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“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 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


“The Dervish House” by Ian McDonald


The setting of this novel is Istanbul in the middle of the 21st Century and it follows half a dozen disparate characters. A young boy with ambitions to be a detective, an ambitious trader with a plan to get very rich very quickly, an art dealer with a lead on a priceless ancient treasure, the newly-hired marketing director for a start-up technology company, a young man struggling to find his place in the world and a retired economist from the beleaguered Greek community will all find that their lives will be changed by the events that occur over the course of a few days

Having been very impressed with McDonald's previous two books, "River and Gods" and "Brasyl", I was looking forward to this and hoping that his portrayal of a futuristic Istanbul would match up with his portrayals of a futuristic India and Brazil from the preceding books. One of the best features of the book is his evocative description of a mid-21st Century Istanbul, having never been to Turkey I can't tell how genuine his portrayal of a future Turkey is, but he certainly makes it feel authentic and although this is Science Fiction novel written by an author from Belfast I still feel I’ve learned a lot about Istanbul from reading this.

There is some excellent writing, from describing an obsessive young child's use of his toy robot to try to fight crime to the telling of the medieval legend of the Mellified Man. It is fast-paced and although it follows a number of different plots they all manage to be interesting. The characterisation is also very good, with a number of memorable characters in the large cast and some good character development as the novel goes on. I thought it was a very good book, but wouldn't rate it quite as highly as McDonald's previous two books, although the quality of the writing, world-building and characterisation is at a similarly high level the plot isn't quite as compelling and doesn't feel as momentous or ambitious as the plots in the other two books, although on the plus side it does have a more decisive and arguably more satisfying ending than Brasyl did.

Rating : 8.5 / 10


“Cyberabad Days” by Ian McDonald

cyberabad days

I thought Ian McDonald's River of Gods was a superb SF novel when I read it a few years ago so I was curious to see whether this collection of short stories set in the same mid-21st Century India setting would be as good.

I would say McDonald's writing is just as good at it is in his recent novels and he has a great ability to pack in a lot of excellent world-building and characterisation into a relatively small number of words. His vision of an India caught between tradition and advanced technology (particularly in the field of Artificial Intelligence) continues to be fascinating, and it seems largely convincing to me (although I'm curious whether someone who was Indian would agree with that).

There is a good variety of stories. The Little Goddess follows the journey of a reluctant religious icon trying to deal with the reality of mid-21st Century India while The Djinn's Wife features a starcrossed romance between a woman and an AI. Elsewhere there are stories about the friendship between two boys, one American and one local, about a romance between two heirs to feuding families and the story of a teenage boy obsessed with the young soldiers who get to pilot military robots.

All the stories in the collection are good, I thought "The Little Goddess" and the poignant tragedy of "The Dust Assassin" were the best of them. The last story in the collection, "Vishnu At The Cat Circus", is the most interesting and ambitious of the stories and functions as a sequel to "River of Gods". However, I don't think that final story was entirely successful because it's maybe a bit too short to properly explore the effects of the century of technological change it is covering, and the cat circus framing story didn't seem to add much to the story. It does also feel like the ending of River of Gods was a more satisfying ending that the ending described in this story.

Overall, this is a welcome return to the world described in “River of Gods” and despite the final story being a bit disappointing it is a very good short story collection.

Rating : 8 / 10


“Desolation Road” by Ian McDonald


Desolation Road was Ian McDonald’s first novel. The title refers to a village that was never meant to exist, a small community on the Bethlehem Ares Railroad in the middle of the Martian desert. It becomes home to a small number of eccentrics and outcasts from across Martian society and this book describes their lives over several decades as the fortunes of the town rise and then fall.

The characters are an interesting mix, including an eccentric scientist, the world’s greater snooker player, a circus pilot, a rebel leader, an ambitious politician and many others. Although there are some interesting and memorable characters, in some ways the characterisation is a bit of a disappointment when compared to McDonald’s later works such as River of Gods or The Dervish House. There often seems to be a lack of character development and arguably many of the characters don’t really change their basic personality throughout the course of the novel. The characters are also not particularly realistic and their behaviour feels like it is more determined by the demands of the plot or the whim of the author rather than them being believable characters in their own right. This does fit with the whimsical style of the novel, but it does often make it hard to really care about what happens to the characters.

The plot is fairly episodic with chapters covering events both small and large, ranging from the visit of a travelling show and the murder of one of its citizens to the town becoming the focus of a major religious pilgrimage and also the site of a major mining operation. Some of the subplots are interesting and entertaining and there is plenty of imagination shown in both the plotting and the world-building, but sometimes the plot developments are trying a bit too hard to be quirky and since it is hard to take the plot entirely seriously the book often isn’t particularly compelling. Other than sharing a common setting and some common characters the different episodes also feel a bit disconnected from each other and although the last section of the book does put the entire existence of Desolation Road in peril the plot still feels a bit incoherent.

