Tuesday, 1 November 2005

Star Wars Episode III: Revenge of the Sith

Matthew Stover
Century Books
ISBN: 0-7126-8427-1

The battle between the Galactic Republic and the Separatists who challenge it has raged for years, the Jedi who fight in it forced to watch as their Order becomes more militaristic with every passing day. The Republic, too, is changing, Chancellor Palpatine’s control of the senate granting him power unheard of in peacetime, all in the name of protecting democracy. The Jedi Council fear that he will be reluctant to surrender it once the war is ended, and tension between the Chancellor and the Order has never been greater. Obi-wan Kenobi, tasked to hunt down and destroy the Separatist commander, General Grievous,

Set against that epic conflict, Anakin Skywalker’s fear of losing his wife seems insignificant. But visions of her death torment him, and in his weakened state Darth Sidious sees an opportunity to turn the great young hope of the Jedi to his side. The time of the Empire draws near…

Between this book and the blockbuster of the same name, there lies the quintessential Star Wars. The cinema has the special effects, the visual spectacle, and the embarrassing dialogue; the book has pacing, characterisation, and fewer plot holes. Even better, the characters talk like actual people. All it lacks are the images to accompany its depth, but even they appear unbidden in the mind’s eye. The great tragedy here is that Lucasfilm didn’t let Matthew Stover write the script, rather than just the novelization.

Novelization is perhaps the wrong word. This is a novel in its own right, bearing uncanny similarity to the film of the same name yet differing just enough to make it a superior beast. Lines one would rather forget are absent from here, replaced by often-subtle dialogue that gives meaning to otherwise inexplicable actions. Stover’s Anakin Skywalker is no whiny teenager in search of glory, but a genuinely tormented hero unable to ever live up to his own expectations. Obi-Wan Kenobi is modest, civilised and gentle, the perfect Jedi. Others, too, revealed previously unseen depths, thanks to the author’s clever little narrative tricks. A handful of freeze-frame moments where heroes and villains are broken down and discussed almost directly with the reader should shatter any suspension of disbelief, but they don’t. They frame the action perfectly instead.

Ah, action. The meat of any Star Wars novel is always the action, lightsabers humming and blasters blasting. There is no shortage of it here, described in loving detail. Stover clearly enjoys writing battle scenes, and it shows. The lightsaber duels in particular reveal his delight, each one a treatise on stances and forms and each one, as they should be, a metaphor for the psychological struggle between the combatants. This is fun, but it is serious fun.

Far superior to the film it parallels, ‘Revenge of the Sith’ is an absolute joy to read. Stripping the tale down to its core, the focus of the novel is always Anakin Skywalker’s transformation into something dark and nasty. Yoda’s games with the Wookies are gone, as are many of the ‘comedy’ droid moments. Even the battle between Yoda and Darth Sidious is pared down to a handful of paragraphs, because the real story lies elsewhere. Such ruthless editing is admirable, and it makes a tighter, brutally effective story. ‘Revenge of the Sith’ finds a place on my ‘if only it were a film!’ shelf, and whenever I read it I’ll know: that’s the way it should have been.

This review was originally written for SFcrowsnest.com

Sunday, 2 October 2005

Star Wars: Labyrinth of Evil

James Luceno
Del Rey
ISBN: 0-345-47572-0

The Clone Wars have spread across the galaxy, the Republic’s Jedi-led army in constant conflict with the druids of the Separatist forces. After countless battles and the loss of hundreds of Jedi, the war is finally turning. The homeworld of the Trade Federation is invaded and the Jedi heroes Obi-Wan Kenobi and Anakin Skywalker are there to hunt down the Federation’s Viceroy, Nute Gunray. One of the Separatist figureheads and the being responsible for the Invasion of Naboo thirteen years before, Gunray is high on the Republic’s wanted list, but when he stops to loot his most treasured possessions before fleeing he leaves behind a clue that could lead to the man behind the war: the Sith Lord, Darth Sidious.

As the war rages and the extent of Sidious’ machinations becomes clear, Kenobi and Skywalker must find their way through the maze of deception. Can they uncover the Sith Lord’s true identity before becoming trapped in his web?

As the book leading into the opening scene of a movie entitled ‘Revenge of the Sith’, chances are that the answer is no. ‘Labyrinth of Evil’ is hampered by the fact that all of its surprises and intrigues are pre-empted by the existence of the film to follow. Only a reader with total ignorance of Episode III’s content will get much from ‘Labyrinth of Evil’ and it seems likely that the reader of a Star Wars novel would have anything but. As it is, this novel is a placeholder, designed to fill in the gaps for the sake of completeness.

Still, other similar works have managed to overcome these hefty disadvantages and achieve some level of merit. ‘Labyrinth of Evil’, unfortunately, lets the side down. It is a shallow, dull example of style over substance, a Hollywood action movie in literary form. It reads like a screenplay for Episode Two-And-A-Half, lacking the visual element that makes blockbusters entertaining. The gunfire and explosions never stop long enough for the reader to develop an understanding of the characters, while the constant danger in which our heroes are placed has a numbing effect. Even if the reader did manage to overcome paper-thin characterisation and come to care about Luceno’s versions of Anakin and Obi-Wan, there’s only so much one can take.

