Archive for April, 2011

Kings of the North by Elizabeth Moon

April 30, 2011 3 comments

When you pitch into creating a world where magic works, there’s an immediate problem for the author. First you have you write a set of rules for the magic to work, and then you have to apply them consistently. There’s nothing more annoying than arbitrariness where, to enable a key player to achieve an objective or escape from danger, a previously unsuspected ability is revealed like a rabbit out of a hat. By this, I’m not talking about remembering a recipe for curing boils as opposed to a love filtre, or suddenly discovering a long-lost spell book. Let’s say we’ve started off with the magic based on the ability to manipulate the energy in the human body, e.g. permitting the creation of fireballs. We need to know how destructive this power is, how far the ball may be projected, whether using it tires the magician so limiting the number of uses per hour, and so on. What we don’t want is for a demon to wander into view and ask a tired magician if she needs some help with the next ball. Unless, that is, a religious or comparable framework has been established to establish the relationship between humans, demons, and any Gods that happen to be around and capable of interfering in the human realm.

Kings of the North by Elizabeth Moon continues the Paladin’s Legacy trilogy which started with Oath of Fealty. Both are set in the world first described in the Deed of Paksenarrion trilogy, but there’s a steady increase in the level of magic. The first trilogy to some extent underplays the practical side of magical abilities. We know the Paladins and God-touched have powers, but the primary focus is on getting things done without having to rely too much on supernatural forces. That’s all changing as the characters we are following learn more about the way magic is woven into the fabric of their world. In this, Elizabeth Moon is avoiding the trap of being authorially omniscient and infodumping to fill in any missing background as we go along. She’s maintaining the points of view, so we learn at the same pace as the characters. This is playing fair with the readers.

Elizabeth Moon pleased to be backed by books

So where are we in story terms? Having been identified as the rightful heir by Paksenarrion, Kieri Phelan is now established as the King Lyonya, a land of humans and elves he is supposed to rule jointly with his grandmother. His personal life is complicated because everyone wants him to marry and produce an heir. Politically, the elves are in stand-off mode and there are troubles with Pargun, the southern neighbour. Dorrin Verrakai continues to make progress as a Duke working for King Mikeli in Tsaia. Having defended the country against the blood magic of her relatives, she’s now trusted to take responsibility for the army and the general defence of the land. Janderlir Arcolin is on military manoeuvres against an enemy that’s looking increasingly well-organised. This is surprising since these mercenaries are supposed to be working for Alured the Black, a mere brigand of possible piratical origin. Worse, the “enemy” seems to be diversifying into economic warfare by undermining the common Guild currency. While Arvid Semminson rather unexpectedly finds himself in the thick of things when he visits Fin Panir but, as always, is well-prepared for all emergencies.

Elizabeth Moon strikes an interesting balance between the political, the military and the magical. There’s a tough-minded practicality to the detail of how to run a kingdom, get a noble’s house and estates up and running, and train, equip and provision an army for real work and not some idle sport. The magic is also increasingly relevant with the different levels of skill on display between both the different races, and the ordinary practitioner and a mage. Finally, the land force called the taig is becoming an issue.

The writing style is pleasing, managing to pack in an amazing amount of detail without getting boring. It’s obvious that an enormous amount of time and energy has been invested in the creation of this world — a fact evidenced by the presence of four earlier novels based in it. This always presents a danger because, if the author becomes too distracted by the delight of adding in yet more facts, it can derail the pacing of the novel. There are one or two times when the action slows, as in the inconvenience to Kieri Phelan occasioned by the unexpected arrival of the two princesses. But, for the most part, the narrative is pushing forward and the factual information does turn out to be useful.

Overall, this is a nicely judged fantasy, continuing the story arcs from the earlier books seamlessly, and contriving to build to an interesting climax where Gitres is more directly involved and we get our first clear view of dragons (note that a dragon from this world also appears in the excellent “Judgment” collected in Moon Flights). This all presages more active Gods, particularly because Achrya is trying to upset the balance of power. It’s also reassuring that some of the supernaturally-talented can be fallible. Too often authors want those with superpowers to be super decision-makers as well, whereas Kings of the North has everyone’s character and motivations nicely under control. In other circumstances this would be high fantasy but, as written, it’s more a “don’t stand there like a lump, if you need to go, dig a latrine” kinda fantasy and all the better for it. I found all this highly enjoyable and recommend it for those who have read at least some of the earlier books. Starting off in the middle of long-running series is never as satisfying.

A copy of this book was sent to me for review.

For a review of an excellent collection by Elizabeth Moon, see Moon Flights. Later books in this series are Crown of Renewal and Limits of Power

Raising Stony Mayhall by Daryl Gregory

April 29, 2011 2 comments

There’s an idiom I never thought I would have to call upon when writing these reviews. After all, I pride myself on being so consistently original, why would I ever want to repeat myself? Well, this is the magic phrase: lightning never strikes the same place twice. And here’s what I said about Feed by Mira Grant, “I know, it’s almost a perfect oxymoron: an intelligent zombie novel.” Well, Raising Stony Mayhall by Daryl Gregory is a second specimen! It’s a miracle — like suddenly having twins. Being a man, you would understand my surprise should this happen to me. In the space of two weeks, picking books randomly off the shelf, I’ve managed the impossible. What makes this even more remarkable is that, having found Mira Grant’s effort excellent, I’m now forced to find more superlatives because, if anything, this is better. Indeed, I would go so far as to say this is the best zombie book I’ve read this century and, if there’s any justice in the world, this should be nominated for a clutch of awards. One point of clarification, however, that if this is twins, they are of different gender. Flesh is an intelligent book about the slow-moving feral variety of zombies, but Daryl Gregory is writing about intelligent zombies!

