Voidhawk.com Book and film reviews

18Feb/170

“The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet” by David Mitchell

thousandautumns

Previously I hard read three of David Mitchell’s novels, “Cloud Atlas” (which I thought was one of the best books I’ve read in the last few years), “The Bone Clocks” (which I liked many things about but thought had some serious flaws) and “Slade House” (which I thought was an enjoyable haunted house story). The first obvious difference between them and “The Thousands Autumns of Jacob Zoet” is that this story is told in a much more straightforward manner, rather than having often loosely-linked plotlines taking places over a span of decades or centuries this book mostly focuses on the title character and aside from the epilogue takes place within a couple of years around the end of the 18th Century.

The book begins with Jacob de Zoet arriving as the new clerk at the Dutch East India company’s trading outpost of Dejima in Nagasaki harbour, at the time the sole point of contact between the Japanese Empire and the outside world. It’s not a piece of history I knew much about before and Dejima is an intriguing setting, a tiny outpost of Europe in Feudal Japan where every contact between the Dutch merchants and the local population is tightly controlled with the foreigners usually forbidden from leaving the island and where both the Dutch and Japanese are struggling to really understand each other’s cultures. A fair amount of the first part of the book is spent with the inquisitive Jacob trying his best to learn what he can of the local culture. He might be a stranger in Japan but also often feels a stranger among his own countrymen who focus much of their efforts on trying to gain influence in the company and to try to enrich themselves even at their employer’s expense. He feels very much like the Ned Stark of Dejima, an incorruptible man trying to stay true to his principles while surrounded by corruption. However, even Jacob is not without some flaws and despite planning to marry when he returns to the Netherlands he does make some awkward attempts at trying to start a romantic relationship with Orito, a Japanese midwife studying under the Dutch physician Marinus. This part of the book had an interesting setting and some well-developed characters but I felt the plot was fairly slow-moving and the storyline of the new Dejima’s Chief’s attempts to stem corruption wasn’t particularly compelling. However, I thought the plot moved to a new level in the second portion of the story in which Orito is, against her will, made to join a mysterious religious community headed by the enigmatic and powerful Abbot Enomoto.

Whereas the first part of the story was mostly told from Jacob’s perspective the second portion adds perspectives from several Japanese characters. Orito’s attempts to adjust to deal with the shock of her sudden change of circumstance and to understand the horrors of the religious cult who are imprisoning her make for a much more compelling storyline. Equally compelling is the heroic but possibly quixotic attempts of a lovestruck Samurai to try to rescue her from her fate. This part of the story also introduces what may be subtle elements of supernatural fantasy into what had been up until this point seemed to be straightforward historical fiction. The fantasy elements are subtle enough that taken on its own merits it could perhaps be debated whether anything genuinely supernatural happened or whether it was just characters believing in the supernatural, although having read Mitchell’s books out of order I found this part of the story to be quite reminiscent of the more overtly fantastical plotlines in “The Bone Clocks” and “Slade House”, even without considering the fact that the character of Marinus appears in all three books. I felt that this did a much better job of integrating the fantastical elements into the main plot than The Bone Clocks did with a similar plotline, perhaps the only small flaw would be that there’s little hint of this in the first couple of hundred pages of the story. The concluding section of the book introduces another new plotline with a Royal Navy warship confronting Dejima in an attempt to muscle in on the lucrative trade with the Japanese, leading to a surprising but satisfying finale.

I thought Mitchell’s characterisation was excellent in the previous three books I read and it continues to be equally good here. There’s a lot of good character development here and the supporting cast get plenty of attention, I think just about every significant character gets a chance to tell their own story of what brought them to Dejima. All the characters seem to have well-developed motivations and even the best of the characters will have some flaws while even the more villainous of them may have some redeeming features – the British Captain Penhaligon may be an antagonist but he’s probably a better person than most of the other characters in the story. Jacob is a likeable protagonist and I thought Orito and Ogawa were compelling characters among the Japanese cast. Dr Marinus might be the most entertaining of the characters in the story, especially in a couple of genuinely funny scenes where he takes some unusual measures to try to dissuade Jacob from starting a doomed romance with Orito. Abbot Enomoto was a very effective villain, capable of doing some chillingly evil things but always with his own motivations (although he does at one point give a Bond villain speech to a prisoner which felt a bit out of character).