The result is a novel that fails to engage the reader on any significant level, the fictional equivalent of white noise in your speakers; you can listen to it, but in the end it doesn’t really mean anything. ‘Labyrinth of Evil’ never rises above filler material, and so I condemn it to my ‘Star Wars Completists only’ shelf.

This review was originally written for SFcrowsnest.com

Star Wars: Yoda – Dark Rendezvous

Sean Stewart
Del Rey
ISBN: 0-345-46309-9

As the Clone Wars ravage the galaxy, the Jedi Order is weakening. Constant battle, droid assassins and jedi-hunters have thinned their ranks, but it seems as though the greatest threat to the jedi is the nature of war itself. They are changing, adapting to new circumstances, and in doing so they are in danger of forgetting what they stand for.

Amid the chaos and concern, Master Yoda of the Jedi Order receives an unexpected message. Count Dooku, once his student but now leading the insurrection that threatens to overwhelm the Republic, wishes to meet with him. More than likely the treacherous Count plans a trap for his former master, but Yoda sees a chance that must be taken. If he can win Dooku back to the light, the war could be ended without another drop of blood being spilled. Unlike those who doubt his wisdom in trusting Dooku’s word, Yoda can remember the boy he used to be. He can remember the good. And nobody is so old they don’t deserve a second chance…

Filling in some small part of the gap between ‘Attack of the Clones’ and ‘Revenge of the Sith’, ‘Dark Rendezvous’ has a lot of difficulties to overcome. Its stars are protected from harm by later appearances, while their subsequent philosophies have also been pre-determined. Such restrictions might be expected to rob the novel of tension or indeed any real purpose, yet Sean Stewart manages not only to prevent ‘Dark Rendezvous’ from irrelevance but keeps the reader entertained throughout. While Yoda faces off against his pupil, their conflict is shadowed in the battle between Yoda’s young escort and Dooku’s protégé. It is this battle that provides the novel with action in a traditional ‘Star Wars’ vein, all flashing lightsabers and blaster-fire. Yet their struggle is not without deeper meaning for in Whie, the gifted but troubled Padawan accompanying Yoda, the author hints at a repeat of the young Dooku’s fall to the dark side just as the old Sith himself struggles with salvation.

‘Star Wars’ has seen more than its share of musings on redemption and the nature of good and evil, but ‘Dark Rendezvous’ manages to avoid most of the well-used clichés and treads fresh ground instead. While Dooku’s fate is inevitable, Stewart’s powerful characterisation grants the Sith the appearance of a tragic hero, somebody with whom the reader can identify. This previously unseen vulnerability, this humanity, makes the reader hope against all reason that Dooku will find his way back to the light and makes his loss all the more tragic when the moment passes unfulfilled. To take a superficial, two-dimensional villain and grant him depth is no minor feat, but for it to be possible to sympathise even as he performs his villainous acts speaks well of the author’s skill. All of the above means that despite the title, this is more Dooku’s story than Yoda’s. Still, the Grand Master of the Jedi Order manages to hold his own. Stewart shows just what sort of individual lies beneath the whimsical behaviour, comic appearance and mangled syntax, giving Yoda a strength and depth that – while not quite matching that afforded his opponent – goes some way towards explaining eight hundred years of survival in a dangerous galaxy.

With such well-rounded and formidable characters facing off, their psychological battle is a tense and thought-provoking one. Once the talk is over and the lightsabers come out, it is almost disappointing; the climax has passed, and any physical confrontation feels awkward and irrelevant. The same applies for their young companions, though the moment of truth is less well handled in that incidence. The arrival of Obi-wan Kenobi and Anakin Skywalker on the scene is a particularly crude touch, an unwelcome intrusion implying a lack of confidence in ‘Dark Rendezvous’ ability to stand up on its own without Star Wars’ central players. Another disappointment is the hurried dénouement, tying up the loose ends with a little too much ‘happy ever after.’ Still, despite these flaws ‘Dark Rendezvous’ remains an enjoyable and atmospheric novel, a quality slice of the ‘Star Wars’ universe delivered with thoughtful care. Blending ‘space opera’ with psychological drama, Sean Stewart has created an arresting character study that recommends his other works. While I go off and hunt them down, ‘Dark Rendezvous’ will find a place on the shelf marked ‘Superior Star Wars’, where it sits in very good company.

This review was originally written for SFcrowsnest.com

Friday, 2 September 2005

Devices and Desires

K.J. Parker
ISBN: 1-84149-275-2

Ziani Vaatzes is an engineer, a maker of devices for the great Republic of Mezentia. When he builds a clockwork toy for his daughter, he creates something that exceeds the sacred specifications of Mezentine engineering and for that is sentenced to death. In escaping his fate, Vaatzes begins the construction of a mechanism that will lead to the death of thousands and destruction on a scale never before seen. Those around him are but parts of the machine, and it will be oiled with their blood before he is done.

