Monday, 31 August 2015

Book Review | Dream Paris by Tony Ballantyne



Anna Sinfield marched into the parks, when Angel Tower burned and Dream London fell. She marched to free the city, to end the madness, to find her mother and father. The day was won, but her parents—and thousands like them—are still missing, lost to the Dream World.

And now she has a chance to get them back. A man with gemlike eyes has walked into her life, wearing a bespoke suit and bearing a terrible scroll. Mr Twelvetrees claims to know where the missing Londoners are; but to find them, Anna has to give up a life she’s started to rebuild and go into the Dream World itself. Into another Paris, where history has been repeating itself for two hundred years.

Vive La Révolution! 

***

In literature and to a lesser extent in life, London has had a tough time of it in recent years: it's rioted and rebelled; it's been burned, bombed and buried; it's risen to great heights and, inevitably, it's fallen. And fallen. And fallen.

But you can't keep a city like Great Britain's biggest down—even when a living nightmare threatens to take its place, as Tony Ballantyne documented in Dream London. A notable novel which explored a notion not dissimilar to that proposed by the Philip K. Dick Award nominee's pre-eminent peer in the weird, namely the incursion of second place into a single space—see The City & the City by China Mieville—Dream London demonstrated the resilience and the spirit of even the most impoverished inhabitants of my country's capital.
If you weren't here, if you didn't live through the changes, if you didn't experience how the streets moved around at night or how people's personalities were subtly altered, if you didn't see the casual cruelty, the cheapening of human life, the way that easy stereotypes took hold of people... if you weren't there, you're never going to understand what it was like. (p.13)
Anna Sinfield remembers, however. Anna Sinfield will never forget. And yet, having lost her mother and her father and her friends to the dream world's dark designs, she still found the strength in herself to take to the streets. Alongside thousands of other like-minded Londoners, she marched into the parks when all was almost lost, the better to bring down the Angel Tower and stand against the source of the so-called incursion.

Dream London has been receding steadily ever since. The streets are straightening; people's personalities are reasserting themselves; human life means something once more. But for Anna, the nightmare is far from over, I'm afraid. When a man with fly eyes called Mr Twelvetrees presents her with a prophesy that promises she'll be reunited with her missing mum in Dream Paris, she packs a bag without missing a beat and sets her sights on the City of Lights.

Monday, 24 August 2015

Book Review | The House of Shattered Wings by Aliette de Bodard


In the late twentieth century, the streets of Paris are lined with haunted ruins, the aftermath of a Great War between arcane powers. The Grand Magasins have been reduced to piles of debris, Notre-Dame is a burnt-out shell, and the Seine has turned black with ashes and rubble and the remnants of the spells that tore the city apart. But those that survived still retain their irrepressible appetite for novelty and distraction, and The Great Houses still vie for dominion over France’s once grand capital.

Once the most powerful and formidable, House Silverspires now lies in disarray. Its magic is ailing; its founder, Morningstar, has been missing for decades; and now something from the shadows stalks its people inside their very own walls.

Within the House, three very different people must come together: a naive but powerful Fallen angel; an alchemist with a self-destructive addiction; and a resentful young man wielding spells of unknown origin. They may be Silverspires’ salvation—or the architects of its last, irreversible fall. And if Silverspires falls, so may the city itself.

***

Hands up if you've heard of Aliette de Bodard.

Good. That's a whole lot of hands. Hands down, however, if you've never actually read her.

As I suspected; hardly half as many. But don't feel bad, folks. Despite having written a trilogy of full-on, fifteenth-century Aztec fantasy, de Bodard is most known for her short stories—especially 'Immersion', which swept the speculative awards scene in 2013—and as big a fan of such fiction as I am, the form seems to to be going nowhere slowly, at least in terms of its readership.

Not so the genre novel. The House of Shattered Wings, then, is just the thing: a suspenseful supernatural narrative focusing on fallen angels as they fight for power in a post-apocalyptic Paris that boasts brilliant worldbuilding, powerful prose and a cast of terrifically conflicted characters. It's the year's best urban fantasy by far, and if it doesn't embiggen de Bodard's base, I don't know what will.

Friday, 21 August 2015

Book Review | The Dark Forest by Cixin Liu


The universe is a forest, patrolled by numberless and nameless predators. In this forest, others are hell, a dire existential threat. Stealth is survival. Any civilisation that reveals its location is prey.

Earth has. And the others are on the way.

