Reviews

Hyperion by Dan Simmons. Book review

June 19, 2011

Hyperion by Dan Simmons. Gollancz SF Masterworks (2011) '8.99

Reviewed by John Howard

The plot of Hyperion is deceptively simple. Seven very different people have been thrown together, selected to make a pilgrimage to the Time Tombs on the backwater planet Hyperion. And on the way they tell their stories. Simple, yes? Oh no. The Time Tombs aren't just any chambers carved out of the rock: they seem to exist in their own time field steadily moving backwards against the stream. They have been thoroughly explored and seem to be empty; but are now about to open, and reveal their contents and purpose. And there is the Shrike, a murderous creature and/or machine somehow connected with the Time Tombs, worshipped by its church as the Lord of Pain, and which is now on the loose.

We are in the Hegemony, the human-controlled area of space whose worlds are held together by the farcaster portals and the democratic institutions of the Senate and the All Thing. The whole set-up works because it is operated by the TechnoCore ' the community of AIs originally created by humanity but which seceded and became independent. Now there are suspicions that the AIs are not really disinterested partners but an enemy within the gates, possibly in league with the spacefaring Ousters, who are preparing to invade the Hegemony. So the pilgrimage takes place against a fall of the Roman Empire sense of widespread impending doom. The existing human order is in danger of being overthrown and replaced by something new and very different. The gods fall.

To read Hyperion is to open a chest of dark jewels. The unlikely pilgrims are haunted and possessed; they are people who have lost something and whose stories ' grim, funny, wistful, sad ' circle around throughout the Hegemony and yet connect with gothic Hyperion and Keats' ancient poetry. The goal is reached and the stories are all told; but the story hasn't ended. There are more cantos. And the waiting Lord of Pain always has more to teach.

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Welcome to Bordertown edited by Holly Black & Ellen Kushner. Book review

June 19, 2011

Welcome to Bordertown: New Stories and Poems of the Borderlands edited by Holly Black And Ellen Kushner. Random House $19.99

Reviewed by Jan Edwards

When Terri Windling's Borderland and Bordertown appeared in the late 80s she was not the first by any means to imagine a place that lay between the Realm and the World. But it was her Bordertown that many believed defined the roots of modern urban fantasy. Her Bordertown is a land filled with runaways and lost souls in search of those things that we desire the most and never quite manage to attain. That is not to say that this is a volume filled with unremitting angst. It isn't. Its streets are dark and its inhabitants most often darker, yet they are filled with music and art and esoterica that fills us with wonder.

The book's content dives between short stories and poetry (and even one short graphic-story) by many of the biggest names in urban fantasy: Jane Yolen, Neil Gaiman, Charles de Lint, Emma Bull, Ti Pratt, Will Shetterley, Patricia McKillip and many more.

The overriding theme of this collection is of dawning realisations and acceptance. Most of the tales deal with the rigours of being a 'noob' in the city. In de Lint's 'A Tangle of Green Men', it's all about the getting there; and why. And though most are seen from a World dweller's perspective, 'Incunabulum' by Emma Bull shows what it is to be from the Other Side, from the Realm, with all of the resultant expectations made of her protagonist by Worlder noobs. But then expectation is at the root of all that occurs on the streets and in the back alleys of Bordertown. In amongst the dirt and the fight for survival are the music and art that make it all worth the while. This is urban fantasy as it should be. Excellent collection and highly recommended.

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Peake Studies Vol 12 no 2. Magazine review

June 11, 2011

Peake Studies volume 12 number 2, edited by G Peter Winnington (April 2011 issue)

Reviewed by Peter Coleborn

Peake Studies is all about Mervyn Peake, the poet, writer and artist. The bulk of this issue deals with three radio programmes, all broadcast in 1947. The first two were short ten minutes talks, of which this journal publishes the transcripts. They are interesting to read but it would be even better to hear. Alas, the BBC wiped the tapes years ago (typical Beeb!). The first talk is rather metaphysical: Peake describes the world 'As I See It'.  I rather like the line 'Each painting, each book, each poem, each drawing should be an adventure with the dice weighted against him.'

In the second show Peake talks about the task of illustrating books, drawing pictures for other people's words. The first book he thus illustrated was Lewis Carroll's The Hunting of the Snark ' and this was while he was still in the army. The third transcript is of a round-table discussion, in which Peake is interviewed by a 'professional' reviewer and lay readers, where they attempt to analyse the way he wrote. Did he write to a plan? At one point Peake describes the process similar to that of a train journey: 'I would know what stations I would be passing through, but I wouldn't know what people would come into the carriages.'

An article by Kay Fuller ' who worked at the BBC ' provides intriguing insights into the man and his working methods. Plus there are reviews and news and 'Oodles of Doodles' by Mervyn Peake. The journal is edited by G Peter Winnington and is published in Switzerland (in English); to subscribe to Peake Studies email peakestudies@gmail.com or visit their website.  