Those familiar with Parker’s earlier work will know what to expect of ‘Devices and Desires’, but a newcomer to his writing will find this novel an off-beat, intricate slice of perfection. The characters are astounding; elegantly sculpted and wonderfully human, they are as flawed and limited as any being inside or out of fiction. Their strengths and weaknesses drive the narrative, granting the world they inhabit and the tale of their lives great authenticity. For once we have a fantasy novel where the characters exist for their own sake, rather than to further the plot. All of the set pieces, from battles to exquisite boar-hunts, exist to allow the reader better understanding of characters who aren’t simply reacting to the author’s well-crafted narrative - they are creating it themselves.

Whereas Parker’s earlier books have suffered on occasion from stretches where nothing seems to happen, in ‘Devices and Desires’ he has got the balance of action and characterisation just right. Yet to separate the two is misleading, because every scene somehow manages to become both exciting and insightful. Even the quietest, most introspective moment bears enough tension to keep from becoming dull.

While the novel is never less than absorbing, the strength of its characterisation also creates its only weakness. It seems even the most minor of players must be explained, fleshed out and made sympathetic to the reader, which means the focus is taken off the central characters for a handful of pages and these detours, entertaining and perceptive though they are, can seem like an indulgence.

A second side effect of such intensive characterisation is to strip ‘Devices and Desires’ of anything even remotely resembling a villain. While at first it seems as though the Mezentine Republic might be set to play that role, through shifting perspective to see the world through their eyes Parker gives them, too, the reader’s sympathy. It is a clever trick, refusing to provide a target deserving of destruction, and it makes the inevitable chaos and death all the more tragic. If only it could have been avoided, then all of these people (none of whom are paragons, but neither are they entirely to blame) could have continued in their selfish little lives.

It is that feeling of inevitability that lies at the heart of ‘Devices and Desires.’ It is a theme that can be found throughout, from Vaatzes’ insistence that his mechanism is out of his hands to a Mezentine official’s musings on cause and effect. Nobody, it seems, is truly free to make their own choices. Led by the environment and their own natures they battle for control of themselves and the world around them but even Vaatzes, so adept at making tools of those around him, sometimes seems little more than a helpless puppet.

Through his characters Parker expertly dissects the concept of free will, creating as he does a superb work of fiction that any reader can enjoy. To get the best from ‘Devices and Desires’ will require many readings, and I can only hope that the rest of the ‘Engineer’ trilogy can reach the same high standard. In the meantime this novel sits on the shelf marked ‘work of art’, its place well deserved.

This review was originally written for SFcrowsnest.com


Terry Brooks
Del Rey
ISBN: 0-7432-5946-7

Grianne Ohmsford, head of the Druid order, still languishes in the dark and demonic world of the Forbidding, but things could be worse. thanks to the strange creature called Weka Dart she is free of the Straken Lord’s dungeons and although she doesn’t know it, her family’s rescue attempt is coming along nicely. Pen Ohmsford has retrieved the talisman he needs to free her, though it has cost him dearly. Now all he must do is return to the Druid keep, where all their enemies lurk, and enter the Forbidding to reclaim her.

Demons and Druids stand in the way of the touching family reunion but really, what could be simpler? If that sounds rather casual, it is because the Ohmsfords have been saving the world for so long now that they barely have to put any effort into it. The first two Shannara series’ were truly epic, rich in character and wonder. By comparison 'Straken' has all the depth of a child’s paddling pool, its characters pale shadows and the tale they inhabit a lifeless corpse. It feels tired, as though the author’s love for his creation has faded to nothing and he now churns out these stories on automatic. The spark of imagination, that special something which made Shannara so popular, has gone out.

Nothing makes that clearer than the repetition that can be found in 'Straken', prison breaks and airship battles used, given a fresh coat of paint, and used again. In contrast the Four Lands, Brooks’ distinctive setting, is barely touched upon. A once marvellous place, in Straken it is cruelly under-represented. What replaces it is wholly mundane, lacking the majesty it once possessed. The demon-world inside the Forbidding, a new location unexplored in previous novels, is similarly wasted. An opportunity to create a place of despair and unforgiving savagery is squandered, the land inside the Forbidding appearing no darker or more dangerous than a stroll in the park. This is a place to which creatures of dark magic and evil intent were banished, yet in Brooks’ hands it seems dull and unthreatening.

Straken is not a bad novel - it is simply bland and uninspiring. The fantasy genre is saturated with poor imitations of Brooks’ work, and this book somehow feels like one of them. There is nothing that stands out, either for damnation or praise, yet the author’s reputation ensures it will sell. A shame, when so many fresh and original works will be overlooked. Brooks has shown he is a writer of talent and imagination, yet both seem to have deserted him here. The reader turns the last page with ambivalence, caring little for shallow characters and the limited growth granted them by an unadventurous narrative. Perhaps it is time Shannara was allowed to rest?

Whether it will or not is another question. The end of the novel feels rushed, incomplete, and several plot threads are left frustratingly untied. Perhaps Brooks is planning to make ‘High Druid of Shannara’ a four book series? If not, certain subplots within ‘Straken’ are rendered mysteriously pointless. A shame, because their intricacies were more engaging than the main story itself, little gems amid the dross. A dragon; the fate of Weka Dart; even the Straken Lord himself, built up in the preceding novel and unforgivably sidelined here. All saved for another time? I hope so, just as I hope to see Brooks regain his old form. It wouldn’t do for another book to join ‘Straken’ on my ‘Big disappointment’ shelf, would it?