The Trisolarian fleet has left their homeworld and will arrive... in four centuries' time. But the sophons, their extra-dimensional emissaries, are already here and have infiltrated human society and and derailed scientific progress. Only the individual human mind remains immune to the sophons. This is the motivation for the Wallfacer Project, a last-ditch defence that grants four individuals almost absolute power to design secret strategies, hidden through deceit and misdirection from Earth and Trisolaris alike. Three of the Wallfacers are influential statesmen and scientists, but the fourth is a total unknown. Luo Ji, an unambitious Chinese astronomer, is baffled by his new status. All he knows is that he's the one Wallfacer that Trisolaris wants dead.

***

If The X-Files taught me one thing, it was to be afraid—to be very afraid—of escalators. I learned early to take the stairs, or else be consumed by Eugene Tooms. But the recently revived TV series taught me at least two things, in truth: that, and the fact that thinking of Earth as the cradle of all creation in the unimaginable vastness of the galaxy is an act of absolute arrogance.

I want to believe, in other words. Absent any evidence, however, belief is a difficult state to sustain. It necessitates a leap of faith I've never been able to take—though that's no longer a problem for the characters at the heart of the startling second volume of Cixin Liu's translated trilogy, as they, and humanity as a whole, have had that proof.

In The Three-Body Problem, our wildest dreams were realised in the same second as our worst fears: they are out there, and now that they know we're here, they're coming... coming to wipe out every last trace of humanity from the galaxy.

The thing is, they're going to take four hundred years to get here.

But when they do? We're toast, folks.
The assembly fell into a prolonged silence. Ahead of them stretched the leaden road of time, terminating somewhere in the mists of the future, where all they could see were flickering flames and the lustre of blood. The brevity of a human lifespan tormented them as never before, and their hearts soared above the vault of time to join with their descendants and plunge into blood and fire in the icy cold of space, the eventual meeting place for the souls of all soldiers. (p.43)
In this way, a great wave of defeatism sweeps the people, not least because they know that nothing they do now will have the slightest impact on the Trisolarans. The present-day generation's only potential legacy is laying out the groundwork for humanity to develop in centuries ahead. Today, the knowledge base just isn't there, nor indeed will it ever equal the quantum technology bolstering the Trisolarans' far superior force. That's because of the sophons: a mass of microscopic particles which interfere in certain experiments, establishing an energy-based barrier beyond which scientists simply cannot cross. We haven't hit it yet, but we will, one day. And then? Well, it'll be The End, my friends.

Monday, 17 August 2015

Book Review | The Good, the Bad and the Smug by Tom Holt


New Evil.

Same as the Old Evil, but with better PR.

Mordak isn't bad, as far as goblin kings go, but when someone, or something, starts pumping gold into the human kingdoms it puts his rule into serious jeopardy. Suddenly he's locked in an arms race with a species whose arms he once considered merely part of a calorie-controlled diet.

Helped by an elf with a background in journalism and a masters degree in being really pleased with herself, Mordak sets out to discover what on earth (if indeed, that's where he is) is going on. He knows that the truth is out there. If only he could remember where he put it.

***

Evil just isn't what it was.

Used to be, you could slaughter a dwarf and gnaw his gnarly bones all the way home without attracting any undesirable attention. Now? Not so much. It's a new world, you know? And it might just be that the new world needs a new breed of evil.

In The Good, the Bad and the Smug, Tom Holt—aka K. J. Parker—proposes exactly that as the premise of a satirical and sublimely self-aware fairytale that brings together the wit and the wickedness of the author's alter ego with the wordplay and the whimsy which have made the YouSpace series such a sweet treat so far.

Readers, meet Mordak: King of the Goblins, and winner of a special award at this year's Academy of Darkness do. The prize is just the icing on the (unfortunately metaphorical) cake; he's been turning a whole lot of heads of late. Why? Well:
It wasn't just Mordak's arbitrary and bewildering social reforms—universal free healthcare at rusty spike of delivery, for crying out loud—though those were intriguing enough to baffle even the shrewdest observers, frantically speculating about the twisted motives that underlay such a bizarre agenda. It was the goblin himself who'd caught the public imagination. Mordak had it; the indefinable blend of glamour, prestige, menace and charm that go to make a genuinely world-class villain. (p.3)
It isn't all he has to offer either, for Mordak is also the face of New Evil: a "caring and compassionate" (p.281) agenda he's in the middle of forcing down folks' throats when his eternal enemies—is there anything worse than people, really?—suddenly find themselves filthy rich. So filthy rich, in fact, that they could cause a proper problem for the goblins.