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Land That I Love by William Freedman. Book review

June 11, 2011

Land That I Love by William Freedman. Rebel ePublishers (price not known)

Reviewed by Debbie Bennett

The publishers tell me that the unfeasibly large-bosomed scantily-clad woman holding a gun on the cover of this book does not make it an SF/porn novel. So put your tongues back in, guys. If you want to spend your money, make sure you know what you're getting for it. This is SF comedy, although more parody than out and out slapstick. Or political satire on a cosmic scale with a passing nod to Douglas Adams.

A synthesised planet explodes and President Pickfour of the Eminent Domain has to find out who is responsible. Is it the Terrahists ' who think that the galaxy should be ruled by Earth,? Or maybe just the Americans? President Pickfour, together with his Foreigners Advisor Croupier and a host of other advisors set off to find American President Watts Barber. But nothing is ever straightforward, as a cast of improbably-named characters romp across a galactic stage in their search for the truth as they know it.

There are some clever observations, such as President Pickfour's men going looking for WTFs ' Weapons of Tremendous Force ' although the President clearly thinks the acronym has another origin. It does make you wonder how much our own politicians know and how much they simply make up as they go along. If you like lampoons and the parodies of the classics that were popular not long ago, you'll enjoy this too. SF with a twist and a spin.

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15 Miles by Rob Scott. Book review

May 30, 2011

15 Miles by Rob Scott. Gollancz '7.99

Reviewed by Jim McLeod

Detective Samuel 'Sailor' Doyle, has transferred from Vice to homicide, bringing with him a drink and drugs problem, brought on by the years of being a vice cop.  He hates himself, he hates the fact that he now has a mistress, and he hates how he is driving his family away. A visit from a Presidential candidate, and the discovery of two corpses at a rundown farm, littered with dead animals, throws the rookie detective on a murder trial that may well spell the end for all. For unbeknownst to Detective Doyle, he is now the carrier of something terrible, could this be revenge from beyond the grave?

Before you naysayers start groaning about another severely damaged cop with a drink and drugs problem, let it be said that Rob Scott has created a brilliant protagonist in Doyle; through the course of the novel you will go from utterly hating the man to grudgingly having respect for the detective. 

This is Rob Scott's debut solo novel, and it marks the introduction of another gifted author to genre fiction, although the supernatural elements of the story are fleeting and barely touch on the narrative. Personally I would have liked a stronger supernatural aspects to the story. That said this is a good story, well written, and will keep you enthralled right up to the conclusion.

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Cantata-140 by Philip K Dick. Book review

May 30, 2011

Cantata-140 by Philip K Dick. Gollancz '7.99

Reviewed by John Howard

Cantata-140 was first published in 1966 as The Crack in Space. This new reprint takes the title of the first half of the novel, published on its own as a magazine novella two years earlier. Both versions of the story come from the time when Philip K Dick was producing some of his finest and most memorable work, such as The Man in the High Castle, Martian Time-Slip, and The Three Stigmata of Palmer Eldritch.

The intriguing title is a reference to the cantata Wachet auf by Johann Sebastian Bach, whose compositions are often referred to by their catalogue numbers: in this case 140. Wachet auf ' 'Sleepers awake' ' turns out to be the deciding factor in the US presidential election campaign being fought along mainly racial lines in the vastly overpopulated world of 2080, where millions are kept warehoused in frozen sleep until a solution can be found. At the same time a faulty jiffy-scuttler seems to provide the answer: a hole in space leading through to an apparently idyllic and uninhabited planet. A freewheeling mixture of personal, commercial and political vested interests squabble over whether or not the bibs ' the sleepers 'bottled in bond' ' are to be woken up and sent through the rupture in the jiffy-scuttler's tube-wall. But is this really such a simple solution after all? For a start, the new planet is found to be uncannily identical to Earth, but seemingly without any of the expected inhabitants'

Cantata-140 is a fine example of Dick's fast-moving and oblique storytelling and world-building, with his characteristic challenging combination of invention, compassion, and attention to the concerns and realities of future society and the people who must live in it. Philip K Dick's place as one of the few genuinely vital science fiction writers ' even now, thirty years after his death ' still seems certain.

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A Dance of Ghosts by Kevin Brooks. Book review

May 30, 2011

A Dance of Ghosts by Kevin Brooks. Arrow '6.99

Reviewed by Pauline Morgan

Many readers of fantasy and horror also have crime novels on their shelves. This volume, a debut adult novel by Brooks (he has previously written prize winning children's novels), is pure crime. The first person narrator is John Craine, a private investigator working out of the Essex town of Hey. Most of his cases are insurance fraud but he is recommended by an old friend to the mother of a missing girl. Anna Gerrish disappeared a month ago and the police have made no progress. The generally held view is that she has probably run off to a better life. Almost immediately, Craine finds the past catching up with him. Mike Bishop, the corrupt copper his father tried to expose before committing suicide is in charge of the case and when he is attacked, Craine suspects Bishop is behind it.