There is some excellent writing here which paints an evocative picture of life in Dejima and Nagasaki in this period. I can’t claim to be able to judge the historical accuracy of it, but it does feel convincing. The prose may be more straightforward than the constant switching between different literary styles in “Cloud Atlas” but I thought it was very effective.

Overall, I thought this was a very good book with some great characters, a fascinating setting and some memorable plotlines, perhaps the only flaw was that the plot was a bit slow to get going at first.

Rating : 9 / 10

18Feb/170

“Arm of the Sphinx” by Josian Bancroft

armofthesphinx

I did enjoy the first book in this series a lot so I was looking forward to reading the sequel. I had thought “Senlin Ascends” got maybe a bit weaker towards its end and I felt “Arm of the Sphinx” similarly started off relatively poorly. The first third of the book follows Thomas Senlin’s unlikely second career as an unusually gentlemanly airship pirate preying on some of the ships flying around the skies surrounding the Tower of Babel. One problem with this part of the story is that it felt like it moved away from the uniqueness of the setting of the Tower itself and I think the airship piracy plotline has been done better elsewhere (Chris Wooding’s “Tales of the Ketty Jay”, in particular). The story also felt a bit aimless at this stage, the first book had a lot of momentum from Senlin’s quest to ascend the Tower in an attempt to track down his missing wife but it was sometimes hard to see how the adventures of the crew of the “Stone Cloud” were taking them any closer to the goal – something even the characters themselves acknowledged. There are also some times when it started to get a bit too hard to really suspend disbelief, in particular there’s a scene with a harpoon gun and a train which didn’t seem like Senlin’s plan should have worked anywhere near as well as it did. Fortunately, I thought the book improved a lot in the second and third sections where the story returns to the Tower itself.

The second part of the story takes place mostly around the Golden Zoo region of the Tower which, like the other regions of the Tower seen in the first book, alternated between being wondrous and sinister (and sometimes both simultaneously). It also introduced a character who might possibly end up being the series’ main villain. The third part of the book might be the best in the series, with Senlin and his crew reluctantly entering the domain of the mysterious being known only as The Sphinx in an attempt to gain his aid in Senlin’s quest. I thought The Sphinx was the most interesting character in the series so far, and I thought the author did a great job of gradually revealing new aspects of his character while keeping The Sphinx’s true motivations enigmatic. Part of the reason this works so well is that we always see The Sphinx from the perspective of one of the other characters and they mostly bring their own pre-conceived prejudices and can’t help this colouring their opinions of The Sphinx’s motivations, it’s quite clear in some cases that they completely misjudged what The Sphinx is trying to do. Sometimes they seem to assign unfairly malign motives to him, while he may be capable of ruthlessness and definitely has his own agenda there are times when he does seem to be genuinely trying to help, although even by the end of the book it’s hard to really be sure whether he’ll ultimately be a force for good or ill. This part of the story also brings in more hints of what the over-arching plotline of the series is going to be, since despite Senlin’s obsession it is clear there’s much more going in the Tower than just his missing wife.

While the first book was shown entirely from Senlin’s perspective the sequel rotates between the points of view of the five crew members of The Stone Cloud (and occasionally others). I think it made sense for the first book to be primarily from Senlin’s perspective because as a newcomer to the Tower he has to learn about it in the same way that a reader does, but broadening out the perspective in the sequel is a good idea. It is interesting to see how Senlin himself looks from the other perspectives and the other crew members are interesting characters and Edith in particular gets some good characters development in this book, although I did find Adam’s story arc to be a little bit dull. Away from the crew of the Stone Cloud, I did find Byron and Ferdinand to be entertaining supporting characters in the chapters set in the Sphinx’s lair.

Overall, I’d say this book got off to a bit of a slow start but I think it recovered in the remaining two thirds of the book and the last section in particular was excellent and set up several interesting plotlines for the rest of the series.

