Tuesday, 2 December 2003

Nylon Angel

Marianne de Pierres
ISBN 1-84149-253-1

Nylon Angel is set on the east coast of future Australia, in the metropolis of Vivacity. It is one of the supercities, massive conglomerations of previously existing settlements that have meshed as they grew into one another. The media control everything, manipulating the lives of the city’s citizens to win ratings and having both the money and the influence to be able to do anything they want, de facto rulers of Viva. The division between rich and poor is bigger than ever, with the less salubrious citizens of the city forced to live on the poison-laced ground where refineries and industry used to stand while the rich shelter in spotless mansions behind guards and barbed wire. With crime lords fighting for every inch of poisoned soil and a thousand-and-one hazards waiting for the unwary, life is cheap and the slums of the Tert are a dangerous place to live.

Parrish Plessis was pretty good at looking after herself, even in a place as twisted as the Tert, but when she signed up to bodyguard duty for one of the crime lords she made a big mistake. Now Jamon Mondo owns her, body and soul, and the only way someone leaves his employ is in a body bag. Desperate for a way to escape his clutches, Parrish sees her chance when one of the Network’s star reporters is assassinated. Hunting down the main suspect in the hope of linking up with his powerful employers, she finds herself quickly drawn into a world of intrigue where nothing is as it seems and everybody has an ulterior motive. On the run and hunted by just about every faction there is, Parrish discovers a far more sinister threat than the petty bickering of the gangs, as the Angel begins to unfurl its wings…

Nylon Angel is written from the point of view of Parrish Plessis, and is done so in a very easy-going, relaxed manner that makes it an effortless read. The reader is dropped straight in at the deep end, the first-person perspective meaning as-yet unexplained references to places, people and objects are common and the slang is flowing thick and fast. Marianne de Pierres’ relaxed style makes it clear enough what’s happening without understanding exactly what every word Parrish uses actually means, and clarifications are made throughout the book at a comfortable pace. By the last page the reader will be comfortable with ‘Goboys, Canrats, ‘Terros and more, and it all adds a little verisimilitude to the rough and ready world of Vivacity’s underside. On top of that, de Pierres has a talent for evocative description without descending into flowery prose and the dialogue is snappy, realistic and at times amusing.

First impressions of Nylon Angel are uninspiring – the setting seems nothing new and the first few pages portray Parrish Plessis as little more than a surly loner, short on brains and careless of other people – in other words, a stereotypical antihero. Combined with the easy-to-read style this gives the feeling that the book is going to be light on plot and depth, the author more interested in showing what a hard-ass her heroine is than developing her as a person. That feeling is wrong. Push past the first couple of chapters to the point where everything starts going seriously wrong for poor old Parrish and you see a surprising amount of characterisation emerge, both of our cyberpunk heroine and the secondary players around her.

The plot, too, develops layer after layer as the story progresses and the crises really being to pile up, the intrigue and infighting between the numerous factions becoming interesting and engaging. The only problem with the plot lies in the nasty and terrible secret that emerges during Parrish’s struggles – somehow, despite its potential ramifications for all of mankind, this aspect of the plot is underemphasized, taking a back seat to the gang warfare and failing to seem as serious as it probably should.

Nonetheless, Nylon Angel is a fun and exciting read once you get past the introductory chapters and while not being particularly original is refreshing enough to keep the pages turning at a furious rate. A well-written cliff-hanger ending makes it abundantly clear there is going to be a second book in the series, and if it is as good as the first there could be a bright future ahead of Marianne de Pierres. As such, Nylon Angel finds a welcome place on my ‘Quality Cyberpunk’ shelf.