The strongest feature of the book is the writing itself, McDonald’s prose is excellent, particularly for a debut novel and there are some evocative descriptions of the Martin landscape and the strange people who inhabit it. However, while in his later work McDonald manages to combine that good prose with good storytelling, this novel doesn’t quite manage that. It is entertaining and with some memorable moments but ultimately a bit unsatisfying and the whole feels like it is less than the sum of its parts.

Rating : 7 / 10


“Brasyl” by Ian McDonald

McDonald’s next novel, 2007’s “Brasyl” has some similarities and quite a few differences to its predecessor, “River of Gods”. The similarities are in the formula of the novel – again there are multiple main characters and plot threads, an exotic locale (Brazil in this case), a twisting, convoluted plot and some intelligent, complex science underpinning the premise. Despite the similarities in formula, the books are still very different when the details are considered – the setting, structure, characters and scientific concepts all being completely different to “River of Gods”.

The novel takes place in three different time periods. In the 18th Century Jesuit priest Father Luis Quinn is sent from Portugal to Brazil to act as an admonitory – his mission to stop (by any means necessary) a mad former Jesuit who has established a bizarre and deadly religious cult in the “City of God” he has established deep in the Amazon rain forest. Accompanied by French geographer Dr Robert Falcon (on a quest to measure the shape of the Earth) he travels upriver deep into the Amazonian heart of darkness where Portuguese enslavement and rampant diseases are devastating the native tribes of the Amazon. In 2006, trashy reality-TV producer Marcelina Hoffman lives a glitzy, shallow life of partying, drugs and martial arts in the bustling metropolis of Rio de Janeiro. Her latest program idea sends her on a quest to find an elderly former goalkeeper, intending to put him on mock-trial in a TV show to decide whether he should be forgiven or publicly humiliated for losing Brazil a World Cup. Her seedy quest takes her to a fashionable cult based around hallucinogenic drugs produced from an Amazonian plant, but she soon finds her life in turmoil after discovering a seeming doppelganger is trying to ruin her life. Thirty years later, former gang member turned entrepreneur Edson De Freitas dreams of earning enough money to one day escaping his poor existence in a Sao Paulo where government surveillance is everywhere, but the biggest threat is from vigilante gangs armed with quantum knives that will cut through anything. After his foolish older brother steals a handbag encoded with a seemingly unbreakable tracking system, Edson is forced to hire a specialist criminal gang to use their illicit quantum computers to break the tracking system. While there he meets, and falls in love with, fugitive quantum computing specialist Fia, but he soon finds out where quantum technology is involved things can get very, very strange.

As unlikely as it may seem, all the plots eventually intersect, courtesy of some audacious and unpredictable plotting. Each of the plots ultimately hinges on the science of quantum mechanics and its bizarre and frightening consequences. The science is clearly explained and mostly consistent with current scientific theories, and although there is occasionally some slightly clunky exposition required to explain the science it is mostly handled fairly well. The scientific (and philosophical) concepts and the consequences of them are interesting and thought-provoking, although there is much more to this novel than just the science. The plotting is very original with three interesting and compelling main plot lines all coming to a largely satisfying (although not necessarily final) conclusion and all of them combining to ultimately form one epic, although ultimately unresolved plot that is much bigger than the confines of one country. The ending does not tie up all the plot threads, although many things are resolved there is plenty of scope left for sequels, although the very nature of the overall plot means that it would be a story very difficult to ever entirely finish. The plot is mostly fairly convincing, but occasionally some bits of plotting do seem a bit implausible (for example, the actions of Marcelina’s doppelganger don’t entirely make sense) and it can sometimes feel a bit contrived.

The characterisation of both the main and minor character is usually strong. The complex character of Luis Quinn, a man of deep principles but also someone atoning for past crimes, is particularly interesting. Marcelina Hoffman is not a likeable character, some of her actions are contemptible, but she has enough self-awareness of her own flaws then when her life starts to fall apart it is possible to feel some sympathy for her, even if a lot of her problems are ultimately self-inflicted. Edson is probably the most superficially likeable of the main characters, although he too has a fairly complex character. There are a number of interesting minor characters in the novel and even some that appear very briefly end up being memorable. On the other hand some of the significant minor characters do feel a bit under-explored – principally Edson’s sort-of-girlfriend Fia.

As in “River of Gods” one of this novel’s best aspects is the fascinating portrayal of the exotic cultures of past, present and future Brazil. McDonald has obviously studied Brazil extensively and the novel is packed with Brazilian words and terms and cultural references. To someone not familiar with Brazilian culture this might make the book a bit difficult to follow at times, because McDonald rarely explains the foreign terminology and although there are little pieces of cultural exposition scattered throughout the book, a lot if left for the reader to work out from the context. There is a glossary of Brazilian words included at the end of the book, but I did not find it necessary to use it, since it was usually possible to figure out what the Brazilian terms meant from the context. This does help give the novel a convincingly exotic feel when combined with some very evocative writing about subjects as diverse as exploitive reality television, religion, football, the natural wonders of the rainforest, quantum computing, the cruelty of slavery, the oppressiveness of a surveillance society, the danger of the favelas and, of course, the country of Brazil itself. The quality of the prose is consistently high, and it also features quite a lot of variation of writing styles from the precise, analytical writings of Dr Falcon to the fast-moving sometimes deliberately ungrammatical prose used to describe Marcelina’s misadventures.