Rating : 8/10

8Jan/170

“Senlin Ascends” by Josiah Bancroft

senlin ascends

The first thing that really stands out in “Senlin Ascends” is the originality of the premise, in which a headmaster, Thomas Senlin, and his new bride, Marya, go on a honeymoon to legendary The Tower of Babel. The book’s interpretation of the tower is a vast structure stretching far above the clouds where each level is a different ‘ringdom’ with its own culture and its own idiosyncratic rules, the inhabitants of each ringdom might know about their neighbours but often have little knowledge of the rest of the tower, or the wider world beyond. It’s an unusual and memorable setting and much of the book is a journey of exploration through some of the lower levels of the Tower which is an alien environment to the protagonist – initially most of Senlin’s knowledge comes from the “Everyman’s Guide to the Tower of Babel” which he soon realises is a comically inaccurate guidebook which glosses over most of the Tower’s complexity.

In the first chapter of the story Senlin and Marya get separated in the vast crowds around the base of the tower, and Senlin soon comes to the dreadful conclusion that he has no way of finding her, making the rest of the book a quest to try to be reunited with her, a quest made more difficult by the fact that he has to guess how she would try to be reunited with him. His initial assumption is that she might try to follow their initial plan of ascending to the third level of the Tower, the resort ringdom known as the Baths, leading him to enter the Tower, although he quickly finds that ascending the Tower isn’t as easy as his Everyman’s Guide had made it sound. His quest is made more difficult by the other inhabitants of the tower who tend to be either wrapped up in their own problems or seek a way to exploit his desperation to their own advantage. The supporting cast has a number of memorable characters and one of the strengths of the characterisation is that it’s often quite difficult to tell what a character’s true agenda is or whether Senlin can trust them. Senlin himself is a likeable protagonist and while he can be frustratingly naïve in the early chapters he does go through quite a lot of character development as he is forced to adjust the way he behaves in order to survive the tower, while still trying to hold on to some of his principles. The book also does a good job of slowly revealing Marya’s character through flashbacks.

Senlin’s quest to be reunited with his wife does make for a compelling main plot but there are also some interesting subplots, particularly intriguing is the suggestion that all is not as it appears inside the Tower and there may be a hidden purpose to many of the oddities of its design. It feels like the story is only scratching the surface of some of the mysteries, but this does set things up well for later books in the series. If there is a flaw in the plotting it’s that some of the plot developments feel a bit too convenient to be entirely believable, such as Senlin encountering potentially helpful characters at just the right time or a heist Senlin takes part in which never really feels like it should have worked.

I think the setting is definitely the most memorable aspect of the story. There are individual elements that feel familiar from other books but nothing that has combined them all together in quite the same way. There are plenty of wondrous things in the tower, as well as aspects of the tower that feel very dystopian, and often the good and bad parts of the tower are intertwined, the Orwellian surveillance in the theatre ringdom known as The Parlour being particularly memorable. One thing that was a bit disappointing was the wider setting beyond the Tower, the land of Ur may have names reminiscent of ancient Mesopotamia but other than the names the society largely seems to be a form of Victorian Steampunk, it’s a bit of a shame that a book with so much originality in its world-building wasn’t a bit more original in that respect.

This is the author’s self-published debut novel but the writing is so consistently good throughout that this doesn’t feel like a debut. The book isn’t without some occasional flaws but it’s a very promising start to what could be an excellent series.

Rating : 8 / 10

22Oct/160

“King of Morning, Queen of Day” by Ian McDonald

kingofmorningqueenofday

I would probably say Ian McDonald is one of my favourite current Science Fiction authors and I’ve read nine books by him before this one. This early work by him is a bit of an outlier because it switches genre to be an early example of Urban Fantasy.

The story follows three generations of women who all have some disturbing encounters with the supernatural. It starts in rural Ireland in the early 20th Century when the young daughter of a Gentleman Astronomer encounters what she believes are faeries in the grounds of her family’s estate. The second section moves to Dublin in the 1930s as another young woman with a fondness for telling unlikely stories finds some of her lies appear to be coming true. The final section is in the “present day” (a.k.a. the early 90s) as a bicycle courier hunts supernatural beings around night-time Dublin armed with a pair of katanas.

The three sections of the book have very distinctive writing styles. The first section is mostly told via letters and diary entries, which feel appropriate for the 1913 setting but can feel slightly dry at times. The section is the most conventional in the terms of the writing style while the final section feels a bit more experimental. Despite being set in the early 90s it hasn’t dated too badly and I think it’s probably the strongest section of the book in terms of the writing but it was occasionally a bit hard to follow due to the non-linear narrative that jumps between different time periods without clearly showing when each scene is taking place.