This review was originally written for SFcrowsnest.com

The Life Eaters

David Brin and Scott Hampton
Wildstorm/DC Comics
ISBN: 1-4012-0098-2

In our world the SS of Hitler’s Third Reich were rumoured to have revived the mysticism of the old world, attempting to practise magic and believing themselves the heirs to a curious blend of knighly traditions, from Charlemagne to Arthur. In the world of ‘The Life Eaters’, the allies are in trouble – the magic worked and the troops wading ashore during D-day are met not only by tanks and gunfire but also by the living avatars of the Norse gods! As the allied forces fall back and further back and the Nazis prepare to invade North America, a small group of soldiers head into the heart of the enemy in a desperate attempt to destroy the Aesir and level the playing field…

A generation later and half the world lies under the rule of the Norse pantheon, the Nazis who summoned them no longer the masters but obeying the Aesir’s every wish. The war has expanded, pushing into every corner of the globe, but others have summoned gods of their own and now the supernatural entities duke it out on the battlefield, annihilating whole battalions. Meanwhile, a small contingent or rebels, what remains of the United Nations, struggle to banish all of the gods from Earth and return it to human rule, while in the Middle East the devoted of all religions gather, old feuds forgotten in the face of false ‘gods’.

The idea of the gods taking a hand in the Second World War is an interesting one with lots of potential, but splitting the book to cover two separate stories hampers any great depth of plot. The first third details the allied commando attack on the Aesir in WWII and despite the fact that it sets the scene and provides motivation and inspiration for the irritatingly unnamed hero it seems fairly irrelevant to the main body of the tale – a few short pages would have sufficed.

The main storyline deals with events in what is roughly the present day, as the war spirals out of control, and focuses on not the super-powered characters but on the normal everyday humans, examining the nature of heroism and arguing that it is the nobility of normal people that makes a true hero; not superhuman abilities but strength of will and determination to succeed regardless of the odds. The final showdown is dramatic and exciting, yet emphasises the story’s theme of humans as the true heroes. While characterisation throughout is skimpy at best, in a way this reinforces the idea of humanity as a whole, working to preserve their way of life and man’s place at the top of the hierarchy. Similarly, the namelessness of the main hero only serves to build on this idea of selflessness, working for something greater than one man.

There is a clever blend of science and fantasy, from the equatorial gods burning toe oilfields to speed up the greenhouse effect and fry their icy northern rivals to Ragnarok and Loki’s chosen climbing Yggdrasil to escape the dying world, although ‘The Life Eaters’ reads a little like a list of all the disparate elements David Brin took a liking to. Nazis… check. Gods and ritual magic… check. Rocket packs and mecha… check. If it were just a blend of fantasy and modern-day reality it would have worked, but the strange futuristic technology feels out of place and no explanation is ever given as to how tech in Brin’s world advanced so much faster than ours following the Second World War – realism is sacrificed on the altar of Big Shiny Robots. A shame, as apart from that the world is a realistic one, with the effect of the gods on this century’s events portrayed in a plausible and thought-provoking manner.

Scott Hampton’s art is excellent, being both detailed and realistic. There is nothing of the abstract in his work, each frame showing what is there and nothing else but doing so in vivid, intricate detail. In particular those frames showing locations and immobile objects are superb, giving each place and item an individuality and life of its own. The only place Hampton’s art fails to satisfy is in effectively giving the impression of movement, but that is a minor complaint only.

All in all this is a thoughtful and well-drawn blend of fantasy and realism, one which wins bonus points for having one of those cute ribbon bookmarks built in. Though the epilogue leaves things open for a second book, I feel there’s little that could be added and Brin’s messages of co-operation and the power of normal people have been hammered home effectively. Insightful and indifferent, ‘The Life Eaters’ will find a welcome place on my ‘Everyman Heroes’ shelf.

This review was originally written for SFcrowsnest.com

Sunday, 2 November 2003

The Word and the Void

Terry Brooks
ISBN 1-84149-266-3

‘The Word And The Void’ is a compilation of the three tales of John Ross and Nest Freemark – ‘Running With The Demon’, ‘A Knight Of the Word’, and ‘Angel Fire East’. The novels span the fifteen years between Ross’s two visits to Hopewell, Illinois, and illustrate his ongoing battle with the creatures of the Void, the very essence of evil and destruction. For Ross is a Knight of the Word, an agent of the opposing force of creation and good, and he fights to save humanity from the dark future that awaits it.

