Tim Powers is one of my favourite authors and I think he’s written some excellent books, but one that I had mixed feelings about was his vampire novel “The Stress of Her Regard”. It did some things very well, particularly when establishing a vampire mythology that made them more inhuman than most recent portrayals of vampires with alien and sometimes incomprehensible motivations. I thought that unlike most of Powers’ books it was lacking in sympathetic characters with even the protagonist being unlikeable (which I’m not sure was the intention) and it was sometimes frustrating to read about them. I was therefore a bit wary about his latest novel when I heard that it was a semi-sequel to “The Stress of Her Regard”.
The book starts in the mid-19th Century, a few decades after the end of “The Stress of Her Regard”. During the period between the two books the Nephilim (the term the book uses for the vampire race) had been absent from the world, but in the prologue a young Christina Rossetti inadvertently reawakens one of them, believing it to be the spirit of her late uncle John Polidori (who briefly appeared in the previous book). The rest of the book describes the efforts of the Rossettis and others (including John Crawford, the son of the protagonist of “The Stress of Her Regard”) to banish the Nephilim again.
I think one area in which I liked this book more than its predecessor is that I thought the characterisation was better. While a lot of the problems the characters in Stress had were self-inflicted when they really should have known better, in this book although the characters do some foolish things they are generally more excusable in terms of them not really understanding the dangers. John Crawford does share some personality traits with his father, but I found him to be more likable, more compassionate and less selfish and I think he’s a more interesting protagonist, as are the other two main characters Adelaide McKee and Christina Rossetti. Former adventurer Edward John Trelawny is probably the most entertaining character in the book, particularly his exasperated reactions at the recklessness of the other characters and he has the most depth due to contrast between his courage and refusal to sacrifice his life to banish the vampires again. It’s hard to find many redeeming qualities in the novel’s portrayal of Gabriel Rossetti or Algernon Swinburne, but it does seem reasonable that some characters could be weak or selfish enough to become obsessed by the Nephilim.
One of Powers’ trademarks is his intricate use of historical detail, and this book has plenty of it in its portrayal of Victorian London. It’s good at describing both the familiar landscape of Victorian London and suggesting a hidden underworld concealed within that city, Crawford and Adelaide’s subterranean journeys are among the most memorable parts of the book. I’m not very familiar with the biographies of the various historical characters (the Rosettis, Trelawny, Swinburne) who appear in the book so I can only assume that Powers is reusing a lot of genuine historical detail and the quotes from the poems by the Rossettis at the beginning of the chapters do fit in well with the atmosphere of the novel.
I found the novel to be a bit slow to being with and the narrative is broken up a bit by several jumps in time between sections of the book (which takes place over a couple of decades), but I thought the pace did pick up as the book did continue on and it did tell a compelling story. The atmosphere is fairly gloomy throughout, so it isn’t a light read, although there are occasional moments of humour.
Overall, I wouldn’t say this is quite as good as Powers’ best books (“The Anubis Gates”, “Declare” and “Last Call”) and I did prefer it to “The Stress of Her Regard”.
Rating : 8 / 10
I thought Leviathan Wakes, the first book in the Expanse series, was a very entertaining Space Opera and the first sequel, Caliban’s War, is a good follow-up even if it probably falls slightly short of the first novel. Although Leviathan Wakes would have worked fairly well as a stand-alone novel it did leave a major issue unresolved in terms of the protomolecule colonising Venus. Perhaps surprisingly this part of the plot is largely kept in the background in this book (presumably the later books in the series will explore this in more detail), with the main plotline focusing on the attempts of corporations and governments to explore the military potential of the alien biology of the protomolecule.
The book opens with an attention-grabbing action sequence as a base on Ganymede is attacked by a monstrous figure with near-superhuman abilities. As the colony on the moon descends into chaos a scientist desperately searches for his missing infant daughter and his quest to rescue her is the main plotline for the book. The scientist, Prax, makes up one of the three new point-of-view characters in the book along with Martian marine Bobbie (the only survivor of the attack in the prologue) and scheming politician Avarsala, joining the returning Captain Holden who, after a chance meeting, ends up helping Prax try to find out what happened to his daughter. I thought that the cynical detective Miller was the best character in the first book and his absence does hurt the second book. Out of the three characters replacing Miller’s chapters I think only Avarsala is as interesting as Miller was, while Prax and Bobbie are both likeable characters they are both fairly straightforward characters without the ambiguous mix of idealism and ruthless pragmatism that makes Miller and Avarsala such interesting characters. Holden is also a likeable character, but his naivety feels a bit overdone at times and it does feel slightly implausible that he yet again manages to stumble into the middle of a huge corporate conspiracy.
The book is probably at its best in the action scenes, an unexpected stowaway on Holden’s ship might be the highlight but the climactic battle is also entertaining. The theme of corporate and government greed leading to inhuman acts in the pursuit of profit and military dominance is repeated from the first novel and although the largely faceless corporations make plausible villains there is a lack of a really memorable antagonist. Holden’s decision to help one man look for his daughter while an entire colony falls apart is believable in terms of his character, although it does occasionally feel a bit like the crew of the Rocinante are turning into a Space Opera version of the A-Team, which may be fun to read but it does feel like the book could have aspired to be more than that.