Craine is one of the generation of detectives who has to have a troubled past. Sixteen years ago his wife was brutally murdered. The killer was never caught but when he finds Anna Gerrish's body and DNA links the two deaths, Craine knows this is impossible. As with any first person narrative it is possible to regard the view point character as an unreliable witness. This is doubled by the fact that Craine drinks heavily and admits to having used other substances

While much of this novel is fairly standard fare for the crime genre, there are a few interesting twists and it has obviously been set up for sequels. This is light reading to while away and hour or two.

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The Watchers by John Steele. Book review

May 30, 2011

The Watchers by John Steele. Bantam Press '12.99

Reviewed by Jim McLeod

Jay Harper is on the trail of a missing Olympic athlete. Arriving in Switzerland, he meets the attractive but aloof Katherine in a hotel bar. She's a high class hooker who can't believe her luck ' but not all luck is good.

Marc Rochat spends his time in a belfry talking to statues, his cat and some ghosts.  He has to watch over the town of Lausanne, looking for the angel his mother told him he'd have to save. Believing that Katherine is the one, he thinks his moment has come ' but not all moments are good. As angels go to war over the fate of mankind.

John Steele has certainly come out with all guns blazing for his debut novel. You can tell that he was an award winning cameraman as the book has a number of beautifully described passages which allow you to picture the scene as clearly as if you were watching it on the screen.

You could describe this as a take on Gaiman's Neverwhere. However, this would do both novels a disservice. Yes, there are some similarities but there is enough of a unique voice to the novel to lay to rest these comparisons. As with many first novels, there could have been a more liberal use of editing as the narrative does get bogged down at times with a few over descriptive passages that do play havoc with the pacing. However, this is still a book worthy of your time.

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The Scar-Crow Men by Mark Chadbourn. Book review

May 30, 2011

The Scar-Crow Men: Sword of Albion Volume 2 by Mark Chadbourn. Bantam '12.99

Reviewed by Jan Edwards

The year is 1593. This is a time of intrigue and suspicion where nobody really knows who can be trusted, and if that were not enough, plague ravishes the city of London. In all of this mayhem, Will's closest friend, Kit Marlowe, is murdered and Will embarks on a course of bloody revenge on the killers. In doing so he unearths Unseelie enemies amongst Elizabeth's courtiers far more deadly than any he has encountered before.

Second in the Swords of Albion adventure series, The Scar-Crow Men is another swashbuckling adventure full of sword fights and chases through dark streets and magick-infested halls. There is plenty of action here, and bags of verisimilitude. As ever, Mark Chadbourn's fantasy is of a very dark kind, where blood and guts and magicks abound in buckets.

One has to wonder how 'England's greatest spy' can work incognito when he is so well recognised, but it's a small point, and of course not at all relevant when the enemy he is trained to fight is neither English nor human. A curious ending, which I cannot give away of course, but set fair for the third volume. A must for all Chadbourn's fans.

Volume one of this series, The Sword of Albion, (published as The Silver Skull in US) is now available in mass market format from Bantam at '7.99.

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The Crippled God by Steven Erikson. Book review

May 30, 2011

The Crippled God by Steven Erikson. Bantam Press '20

Reviewed by Karen Stevens

The remains of the Malazan army, led by Adjunct Tavore, make their final match into the previously uncrossed Glass Desert. If they can survive the trials of the desert and treachery from within their own ranks, they face a deadly enemy ' the Forkul Assail, a ruthless race which intends to scour humanity from the face of the world. Elsewhere an army of refugees stand at the gates of the lost city of Kharkanas to face the Tiste Liosan who are breaching their way through Lightfall while the three Elder Gods plan to release the Otataral Dragon from her prison.

It's impossible to write a more detailed description of The Crippled God because it's a huge book (900 pages) with many parallel plot-lines to follow. This is the last of Erikson's Malazan Books of the Fallen series and a direct sequel to Dust of Dreams. Don't read it without reading the previous books first or you'll be lost amongst its twisting plots and huge cast of characters.

Erikson is an excellent writer and has created a massive fantasy world, alien but still believable and with a hard edge of realism lacking in many novels. His characters aren't traditional heroes but fighters and survivors drawn in many shades of grey, grim and worn-down by all they've been through, who are repeatedly kicked down but keep getting back up again. The action scenes are brutally realistic, with plenty of dazzling sword-play but also an unflinching description of the gory carnage of the battlefield. 

I recommend this book. This is heroic fantasy that's been dragged through the mud and kicked a few times. It's gritty and it's bloody. And it's all the better for it.

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