Voidhawk.com Book and film reviews

8Aug/150

“The Goblin Emperor” by Katherine Addison

goblin emperor

In some ways this feels like a very traditional epic fantasy, it has elves and goblins in it, it is set in an empire with an ancient history and its main character is a young man plucked from obscurity to play a crucial role in the fate of the empire. In other ways, this is less traditional, there’s no dark lord to overthrow, no epic quest and no pitched battles between good and evil. There’s enough here to inspire some nostalgia for the epic fantasies I used to read when I was a teenager but in many ways this is a more interesting story.

The book starts with the protagonist Maia being woken in the middle of the night by a courier sent to tell him that his father and half-brothers have been killed in an airship accident. Since his father was the Emperor and his elder brothers were his father’s heirs this means that Maia is suddenly thrust into the position of being the next ruler of the Empire of the Elves. As the book’s title alludes to, this is something that many of his new subjects find controversial since Maia is half-breed, his late mother having been a goblin who married the Emperor in a short-lived and unhappy political marriage. Maia has grown up in obscurity, effectively in exile in a distant part of the Empire under the care of his often cruel cousin and warder, and with no contact with his father or other living family. There is a huge amount of culture shock as he suddenly finds himself in the capital living at the Royal Court where he knows no-one and where he knows little of the workings of the Empire. As the book goes on Maia must deal with the various challenges of the situation, ranging from challenges to his rule from ambitious nobles to more personal challenges as he has to find a way to be happy in his new role. He is a young man with trouble making friends when there is an inevitable separation from his subjects and it is difficult to tell friend from foe.

Although there are a number of interesting plot points, including a couple of conspiracies against Maia’s rule and the investigation into the airship disaster that brought him to the throne, I wouldn’t say this is a particularly plot-driven book. Instead, the main attraction here is the characterisation and the setting. I found Maia to be a very compelling character, it’s very easy to like him and sympathise with some of the troubles he encounters. If I had a criticism it would be that occasionally his actions seem a bit too selfless (he tends to be a bit too forgiving to some of his enemies, for example), but he is an interesting character and gets some good character development as he learns how to adapt himself to the new role he finds himself in. The supporting characters are also interesting with some good subtle characterisation where sometimes it is important to pay more attention to character’s actions than what Maia thinks of them since, at least at first, he isn’t always the best judge of character, and being the Emperor people will tend to tell him things they think he wants to hear rather than what they necessarily think themselves. It’s also possible to see how the perceptions of other characters towards their Emperor changes as the book goes on, many of the characters seeming to have judged him based on what he was or what they have heard of him, and as they get to know him better their opinions of them change in a variety of ways.

There may be a small number of brief action scenes but for the most the part plot advancement is done via dialogue as Maia tries to navigate the convoluted world of court intrigue. Despite the lack of the type of action traditionally seen in epic fantasy stories there do manage to be some tense scenes as Maia’s grasp on power can start to seem fairly tenuous as the book goes on. I think it manages to be a compelling story although the finale to one particular plot thread does fall a bit flat and it does feel like the novel ends slightly abruptly (although on a fairly appropriate note).

I thought the writing was very good. The dialogue may not be to everyone’s tastes since it uses a lot of deliberately archaic and formal-sounding language but I thought it felt very appropriate to the setting. The world-building manages to suggest a lot of depth and a long history without getting bogged down in too much exposition, where it makes sense there is some exposition as other characters explain things to Maia he doesn’t know but other elements that he would already be familiar with, such as the Empire’s religion can be picked up from the brief mentions of them. Sometimes the plethora of titles and foreign terms and the large number of named characters can start to seem a little bit overwhelming but for the most part I didn’t find it too confusing.

Overall, I’d say this was an Epic Fantasy novel that in many ways wasn’t particularly epic but that didn’t stop it being compelling. I don’t know if the book will be to everyone’s tastes but I found it very enjoyable. As far as I know there isn’t a sequel planned, but I’d happily read one if it was written.

Rating : 8 /10

8Aug/150

“Sailor to a Siren” by Zoë Sumra

sailor to a siren

It is apparent from just the first couple of chapters that “Sailor to a Siren” combines an intriguing, and relatively unusual, mix of genres. The first chapter opens in the middle of a heist with member of one gang (including two of the novel’s protagonists) stealing a drug shipment owned by a rival gang. That this isn’t a mundane crime novel is soon obvious since the rival gang members are aliens who look a bit like giant birds and they have a human woman helping them guard the shipment who can do what the characters describe as magic.