This is an entertaining read but it does largely feel as if it is marking time before the main plot about the protomolecule on Venus comes to the fore again in the sequels (the epilogue strongly implies that this plotline will become the focus of the next book). It’s an enjoyable space opera but to some extent feels like a partial retread of some of the material covered by the first book in the series.
Rating : 7.5 / 10
James Holden is an idealistic ex-military officer on a mining ship who stumbles across a dangerous mystery when investigating a derelict ship drifting in space. Detective Miller is a cynical and corrupt policeman stationed on an asteroid colony who is hired to look for a missing young woman and finds himself increasingly determined to find out the cause of her disappearance. When both the abandoned ship and Miller’s case turn out to be connected Holden and Miller both find themselves dealing with dangerous secrets that could threaten the entire solar system.
The book is a collaboration between Daniel Abraham and debut author Ty Franks, I wouldn't have said it was obvious that it was written by two authors and their writing does seem fairly consistent throughout. Abraham has been one of the best new fantasy authors of recent years (his “Long Price” series being particularly good) and it’s to Franks’ credit that his chapters are comparable in quality to those written by his more experienced co-author. The quality of the writing is good throughout, and I thought the pacing was good as well. It doesn't take long for the plot to become interesting and it does a good job of increasing the amount that is at stake in successive increments, starting from what appears to be a simple act of piracy and ending with the future of humanity at stake. It does also tell a complete story, even if there is plenty of potential for plots for the later books in the series.
I thought the characterisation was also good, although the two main point-of-view characters get a lot more character development than the rest of the cast. The alternating point-of-views worked well, particularly in showing the different ways in which Holden and Miller deal with crises and it was particularly interesting to see how one main character appeared from the perspective of the other. Miller’s abrupt way of dealing with problems provides some of the book’s most memorable moments.
I liked the setting as well, most space opera stories seem to span several star systems but in Leviathan Wakes humanity is confined to the solar system due to the lack of faster-the-light travel. I thought it was a fairly plausible-sounding portrayal of how humanity would colonise the solar system, although in some places it could have done with a bit more detail (we never really hear much about what motivates the Earth or Martian governments even though it has quite a bit of relevance for the plot, but maybe we will in later books). It does a good job of conveying the claustrophobia and the perilousness of life on an asteroid colony. It does have a slightly old-fashioned feel to it and couldn’t really be said to be at the cutting-edge of Science Fiction writing, but there’s nothing wrong with a good, traditional Space Opera.
Overall, I thought this was a very good Science Fiction novel, particularly considering it is the first novel for one of the co-authors.
Rating : 8 / 10
“Shadow and Bone” (a.k.a. “The Gathering Dark” in the UK) is the debut novel by Leigh Bardugo. It is the first novel in the Grisha trilogy, the title of the series referring to the caste of magicians whose powers make them both envied and feared. The book is set in the Kingdom of Ravka which is divided in two by the ‘Shadow Fold’, a region of the country shrouded in eternal darkness and haunted by the monstrous Volcra ever since an arrogant and powerful Grisha’s magic escape his control centuries ago. Alina Starkov is a timid young cartographer taking part in her first crossing of the Shadow Fold who suddenly finds herself catapulted into the spotlight after she manifests a power previously unseen among the Grisha which could be a way of fighting back against the darkness of the Shadow Fold.
“Shadow and Bone” is a novel that improved significantly as it went on. The first section of the novel is reasonably entertaining but also undeniably formulaic and at this stage in the book the main character tends to be quite passive and reacts to events rather than making her own choices. This is partly due to her lack of confidence and partly due to the circumstances she finds herself in when she is abruptly plucked from obscurity after she inadvertently reveals that she has a unique power that could be the key to saving her country. She does show occasional defiance at doing what she is told to do which does show some spirit, although it can be a bit incongruous that she is so timid most of the time but can then be impertinent towards the Darkling, when he is feared by virtually the entire country. The plot appears to be going in a familiar direction when she ends up at the Little Palace, the training ground where the Grisha learn to control their magical abilities and at this point the novel does feel a bit predictable, although there are some interesting elements in the form of the magic system, the Russian-themed setting and some intriguing supporting characters.
The first half of the novel is a fairly standard Epic Fantasy coming-of-age story but it becomes more interesting after a key revelation halfway through the book which is initially surprising, but which makes sense in retrospect. Alina is forced to make a difficult decision and she becomes a more interesting character after this who gets much more character development in the second half of the novel than she does in the first. The second half of the novel is much less predictable with more dramatic tension and there are some effective scenes, what happens at Novokribirsk is particularly memorable. The characterisation of the supporting characters is a bit varied in terms of effectiveness, some of them are a bit shallow (such as Zoya, who seems to have little purpose other than to antagonise Alina) but there are some intriguing characters as well. The Darkling is perhaps the most interesting of the characters and for much of the novel it’s difficult to tell whether he is a genuine villain or misunderstood by those fearful of his powers, despite being a brooding antihero he manages to avoid feeling too much like a cliché. Genya is also an interesting character, due to the conflict between her seemingly genuine friendship with Alina and her own desires to strike back against those who have abused her, even if that might have serious consequences. Hopefully the sequels will continue this interesting character development, and introduce some other equally interesting characters.
For a debut novel this is well written and refreshingly fast-paced with a complete story (albeit one with several things left unresolved for the sequels) told in about 300 pages. After recovering from a slightly weak start this does manage to be a satisfying read and hopefully the sequels will build upon a good first book.
Rating : 7.5 / 10