Posts Tagged ‘alternate history’

The Return of the Discontinued Man by Mark Hodder

July 9, 2014 6 comments

TheReturn Of The Discontinued Man-large

The Return of the Discontinued Man by Mark Hodder (Pyr, 2014) is the fifth in the Burton and Swinburne series and it amply demonstrates the problem in having to deal with multiple parallel universes when, as an author, you have taken the strategic decision to limit yourself to a single protagonist. As an aside, the alternative approach is in the completely wonderful, The Man Who Folded Himself by David Gerrold, where one man begets a multitude of himself (and, surprisingly, herself which is good for the perpetuation of themselves). Because we have a single point of view, we therefore face a slightly obscure first few chapters to this novel. In theory, each separate reality in the multiverse is a closed channel but, for our purposes, there’s a coincidence overload, i.e. because so many people in different universes do exactly the same thing at the same time, there’s an overload that breaks down some of the barriers. We first get to see the results of this at precisely 9 pm on the 15th February, 1860, as Babbage performs a critical experiment on the damaged time-travelling suit worn by Edward Oxford. Almost simultaneously in multiple time tracks, the damaged suits disappear. As the time bubble forms around them, there’s damage to Babbage. In part, this is physical with the precise removal of a limb. But it also induces a non-responsive (fugue) state. There’s no sign of life but, in an entirely mechanical being, it’s hard to tell what might have happened to the person stored inside.

In different parts of London, we also get the sudden appearance of Spring Heeled Jacks, all of whom prove to be disoriented but determined to find Burton. As a form of running joke, Burton is then serially barred from restaurants, clubs and organisations such as the Royal Geographical Society because he’s held responsible for all these Jacks turning up and disrupting normal business activities. Thanks in part to his ingestion of Saltzman’s tincture, Burton’s mind is also moving between universes and times. During these episodes, we pick up clues and pointers as to how the parallel worlds are faring and, perhaps more importantly, what happened in the future to persuade Edward Oxford to research time travel. We also have some unusual weather phenomena and, with the deposit of seeds, what seems to be a homage to H.G. Wells’ Martian red weed (the great man does show up again later in the book). However, once this excitement abates, the book becomes a slightly more conventional linear time travel exercise as our motley crew of chrononauts sets off into the future.

Mark Hodder

Mark Hodder

This has the supreme advantage that they may well be the catalyst for rewriting what happens in their future but, whenever they arrive when they are going, there should be a single timeline between their Victorian stating point and their finishing point (whatever the name of this era proves to be). In order to avoid overtaxing themselves and their machine, they plan to make the journey in a series of short hops. To pave the way, members of the Cannibal Club are told to go forth and multiply so there will be children and grandchildren waiting to greet them at each stopping point. Financial arrangements are also put in hand to ensure there will be enough money, if necessary, to rebuild their machine as they move forward in time. This gives us a series of snapshots of how the world could change. This is rather more successful than the first section of the book. It also shows us how Edward Oxford is emerging as the villain of the piece, and prepares the ground for the final battle when our heroic team arrives in the year when Edward Oxford first set off to travel to Victorian times. Needless to say, the time they find is nothing like the time Edward Oxford left. The bow wave of change has preceded them and the first version of Edward Oxford’s time has been completely overwritten.

In tone, most of the humour of the early books has disappeared to be replaced by a slightly more grim feeling as we survey the wreckage of the world as Edward Oxford and Burton’s movement through time, bends the future out of shape. Some of the ideas are interesting and we do have unintended consequences to genetic engineering albeit slightly more heavy-handed this time around to make a political point. But I have the sense this series is reaching the point it should stop. The freshness has gone out of it and there’s a slight air of repetitiveness about some of the elements we encounter. This is not to say another book would not be interesting. The inventiveness to bring this to fruition is outstanding. Indeed, I stand to applaud the sheer ingenuity to weave the preceding four books together to produce this plot. But any more than one to follow The Return of the Discontinued Man would probably kill the golden goose. Needless to say, you should not read this unless you have read the others. You will not have a clue what’s happening.

Once again, the jacket artwork by Jon Sullivan is magnificent.

For reviews of the first four books, see:
The Strange Affair of Spring Heeled Jack
The Curious Case of the Clockwork Man
The Expedition to the Mountains of the Moon
The Secret of Abdu El Yezdi
There are also two standalones called:
A Red Sun Also Rises
Sexton Blake and the Silent Thunder Caper.

And for those who enjoy a little nostalgia, the website run by Mark Hodder celebrating Sexton Blake is worth a visit.

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

The Revolutions by Felix Gilman

June 1, 2014 5 comments

The Revolutions by Felix Gilman

The Revolutions by Felix Gilman is slightly frustrating. It starts off like an express train. Some of the language is at a level of delight not even dreamed of by any other book I’ve read in the last twelve months. We’re recreating the world of an alternate history late Victorian London so the prose style borrows many of the stylistic touches of the period and updates them for modern consumption. If this had been done straight, it would quickly have grown boring. But Gilman has invested such wit into the language, his sheer playfulness carries us through the great storm, through the first meeting of our romantically entangled couple, and into the meat of the initial action. Unfortunately, we then get caught up in a less dynamic section of plot which, by comparison, falls rather flat. The best way to understand the problem is to see our two lovers. As is required by the social etiquette of the day, this is the Victorian version of Chaucerian courtly love with the couple falling in love with the idea of each other but not doing a great deal about it other than walk out together whenever they have the chance. So when Arthur gets sidetracked by an increasingly obsessional interest with earning enough to pay off his debts, he effectively cuts off Josephine. Out of desperation, she makes a monetary deal hoping to buy his intellectual and financial freedom only to find herself trapped “somewhere”.