In the first and best of the three books, Ross arrives in Hopewell for the first time, hot on the trail of a demonic foe. But he has other, more sinister reasons for being there. The Knight is gifted with prophetic dreams of the apocalyptic future, and something terrible is due to unfold in this sleepy midwestern town. It is Ross’s duty to prevent that occurrence, and he enlists the aid of the young Nest Freemark who possesses no small magic of her own. As they oppose the minions of the Void, Nest will be forced to confront her own dark family past and discover the truth about her parents.

In ‘A Knight Of The Word’, five years has passed since John Ross left Hopewell. He has lost his faith and his power, forsaking his vows as a Knight, and works in the big city at a shelter for the homeless. Little does he know a demon seeks to corrupt him, turning him to the service of the Void, a fallen paladin commanding the forces of evil. Nest Freemark is dispatched by the Word to reason with him, explaining the danger he is in, but Ross is caught up in his new work and wants nothing to do with his old life. To save him Nest must reveal the all-encompassing nature of the war between the Word and the Void and bring him back to face his enemy.

In the final part of the trilogy, John Ross returns to Hopewell fifteen years after he left to seek Nest Freemark’s aid. He has captured a gypsy morph, a creature of magic that could turn the tide of the war for whoever unlocks its secret. But all the forces of the Void are mobilised against him and closing on Hopewell, where Ross must face up to his most deadly opponent yet as he struggles to solve the mystery and claim the magic for the Word.

Terry Brooks writes with skill and finesse, illustrating his world with expressive description and an eloquent, almost lyrical flow to the words. In particular he has a knack for interesting and evocative phrases and metaphors that truly bring his scenes to life. The world his characters inhabit is one very similar to our own, albeit darker and more hopeless, where the war between the Void and the Word takes place in the shadows out of the public eye but influences every aspect of daily life. It is a war for humanity’s soul, an endless battle to keep civilisation from collapsing into anarchy and terror, and the Void is winning. Brooks uses his secret war to point out the slow decay of our culture, the erosion of morality and honest values in favour of chaos and selfishness. Everywhere throughout the three books there are signs of this downslide in standards, though each one takes a particular issue as its centre – unemployment, homelessness, and drugs respectively. Each topic is well researched and the air of defeat and hopelessness excellently conveyed, and the idea of the world ending as a result of hundreds of minor, inconsequential events and failures is an interesting and original one. Brooks comments on society and its little failures are perceptive and insightful, his message clear. We think we are invulnerable but Brooks shows us the fragility of our way of life, and it is frightening.

The characterisation within all three stories is of the highest quality, with every character from the heroes and villains to relative nobodies well documented and their motivations and actions consistent. Similarly, the events that unfold during each book are straightforward and make perfect sense, the mundane and fantastic worlds meshing together nicely. The development of Nest over the fifteen years between books is particularly fascinating, almost as if you’re seeing snapshots as a girl grows into a woman. The only problem I had with the characters is Pick, the sylvan guardian of Sinnissippi Park. The idea of a foot-high man made of bark and leaves seems curiously at odds with the dark, gritty setting, and his personality reeks suspiciously of comic relief, something which shouldn’t be necessary in a series as serious and hard-hitting as this. With the exception of Findo Gast in ‘Angel Fire East’, the villains of each book remain relatively uncharacterised – the demon in the first book is never even named. However, this is no real problem, as their motivations are clear enough and they remain true to form throughout.

The style and pacing in each book is excellent, with a very slow, long build up to the final confrontation near the end of each book. The only downside to all this is that the finales themselves fail to live up to the expectations created, leaving the reader slightly let down. It’s not that they climaxes aren’t exciting, merely that they seem slightly flat after all that has come before.

The only real gripe I have with this series is that is seems unfinished. The events at the end of ‘Angel Fire East’ are inconclusive and leave the future uncertain, in a way that almost seems to invite another book. As it is you feel somewhat let down, unsatisfied by the nebulous ending. But even combined with the occasional utterly bizarre character name – a relic from Brooks’ Shannara series – this cannot spoil an utterly riveting trilogy, and so ‘The Word and the Void’ will take up a place of honour on my ‘Social Commentary’ shelf.