So, let’s clear the dead wood away (I faithfully promise not to make any more of these pathetic jokes). This is the third novel from the Daryl Gregory stable and I confess to being completely underwhelmed by The Devil’s Alphabet. I was therefore a little cautious when I picked this up, with expectations varying wildly between the unspeakable and the inedible — not that I’ve ever actually wanted to eat a book, of course, but I like unsuccessfully pursuing foxy idioms. As it turns out, I found myself completely beguiled and hooked. This is an author finally emerging from the chrysalis of inchoate being so that, when he breathes, gusts of wind turn the pages of a book halfway round the planet.

Daryl Gregory looking remarkably pleased to be one with the LDs

With the pages turning themselves, we read about Stony’s discovery as a newly born baby in the arms of his dead mother. Then, as he grows, we follow his life in the depths of the Iowan countryside. As a result of a well-intentioned expedition to rescue his “sister” from a threatening party where she’s drunk, spaced out on drugs, and vulnerable, he’s forced into an underground railway modelled on the escape system for black slaves. Hiding in safe houses, Stony learns about the politics of being one of the living dead. Unfortunately the political situation degenerates into a minor civil war between the factions, and Stony is captured by the government. In captivity, this gives Stony ever more time to study both himself and others. In a sense, he makes himself the test subject in a number of experiments to explore what he is and whether there are real limits to what he can achieve. All this allows Daryl Gregory the chance to demonstrate a rigorous approach to the construction of his narrative as every page brings some new insight into the state of the living dead. Fortunately, he develops the logic of Stony’s initial discovery and the way in which he first begins to grow, following this thread to a singularly unexpected but, in retrospect, entirely predictable conclusion.

Of all the clever things associated with this book, the most impressive is the way it morphs seamlessly from one genre to another. In simplistic terms, we can classify this as science fiction meets horror that then morphs into a blend of supernatural and fantasy. I suppose we could say it ends with the metaphysical but, by then, we should all have abandoned any attempt to classify the book. It’s simply a delight, rather like one of these chocolates with an intimidatingly dark chocolate covering that turns out to have a wonderfully sweet and soft centre. No matter what your genre interests, you should put aside all prejudices and read this. Raising Stony Mayhall is destined to be a classic!

This book was sent to me for review.

For reviews of other work by Daryl Gregory, see:
We Are All Completely Fine.

Thor (2011)

I suppose if you’re going to do an origin story for Thor, you have to start on Asgard just as Batman has to watch his father and mother get shot, and Spiderman has to get bitten by a spider. The problem with this in Thor‘s case is the switching between pure fantasy and the contemporary context for fantastic action. When you have everything in the same continuum, it’s easier to manage continuity of pace, style and tone. Whereas what we actually see are a bunch of actors being almost gods, Norse style, and generally acting like they’re on the greatest CGI set ever developed, followed by some local yokels.


At this point we need a few words of clarification. As to the CGI, I think some of the tracking shots on Asgard look faintly comic. That’s not as drawn in a Marvel Comic, you understand, but the main assembly hall/palace — possibly Valhalla — looks like it’s made out of the tubular bits that come as vacuum cleaner spares. Apart from this aberration, the interior scenes work well and create the right atmosphere. Jotunheim is dark, crumbling and forbidding, and the fighting is impressive. As to the acting in the Asgard scenes, it’s hammed up with Anthony Hopkins pretending to the twice the size of his own ego as Odin, while Chris Hemsworth works hard at being arrogant, i.e. he swaggers around and laughs like he’s just eaten several boars and downed ten casks of good Norse ale as a quick snack before lunch. The odd one out in all this acting godlike spree is Tom Hiddleston who plays Loki as if it’s pronounced low key. Although I get that he’s the trickster God who manipulates everyone, he’s remarkably self-effacing in all the early stages, and not much more of a presence when he’s revealed as the evil genius (which is not his fault because, as his private backstory tells us, he’s actually an Ice Giant who never grew to his full potential, being held hostage for Jotunheim’s good behaviour).

Anthony Hopkins showing good teeth but a dodgy eye patch


Anyway, forgetting the brief prologue to establish Natalie Portman as an astrophysicist dedicated to chasing phenomena around the desert like she’s just seen a tornado and wants to join in, we start off on Asgard in its full pomp and glory. Odin is about to hand over the throne to Thor. To spoil the day, Loki lets in a Ninja squad of Ice Giants to retake their energy source. When they are caught and killed, Thor, three of his trusty friends, and Loki go on a punishment raid to Jotunheim, prepared to kill all-comers until these Ice Dudes learn not to mess with Asgard (again). There’s a big fight and we get to see just how impressive a weapon Mjolnir is. I kept wanting to say, “That’s some bad hammer, Harry” but found the joke didn’t really work, being relieved from the embarrassing lack of humour when Odin arrived to rescue them all. In fact, Odin’s a bit miffed with Thor for provoking Jotunheim, so strips him of his powers and banishes him to Earth.

Chris Hemsworth and Natalie Portman say tender farewells


At this point, the film shudders to a halt.


We’re with the mortals now and, boy, do they seen flat by comparison to those strutting Norse gods. Our function is to be second rate, but able to beat the bejesus out of Thor. Poor guy. All those rippling muscles and great pecs, and all someone has to do is use a taser or stab him in the butt with a tranquiliser, and he’s out like a light. It’s humiliating. Ah, so now comes the deep psychology. All the humans think he’s nuts, albeit sometimes in a hot, hunkish kinda way. Mjolnir rejects him and Loki puts on a business suit to fit into the Earth environment and brings the glad tidings that Odin has died and gone to wherever Norse gods go when they die. It’s apparently enough to wear down the spirits of anyone who’s spent a lifetime of privilege wielding a power hammer (or, this is too perfunctory to take seriously). When Loki sends a yellow lantern in a metal suit to kill Thor and his three friends, Thor offers his own life in return for keeping Earth safe. After this, there’s more fighting on Earth and Asgard, Thor volunteers to join SHIELD, and Odin is pleased his boy finally grew up and started taking his responsibilities as heir seriously.