This review was originally written for SFcrowsnest.com

Tuesday, 2 August 2005

Crash Deluxe

Marianne de Pierres
Orbit Books
ISBN: 1-84149-258-2

The Tert, slum-town on the edge of the shining city of Viva, is once again at peace – or as close as it ever manages to get, anyway. Following her discovery and destruction of twisted genetic experiments in MoVay, Parrish Plessis is one step closer to the truth. Someone in the big city has been playing games, manipulating the lives of the Tert’s citizens for their own ends. Too many people have died as a result, people Parrish cared about, and even worse – this meddling has released the Eskaalim parasite, long dormant in humanity’s genes, and its terrible effects are already being felt.

Whoever is playing god, they need to be stopped. The people of the Tert deserve better than to be some rich kid’s playthings, and Parrish needs to start thinking about how to defeat the parasite that is slowly turning her into something dark and monstrous. Time is running out, and she needs to find the one responsible. Infiltrating Viva is the only way. Time to find out what civilisation is like. Parrish doesn’t know what to expect from the big city, but then it doesn’t know what to expect from her. It could be an interesting day…

Unlike the previous novels, Crash Deluxe begins with a flash forward to its own climax, an intriguing little narrative device which whets the reader’s appetite and curiosity. Just as well really, for that burst of action is followed by an opening sequence that fails to generate much interest. Parrish wanders around the Tert at something of a loss, knowing what she has to do but for some reason finding a dozen reasons to put it off.

This build-up may be slow, but it does introduce certain facets of De Pierres’ world that have been absent before. Of these the most important is the appearance of virtual reality, a cyberpunk staple that seems strangely out of place in the rough, unsophisticated Tert. Once the action moves to high-tech Viva City things make more sense, but it seems surprising to find the technology suddenly centre-stage. While there is nothing to De Pierres’ VR that hasn’t been seen before, the breathless vibrancy of her writing at least gives it a fresh coat of paint.

Parrish’s insertion into Viva is superbly handled, skilful foreshadowing giving her all the tools she needs without making the situation appear contrived. It is a pleasure, too, to see the Tert’s tough girl so out of her depth, her reactions to an unfamiliar environment comical and tragic. Just when it seems she has fallen on her feet Parrish finds herself in a deeper mess then ever before. Much is made of the differences between Viva’s sophisticated menace and the Tert’s brutal simplicity, giving the novel a feeling oddly reminiscent of Victorian class divides, or perhaps the an extension of the widening gulf between today’s suburbs and inner city areas. Certainly the straightforward Parrish is spectacularly unsuited to deal with Viva’s serpentine intrigues, yet somehow she muddles through.

New characters appear and old ones resurface, yet the author handles them all equally and with deft proficiency. For the most part clichés are conspicuous in their absence, and tough choices are made that grant the novel a gritty darkness it may have lacked before, though thankfully this new-found gloom manages to avoid obscuring Crash Deluxe’s gems of characterisation. The disclosure of the identity of Parrish’s mysterious benefactor is a magnificent sleight-of-hand, pulling a rabbit from the first novel’s hat that seemed little more than background detail. As well as that, the evolution of Parrish’s personality is a subtle marvel, the sacrifices forced upon her making her desperate to hang on to those she cares about yet afraid to hold them too close. While certain details of the main narrative seem unlikely or faintly ridiculous, things move fast enough that such minor holes are often overlooked, gone past in a blur before the reader notices them. But at the heart of Crash Deluxe lies a solid, powerful story, all about choice, and it plays out very well indeed.

Crash Deluxe marks the end of the first trilogy following Parrish Plessis and as such the tying of loose ends is to be expected. It is a pleasant surprise to find this is not overwhelmingly true. While certain mysteries are unravelled and plot arcs completed, there is enough fresh material here to drive at least another book. The novel ends on a massive cliffhanger, a well-executed piece of work which leaves the reader truly unsure of what to expect. While this unfinished ending might frustrate some, it should be enough to keep most readers eager to pick up the story when next Parrish returns. As such, Crash Deluxe will find a place with its fellows on my ‘first-rate cyberpunk’ shelf; I can only hope Marianne De Pierres won’t keep me waiting too long for the next volume.

This review was originally written for SFcrowsnest.com

Friday, 1 July 2005

Shadow Warrior

Chris Bunch
Orbit Books
ISBN: 1-84149-332-5

In the years following the Al’ar war Joshua Wolfe has done pretty well for himself. His friends in the Federation military have proved a useful network for a bounty hunter to have and work is steady. Life is as good as it’s been for a long time, better than it was in the Al’ar prison camps, yet things spiral swiftly out of control when a contract to bring back a thief and his swag reveals something suspicious. Someone is collecting Lumini, the strange gemstones used by the Al’ar to focus their mental abilities, and they’re none too fussy about how they get hold of them.

