Voidhawk.com Book and film reviews


“Utopia Avenue” by David Mitchell

utopia avenue

Overall I liked this, although I wouldn't put it up there with Mitchell's very best books and I think it does have some weaknesses. I think the biggest issue is the pacing, if we were to use a metaphor from the 60s music scene setting of the book then I think this is more of a sometimes self-indulgent double LP rather than a snappy 3 minute single. It seems to take a very long time introducing the characters and the setting and although there are some dramatic moments throughout the story I think most of the plot seems to happen towards the end of the novel, and it is a fairly long novel. When it does get to them I thought the plot was compelling, although some key moments such as the conclusion of the 'Knock Knock' plotline felt a bit rushed.

What I did like were the characters, something Mitchell has always been good at and I think the book does a good job of both developing their characters and also showing how the relationship builds up between the four band members (and their manager) and how such contrasting characters can work well together. Jasper de Zoet gets what is probably the most interesting plotline and I think is also the most interesting character, someone struggling to understand a world he often finds baffling while also trying to deal with a literal voice in his head. I also like the tie-in to [i]The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet[/i] which is one of my favourite books of the past few years, even if the inclusion of some fantasy elements into what is otherwise a fairly mundane story might confuse people who hadn't read Mitchell's previous books. I thought Elf was the most immediately likeable of the characters and her plotline may not have stakes as high as Jasper's but she still gets a number of good scenes through the book. One thing Mitchell often does well is portrayals of characters who have serious flaws where he doesn't shy away from those flaws but still regards the characters with some sympathy and show that there is some possibility for them to become better, I think Dean Moss is the best example here, he probably has the most typical rock star story of the members of the band and while he does keep making terrible decisions he does have enough redeeming moments to make him interesting to read about.

The book is also filled with cameos, from a mixture of real-world figures from the late 60s musical scene and a few characters from previous Mitchell books. In another book this might not have worked but the impression is gives of everyone in Soho or the Californian music scene knowing each other does feel like something that might have been in a rock biography, so having the characters randomly bumping into David Bowie in the street makes sense in this context.

At one point a character mentions the quote that 'writing about music is like dancing about architecture', and there is something slightly lacking that no matter how much we read about Utopia Avenue's music that we can't hear any of it, but the book is probably doing something right when the reader is left wishing that they could hear the music being described in the book.

Rating : 8 / 10


“Cage of Souls” by Adrian Tchaikovsky

cage of souls

The setting of this novel is significantly different to any of Tchaikovsky's previous books, it's a 'dying Earth' setting where even the Sun seems to be dying and what remains of humanity has forgotten most of its history. The story is split into two parts, the main portion tells of the narrator's efforts to survive exile on the prison colony known as 'The Island', that storyline being periodically interrupted as Stefan fills in the backstory about his life on what is probably the last city on Earth and how he ended up being exiled. There's a general tone of melancholy to the story, even the parts not set in a brutal prison, although there are still occasional moments of hope. It's a vividly described setting, particularly the inhospitable jungle surrounding the Island which is full of life, little of which is friendly, the Underworld beneath the city of Shadrapur is another fascinating part of the setting. While it's not a short book it's still impressive how many ideas Tchaikovsky manages to throw into the story, some of the subplots could have been the basis for novels in their own right. There are also a lot of interesting mysteries in the story, some of them crucial to the plot, many of which Stefan never finds out the answer to. I don't know if every reader is necessarily going to appreciate the lack of answers but I think it does work well - the book is more about figuring out how to survive than figuring out how the world works.

If I had a small criticism to make, it it that while Stefan does get some good character development throughout the story I think he's maybe not the most compelling of protagonists and he himself comments that he's often only peripherally involved. This is somewhat counteracted by it having plenty of memorable supporting characters and the Marshal and Gaki are very effective antagonists.

I thought this was a good book, although I might rank it slightly below some of Tchaikovsky's other books (such as Dogs of War of Children of Time), it is perhaps a bit slow paced to begin with although it does get more compelling as it goes along and does have a strong ending.

Rating : 8 / 10


“The Secret Commonwealth” by Philip Pullman

secret commonwealth

Overall, I liked this a lot, although not without a few reservations. It is a long book, I think significantly longer than any of the previous books in the world but it does move at a good pace. However, it is almost the least stand-alone of the books since it ends abruptly without any plot resolution. The book picks up about 6-7 years after the end of "The Amber Spyglass", which is a long time for a young person and Lyra has definitely changed a lot in the intervening years, throughout the events of "His Dark Materials" I think she managed to keep a sense of optimism despite all the terrible things happening around her, but here she is much less sure of herself. She is often a less likeable character, but probably a more interesting one. I've always thought the daemons are the most fascinating part of Pullman's world and it feels like we learn a lot more about them here, in particular about how the mental turmoil of their humans might reflect in their relationship. It's also good to see a grown-up Malcolm a couple of decades after the events of "La Belle Sauvage", and although plenty of things have changed over the years he does still feel like the same character.