Tom Hiddleston with the lighting to make him look villainous as Loki


Here on Earth we use the expression, to shoot your bolt, and this applies beautifully to the first section of the film. As directed by Kenneth Branagh, Thor creates interest and excitement until Odin banishes his son. Thereafter, Thor’s a mortal fish out of water. Natalie Portman manages to look at him adoringly, but has the thankless role of standing by as our monster ego hero stops smiling and learns to talk with a slight frown. The fight in the town is quite good but unimaginative. The suit can beat anything on Earth except the hammer. Once Thor has it, there’s no competition. Frankly, the last fight back on Asgard is also a bit feeble, although it’s good to see Loki actually deploying some trickery against Thor. Nothing matched the escalating first battle on Jotunheim. So the pacing of the narrative is all wrong. It’s a problem inherent in this origin story. Once you commit yourself to explaining why Thor was banished, you have to show something fairly spectacular. After that, the film never recovers its momentum.


I wouldn’t go quite as far as saying there are boring bits, but there are certainly passages where the pace drops alarmingly. While I accept this is about Thor’s rite of passage from arrogant child to responsible adult, so not every minute can be hammer time, there were narrative decisions that could have been improved on. In the end, I think it has the same problems as Ang Lee’s origin story for the Hulk, i.e. it’s a bit too cerebral and lacks heart. This is not to say that long-term fans of the Thor we know from Marvel Comics will not enjoy this. But I suspect the market for this film will be more limited than for some of the other superhero films.


For my reviews of allied films, see:
The Avengers
Captain America
Iron Man 2
Iron Man 3 (2013)


Right Hand Magic: A Novel of Golgotham by Nancy A Collins

It’s always good to get the technical stuff “out there” before I start on the book itself, so here goes on the difference between “in media res” and a “frame narrative”. To get a story up and running fast, many authors and screenwriters like to start in the thick of things and then, as the immediate impact dies down, engage in a few explanations or flashbacks to show how we got into another of these fine messes, as Laurel and Hardy might have bewailed. The other extreme is an ab ovo narrative that moves chronologically from the beginning to the end. This should not be confused with framing where there’s a primary story to set the stage and introduce the secondary story or stories. The example usually relied on is Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales where we have the pilgrims making the journey and telling each other stories to pass the time. But I prefer to mention Hyperion by Dan Simmons as one of the best modern examples.

In Right Hand Magic: A Novel of Golgotham by Nancy A Collins we start off in a New York that apparently accepts the reality of the paranormal. Politicians and other humans rely on the magical services of the folk who live in Golgotham or exploit the fear surrounding it to make money (as in Triple-A Aardvark Moving Company’s scam). Now I confess to being inexperienced in the ways of the urban fantasy world. The theory says these are usually set in contemporary times but have supernatural elements. So our hero lives and/or works in a city and battles “evil” in its many forms but, in most of the books I’ve read in this sub-genre, the existence of these supernatural threats is largely unknown. We are only let into the secret because we sit on the shoulders of the hero as he or she wades into the fight.

Now I have no problem with urban fantasies set in, say, Elizabethan England because there were large swathes of the population that believed in the reality of the fey. Indeed, Shakespeare seems to have made a fair amount of money out of urban fantasy with such classics as A Midsummer Night’s Dream where the fairies have fun with the Athenians. So, to me, The Silver Skull by Mark Chadbourn fits together without needing a backstory.

Yet Nancy Collins launches into anything but a contemporary New York. We have a war a thousand years ago which left an uneasy truce, but we get very little information about why it was fought and how it was resolved. When you drop a reader in media res, it’s sink or swim. In this case, we do all the sinking with no real effort from Nancy Collins to tell us anything about how or why we have come to this state of affairs. As we arrive in modern times, all we know is that humans view the supernatural community in much the same way as we view gypsies, i.e. that they are responsible for most of the prostitution and crime in our towns and cities. To prove them right, there’s even a wizard mafia called the Malandanti. Fortunately wizards, who call themselves the Kymerans, are easy to identify. They have an extra finger on each hand which comes in handy when they are manipulating the aether to produce a fireball or trying to reach that one spot on your back it’s most difficult to scratch. All the other communities from leprechauns to valkyries (New York is a truly international meting pot for different beings) are reasonably easy to identify. This even applies to the were folk. All you have to do is poke them with a sharp stick and await transformation into something hairy. There’s a joint policing agency to help keep the peace.

Nancy Collins preferring her right-hand side

The practical reality is that Nancy Collins has gone through the motions to produce a romance for women readers of a sensitive disposition. There can be nothing truly scary. Everything must ultimately be safe and the type of book you can curl up with on a dark night with a box of chocolates and go “Aaaahhh” as the young couple go through the courtship ritual and end up with safe sex at the end. As an aside, I was shocked this sex was out of wedlock but, when you’re writing fantasy horror, you have to take risks, be edgy. Anyway, this is the story of a rebellious heiress who’s a heavy metal artist, making sculpture out of car parts and just starting to attract the interests of the investor buyers. She has just one problem. Her approach to making these works of art matches Thor with much hammering on sheet metal and using the welding lightning to hold the pieces together. This doesn’t go down so well with the neighbours in adjoining apartments. So she moves across town and takes a room in the home of a wizard. He’s the hot-looking hunk with the bedroom eyes and the twelve fingers that can reach. . . Well, she finds out where they’ll reach when they finally consummate.

Now I’m not saying the plot is poor. In fact, with the right treatment, this story of illegal pit-fighting run by a wizard mafia could have been really entertaining. But the whole experience is completely deflated by the publisher’s script which involves suggesting danger but actually keeping everything cuddly for young women who’ve been force fed a diet of The Twilight Saga and/or Mortal Instruments. Indeed, I would go so far as to say some of it is dull. So Right Hand Magic not something I would actively recommend.

