Tuesday, 2 November 2004

The Well of Yearning

Caiseal Mór
Pocket Books
ISBN: 0-7434-6856-2

In the Ireland of a thousand years ago, the mundane and the magnificent are part of life. While Norman conquerors raise their banner over the rebellious natives, otherworldly things watch from the bogs and the shadowy forests.

A young monk and his ailing master come to the Emerald Isle in search of a heretical manuscript, held by a community of religious outcasts. At the same time, the greedy and shadow-hearted knight Guy d’Alville begins his attempts to carve a kingdom of his own, and revenge himself on his rival, Robert FitzWilliam. When his depredations lead to the release of the malevolent Nathairai from their centuries-old prison, he finds himself forced into the service of the Queen of the Night, Aoife, as she prepares to unleash her army of daemons on the mortal world.

“The Well of Yearning” is an odd little thing, flitting from coarse and irreverent humour to historical exposition to Monty Python surrealism as if unsure where to rest.

Narrated in a traditional oral fashion, it is blissfully easy to read and coloured throughout by the storyteller’s opinions and sly asides to the reader. This unconventional style does little to disguise the story’s shortcomings, however. Rather limp and uninspired, the basic premise relies too heavily on cliché for support, and on the unpredictable nature of the Otherworld’s residents to magick it out of the narrative cul-de-sacs it ends up in time and time again. Just because they’re be-fanged and monstrous eaters of men (and women, of course) doesn’t mean that the needs of the plot take precedence over their own personalities and apparent motivations, does it?

Plot-holes and unlikely changes of heart aside, “The Well of Yearning” isn’t too bad really. While the style takes some getting used to it’s certainly different, and once the narrator’s in full flow it has a delightfully personal feel to it, one that can also be found in the traditional Irish myths the novel draws so heavily on. A nice touch, granting the book mythological authenticity.

The historical background for the novel is accurate enough for a fantasy Ireland, the presence of magical swords and evil spirits always allowing a little more leeway in the accuracy stakes than is granted, say, a Bernard Cornwell tale. If the political and cultural issues that plagued the Emerald Isle are given only a cursory glance in favour of the demons and evil queens, that’s fair enough. It’s up to the author, after all, where the emphasis lies.

Except… much of the latter half of the book – excluding the occasional off-topic ramble on, for example, the art of cheese-making – is devoted to untangling the most unlikely of twists. This unexpected turn of events has nothing to do with the otherworldly armies or monsters that are by then rampaging across the land, but instead revolves around a stranger’s return from the crusades. Ill-conceived and out of place, it feels like an afterthought, yet somehow manages to override the greater issues at hand. Much of the build-up and suspense, such as it is, is lost in the process, leaving the reader asking, “Yes? Now what?”

Combine this confused focus with acts of what must be unintentional comedy of the most surreal kind (the most obvious offender is a scene where one of the Nathairai, giant and monstrous snake-things with the intelligence and emotional maturity of an eight-year-old on crack, pauses halfway through a meal of Norman mercenaries to flirt coquettishly with Guy d’Alville) and you’ve got a book which doesn’t seen to know where it belongs and, at times, defies all logic or sanity. That it suffers from these faults and still somehow manages to be an entertaining, enjoyable read only makes it more frustrating. It’s a tribute to the author’s skill, really, but just think of what he would be capable if he could stop chasing his tail long enough to write a decent story…

Intriguing, inexplicable, bizarre and occasionally beautiful, “The Well of Yearning” is very much a mixed bag of nuts. It gets by solely on the strength of the writing, its logic-defying core threatening to tip it into the mire at any moment. Yet somehow the novel comes through clean and crisp and smelling of roses, so I’ll grant it a place – hell, a whole shelf to itself. “All style, no substance.” Somehow I doubt it’ll be joined there any time soon.

At least until the sequel arrives, that is.

This review was originally written for SFcrowsnest.com

The Scrolls of the Ancients

Robert Newcomb
Bantam Press
ISBN: 0-593-04963-2

The third and apparently final book in Robert Newcomb’s ‘Chronicles of Blood and Stone’, ‘The Scrolls of the Ancients’ sees our hero Prince Tristan and his entourage once again assailed by the servants of darkness.

Following the collapse of the Gates of Dawn and the death of Tristan’s villainous son, you’d think that the crown prince and his surviving wizards would be busy rebuilding their shattered realm. Nope, apparently the effort of putting paid to Nicholas’ nefarious schemes was a bit much for them, and while the people of Eutracia suffer hunger and banditry we find our gallant hero and his friends shacked up in the royal palace, enjoying a little R&R.

Only when their card game is rudely interrupted by the megalomaniacal Krassus, master of the sinister arts of the Vagaries, does their bubble burst. After handily defeating the combined might of the protagonists, Krassus in his gloating reveals a new and deadly threat to the world.

Prince Tristan and his sister Shailiha are the Chosen Ones, but unbeknownst to them another exists to rival them; their lost half-brother Wulfgar. If Krassus were to find him, he could use the newly uncovered power of the Scroll of the Vagaries to turn him to the dark side and destroy the benevolent magic of the Vigours forever! Gasp!

After giving his helpless enemies his annotated plans for world domination, Krassus departs in dramatic fashion, leaving the heroes unharmed. Hot on his tail Tristan and co. begin the search for Wulfgar and the other Scroll of the Ancients, in an attempt to thwart the archwizard’s schemes.