Although the early portion of the book mostly takes place again in Oxford over the course of the book we do get to see a lot more of the world than we did before. The book does feel quite episodic with a lot of subplots as Lyra and Malcolm journey across Europe, but although the subplots sometimes don't have much to do with each other I think they do fit together thematically. Pullman includes his usual themes of fighting against authoritarianism, and includes some fairly clear (possibly slightly heavy-handed) parallels to current problems in our world, most obviously a refugee crisis caused by turmoil in the Middle East.

The thing I liked least about was a potential romantic relationship, which felt a bit creepy from one character's perspective and I hope doesn't come to anything.

I thought it was a good book, although it's so incomplete that it's a bit difficult to really judge it properly without seeing the conclusion.

Rating : 7 / 10


“The Crow Road” by Iain Banks

crow road

I've read all of Iain (M.) Banks' Science Fiction novels, many of which I thought were excellent but not his non-SF. This seems to be one of his most popular non-SF books, I've heard it suggested several times that it has one of the best first lines in literature ("It was the day my Grandmother exploded.").

I thought it was a good book, it does take quite a while for it to become clear where the plot is heading but even the early stages which feel more like a series of vignettes of things that happened to various members of the McHoan family is entertaining. Prentice is an entertaining narrator, it can be frustrating as he makes a sequence of incredibly poor decisions but he does at least develop as a character as the story moves along. I also liked the flashbacks to the previous generation, particularly those following Prentice's father in his younger days, I think some of the best writing in the book comes from Kenneth McHoan's storytelling to the children. While the book's main theme is death and how people cope with it, it didn't feel like a particularly gloomy book, there is plenty of humour in here (even if some of it is a bit morbid), and while the ending may be bittersweet it at least has some hopeful elements.

I also really liked the book's portrayal of its setting. Having grown up in the Scottish Highlands I've seen plenty of fiction supposedly set in Scotland which just didn't ring true, but this felt very authentic to me (not that I was expecting anything different from Banks). Although the town of Gallanach itself where much of the book takes place is fictional I recognise a lot of places and things from the rest of the book. It's also a good portrayal of its time as well, the 'present day' in the book is now 30 years ago and some parts feel familiar (the political landscape in some ways hasn't changed that much) while others feel quite different (such as a University student like Prentice finding computers exotic and not knowing what an e-mail is).

Rating : 8 / 10


“The Priory of the Orange Tree” by Samantha Shannon

priory of the orange tree

Overall I did enjoy this, although it did have some weaknesses. It is a long book at over 800 pages and although it's nice that it is a standalone that wraps up all its plot threads it did feel like something that might more commonly have been split into multiple books. Mostly the pacing is good but despite the length there were times when the plot felt a bit rushed. I'm sure if this had been published in the 90s it would have been an epic fantasy trilogies. It does have many of the traditional epic fantasy aspects - several quests, court intrigue, a plot that manages to cover the entire map, a coming-of-age story for Tané, a dark lord ("The Nameless One") prophesied to rise again and lots and lots of dragons. Most of the book is spent into 'West' and 'East' sections, the former has the more traditional epic fantasy setting reminiscent of medieval Europe while the 'East' is fairly clearly inspired by Shogunate Japan (complete with traditional Japanese dragons who are the ancient enemies of the western dragons). It's definitely got a more modern outlook than many of the older epic fantasies, one of the cover blurbs describes it as 'a feminist Lord of the Rings' and I think it lives up to the first part of the description although it doesn't have the depth of history or world-building seen in Tolkien.

I liked the characters, I think Sabran probably got the most interesting character development despite not being a point-of-view character - perhaps because it takes some time to really get a good impression of her character. The two protagonists in the East probably have more obvious flaws than Ead and Loth in the West, which gave them a bit more depth. It is one of those fantasy series where the main antagonist is mostly off screen, although out of the supporting cast Kalyba was probably more interesting as someone with more ambiguous intentions towards the protagonists.

It was a consistently entertaining read, and although I think some aspects could have been done better I think I'd probably be interested in reading more by Samantha Shannon in the future.

