance notes left by her body's previous owner, has to convince the Checquy hierarchy that she is who she appears to be, while trying to work out who had attacked her. It doesn't help that her personality is very different from the shy original, being far more assertive. Or that she is constantly under pressure to deal with a range of weird emergencies, leaving her with little time to address the threat to herself.

The Rook is a fun mystery/adventure/crime thriller with horror elements which I was reluctant to put down and eager to get back to – something that happens too rarely these days. New Myfanwy is a resourceful  and likeable character and this reader was cheering her on from beginning to end. The only niggle which bothered me was, as usual, something rather more mundane than super-powers and vampires: I couldn’t help wondering how, if the original Myfanwy’s memories and personality were completely wiped, a functioning human being with a fully-formed – and very different – personality was left in her place; where did she some from? Our personalities are to a great extent the sum total of our experiences and memories, after all. With those all wiped, what would be left? Maybe this will be addressed in the sequel, Stiletto, which was released recently and is at the top of my “to buy” list.

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Stiletto continues the story, with some significant differences: most noticeably, while retaining an important role, Myfanwy no longer provides the viewpoint. Instead, this is shared between two contrasting characters: Felicity Clements, a junior Pawn soldier of the Checquy, and Odette Leliefeld, a young medical specialist of a rival European secret organisation, the Wetenschappelijk Broederschap van Natuurkundigen, better known to the Checquy as the Grafters. The Grafters are fundamentally different from the Checquy in that they are not born with any special abilities but have mastered medical science to a phenomenal degree, using their skills to build a range of enhancements into their bodies.

We learned towards the end of The Rook that a deadly emnity had existed between the two organisations for centuries, following a brief, devastating war between them. But a tentative peace agreement had been reached (largely due to Myfanwy's involvement); this is where Stiletto begins, and it remains the main plot thread throughout. Odette is part of the Grafter delegation to peace talks in London and a reluctant Felicity is assigned to her as a bodyguard. The pair do not initially get on, but contribute their different skills in a series of crises, most particularly concerning an unknown third party which seems to be focused on destroying the peace agreement, the resolution of which forms the climax of the story.

Like the first volume, Stiletto is an intriguing page-turner with likeable characters and is written with sardonic humour – sometimes, perhaps, a little too much of it. The writing also shows signs of bloat, with time taken out for long biographies and descriptive passages, which slows the pace in parts of the story. Finally, for my taste the various monsters that have to be dealt with are somewhat extreme, although I have no doubt that other readers will enjoy this. Oh, and there is still no explanation for the arrival of Myfanwy's strong new personality, nor any further mention of the devastating "weapon of mass destruction" she deploys twice at the start of The Rook. Despite this, Stiletto is a worthy sequel which maintained my interest throughout.

Overall, these two novels are a significant addition to contemporary urban fantasy and I will be looking out for any sequels.


Sunday, 16 October 2016

TV - Lost Girl seasons 4 and 5, and Orphan Black season 4


After 77 episodes, Lost Girl concluded with its fifth season. As this is the last we'll hear of it, I'll repeat some of the comments I've made before.

Lost Girl is a contemporary urban fantasy featuring Bo Dennis (Anna Silk) a bisexual young woman who is rather different from human. By touching other people she can make them do whatever she wishes; by having sex with them she feeds on their life force and kills them – usually unintentionally, but she can't help herself. She lives a nomadic life, forever moving on and leaving a trail of victims behind. At the beginning of the series she rescues Kenzi Malikov (Ksenia Solo), a streetwise young thief, from a rapist. The two become friends and partners. But Bo has come to the attention of other non-humans and discovers that she is a succubus – a member of a population of Fae with varied supernatural powers living as normal people.

Bo learns that the Fae are divided into light and dark factions and, after passing a test, she is expected to join one of them. She refuses to choose and sets up as a private investigator in partnership with Kenzi. She forms a liaison with werewolf Dyson (Kris Holden-Ried) who works as a police detective; she discovers that she can have sex with him without killing him, and that by doing so she can rapidly recover from any injuries. Her principal aim – and a plot thread running through the first season – is to discover her origin, as she was abandoned as a baby and given to human parents to bring up.