To understand the problem, let’s briefly survey the situation. Lord Padmore is the British media magnate who owns all the major newspapers and represents the conservative forces, i.e. he prefers the status quo to prevail against the forces of revolution represented by Lord Atwood and his rather more cosmopolitan followers. There’s a nice joke that the newspaper owner turns his editors into mindless zombies who follow every command of their owner. This transient state is introduced by a ritual drinking of printer’s ink which has been spiked with the appropriate magic juice. In many ways this is typical of the patchy quality of the metaphors at work. Some ideas work well, but others fail to take off because the characterisation is thin. This makes the ideas rather more wooden than living. Put simply, the book describes a fight for political power between groups who believe magic is real. So when the great storm hits London, one side is convinced the other invoked the storm to throw off their magical calculations for astral projection to other planets. It’s possible Josephine really has been able to master astral projection and is genuinely stuck out in the spheres, or she was hypnotised and is now catatonic but dreaming. The editors really may be controlled by magic or value their jobs sufficiently to act like thugs when their master calls on them. In other words, for much of the book, there’s an ambiguity about whether the use of magic is anything other than self-delusion or a very strong group belief system. Only at times, e.g. the fight in the Savoy dining room, does the magic seem to be shown as real.

Felix Gilman

Felix Gilman

So let’s now assume the entire psychic science is real and the magic works. Where does this leave us? Well, through Josephine’s eyes, we get to see both of the moons of Mars in their post-apocalyptic state after a war of magic wiped out life on the surface of Mars. If we go back to the devastating storm that hits London in the first few pages and then imagine such climatic events endlessly repeated until civilisation is smashed into the ground, you have the right picture. As is usually the case, Mars the planet offers a cautionary warning of the effects of long-term war. In theory, this is what Lord Padmore is trying to avoid on Earth. Having read about the decline and fall of Rome, he’s aware empires can sow the seeds of their own destruction. He’s therefore out to prevent Atwood from pushing his revolutionary ideas of interplanetary travel. So this nicely encapsulates the problem with the plot because both are prepared to fight the war to stop each other. Now we could say this is a classic example of willful blindness, that neither side wants to consider the possibility their own actions may precipitate the end of Earth’s civilisation. Or it could be hubris. At an individual level, it never occurs to the leaders of either side that they cannot win the fight quickly and easily, i.e. they believe the war will do no lasting damage. Or raising this up to the level of humanity, each interested party from France, Germany, America, China and Britain assumes their own sphere of influence will be unaffected if there’s fighting. Unlike Rome, their empires will never fall. All this could be made to work if Atwood’s motives for wanting to explore strange new worlds was made explicit. Then we could judge the extent to which the fighting might actually have some real meaning. As it is, Atwood and Padmore seem to be disputing the right to freedom of action without consideration of the potential downsides. Atwood wants to push the boundaries of science to explore or, perhaps, because he’s a dupe. Padmore considers it his duty to prevent any extraterrestrial exploration. Quite how he might be aware of any dangers is unclear. The book would be greatly improved if we understood the point of the fight and could make an emotional investment in the outcome.

So there are some good ideas and some of the prose is spectacularly good but, somehow, the book fails to cohere. Because of the general lack of interaction between our couple, there isn’t quite the spark we would expect from a love interest. We understand why Josephine makes her bad deal and why Arthur feels driven to pursue her, but it lacks a real emotional connection. Some of the recreation of the science fantasy worlds of Edgar Rice Burroughs and similar authors is fun, and there are odd moments of excitement as magicians duel. But, again, there’s a certain lack of tonal consistency. There’s great wit in the opening sections of London’s devastation, but the rest of the book is rather more serious. Overall, this means there’s much to admire about The Revolutions but, in the final analysis, it’s not quite as good a book as I was hoping for.

For reviews of other books by Felix Gilman, see:
Gears of the City
The Half-Made World
The Rise of Ransom City

V-S Day by Allen Steele

V-S Day by Allen Steele

V-S Day by Allen Steele (Ace, 2014) is an alternate history version of World War II. This time, the “what if” is potentially very interesting. Rather than go for the major change of outcome as in P K Dick’s The Man in the High Castle, this has the German leadership change their scientific priorities and shift the war effort in a singularly unexpected way. In the real world, the Manhattan Project began in 1939 and matched the German group Uranverein. Both groups aimed to exploit uranium as the basis of a weapons program. The rest as they say, is history. In another part of Germany, Peenemünde under the direction of Dornberger began a military program to develop rockets as weapons. Thanks to the work of Wernher von Braun who borrowed many patented developments produced by American physicist Robert H. Goddard, a program was authorised by Hitler in 1942 to devastate London. Except Allen Steele has Hitler authorise the development of a suborbital bomber capable of attacking New York. Needless to say, when spies bring word of this project to the Allies, Goddard is tasked with putting together a team to develop countermeasures.

