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