Joshua’s life becomes even more complicated when Federation Intelligence call him in on a contract of their own. Out near the Al’ar homeworlds, long abandoned since that strange race mysteriously vanished in the face of their utter defeat, something is moving. Perhaps the Al’ar are not as gone as they seemed? Or perhaps some faction within the government itself seeks to turn the aliens’ powers to their own use? Joshua Wolfe doesn’t know, but people are trying to kill him. That’s one good reason to find out. Along the way, maybe he can come to better understand his own close relationship with the Al’ar – the respect that led them to name him, unique among humans, as one of their own. To name him as the Shadow Warrior.

This compilation consists of the three books in the ‘Shadow Warrior’ trilogy and a short story based on the earlier wartime exploits of the hero, Joshua Wolfe. It’s just as well the trilogy came packaged together, because they tell one seamless story and would be impossible to read as separate and individual novels. The tale itself is a dark one, steeped in casual violence and pointless tragedy, yet possessed of a certain grim humour. The pace is unrelentingly fast and, despite the occasional side-tracking as Wolfe abandons the plot in order to pay off his commitments, absorbing enough that the pages keep turning. Chris Bunch has a great talent for describing action scenes, Wolfe’s sudden and inevitably bloody acts of violence painted with flair and clarity.

The only problem with such a plethora of combat is that the reader never feels Wolfe is in any particular danger. Throughout the series he comes across as indestructible and instantly deadly, capable of taking down whole legions of unnamed goons without breaking into a sweat. Even those characters presented as serious opponents simply can’t compete with the aura of utter lethality Wolfe exudes, and one can’t help but feel the author has fallen into the trap of enjoying his protagonist’s all-conquering might a little too much. Yet when the plot requires that Wolfe fail he fails, and Bunch has made the job of presenting his failure realistically a difficult one. How is Wolfe captured in this situation, when an earlier and equivalent state of affairs proved such little challenge? Such inevitable victories leech much of the drama from ‘Shadow Warrior’s otherwise excellent battles. Only the presence of secondary characters fighting at Wolfe’s side provides any tension.

These characters, however, are few and far between. The fearless Joshua Wolfe works alone, probably because he doesn’t need the backup, and while he does pick up the occasional stray they generally don’t stick around long enough for the reader to get attached to them. The exceptions to the rule are excellently created slices of character, although they do have a certain ‘Bond girl’ feel to them. Indeed, Wolfe himself does bear an uncanny resemblance to Fleming’s superspy, from the serial womanising and gambling addiction to the always-requested tipple of choice. The casual violence and over-educated posturing are just the icing on the cake and they would make much of ‘Shadow Warrior’ a joy to read, were it not for one small thing.

In the first book in the trilogy, ‘The Wind after Time’, Wolfe is very different. He’s still the brutal killing machine we’ve learned to love, but a lot of the Bond-esque personality traits are yet to develop. Instead the reader sees a rather bland stereotype with some anger-management problems – never a good first impression, and ‘The Wind…’ suffers for it. Only after the cliffhanger ending does Wolfe loosen up – so much so, in fact, that he seems a totally different person. Perhaps there was a long break between the writing of the first book and the second, but despite making the protagonist more interesting this sort of inconsistency dents any possible suspension of disbelief. The plot is simple and sensible while still holding enough surprises to keep the reader hooked, yet the jarring transition between first book and second makes it difficult to become as fully immersed in the storyline as the novel deserves.

Despite this flaw, the narrative progresses smoothly towards the inevitable climax. By the time it comes around, though, there are still too many loose ends left trailing and the last hundred words feel far too rushed as the author hurries to tie them all off. The big finale is suitably dramatic and exciting, making the reader feel that the preceding chapters were worth reading just for this – effective build-up at work. Then comes the epilogue, and all of that good work is undone. In just a couple of pages Chris Bunch manages to literally wreck his novel and his character, providing no explanation or even rationalisation of an event which simply makes no sense.

Even the well-written and entertaining short story that follows, providing much insight into Wolfe’s background, is tainted by the foreknowledge of this pointless end to the saga. Perhaps in the author’s mind there were good reasons for things turning out the way they did, but in his apparent hurry to finish he neglected to put them down on paper. It is a real shame that an engaging, above average novel should be pulled down after a good run, and so with sadness I grant ‘Shadow Warrior’ a spot on the shelf marked ‘Fallen at the last hurdle’.

This review was originally written for SFcrowsnest.com

Wednesday, 1 June 2005


K. J. Parker
Orbit Books
ISBN: 1-84149-182-9

Having resolved some small fraction of his identity crisis, Poldarn was last seen heading back across the waters with the savage Raiders, the people he was born to. Trawling the Empire for clues to his past have left him with a whole pile of confusing contradictions and more enemies than he can count, so returning home seems like the safe option. But when home is filled with folk whose memories work a good deal better than his; when home is an incomprehensible society where everyone knows their role and performs without question; why, then home isn’t home at all. Struggling to cope in a place he doesn’t remember but that remembers him, Poldarn finds himself wondering if his past should remain nothing more than a shadow…

Following on from a first book, the ending of which raised more questions than it answered, ‘Pattern’ continues in the same vein. The one section of Poldarn’s history that seemed to be clearing is suddenly complicated again by secrets and deception, while our amnesiac hero tries desperately to get to grips with a culture that seems utterly alien to him. And there is something very odd about the Raiders. Brutal and merciless killers when harrowing the Empire’s towns, in their home they become suddenly rather harmless and pastoral folk. Indeed, the vast majority of the novel is filled with the day-to-day business of the islanders’ farm communities and Poldarn’s hopeless attempts to fit in.