So, as a paper-based exercise, we have ourselves an early space race. The German approach is to achieve escape velocity using a rocket-sled system to slingshot the rocket-powered bomber into the air, and then bounce along the atmosphere like a stone skipping across a pool of water. The Americans build a rocket-launched fighter that can match the orbital path and then intercept. From a technological point of view, the mechanism for this interception proves one of the highlights of the book. I’d been assuming the American approach would be a suicide mission, but in this alternate, the word kamikazi obviously does not cross the Pacific. US technology comes up with a most interesting solution. Anyway, a race usually means excitement and I was looking forward to a white-knuckle scientific thriller. But it never arrives. This is a book which is never more than interesting. It never catches fire because, in a sense, both sides work in a kind of vacuum and it’s not not outer space. For there to be a race or a fight, you need a choreography of attack and defence, move and countermove. In this book, the scientists and engineers are sequestered in carefully protected environments and apart from one remarkably ineffective attempt to assassinate Goddard, and the historically accurate bombing raid by the British on Peenemünde, little disturbs the calm atmosphere in which both sides work.

Allen Steele

Allen Steele

Well, that’s not quite right. Wernher von Braun is portrayed as a man struggling with his conscience. Forced to join the Nazi Party and pay lip-service to the political hierarchy, he’s troubled both when he learns Goddard is to be targeted and as he sees slave labour used to build the launch track. Other than that, his progress is relatively serene as he overseas the production of this silver bird. Both sides have the same intellectual and engineering challenge. Before they are tapped by their governments, their rockets tend to explode shortly after the engines are fired up. A few seconds of flight is all that’s been achieved. Now both teams are given a one-shot chance to build a manned craft, one as a passive bomber, the other as an active interceptor. So they are to go from abject failure to instant success because lives depend on it. In Germany that’s both the scientists’ own lives and all the slaves whose lives are, and have been, instantly disposable. In America, our heroes are defending the people of New York from an incineration attack that’s only theoretically possible. This decision to invest American treasure in a project to defend against a purely theoretical threat is never really explored. There’s a quick meeting in the White House and the green light is lit on the basis of a renegade scientist’s assertion the German threat could be real.

During the book, there’s no mention of the Japanese or other German military manoeuvres. Nothing disturbs the focus of our group on beating the von Braum challenge. You might at least have some discussion of whether the technology could be adapted to produce intercontinental ballistic missiles. What better way of delivering the atomic bomb to Tokyo or Berlin, for that matter? This is distinctly odd. We’re watching the militarisation of science without exploring how other weapons might be developed. In Germany, we’re supposed to assume the High Command would never authorise construction of a second bomber. They have the technology and the launch track. Why would they not want a back-up? It’s not credible to assume they would simply kill all the scientists who had presided over this failure and then forget about their work. Later in America, after they had won the war, they went into space for peaceful purposes. What about the Russians? In the real world, they had spies in the Manhattan Project. What happened to the Cold War after this version of World War II ended? Everything is fudged into the background with none of the political and military context to make it believable. Sadly this leaves me thinking V-S Day is seriously underwhelming.

For reviews of other books by Allen Steele, see:
Angel of Europa
Coyote Horizon
galaxy blues

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

The Chosen Seed by Sarah Pinborough

The Chosen Seed

The Chosen Seed by Sarah Pinborough (Ace, 2013) The Forgotten Gods: Book Three starts off with Cassius Jones still in hiding. He’s been framed for murder and, even in the best run countries, he would find it difficult to avoid conviction. That we find ourselves in a dystopian alternate history version of London compounds the problem. In this timeline, the corruption has been institutionalised and police in key positions tend to get the results they decide are necessary. Because Jones has become inconvenient in two different contexts. . . Well, when it comes to Mr Bright, the ostensible antagonist, the relationship with Jones is more equivocal. Indeed, it might be better to characterise the relationship as a form of gaming. Mr Bright, of course, has been playing a long time. He has the experience and the perspective. But Jones has proved to be a fast-learner. He’s also angry to find himself a victim of an organisation he does not understand. In the rational world, he cannot bring himself to define the relationship between Mr Bright and his family as Faustian. This was a form of breeding program. In return for unspecified rewards, two sons were born. Then the first-born son of the younger son was swapped on birth. This is the central mystery of the trilogy. What was the point of this program?

Jones is driven by the need to find his nephew Luke. It’s just grown more challenging now he’s on the run. Fortunately, some of the criminal bosses he’s dealt with in the past see a possible benefit in helping him now. As a wanted man, he starts as not quite a prisoner. Meanwhile, back in the police procedural part of the book, there are still those who believe Jones to be innocent. Their problem is the same as that experienced by Jones. The prevailing culture is hostile to those who do not toe the party line. If these “good” detectives and the expert profiler are seen to be challenging the orthodoxy of Jones’ guilt, they will be in serious trouble. In a way, they are also prisoners of circumstances. Yet, unless the official and unofficial parties can co-ordinate their activities, this is not going to turn out well.

Sarah Pinborough

Sarah Pinborough

The problem is compounded by the dissension in the ranks of the “organisation” and the network it supports. In the old days, the First had provided a coherent approach to running affairs on Earth. When Mr Bright became the leader, not everyone thought he was the right choice. Now the First has woken up again, the factionalism becomes more overt. Aggravating the situation, one more of the organisation’s membership is dying and decides to take a few locals with him. This gives the Government the task of dealing with what may turn into a major epidemic. People are dying already.

What makes this trilogy interesting is the deliberate overlaying of genre elements. In the first book, we begin with what seems exclusively a police procedural but it rapidly acquires what may be a supernatural overlay in the killing of various students. Some of the events may be considered by some to trespass into horror. Looking back, this is actually slightly more science fiction than fantasy with those who had involuntarily participated in a scientific experiment being terminated. Indeed, the way the ending shapes up is almost pure science fiction but embedded in a form of fantasy context. It’s a context that skates over various myths or reinterpretations of events fitting into an Abrahamic tradition. In the final pages, there’s a coherent explanation for all the events described in the three books which blends the supernatural and science fiction together. If you’ve reached this far, the author has won. It no longer matters whether the explanation resonates with you as an individual. You’ve invested in the life of Jones as he struggles to rescue his nephew, and then deal with the increasingly dangerous situation he discovers.