The setting feels like a classic space opera setting with humanity now dispersed across half of a galaxy dominated by two superpowers that seem to be in the middle of a lengthy Cold War. The planet most of the book is set on is largely populated by the bird-like aliens but it’s also home to a large community of humans as well as various other assorted aliens. The Spellweavers add a touch of what feels like urban fantasy into the setting, although there is some brief exposition about how the magic they do has a complex scientific explanation.

Traditionally Space Opera stories have taken place on an epic scale but despite the setting this doesn’t feel much like a traditional Space Opera plot. The story focuses on the aftermath of the heist that takes place in the first chapter, as two brothers Connor and Logan try to find a way to sell what they’ve stolen while surviving the rival gang’s retaliation and having to navigate the complicated politics of the planet’s underworld. From the very first chapter onwards they have a feeling that they’ve stumbled into something more dangerous than they expected, since no ordinary drugs shipment should have been guarded by an expensive Spellweaver. They soon find they’re in more trouble than they anticipated but even in desperate circumstances Connor always keeps looking for a way to turn the situation to his advantage. A complication is provided by the third of the book’s main characters, an old flame of Logan’s named Eloise who is part of a group of Spellweavers hired to crack down on the planet’s trade in illegal drugs.

There is a lot of plot packed into a relatively short book. This is set in a brutal world where life is cheap and everyone from the gangs to the police have their own agenda and nobody other than family can be fully trusted (although sometimes loyalty can be found in surprising places). The story gets increasingly complex as it goes along before the various factions all converge together in a final confrontation which I thought was the highlight of the book – a clash between multiple different groups where none of them are entirely in control of the situation. The setting is very claustrophobic, the stakes are high and it remains tense throughout. There are plenty of double-crosses and most characters have some hidden motivations which kept the plot unpredictable.

Due to the nature of the plot we only get glimpses of the wider setting but the book does a good job of suggesting a long history and there is plenty of material for other books in the setting to explore – the long-running conflict between the two rival guilds of Spellweavers seems particularly intriguing.

I thought the characterisation was good. I wouldn’t say most of the characters are likable – Connor and Logan are hardened criminals who loyalty to each other is probably one of their few redeeming features – but they are interesting and compelling characters. There may be a lot of action in the book but in between the three main characters do get some effective character development, and it’s also interesting to see the contrast between how they are perceived by other characters and how they perceive themselves when we see things from their perspective.

Overall, I thought this was a compelling mixture of gangland thriller, space opera and urban fantasy and I look forward to reading more books in the same setting.

Rating : 8 / 10

25Jul/150

“The Three-Body Problem” by Liu Cixin (translated by Ken Liu)

threebodyproblem

This is the first Chinese Science Fiction book I’ve read and I found that the Chinese setting does bring in some interesting elements and themes so in some ways this is different to anything else I’ve read. In other ways it also seems very familiar because it feels like it owes a big debt to so-called Golden Age Science Fiction having many of the traits of that era, both good (fascinating speculative ideas) and bad (weak characterisation).

It takes a while for the main focus of the plot to become apparent. The story mostly takes place in two different time periods, following the book’s two main protagonists. The first plot thread is the more compelling of the two and is set during the Cultural Revolution as young science prodigy Ye Wenjie finds herself assigned to a mysterious government research project. The disorienting paranoia of the Cultural Revolution is well-portrayed; with Ye’s story beginning as her family falls apart due to her father’s persecution for daring to teach physics theories regarded as ideologically unsound. Ye’s stubborn endurance through the various disasters that befall her does make her a compelling character and although she makes some fairly extreme choices later in the book I think the way her character develops does make her behaviour plausible.

Unfortunately, I didn’t find the book’s other protagonist to be anywhere near as compelling. Wang Miao is a modern-day research scientist and unlike Ye Wenjie he is living a largely unexceptional existence until the day he is called in to a secret government taskforce investigating what they believe is a high-level international conspiracy lead by a cabal of scientists. The taskforce is also investigating the suicides of a number of prominent researchers, who seems to have to have been driven to despair after experiencing things that seem to defy the laws of physics.