While Parker’s writing is engaging and witty, even Poldarn’s confusion and offbeat comments can’t keep farm life in all its tedium from dragging the pace to a screeching halt. The interactions between characters are nuanced and filled with portentous significance, but the constant barrage of symbolism and red herrings backfires slightly as the reader is forced to yield under the sheer weight of them. Whatever social commentary may have been intended – and it seems as though there is some deeper meaning intended by all this – is lost in the confusion. A shame, really, for just like its prequel this is a very clever book. Cleverer than me, at least.

When it is good, ‘Pattern’ is superb. The pace picks up towards the end as certain sneaking suspicions become more likely and the horrifying secrets of Poldarn’s past are revealed. The novel is overflowing with evocative phrases and vivid imagery, and does a good job of portraying Poldarn’s alienation among his own people. For those who enjoy being confused or have the intelligence to follow its myriad twists and turns, this will be a joy. Unlike so much fiction where the plot is depressingly predictable, it’s more than certain that this novel will keep the reader guessing to the end. It is one of ‘Pattern’s greatest strengths, but a great weakness too. Credibility is stretched just a little too far, the characters seemingly going out of their way to protect the author’s secrets.

Apart from those hoop-jumps deemed necessary for the plot’s fulfilment, the characters and their actions are realistic and all too human. While Poldarn himself remains a rather unsympathetic hero and strangely ambivalent to his own fate, the host of characters around him more than make up for this. Parker has created a world of people who act and think just like real humans do, with all their contradictions and absurdities artfully portrayed. In a way the vivid reality of even the supporting characters makes Poldarn, the supposed focus of our attention, rather bland by comparison. Despite the ever-deepening hole he finds himself in, it’s difficult to care. Confusion takes care of any lingering sympathy the reader might have for him, killing it stone dead.

For all its faults of pacing and overplayed metaphor, ‘Pattern’ is an intriguing and unique slice of fantasy. Those with the patience to struggle through the tedium of the earlier pages will unearth a tangled web of mystery where resolving one issue just ties knots in another. It’s frustrating but delightfully so, and I’d advise any reader who plans to fully understand ‘Pattern’s many threads to keep a notepad handy. One thing’s for sure: this is a book that will survive many readings, and each repetition will bring a little more clarity than the last. The only question is whether you’re willing to give ‘Pattern the attention it deserves. A place on my ‘conundrum wrapped in an enigma’ shelf awaits it, just as soon as I figure out that last nagging point…

This review was originally written for SFcrowsnest.com


K. J. Parker
Orbit Books
ISBN: 1-84149-172-1

Having fled the Empire for the island he grew up on, the amnesiac Poldarn had hoped to find some peace among his people. It was not to be, his past catching up with him most unpleasantly, and after spreading death, destruction and misery to his family and childhood friends Poldarn returns to the mainland.

No longer interested in discovering the truth of his identity, all he wants now is to find some quiet corner of the world where he can live out his days and die without causing any more pain. But havoc seems to follow Poldarn around like a dog tailing its master, and the quiet foundry where he finds himself shaping bells is about to become the centre of a conflict between the faltering Empire and the fanatical followers of the Mad Monk.

With old enemies on both sides and too many people remembering him as a major player, he can do little to avoid the repercussions of his forgotten acts. As the pieces begin to fall into place and the truth is finally revealed, all Poldarn can do is trust nobody and pray he’ll make it through.

With some small mysteries cleared up at the end of this trilogy’s second book, ‘Memory’ is nonetheless left with a veritable shoal of enigmas to explain. Parker has done a remarkable job of keeping the reader guessing as to Poldarn’s true identity, hints falling like raindrops throughout the series. Such is the bewildering complexity of the narrative that at several points it seems Poldarn could have been almost every character in the trilogy, even some of the ones he has personally met since his memory was lost!

Yet despite this twisted mix of betrayals and red herrings, mysteries and misery, ‘Memory’ retains its plausibility. The supernatural aspect of Poldarn’s past that had such importance in the first book is present here again, a barrage of hints as to Poldarn’s divinity seeming to speak most ominously of some feeble deus ex machina to come. Thankfully that disappointment is avoided, and though the final revelation stretches coincidence to breaking point it is nonetheless both probable and satisfying, hindsight and re-reading allowing the reader to spot enough foreshadowing among the misdirection that the concluding twists never seem unnatural.

Unlike in the first two books, ‘Memory’ suffers occasionally from a decline in the quality of the dialogue towards the end of the novel exposition begins to take over, the natural and flowing speech that Parker excels at vanishing into a fog of revelatory monologues. It is a small flaw, however, one made necessary by the concluding nature of the book, and the answers exposed within such speeches more than make up for any small loss of authenticity. Regardless, Parker’s dialogue is for most of the book as snappy and natural as ever. Together with the unusual perspective the author projects onto everyday occurrences, this gives ‘Memory’ a slick and enjoyable style that seems curiously at odds with its often-disturbing content.