This review was originally written for SFcrowsnest.com

Thursday, 2 October 2003

The Gates of Dawn

Robert Newcomb
ISBN: 0-553-81454-0

Fresh from his battle with the evil Coven at the end of 'The Fifth Sorceress', Prince Tristan of Eutracia returns to his kingdom to find the land in chaos, the people lawless.

Worse, he finds himself a wanted man, for someone has put a reward on his head. Hated and reviled for his slaying of the King, Tristan is forced into hiding, his plans to rebuild the nation delayed. Forced to skulk in the tunnels beneath the capital, the prince, together with his sister and the surviving wizards of Eutracia, is reassured by one thought: things can only get better, right...?

Wrong. The lesser wizards released into the population to seek out and destroy the last remaining creatures of the Coven are themselves being hunted down, disappearing without trace and the Paragon - the gem from which all magic stems - is beginning to fail.

Without it the land will be left barren and powerless and the same fate will befall Tristan's wizard mentors. In an effort to deduce what is happening, the prince attempts to retrieve the Tome of the Paragon from the caves that house it and discovers the new threat he faces - and the terrible powers behind it. Yes, evil is once again abroad and it's up to our hero to save the day.

Having been less than impressed by the preceding book in this series, I nonetheless hoped 'The Gates Of Dawn' would be different, avoiding the faults of its predecessor. Sadly, this is not the case. Many of the complaints listed below are the same as I raised with 'The Fifth Sorceress', but never fear - there are enough new problems to justify this review.

Just as with his first novel, Robert Newcomb seems to delight in releasing upon us a veritable horde of fantasy clichés. The plot is practically the same as before, with evil seeking out Tristan and his sister before threatening the end of the human race, forcing the prince and his merry band to face it and save the world. Again, the villain of the piece remains distant, hiding behind his minions and an army of magically created soldiers.

Again, our hero is forced into an 'against the odds' confrontation with vastly superior foes yet somehow comes out on top. It would be nice to see something new, something different, but 'The Gates Of Dawn' remains formulaic throughout.

It becomes clear early on in the book that the villain suffers from 'James Bond Syndrome', ignoring or underestimating the threat the heroes present and allowing them to live when he could easily crush them, even allowing them to escape with items that could be used against him! We have come to expect this from 007's foes but in a novel trying to pass itself off as serious, gritty fantasy it is an unforgivable sin. His rather sketchily explained motives for leaving the heroes alive and intact just don't make sense.

If he needs Tristan alive, why not just keep him imprisoned and powerless? On top of that the villain's diabolical plan is - besides being effectively the same plan as the Coven from the first book employed - ridiculously intricate and unnecessarily dosed with twists and turns, an effect obviously intended by Newcomb to impress the reader with how clever his character is supposed to be, when in fact it has the opposite effect.
Which brings us nicely to another major fault. The intelligence of the characters seems to fluctuate wildly as the novel progresses. When required they develop sudden, terrible idiocy but the rest of the time the characters all seem to be incredibly, impossibly clever. The ability of both heroes and villains to leap to a correct conclusion from no information at all is something that detracts heavily from the plausibility of the characters.

This, together with the fact that characters make mention of events and creatures that they couldn't have possibly known about, sometimes seems to give the impression that spontaneous telepathy is a serious disease running rife in Newcomb's world.

The wizards Wigg and Faegan seem particularly susceptible to this terrible plague, making assumptions about their enemies and mysterious events that are uncannily accurate then explaining them away with logic so fragile it shatters under the most casual glance. Tristan, on the other hand, sometimes seems the most moronic, blindly accepting man to ever walk the earth when the wizards explain things to him.

Indeed, for huge long sections of the book he is reduced to little more than a spectator as the wizards launch into tedious and technical explanations of what's going on - incidentally enlightening the reader at the same time. In fact, it seems as if Newcomb found these soliloquies an easier way of informing his readers than actually showing them.

The generally appalling quality of the dialogue certainly doesn't help to maintain interest during these tiresome passages. Throughout 'The Gates Of Dawn', the characters' conversation is stilted and formal, employing the most unusual and inappropriate phrases in such a way that it left me shaking my head in disbelief. On top of that, each character sounds exactly alike, using the same phrases and idiosyncrasies, distinguishable only by what they say, not how they say it. Take away 'Tristan said...' and you would be hard pressed to tell the prince apart from any other character.