This book didn’t come up for review so I spent my own money to find out how the trilogy ended. That says a lot about the quality of the series. I wanted to see how the plot was resolved even though I strongly suspected it might be straying towards a less interesting plot resolution (by my standards). In fact, I was more or less right about what was happening and, because it’s cast as science fiction, thought it marginally less silly than I might otherwise have done. To get there, we have rather more character than plot development. Of course, a lot of “stuff” happens, but events give us a better opportunity to watch all interested parties respond and show more about themselves. This makes The Chosen Seed a pleasing read. There’s a lot of craft involved in building this particular scenario and then making it not wholly incredible in its own terms. In no small way, this is due to the fact Jones and those helping him must ultimately rely on basic skills like historical research and hacking to get their results. If you like a blend of horror, supernatural and science fiction delivering a police procedural outcome, this is a very good trilogy to read.

For reviews of other books by Sarah Pinborough, see:
A Matter of Blood
The Shadow of the Soul.

The Adjacent by Christopher Priest

February 19, 2014 Leave a comment


The Adjacent by Christopher Priest (Titan Books, 2013) qualifies as one of the most interesting books of the last year. In part, the interest lies in what the book is not. Ah. . . so now we immediately come to the heart of it. In some senses, this is a story about the nature of relationships rather than a book sitting comfortably in a genre such as science fiction or fantasy. The word selected as the title gives us the theme. When two or more people, places or things are adjacent, they are next to each other, perhaps even sharing a common boundary or border, but they do not overlap. You could pass from one part to its neighbour, e.g. from a city centre to a suburb or, in American terms, a more distant exurb. This gives us a potential paradox to resolve. Two people may be “close”, but no matter how intimately involved they may be, they do not physically become one person. They retain their individual traits and characteristics. Ironically, the law used to proclaim husband and wife were one person for legal purposes. So, for example, spouses could not give evidence against each other or, in some cases, property originally owned by one before marriage fell into the ownership of the other after marriage. Laws create their own fictions or distortions of reality to fulfill their social policy purposes.

When it comes to literary purposes, Christopher Priest is playing a complicated game with us. None of the first- or third-person narrators who feature in this novel are intentionally unreliable. It’s not their fault that they fail to grasp exactly who they are nor what purpose their presence advances. All they can do is tell their stories, believing them to be true, and leave it to us to decide how much of what they say might be true in the context for their contributions. We start off with Tibor Tarent and his wife Melanie. They are in a version of Anatolia, Turkey. He’s a professional photographer and she’s a nurse. In earlier times, their marriage was strong, but their enforced stay inside this medical camp for refugees puts their relationship under pressure. Normally, Tibor displaces his personal problems into the passivity of observing life through the lenses of his cameras. When the dangerous war-torn conditions outside the camp deny him this release, he grows frustrated and angry. She’s endlessly useful to those in need. He’s in the way. Unfortunately, when she leaves the camp, she’s the victim of a terrorist attack with a different type of weapon and disappears. He’s loaded into different forms of transport which carry him back to the Islamic Republic of Great Britain (IRGB). Up to this point, we might have been in our version of reality, but it now seems we’re in an alternate history version of the world in which Arab states rule Europe with Islam as the dominant, but not the exclusive, religion. Or perhaps the different forms of transport with closed windows have carried us into new somewhat Kafkaesque spaces.

Christopher Priest

Christopher Priest

It’s also at this point we become aware of another feature of the narrative structure. The IRGB Government is interested in Tibor because he met with Thijs Rietveld just before the latter committed suicide. This man was a theoretical physicist who discovered the adjacency equations. It was meant to be a defensive system which could divert an incoming missile into an adjacent quantum dimension. Unfortunately, what can be used defensively can also be modified to displace enemies into different dimensions. Having let the technological cat out of the bag, the world now faces attack by anyone with the technical skills to build the weaponised form. This use of “adjacency” randomly pokes holes in space-time. Consequently, everything gets mixed together unpredictably. When we start the story, Tibor has no memory of meeting Thijs. Later the meeting is described in detail and he has the photographs to prove it. Depending on where you stand, walk or fly, you can see buildings or not (watch shells disappear and appear). What happens in one dimension can also be an echo of events in a different dimension. Even more confusingly, Tibor may be able to meet both living and dead versions of himself. So we come back to the problem of what adjacency actually means.

One part of the story is told by a stage illusionist named Tommy Trent who makes a wasted trip to the battlefront in World War I in the company of H G Wells. He’s been asked to advise on whether it’s possible to camouflage an aircraft in flight. Dismissing the use of blue paint to “hide” the craft against a blue sky, he theorises it might be possible to use two or three planes flying close together, using one or, perhaps, two of them to distract the audience on the ground so that the third might effectively become invisible. This is adjacency used to distract attention so that a magic trick can be performed, e.g. using a beautiful and scantily clad assistant to take the eyes of the audience at just the right moment. What makes the sequence of stories interesting is the way they are placed next to each other, i.e. some elements may be distracting our attention. This process becomes all the more fascinating with the diversion into the fictional landscape of the Dream Archipelago to meet one Tomak Tallant who’s also a magician, this time with a rope trick much loved by fakirs. An avatar of Melanie flies a World War II Spitfire into this dimension which just goes to show how malleable the boundaries can be between the different spaces.