This book was sent to me for review.

There’s a mildly amusing Golgotham website put up by GoBOO (the Golgotham Business Owners Organization) at

For reviews of the remaining two books in the trilogy, see:
Left Hand Magic
Magic and Loss.

Source Code (2011)

April 26, 2011 6 comments

For once we’ve got a reasonably intelligent science fiction film rather than an excuse for poorly realised spaceships to dodge and weave about the screen, firing off superweapons and exploding in balls of fire — something that suggests there’s a previously unrecognised mass of oxygen in outer space capable of supporting combustion. Well, perhaps that’s a slight exaggeration since space opera is moderately rare in the cinema these days. Hollywood prefers the cheaper version of aliens running around, blowing stuff up on Earth. That makes for better explosions and cheaper CGI. Anyway, Source Code (2011) offers us one of the more coherent efforts at a multiverse story even if it’s more than a little amoral.


No, really? A multiverse story? What’s that?


Well, before we get into spoiler territory, let’s deal with a little of the background. This theory suggests we have more than one reality. Conventional physics says time, gravity and all the other constants move in a straight line. So although each individual makes choices, the outcomes to all the decisions are fixed in the one timeframe. We all live with our triumphs and mistakes equally. But others suggest each decision is like a fork in the road. Sometimes we walk left, sometimes right. So in parallel dimensions, we live out our lives with each set of choices. In the most interesting of these theories, there are an infinite number of possible universes because, over time, millions of us make decisions every day and so the number of possible outcomes expands without limit.

Jake Gyllenhaal and Michelle Monaghan try to remember what happened last time


OK, taking this as our base, we assume that, at any one time, there are an infinite number of realities almost exactly the same as ours shading to realities nothing like ours. Dr Rutledge, played with introverted intensity by Jeffrey Wright, has developed a technique for implanting the mind of a man from our reality into the body of a matching man in an alternate reality. If you recall Quantum Leap, we’ve the same convention that Jake Gyllenhaal is transplanted into a different body, but we continue to see Jake Gyllenhaal. This form of the transplant keeps his female fans happy and lasts for exactly eight minutes, at the end of which the host dies (not through the shock of becoming Jake Gyllenhaal, you understand, but in an explosion).


For those who like to play around with the ideas, the death of everyone on the train in this alternate reality prevents there being any contamination of that timeline. Even though the transplanted man may say or do things to disturb the alternate, the effect never leaves the train. Dr Rutledge assumes that if our hero, Colter Stevens played by Jake Gyllenhaal, can identify the bomber in the alternate reality, the same person, driving an identical van with the same number plate can be arrested in our reality and so prevent a second explosion, this time a dirty bomb.

Vera Farmiga and Jeffrey Wright waiting for the next cue


It’s actually better not to think too much about this because the chance of people in alternate realities having the same name or the same licence plate on their vehicles seems remote. I suppose this may occur because the source code recreates a “captured” version of the alternate reality every time the program is run, i.e. it starts with the same parameters every time. If this is the case, the good doctor is creating millions of people in a new reality just so a small number can be blown up on a train and millions can be maimed or killed in Chicago when the dirty bomb explodes. This act of creation and death is justified because it’s expedient to save our people. It would be less immoral if the alternate realities already exist. Now all we’re doing is exploiting what’s inevitable for them, so that we can avoid the same fate.


No matter how it works, in each of the eight minute insertions, Colter Stevens learns about the people in his section of the train. He does this by being prepared to beat them up and, if necessary, shoot to kill. We’re not supposed to care because the people we see only have eight minutes to live. What happens to them is irrelevant in the larger scale of things. In the midst of his investigating, Colter Stevens finds himself attracted to Christina Warren, played by Michelle Monaghan. He decides he should try to save her. This is interesting because, should he succeed, one person surviving the train explosion will produce a major divergence of the realities. That need not concern our timeline, of course. It just means there will never be any chance of going there again as this person now interacts with thousands of people during her lifetime, thereby moving that reality ever further away from ours.


With Colter Stevens dying every eight minutes, he develops psychological problems. Encouraging him to keep going is the pivotal Colleen Goodwin played with quite remarkable sensitivity by Vera Farmiga. Without someone strong in this role, the film would collapse. She’s pitch perfect throughout and gives the film unexpected weight.


This is the stand-out science fiction film so far this year. Jake Gyllenhaal strives valiantly in a slightly thankless role while everyone else, led by Vera Farmiga, rallies round and produces an excellent ensemble piece. It’s a clever script by Ben Ripley allowing the scenario on the train to continuously evolve and expand. For once, Ripley has produced something better than films about sex-crazed aliens, with the whole thing beautifully directed by Duncan Jones, who seems to be making a name for himself rather fast. All in all, Source Code is excellent viewing for anyone who likes science fiction which follows through to the implications of our actions no matter how immoral.


Stop reading here if you don’t want a discussion of what actually happens.


We get this far by suspending disbelief and accept the arrest of the bomber in our timeline. Not being sure how the machine works, we may have to thank Dr Rutledge for destroying Chicago in perhaps more than one hundred other realities depending on how many times Colter Stevens iterates through his eight minute loops. But we are safe. Our Earth’s authorities are delighted with the outcome and can’t wait to use the machine again. Before they embark on new threats, I sincerely hope the Government intends to use the machine to save as many alternate versions of Chicago as possible. This would be the moral step, maximising the benefit of this invention for all realities. We would want other realities to save us if they could, so every Dr Rutledge should be arguing for his Colter Stevens to help others before he helps himself. Sadly, we see Dr Rutledge rubbing his hands and only speculating on what his next triumph will be, confirming the general lack of morality in this project. This is selfishness personified, a sauve qui peut approach to life.