Yet despite all of these faults, Newcomb somehow manages to maintain interest through the first two thirds of the story. The occasional evocative scene and well-written paragraph sneak in from time to time and the potential quality is sufficient, over-riding the many flaws. Enough is kept from the reader that curiosity keeps the pages turning, the promise that something interesting may just be around the corner. Only when all is revealed does the utter failure to live up to the potential of the story itself become apparent and it's all downhill from there, a long, slippery slope to the anti-climax of the truly dire finale and the predictable closing chapter.
If I take anything away from this novel, it is a sense of terrible disappointment, betrayal of my hopes and expectations, for early on it seemed a distinct improvement on the distinctly patchy 'The Fifth Sorceress', only to be brought crashing down by the last third of the book.

The fact that it could have been so much better only makes it worse, bringing nothing but bitter regret. As such, it is with sadness that I dispatch 'The Gates Of Dawn' to my 'Squandered Promise' shelf.

This review was originally written for SFcrowsnest.com

The Fifth Sorceress

Robert Newcomb
ISBN: 0-553-81453-2

It is time for the old king to step down. The crown prince of Eutracia has reached the age of thirty and, as is traditional, he is to take the throne.

Unfortunately, Prince Tristan doesn't want to be king, preferring his rather relaxed, carefree life just the way it is. Since the banishment of the evil Coven of Sorceresses and the end of the war three hundred years ago, Eutracia has been peaceful and serene, so with the Directorate of Wizards to aid him the King has little to do but supervise the day-to-day running of the kingdom. Tristan would rather practice swordplay with the Royal Guard. If only something would happen so he didn't have to be King...

Lucky Tristan. The Coven returns at the head of an army of bat-winged soldiers, interrupting the coronation and butchering the royal family and their wizardly advisors. Kidnapping Tristan's sister and stealing the jewel from which all magic originates, the Sorceresses leave Eutracia in chaos and return to the land of their exile, intent on brainwashing Princess Shailiha and taking control of her as-yet unborn child. For Tristan and his sister are the Chosen Ones, their coming prophesied long ago by a vanished race.

So, aided by the lone surviving wizard of the Directorate, Tristan begins a race against time to rescue his sister and regain the jewel before Shailiha becomes the Fifth Sorceress and the Coven enslaves the world. On the way, he learns a lot of harsh lessons, forcing him to grow up and deal with his responsibilities.

As volume one of 'The Chronicles Of Blood And Stone' and Robert Newcomb's début novel, 'The Fifth Sorceress' can be taken as an indication of what to expect from the new author and the rest of the series. Without an established fan-base, Newcomb has to convince through the quality of his writing and the story he tells, unlike an established author resting on his laurels.

Unfortunately this does not bode well for the rest of Newcomb's work, because 'The Fifth Sorceress' is not very good, pure and simple. The plot is nothing new - ancient evil once defeated in titanic battle returns to wreak death and destruction while lone hero confronts his destiny. It has been done many times before, and done much better. On top of that, the story is filled with unlikely plot devices and convenient coincidences, not to mention logical inconsistencies that don't, despite Robert Newcomb's apparent beliefs, disappear when a character explains them away in sophistry-ridden speeches.

Therein lies another problem: Far too much background information is relayed to the reader via long, windy explanations by knowledgeable characters to ignorant ones, Newcomb not seeming to have heard of the rule 'show, don't tell'.

Now we come to the characters. Tristan himself is fairly well realised, his playboy personality and relaxed attitude to life effectively conveyed, and during the course of the book his metamorphosis to responsible maturity is slow and convincing, even if the events which cause it are not.

Sadly, the Prince is - with one exception - the only character to receive such in-depth treatment, the sorceresses that make up the main villains of the piece seeming particularly two-dimensional, while little or no motivations or explanations of their actions are made. Even the soldiers under their command, the appallingly named 'Minions of Day and Night' are more convincingly realised, a great deal of their backgrounds and culture relayed during the course of the book.

