Voidhawk.com Book and film reviews

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

11May/140

“The Left Hand of Darkness” by Ursula Le Guin

Left Hand of Darkness

“The Left Hand of Darkness” is widely regarded as being a classic work of Science Fiction. I think a lot of the praise it gets is well-deserved but I also found it a bit disappointing because it is a book that I ended up admiring more than actually liking.

A large part of the book’s fame comes from the setting, a world named Winter which is entirely populated by genetically modified humans who are all androgynous and only take on male or female sexuality for a short period of time each year. Much of the story revolves around the main character Genly, an envoy from a distant space-faring civilisation on a First Contact mission, trying to understand the world he finds himself in and trying to adjust to a society without traditional gender roles. This premise would probably have felt more revolutionary when this book was published in the late sixties, the impact of it has been diluted a bit by later books using a similar premise (probably in many case inspired by Le Guin’s work), but I think the book still has plenty of interesting and thought-provoking things to say on the subject. I think this is the best bit of the world-building, but I was less impressed by some of the other aspects of it. A lot of time is spent describing the world of Winter and the two main civilisations on it but other than the inhabitants’ unusual gender I didn’t find the world to be all that interesting and at times it felt a bit lacking in depth, particularly when Genly moves to the excessively bureaucratic land of Orgoreyn whose society felt too simplistic to be entirely convincing. There are some interludes adding some historical and mythical information about the world, I thought these varied from interesting to slightly dull. One thing that does work well is showing how hostile and unforgiving a world the aptly-named Winter is and it’s probably no coincidence that the most compelling part of the book details an arduous journey across a glacier.

We don’t get to see much of the civilisation which sent Genly on his mission and I think we could have benefited from seeing a bit more of them. Genly’s attitudes and way of viewing the world made him feel more like a character from 20th Century Earth rather than advanced spacefaring civilisation and I was never entirely clear whether this was meant to be a commentary on that civilisation not being quite as liberal and open-minded as they probably thought they were. If we could have seen some other characters from the same civilisation this might have helped show whether Genly is typical of them or whether he was just a poor choice who wasn’t well-suited for the job he is asked to doo. The way Genly’s mission is structured also seems contrived and unlikely, while I can see the logic behind sending a single unthreatening envoy to make First Contact rather than a large party it does seem unbelievable that he spends most of the time out of contact with the ship that brought him and that they didn’t at least send one envoy to each civilisation on the planet (unsurprisingly the fact that he landed initially in one civilisation rather than the other leads to some tension).

The characterisation had some high points but was often a bit lacking. I thought there was one really fascinating character in the form of Estraven, the senior politician who is one of the few people on Winter to fully grasp how important Genly’s mission is. The interactions between Genly and Estraven are key to the book, both their initial misunderstanding as the differences between their cultures cause confusion and their eventual friendship as they are both forced to flee from those who see Genly’s mission as a threat. Unfortunately, while Genly and Estraven get plenty of character development we don’t seem to see enough of most of the supporting characters for them to really become interesting and as a result they end up feeling a bit bland by comparison.

The book is fairly slow-paced for the most part as Genly wanders around Winter (slightly aimlessly at times) and it feels like the story only really kicks in during the last third of the book. By the end the story has become compelling, but it’s a pity that the book took so long to get to that stage. Ultimately it does make for a satisfying and thought-provoking plot but it does feel like the book could have added a bit more in the way of plot and characterisation without losing any of the elements that made it interesting.

This is a book that I would recommend for its ideas and I think it does enough to deserve its status as a classic work of Science Fiction, but some other SF classics have done a better job of balancing ideas and plot.

Rating : 7 / 10

11May/140

“The Diamond Age: Or, A Young Lady’s Illustrated Primer”, by Neal Stephenson

DiamondAge

The Diamond Age is one of those frustrating novels which at its best tells a compelling story with fascinating ideas and memorable characters but fails to sustain that quality over an entire book and ends up being good but not as great as it could have been, a bit like the other Neal Stephenson novels I’ve read.

One of the things that works well here is the setting, which manages to both be futuristic and also feel surprisingly topical for a book that’s almost twenty years old. A lot of the book is spent examining the impact of two technologies – the effects of widespread 3D printing on the global economy and the use of tablet computers in education of children. While early versions of both these technologies did exist back in the mid-90s I think Stephenson has done a good job of extrapolating from them, many of the issues brought up in the book will also frequently appear in modern-day news stories about the future of those technologies. Other aspects of the world-building are slightly less convincing; I think the idea of a New Victorian Age with some groups revisiting a past society as a way of dealing with a changing world is a reasonable one in principle but I’m not sure it ever quite manages to be believable. Admittedly, I’m not sure it was even meant to be believable or if it is just meant to be a fusion of steampunk and cyberpunk elements. One thing that does feel a bit dated is the portrayal of China as being somewhere lagging behind the new manufacturing revolution rather than leading it, I wonder if this might have been written differently if Stephenson wrote it now rather than two decades ago.

The most memorable bit of technology in the book is the Young Lady’s Illustrated Primer, an intricately designed educational device in the form of a tablet computer which was destined for the young daughter of a senior Neo-Victorian lord but which ends up in the hands of Nell, a precocious young girl living a seemingly doomed existence in the Shanghai slums. Some of the highlights of the book come from the scenes where Nell is using the Primer and Stephenson shows some of his best writing in these scenes as he manages to somehow make compelling a storyline where a young girl plays an educational video game using a fairy tale world to educate her about technology. Nell is a likeable and fascinating protagonist and the book is at its best when focusing on her efforts to escape from her mother’s abusive boyfriends and her attempts to try to first fit in to Neo-Victorian society and later to find her own way in the world. There are also some good supporting characters, such as the Constable who acts as a mentor to Nell or the voice actress who records the Primer’s narration and sets off on a seemingly hopeless quest to try to find the girl she is helping the Primer to raise. Unfortunately, I found some of the other characters to be less interesting, and the novel often started to become less compelling when it moved away from Nell’s story and focused on other characters such as the Primer’s designer and his efforts to infiltrate a mysterious cult. I think some other characters could have benefited from a bit more time being spent on them, for example it might have been interesting to see more of the contrasts between Nell and the two other girls who get copies of the Primer.

I think the book’s biggest problem is that having established a compelling premise and some interesting characters and ideas the book seems increasingly unsure about what to do with them (which seems a bit of a common problem in Stephenson’s books). New plot elements are introduced, principally a mysterious religious/technological cult known as the Drummers and Chinese revolutionaries marching on Shanghai, but unfortunately neither of the plot lines manages to be as compelling as Nell’s story and some parts of the plot start to get increasingly weird. The ending felt very rushed since key plot points were dealt with in fewer pages than some of the games Nell plays in the Primer and although I can see some of the points Stephenson was trying to make with the Drummers I still can’t say I entirely understand that particular plot or its resolution. The characterisation also suffers due to some large time jumps and some odd and poorly-explained decisions by some of the characters and it’s a pity that Nell seems to become less important to the story as it goes along.

I thought there were some great bits in the book, and despite its flaws I’d definitely recommend it but with a caveat that ultimately the whole is somewhat less than the sum of its parts.

Rating : 8 / 10