As well as the common threads running through the series, each episode contains a self-contained story. These vary considerably in nature (but usually involve some Dark Fae or other supernatural being causing problems), keeping the viewers interested.

Season 4 started on an unusual note, the succubus heroine Bo being nowhere to be seen, and none of the other characters apparently noticing her absence. The spell gradually breaks down and the characters take action to recover their lost memories before searching for Bo. The main thread in rest of the season concerns why Bo, previously determinedly refusing to join the Light or the Dark Fae but with leanings towards the Light, has apparently joined the Dark during her absence – something she cannot recall and refuses to accept.

There are lots of other novelties including a mysterious train which appears to contain the secret to her disappearance; the formidable Una Mens; Fae with a range of strange new powers; humans pretending to be Fae; a prominent Fae being turned into a human, and the departure of two of the principal characters in dramatic fashion.

The final season has more new characters and threats to be faced by our depleted band of heroes, particularly Bo's father, revealed at last. It wraps up the story neatly enough and has an ending which is satisfying without being over-emotional.

To sum up; this series is an original and entertaining fantasy, often amusing, sufficiently varied to retain interest, and heavy on interpersonal emotions and LGB relationships. As I concluded in a previous review; it has no pretensions to being anything other than engaging (if rather silly) light entertainment – at which it succeeds very well.

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Orphan Black is a darker, science-fiction, story concerned with secret human cloning. It is based on a novel premise: Sarah Manning (played by Tatiana Maslany) is a young woman who is down on her luck when she meets her double, who turns out to be genetically identical. When her double dies, Sarah takes over her life. Then she meets another double, and another, and realizes that they are all clones. This is a constantly intriguing and frequently amusing drama as the clones try to figure out their history while being faced with an acute danger – someone is trying to kill them. By the end of the first season, it becomes clear that being hunted is only one of their problems; they are also under covert observation and their future hangs by a thread. Maslany has great fun playing the various, and very varied, clones and the constantly evolving plot gripped my attention from the start, with one unexpected twist after another.

The next season sees various additional threats facing the clone sisters, not least a lethal genetic illness: the efforts to find a cure to this become the principal plot thread thereafter.

The third season features the emergence of a second line of clones – this time men (played by Ari Millen) – providing more complications for the band of "sisters" as they try to find a way out of their multiple problems, with competing organisations taking an uncomfortably close interest in them. The drama is as good as ever, as is Maslany whose performance has rightly won awards (including an Emmy very recently). Her pony-tailed Alison made me smile every time she appeared – a wonderful portrayal of an obsessively conventional suburban "soccer mom" who develops criminal tendencies and of course does her best to justify them. As the tension increases in the first few episodes of this season, the dark humour which previously added to the entertainment is scaled down, although the seventh episode switches mood and returns to the original form, with a lot of laugh-out-loud scenes (mostly involving Alison, naturally). The finale sees the core of the mystery of the sisters' origins revealed and some problems solved – but others still lie ahead.

The fourth season is the most confusing of all, as it hops around the timeline without any warning. The first episode jumps back to before the beginning of Season 1, revealing what drove Beth the detective to commit suicide (the event which kicked off the whole series), and subsequent episodes keep returning to this time or slightly afterwards, filling in the story with a lot more detail. These scenes alternate with those showing the latest developments, keeping the viewer alert in order to stay on top of what is going on. There are new villains to deal with, in the form of Evie Cho (Jessalyn Wanlim) the head of the organisation responsible for the cloning programme, and a police detective under her control.

The finale of Season 4 is packed with the unexpected. I have no wish to spoil anyone’s enjoyment, but if you expect a nice, cosy, conclusion, you’d better brace yourself. I was under the impression that this fourth season was the last, so was shocked by the ending, but fortunately another season is coming along next year!

Overall, the result is a multi-layered, constantly developing and gripping plot which puts Orphan Black among the very best SF series. What makes this so entertaining is that, while it certainly isn't a comedy, there is enough humour in it to balance the drama.


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.