Their hunt will take them from Eutracia’s poverty-stricken capital to the hidden pirate fortress of Sanctuary and beyond, as the climatic confrontation with the servants of the Vagaries draws inevitably nearer. Featuring demons, birdmen, pirates and exploding herbs, the adventures of Tristan must be seen to be believed.

Never a truer sentence was written. Some part of me deep inside wonders if Robert Newcomb’s books and ‘the Scrolls of the Ancients’ in particular are some sort of incredibly sophisticated satire attempt. If that should be the case, then labelling ‘The Chronicles of Blood and Stone’ as serious fantasy was the most inspired marketing decision this world has ever seen.

As it is, the series’ concluding novel is the most head-shakingly, hair-tearingly, book-hurlingly diabolical excuse for literature I’ve ever had the misfortune to read. It is the written equivalent of ‘Plan 9 from Outer Space’, only Ed Wood had a better grasp of plot and dialogue. There is no way any reader could make it to the last page with their sanity intact; what that says for me, I’m not sure. ‘The Scroll of the Ancients’ has hit the barrier marked ‘point of no return’ and carried on accelerating, past ‘so bad it’s good’ and on into uncharted territory.

Lets start with the characters. These are no living, breathing individuals, complete with their own hopes, fears and idiosyncrasies. Instead we have a collective of cardboard cutouts whose sole reason for existence is to prod the narrative in the right direction.

Tristan, for example, is a paragon of virtue with the emotional range of a brick wall. He exists simply to dish out bloody and unrealistic violence and give the wizards Wigg and Faegan cue to begin another chapter-length block of expositionary dialogue. Krassus, on the other hand, is a pantomime villain in the most traditional sense, complete with insane laughter, random acts of senseless cruelty, and no redeeming features whatsoever. There are no attempts to grant him any particular humanity, or explain his actions. He is Evil (with a capital ‘e’), and that’s enough.

In real life there are shades of grey, but in Robert Newcomb’s world everything is black or white, good or bad. More than anything else this lack of human ambiguity in either heroes or villains makes it impossible to empathise with the characters, or even care about the events unfurling.

The supporting cast are no better. Either they act as humanoid milestones marking Tristan’s bloody progress through the novel or they exist as lesser replicates of our hero, fulfilling his twin duties of slaying and stupidity when the prince royal is unavailable. Only the wizards are exempt, for they serve a different purpose. They must ensure that the reader (via the transparent mechanism of informing their selectively idiotic companions) understands in intricate and soul-sapping detail every tiniest aspect of how the unusual magic system works. I can only imagine that Robert Newcomb somehow grew so enamoured of his creation that he mistakenly believed his readers would prefer great swathes of the book devoted to its workings, rather than to the plot.

In fact, it seems as though the author is fascinated by minutiae in general. To give him credit the descriptive writing in ‘the Scroll of the Ancients’ is above par, occasionally surprising the reader with an elegantly turned phrase or an evocative image. Newcomb overdoes it, though, and as such the half-page description of a character’s clothing in the middle of a battle scene is enough to break the mood before it’s really got started. Outside of combat it gets even worse, with – among other things – the step-by-step process for separating different types of magical herb relayed in coma-inducing detail. This level of description is admirable but ultimately counter-productive, destroying any reader immersion and leaving one frustrated.

While the plot that drives it all is a far-reaching and ambitious one that in the right hands could provide a solid foundation for a novel, in this case it is criminally mismanaged. To stay afloat ‘The Scroll of the Ancients’ relies on the ability of each and every character to second-guess their opponents with uncanny and ridiculous accuracy, as well as some truly nonsensical behaviour on both sides. It is the story that drives the characters, not the other way around. This, combined with inconsistencies and logic flaws a child could see, is what sinks the ship.

As the book drew to a close and I counted the remaining pages with glee, several major issues remained unresolved. As the unread paragraphs grew fewer and fewer it became apparent that these matters would, in fact, never be brought to a conclusion. This seems a very bizarre thing in what is supposed to be the series’ final book, not least because the entire trilogy has been laying the groundwork for certain events. There have been prophecies and omens and no end of discussion, but then… nothing. On top of that at least one unrequited romance and one major villain remain outstanding, as though the author totally forget about them. The only thing I can think of is that there is to be a further book in the series; the alternative is just too unlikely. As you may imagine, this strange absence of any kind of closure makes the novel even more frustrating than ever.

Possessing of some decent writing, ‘the Scrolls of the Ancients’ is nonetheless damaged beyond any hope of recovery by poor characterisation, non-existent pacing and truly abominable dialogue. Perfectly balanced between idiotic, boring and frustrating, this book should be avoided like a particularly virulent plague – unless you liked the first two, of course, in which case I can only hope the disease isn’t catching. I’d prefer never to see the book again, keeping painful flashbacks to a minimum, but if I were forced to place it in my collection, it would be on the shelf entitled ‘abandon hope, all ye who enter here’.

You have been warned.

This review was originally written for SFcrowsnest.com

Saturday, 2 October 2004

Code Noir

Marianne de Pierres
ISBN: 1-84149-257-4)

Following on from the events of 'Nylon Angel', 'Code Noir' sees our punk heroine, Parrish Plessis, become further tangled in the complicated politics of the slum city known as the Tert. After the gang war that led to the deaths of two major crimelords, Parrish finds herself in an unwanted position of power, forced to take control before someone else does. Still wanted for the murder of the media darling Razz Retribution, she needs all the protection she can get but finds that a ganglord's power can go a long way towards improving the lives of the Tert's diseased and drug-addicted inhabitants.