I think this part of the story is a bit hit-and-miss. I think the highlights mostly happen when (after a tip from another scientist) Wang Miao starts playing a hugely complex online computer game called “The Three Body Problem” set on a planet mostly inhabited by Chinese historical figures whose civilisation goes through endless rises and falls due to unpredictable and sometimes cataclysmic shifts in climate due to the erratic behaviour of the planet’s Sun with the players having the task of explaining these climatic shifts. How this relates to the rest of the plot isn’t immediately apparent but makes more sense as the story goes and the game does feature some memorable imagery used to convey various scientific ideas. The idea of a civilisation of beings that can dehydrate themselves to go into extreme hibernation through nights that last for years isn’t entirely new in Science Fiction but it’s still a fascinating concept and there are other nice touches such as forming a computing device out of tens of thousands of perfectly-drilled soldiers (which seems a very Chinese concept, reminiscent of the choreography of the Beijing Olympics opening ceremony).

Unfortunately, it’s the portions of the story that aren’t set in either the Cultural Revolution Era or inside the virtual world that seem least successful. I think the characterisation is one of the big problems here. Most of the characters are dull, and at times it feels like most of them seem incapable of experiencing any kind of genuine human emotion. I’m not really sure if this is an attempt at commentary on the disconnection from normal society of scientific geniuses, or just poor writing. For example, Wang Miao is married and his wife does appear in a few scenes but although he’s going through many traumatic experiences at no point does he ever seem to consider confiding in her and he barely seems to think of her. I don’t know whether this is meant to be a commentary on the state of his marriage or just poor writing on part of the author, but either way it doesn’t help him feel like a likeable or interesting character. Most of the other characters in this part of the story seem mainly to exist to provide exposition and have little character depth. The most interesting character is Da Shi, a veteran policeman assigned to the taskforce with a down-to-Earth approach that clashes with Wang Miao’s way of viewing the world, he’s a fun character but by being so lively he does make the rest of them seem even duller in comparison and the maverick detective who doesn’t work well with others but is good at his job is a bit of a cliché. The dialogue is also poor (maybe it’s lost something in translation); too many of the conversations don’t feel like something people would actually say. Character motivations are also an issue, while the two protagonists have properly-established motivations it’s sometimes hard to see why some of the other characters are doing things – for examples while I could believe some scientist being driven to suicide if their cherished theories were apparently disproved I think at least some of them would be more likely to take on the challenge of trying to find an explanation.

The science in the book is often fascinating; there are some compelling ideas in the story and they’re mostly clearly explained, but there are some weaknesses. For most of the book it could be described as reasonably plausible Hard-SF but some events near the end do seem to get very far-fetched (and one scientific breakthrough seems too advanced compared to the other things we see). There’s also an issue that a key plot point relies on ignoring a basic astronomical fact, but since the story wouldn’t really work otherwise I can understand why the author did it.

Overall, I would recommend this book despite its flaws and I think I will read the sequels when they are published. The characterisation may be very variable in quality and there may be a few significant plot holes but it does have some very good scenes, an unusual and memorable setting and some fascinating ideas.

Rating : 7 / 10

21May/150

“Guns of the Dawn” by Adrian Tchaikovsky

gunsofthedawn

Adrian Tchaikovsky’s “Shadows of the Apt” series was one of my favourite epic fantasy series of recent years so I was looking forward to reading his first book in a different setting. Unlike his previous 10-book series, “Guns of the Dawn” is a standalone novel (although not a particularly short one) and rather than the Apt series’ sprawling set of characters this focuses on a single protagonist.

The first chapter introduces Emily Marchwic experiencing her first firefight while her military unit attempts an advanced through a trackless swamp and has a bloody but inconclusive skirmish with their enemy. After this introduction the first section of the book flashbacks a year to show how Emily got into this situation. In the earliest part of the book she is as far from a soldier as it would be possible to be, living with her sisters and brother in their ancestral estate and from a social class which means it would be inconceivable that she would have anything as common as a job, let alone fight in a war. However, there is a war and it is going increasingly badly for her home Kingdom of Lascanne as they fight against the radical revolutionaries of Denland and one by one all the men of fighting age in her household (and Lascanne in general) are conscripted until in a final desperate act the King is forced to order that every household must provide one woman to be conscripted into the army. Therefore, after a rushed boot camp, Emily finds herself a junior officer assigned to the swamps of the Levant front of the war where most of the book takes place.

