Voidhawk.com Book and film reviews


“Dust” by Hugh Howey


I found the first two books in Hugh Howey’s Silo trilogy to be a bit mixed in terms of quality. “Wool” had started very strongly before developing a few flaws later on but still managed to be a compelling story in a fascinating setting. Unfortunately, Howey then decided that the second book in the trilogy should be a prequel which seemed obsessed with explaining things that were better left unexplained and featured a largely new cast of characters who were far less interesting than the characters in Wool. The concluding book tries to tie together the plotlines from the two earlier books into a coherent story, with some success although it still suffers from some of the second book’s weaknesses.

To begin with there is a welcome return to Jules’ story, which was at the heart of the first book. Unfortunately, it is interleaved with chapters following Donald (and his newly awakened sister), who I thought was a confused and frustrating character in the second book. This part of the storyline is arguably more important to the overall plot than Jules’ story so it’s unfortunate that it’s hard to care what happens to him except for how what he does would impact on the other characters. I don’t find his character development to be particularly convincing, since he seems to alternate between being passive and incurious until the plot demands that he has to do something when he suddenly becomes impulsive and fond of dramatic actions. I do think his chapters are a bit more bearable this time round due to the addition of a couple of saner characters, particularly his sister.

I think Jules’ story arc is the best part of the book, although even that isn’t without a few problems. Her romance with Lucas is still painfully unconvincing and he still fails to be an interesting character, but since they don’t spend too much time together in the book it isn’t a huge problem. Some of the supporting characters can be a bit two-dimensional but there are also some good bits of characterisation, Solo especially gets some good character development. The book gets off to a relatively slow start as Jules tries to rally the people of the Silo behind her latest schemes, but the pace then abruptly picks up as a disaster puts the survival of the Silo under threat. This is the most compelling part of the story; Howey’s storytelling does seem to be at its most effective when his characters are under extreme pressure. The flow of the story is interrupted a bit by a distracting and seemingly unnecessary subplot involving a religious cult who thinks Jules’ actions are blasphemous. The inclusion of this does seem a bit odd when the first two books had ignored the Silo’s Priests except for brief mentions.

I thought the conclusion of the story was a fitting ending to the series’ storylines and one that builds on some of the themes going back to the first short story in Wool. It is also an emotionally satisfying conclusion, hopeful but with an undercurrent of tragedy given how much death and destruction has occurred during the series. Given Howey’s tendency to over-explain the history of the Silo it is gratifying that he leaves the ending being relatively open-ended and leaves many questions remaining about how things would develop in the future.

Overall, I’d say the ending and the better parts of the final book largely manage to make up for some of the stumbles the series has had along the way. It’s a pity the series couldn’t maintain the quality of the early stories in the Wool omnibus, but I think it’s still good enough to be worth reading despite the flaws.

Rating : 7 / 10


“Siege and Storm” by Leigh Bardugo


I thought “Shadow and Bone” was a good first novel in the Grisha trilogy, it both worked well as a story on its own and set up some interesting plotlines for the later books. The first sequel does deliver on some of that potential, although I think it does have a few weaknesses.

I think possibly the biggest issue with the book was the inconsistent pacing. The beginning wastes little time before throwing Alina and Mal back into a dangerous situation and with some new characters and concepts introduced this is a strong start to the book but it also feels a bit rushed, I think more time could have spent on some of the plot points such as the hunting of the Sea Whip.

The book seems impatient to return Alina to the centre of Ravkan politics, unfortunately once she gets there the pace slows dramatically with the majority of the book consisting of Alina trying to adjust to her new role and responsibilities as well as trying to come up with a way to fight against the Darkling’s forces. I did think this part of the book allowed some good character development for Alina, as she becomes more confident in her abilities and as she has to provide leadership for her allies. She does become less likeable while starting to show more ambition and occasional ruthlessness, making her a more interesting character. Some of the supporting characterisation is also good, I liked that some of Alina’s strongest allies are fairly unsympathetic characters who were initially antagonistic towards her while some of the more sympathetic characters become her enemies. Sturmhond is an entertaining addition to the character list, although he’s got such a wide range of things he is brilliant at that he could have been the protagonist in a Guy Gavriel Kay book. Unfortunately, there were also a few characters that felt lacking in depth (particularly Sturmhond’s elder brother). The weakest scenes tend to involve Alina and Mal repeatedly failing to talk to each other and spending half the time sulking about the other being inconsiderate. It’s perhaps not an implausible depiction of a teenage relationship but it’s not very interesting to read about and Mal’s increasing insecurity makes him an irritating character. It does seem to spend about as much on the breakdown in their relationship as on the upcoming war against the Darkling’s forces.