To add to Parrish's troubles, the fanatical aborigine Loyl Daac still seeks to regain control over his tribe's ancestral lands - territory the Tert happens to be slap-bang in the middle of. His attempts to harden his people to the poisoned soil through gene alteration have released the Eskaalim, a parasitic organism long dormant in humanity's DNA. Parrish is infected and the creature is slowly eroding her humanity, feeding on aggression and lust as it twists her genetic coding into something totally alien. Unless she can find a way to stop it her fate is sealed. Like the ganglord Jamon Mondo, whose unnatural aggression caused the war, she will become a monster.

As Parrish struggles to resist the Eskaalim's effects another problem lands straight in her lap. The Cabal Coomera, the sinister sect to whom Parrish owes her life, need her to recover four of their kidnapped shamans. But the mystics are only the first to vanish in what turns out to be the opening shot of a spiritual war that will again shake the Tert to its foundations, sending Parrish on a quest into the darkest heart of the
criminal underworld, the slum town of Dis. As Parrish searches through its bizarre and twisted streets, she will discover the root of a conspiracy that reaches beyond the slums into the pristine opulence of Viva City itself, where the media rule supreme...

Sounds confusing? Trust me, it is. Throughout the novel, Marrianne De Pierres weaves a bewildering array of plot threads together and just as in real life they twist up into a great tangled ball. Threads split and merge, twisting back and forth as revelations come and go. So much is going on at once that it's difficult to grasp just what's happening at any one time. Refreshingly unpredictable, yet not so much that realism is sacrificed, 'Code Noir' delivers fast-paced tension and futuristic cool by the bucket-load.

Written in the first person, 'Code Noir' uses Parrish's perspective to relay the story. Her emotions and knowledge vividly colour the tale and she is often struggling to keep up with the numerous twists and turns, reacting to events as they unfold in a desperate attempt to remain in control of the situation. De Pierre's heroine is an impressive piece of work, fully realised in all her contradictions from the tough-girl façade to her weakness for children and small animals. While none of the novel's other characters are as complex or well-rounded, they still pass as convincing human beings. A great many, however, seem to have been imagined from the more mentally unstable end of the gene-pool, possessing traits ranging from fanaticism to full blown psychosis. Clearly the future is lacking in reliable therapists.

While the first half-dozen chapters are concerned with Parrish's attempts at damage control as she struggles to keep her newly obtained territory and her own skin intact, it is the trek into Dis that takes up the majority of the book and for good reason. Parrish is forever getting side-tracked, running into old acquaintances and obligations that often tie in a little too conveniently to the main plot. Much is made of foreshadowing and while most is good, De Pierres is occasionally a little heavy-handed, inserting give-away clues to later events. The retroactive insertion of one or two details that one would have thought important enough to mention in the first book is a little irritating, but something forgivable.

Less so is the bewildering chaos that begins to set in once Parrish reaches Dis itself and becomes involved in a spiritual conflict between the Cabal and a particularly nasty voodoo shaman. This newly introduced mystical side refuses to mesh well with the cyberpunk setting, instead giving the end of the book a messy, confused feel. Why was there no mention of shamanism's sudden substantiation before? It becomes the central theme of 'Code Noir', but it feels out of place in this high-tech, fancy-free world.

At its best, when dealing with the dark unpleasantries of life in the Tert, 'Code Noir' flounders when it strays into new and fantastic territory. By the finale, things are back on track and the writing is vivacious enough that it is easy to forgive the novel's occasional fault. So I place 'Code Noir' on my 'genre-blurring' shelf and await the third instalment.

This review was originally written for SFcrowsnest.com

Wednesday, 1 September 2004

On Spec: The Canadian Magazine Of The Fantastic vol 16 no. 1 (#56)

Copper Pig Writers Society.
ISSN: 0843-476X.

This particular issue of 'On Spec' is a mix of unusual non-generic fiction and non-fiction articles, though the magazine leans heavily in favour of the former. Just to be contrary, however, I'll give the non-fiction a quick once-over before moving on to the meat of the magazine.

Issue 56 boasts an editorial that imparts to the reader everything that stand-up comedy can teach writers about writing. A tenuous link at the best of times and the editorial suffers a little by it. All told, this is little more than submission guidelines for aspiring writers plus jokes. The points it raises are valid and will generally be useful for those rising stars of prose who have as yet managed - somehow - to avoid such rules.

The only other official non-fiction is a dialogue discussing the merits of 'The Lord Of The Rings' films. Frankly the debate will sail merrily over the heads of anybody lacking a substantial knowledge of cinematography, both its history and technicalities. This seems like it belongs in a degree-level Film Studies course, not in a magazine dedicated to fantasy - only through the nature of the films under discussion is any link maintained. The article seems more interested in discussing the trilogy's cinematic merit rather than its success or failure as an adaptation of the genre's pivotal work.

Classified as fiction yet giving the impression of a very tongue-in-cheek non-fiction article, we'll call 'Alternative Therapy For Your Computer' from Karl Johanson a crossover piece and leave it at that. In brief, it explains how homeopathic and spiritual remedies can be used to clear up your PC's bugs and crashes. As a satire of alternative medicine it performs admirably and is guaranteed to raise a chuckle or two, but the piece lacks subtlety for the most part. The author's need to explain for the hard-of-thinking those jokes that aren't blindingly obvious is particularly irritating in places.