So putting all this together, Tibor could passively look through the lens of his camera and see an image of Melanie in relation to himself. Now think of this as a photograph of the street forming the boundary between the city centre and a suburb. He could actively change the image so the street appeared to be six inches or six-hundred miles wide. But changing the image we might see does not change the reality of the relationship between the city and its suburb. They remain in close proximity, divided only by the designation of a street on a map as a border. So people may resonate with each other in their relationship and, no matter whether we’re persuaded to see them as physically close or widely separated, they remain close even though a magic trick might make it appear one had disappeared. The Adjacent is strongly recommended to everyone who enjoys thoughtful fiction.

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

Irenicon by Aidan Harte

February 15, 2014 1 comment


As all those who read these reviews will know, I’m a bear of little brain, frequently prone to error and misthinging. It’s a miracle I actually navigate from the start to the end of each day without killing myself or being killed by provoked authors, film directors or television producers. When books come in for review, I unpack them from their boxes and, in that order, copy their titles and authors into a list which then, somewhat arbitrarily, becomes the reading order. When I picked up this book and looked at the jacket, I wrote down Frenicon, taking the initial letter to be a gothic “f”. Imagine my surprise when later opening the book and finding the f to be an i. This does not exactly strike the right note (or letter for that matter) when it comes to communicating with the buying public.

So as to the review itself: Irenicon by Aidan Harte (Quercus/Jo Fletcher Books, 2012) is the first book in the Wave Trilogy and sees us flirting with genre boundaries. In broad definitional terms, we could be looking at an alternate history book which takes as its premise that Herod acted in time to kill the infant Jesus before he could be spirited out of harm’s way. This left the Virgin Mary with the task of introducing the elements of the Christianity that would otherwise have conquered the word of faith in the West. But without her son to show his divinity, the resulting belief system is rather different from the version we had in the fourteenth century when this book is set. Hence, if we take books like Pavane by Keith Roberts as our exemplars, this book is outside the definitional boundary because it does not accept the limits of the real world. It treats the supernatural as real. So for all it poses a classical “what if”, we’re actually pitched into a mediaeval Italian environment where a form of magic works. In broad narrative terms, the Concordian northern alliance is actively pursuing expansion into Europe, but is cautious of the independent city states to the south. To avoid vulnerability from the rear, it’s therefore using one of its twelve legions to suppress dissent.

The culture has been through a Re-Formation. Natural Philosophy has applied mathematics and observational physics to the real world. Initially ignored by the pervasive religion, a new breed of engineer arose and established sufficient power to be able to displace both religious power-brokers and the nobility. The result is theoretically a more meritocratic society, but one which proves equally open to abuse by a self-appointed elite. Underpinning the rise to power is the development of Wave technology. Essentially this uses water for military purposes. As a demonstration of its destructiveness, the engineers physically divide the southern city of Rasenna by creating a river. The waters of what’s later named the Irenicon smash through the city walls, devastate the central area, and become a permanent feature of the landscape. It would be just like any other river except that, surprisingly, it runs uphill and it’s also full of spirits which seem intent on grabbing any human who comes too close to the water. Death by drowning is the result. This city gives us the central metaphor for the book to explore.

Aidan Harte

Aidan Harte

Following its division, two feuding families assert control over their half. The Morellos rule the north, the Bardinis the south, albeit both are beholden to the Concord. The only person who might reunite the city is Contessa Sofia, the last surviving member of the Scaglieri family. When she reaches the age of seventeen, she could be allowed to become the ruler. Until then, she’s being trained in “leadership skills” by The Doctor, the head of the Bardini family. One day, Captain Giovanni, a young engineer from the Concord, arrives. He’s been sent to build a bridge across the river. The symbolism is transparent. This is a city divided against itself. Following the model of feuding clans, the socalisation process inducts the young into militias who develop fighting styles using banners designating their families and clan allegiances. The poor and emergent middle class are relatively powerless, depending on local “gangs” for protection. A bridge allowing all to move from one side to the other could end the feuds and reunite Rasenna. So those who are in power see the engineer as a threat. The poor see him as a figure of hope, a force for change.

Change management is challenging at the best of times. In a fourteenth century Italy, the first step is an undermining of the control of the two families and their retainers, quickly followed by the empowerment of the poor and middle class. In an ideal world, there would also be some degree of democratisation but that’s never going to be an easy sell to anyone who’s spent generations under the control of local families and clans. The book therefore explores a perennial problem where entrenched power structures confront the possibility of change. In modern times, we might be looking at the Troubles where relatively small groups of warring paramilitaries disputed which of the adjacent sovereign states should have the right of local control. As in the real world, so in this book, everything depends on the history and context for events. Aidan Harte nicely introduces illuminating insights into the process which Re-Formed the northern part of Italy and consolidated power in the engineers. How and why the science as magic (or vice versa) came into being is deliberately left unspoken. It’s going to be necessary to carve out positions for science and faith, and then support dialogue to understand the relationship and potential synergy between the belief and knowledge-based systems.

This leaves me seriously impressed both by the quality of the ideas and the ingenuity with which they are explored in the text. In simplistic terms, it’s a coming-of-age story as Sofia chafes against the control of The Doctor and begins to form a relationship with Giovanni. But this is rather more substantial than the traditional amor vincit omnia fantasy plot as our two protagonists come into mutual obit but then have choices to make. I could make disparaging noises about the clichéd necessity for Sofia to develop “powers” by overcoming her fear, but this would be to miss the point. Returning for a moment to the religious context, Mary did not ask to become mother to Jesus. She was chosen and had to make the best of it. In short, Irenicon is completely fascinating, leaving us poised on a wholly unexpected note as a new temporary balance in the power structures is achieved.

