Wednesday, 2 August 2006

Shadow of the Giant

Orson Scott Card
Tor Books

Almost ten years after the child-general, Ender Wiggin, and his chosen ‘Jeesh’ annihilated the alien buggers and destroyed their home planet, Earth stands at a crossroads. Down one road lies unity and cooperation; down the other, war and self-destruction. With Ender himself exiled off-planet, his chosen – with their preternatural gifts for strategy and manipulation – have become the greatest weapons in the arsenals of their respective countries. Yet some are not content with simply being used – they want to lead. The Caliph of a united Islam, the new Emperor of China and India’s self-titled ‘Goddess’ are all graduates of the Battle School where they learned the arts of war alongside Ender, and now they seem dead-set on putting those lessons to the test against one another.

All is not in their favour, however. Julian ‘Bean’ Delphiki, Ender’s most brilliant companion, and his similarly gifted wife Petra stand alongside Ender’s brother Peter in an effort to bring lasting peace to the world. Yet the young couple have problems of their own. The genetic manipulation that gave Bean his unparalleled genius is killing him – and worse, the IV fertilised embryos of their children, stolen and scattered around the world, might bear the same condition. Soon he will have to choose how to spend his last remaining days: reuniting his family, or helping Peter create a lasting peace.

Whatever you might think about the author’s politics, there’s no denying that Orson Scott Card writes an entertaining story. Just like its predecessor in this series, ‘Shadow of the Giant’ paints a fascinating picture of just what World War Three might look like, and has the courage to admit that the major players are far more likely to spring from the rising East than the fading western superpowers. India, China and the Islamic nations, with their vast manpower, make for an interesting yet potentially authentic take on an old idea.

‘…Giant’ focuses more on the political side than the military, however. The machinations of the Hegemon, Peter Wiggin, take centre stage, as he attempts to put an end to war and bring all the nations of the world together under one banner. Similarly, the alliances and assassination attempts at the head of the other powers take precedence over any military action. When troops do begin to march, despite much emphasis on the idea of war as a political necessity battle seems almost an afterthought.

The greatest flaw of ‘Shadow of the Giant’, however, lies in its wavering focus. Despite the title of the novel, this is not Bean’s story but really Peter’s. Bean seems relegated to the background, a tool in the Hegemon’s hands. Meanwhile, his search for his children seems somewhat insignificant in comparison to the global politicking. even to the character himself. Neither the urgency or the agony of Bean’s decisions comes through, and it renders much of the subplot unfortunately irrelevant.

With the epilogue comes an unexpected pleasure – the last encounter, via faster-than-light comms, between the Wiggin brothers. Theirs is the relationship which has cast such a great shadow over both the ‘Shadows’ series and ‘Ender’s Game’, and to see them interact again grants a real sense of closure, even as it once more emphasises Bean’s background role.

Other threads are not so neatly tied off. The matter of Bean’s children remains somewhat unresolved, and a series of interludes regarding the spectre of Achilles, Bean’s old enemy, that was built up from the first few pages frustratingly leads the reader nowhere. Yet despite these flaws, ‘Shadow of the Giant’ remains an absorbing read and a satisfactory conclusion to the series. Orson Scott Card’s style and strong grasp of character allow the reader to really feel involved in the story, while the passage of time has allowed his child characters to mature to the point where such adult dialogue no longer seems an oddity in their mouths. As such, ‘Shadow of the Giant’ finds a welcome place on my ‘psychological warfare’ shelf, together with its companion novels.

This review was originally written for

Tuesday, 1 August 2006

The Lies of Locke Lamora

Scott Lynch

In the ancient city of Camorr, where bridges and towers of indestructible Elderglass stand as a reminder of the ancient race who once made their homes here, Locke Lamora makes his living running confidence games on the rich. He and his tight-knit gang, the Gentlemen Bastards, are just one of the hundreds that pay fealty to Capa Barsavi, the criminal overlord of Camorr, but they are the only ones that dare breach the crime lord’s Secret Peace with the nobility and prey upon the upper classes. They play a dangerous game; not only is the Duke of Camorr’s disturbingly competent spymaster searching for them, but any slip might see them on the receiving end of the Capa’s famously terminal displeasure.

Just as Locke and his companions make ready to embark on their latest and most ambitious scheme, things are about to get much more complicated. Caught up in a web of intrigue, murder and deception, the Gentlemen Bastards will have to use all the tricks of their trade to stay ahead of the pack… and stay alive.