Perhaps anticipating how he will be used and taking everything he has learned about the train, Colter Stevens now knows enough to prevent the train from blowing up. He therefore persuades Colleen Goodwin to send him in one last time to save at least one Chicago. At the end of this eight minutes insertion, she’s to turn off his life support and let him die. This she does. The result is presumably an arrest with her sent off to die in the Marine Corps Brig in Quantico.


After the freeze frame, we are in the alternate reality where Colter Stevens saves Chicago, gets the girl, and sets off for a new life with her. What makes the ending initially appear so pleasing is the text message he sends to Colleen Goodwin in this new reality. For, yes, there’s an identical project in this reality with a version of himself waiting to be deployed to solve a major crime and avert catastrophe. This message primes Colleen Goodwin to encourage Colter Stevens. Not only can he “save the day” no matter where he’s sent, but he can also escape and find a new life for himself in an alternate reality. So each reality may be said to offer Colter Stevens hope, no matter how desperate things may seem. No-one can ask for more than that in any reality. Let’s not go into whether our hero could sustain a convincing impersonation of a man in that reality, once it’s confirmed he can stay with the new identity. There’s also an unresolved paradox because, if Dr Rutledge’s technology depends on the target man dying, he no longer dies, i.e. the transfer should not work.


Now let’s come to the really big question. Colter Stevens knows he displaces the mind of the man in the target body. Let’s say he believes the mind of the teacher is transferred into his body. When he persuades Colleen Goodwin to switch off the life support, he intends Goodwin to kill the teacher so that the replacement is permanent. In my book, that makes Colter Stevens and Colleen Goodwin murderers. However, no matter what he believes about where the mind of the teacher goes, the clear intention is to kill that mind so that our “hero” can have a happy ending. There used to be a morality code in Hollywood. It was known as the Hays Code. Although this was predominantly concerned with sexual and, to some extent, political content, there was a general view that motion pictures should not show criminals benefitting from their crimes. Under the Code, this ending could not have been added after the freeze frame. The rule used to be that criminals should be punished. While this is, no doubt, unacceptably black and white for our relativist age, I’m surprised a stone-cold killer should be shown enjoying his stolen life in the final frames. I’m not sure what message this is sending to our impressionable young.


Source Code (2011) has been shortlisted for the Ray Bradbury Award for Outstanding Dramatic Presentation 2011 and for the 2012 Hugo Award for Best Dramatic Presentation — Long.


Devil Red by Joe R Lansdale

The thing about chalk and cheese is that, if you get cheese that’s neither too soft nor too hard, you can use both substances to write on one of those old school blackboards. Now I know you’re thinking the cheese is just going to leave a greasy track like a snail who’s developed diarrhoea after eating a fatty beef patty but, in the right light, you’ll still be able to read what you wrote. Perhaps if you used Edam and left some of the paraffin wax protection on, there would be red streaks to show you the way. Never forget both chalk and cheese are useful in their own way. Until one of them gets shot, of course.

There’s this thing about Hap & Leonard novels as assembled by Joe R Lansdale. These guys come as a pair. Well, that’s perhaps not quite the right thing to say since only one of them is gay and they don’t sleep together in that way, if you get my meaning. But, as Frank Sinatra used to sing, “You can’t have one without the other”. It’s like they’re apples and oranges but both fruit. . . No, that doesn’t work well either.

Anyway, Devil Red starts in the usual way with Hap Collins and Leonard Pine debating with each other. The easiest way of understanding these existential discussions is to focus on the essentials. Neither of them has any real sense, yet they’re the most reliable men you could ever hope to meet if your back was to the wall and the wall was thinking of running out on you. They’re the nicest, most gentle and understanding of ruthless men you could ask for in a jam. In this case, they’ve gone to a part of town where even the mice belong to a gang for protection. They’re not wearing a hat and tie (mice don’t usually do that, anyway). Dressed for action not fashion, Marvin and his little old lady client have sent them to break a few bones. It’s a routine job and they’re just the kinda guys to get it done. Except Hap’s got a little PTSD after his shoot-out with Vanilla Ride and the accumulation of all the dead bodies he seems to leave in his wake (that’s the shipping metaphor not the funeral joke). His hands are shaking, he feels ethically challenged, and his reaction time’s sluggish. Even beating on two worthless human beings doesn’t improve his mood.

But once Marvin picks up a rich client who wants a double-homicide investigating, things start to move along fast enough for Hap to loosen up and get back into the swing of things (and not just with a baseball bat). With Leonard a fan of Sherlock Holmes and now inclined to wear a deerstalker hat whenever the game’s afoot (which is actually Shakespeare rather than Conan Doyle, but no-one cares about such trivial details today), they start beating the grass and rattling the bars of as many cages as they can find, hoping someone will give them a clue on whodunnit.

Joe Lansdale reminds himself how good Devil Red is.

Sadly, this does provoke a shooting but, because Leonard has to come back for the next outing in the series, what with there being no-one in prospect for a Hap & Son sequel, Lansdale has our indefatigable sleuth hooked up to life-support in an ICU until he manages a smile at the end. Of course, shooting Leonard is not something up with which Hap will put. He’s now properly motivated to cut to the chase and find lots of people to kill. There’s just one problem. He doesn’t know who to start shooting. Fortunately, a blast from the past is able to point him in the right direction and vengeance, Texas style, is laid out on the BBQ with plenty of hot chili sauce.

This is Joe Lansdale maintaining the fine run of form he started in Vanilla Ride, producing a genuinely amusing riff on the usually stolid PI tropes. Our two heroes, with a little help from girl-friend and newspaper contacts, crack the case and some heads in their search for the truth, justice and the Texan way. Many die or are wounded on the way, but this has always been the price of admission to a Hap & Leonard novel. Devil Red is definitely worth seeking out and reading.