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

Here’s an interview with Aidan Harte.

Seven for a Secret by Elizabeth Bear

December 30, 2013 1 comment

Seven for a Secret by Elizabeth Bear

Seven for a Secret by Elizabeth Bear (Subterranean Press, 2009) sees Lady Abigail Irene Garrett and wampyr Don Sebastien de Ulloa making a home for themselves in a London under German occupation. This novella is set some thirty-five years after events described in New Amsterdam. In this alternate history, Britain lost the peace and, with its king fled to America, the younger generation of the British are growing up through the education system put in place by their conquerors. The first real signs of this are now openly walking the streets wearing the uniforms of the German army. When the occupation is all you’ve known during the formative years, it’s difficult not to be a collaborator. For the record, this is not the German master race we know from our own history. It’s the Prussians who, under the leadership of a Bismarck analogue, have been grabbing European turf. Sadly, from their point of view, Russia has yet to succumb. This leads them to attempt a magical strategy. If their army could be reinforced by werewolves, this would almost certainly give them the edge when it comes to an invasion. The problem is how to resurrect the largely lost packs and, even more importantly, ensure their loyalty. It would be somewhat embarrassing if, having found a way of putting together a regiment of these beasts, they then ate all soldiers in sight, regardless of their uniforms.

Elizabeth Bear

Elizabeth Bear

It’s always convenient to read books and see only the superficial story of a British resistance movement with an undead Scarlet Pimpernel working alongside them. But that would be to completely misjudge the quality of the book. This is a book about the power of love at opposite ends of the age spectrum. From the merely old and immortal comes the tragedy of mortality. Vampires were first human and only later came to their higher status. This means they can be tempted by the emotion of love even though, to them, it’s going to be ephemeral unless they turn the object of their affection. So Sebastian is on the cusp of that bittersweet moment when his human love will die. That he’s seen nations born and die gives him perspective, but that doesn’t really change the nature of the experience each time he watches someone he cares about die. At the other end of the age and experience scale, we have two young girls on the cusp of turning into warriors. Yet, despite the psychological manipulation, they find themselves experiencing physical attraction. Further complicating matters is the question of race. One girl is Jewish and she has already assumed responsibility for infiltrating the werewolf operation so she can strike back for her people. For her, the sacrifice of herself or the others around her may become necessary if she’s to carry forward the plan.

The book therefore considers the nature of relationships when one or both parties are mayflies. Perhaps we all accept short-term satisfaction when we can place ourselves in a larger context. For Sebastian, he may lose Abigail Irene’s physical body but she will always be with him in memories. It’s the regret you cannot hold hands or kiss that will prove fleeting when all you have to do to be together again is to close your eyes. For the young lovers, it’s the natural feel to the emotions that’s so seductive. Despite the options to persuade or actually change the other person’s mind, they would never do that because it’s a betrayal of the trust they have in each other. That there’s an inherent lack of honesty in the infiltrator does not change her love. That she recognises the other may turn into an enemy the moment the dishonesty is revealed cannot stop her. She’s been honed into a weapon and she has to live with the consequences. She has a higher purpose than ephemeral love.

So Seven for a Secret is a book that features vampires, their renfields, werewolves and assorted manipulative human taskmasters. Yet it’s also about the tragedy individuals have to endure because of the circumstances in which they find themselves. The result is affecting, melancholic and rather beautiful.

For reviews of books also by Elizabeth Bear, see
ad eternum
Book of Iron
A Companion to Wolves (with Sarah Monette),
Range of Ghosts,
Shattered Pillars,
Shoggoths in Bloom,
Steles of the Sky and
The Tempering of Men (with Sarah Monette).

Dust jacket artwork is again by Patrick Arrasmith.

Burning Paradise by Robert Charles Wilson

December 21, 2013 Leave a comment

Burning Paradise by Robert Charles Wilson

Long ago when the Beatles were wondering whether to let it be, and John Lennon was asserting himself as a force in his own write, he penned a song simply titled, “Give Peace a Chance” which was first aired during his Bed-In during 1969. Even though it was a somewhat naive gesture, there was genuine sincerity in the message. Indeed, the song resonated to such an extent, it became a kind of anthem for the anti-Vietnam War movement which was growing in strength in America. Looking back on it today, the song is tediously long and repetitive but, since there are still conflicts around the world, you can’t dispute the practical need for people to set their differences aside and live in greater harmony. Even though I might slight the sentiment by calling it hippie mush, it would be interesting to speculate on what the world might look like today if there had been an intervention earlier in our history. Suppose, for example, the conflict we know as World War I had actually started and then finished in 1914 as both sides looked down into the abyss and decided they would rather not go there. That this is a seductive idea to explore illustrates the strength of the subset of science fiction labelled alternate history. It sets out to answer the “what if” questions and, by doing so, give us a different insight into the pattern of events we call history.