I think McDonald has always been good at characterisation. The three protagonists have some similarities between them, they’re all troubled in one way or another but some of them are better at dealing that than others. I thought Enye was the most interesting of the characters, she’s also the most pro-active whereas Jessica is perhaps the least interesting because she tended to react to events without being able to really influence them. I think in Jessica’s stories the supporting characters are probably more interesting than Jessica herself. Enye also has a good supporting cast, and even if a character has little relevance to the main plot they can sometimes still get some interesting backstory.

I read this immediately after Peadar O’Guilin’s “The Call” which coincidentally also had creatures from ancient Irish mythology interacting with contemporary Ireland, but this is a very different take on mythology. At times it felt like a Science Fiction author’s take on fantasy where none of the mythology can be taken at face value but can instead be some sort of projection of the subconscious of the main characters. It’s an interesting idea and I did like the suggestion that it isn’t just ancient mythology but also its more modern equivalents that can make an appearance. On the downside, the book does sometimes get a little bit bogged down in trying to come up with new terminology to describe what is happening.

I liked the book, but probably wouldn’t say it is among McDonald’s best work, the first two sections aren’t as interesting as the third.

Rating : 7 / 10

19Sep/160

“The Call” by Peadar Ó Guilín

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I thought that Peadar Ó Guilín’s first trilogy was one of the more inventive and memorable Science Fiction stories I’ve read, with a world that was simultaneously fascinating and horrifying, so I was looking forward to his new series. Rather than the far-future setting of “The Inferior” and sequels, this is set much closer to home and much closer in time in 21st Century Ireland, however it is an Ireland that has been radically changed.

The first chapters explain the premise that the Irish mythology of the first Celtic settlers of Ireland having fought and banished the land’s previous inhabitants, the magical race known as the Sidhe, from the Many-Coloured Land of Ireland to the gloomy world of the Grey Land was based on fact. Thousands of years after their banishment the Sidhe have figured out a way to take their revenge on the descendants of those who stole their lands and have erected an impenetrable magical barrier cutting off Ireland from the rest of the world. More horrifying than the country’s isolation is the fate that awaits every teenager in Ireland, at some point in their adolescence they will face The Call and be pulled into the Grey Land to be hunted by the Sidhe for three minutes in our world and a day in their world. As a result, every teenager is sent to special school to spend their time training to improve their slim chances of surviving The Call.

It’s a fairly wild premise, but convincingly portrayed and the book does a good job of considering the implications on the people of Ireland and how society might attempt to adjust. I particularly liked the suggestion that with the nation’s children spending so much time studying their enemy that they’re starting to adopt aspects of the Sidhe’s own culture, such as conversing in their language. The brief forays into the Grey Land show a world that is bizarre but that also feels like it has its own strange logic to it and the Sidhe make compelling antagonists. They may have their own code of honour (they will never break their word) and have a justified grievance in having been banished to a hellish realm but they also have a gleefully sadistic streak in terms of horrors they inflict on the youngsters they catch.

The writing style is a bit unusual in the way it jumps between different point of view characters regularly. I think the story may be told from about twenty different points of view during a relatively short book, many of which consist primarily of a character being Called into the Grey Land followed by a short chapter showing their attempts to survive (which often, but not always, ends in a grisly demise). It does make the book feel very fast-paced and compelling to have characters (many of whom the readers is just beginning to like or dislike) suddenly snatched into a life-or-death situation. The characterisation is good throughout, and does a good job of showing the difference between how others perceive a character and how they perceive themselves. The book’s main protagonist Nessa is a compelling character who finds that attempting to live any kind of normal life often feels like a big distraction from her attempts to train herself to survive The Call – made doubly difficult by childhood Polio leaving her with difficulty walking. There’s an equal threat to her outside the Grey Land in the form of school bully Conor who is an antagonist that in his own way feels more despicable than anything the Sidhe can do.

I thought the book came to a strong ending that resolved many of the immediate aspect of the plot but left plenty of material unresolved for the sequel. There are a fair number of twists and surprises along the way, and there is genuine tension in wondering whether various characters will survive their Call.

Overall, it’s a very entertaining read and not quite like any other book I’ve read, I’m definitely looking forward to reading the sequel.