Kluge, the commander of the Minions, seems far more dangerous and far more real than the sorceresses ever do, his strengths and weaknesses almost as well explored as Tristan's.

To be fair to Robert Newcomb, 'The Fifth Sorceress' is not all bad. Much of the description of scenes and locations is well phrased and evocative and the complicated way in which all magic derives from a single gem is intriguing, if somewhat contrived to aid the plot.

The prologue is by far the best part of the book, stirring the imagination and giving the impression that the main body of the story will continue its gritty, dark flavour. However, the novel quickly descends into stilted dialogue and poorly realised characters, failing to live up to the promise of the prologue. By the time the uninspiring, bizarrely clichéd climax rolls around I found myself caring little for the fate of the characters or the world in which they live.

Clunky, unoriginal, and contrived, 'The Fifth Sorceress' is a book that brings nothing new to the genre and attempts to recycle corny old formulae as fresh and new. The novel never manages to evoke any emotion beyond a feeling of bemused confusion and at times drops into the comically ridiculous. As such, I am relegating it to my 'New clichés for old' shelf.

This review was originally written for SFcrowsnest.com

Tuesday, 2 September 2003

The Court of the Midnight King

Freda Warrington
Pocket Books
ISBN: 0-743-41567-1

Take one historical novel. Add a spoonful of Shakespeare, a handful of alternate universes and a sprinkling of ritual magic and take with a pinch of salt. There you have the recipe for 'The Court Of The Midnight King' and it's a surprisingly tasty dish.

In re-telling the tale of England's most shadowy figure, Richard the Third, Freda Warrington covers controversial ground. To this day, historians argue as to whether Richard was as evil as he is portrayed by a dozen sources, Shakespeare himself being the first and foremost and the only sure thing is that we will never know for sure.

Warrington herself seems set on acting as antidote to Richard's detractors, painting a picture of a noble, pious man forced to take the throne for the good of the country rather than out of any particular ambition. Upon the death of his brother Edward, Richard is appointed Protector of his nephew - the new 12-year-old king, also called Edward. But the boy is under the control of his mother, the Queen and her family, a corrupt, decadent clan and Richard sets the young king aside rather than see England fall into their hands.

When Edward and his brother die under mysterious circumstances, Richard is blamed. As he struggles to deal with a web of rumours destroying his popularity with nobles and commoners alike his enemies gather, massing their forces. It all comes to a head at the Battle of Bosworth Field where in reality Richard died, abandoned by his followers and out-fought by the Tudors who took the throne after him.

The inevitability of Richard's death in battle could have made this a rather depressing, pointless tale but ‘The Court Of The Midnight King' takes place in an alternate reality, one remarkably similar to ours but different enough that the future can not be taken for granted. In Warrington's world, a pagan sisterhood exists alongside Christianity, worshipping a goddess of nature and practising ritual sorcery, harnessing elemental spirits and paying court to the faerie.

It might seem that such additions would clash horribly with reality but they are woven into the fabric of the setting so skilfully that they seem entirely natural. The conflict between the sisterhood and the vastly more influential Christian church is fascinating and well written, something which would make a good topic for a novel in itself but is sadly only touched on here.

In 'The Court Of The Midnight King', the events of the War of the Roses are spun out from the viewpoint of Raphael, one of Richard's most loyal knights, and Lady Katherine, a minor noblewoman and pagan priestess whose life comes to revolve around a chance meeting with Richard in her youth. As the book progresses, Raphael begins to receive visions of Richard performing villainous deeds and of his future infamy. In a neat twist, those visions are paraphrased from scenes in Shakespeare's play, portraying the King as an incestuous child-killer.

As Raphael struggles with his loyalty to Richard, another set of visions is plaguing a modern-day history student from our reality but these visions show the good Richard from Warrington's alternate universe. Though confusing at first, this web of visions and possible futures enhances the action in the physical world and becomes clear as the book draws to a close, thanks in no small way to the clarity of the writing.
The major characters are all well described, their motivations and personalities clearly labelled, though naturally Richard himself remains somewhat mysterious throughout. While it is clear that Warrington was determined to present the King in a somewhat better light than is traditionally thought, the 'alternate universe' of the novel allows us to make up our own minds - the author merely uses the facts to show how things could have been, rather than attempting to force the reader to conform to her point of view.