Oh well, on to the real fiction. Nine pieces ranging from half a side to near twenty pages, their quality as variable as their length. Trailing the pack is Michael Brockington's 'Jumpstart Heart', a bizarre and jumbled piece with a sideline in time-travel via the second law of thermodynamics. That's about all I could grasp from the story - everything else blurs together in a nonsensical mess, though the dialogue is fairly sharp. 'Printed Matter' from Cliff Burns is a little better, at least managing to maintain a sense of coherence. Taking the form of one correspondent's side of a conversation-by-post, it suffers from the unpleasant character that the letters reveal. The even more depraved silent partner in these dialogues comes across well through the responses he generates, a sign of good writing on Burns' part, but the material itself is not up to par.

A great step upwards in terms of quality, Catherine MacLeod's 'Stick House' is a strange tale of death delayed and the problems that creates. The situation is little more than window dressing. It's the relationship between the narrator and her lover that takes centre stage, portrayed with touching sincerity and an impressive talent for creating memorable phrases. 'View Of A Remote Country' by Karen Traviss, on the other hand, is difficult to read but rewarding. Its everyman hero is somebody easily identified with and while the tale is slow, the dialogue has an air of realism about it.

At only half a page and a couple of hundred words, 'Ribbons Lightning' by Joanne Merriam is over before it's really got going. As a snapshot it succeeds, painting a picture both beautiful and dark with admirable brevity.

Todd Bryanton's 'Ruby Bloom' is, by contrast, one of the longer pieces. An intriguing glimpse into the life of a psychotic, it is made even more fascinating by taking the point of view of the patient himself. I'm not going to spoil the twist ending which throws the whole story into a new light, but suffice to say that the reader is kept guessing throughout. The depiction of paranoia and numerous other psychoses are also excellently done. It all seems to make so much sense, from the patient's point of view.

Six down, three to go. 'Reunion' is up next, by Jack Skillingstead. Like most of the pieces in this magazine it's unconventional to say the least. Something of a redemption story as a cold-hearted businessman revisits his past in a very accurate sense of the word. The story feels somewhat padded out with over-exacting description but the characterisation is solid as a rock and the plot's clever enough to make it an absorbing read.

'Resurrection Radio' from Patrick Johanneson is another quality piece. Thought-provoking and original, it's a fresh look at spirituality from a very down to earth position, written with real empathy. Its ending is particularly intelligent, the sort of thing to send you back to the beginning hunting for clues. Suddenly, it's staring you in the face, but you'd never suspect. Foreshadowing at its best.

Last but not least, we have 'Seven Years' by Megan Crewe. Another of the short pieces, it nonetheless manages with remarkable economy to outdo the other works in this magazine. A bittersweet moment from the life of a Frankenstein-esque scientist, it is poignant to the point of heartbreak. A shame it's not longer but then, maybe, that would have spoiled it. Either way, I'd like to read more of Crewe's work which means it has to be a success.

So there you go. A mixed bunch but sound overall and containing a couple of gems that give it enough lustre to catch the eye and keep you interested. If you can get your hands on this, I'd suggest you do so. There's certainly nothing of the conventional about On Spec #56.

This review was originally written for SFcrowsnest.com

Sunday, 1 August 2004

Sirius The Dog Star

Edited by Martin H. Greenberg and Alexander Potter
ISBN: 0-7564-0186-0)

'Sirius The Dog Star' is a compilation of short pieces by authors intending to place the spotlight firmly on their canine friends and the majority of the stories in this book fulfil that remit admirably. However, there are one or two where the presence of the dog seems little more than an afterthought, with little impact on the tale itself as if the author wrote the story on request rather than out of a genuine love of man's best friend. As such, the quality of the stories vary wildly from the good to the truly awful and the anthology itself becomes a rather average hit-and-miss affair. Nonetheless, the best of the fiction within makes this a worthwhile read, if not a vital buy.

Things begin well with a pair of stories from Tanya Huff and Julie Czerneda that show an impressive ability to convey an animal's point of view on Huff's part and Czerneda's knack for creating imaginative, emotionally complex situations. Fiona Patton's 'Heartsease' is less enjoyable, a garbled and overly explanatory account of psychic powers among four close-knit families in the vicinity of Lake Ontario. India Edghill brings the first quarter of the book to a close with an interesting piece called 'A Spaniel For The King' about the succession of the English crown following the death of Charles II. How it qualifies for a place in a Science Fiction compilation is not clear, but it's nonetheless a good read, well written and engaging.

Stephen Leigh is next up, with a truly impressive piece of writing that examines the moral implications of tinkering with the genetic makeup of animals. Given a rudimentary intelligence, Leigh's Enhanced Canines (E.C.s or Easies) labour like slaves for humanity. When random breeding results in Madra, whose intelligence places him far above his peers, the supervising scientists consider whether they have the right to destroy him as a threat, unaware that the choice is no longer entirely in their hands... Speculative, original and entertaining, the story ends in a cracking cliff-hanger that will have you tearing your hair out in frustration.

'After The Fall,' a sort of 'Christmas Carol' with dogs and strange fey creatures is up next. Kristine Kathryn Rusch creates a readable if derivative piece here, but there is little to set it above the masses. Rosemary Edghill fares less well, her short story 'Final Exam' based upon ideas that seem at best ill-conceived and at worst ludicrous. Even ignoring the highly suspect premise, the story is uninspiring and limited in scope - the worst tale in this compilation.