Here are reviews of the last Hap & Leonard novel, Vanilla Ride a novella Hyenas and two free-standing novels: Edge of Dark Water and The Thicket.

Daybreak Zero by John Barnes

April 23, 2011 6 comments

To start off this review, I have to explain some of my prejudices about America. As an outsider, the country seems to be edging away from social cohesiveness towards a loose coalition of very disparate groups. Reviewing the history of the nation, there are apparently two political parties. Traditionally, they have been broad churches, tolerating membership by those holding a wide diversity of opinion for the sake of maintaining the two-party system. This papering over the cracks has been not unsuccessful because a moderate majority has held a centrist position — in some senses, these individuals operate as swing voters, giving each side a reasonable prospect of winning a national election (ignoring the gerrymandering at a local level). So long as this majority has survived and the Constitution is upheld, the more extreme groups have never been able to exert any real influence. Until now, that is.

There seems to be a polarisation of the political system, most immediately characterised by the rise of the Tea Party. This is the more acceptable face of the extreme Right, albeit that it includes individual Libertarian groups regularly asserting the right of secession. Yet, even though they are exerting some political influence within the GOP, their numbers remain small. In reality, they can still be regarded as fringe groups punching above their weight. How long this situation will persist is anyone’s guess. In this I note the enduring popularity of Ayn Rand’s rather tedious novel, Atlas Shrugged — now filmed and given limited release. Her advocacy of selfishness seems to resonate with many people today, indeed being taken to support the idea of possible militant action by an inspired minority to fight against an oppressive Big Government. In a country that prides itself on being a democracy, the spread of armed and anarchic right wing groups is disconcerting, giving credence to the possibility of more home-grown terrorist activity in the US.

So, with this second installment called Daybreak Zero, John Barnes deals with the situation some ten months after the terrorist release of the biotes in Directive 51. This shows the remnants of the American people trying to rebuild. Now that the moderate majority has been removed, the Libertarian groups who created their own militias find themselves a new power in the land. Other more religious groups also find they can assert influence, all of them, of course, wrapping their political agendas in the flag of the Constitution. It’s remarkable how self-righteous they sound in the promotion of their narrow selfish interests. Out in the new wilderness areas, it’s also interesting to see one tribe of Daybreakers following Rand in effect. Although instead of promoting abortion, they are simply killing the babies. This goes along with the hedonism of raping the females slaves, their general indifference to the death of the other slaves while foraging for food, and their willingness to torture “enemy” spies — so much for the notion of compassionate conservatism.

John Barnes comfortable in his own skin

We also continue the exploration of the nature of Daybreak itself. This rehearses debates within the community led by semioticians and political analysts. Is it a system artefact with an existence in its own right, or is it actually under some form of control — which might be human or an AI? This is important because, unless you understand what or who you are fighting, it’s rather difficult to know how to fight back. Initial evidence suggests there has been significant effort over time to prepare the Daybreakers for life after the collapse and to provide a weapon in the form of the moon gun. The co-ordination of EMPs aimed at residual areas of technology and intervention by armed tribal forces indicates practical intelligence at work. There are also interesting ideas about the place of knowledge in a capitalist country. It may be cynical, but it comes down to the money people being prepared to pay for information confirming their beliefs, and discouraging blue sky research that might find evidence for contrary beliefs. But, when all the talking is done, it always comes back to the threat of dispute resolution through fighting. In exploring this theme, John Barnes draws on both the philosophies of formalised martial arts and the use of violence as a form of negotiation. When two individuals or groups discuss an issue, they are usually looking for a winning position. In a consensual model, both sides will give way to agree a compromise via media or third way. In a conflictual model, one side must prevail but the mechanisms for winning are varied. There can be inducements in money or money’s worth, including the offer of intangibles like status or the acknowledgement of an idea as legitimate. If actual discussion fails, the parties can agree to disagree and go their separate ways. Or there can be fighting, but this is only pressuring both sides into reaching agreement on who the winner is. In this novel, we have the possibility that the system artefact called Daybreak is engaged in the overarching negotiation, but within the remnants of the old society, there are separate negotiations to decide whether there can be any unity against the common Daybreak enemy.

Perhaps, as I grow older, I’m less interested in stories about mental patients that want to take over the asylum. In a long life, I’ve seen the destructive results both of WWII itself and of the active terrorism on the mainland, in Northern Ireland and the rest of Europe. The early news broadcasts on the radio were full of reports about the Mau Mau revolt in Kenya and the fight against the Malayan National Liberation Army. It was a happy day when Britain finally surrendered the Empire. Frankly, I’ve had enough of these negotiations over who should rule and on what terms. So I find a significant proportion of the political debate in Daybreak Zero rather painful, albeit somewhat facile. I understand America’s obsession with its Constitution and what it should mean, but many of the set-piece assertions of belief are bordering on the weird, even in a science fiction context. Perhaps people really would join and support such self-interested groups but, at a time when the residue of civilisation is under such pressure, it’s a sad prospect.

It’s also sad that civilisation stops when it comes to dealing with the Daybreak tribes. Although one hero may feel it justified to wipe out the tribe that has kidnapped the postal worker and enslaved his daughter, there’s an awful lot of carnage among those who refuse rehab. It’s not unlike the recant or die approach to solving the dispute between the Roman Catholic Church and the Protestants in the sixteenth century.

Summing this up, I suppose there’s enough “adventure” to carry us forward and a few of the ideas are interesting to observe from a safe distance — taking all precautions to avoid contamination, of course. But I’m still struggling to find Daybreak Zero genuinely enjoyable. Everything is simplified down to its bare essentials with the intellectuals trying to preserve the Constitution and the remaining right wing groups arguing their corners. Having come this far, I’ll get the final part of the trilogy to see how Barnes resolves it. I like to keep things neat and tidy even though it feels like a chore.