Rating : 9 / 10

1Aug/160

“The Ship” by Antonia Honeywell

theship

Unfortunately, I think this book is a bit of a wasted opportunity. It has an interesting initial premise with one of Britain's last rich men trying to flee a dying world on the Ship of the title along with his teenage daughter (the book's protagonist Lalla) and 500 hand-picked others. All the passengers are grateful for their apparent salvation with the notable exception of Lalla who may be the primary reason for her father's plan but who would rather try to save the world than run from it.

The book is entirely told from Lalla's perspective and I think that's one of the book's biggest problems because she has lived an extremely sheltered existence and is painfully naive at the beginning of the book and while she may learn more through the book it doesn't really feel like there's much actual character development and it's frustrating to have to wait a long time for Lalla to slowly realise things that were obvious to the reader from the start. For the book to work, I think we'd need to feel a bit more admiration or interest in Lalla but although it's possible to feel sympathetic for her it's also hard to really disagree with the other characters when they call her self-centred. The other characters in the book also feel shallow, and although the society aboard the ship has a definite dystopian undercurrent despite being superficially pleasant there's also not a huge amount of subtlety in the world-building.

It's a fairly quick read and there are some well-written passages, so I think the book could have risen above its flaws if the plot had developed in a more interesting way but after the frenetic start there's not a huge amount of plot movement until the finale and sadly the end didn't really feel believable.

Rating : 5 / 10

5Jul/160

“Blackout”/”All Clear” by Connie Willis

blackout

I’m only going to write a single review for “Blackout” and “All Clear” since Connie Willis intended them to be a single novel and they are only in two volumes because of the length.

I found that I had a bit of a love/hate relationship with these books, there were many bits that I really enjoyed and found compelling but there were also persistent flaws that kept reoccurring. Towards the end of “All Clear” I found that the more irritating flaws had reduced in number so I was left with an overall positive impression of the books but I think potentially there could have been a much stronger story here.

I found the basic premise quite appealing; in the mid-21st Century time travel has been invented and is being used as a tool by historians who now have the opportunity to directly experience major historical events rather than just writing about them. Willis has previously written other stories (which I haven’t read) following historians to other historical periods but in this case the main focus is on a trio of characters experiencing various aspect of life in England in the early years of World War 2 but who find themselves unable to return back to their own time. I do wonder a bit whether reading Willis’ previous time-travel stories might have answered a few of the questions I had about the background to this. The Oxford of 2060 seems oddly anachronistic, it feels more like the background to an Inspector Morse episode rather than a futuristic society and I don’t know whether it was a deliberate plot point that England in forty-five years time will feel a lot like England forty-five years ago or if it was just lazy world-building.

Fortunately, the books don’t spend much time in the future and I found the world-building to be much more convincing when it was showing the 1940s. Although the story visits a few time periods (from Dunkirk to VE Day) it spends most of its time during the Blitz in London and it gives a very evocative portrayal of how horrific and disorienting that constant air-raids must have been, the scenes set around St Paul’s as much of the surrounding area becomes an inferno during one of the fiercest raids were particularly effective at showing how hellish that time could be. The books also do a good job of showing the population of London trying to somehow live their lives in the midst of the chaos. Willis has obviously done a huge amount of research into the time period, I think this has both good and bad points since it does help making the setting feel real but at the same time also contributes to the excessive length of the story.

The plot is also very cleverly constructed with lots of hints and clues about what is going to happen later in the story (and I’m sure there are probably more there than I noticed). A lot of the fun of reading the story was trying to piece together those clues. Willis uses a structure where each chapter follows one of the characters before switching to another character for the next chapter, usually with some sort of mini-cliffhanger at the end of the chapter. I think this does help in making the reader want to find out what happens next and I found I went through the book relatively fast, on the other hand the cliffhangers do often feel a bit manipulative and there are so many fake disasters that turn out not to be disasters that when things really do go wrong I found myself initially unsure whether to believe them or not. I think perhaps the most frustrating thing about the story was how slow the plot progression could be and how some of the plotlines got very repetitive. There are a lot of instances characters almost but not quite meeting up with each other or finding a way back to their own time, but are prevented by bad timing or bad communication or bad luck. Admittedly, much of this does become an actual plot point in the story but that doesn’t really make it any less irritating. Unfortunately, it’s one of those books where it feels a lot of trouble could be solved if the characters just sat down and had a lengthy and honest conversation with each other but they either decide not to do that or are prevented from doing that. In the first book there’s also a lot of repetition between the three main plotlines as the central characters (who haven’t yet met up) are all separately trying to figure out why they’re unable to return to 2060.