Rating : 7 / 10


“The City in the Middle of the Night” by Charlie Jane Anders


I found this to be one of those somewhat frustrating books which do have some interesting elements but never really seem to develop their full potential. I thought it was an interesting setting, a tidally-locked planet where a human colony exists in a narrow strip between the equally inhospitable regions of constant day and constant night. Much of the story takes place in the two main cities, the rigidly structured society of Xiosphant and the anarchic Argelan. I thought Xiosphant was the more interesting of the two with some aspects that seemed fairly original while Argelan felt a bit more cliched. However, I felt the world-building was a bit shallow and this is particularly true of the third city which gives the book its title and seems potentially fascinating but the book only spends a brief amount of pages there.

I thought the book started off strongly but the pacing seemed to slow once it got to Argelan where it spent a lot of time on subplots that weren't all that interesting (such as Mouth's search for information about her former family). It got more interesting again later in the book but this section felt a bit rushed particularly as it approaches the finale. A major event takes place off-screen and doesn't seem very plausible and the book finishes very abruptly without really resolving its main plot points.

The characterisation can also be frustrating at times. Some of them do get some good character development through but one of them seems to abruptly turn into a Bond villain. It's also a book where the characters spend a lot of time not talking to each other about important things, it's maybe not unrealistic to have characters incapable of having a conversation about difficult topics but it is frustrating.

Rating : 6 / 10


“The Ten Thousand Doors of January” by Alix E. Harrow


I thought this had a bit of a slow start but I enjoyed the latter stages a lot. I think perhaps one reason for the slow start is that it's a story about a protagonist who starts off with very little knowledge of what is going on around her or opportunity to do anything about it. I think it makes sense in terms of the character arc to start off this way but having the lead character mostly passively reacting to events for the first part of the novel doesn't help the pacing. Another issue is the book-within-a-book whose chapters are scattered through the novel, it does provide some vital background detail but the fictional author is an academic and their writing does feel a bit dry which makes sense for the character but is again not helpful for the pacing. Fortunately things pick up later on, particularly once January leaves her home and I thought this is where the story became a lot more compelling. One thing the early part of the book does well is slowly introducing various hints about how there's a lot more going than initially meets the eye. The 'Doors' that the title refers to aren't necessarily an original concept in fantasy, portal fantasy is almost a subgenre in its own right, but this book does interesting things with them, particularly in exploring the importance of change and new ideas.

January is a likeable protagonist, and there are some memorable supporting characters including both her allies and antagonists. I think the most interesting character might be her guardian Mr Locke who for most of the novel is a fairly ambiguous character where it is difficult to tell what his true intentions and motivations are.

Overall, I thought that after a relatively slow start this turned into an entertaining story and I thought it was particularly impressive for a debut novel.

Rating : 7 / 10

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“Gideon the Ninth” by Tamsyn Muir


I thought this was a hugely entertaining read even if there are some aspects of it that I have somewhat mixed feelings about. The first part of the book starts off relatively slowly but does introduce some intriguing mysteries, but the story really kicks into gear once it reaches the giant abandoned palace on a dead world that is hosting the competition to become one of the undying Emperor's personal necromancers. It has elements that might be reminiscent of everything from The Hunger Games to stately home murder mysteries to The Crystal Maze, but I can't think of anything I could really compare to its overall effect. There are several cleverly intertwined mysteries as the characters both try to figure out the challenges that they have to pass while also trying to work out who or what is killing off some of the challengers. It's a lot of fun to read and it does a good job of gradually revealing important information while at the same time raising the stakes and the tension. Like any good murder mystery it does a good job of throwing in red herrings and making all of the characters look suspicious at some point. The resolution to the mystery is foreshadowed enough that it's not really a surprise, but at the same time it wasn't obvious either. A small criticism might be that some of the choices some characters make sometimes feel a bit under-explained.

I think the biggest aspect of the book that I had mixed feelings about was the character of Gideon and in particular their dialogue. She's an enjoyable character to follow and I think having someone with a tendency to be irreverent does help to stop the tone of the book being too brooding. However, her dialogue does often feel really anachronistic, she feels like a modern character transplanted into what is presumably a far future dystopia and there's no attempt at an explanation for why she talks like that.

Other than that issue I think Gideon does have a good story arc, and I also like the parallel story arc that her necromancer Harrow gets. The other necromancers and cavaliers taking part in the challenge are a varied bunch, they don't all get the same amount of character development but I thought there were several interesting characters and the complex way they all interact with each other is also developed well.

It may not have been perfect but I thought this was very impressive for a debut novel and I'll definitely be reading the sequel.

Rating : 8/10