In summary, this is another hugely impressive novel with an ambitious, distinctive plot, intelligent, thought-provoking science, good characterisation, excellent writing and a fascinating portrayal of a foreign country. Occasionally the usually-excellent plotting does seem a bit implausible, but that’s about the only major flaw.

Rating : 9/10


“River of Gods” by Ian McDonald

Ian McDonald’s 2004 novel “River of Gods” is a distinctive science fiction novel for several different reasons. Most obviously, it is set on the banks of the River Ganges in Varanasi in mid-21st Century India, a comparatively unusual setting for a genre usually fixated upon American or European settings. The scale and ambition of the novel is also unusual, featuring ten main characters all with their own separate but occasionally overlapping storylines, as well as having a huge amount of detail about McDonald’s futuristic Indian culture and quite a lot of convincing futuristic technology and science. Lastly, it is a rare science fiction novel that manages to combine good characterisation, good writing, complex worldbuilding, plausible futuristic speculation and a compelling plot into a single reasonably-sized story. Too often science fiction novels only deliver some of those things well, but “River of Gods” is good at just about everything it attempts.

The setting is India around the time of the 100th anniversary of Indian independence. Much has changed, with the single Indian state of today fracturing into many smaller states, all frantically competing over precious water supplies to quench the thirst of India’s vast population. It is a nation of contrasts, much like it is today, with high technology (artificial intelligence, genetically engineered children, a third gender in addition to male and female) and some opulent affluence mingling with grinding poverty and a deadly criminal underworld.

The plot is complex and convoluted but the individual storylines are all clearly explained and mostly easy enough to follow and although it is initially unclear how all the storylines could possibly relate to each other, they do eventually combine to form a (mostly) satisfying conclusion. The various main characters include a stand-up comic who inherits an industrial empire on the verge of a great technological breakthrough, a hard-working policeman who hunts rogue A.I.s, a bored middle-class housewife becoming infatuated with her cricket-obsessed gardener, a politician with a secret fetish for the third gender, an entertainment reporter interviewing virtual soap stars, a petty gangster out of his depth and a western quantum physics researcher surprised to be suddenly taken to an American space facility and asked questions about a mysterious device embedded in an asteroid that appears to be older than the solar system. Always in the background is the threat of war between Bharat (where most of the book is set) and its neighbouring states over a controversial new dam on the Ganges and the looming disaster of drought caused by the failure of monsoon rains.  By the end almost all of this will have become connected in some way, though a couple of plot lines do seem to end abruptly without ever becoming fully realised. It does admittedly start off a bit slowly and it takes time for most of the plots to really develop (one disadvantage of the large number of plot lines is that there are large gaps between successive instalments in each story) but as the book goes on the plot lines become increasingly compelling.

With such a convoluted plot and so much worldbuilding to do (McDonald not only has to portray the future, he also had to portray a futuristic extrapolation of an Indian culture foreign to most of his readers) this must have been a very difficult book to write, but the quality of the writing is excellent. Although there is a lot of foreign terminology (a number of Hindu terms as well as words describing the futuristic technology) the book is never difficult to follow and although there are frequent infodumps they never distract from the story and this book is a model example of how to integrate concise, interesting descriptions of sometimes bizarre concepts into what is a mostly character-driven plot. The characterisation is also excellent, with the different major and minor characters all being distinctive and interesting and despite sometimes not getting a huge amount of time to develop they do still manage to fit in a lot of interesting character development.

The scientific concepts that form the basis of the plot are logical extrapolations of modern-day cutting-edge scientific thought and are clearly and convincingly explained, although McDonald does spend a lot more time on the Indian culture than on the science. The Indian setting may be this novel’s most distinctive aspect and to me it does feel like a convincing portrayal of what Indian culture might develop into, and what feels like an authentically Indian atmosphere permeates the novel. It has to be pointed out that I have never been to India, so an Indian person may disagree with this assessment, but as far as I can tell McDonald has done a good job of portraying the sub-continental setting.

In summary, this is a superb piece of writing with a distinctive setting and an admirable ambition. It is a dizzying tale of zero-point energy, artificial intelligence, political conspiracies, soap operas, cricket, gangsters, infidelity, social climbing and a much-delayed monsoon and overall it is very well executed, despite the slightly slow start and the disappointing conclusion of a couple of the sub-plots.

Rating : 9/10

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