‘The Lies of Locke Lamora’ isn’t just fun to say out loud – it’s fun to read, too. The lyrical style present in the novel’s title can be found throughout, from flowing and evocative descriptions to catchy, witty dialogue. Scott Lynch has a genuine talent for turning old clichés on their heads, and the resultant writing is as fresh as new-baked bread.

Lynch’s style makes something new of his setting, too. Camorr is a bustling fantasy city in the middle of a semi-renaissance, busy with organised crime and foppish nobles, and seems to owe a little something to every city from Rome, Venice and Dickens’ London to Pratchett’s Ankh-Morpork or China Miéville’s Bas-Lag. Yet in Lynch’s description it’s possible to see something new: a place divided between the rich and the criminal where the poor are left to suffer without any protection at all. It’s a city of uncommon, casual brutality, where floating amphitheatres house bloody shark-baiting matches and the Watch are a credible threat. Yet there’s beauty, too, in the twilight glow of the Elderglass towers and the razor-edged glass flowers of the Hungry Garden, and it’s the author’s poetic descriptions that make Camorr stand out in the Fantasyland Tour Guide.

If characterisation suffers a little in comparison to such well-crafted scene-setting, that’s no great surprise. Locke and his gang suffer the two-edged curse of sharing the same wit and verve in their dialogue, which can make them difficult to tell apart in conversation. Hints of that selfsame wit can be found in other groups and characters, too, and enjoyable as it is to read such eloquent speech, realistic depiction would be better served if each character possessed a distinct voice of their own.

Still, much effort seems to have been put into fleshing out Locke and his friends. They might all talk the same, but the flashbacks to their younger days that appear throughout the narrative do much to build them up as individuals – while also serving to weave the necessary exposition into the tale without too much of a break in pace. Rather than break up the flow of the narrative, these flashbacks also somehow manage to fit well into natural pauses and heighten the anticipation for a return to the tale, while still proving entertaining in their own right.

The structure of the novel, then, does an excellent job of spicing up what is at heart a fairly simple plot. Locke Lamora’s adventures feel something like a cross between ‘The Godfather’ and the BBC TV con-artist show ‘Hustle’, with treachery and revenge as standard. Yet for all his vaunted brilliance, when things fail to go according to plan our hero seems strangely incapable of improvising. Admittedly he seems to land himself so deeply in trouble that there’s no obvious choice but to cross his fingers and hope, but you’d think that a master con-man whose expertise in planning complicated deception might be capable of taking a more active role in his fate.

Minor flaws aside, ‘The Lies of Locke Lamora’ is an excellent work and all the more astonishing for being Lynch’s debut novel. It shows its author to have a genuine talent for storytelling and particularly for descriptive prose, and one that I look forward to seeing develop over the course of the ‘Gentlemen Bastards’ series. As such, the novel will find pride of place on my ‘Magic and Misdirection’ shelf.

This review was originally written for

Sunday, 2 July 2006

Star Wars: Outbound Flight

Timothy Zahn
Del Rey Books
ISBN: 0-345-45683-1

Before the Clone Wars swallowed the Republic, the Jedi Master Jorus C’boath launched his plans for the Outbound Flight project: a grand experiment, taking fifty thousand Republic citizens and a handful of Jedi beyond the edge of the known galaxy on a mission of exploration and colonisation. He has a lot to content with – opposition from the Jedi Council, determined to focus the Order’s dwindling resources on more important matters; bureaucrats and red tape hampering the project’s realisation; the machinations of the Sith Lord, Sidious, who sees Outbound Flight as just another playing piece in his game.

But his enemies within the Republic’s borders may be the least of C’boath’s worries. For in the Unknown Regions, in the path of Outbound Flight, the alien known as ‘Thrawn’ has come across a smuggler ship whose inhabitants could set in motion a chain of events to doom the Outbound Flight project...

If this latest addition to the weight of Star Wars books on my groaning shelves has one major flaw, it’s that the novel doesn’t seem sure who to cater to. Those die-hard readers intimately familiar with Zahn’s other works will most likely find ‘Outbound Flight’ a little too familiar – the events that unfold within are a foregone conclusion, long ago revealed, and the ‘how’ simply isn’t interesting enough to support a whole novel. Those new to Star Wars’ Extended Universe, on the other hand, should find another place to start. ‘Outbound Flight’ jumps into the middle of a series Zahn’s been writing for close to fifteen years, and the sheer weight of baggage here is telling.