One of the things Tchaikovsky did really well in the Apt series was the battle scenes (even if there were perhaps too many of them at times), as well as managing to combine character development and action the series did a good job of showing how technology and worldview of the different civilisations in the series would effect the outcome of the battles. The battle scenes in this book are equally good. Everything is seen from Emily’s perspective and it does a good job of showing the confusing nature of the warfare where the combatants are often unclear about where their allies and their enemies are and how in this sort of battlefield the different tactics and personalities of the commanders on either side shape what happens. Although this is a fantasy setting there are only a couple of fireball-throwing warlocks to add magic to the battles, otherwise the level of the technology sees the musket being the main weapon, part of the reason that the female conscripts are sent into battle since (as Emily’s instructor points out) they don’t need to be able to match the strength of a male soldier to be deadly. The swamp setting is claustrophobic and means the focus is generally on small squads fighting each other, rather than some of the epic battles in the Apt books these are battles where individuals can have a real impact and as the book goes on and Emily grows in experience and slowly rises in rank through a mixture of luck and good judgment she starts to learn to be a leader and play a bigger role in the outcomes of the fighting. Many of the scenes feel very tense, the Lascannes army is taking heavy casualties and seems in a desperate situation so it feels as if the characters are genuinely in peril (even if Emily as the sole protagonist is protected a bit). Although the battle scenes may be compelling the overall tone of the book is very anti-war, with the overall senselessness of the brutality being one of the main themes, as well as the futility of all the soldiers dying in a front that is largely a sideshow to the much larger conflict in the other fronts of the war. Since the book’s plot follows the first female conscripts in a previously all-male army their interactions with the male soldiers are one of the main focuses of the plot, I think this is explored well showing the reactions of the male soldier varying from outright misogyny to (initially grudging) respect as the female soldiers make a useful contribution to the battle.

Compared to the Apt books it may have lost the epic scope and imaginative worldbuilding, but thankfully the characterisation lives up to his previous work. I found Emily to be a compelling protagonist and although she changes a huge amount during the book in terms of what she is capable of and how she acts I thought the character development felt plausible at each stage and even in the earlier sections of the book she does show signs of the (possibly foolish) bravery and stubborn determination that will help her a lot during the war. By the end of the book she is making decisions that would have been incomprehensible to her at the start of the book but the development along the way means that her actions do seem consistent with what her character has become. I think it also avoids the potential trap of making Emily too good at being a soldier, she may become a useful fighter and officer but the book does show there are better soldiers and her capabilities do generally seem believable (although to be picky she seems surprisingly good with a sabre when the book never shows her being trained with it). There is also a good cast of supporting characters, some of the best dialogue comes from the scenes between Emily and local dignitary Mr Northway who is an old enemy of her family and he is an interesting and ambiguous character who initially feels like an antagonist but evolves into something more complex since in his own way he is often trying to the right thing. As the book goes on the interactions between them also become more complex after Emily begins to realise he has a romantic interest in her, something that she is unsure how to deal with. There are also a number of interesting characters among Emily’s fellow soldiers in the Levant, including some likeable characters and some who feel as much the enemy as the initially faceless soldiers they are fighting against.

In the past Tchaikovsky has sometimes had a bit of a problem with the pacing (sometimes too fast, sometimes too slow). I think in the book he has got the pacing just right and after a steady start it increasingly picks up momentum until it gets to an initially surprising, but satisfying, final section. Everything that happens in the book has a purpose in terms of Emily’s character development, I think that helps the pacing but it does have a downside that it can feel a bit contrived at times and sometimes the setups for future plot developments are obvious enough that it’s possible to predict what sort of event is going to happen to Emily next.

As well as the predictability of parts of the plot, I think another flaw is that the world-building feels a bit drab and lacking in depth compared to Tchaikovsky’s previous work. It does feel like Napoleonic War-era England with a few token pieces of magic added (and the possibly non-human race of swamp dweller who are probably the most interesting piece of world-building). It’s also hard to get much impression of what Lascannes is like beyond the one provincial town Emily lives near.

Overall, this isn’t without a few flaws but I think they are fairly minor and I found this to be a very entertaining fantasy novel that lives up to the best of Tchaikosky’s previous work.

Rating : 9 / 10

4Jan/150

“Foxglove Summer” by Ben Aaronovitch

foxglove summer

The Peter Grant series has become one of my favourite current series, the adventures of a Metropolitan Police Constable recruited to be the apprentice of one of Britain’s last wizards had been consistently entertaining over the last four books. The previous book, “Broken Homes”, had ended on the best finale in the series so far as a sudden reversal snatched defeat from the jaws of victory in the Folly’s effort to capture a very dangerous rogue magician. Foxglove Summer picks up the story a few weeks after the end of the previous book but isn’t really a continuation of the story, instead it sees Peter being sent far away to rural Herefordshire to investigate whether there’s any supernatural involvement in the disappearance of two 11-year old schoolgirls. There are occasional references to the ongoing investigation into the Faceless Man and his allies but most of the focus on the abduction case. While it is a little bit frustrating to have to wait longer for the next chapter in the series’ primary plotline I think the book does benefit from focusing on a single case, in the past splitting the narrative between two different plotlines had left the second book “Moon Over Soho” feeling like the weakest entry in the series so far with one plotline far more compelling than the other.