For this is certainly no children’s book. I don’t mean that it is filled with excessively graphic depictions of violence or contains steamy sex scenes – rather that the themes and actions of the characters can be deeply unpleasant. There are no heroes within K.J. Parker’s trilogy, least of all Poldarn himself. Like the author’s other books, ‘Memory’ is populated by characters whose attempts to do the right thing often create terrible tragedies and force them into monstrous deeds. Poldarn’s lost memories are filled with horrors both psychological and societal, but it is a tribute to Parker’s characterisation that the reader doesn’t lose their sympathy for the characters involved. If anything such sympathies are strengthened, as one can see just what would force people to such desperate and terrible feats.

If ‘Memory’ has one real fault, it lies in the first half of the book. Too long is spent building up the tension with seemingly innocuous events, too much emphasis placed on the minutiae of Poldarn’s work at the foundry. The author’s biography mentions a history of craftsmanship and it’s reasonable that such intimate knowledge be used to grant his writing authenticity. What isn’t reasonable is to burden one’s reader with the mundane, however it conveys Poldarn’s achievement in finding a boring little corner of the world to hide in. Such a desire for realism is laudable, but in this case it detracts from the flow of the story towards its terrible climax.

In conclusion, ‘Memory’ is the best of the Scavenger Trilogy and a fine book in its own right. Those struggling with the exceedingly complex first and second books should be reassured – it’s all worth it in the end. Clever, evocative and enjoyable, ‘Memory’ is apart from the occasional niggling flaw a lesson in how to write the third act of any story. It has a place of honour on my ‘how to do endings right’ shelf, and is good enough to make me seek out any of its author’s work I may have missed. Intelligent mysteries are so hard to find these days, but Parker’s work is one of the best.

This review was originally written for SFcrowsnest.com

Saturday, 2 April 2005


K. J. Parker
Orbit Books
ISBN: 1-84149-105-5

In the north of the Empire a man awakes. Around him lie the remains of a battle, dead soldiers of both sides scattered across the muddy floor of a river valley and crows fluttering eagerly overhead. Which side he was on, he can’t remember – in fact, he can’t remember anything. Who he is, how he got here, just where ‘here’ actually is… nothing. Seems to be pretty good with a sword, though.

Forgetting your past could get a man in a lot of trouble, especially when your past seems determined to seek you out and wrap you up in a whole complicated web of treachery and politics. Everything our hero learns about himself just seems to bring him more strife, and wandering the countryside in a rickety cart masquerading as the God of the Apocalypse certainly isn’t helping.

When too many sides in a conflict recognise you as one of their own, everything gets very confusing. Who to trust? The confidence trickster who uses the god-in-the-cart routine to scam villages for food? The politician with his eye on the Emperor’s throne? Or the voices in your head, telling you the ‘god’ swindle might not just be an act? Maybe it’d just be easier to abandon the man he was and start again anew. If only he could find a little corner of the world where trouble didn’t follow…

In a just world, K.J. Parker’s ‘Shadow’ would come with a large warning across the front cover, bold red letters informing the casual browser to steer well clear. Not that it’s unreadable, not by any means – Parker’s prose is light and breezy, agonisingly nonchalant and a dream to read. No, the problem lies with the reader’s attention span, their ability to concentrate whatever intellect they may possess on the tale within. For should you dare to leave ‘Shadow’ unread for a day or two you’ll find yourself hopelessly entangled in a lasso of half-remembered plot twists or trapped along with a whole shoal of red herrings.

In these pages nothing happens by accident, every chance encounter is significant – or at least it tries to make you think it is. Parker weaves a plot of breathtaking, mind-numbing, incomprehensible complexity; unless it has your full attention you are bound to miss something vital.

Forget trying to guess the ending, even if you’re good at that sort of thing. So many dead-ends and false trails are laid in this novel that it must be hard for the author himself to figure out what’s happening, never mind the reader. Such unpredictability is refreshing but to reach such dizzy heights without sacrificing the narrative’s plausibility and consistency is something very special indeed.

If ‘Shadow’ has one fault, it is that our hero’s lack of memory leaves him without direction and, fatally at times, without any real drive. Perhaps it is a deliberate act on the author’s part, but Poldarn (the name our hero ends up using, to avoid excessive and imprecise overuse of ‘he’ if for no other reason) seems very much an observer, separated from the world around him. It’s difficult to empathise with someone like that, the choices he makes difficult to predict and harder to understand. It all fits in with our hero’s blank-slate nature of course, but it makes him a troublesome protagonist.

As mentioned before, ‘Shadow’ is written in such a way that it is – despite all manner of confusion – blissfully easy to read. Parker has a way with words, a certain unconventional way of looking at things that makes him stand out from the crowd. It also strikes a chord with any reader whose mind has occasionally betrayed them, and we’ve all been there. If anything the author goes a little too far, the quirky running commentary inside Poldarn’s head detracting from scenes where a little more emphasis on the serious side of things might have added emotional weight. It’s a fine portrayal of the human brain’s tendency to shy away from danger, but it’s a trick that is overused.