As can be expected from so enduring an author, the style of ‘Outbound Flight’ is solid enough. Zahn’s characters are well-detailed and authentic, those we’ve seen before remaining consistent to their established personalities and motivations. It’s not enough to save the novel from sinking into the mundane, however. The lacklustre plot, issues with pacing (particularly near the beginning, where a sub-plot involving diplomatic negotiations which could have been summarised in a sentence or two stretches on for dozens of pages) and the sheer inevitability that hangs over the storyline render ‘Outbound Flight’ both tedious and predictable.

In addition, Zahn’s need to tie the story in to already existing tales is painfully apparent. The presence of Obi-wan Kenobi and a teenage Anakin Skywalker aboard Outbound Flight is both an unnecessary and pointless complication and an insult to the reader’s intelligence. We’ve seen Star Wars books that don’t feature the films’ central characters before, and the setting is strong enough to cope. If the story of Outbound Flight were also strong enough, there would be no need for such an obvious crutch.

On top of that, ‘Outbound Flight’ is weighed down by the constant introduction of characters from ‘Outbound Flight’s sister novel, ‘Survivor’s Quest’, regardless of whether they have a role to play within this particular story, and the occasional name-check of characters from Zahn’s earlier works. Such interlinking serves no purpose, and slows the narrative to a crawl. The relationship between novels is clear enough that only the most inattentive reader would require such constant reminders, and as such they only serve to irritate.

‘Outbound Flight’s one saving grace is the appearance of Sidious’ agent on the scene. A political manipulator in the style of his master, he is smart, well-motivated and interesting to follow. His interactions with Thrawn himself are fascinating, and would have proved a far more credible viewpoint on the alien’s actions and motivations than the embarrassingly contrived arrival of Republic smugglers in the Unknown Regions. A shame, then, that he isn’t granted the page space that Kenobi and Skywalker gobble up to little purpose.

Too familiar for established fans and requiring too much foreknowledge from new ones, ‘Outbound Flight’ hovers uncomfortably between the two. If the tale it tells were strong enough, that wouldn’t matter, but the whole work feels a little too much like an exercise in joining the dots. As such, it’ll find a place on my ‘filler material’ shelf, and I doubt I’ll open it again.

This review was originally written for

Wednesday, 1 March 2006


Greg Vilk
Ricochet Press (self-published)
ISBN: 0-9772189-0-2

It’s 1942, and the Second World War is raging across Europe. Far removed from the conflict, in the icy wastes of Greenland, a crack team of U.S. Rangers is sent to destroy a secret Nazi research facility and rescue the American scientist forced to work there.

Saddled with the scientist’s daughter and a bureaucrat from the War Department, the Rangers set off on their assignment. But the base is not all it seems, and the Germans’ meddling has unleashed something dark and hateful. As the Americans scrabble to survive, their mission is suddenly the least of their worries.

Greg Vilk’s ‘about the author’ gives his day job as visual effects director on a number of blockbusting Hollywood films, and ‘Golem’ is written in that same cinematic tradition. Description and characterisation are so sparse that the novel could pass for a film script, with only the dialogue possessing any sign of effort on the author’s part. Even that is barely passable; when they’re not spouting action-movie clichés, characters both heroic and otherwise announce their plans and motivations to all and sundry.

Characterisation is paper-thin, with most of the Rangers apparently lifted straight from the Dirty Dozen or Kelly’s Heroes. Carrying a picture of one’s daughter and kissing it from time to time does not a realistic character make… though it does mark the poor sod for ‘tragic’ and ‘heroic’ death. The traitor – and isn’t there always a traitor? – is sprung without any foreshadowing, and his actions never explained beyond the novel’s desperate need for a diabolical villain. As if a big faceless monster stomping around the place wasn’t enough.

Ah, the monster. Pulp horror excels when it builds an atmosphere of suspense, and keeping your nasty in the shadows is a simple and effective way to build that tension. Strange, then, that on its first appearance Vilk’s Golem does the literary equivalent of tap-dancing in front of the camera. It kills, and we know how and what it is. Fear of the unknown, the greatest terror of all, never even gets a chance.

That doesn’t stop Vilk constantly trying to up the ante, however. Each time the golem kills, it grows a little more powerful… and a couple of feet bigger. By the time the dramatic climax arrives, you could practically see the thing on an atlas, but it’s still no more frightening. Size is not the same thing as scary. The golem is a wasted opportunity – just think of the possibilities for creepy and genuinely disturbing horror. A thing that builds its body from the inanimate matter about it could be terrifying, insidious and utterly alien. Instead the critter just stomps around hitting people with spades and ice, and getting bigger.