The long and slow middle section of the book is partially redeemed by the final section as things to start to go badly wrong when a disastrous sequence of events threatens everything Alina has been working for throughout the book. I think this is the most compelling part of the book and no character really feels safe with some being abruptly killed off. It is a great ending, and sets up the final book very well, but like the beginning of the book it feels a bit rushed. A bit more time spent on the beginning and ending of the book and perhaps a bit less on the middle section might have made it a stronger book.

Rating : 7 / 10


“Ancillary Justice” by Anne Leckie


I thought this was an impressive and original debut novel and it is nice to see a fresh take on the space opera genre. It does have a great premise, the idea of the avatar of a ship’s AI trying to survive and find revenge for the destruction of its ship is a fascinating idea and one I’ve not seen done before. Alternate chapters show the main character before and after the destruction of the Justice of Toren and it does provide a fascinating contrast between being one part of a great collective intelligence formed from the ship and its army of avatars and a single surviving avatar on its own. At the beginning of the novel it’s not entirely clear what is going on but both timeframes gradually provide revelations about what happened, this is effective in making the past timeframe more compelling as it is clear there is an impending disaster even when in the middle of what should be a straightforward peacekeeping mission.

One of the strengths of the writing is that while it is told from an alien viewpoint it still manages to make it possible to relate to the main character even if they’re not particularly sympathetic – they are working for a brutal interstellar regime that fights endless wars of conquest and use captured prisoners as hosts for their ship’s avatars. One of the main themes is the effects of a having a single intelligence split among many individual bodies and how small differences between those individuals can have significant effects. Another unusual feature of the viewpoint is that the lead character comes from a civilisation that doesn’t distinguish between different genders so throughout the book they refer to everyone as ‘she’ or ‘her’. This is a bit disorienting both for the lead character as they try not to offend anyone while in a civilisation where gender is significant and for the reader. I found that I was subconsciously deciding that different characters were either male or female even though the book didn’t seem to be stating which character was which. It could have easily felt like a gimmick, but I think it works due to showing things from the protagonist’s perspective and making it believable that from their perspective whether someone was male or female was irrelevant.

I think one drawback of the book being told from the perspective of a ship’s avatar is that they don’t necessarily have a good understanding of some of the other characters and so some of them also remain enigmatic to the reader. I think while there are several interesting characters it does perhaps suffer slightly from a lack of genuinely likeable characters since it can be hard to care about the fate of most of them, with the exception of Lieutenant Awn. In many ways the book is a bit reminiscent of Iain M. Banks’ writing, which is no bad thing although even in his darker stories I think Banks would still have managed to inject a bit more fun into it.

The book is fast-moving but it does feel a bit rushed towards the end and also incomplete as this is clearly only the first book of a series. While the ending does resolve some matters and it does unravel the central mystery of the book, I think it is too inconclusive for the book to really stand on its own.

This is a strong debut novel and the start of what should be a good series. There are a few flaws and the ending felt a bit weak compared to the rest of the book, but it’s still a good beginning.

Rating : 8 / 10


“Ace of Skulls” by Chris Wooding


The “Tales of the Ketty Jay” series has been one of the most enjoyable series I’ve read in the last few years. It’s an unpretentious series more focused on entertaining adventures than literary depth but it has featured some compelling characterisation and some fascinating pieces of world-building (particularly the Manes and the long-lost Azryx civilisation seen in the last book). I’m a bit sad that the fourth book is also the last one, but at least the series has gone out on a high.

Being the last book in the series it does sometimes feel a bit like a ‘Greatest Hits’ compilation as just about every significant character and plotline from previous books are all thrown together as Vardia plunges into civil war, culminating in an aerial battle over the capital with the crew of the Ketty Jay right at the centre of events. As if that wasn’t enough for a single book, each of the members of the crew (including, of course, the ship’s cat) all have their own plotline and get their own major pieces of character development. There’s so much being included in a book which isn’t particularly long that it is quite an achievement by Wooding to have it avoid feeling too rushed and for it not to feel like any of the characters or plotlines have been short-changed (although arguably I think Jez’s plotline could have done with a little bit more time spent on it). It also makes for a compelling and page-turning read, particularly as the story approaches its climax. Although I think it’s a bit of a pity that there aren’t going to be many more books, it is perhaps better to end this way than for the story to risk getting repetitive as it went on.