Despite an unlikeable protagonist and a plot that’ll pull your brain out through your ears and knot it under your chin, ‘Shadow’ is a fantastic piece of work. Original, unique and thought-provoking, it ends with a revelation that asks more questions than it answers Anybody who reads this and doesn’t want to read the sequel immediately hasn’t been paying enough attention. It’s entertaining and intelligent, a book that has to be read a half-dozen times before it begins to make much sense. Some people would find that frustrating: I find it delightful. ‘Shadow’ now sits happily on my ‘aspirin included free of charge’ shelf, just waiting for the next time I feel like letting my mind out of its cage.

This review was originally written for SFcrowsnest.com

Tuesday, 1 March 2005


Terry Brooks
Simon and Schuster
ISBN: 0-7432-5674-3

Things aren’t going too well for Grianne Ohmsford, the Ard Rhys of the Druid Order. Her attempts to bring peace and harmony to the Four Lands have (as such attempts often do) met with little success, the rulers of the various realms far more interested in continuing their bloody feuds than bringing about a golden age of prosperity. On top of her political problems, a rather more cold-blooded rival recently dropped her right in the middle of the Forbidding, that cheerful realm that the Demons call home, and took control of the Order for herself. Demons are devious things as everybody knows, so it’s not surprising poor Grianne found herself captured at the end of the last book. Foreign travel, eh?

Meanwhile in the more material world of the Four Lands, Grianne’s nephew Pen has been charged by the ethereal King of the Silver River with retrieving the talisman that will let him enter the Forbidding and rescue his aunt. The new High Druid, Shadea a’Ru, is understandably less than thrilled with the nature of Pen’s quest and has set both the Druids themselves and her shadowy assassin Aphasia Wye on his trail. Together with a handful of allies Pen tries desperately to find the Tanequil before it’s too late, while in the war-torn borderland of the Prekkendorran the totalitarian Federation unveils a terrible new weapon. Things are looking fairly bleak for the freedom-loving citizens of the Four Lands, but one has to keep these heroic types busy somehow. Heaven only knows what they’d get up to otherwise.

As the middle book of an ‘epic’ trilogy, ‘Tanequil’ was always going to have a few pacing problems. Following conventional dramatic form the middle act is the part where the heroes suffer the unrelenting hammer blows of defeat before rising up for a stirring and climatic finale, and this book is nothing but conventional. Unfortunately it’s also as bland as unflavoured porridge, our protagonists’ misfortunes raising not a squeak of interest in the reader. Perhaps it is that we’ve been through this before, in a stream of fantasy quest adventures reaching back through Eddings and dozens of others to ol’ master Tolkien. Everything here has been done already, not least of all by Brooks himself who has made a very successful career out of Tolkien impersonation. This is by-the-numbers fantasy and it’s all so very dull.

When Terry Brooks began the Shannara series it was just what the genre needed. Exciting, well written and epic in scope, it was a joy to read. But like a faded champion in search of past glories it has lingered and what made it special has long since departed. Instead of something new we get a re-hash of old plots and characters where only the names have changed. There’s nothing here we haven’t seen before.

To give the author credit, his writing style is as good as it’s ever been. To a fantasy virgin or someone who is unfamiliar with Brooks’ work ‘Tanequil’ could be entertaining enough, possessing as it does a certain effortless beauty. The descriptions are powerful and the world of the Four Lands is, as ever, an impressive creation. Even the recent addition of high technology such as sunlight-powered airships – something that doesn’t mesh terribly well with the grit and magic of the rest of the setting – can’t spoil that depth. The characters too are convincing, coming with flaws and neuroses built in. The dialogue occasionally stalls and it’s difficult to distinguish between speaking characters by speech patterns alone, but that’s neither here nor there. On the one hand you have the rich Shannara setting, built up over many years and a dozen or so novels, and on the other hand you have… a great vacant hole where the plot should be.

That is ‘Tanequil’s biggest flaw. The entire novel reads like an extended chase scene, with the Druids running along behind Pen Ohmsford like something from a Benny Hill sketch. The interludes with Grianne’s experiences in the Forbidding are something else, showing a spark of originality that the series is otherwise sorely lacking, but they are too few and far between. Only in those scenes does something resembling a plot arise and it is there that the emphasis should have been placed, not – as it sadly is – on the awkward and contrived love story that is Pen’s escape from the Druids.

Hopefully the third book in the trilogy will remedy the many faults of this one, but it certainly has a struggle ahead of it. Considering how slow things have been moving so far, the pace is also going to have to drastically pick up otherwise I can see ‘High Druid of Shannara’ becoming a trilogy of four, ‘Hitch-hiker’s Guide’ style. This series has nothing to recommend it over Shannaras past, and it’s those previous series’ that a newcomer to Brooks’ work should seek out. For the veteran, ‘Tanequil’ will be nothing but a disappointment.

Whether the third book ‘Straken’ can throw a log on the fuel-starved fire of originality remains to be seen, but Brooks certainly has the ability – all he needs now are a few fresh ideas. Until they arrive, ‘Tanequil’ will find a place on my ‘shadow of former glory’ shelf.

This review was originally written for SFcrowsnest.com