There might not be much progress in the case against the Faceless Man but we does get some information about other elements of the background, namely some welcome detail about what happened during World War 2 in Ettersburg, an event that’s been frequently referenced due to its cataclysmic event on Britain’s magical community but one that had only been vaguely referred to in the past. There’s also some good ongoing characterisation for Peter as he has an opportunity to try to heal some of the emotional scars left by the traumatic events in previous books. Most of the characters in the book are new, but there is a return appearance for Peter’s potential romantic interest Beverly Brook and while the appearances by the River families in previous book have sometimes felt a bit disconnected to the main plot I think it works better here.

Characterisation has been one of Aaronovitch’s strengths in the series and there are some interesting new characters in minor roles although few of them get much in the way of characterisation. Local policeman Dominic Croft does make a likeable sidekick for Peter although he does seem unrealistically blasé in the face of the revelations about magic. In previous books London has almost seemed like a main character in the stories, this book takes Peter out of his urban comfort zone so there aren’t as many of the asides on local history that featured in his narration of the previous stories with a few scenes showing Peter a bit baffled by the way of life in the English countryside.

The abduction case is one of the more interesting mysteries in the series. The tension caused by the girls’ mysterious disappearance is shown both by the panicking families and their differing reactions and by the increasing desperation of the local police force to try to solve the mystery while the local and national press are breathing down their necks. The portrayal of police officers and their investigations in the series has always felt very plausible (aside from the magical elements) and this continues here with the police showing both cynicism and a stubborn determination to do as much as they can to solve the crime.

The story all builds to a tense finale and I think the resolution to the plot does work well although it does perhaps a bit rushed towards the end. There are a number of unanswered questions left at the end, I think it is reasonable to leave a number of mysteries particularly in regard to the motivations of supernatural beings but it might have been nice to at least hear Peter’s theories about why events unfolded the way they did.

Overall, I’d say this is up there with the best of the series so far although hopefully the next book will feature a return to the series’ main plotline.

Rating : 8 / 10

4Jan/151

“The Martian” by Andy Weir

themartian

The premise for “The Martian” is very simple. One of the first manned missions to Mars is forced to abort early after a huge storm hits the landing site, most of the crew escape safely but they believe that one of their number, botanist Mark Watney, is dead after being impaled by an antenna, his body lost in the confusion of the storm and the vital signs transmitted by his suit showing nothing. However, Watney does survive the accident but finds himself stranded on Mars with no way of getting to orbit, limited supplies and any potential rescue years away. The obvious comparison is to “Apollo 13” as the resourceful astronaut tries to find a way to survive using limited resources while NASA try to come up with a way of saving him.

“The Martian” is a book that does a lot of things very well and unfortunately does some other things quite poorly. The book is split between journals written by Watney chronicling his life on Mars and third-person scenes shown people back on Earth trying to come up with a way to help him. Watney’s journals are the highlight of the book, despite all the trials he manages to keep his sense of humour which helps to break up the scientific details of how he manages to survive. There are a lot of technical problems to solve along the way and Weir’s writing manages to explain clearly the science behind it without getting bogged down in detail. At first glance the scientific and technical details do seem plausible, I can’t really tell how accurate most of it is but it does manage to sound convincing. Watney experiences a number of setbacks along the way, some of them nearly fatal, and there are some genuinely tense scenes as he has to attempt some extremely dangerous and risky tasks.

Unfortunately, while I thought the chapters from Watney’s logs worked well I didn’t feel that the other scenes back on Earth were as successful. Andy Weir may be good at writing about space exploration or about a tense struggle for survival but he seems to struggle a lot with writing dialogue or characterisation. While there is only one character on Mars there is a much larger cast back on Earth (as well as Watney’s five fellow astronauts heading backing to Earth without any way to help) but Watney is virtually the only interesting character on the book (although I did like the fiery NASA PR manager). The rest of the characterisation feels very shallow, even if those characters aren’t the main focus of the book it does feel like more could have been done with them. The dialogue is clunky and unbelievable and often at its worst when Weir tries to write witty dialogue. While some of the jokes in Watney’s journal are amusing the other attempts at humour seem to fall completely flat and Weir seems to feel the need to explain in detail any pop culture references. Perhaps it’s for the best that Watney’s scenes don’t involve him interacting with any other characters. Watney’s journal entries may not necessarily be particularly eloquent but at least his writing does have a distinctive voice. His journals don’t seem to show a lot of emotional range beyond occasional outbreaks of terror or despondency, but perhaps this is realistic since I suspect Watney might realistically censor some of his thoughts knowing they’d be read by NASA later.