You’d think a man who works in cinema would have seen The Thing, or Alien, and taken a few valuable lessons away. But there’s nothing new here, and everything unrolls just how you expect it might. The pace is fast and the action never lets up, but that only means there’s no time for readers to develop any connection to the cardboard cut-out characters. When they die, it’s almost a relief. At least now their eyes can ‘bug out’ no more; they’re saved from enduring Greg Vilk’s endlessly repeated expression of surprise. And to save myself ever from having to read this again, I’m going to bury Golem in the depths of the shelf marked ‘abominable screenplay in disguise’.

This review was originally written for

Wednesday, 1 February 2006

Star Wars: Survivor’s Quest

Timothy Zahn
Del Rey
ISBN: 0-099-47263-5

Fifty-odd years ago the Outbound Flight Project departed, a Jedi-led exploration of the uncharted areas on the edge of the galaxy. They didn’t get very far. Ambushed by a fleet of the alien Chiss, led by soon-to-be Grand Admiral Thrawn, the project was destroyed and little was ever heard of it again.

How things can change. After half a century the wreckage of Outbound Flight has been found, and the Chiss are willing to allow the New Republic to recover their dead. Luke Skywalker and his wife, Mara Jade, are despatched to represent the Republic, but to their surprise things are not quite what they seem. Other parties have become involved, from alien species wishing to pay their respects to stormtrooper envoys from the remnants of the Empire. Are their motives as peaceful as they say? Can anyone be trusted?

Arriving at the ruins of Outbound Flight, the Jedi are in for another surprise. With uncertain allies all about them, cut off from the Republic and their friends, they must discover the truth of Outbound Flight and escape the twisted plans of enemies new and old.

Timothy Zahn has a reputation as one of the best authors in the Star Wars universe, but ‘Survivor’s Quest’ is the first faltering step he’s made. Outbound Flight, Mara Jade, Grand Admiral Thrawn, the Chiss; the typical ingredients of his better works are all present, yet something is missing. Star Wars is about the choices between light and dark, the seductive power of evil and the difficulty of walking the path of good, but that central theme is absent here.

Of course Star Wars is also about explosions, lightsaber battles, blaster guns and diabolical villains, and here at least ‘Survivor’s Quest’ doesn’t disappoint. It seems almost as though Zahn has tried to make up for the lack of depth with an overdose of action, but this all gives the novel a rather schizophrenic feel. The first half of the book is a pulp detective story, with the Jedi sneaking around and trying to figure out just what’s going on. Then, once all is revealed, the lightsabers kick in and the reader may as well leave their brain elsewhere.

Not that I have a problem with mindless action – it’s mindless, tension-free action that upsets me. ‘Survivor’s Quest’ is part of the franchise, so one can always be fairly sure the heroes are immune to serious harm, but here you never really feel as though they’re working up a sweat. The enemy underestimate them at every turn, and though the epilogue explains the villains’ short-sightedness, seeing the heroes wade through wave after wave of doomed mooks does not make exciting reading. In such a case, it’s the secondary characters that stand in jeopardy but here, for once, Zahn’s characterisation has let him down. With a single exception, none of these minor characters have enough personality to make the reader care. Giving names to stormtroopers does not make the reader sympathetic to their plight, particularly when their intentions remain dubious.

While the first act of the book dedicates much of its length to setting up such ambiguity, and allows a little depth to show in some of the characters, it nonetheless manages to avoid any foreshadowing of the inevitable twist. Surprises are good, yes, but only if the reader can look back and say ‘but of course!’. In this case, the surprise comes from out of the blue and falls flat on its face. That there was no way to predict or even suspect what might happen is as poor a piece of storytelling as any Deus Ex Machina.

Speaking of which… The epilogue of ‘Survivor’s Quest’ comes as a serious disappointment. To find out that the Jedi were little more than pawns in a ‘master plan’ renders their choices irrelevant, and the story itself somewhat pointless. It turns the entire novel into some bizarre version of a shell game, but one where there’s a ball under each of the three cups. While it makes an impressive show of the puppet-masters’ machiavellian manipulations, it fails to make an enjoyable read.

Despite Zahn’s undeniable descriptive skills, ‘Survivor’s Quest’ is hampered by nonsensical plotting, an awkward mid-story gear change, and a sad lack of the themes that make Star Wars great. There simply isn’t enough challenge here, for either the heroes or the reader. The novel also can’t seem to decide whether to focus on action or suspense, ends up doing a poor job of both, and earns itself a spot on my ‘genre-confused’ shelf.

This review was originally written for