Particular highlights of the book include Crake’s experiments with daemonism as he tries to counteract the Awakener’s Imperators, I think the daemonists have been one of the most interesting elements of the world-building, reminiscent of Victorian scientists attempt to use reason and technology to harness mystical forces. The final battle is also very good, although for a series so focused on aerial combat it is probably events on the ground as Silo and Malvery try to lead an attack on an Awakener stronghold that is the most compelling part of the battle. Unlike some of the previous plotline the crew are being forced into an unaccustomed role where they are the heroes of the story, I think Wooding manages to make this work without losing the moral ambiguity that made them interesting characters in the first place.

Overall, I think this might be the most entertaining book I’ve read all year and it’s a worthy conclusion to what has been a very good series.

Rating : 9 / 10


“War Master’s Gate” by Adrian Tchaikovsky


I’ve enjoyed the previous 8 books in the “Shadows of the Apt” series, but it has been a bit of an uneven series and some books have worked better than others. For example, the previous book “The Air War” seemed to spend too much time on the aerial battles and not enough time on characterisation. Fortunately, “War Master’s Gate” manages a better balance between the different elements.

The book is split between two main plotlines. The first is the Empire’s latest attempt to conquer Collegium with Stenwold Maker leading the city’s defence while the second focuses on his niece Che’s attempts to thwart an expedition into the heart of the Mantis forests by the Wasp Empress Seda to try to gain the power of an ancient magician. Previous books have sometimes had problems when splitting the plotlines with one being more interesting than the other, but I think both plotlines work well in this book. One of the main themes in the series is the contrast between the two ways of looking at the world, the practical technology-driven approach favoured by the Apt people, and the Inapt worldview where magic and mysticism play a central role. The two plotlines show two different ways of waging war, the latest technology being used to besiege and defend Collegium while for the first time we see how Inapt magicians would wage war. The balance between the two could have been tricky, but the book manages to both clearly describe the technology and tactics of the Collegium plotline and also portray a more otherworldly setting as Che and Seda make their way towards Argatos’ tomb. The Inapt world works on a different sort of logic, but it does still manage to make a strange sort of sense and although the steampunk elements of the world-building have been inventive throughout the series, the more fantastical elements are becoming increasingly interesting.

I think this is probably the first time in the series since the fourth book “Salute the Dark” where all the main characters in the series play a significant role in the same book and the series is clearly building towards its climax in the next book. Che probably gets the best plotline in the book and she has developed a lot as a character through the last few books with this book seeing her come to terms with her newfound abilities. The rivalry and conflict between Che and Seda does offer some of the book’s highlights, with Seda also getting some good characterisation – while she is one of the series’ main villains there are still glimpses of the more sympathetic character she was in the earliest books in the series. The Collegium plotline has another rivalry between Stenwold and General Tynan in command of their two armies, Stenwold is as reliable as ever in the series although it’s fortunate that the book doesn’t focus too much on him since he can be a bit too predictable to be entirely compelling as a character. Tynan is also an interesting character due to being intensely devoted to his duty to win the war while also being regretful about some of the things he has to do to win it. There are also plenty of good supporting characters with the ‘second generation’ of Collegium students being at the focus of some of the best scenes in the Collegium plotline. One of the few irritating bits of characterisation is Laszlo’s brainless infatuation with someone he knows is an enemy spy.

Throughout the series Tchaikovsky hasn’t shied away from tragedy or from killing off characters and that continues here with probably the two biggest events in the entire series unfolding. The stakes are certainly high and with only one book to go none of the characters feel entirely safe, which does increase the tension. The book ends on a huge cliffhanger with the entire world seemingly in peril, while it doesn’t work as a standalone it is a perfect set-up for the tenth and final book in the series although I am a bit worried that there does seem to be a lot of plot to cover in that last book. Despite the more epic parts of the story there are also some powerful scenes on a smaller scale as various characters and peoples try to survive in a world at war, with the Mantis-kinden’s increasingly desperate attempts to find a place in a world that has left them behind being particularly tragic.

Overall, I’d say this is a contender for being the best books in the series, it’s a very entertaining read and I can’t find anything more than minor flaws in it.

Rating : 8.5 / 10