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