It’s a pity that some of the writing is so clunky because at its core there is a tightly-plotted and compelling story of survival against the odds with plenty of highs and lows along the way. It’s definitely worth reading despite its flaws but I feel with some improvements this could have been a great book rather than a reasonably good one.

Rating : 7 / 10

6Dec/140

“Ancillary Sword” by Anne Leckie

ancillarysword

I thought “Ancillary Justice” was one of the best debut SF novels I’d read in years so I was eager to read the sequel. Since the first book had ended with the first shots being fired in what looked likely to be a galaxy-spanning civil war I was expecting that the conflict would probably be the main focus of the sequel but Leckie has avoided writing what might have been the obvious plot. I compared the first book to Iain M Banks’ Space Opera in terms of its ambition, scale and concepts and I’d say the second book does still compare to his work but this time the comparison would be to Banks at his most introspective and character-focused, more like “Inversions” than “Excession”.

The book starts with the series’ protagonist Breq being dispatched on a mission to keep the peace in a system occupied by a fairly unexceptional Radchaai colony whose economy is mainly devoted to the growing of tea. The system has a particular fascination for Breq because it was the home of the Lieutenant whose murder had set into motion the events in the first book and her biggest priority is to protect the Lieutenant’s younger sister who still lives there. Although a long way from the conflicts starting to break out in other parts of Radchaai space the inhabitants of the system are still unsettled by the news of a civil war whose causes they don’t really comprehend. Although Breq has been given authority over the entire system the existing powers among the military and civilian administration are either resentful of her or determined to win her aid in their own power struggles. What they don’t initially realise is that Breq is a very atypical Radchaai ship captain and is just as concerned with some of the more marginalised members of a very unequal society rather than the upper classes. Meanwhile, Breq also has to deal with the knowledge that the Lord of the Radch may have sent on this mission but definitely doesn’t trust her and has attempted to send her own agent to watch over Breq.

This is not a book that could be described as action packed; although that does mean that the rare moments of violence do have more impact when they do happen. Instead, it is mainly focused on how the characters interact, much of which is governed by the social mores of Radchaai society which has many elaborate rituals governing social interactions and where people, especially the more powerful members of society, are rarely open about their intentions. This is a book where most of the key scenes involve dialogue rather than action; it’s a Space Opera where the main importance of the warships is the power and influence they give their Captains rather than what they actually do. It did take a bit of adjusting to, given the events in the previous books it’s initially tempting to dismiss the events on a relatively unimportant world as a bit of a sideshow and at first it’s not even clear what the focus of the plot is but I thought it did manage to become compelling in the second half of the book and I’d say the ending was probably stronger than that of Ancillary Justice (where the ending was possibly the weakest part of an excellent book).

Since most of the previous book had featured Breq either on a newly-conquered colony world or on the fringes of Radchaai society this is the first book where we see either a warship crew functioning normally or mainstream Radchaai society. It does add depth to the setting and although some parts of it are reminiscent of other fictional societies (particularly the inequality between different social classes in a supposedly equal society) it does have an original feel to it. One of the weaknesses of the first book had been while it had a fascinating and distinctive protagonist some of the supporting characters had felt a little bit thin in terms of characters but I think the characterisation is generally better in this book. The characterisation can be fairly subtle, inevitable in a society where people often feel they can’t say what they really mean, but I thought there were some interesting characters here including Breq’s young officer Lieutenant Tisarwat who becomes the centre of some of the subplots. While there’s nothing as attention-grabbing in the characterisation as the first book’s premise of having a protagonist who used to be a spaceship I did think there were some good explorations of how the ancillary technology the Radchaii used to crew their ships has effected their society. The characters have complex motivations and although some of them are outright villains there aren’t any simple heroes in this story. The two main returning characters Breq and Seivarden both get some good character development and their mission does give them both time to come to terms with the events of the first book, seen mostly obviously in Breq’s attempts to interact with the sister of the woman whose death she was responsible for in Ancillary Justice.

Overall, I’d say the decision to have a quieter and more low-key story for the second book in the series has been fairly successful even if it wasn’t the sequel I had been expecting.