Thankfully, Bernie Arntzen's 'Precious Cargo' quickly puts 'The Dog Star' back on track. Funny and engaging, this tale of interstellar traders transporting a batch of genetically engineered puppies to their new owner is filled with memorably scribed scenes and clever twists, while the dialogue is sharp and witty. Light-hearted and guaranteed to raise a giggle, this is the best of the many stories in 'Sirius' and together with Stephen Leigh's 'Among The Pack Alone', mentioned earlier, makes the book worth buying.

'Hair Of The Dog' by Doranna Durgin and 'All The Virtues' from Mickey Zucker Reichert represent another trough in the erratic line of quality. The former reads like an excerpt from a larger tale, making references to characters and events that have no real bearing on this short story yet which seem far more significant than what occurs within. As such, it is hard to keep track of what's going on amid all the confusion and easy to lose interest. 'All The Virtues', on the other hand, goes too far in the opposite
direction, taking the form of an extended flashback heavy with exposition. Dulled by the unnecessary detail, the story itself is a simple and lifeless one that seems totally out of place in a Science Fiction compilation.

The next tale in the compilation is one of a private detective hired to recover a missing experiment, a genetically engineered dog with human intelligence. 'Dog Gone' is somewhat pulp in style, John Zakour's writing light-hearted and pleasant to read. The case is rather easily solved however and limited by the length of the tale is lacking the twists and turns which make a good detective story.

'Life's A Bichon', despite its terrible pun-title is an entertaining piece of dark storytelling from Bethlyn Damone. A naïve city man finds himself caught up in a werewolf hunt with a difference, one that will change the way he looks at the world forever. Nicely written and with an interesting twist on the usual werewolf myths as well as a handful of other good ideas. It is an engaging if short read. The next tale, 'Keep The Dog Hence' by Jane Lindskold, continues the supernatural theme with a dark little chronicle of a pack of ghostly hunting dogs that take revenge on the owner of a mistreated mongrel. The writing is good and reflects the changing moods of the piece - sinister and chilling in places, sympathetic in others, gritty in the rest.

Finishing off the supernatural triumvirate, 'Snow Spawn' is a confusing jumble of ideas that revolve around a violent trapper and his broken-spirited wife after he kills her pet dog. A blizzard descends on the cabin, and a great white dog appears... After that, things get too bizarre to follow and while the writing is evocative the story is a bewildering mess that defies any attempts to make sense of it.

The penultimate tale is 'Improper Congress' by Elaine Quon, an amusing piece that should serve as a warning of just how badly things can go wrong when a transporter malfunctions. Certainly novel, the story is short and sweet, though the future-slang is somewhat irritating and overused.

Finally, we reach 'Huntbrother' by Michelle West, by far the longest story in the book, telling of a young noblewoman whose love perishes in a far away war. However, her beau is granted one night of release from death, one night with his true love and it is on that night, filled with their god's power, that their son is conceived. 'Huntbrother' is the story of that child, Stephen, and how he grows to fulfil his destiny as the son of the god Bredan. Slow to start and overly concerned from time to time with the unremarkable daily events in his life, the story is nonetheless a powerful one, detailing the conflicts as the young mother struggles to bring up her son. The world they inhabit is a fascinating one, renaissance-like in its social setting yet curiously medieval in other ways. By the end of the account, as Stephen faces the first true test of his semi-divinity in a brutally fast-paced and climatic finale, the reader finds themselves absorbed and intrigued. The only major qualm I had with 'Huntbrother' is that, once again, it reads as though taken from a much larger story, leaving the tale curiously truncated as though it were merely the opening chapter of some great saga. Still, as an incentive to search out Michelle West's other novels it is very effective and a solid piece of work.

Despite the occasional misfire, 'Sirius: The Dog Star' is a readable collection of tales. A couple of standout pieces keep it afloat where otherwise it might have sunk and while a few of the stories seem only tangentially dog-related, they may be forgiven. All in all, 'Sirius' is a worthy addition to my 'just makes the grade' shelf.

This review was originally written for SFcrowsnest.com

Friday, 7 May 2004

The Darkness That Comes Before

R. Scott Bakker
Simon and Schuster UK
ISBN: 0-7432-5668-9

Two thousand years have passed since the destruction of the old world and mankind has rebuilt what it can. The No-God that brought about the First Apocalypse has long been forgotten, those who warn of his influence dismissed as scaremongers and paranoid fools. The game of politics is the primary concern now, not the invisible agents of an ancient and vanquished foe, and as the Shriah of the Thousand Temples declares a Holy War against the infidel the nations jostle for position.

Amid the political manoeuvring and the religious fanaticism, however, something darker is beginning. For the first time, one of the schools of magic has allied itself with the men of the Thousand Temples, those who would burn them at the stake. What do they want? Are they there to help or hinder the Holy War? The heir to a kingdom destroyed two thousand years ago has stepped into the limelight, claiming dreams of the Holy City, and joined the crusade. But he is the prophesised harbinger of the Second Apocalypse, and as the fate of the Holy War hangs in the balance the servants of the No-God move freely among the devout and the blasphemous alike, forgotten by all but a few…

In “The Darkness That Comes Before” R. Scott Bakker has begun something extraordinary. The world he has created is a fully functioning mirror to our own, intricate and detailed. It is at once familiar and alien, filled with both commonplace reality and fantastic wonder, the characters who inhabit it as human in their flaws and virtues as any one of us, but also capable of strange and terrible things. The situations they find themselves in strike a chord with the reader in their gritty realism, yet are still capable of provoking awe and horror as the author requires. This is a real world, populated by real men and women, yet it is at the same time a place where miraculous and terrifying things can happen. Being able to create such a living, breathing, and above all natural framework within which the magic can still flow from the page unhindered is a rare talent, and R. Scott Bakker clearly has it in abundance.