Burning Paradise by Robert Charles Wilson (Tor, 2013) subverts the usual alternate history trope by setting the story in an explicitly science fiction frame. In books like Bring the Jubilee by Ward Moore, humans make progress into their own future by their own bootstraps. Here we have an external force influencing events. Think of this as a different version of alien invasion story but with the possibility of altruism as the motive. Ours was a world of bellicosity about to embark on internecine struggle on a previously unimaginable scale. Now one-hundred years after the Armistice was signed, the world has enjoyed a period without major conflicts — obviously there have smaller scale outbreaks of violence as the human species lives up to its reputation for predatory behaviour — and increasing prosperity. Think of improving standards of living as being a peace dividend.

Robert Charles Wilson

Robert Charles Wilson

So what would be the point? Here’s this outside force and it’s persuaded us to take the Lennon option. Could this just be altruism? Well, think for a moment about all those biology classes you slept through as a child in school. There were references to different varieties of parasite that infect the host for the purposes of reproduction. You might remember novels like The Midwich Cuckoos by John Wyndham (you’ll notice a veterinarian with this name appears in Burning Paradise) which has aliens impregnate the women living in small towns and villages around the world. That was all a little, well, unsophisticated. All that use of technology to seal off the area with a force field and have all the women produce effectively identical children at the same time. It does rather give the game away, doesn’t it. But suppose a more long-term and subtle form of influence was at work in our world. It might weave itself into our culture so seamlessly that no-one would notice. Well, perhaps someone might notice and wonder. Or is parasitism the right phenomenon to be talking about? Maybe the right word is symbiosis which suggests mutual benefit to the two or more different organisms that share a common existence. Sitting in the middle is commensalism where two or more organisms co-exist but without any benefit to them from the relationship. In short, there’s no need to assume the presence of this alien intruder is malign. That would just be paranoid, wouldn’t it?

The most impressive quality about Robert Charles Wilson is his ability to create very real characters for us to follow as they contend with extraordinary events around them. Here we have a couple who separated yet now come together again after seven years. The trigger for this reunion is that she’s been looking after her nephew and niece after their parents were murdered by the aliens. Now these children have been targeted for assassination. The problem, of course, is that these children have done what they were trained to do when threatened. They have gone on the run. Aiding them is the son of the paranoid leader of the human resistance movement. He’s been co-ordinating the research into the alien entity and trying to find a way to fight back. As befits a paranoid, he’s made it very difficult for anyone to find him. But, perhaps his son and the desperate couple can track him down. If everyone was to turn up at the same place and at the same time, the couple might recover the children. But equally, the alien forces might have everyone together for extermination purposes. When anyone is in this situation, the only emotion to cling to is hope. There’s just one other thought to bear in mind when reading this book. “Great fleas have little fleas upon their backs to bite ‘em, And little fleas have lesser fleas, and so ad infinitum.”

This leaves me forced into the use of a tired old cliché. Albeit inadvertently, I’ve saved the best till last. Yes, Burning Paradise is the best science fiction book I’ve read this year. It’s not afraid to deal with difficult questions of what life is, how we should react if we realise as a species that we’re in a relationship with other organisms, and, if we decide to do anything about it, what price we would be prepared to pay. It’s completely absorbing and both intellectually and emotionally satisfying as the individual and collective decisions are made. In the end, everyone has a say in the outcome and, whether it’s the product of intelligence or merely instinctual, everyone acts with commendable rationality and without sentimentality getting in the way. That’s why the outcome is a tragedy, even when translated up to the cosmic level. In a sense, none of the interested parties can be anything other than true to themselves. That’s why they do the things they do. In this, there’s one remarkable irony. For reasons you will understand if you read this book, the aliens consider themselves expendable. Yet, for as long as humanity persists, it’s stuck with the consequences of what it decides to do. Burning Paradise is strongly recommended.

For reviews of other books by Robert Charles Wilson, see:
Julian Comstock

Fiddlehead by Cherie Priest

December 8, 2013 Leave a comment


Fiddlehead by Cherie Priest (Tor, 2013) is the sixth and supposedly final book in The Clockwork Century series. The fact this is intended as the final book is both a strength and a weakness. The positive virtue comes from the need to resolve as many of the different threads that have been running through the series as possible. To do this, we finally get upstairs to the place where the major players have been manipulating events. The problem with the series to date has been we never got to see the big picture. We were always trapped down in particular events without a proper context. This was a growing frustration. Hence we can be relieved it’s all over. The weakness is that no groundwork has been laid for the resolution of this alternate history Civil War. There have been five books showing us the scale of the growing problem and all this is going to be resolved in one book? It’s a stretch, particularly if the final book is to be a satisfying steampunk adventure story in its own right.

So how does it actually play out? Well, from the off, we’re introduced to the ultimate calculating machine. It’s the titular Fiddlehead which has been constructed by Gideon Bardsley, a brilliant ex-slave who’s managed to convince Abraham Lincoln, disabled after the attack at the Ford Theater, he can get all the answers needed to stop the war and reunite the country. Not surprisingly, there’s a hawkish faction that wants the war to continue for its own profit. This gives us the dynamic for the plot. Abraham Lincoln joins forces with President Grant and sends out agents to investigate what’s actually happening and, wherever possible, to frustrate events likely to perpetuate the armed struggle. At the sharp end, we have the return of Maria Boyd, southern spy, and Henry Epperson of the US Marshals Service. They combine forces and collect the necessary information to confirm what Fiddlehead has predicted. Then it’s a chase to prevent the proposed shock and awe moment in this Civil War scenario. Yes, just as the bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki were designed to undermine the confidence of the Japanese, Katharine Haymes is pushing the North to use an explosive device to release the gas against civilian targets. She claims this will demoralise the South and produce a surrender. In reality, she believes the South and the watching world will be outraged the North has attacked an unarmed population centre and will rally to the cause. Since she runs an armaments conglomerate, this reinvigorated conflict will lead to even greater profits with sales to both sides in the immediate conflict and to other nations who join in the fight.