Rating : 8 / 10

6Dec/140

“The Volunteer” by Peadar Ó Guilín

volunteer

I thought that “The Inferior”, the first book in this trilogy was a very original science fiction novel that wasn’t quite like anything else I’d read. The vision of a nightmarish world without any edible vegetation where the only way humanity can survive is by making war on and eating the other sentient alien races which inhabit the world is a very memorable premise. The sequel, “The Deserter” had taken the protagonists out of their own world and put them in a more conventional SF setting which lead to some interesting clashes of culture. Sadly the series didn’t seem to catch on (perhaps the premise was just a bit too weird for many readers?) so it initially looked like there might never be a concluding volume in the trilogy after it was dropped by its publisher but it has now been completed by the self-published “The Volunteer”.

I was initially a bit surprised that the first half of the book didn’t feature Stopmouth or Indrani, the series two main characters. Instead the story returns to their former home, the beleaguered tribal stronghold of Manways, now coming under increasingly under threat from the vicious aliens known as the Diggers, who continue to be the most unpleasant creations in the series. This part of the book is told from the perspective of an aging hunter named Whistlenose who is starting to feel that his days in the Tribe are numbered especially after he starts to clash which his chief Wallbreaker and Wallbreaker’s new adviser, an untrustworthy man recently arrived from the dying civilisation of The Roof. A large part of the book follows the journey of Wallbreaker’s tribe towards supposed salvation across a landscape where most of the creatures they encounter want to kill them and eat them (and not necessarily always in that order).

There are some fine action scenes along the way and the Tribe’s perseverance in the face of odds that seem increasingly insurmountable does make for a compelling story. The Diggers make for extremely effective antagonists and Wallbreaker is an interesting antihero, genuinely trying to help his tribe survive but also ruthlessly dedicated to his own survival. I was a bit less keen on his new adviser, Aagam, who feels like a fairly simplistic villainous character without any redeeming qualities. Whistlenose is a good protagonist for this part of the story, while he is more articulate than Stopmouth was in the first book he is equally likeable and goes on a similar journey where his initially unquestioning loyalty to his chief starts to clash with his determination to do the right thing.

I think it was a good decision to start the novel with a return to the setting of the first book rather than immediately picking up the next chapter in Stopmouth and Indrani’s story but we do eventually witness their return to the human colony they had founded at the end of The Inferior. This part of the story focuses on the clashes between different parts of the disparate society as they disagree over how best to survive in the face of the menace of the approaching Diggers. Inevitably, Stopmouth and his brother Wallbreaker are eventually reunited and as well as the continuation of their sibling rivalry this also complicates the situation as Wallbreaker makes his own power play for control over the last remaining humans and Stopmouth tries to come up with a final solution for the Digger menace. I thought the ending of the book was a satisfying conclusion to the trilogy with some tense scenes where the survival of any of the characters didn’t seem assured although some subplots did seem slightly rushed and other than Wallbreaker the other human antagonists did feel a bit caricatured.

Overall, I’d say the trilogy was definitely worth reading with a unique and memorable premise (albeit one that might ruin your appetite if read before dinner).

Rating : 8 / 10

10Aug/140

“The Well of Ascension” by Brandon Sanderson

wellofascension

I enjoyed the first Mistborn book despite thinking it had some weaknesses in some areas. I think “The Final Empire” could have worked well as a standalone since there did seem to be enough material there for a traditional fantasy trilogy so I was interested in seeing where the plot was going to in the sequel.

There have been plenty of fantasy books featuring the attempted overthrow of a dark lord or evil empire, but it’s a lot rarer (although not unheard of) to have a book exploring what happens after the good guys have achieved their victory. Judging from this book it might sometimes appear that overthrowing an empire that had lasted for a thousand years was the easy part and in the second book the hard work of trying rebuild the world is beginning. As the book begins the previous book’s heroes are in control of the old empire’s capital but find themselves surrounded on all sides by enemies, both remnant of the old regime and new forces rising up to try to take advantage of the power vacuum. Most of the characters are feeling increasingly out of their depth and a lot of the character development in this book focuses on those characters trying to live up to their new responsibilities.