The Fly-By-Nights by Brian Lumley

April 22, 2011 2 comments

Over the years, I’ve remained fairly consistent in my genre interests. In horror, I suppose one of the main focuses has been the Lovecraft Mythos and, for my sins, I’ve read more or less everything written that, both directly and indirectly, bears on the shared universe. This, of course, means I’ve read all the early Brian Lumley. When he was just starting off in the 1970s, there was a raw energy about his storytelling. He had a real knack for homing in on the essentials of the tale and ratcheting up the tension in arriving at a suitable conclusion. It never seemed to matter that he was not the greatest prose stylist in the world. You read him for the qualities of the ideas.

Unfortunately, he then became really successful and started to spread himself, churning out ever longer novels. This exposed the poverty of the prose. Overlooking the stodgy style is an acceptable price to pay when reading short stories or shorter novels. After all, few of the horror writers active in the 1950s and 1960s would claim to be anything other than efficient, using the words to get the job done. But I began to find Lumley indigestible and decided not to read the Necroscope series, waiting for the continuation of the Cthulu cycle. Indeed, after the last non-Lovecraftian book, The House of Doors in 1990, I’ve restricted myself to his collections. Now along comes The Fly-By-Nights, a 60,000 word short novel from Subterranean Press which gives me a chance to reassess him at slightly greater length.

Brian Lumley — in black and white and read all over the world

This adopts a post nuclear war setting. For about one-hundred-and-fifty years, a group has been surviving in deep caverns. There are two water sources, one for sustaining human life and the other for agriculture. They have both animals and crops. Science persists and, with cannibalised kit, the technicians manage to keep generators going for light, there are lead-lined trucks for moving outside and a general range of equipment for communications and measuring the radiation. This is not just the residual radiation from the bombs, but also increased solar radiation through further loss of the ozone layer. This effectively restricts movement outside to the night. Although the patched-up radiation suits can deal with the former, the combination of the two is too great. Over the years, scavenging teams have stripped the area of everything that can be recycled.

As the dynamic to start the story, we have contamination finally percolating through to the underground springs that have been supplying the cave. This makes it impossible to stay. Fortunately, there’s been radio contact with a colony surviving up north and so, with heavy hearts, they load everything they have into a convoy and set off. Because this is a Lumley story, we have vampires as the night-time predators. Individually, they are not much of a threat but, when they attack in numbers, there are significant human casualties. Ammunition is in short supply and, because it’s old, there are not infrequent misfires.

So this is a journey in hope of finding a new life. Think of the vehicles as like an ark cast out on the seas of night, sheltering from the sun in underground carparks and other refuges during the days. The colonists are a group assembled by numbers. There’s the experienced but ageing leader and a reliable oldster with a gimpy leg. There are the malcontents led by a bully who wants to bed the young woman. The oldster’s son likes the young woman. The scientists are tolerated because their work on radiation is the difference between life and death, but some feel they do not contribute enough to the colony. As plots go, you can all probably foresee the social dynamics and second-guess Lumley as to how it all plays out.

This is not to say that The Fly-By-Nights is a bad book. Quite the contrary. Whatever Lumley’s faults as a prose stylist, this is a good story. Even though it’s not the most original of plots, he manages to inject life and some excitement into proceedings as the vampires harass the convoy and get more organised for a major assault. Equally important, Subterranean Press has gone the extra mile to make this another handsome book. . . So if you like the idea of vampires terrorising the remnants of humanity after a nuclear holocaust, then this book is for you.

The limited edition artwork by Bob Eggleton

Fabulous jacket artwork and small interior line illustrations by Bob Eggleton.

This book was sent to me for review.

Heaven is High by Kate Wilhelm

I suppose as I grow older, I get more cranky. It’s a combination of the stiffness in the joints as I try rolling out of bed and the cotton wool stuffed in my head instead of brains until I’ve managed to remain vertical for about an hour after breakfast. As what passes for a semblance of intelligence slowly asserts itself, I view the world with a slightly more benign indifference. But until then, I am prone to outbursts of vague annoyance. This morning, I am exercised by the jacket artwork for Kate Wilhelm’s new Barbara Holloway novel called Heaven is High. It shows a woman and man walking through the doors of an idealised courtroom. Naturally, we are intended to think: Barbara Holloway. . . In all the best book in this series, we have those wonderful court scenes at the end where Barbara Holloway pulls rabbits out of various bits of clothing and sets everyone on the jury shouting, “Not guilty!” Yet, when you read this book, Barbara Holloway never actually gets into a courtroom. Yes, she does enter a court building, but it’s not for the purposes of conducting a trial.

So, to put it mildly, this cover is dishonest!

In fact, what we have in this novel is a repetition of the format adopted in A Wrongful Death. In that book, Ms Holloway could not be the attorney of record because she was listed as a material prosecution witness. In this book, she acquires needy clients and understands she cannot save them by going into court. So, to obtain the evidence that may relieve their problems, she sets off to investigate on her own. This leads to a distressing turn of events.

As I mentioned in my last review, I’ve been following Ms Wilhelm’s career since More Bitter Than Death appeared in the early 1960s. She’s usually reliable storyteller and this novel is a good read so long as you enjoy brainless thrillers. For Kate Wilhelm, that’s not something I enjoy writing. I’m used to writing superlatives. So what’s gone wrong here?

The answer is the abandonment of the one feature that has made the Holloway series consistently enjoyable — the set-piece trial in the last third of the novel. Even though Death Qualified died at the end when Ms Wilhelm could not resist suddenly shifting genres, she nevertheless produced a trademark courtroom drama. Abandoning that feature is risking everything. Frankly, the notion of Barbara Holloway engaging in vaguely James Bondish adventurism in the Belize jungle is a non-starter for me. Everything about this investigation is unbelievable once she gets on the plane to leave Oregon.