Cherrie Priest

Cherrie Priest

The politics is not unrealistic but it’s kept at a superficial level because, to be honest, the book is not long enough to produce a convincing context while maintaining an adventure pace. The fan base for this series expects to see a strong woman character fight her way across America to save the world (if the zombie plague is not contained, the world will soon be eaten up). And herein lies the unfortunate compromise that prevents the book from being satisfying. If we ignore the gunplay, the airship dogfighting and the occasional explosion, we have only a glimpse of one side of the Civil War. Wars have their own momentum but, ultimately, it comes down to the few people who hold positions of power on both sides to agree terms for peace. We meet up with President Grant and Abe Lincoln who send a message suggesting talks to the other side. That’s all we see. There’s no direct contact shown to discuss a truce. All we get is an announcement at the end of the book. It seems everyone just sees sense after Boyd and Epperson prevent the gas attack on the South.

There are also timeline problems as the events in the North are supposed to parallel the movement of the agents around the border areas and the South. In particular, we have a night-long siege at Lincoln’s home which keeps going in alternate chapters. This is an unnecessarily long night. There’s no reason why we cannot follow Boyd and Epperson in their campaign and have more political cross-border efforts to stop the war. The climax can therefore come with the physical attack on the Lincoln home as things our agents get closer to their target in the South. That way, it can all be tied up and lead into a peace conference to settle terms for a joint defence against the zombies. In many ways, Fiddlehead is a success in resolving matters but, after the catastrophe that was The Inexplicables, it may just be we’re all relieved it’s all over (for now).


For reviews of other books by Cherie Priest, see:
Bloodshot (The Cheshire Red Reports 1)
Hellbent (The Cheshire Red Reports 2)
The Inexplicables
Those Who Went Remain There Still

The Daedalus Incident by Michael J Martinez

December 2, 2013 4 comments

The Daedalus Incident by Michael J Martinez

We’re back to the age-old question of what we should be looking for when we read a new book. I suppose we want some degree of novelty or originality. After a while, reading and rereading all the most obvious plots and tropes become boring. So it can break the monotony when someone tries something new. Let’s start off with the solar sail. This used to be quite a common idea to play with. Our space vessel would literally spread its wings and the currents of space would drive the ship forward. Hence, for example, David Weber uses gravitational sails and has “naval engagements” in his Honor Harrington series, while David Drake’s RCN series more explicitly has space ships with rigging that has to be stripped down before the ship can enter an atmosphere. Following in the same tradition, Bob Shaw has wooden spaceships crewed by ragged astronauts in the Land and Overland Trilogy. In Philip Reeve’s Larklight series, the alternate history context is provided by a British Empire now encompassing the solar system with Victorian sailing vessels powered by alchemical engines, cf the Spelljammer gaming universe.

I could go on but you should get the message that one of the two narrative threads in The Daedalus Incident by Michael J Martinez is just channelling Patrick O’Brian and recycling Philip Reeve and the film Treasure Planet (I also note a later form of shipping in a paddle steamer which appears in The Fifth Element). This latest contribution to the trope changes the alternate history context to a British Empire sailing into space using eighteenth century naval ships of the line given breathable air and gravity through alchemy. So literally half this “new” book is a rehash of old plot ideas with eighteenth century British naval life extended to include outer space and the planets which are all habitable with at least two alien species of different levels of technology established on different planets and moons. As with the majority of such space fantasy plots written during the early twentieth century, we even have a pirate ship which ferries the primary antagonist around the solar system. Although some of the detail is quite well worked out, this half of the book is rather tedious and wholly derivative. I might have forgiven the almost total lack of originality if either the plotting had been wildly inventive or the writing intentionally humorous, but the plot has nothing new and it’s written with a completely straight face. It even plays the same game as Ronald W Clark in Queen Victoria’s Bomb in which famous historical characters appear, do their thing for a few pages and take a quick bow. We should be grateful American presidents don’t break off their parochial concerns to start killing vampires.

Michael J Martinez

Michael J Martinez

The second half of the book is set in the twenty-second century on Mars with the Joint Space Command using hard science to move between the planets while commercial interests extract minerals from Mars. The tension between the military and business factions is routine. When there are unprecedented seismic events, the security forces want the mining operations suspended. Not caring how many men may be injured or killed, the hard-nosed capitalists insist on “dig, baby, dig!” Needless to say, the future world of conventional science soon collides with alternate history world of alchemy in a multiverse plot. An alien is trying to break out of an interdimensional prison and breaks down the barriers between our two human-dominated dimensions with entirely predictable results.

It’s possible to pull of such a conflation of different plot elements when the author has wit and verve. Sadly, all this is plodding and predictable. Worse, the fact-checking is deficient with a cricket match overseen by a referee. That’s like having a baseball match mediated by a judge. When Night Shade Books was collapsing financially, it seems to have bought up the rights to some first novels. They are cheap and, in an undiscriminating market, can occasionally hit the jackpot — all authors have to start somewhere. As part of the settlement with creditors and authors, Skyhorse is honouring existing contracts on modified terms. Hence The Daedalus Incident sees the light of day. Hopefully, Skyhorse will soon take a grip of the editorial process and improve the standard of the books it buys. In this I note the complete lack of information on the website under the Night Shade banner. It might gives us all greater confidence if the new owner would communicate with its readership.

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

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