At first glance it isn’t as obviously compelling a storyline as the first book’s plot but it does manage to bring in a number of interesting elements, particularly once it becomes clear that there is a greater threat than the rival armies marching on the capital. The nature of this threat is initially mysterious with one of the main plotlines following the scholar Sazeed as he tries to decipher ancient texts detailing this threat. This part of the plotline is the subtlest and cleverest part of the story, as it gradually becomes clear that there’s much more going on that initially meets the eye. There are some interesting plot twists which I thought were very effective (although I wonder if a more attentive reader might have seen them coming earlier). Some of the other plotlines do have some interesting mysteries and plot developments as well and there are also some good action scenes (even if some of the allomancy-powered fight scenes do start to feel a little bit repetitive after a while).

I thought the characterisation had some weaknesses in the first book, where the main characters were interesting but the supporting characters tended to feel either simplistic or bland. I would say a similar thing about the second book, there are some good characters and Vin continues to be an interesting protagonist but some of the characters still feel a bit lacking in depth. Elend, who finds himself as the new ruler, does get a reasonable amount of characterisation as he tried to develop into the leader his people need him to be but I still don’t find to be all that interesting a character and although the book does seem to be trying to make him more interesting I still think he’s lacking a little bit in terms of depth and the growing romance between him and Vin doesn’t feel entirely convincing. I think probably my favourite bit of characterisation in the book involved the initially antagonistic but increasingly respectful interactions between Vin and her kandra (a shapechanging being fanatically loyal to its master but also resentful of having to be a servant).

I’d probably say the first book in the series was better than the second, although the second is still an entertaining read which adds some interesting new elements to the story. I am interested in seeing how the series concludes, although I wouldn’t say I’m desperate to read the conclusion immediately.

Rating : 7/10

10Aug/140

“The Seal of the Worm” by Adrian Tchaikovsky

SealOfTheWorm

The Shadows of the Apt has been one of my favourite epic fantasy series of recent years. While it has had a few ups and downs over the ten volumes it has maintained a reasonably consistent quality and I think Tchaikovsky’s writing and characterisation has improved significantly since the first book. I was looking forward to this, the final book, especially after the ending of the previous book had set up some intriguing cliffhangers, although I was slightly nervous about how many plots would have to be resolved in a single volume.

I think the final book offers a satisfying conclusion to the series that manages to provide good resolutions to the various story arcs that have been running through the series. I think the bittersweet tone of the ending where successes have often come at a very high cost works well, particularly for a series which while never feeling all that grim still didn’t shy away from the high cost of war and conflict. I think there are some downsides, the pacing of the series has always been a bit erratic (sometimes too fast-paced, sometimes getting bogged down in subplots) and the problem reappears in the final book. Some of the plots such as Che’s attempts to fight the Centipede-kinden who are the final book’s main antagonists work better than others. Some events that might have had more time spent on them in previous books get dealt with very briefly and some of the cast don’t seem to get much attention paid to them. In the latter category there are both major characters from previous books like Tynisa, who doesn’t do much for most of the book even when she’s present in scenes, and also significant new characters like Ernain who plays an important role in the conclusion to one of the plots but it feels like we know very little about him. There are so many things happening and such a large cast to follow that there doesn’t seem to be as much character development as in the some of the best books in the series (such as The Scarab Path or Heirs to the Blade) although there are some good character moment (Stenwold’s return to the city of Myna where he began in the prologue to the first book is particularly effective).

One of the book’s strongest points is its main antagonists; the malevolent civilisation nicknamed The Worm. The previous book had featured a number of dire warnings about how horrific they were and now that we finally see them on page they live up to and exceed those warnings. They are conceptually horrifying as well as being plausible and deadly (but not invincible) enemies and because they’re so horrific it does allow some interesting questions about what sort of acts would be justifiable when facing such a threat. It does seem appropriate that the final book in the series should feature a bigger threat than any of the previous books and while the Wasp Empire were very effective enemies, the Worm are a completely different level of threat.

Another of the series strong points has been showing how the development of technology can change civilisations and the final book is taking this to its logical conclusion, showing both the positive and negative effects. It’s particularly interesting when showing how the Wasp Empire’s attempts to mould itself into an effective fighting force has paradoxically begun to bring some positives changes to its ultra-conservative society. While that part of the world-building has obvious correspondences to the real world there’s also some good exploration of the long-running contrast between the Apt and Inapt peoples and their mutual incomprehension of the other side’s mysticism and technology. The Worm, as a force that negates both those things seems a very appropriate villain for the final book.

Overall, I’d say this is a good although occasionally flawed conclusion to a good but occasionally flawed series. Although the ending of the book doesn’t demand any sequels there still seems to be plenty of potential in the world for further stories and I’d definitely be interested in reading more books set in this world.

Rating : 8.5/10