This is an obstacle Mordak simply must overcome if he's to have a chance of realising his reforms. To wit, together with Efluviel, an elf who'd do almost anything to get her job as a journalist back—a job Mordak can give her as easily as he took it away in the first place—the King strikes out on an unexpected journey in order to expose the source of all the goddamn gold the humans have gotten their grubby paws on.

Monday, 10 August 2015

Book Review | The Fifth Season by N. K. Jemisin


A season of endings has begun. 

It starts with the great red rift across the heart of the world's sole continent, spewing ash that blots out the sun. 

It starts with death, with a murdered son and a missing daughter. 

It starts with betrayal, and long dormant wounds rising up to fester. 

This is the Stillness, a land long familiar with catastrophe, where the power of the earth is wielded as a weapon. And where there is no mercy.

***

If the Inheritance Trilogy established N. K. Jemisin as a genre writer to be reckoned with, and the Dreamblood Duology demonstrated the range of her capabilities as a creator, book the first of the Broken Earth comprehensively confirms the award-winning worldbuilder as one of our very finest fantasists. Epic in its scope and scale in the same instant as it is intimate, The Fifth Season is rich, relevant and resonant—quite frankly remarkable.

Brilliantly, it begins with an ending; with two intertwined endings, in truth, which, when taken together, foreground Jemisin's focus on the huge and the human. In the first finale, a mother covers the broken body of her little boy—who's been beaten to death by his father simply for being different—with a blanket. Essun does not cover Uche's head, however, "because he is afraid of the dark." (p.1)

These harrowing paragraphs—and paragraphs are all they are, for all their power—are paired with what is, in apocalyptic fiction such as this, a more conventional conclusion. This end "begins in a city: the oldest, largest, and most magnificent living city in the world." (p.2)

Living, is it? Not for long, I'm afraid, for here in Yumenes, at the very centre of the Sanzhen empire, one man brings everything he's ever known to its knees:
He reaches deep and takes hold of the humming tapping bustling reverberating rippling vastness of the city, and the quieter bedrock beneath it, and the roiling churn of heat and pressure beneath that. Then he reaches wide, taking hold of the great sliding-puzzle piece of earthshell on which the continent sits. 
Lastly, he reaches up. For power. 
He takes all that, the strata and the magma and the people and the power, in his imaginary hands. Everything. He holds it. He is not alone. The earth is with him. 
Then he breaks it. (p.7)

Tuesday, 21 July 2015

Book Review | Armada by Ernest Cline


Zack Lightman has spent his life dreaming. Dreaming that the real world could be a little more like the countless science-fiction books, movies, and videogames he’s spent his life consuming. Dreaming that one day, some fantastic, world-altering event will shatter the monotony of his humdrum existence and whisk him off on some grand space-faring adventure.

But hey, there’s nothing wrong with a little escapism, right? After all, Zack tells himself, he knows the difference between fantasy and reality. He knows that here in the real world, aimless teenage gamers with anger issues don’t get chosen to save the universe.

And then he sees the flying saucer.

Even stranger, the alien ship he’s staring at is straight out of the videogame he plays every night, a hugely popular online flight simulator called Armada—in which gamers just happen to be protecting the earth from alien invaders.

No, Zack hasn’t lost his mind. As impossible as it seems, what he’s seeing is all too real. And his skills—as well as those of millions of gamers across the world—are going to be needed to save the earth from what’s about to befall it.

It’s Zack’s chance, at last, to play the hero. But even through the terror and exhilaration, he can’t help thinking back to all those science-fiction stories he grew up with, and wondering: doesn't something about this scenario seem a little... familiar?

***

Isn't the world weird?

After decades of dismissal, what was once the preserve of known nerds is now everyone's favourite field. Video games are a cornerstone of contemporary culture. There are characters from comic books wherever you look. The fundamental stuff of science fiction and fantasy has been embraced in a big way by the mainstream, and though there are those who still question the merits of the speculative, even these outliers have had a hard time denying the cultural cache it has accrued in recent years.

Fair to say, then, that geek has never been more chic—a zeroing of the zeitgeist Ernest Cline capitalised on to heartfelt effect in his first novel following the cult film Fanboys. A celebration of all things 80s bolstered by a cannily-characterised protagonist who came of age over its uproarious course, Ready Player One was smart, but it also had a heart.

Armada starts strong, by scratching a great many of the same itches Cline's debut did. It too worships at the altar of this new, nerd-friendly nostalgia. It combines space-based spectacle with a series of intimate interruptions. It's frequently funny and remarkably referential. But there's a but.