I think with some ruthless editing it would probably have been possible to cut maybe a third of the length of the story without losing anything too significant. Some of the subplots take up a lot of space without ever really going anywhere. For example, I find Bletchley Park as fascinating a topic as any other Computer Science graduate but a character’s visit to there is ultimately inconsequential and should probably have been cut.

Usually I found the supporting characters to be more interesting than the three main protagonists with an interesting and varied cast (the infamous Hodbin children were particularly memorable). Out of the three main characters I found Eileen to be the most interesting and likeable, while she might initially seem the most out-of-her-depth (as the other two protagonists seem to think) in the long run she turns out to be perhaps the most resilient and perceptive of them and she has the most interesting interactions with the other 1940s characters as well as the most character development. I also thought Mike had some interesting character development after having been fairly bland initially but Polly felt like she didn’t really change much over the course of the story. One minor irritation is that for people who are supposedly historians they don’t seem to know much history beyond the details of how to blend into the era (it feels like I shouldn’t know more about things that happened in World War 2 than they do), and their assessment of historical events sometimes seems a bit dubious.

Overall I’d have to say my reaction to the two books was a bit mixed. I did enjoy many aspects of the story and I found them compelling enough to read hundreds of pages in a day, on the other hand the story is far longer than it needs to be and it felt like the books weren’t quite as good as they had the potential to be.

Rating : 7.5 / 10

3Jun/160

“Children of Earth and Sky” by Guy Gavriel Kay

children of earth and sky

I’ve read all of Guy Gavriel Kay’s previous novels and enjoyed them all (even if some are better than others) so bought this soon after it was released.

Like a lot of his previous books Kay has decided to set the story in what is ostensibly a fantasy world but one that maps very closely to real history (to the extent that individual characters and places are often identifiable even if under slightly different names) with some minor supernatural elements added. This book is in many ways a follow-up to his Sarantine Mosaic duology (which I think is one of Kay’s best works) which was set at the height of Kay’s world’s equivalent of the Byzantine Empire. Children of Earth and Sky is set many centuries after the Sarantine books, shortly after the great city of Sarantium has fallen to his world’s equivalent of the Ottoman Empire who now threaten neighbouring nations with much of the story taking place in the mercantile republics of Seressa (Venice) and Dubrava (Dubrovnik) as they try to trade with both sides in the conflict. I don’t really know much about the period of European history Kay’s book is based on, so this is an unusual fantasy book where I’ve feel like I’ve learned more about actual history from reading something not technically set in our world. While it’s not really necessary to have read the Sarantine books to follow the plot in this there are some nice references to the previous series scattered throughout the book and it does revisit some familiar locations.

I’ve always liked Kay’s characterisation and this time around he does seem to have avoided some of his past excesses about having characters who are supremely talented at everything they turn their hand to. I thought there was some really good character development here. The idea of heroism seems to be one of the main themes here and Kay does a good job of showing characters who may in some respects be genuinely heroic and morally ambiguous at the same time. There is a good variety of characters here as well, while the two main female protagonists may be very different they both find their own ways of making an impact on the world.

I did think this book took a while to really get going, the first hundred or so pages seem largely devoted to introducing a large cast of characters in a variety of settings and they can initially feel a bit disconnected. One thing Kay does well is showing how suddenly violence could break out in such a world, and it’s after one of those abrupt outbreaks of violence that I thought the book started to become compelling. Overall the book is more focused on character interactions and political intrigue than action but when required it does deliver some compelling action scenes with a forest ambush and a desperate rearguard action against an invading army being particularly memorable. Although this isn’t a book with a single straightforward plotline I think Kay did a good job of weaving the different plotlines together so it feels like a coherent novel and although the ending, like real history, doesn’t tie everything up too neatly it does offer enough of a conclusion to be satisfying.

Overall, I’d probably rank this not far behind Kay’s best books, other than taking a while to get going I don’t have any major criticisms of it.

