Voidhawk.com Book and film reviews


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


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


“The Call” by Peadar Ó Guilín


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


“The Ship” by Antonia Honeywell


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


“Blackout”/”All Clear” by Connie Willis


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


“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


“The Tiger and the Wolf” by Adrian Tchaikovsy


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


“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


“Slade House” by David Mitchell

slade house

Slade House if a difficult place to find, seemingly only accessible by a small black door off an alleyway in a nondescript suburban housing estate. This book tells the story of some of the unlucky people who manage to find the house and encounter its inhabitants.

This short novel is a companion-piece to Mitchell's "The Bone Clocks" which I read last year, unlike that book which mixed a number of different genres this sticks to a single genre, in this case a haunted house story told through the tales of five people who encounter the house and its malevolent inhabitants over the course of four decades. I thought "The Bone Clocks" biggest weakness was that the supernatural fantasy elements of the story felt a bit out-of-place compared to some of the other plotlines and the more mundane plotlines tended to be better. In this book I thought the supernatural elements of the story worked a lot better, probably due to being more integral to the whole story.

It's a fairly short novel but I think it's about the right length, any longer and it might have risked getting repetitive. I think Mitchell's characterisation is one of his strengths and I think it works very well here, he does have a knack for making characters seem interesting and well-rounded in a short space of time.

I think this would work well as a stand-alone but the little references to Mitchell's previous work do add something, particularly in the final section where there's probably a completely different reading experience if you recognise the name of one of the characters.

Rating : 8 / 10


“The Best of Ian McDonald” by Ian McDonald

The Best of Ian McDonald

In this book, there are many varied stories. Kenya gets invaded by alien lifeforms, an Irish music-hall star tours a post-War of the Worlds Mars, a family find a supernatural secret in the gardens of an Irish stately home, corrupt Nigerian politicians are harangued from the afterlife and an eccentric traveller promises he can make it rain in a drought-hit Arizona town.

I was interested in this because I've really liked several of Ian McDonald's novels that I've read, but hadn't read much of his short fiction (other than the "Cyberabad Days" collection which I thought was very good).

I thought it was a really good collection and the writing was of a consistently high quality all the way from the late 80s up to the present day. My favourites were probably the high-concept space opera of The Tear and the two stories set after alien artefacts land in Kenya and start reshaping the landscape, Towards Kilimanjaro and Tendeleo's Story. I know he's written some novels set in the same setting as the last two, I might have to read them sometime. A couple of stories didn't really work for me, "Verthandi's Ring" felt like a weak counterpart to "The Tear" and I feel like I haven't seen enough Hitchcock films to get all the references in "The Blue Motel", but other than that I liked them.

One of the things I liked about his novels was the varied settings, there aren't many Science Fiction novels primarily set in India or Turkey or Brazil (or Ian McDonald's native Northern Ireland). The short stories are similarly diverse, while there are a few in the typical settings of Britain or the US there are also plenty from various places around the world (and sometimes out of the world). There's a lot of diversity in the stories, from the dark (the Holocaust-set "Fragments of an Analysis of a Case of Hysteria" or the dysfunctional family of "After Kerry") to the comical ("A Small Well-Mannered Uprising of the Dead") to the surreal ("Unfinished Portrait of the King of Pain by Van Goch").

Rating : 9 / 10


“Medusa’s Web” by Tim Powers

medusas web

Scott and Madeline Madden have been trying to ignore their strange childhood as much as possible, but after their aunt commits suicide by grenade they are drawn back to their childhood home to meet with their estranged cousins. They are unable to resist the temptation to investigate some of the mysteries of their childhood, including their parents' disappearance, and the bizarre legacy their aunt left for them.

I really like Tim Powers' books, I think he has some fantastically imaginative stories and a real knack for making bizarre plotlines seem strangely plausible. Unlike most of the Tim Powers books I've read which tend to be historical fantasy this is (mostly) set in the modern day. I think this is maybe a bit of a problem because it makes it more glaring how how odd some of the characters' behaviours and motivations is, admittedly that may be somewhat explained by some of the traumatic events the characters have in their past but I think it's easier to accept the eccentricities that Powers' characters tend to have when they are (for example) 19th Century Romantic Poets rather than young adults in modern-day Los Angeles.

Occasional problems with characterisation aside, I did find this an entertaining book to read and Powers does his usual trick of taking surreal and magical events and make them seem like they have their own skewed logic to them. In this case, the key plot decide is the so-called 'spiders', drawings of mysterious eight-legged figures which when viewed give the person who looked at it a vision of the past or future. The viewing into the past element leads to a lot of overlap with Golden-Age Hollywood, and Powers is maybe more comfortable with the scenes set there rather than in contemporary LA.

Overall, I wouldn't rank this among Powers' best books, but even an average Tim Powers book is still worth reading.

Rating : 7 / 10