As the first part of a larger tale, “The Darkness That Comes Before” is obviously concerned a great deal with setting the scene and introducing the characters. While this could have rendered this first book rather tedious, the exposition is slowly and skilfully blended with the action and while this does slow the pace of the tale it never brings it to a dead halt, and the background information interesting enough in itself that boredom is never going to be a problem.

The only negative point that could be raised about this novel is a small thing, really – there is no real sense of completion as the book draws to a close, no milestone passed. As a teaser designed to keep the reader keen for the second book it also fails – there’s no cliffhanger to hold you, either. The book ends seemingly in mid-stride, as though cut inadvertently short. Like one of those advert breaks that interrupt your favourite TV program halfway through a scene, it is an inexplicable thing.

Despite the cut-off ending, I’ll be eagerly awaiting the next book in the series purely on the strength of the writing and the tightly wound plot, so no real damage is done. This minor flaw can do little to offset the sheer scope of the novel, how it is as the same time both epic in scale and deeply personal to the characters involved. R. Scott Bakker writes with an effortless and refreshing style that brings the images evoked straight to the mind’s eye, while the material is philosophical in nature and intellectually fascinating. As such, “The Darkness That Comes Before” is granted a place of honour on my ‘When does the next one arrive?’ shelf, and a space beside it lies empty, waiting for book two.

This review was originally written for SFcrowsnest.com

Saturday, 1 May 2004


L. E. Modesitt Jr.
ISBN: 0-765-30704-9

This second volume in the Corean Chronicles starts, as you would expect, where the first left off. The immortal ruler of Madrien has fallen and that country is no longer a threat to the beleaguered Iron Valleys. Alucius, now a Captain in the Valleys Militia, longs for nothing more than to return to his wife and farmstead in the wintry north, but it seems greater things are in store for him. The war with Madrien has bankrupted Alucius’ small country and when the larger nation of Lanachrona begins raiding across the border the Iron Valleys cannot afford food, arms or wages for its men and has no choice but to accept the rule of Lanachrona’s Lord Protector.

With the Militia absorbed into Lanachrona’s armies, Alucius finds himself and his men marching east to defend that country’s ally, Deforya, from the forces of a barbarian invader who would conquer all of Corus. Treated as expendable by his new commanders, Alucius and his men find themselves fighting ancient magical beasts thought little more than legends. Struggling to deal with threats from all sides, Alucius learns more about the Corus’ dark history and the sinister powers behind the shadow that threatens to overwhelm the continent. Forced to fight to protect the quiet life he longs for, Alucius becomes embroiled in an ancient conflict between good and evil and finds himself battling for the survival of life itself…

‘Darknesses’ is, I am happy to report, a significant improvement on the first book in the Corean Chronicles. While being - at least at first - a typical story of fantasy warfare, it cuts out much of the tedious description of everyday minutiae which plagued ‘Legacies’ and instead concentrates on the action, whether it be battle, intrigue, or Alucius’s worries about the future of both his men and his country under a new ruler.

However, in the latter the reader is granted only slight insight into the hero’s thoughts and motivations, just as before, leaving Alucius something of an enigma. While it may be that the author intended his hero to be so lacking in personality, it makes Alucius difficult to sympathise with as his single-mindedness and permanent calm give him an air of unreality. In a book where there is only really one major character, this is a serious problem. Excellent interludes written with subtle wit and style shed new light on the events unfolding behind the scenes, but they just act to reinforce the hero’s lack of character, as they are often populated by minor players granted far more depth in a few lines than Alucius is in the whole novel.

The failings of the major character aside, ‘Darknesses’ is an example of the old fantasy standby “the Return of an Ancient Evil” given a fresh coat of paint and with one or two new ideas inserted. The presence of high technology from a fallen realm in what is otherwise a very generic fantasy setting breathes new life into the setting while the magic, or ‘Talent’ as it is known, is vividly and powerfully described, but by themselves these slight innovations are not enough. Simply put, ‘Darknesses’ stands or falls only by the quality of Modesitt’s writing, so it is fortunate that his mind is capable enough to bring such vision and depth to the novel. Particularly in the final section of the book, following Alucius’ realisation of the enormity of the threat Corus is facing, the pace is thunderous and the narrative irresistible. The slow build-up pays off in a great rush of storytelling that keeps the pages turning until the epilogue, loose ends tied off and yet still a hint of menace remains, an ever-present threat that the battle is never over. As such, I am happy to carefully place ‘Darknesses’ on my ‘Worth the wait’ shelf.

This review was originally written for SFcrowsnest.com

Tuesday, 2 March 2004

New Spring

Robert Jordan
Orbit/Times Warner
ISBN: 0-84149-260-4

Just to get it out of the way right at the beginning - this is not the next book in the 'Wheel Of Time' series but a prequel to the events of 'The Eye Of The World', the first book. Apologies to all of the die-hard Jordan fans out there, but you'll just have to wait.