The only time Warrington allows her personal opinions to surface in the book is in the Sisterhood of Auset, which despite slotting smoothly into the otherwise historically correct novel seems to have a distinctly feminist flavour to it. Women of that era had virtually no influence and certainly no overt power but this doesn't seem to agree with Warrington's philosophy so she created the Sisterhood.

'The Court Of The Midnight King' is well researched, all of its events and dates correct and the placement of characters such as the Duke of Buckingham consistent with history as we know it.

The battles of the War of the Roses take a relatively small role in the novel that belies their significance in event to follow but they are well described and show a good understanding of tactics and the chaos of combat. Likewise, the treachery and intrigues of the King's court are well portrayed, the myriad twists and turns in the plot both surprising and exciting.

Despite the occasional foray into rather suspect mysticism, particularly towards the end of the novel, this alternative portrayal of an unpopular figure blends fantasy and history smoothly and in such a way that the two harmonise rather than clash, creating a novel that is both enjoyable to read and historically sound. As such, 'The Court Of The Midnight King' finds a place on my 'intellectually stimulating' shelf.

This review was originally written for SFcrowsnest.com

Monday, 4 August 2003

The Return of Santiago

Mike Resnick
Tor Books
ISBN: 0-765-30224-1

Danny Briggs is a small-time thief on a planet run by the rigid, totalitarian democracy. When things get too hot for him, he flees to the Inner Frontier, inadvertently stumbling across the original manuscript for a poem immortalising the greatest of that lawless area's characters, the infamous Santiago.

Reading the poem, Danny realises the outlaw's greatest secret: Santiago was no villain but a revolutionary who devoted his life to fighting the Democracy and ensuring the freedom of the Inner Frontier.

With the Democracy beginning to gather its forces once more, Danny realises the time has come for Santiago to return and begins a search that draws the attention of some of the most dangerous and notorious figures in the galaxy. Flitting from planet to planet in a whistle-stop tour of the Inner Frontier, each step takes him closer to his goal. Meanwhile, he has to deal with bounty hunters and policemen determined to bring him to justice any way they can.

Though technically a sequel, ‘The Return Of Santiago’ stands up well by itself, avoiding the unqualified references to previous characters and events that would make reading the original a necessity. On top of that, the quality of Resnick's writing combined with a light subject matter and limited depth makes this book extremely easy to read, if not exactly a page-turner.

'Space-opera' is an inadequate way of describing the feel of this novel but like that genre it has a mild, light-hearted feel to it, one greatly reinforced by the lack of any graphic sex or violence. There is no grit, no great attempt at realism and while this makes it more readable, it also makes it more forgettable. There is no hard SF, no explanation of how the technology works, it is simply there in the background.

If I had to classify ‘The Return Of Santiago’, it would be as a 'space-western'. Once Danny enters the Inner Frontier every sentence cries out for a Stetson to be cocked rakishly over one eye, and to be fair to Mike Resnick his description is very good, creating scenes straight out of 'A Fistful of Dollars'.
The characters are even named as cowboys and Indians: the One-Armed Bandit, the Rough Rider, Virgil Soaring Hawk and many more. Together with the saloons, casinos and gunfighters that litter the Inner Frontier, this combines to make a rather enjoyable setting that pokes sly fun at the Western genre, though I began to find Resnick's vast overuse of the word 'formidable' as a character description extremely annoying.
Unfortunately ‘The Return Of Santiago’ suffers from the same problem as the westerns it parodies, which is that its characters lack any real depth. Understandable really, as a good proportion of the individuals Danny Briggs meets are killed in the chapter they're introduced in - and these ain't long chapters.

However, with the exception of the hero Danny Briggs even those characters who survive long enough to properly influence the plot are only minimally fleshed-out, their motivations unexplained. As such, the twists in the tale sometimes seem unreasonable as the individuals involved switch sides and change their minds for no apparent reason.