Rating : 8.5 / 10

3Jun/160

“The Tiger and the Wolf” by Adrian Tchaikovsy

tigerandthewolf

Adrian Tchaikovsky seems to be one of the more prolific authors writing at the moment, it's only been a couple of years since he finished his ten-volume Shadows of the Apt series and this book is the third novel he's published since then (and they haven't been short books). After last year's two standalones this is a return to the series format, although this isn't intended to be as lengthy a series as the Apt books.

The setting this time is a bit different to his previous fantasy books, whereas they had relatively advanced societies this book feels like it is set in its world's equivalent of the Bronze Age with most people living in small warring tribes. Because of this the world-building feels a bit simplistic compared to the Apt books, but it does a reasonable job of making it feel convincing and mostly avoids the potential trap of having the characters have too modern a mindset for their surroundings. Tchaikovsky does usually like to have a high-concept premise; in this case it's that all humans have the ability to shapeshift into the form of their tribe's animal. There are a variety of different tribes shown from the relatively mundane wolves, tigers and bears through to the more exotic Komodo dragons and one character who is able to change into the form of an unnamed animal reminiscent of a Jurassic Park-style velociraptor. If nothing else, this does make for some distinctive and entertaining action scenes, I feel like I’ve read a lot of fantasy books where all the fights could have come straight from medieval Europe so it’s nice to have a bit of variety.

Although Tchaikovsky can always be relied upon to have some inventive ideas I find it’s often his characterisation that I like best about the books. I did like the characters in this, the protagonist Maniye is very likeable and gets some good character development, to a large extent the book is structured as her coming-of-age story so it can occasionally feel a little bit clichéd. I thought there were also some good characters among the supporting cast, and there is some subtle character development where the reader’s initial impression may be biased by Maniye’s opinion of them but it gradually becomes apparent that she’s not always the best judge of character.

I think maybe my biggest criticism of the book might be that while this is clearly meant to only show the beginning of a conflict against a potentially world-threatening threat, that more epic part of the storyline is perhaps a bit too much in the background for it to really be interesting. The book can also sometimes be a bit predictable in its plot developments; it’s not too hard to anticipate some of the plot twists although there were also quite a few things which did take me by surprise.

Overall, I wouldn’t say this is Tchaikovsky’s best book (I think last year’s “Guns of the Dawn” is still my favourite) but it was a consistently enjoyable read with some unique and memorable scenes.

Rating : 7.5 / 10

23Apr/160

“The Long Way To A Small, Angry Planet” by Becky Chambers

long way to a small angry planet

The starship Wayfarer does something that would seem extraordinary to us, but commonplace to its crew. Their job is to build wormholes to make it easier for other starships to travel between the many planets of a galaxy-spanning alliance of alien races. Half of the crew are humans, who are one of the junior members of that civilisation. Rosemary Harper is the crew's newest recruit, a seemingly ordinary recent graduate fleeing a secret in her past who has the unenviable task of trying to bring some organisation to the ship. She has to adjust to the new crew, including some alien races she'd never even heard of, while at the same time preparing for the ship's biggest commission to construct a wormhole to a planet in the middle of what was recently a war-zone.

I don't think the book was exactly what I expected it to be, but I did like it. The initial setup (new recruit joins the crew of a small spaceship) immediately made me think of the likes of Firefly, the Paradox trilogy or The Tales of the Ketty Jay, but I think this was a bit misleading because it's got a lot less action than any of those other series and while the crew may have their own secrets and eccentricities they're much more law-abiding than the rogues that make up most of the other crews. I wouldn't count this as being space opera, instead it is more of an interstellar travelogue with a big focus on the characterisation and in particular how different species of humans and aliens interact with each other.

I liked the characters, and I liked the way they interacted with each other and how they had to all adjust the way they behaved to take into account they were sharing the ship with three other alien races (and even the humans have big cultural differences, some of them being from a culture of committed pacifists who won't accept the use of weapons even when heading into a potential warzone). The aliens had a convincing mix of behaviour that is comprehensible and some ways of thinking that are different for us to understand (some of the other crewmembers find it difficult to adjust to a crewmember of a reptilian race who only count their children as people once they start to become adults). It takes a while to really get to know them but I thought there were some great scenes in the second half of the book. If I had a criticism I'd say the plot maybe takes a bit too long to get going, but by the time of the finale it has becomes a compelling story. I'm definitely interested in seeing how the story develops in the sequel.

Rating : 8 / 10