In the meantime, 'New Spring' should be enough to keep you thirsting for more... The novel covers the elevation of the young initiate, Moraine, and her friend, Siuan, to the rank of full Aes Sedai at the time of the Aiel invasion. As the foreign hordes begin to retreat, giving no reason for either their assault or their withdrawal, a foretelling by a senior Aes Sedai warns of the birth of the Dragon Reborn.

Finding the long-prophesied saviour of the world is immediately of the highest priority to the Aes Sedai and as the newest of the ageless sorceresses Moraine and Siuan are assigned to take the names and birthplaces of all those babes born in the area during the conflict as a cover for that search.

When Moraine becomes embroiled in plots concerning the thrones of two kingdoms - one lost to the wasteland and the other ravaged by the Aiel - she is forced into contact with Al'Lan Mandragoran and their initially rocky relationship soon becomes a bond of respect and friendship as they race to unravel the knot of schemes tightening about them and discover the darkness that lurks in the White Tower of the Aes Sedai.
There is no doubt that Robert Jordan is one of the finest creators of fantasy settings since Tolkien and 'New Spring' can only add to that reputation. Jordan's world is a vibrant, intricate masterpiece teeming with novel ideas and concepts that soar merrily past the typical fantasy pitfalls.

Above all, the world is alive with the complexities which make life such an interesting thing: a thousand subtle factors interacting in a way which mirrors reality with uncanny accuracy; a tangled web of character motivations driving the plot in unexpected but always realistic directions. It is nothing but a shame then that Jordan's writing ability fails to keep pace with his imagination. 'New Spring' lurches along in stops and starts, making up for the admittedly brilliant set pieces with vast swathes of text where nothing at all happens!
The plot is not advanced and no character growth occurs. Whole sections of the book could be chopped out with no effect on the novel whatsoever beyond shortening it by a few thousand words. There is no point to these huge wads of endless description and such barren plains of mundanity are made all the more frustrating for the occasional breathtaking peak.

While characterisation is good and Jordan seems unable to resist the temptation to give even the most minor of characters a fully detailed life-story the description of idiosyncrasies and defining traits are limited in variation and quickly become repetitive.

In addition, even the meekest of the female characters possesses a stubborn, shrewish nature and a condescending view of men that grates on the sensibilities. Jordan's idea of the female psyche is primitive and one-dimensional and seems rather out of touch with reality, so the male vs female conflict which pl
ays a big part in the novel feels crude and heavy handed. The plot is, for Jordan, a simple one, but still intertwines numerous schemes and intrigues so deftly that the unwary reader is swiftly lost. While one thread seems little more than a plot device designed to get Moraine away from the White Tower, the rest are plausible and interesting.

As a prequel whose characters appear in later books, 'New Spring' loses a lot of the tension at dramatic moments through the reader's knowledge that whatever happens certain characters must survive, particularly during the slightly flat finale.

However, enough interest is maintained to make the novel an entertaining read, if not up to the standard of Jordan's best, so I happily grant it a place on my 'more highs than lows' shelf.

This review was originally written for SFcrowsnest.com

Monday, 2 February 2004


L.E. Modesitt Jr
ISBN: 1-84149-252-3

Things are tough for the Iron Valleys, a small and poor nation bordering two vast and powerful ones. It has only survived so far by being just strong enough that invasion would cost more than it would gain.
Now, however, Madrien is at war with Lanachrona, struggling for control of the continent and the Iron Valleys are perfectly placed for strikes into either country, should the other control the land. Suddenly they are strategically important and it is not long before there is a Matrite invasion force heading for the border...
Alucius is a Herder of the Iron Valleys. A young man with the magical Talent that so often runs in Herder men, though this has been kept secret from the authorities that would use his skills, taking him away from the stead his family has worked for generations.

However, when war comes and he is recruited into the Militia to fight the Matrites he finds his abilities blossoming in the battle to defend his homeland. But the slave-soldiers of Madrien and the ancient magical engines they use are only the beginning, for something far darker lurks in the heart of the enemy realm. Something Alucius and his burgeoning Talent must confront before the stain of its corruption can spread any further.

For the most part, Legacies is a war story. Alucius' training in the Militia and the battles he takes part in fill the vast majority of the book. While the quality of writing is good, it is nothing special.

There is nothing here that hasn't been done before and better, without the rather pedestrian description of every event that occurs, whether in combat or out of it. The relaying of Alucius' every move in minute detail as he wanders around camp is particularly tedious and it often feels as though the author can't think of anything particularly significant to include and opts for another 'Alucius has a look around the market' scene.

The cause of this novel's rather mundane feel is difficult to pinpoint, as the writing itself is good and eminently readable while the description of each scene is concise and reasonably effective at portraying exactly what is going on, even in the most confusing battle scenes. No, the fault lies not in the writing but in the description of Alucius himself. Our hero is a blank slate of a person, showing little in the way of any actual personality.
He does what he is told and never gets angry, has no particular friends and seems to adapt to a soldier's life with remarkable speed, killing the enemy with little in the way of remorse. In fact, he shows no feeling whatsoever and it is Alucius' robotic lack of emotion that makes it hard for the reader to care even in the slightest about what he does with his spare time, never mind what happens to him in battle. Even his family, virtually non-existent in terms of the amount of page-space dedicated to them, are fleshed out more fully and possess more in the way of human characteristics.