While the ending of ‘The Return Of Santiago’ seemed obvious after the first quarter of the book, there were several points where that ending was in doubt and the heroes seemed doomed. How do you defeat the invincible gunman? Simple, find a better one.

So a certain amount of deus ex machina was unavoidable but thankfully kept to a minimum. Unfortunately, as in most westerns, the outcome of each showdown between gunslingers was obvious long before one fighter hit the dirt and I found that sense of inevitability robbed each scene of a great deal of suspense.

A light piece of work, ‘The Return Of Santiago’ was enjoyable enough but unexceptional. True, it was fun to see cowboys in space but the lack of any real depth to the characters and a predictable plot spoils an interesting concept. Still, it was pleasant enough to read and mildly entertaining. ‘The Return Of Santiago’ will find a place on my 'for a rainy day' shelf.

This review was originally written for SFcrowsnest.com

Thursday, 17 July 2003

The Science of Discworld II: The Globe

Terry Pratchett, Ian Stewart, and Jack Cohen
Ebury Press
ISBN: 0-091-88805-0

Usually, the sight of the words ‘The Science of…’ in the title of a book fills me with dread, heralding hundreds of pages of dreary explanation on how the sliding doors on Star Trek worked, or whether warp drive may some day be possible. Having read the original ‘Science of Discworld’ book, however, I knew that this wasn’t the case. Instead, Pratchett takes his readers on a tour of hard science, using the context of the Discworld books to explain what makes reality tick.

 Just like its predecessor, ‘The Globe’ mixes alternate chapters of a Discworld short story with the scientific ramblings of Pratchett and his co-novelists, usually with the fiction setting the scene for whatever part of the scientific spectrum the authors want to talk about. In the first book this worked quite well, as the wizards of Unseen University accidentally created our universe and began exploring its (to them) bizarre rules. I was curious to see whether ‘The Globe’ could live up to such high standards.

 Focusing more on humanity and the world we live in than the first book, the scientific chapters lean heavily towards discovering what makes the human mind tick, exploring it in numerous different ways. At the core of it all is Pratchett’s belief in stories, how the tendency of the human mind to see patterns in everything and apply them to the world outside has influenced the way human society has evolved. The first few scientific chapters skip merrily from topic to topic, covering along the way the ethics of cloning, quantum mechanics, and a quick history of early scientists. It’s not exactly light reading material, but easy enough to follow, though in places Pratchett makes reference to concepts from the first book and expects his reader to understand, an obviously irritating habit for those who haven’t read the original ‘Science of Discworld’.

Once again, the ‘interspersed chapters’ format works well; just when you feel your mind can’t take any more, you hit a section of fiction and can let that overworked organ relax a little. The writing is good, as you might expect from an author of Terry Pratchett’s calibre, but you can’t help but feel that the fiction is little more than a distraction from the real science, rather than being integrated with it. Nonetheless it bears all the best qualities of the early Discworld books; funny, easy to read, and offering a refreshingly twisted view of the world.

It is towards the middle of the book that ‘The Globe’ begins to encounter problems. The science becomes muddled and sometimes descends into pidgin psychology, and you can’t help but see that this is Pratchett’s own interpretation of the way things could have been, rather than solid fact. Despite my own fairly extensive grounding in science, I found several chapters difficult to follow and began to lose interest, something that isn’t the best of signs in a book written for the layman. Without a doubt Pratchett expects his reader to be intelligent, well educated and well informed, but even so, I’d suggest reading slowly and taking notes.

The difficulty eases up towards the end of the book, and I found myself genuinely interested in the science once more. Religion, art and music all get the Pratchett treatment, their development and the way they affected the growth of society explained clearly and entertainingly. The fiction sections continue at a high standard throughout, and the last two chapters mesh well, providing a well-rounded end to the book.

Despite not living up to the quality of the first ‘Science of Discworld’, ‘The Globe’ is an entertaining and thought-provoking trawl through the origins of human society, and if I found myself wishing occasionally for the end of the chapter and the next section of fiction, what of it? It only goes to show the quality of Pratchett’s storytelling.