Kate Wilhelm still willing to talk the talk

As by magic, she’s able to contact the key witness by telephone and, following the exchange of passwords with a driver, a meeting is engineered in the jungle. When the same driver reappears, she’s taken by the bad guys who intend to kill her. Yet, with the characteristic weakness of all villains, they allow her to walk out of their lair. In due course, an undercover US team flies her back to Oregon where she’s able to bend the Immigration Department to her will and save her client from deportation.

I don’t think I’ve ever encountered such an inept drug lord (all right, drug lieutenant). Usually, they wave a baseball bat around, attach a few wires for a little light entertainment, and then bury the evidence in a swamp. Leaving Barbara in an unlocked room with a guard prone to falling asleep as evening deepens into night is not the kind of behaviour that leads to a high-ranking position in a major drug cultivation, processing and export organisation. This only happens in inept thrillers. Deus ex machina undercover drug enforcement agents are also the last resort of the uninspired. Whereas I’m more than happy to turn a blind eye to how her usual PI often seems to come up with magic evidence since that’s what fuels the cross-examinations I so like, this attempt to reposition the heroine as a potential recruit for the Avengers is a complete misjudgment. I have absolutely no interest in reading about Ms Holloway as an undercover operative ridding the world of villains. What I do enjoy is Ms Holloway obsessing over an interestingly nice point of law and finding a way to get her client acquitted.

So this is a book only for Kate Wilhelm completists and not something anyone should pick up relying either on the cover or on Ms Wilhelm’s unenviable reputation to deliver great courtroom dramas.

For a review of her latest book, see Death of an Artist.

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Troika by Alastair Reynolds

Troika is a new novella from Alastair Reynolds and, by any standards, one of the best shorter pieces I’ve read so far this year. However, to get a complete view of this story, it’s necessary to engage in a little deconstruction.

Troika is a delightful traditional Russian folk dance celebrating the social reliance on the three-horse sled as the main form of transport when winter sets in. As orchestrated by Prokofiev, it’s included inside Lieutenant Kije, originally written as a score for the film of the same name and then performed as a suite for the whole orchestra. To reflect the origin of some of the folk components, the music has also been used as the basis of a ballet.

I take the time to explain the significance of the title because the name given to the alien artefact when scientists first get a clearer view of it is Matryoshka, named after the doll in which a set of smaller dolls is revealed as each outer shell is opened. So too, with the music, the melody called Toika is captured in some sophisticated orchestration and included inside a greater whole which can then be used for completely different purposes.

Even more importantly, we are dealing with an unreliable narrator so everything he says may be distorted, burying truth inside a shell of self-deception or alien-induced confusion. Finally, we have two completely separate narrative arcs within the broader whole. First, there’s the story of Nesha Petrova, the brilliant astronomer who first identifies the connection between the alien artefact and music. Then there’s the story of Dimitri Ivanov who, together with two other cosmonauts, goes to investigate the artefact. Both arcs are included within the shell of the story of their meeting years after Ivanov returns to Earth. However, there’s a broader point to be made about social dynamics.

As Nesha explains about Russia, “We live in a flawless collectivised utopia. But a flawless society can’t, by definition, evolve. If it proceeds from one state to another, there must have been something wrong, or sub-optimal, about it.” In this novella, Reynolds is challenging us to understand the process whereby all the different cultures come in a nested form, exactly like the set of dolls. Within a country and its dominant culture, there may be many subcultures, any one of which may be the seed from which a new dominant social structure may emerge. So, for example, through a process of perestroika, a new version of the Communist state may develop. Think of it as being like one of these time travel stories where our intrepid idiot changes the past and creates alternate realities throughout time. Or where one person’s identity comes under pressure and new, unexpected qualities emerge.

Alastair Reynolds wondering what it would be like inside a matryoshka

When you open this handsome book from Subterranean Press, you have already begun to separate the first outer shell of this matryoshka, revealing the words inside. Then, as you read the words, you slowly unpack the narrative elements, seeing each as separate entities, but appreciating the author’s skill in constructing this elegant tale in a nested form.

Appropriately, when you get to the end, you find there’s one more doll inside the whole. It’s a very clever doll that makes the whole thing true, or not, as you decide.

Taking Trioka as a whole, it’s a remarkably strong novella, full of incident when the team tries to get inside the alien artefact, full of intelligence when Petrova and Ivanov review the debate on what its appearance might mean. More fascinating is the issue of the music. Why should the artefact apparently announce its presence by playing a Russian folk song? Perhaps it’s a hint the aliens want to signal something about their method of transport. There may not be three horses in front of this “thing” when it arrives in our solar system, but there may be a connection — a different kind of horse power, perhaps. What makes everything so pleasing is that, even though we’re dealing with imagined levels of science, Alastair Reynolds’ background as an astronomer gives the explanations a substantial veneer of credibility.

I confess to being hooked from the word go. Troika is yet another excellent production from Subterranean Books which seems to be developing a pleasingly high level of quality both in the choices of what to publish and in the physical form of the books they produce. This is well worth the money. As a word of warning to the wise, I suspect this book will fly off the shelves so order your copy now or miss out.

The jacket art is by Tomislav Tikulin. The top image is for the trade hardcover edition and the bottom image is exclusive to the signed limited edition. There are two internal illustrations.

A copy of this book was sent to me for review.

For a review of an excellent collection by Reynolds, see Deep Navigation, a stand-alone novella The Six Directions of Space, and the start of a new trilogy Blue Remembered Earth.

Finally, Troika was originally published as part of the anthology Godlike Machines, edited by Jonathan Strahan and published by the Science Fiction Book Club. Based on this appearance in 2010, it has been nominated for both the 2011 Hugo Awards and the 2011 Locus Award for Best Novella.


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