The pacing of 'Legacies' doesn't help to offset its major faults. In fact, it adds to them. Very little actually happens during most of the book. The most exciting thing being a few desultory battles between various sides of the conflict. Alucius spends a great deal of time wandering around the enemy homeland of Madrien, seemingly just taking in the sights and indulging in the occasional slaying before suddenly developing an interest in that country's immortal ruler the Matrial and spending a few pages sneaking around her mansion.
A solid, interesting villain is a must for any fantasy story, but the Matrial herself is only shown in minute, irrelevant snatches throughout the story. Indeed, the climatic confrontation almost takes place without her and she never even utters a word during it!

Suffering from catastrophic failures of pace and characterisation as it does, 'Legacies' was never going to be a great book. The above average quality of the writing and Modesitt's smooth style don't even come close to overcoming these huge faults, resulting in a book which isn't bad, it's just...boring, middle of the road, mundane.

The reader spends the whole novel turning pages in a zombie-like trance waiting for something interesting to happen, only to find he's reached the back cover. The story passes by in a blur, its events such as they are smearing together into a rather ordinary, uninspired mass and as such I consign 'Legacies' to my 'cure for insomnia' shelf.

This review was originally written for SFcrowsnest.com

Sunday, 1 February 2004

First Meetings In The Enderverse

Orson Scott Card
Orbit/Times Warner
ISBN: 0-84149-311-2

To open, a word of warning: This compilation is one for those who are already acquainted with Orson Scott Card's 'Ender' series only. As a first step into this universe of child prodigies and moral philosophy, it would be a disaster. Not so much dropping the reader into the deep end as catapulting them into it.

Comprised of three stories expanding on previously uncovered areas and the original novella upon which the phenomenally successful 'Ender's Game' was based, it is a must-have for fans of the series but a poor starting block for first-time readers.

In 'The Polish Boy' we are introduced to Ender Wiggin's father as a young child, as much a genius as his son would come to be but raised to resent the International Fleet by his father. The family is Polish and Catholic and, in a nation under virtual occupation by international forces for its refusal to comply with birth-control regulations and various other ordinances, it is no surprise that when the eldest children are due to be tested for entry to the Fleet's Battle School there is a conflict between the family and the examiners. However, in the end it is not the older children but the five-year-old John Paul that attracts the interest of the Fleet...

'Teacher's Pest' covers the first meetings between Ender's parents, the brilliant pupil John Paul and his young post-graduate teacher, Theresa. Through political arguments and the course of their studies it shows how they came to fall in love and sets the scene for the events of 'Ender's Game'.

The novella that formed the basis of that novel is shorter and less detailed than the book itself, beginning with Ender's appointment of commander of one of the 'armies' in the Fleet's Battle School - a place where the teams of prodigal children take part in intensive mock wars to determine who is the best strategist and tactician. 'Ender's Game' follows him into Command School and through the war against the aliens for which he has been trained, all the way to that conflict's terrible conclusion.

Finally, 'The Investment Councillor' describes the grown-up Ender's first encounter with the computer intelligence, Jane, a being who is to become one of the most important characters in the books that follow. As Ender reaches his majority and the trust fund set up for him by the military is released into his control, an unscrupulous accountant attempts to claim much of the money for himself and inadvertently discovers Ender's identity. Ender searches for a way to deal with the problem and Jane reveals herself as his only hope, finding a solution in her own inimitable style.

The three new pieces are typical of Card's work. The writing is fresh and the dialogue sharp, words as always being used in weapons. Each conversation or discussion has the feel of a battle being fought, with the speakers weighing each phrase carefully and reading deep meaning into every word. These hugely confrontational yet cerebral discourses ensure that the stories never lack tension despite the absence of any action in the usual physical sense.

'The Polish Boy' is particularly excellent in this regard. The young John Paul's duels with the International Fleet personnel are both riveting and strangely disconcerting. Seeing a five-year-old argue grown men and women into giving him what he wants is a bizarre and slightly disturbing thing.

While 'Teacher's Pest' and 'The Investment Councillor' involve only adults, 'The Polish Boy' and 'Ender's Game' are primarily centred around children, the prodigal juveniles suitable for Battle School. The problem lies in their very precocity - they talk and act so much like adults that the reader must constantly remind themselves that they are children. There is nothing childish about them and as such, their intelligence and adult mannerisms seem unnatural and alien. They are forced to act as grown-ups by the situation at Battle School, but does their very nature make them so mature as John Paul acts in 'The Polish Boy'? It doesn't seem to mesh with reality and that is this series' only major problem. Certainly nothing else about the stories fails to please - the plots are engaging and realistic, the dialogue authentic and the writing stylish.

'Ender's Game' is a different story altogether. While the novel itself was everything mentioned above, the novella that birthed it is clearly unedited from Card's original and early work, for even the writing style is changed. Much of the subtlety that usually characterises Card's work is missing and the novella drops into becomes dangerously cloying in places, particularly towards the end. While the story remains basically the same, much of the build up, particularly Ender's life before Battle School, is missing and some would argue that that early insight into the boy's world is essential to understand what makes him tick. This curious view of the development of the story is interesting as a concept rather than a great read and detracts from the overall quality of the compilation.

Nonetheless, 'First Meetings' is, while not for everyone, a must-have for any aficionado of Card's work and as such a person I grant it an honourable place on my 'Fanboys only' shelf.

This review was originally written for SFcrowsnest.com