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“Deadhouse Gates” by Steven Erikson

Deadhouse Gates

If Gardens of the Moon was an intriguing but imperfect introduction to the Malazan world then the second book, Deadhouse Gates is where the series really hits its stride. It is not really a direct sequel to the first book, although it does take place shortly after the events described in Gardens of the Moon it is set on a separate continent, the land known as Seven Cities which was conquered by the Malazan Empire a generation ago. The Malazans see themselves as having given the Seven Cities peace and prosperity after years of endless tribal warfare and suffering under the rule of despotic religious cults, but the people of the Seven Cities still see the Malazans as foreign invaders and they seize the opportunity of the Empire’s declining strength to launch a rebellion lead by Sha’ik, the prophetess of an apocalyptic cult devoted to destruction.

The rebellion is widely supported by the local populace and the Malazans quickly find themselves besieged in their strongholds, principally Aren, the largest of the Seven Cities. Aren’s mighty fortifications are sufficient to hold off the ragtag armies of the rebellion but the Malazan forces in the rest of the continent have more of a problem. The main plot threat follows the Malazan 7th Army who, surrounded by enemy forces with superior numbers, face an overland march of 1500 miles through hostile lands to get to the safety of Aren. The bulk of the 7th Army’s strength is made up of Wickan cavalry, expert horsemen from a tribe on the Malazan’s home continent who have long fought for the Empire. Individually their soldiers are more than a match for any of their enemies but the 7th Army’s leader, the Wickan warlord Coltaine, also has the problem of protecting the lives of fifty thousand Malazan settlers who face certain death at the hands of the rebels if they are not protected by his army. The story of the march and the series of battles the 7th army faces along the way is probably the most compelling plotline in the entire Malazan series featuring many memorable scenes and multiple varied, convincing and well thought-out battles. Gardens of the Moon occasionally suffered from the fact that it was hard to really care whether the Malazans succeeded, but here they are more clearly the good guys in the story as they seek to protect innocent civilians from the vicious tortures of the rebels (of course, the Malazans also possibly deserve criticism for their war of conquest that lead to them controlling Seven Cities, but few of the Malazan characters in this novel were involved with that). The climax to the plotline is also one of the most powerful moments in the entire series.

Although the 7th Army’s march (the so-called ‘Chain of Dogs’) is the biggest plotline in the book there are also a number of other plotlines taking place, all of them occurring during the Seven Cities rebellion. One focuses on the character of Felisin Paran, a teenage daughter of a senior noble family exiled to the harsh Malazan prison camp of Otaratal Island after the Empress launches a cull of the noble families. To survive in the harsh prison she finds herself doing some unsavoury things to survive but eventually escapes in the company of Heboric, a former senior priest of the God of War has lost his faith and former soldier Baudin. Their escape takes them on an eventful journey, including a frankly bizarre encounter with a giant jade statue buried in the desert which sets in motion a series of mystical events which leave them trapped on a ship filled with mysterious corpses in the flooded alternate dimension of an unknown Warren. Meanwhile, several characters from Gardens of the Moon have chosen a poor time to come to the Seven Cities, as the former Bridgeburners, assassin Kalam and sapper Fiddler pass through on their way to try to take revenge on the Empress they believe betrayed them. Kalam finds his loyalties torn, between his mission of revenge and his almost-forgotten loyalties to his homeland, before joining the Bridgeburners he had been a native of Seven Cities and feels compelled to try to aid Sha’ik’s rebellion. Along the way they will encounter a number of other characters with their own agendas such as Iskaral Pust, the seemingly mad High Priest of Shadow and Icarium and his companion Mappo. Icarium is one of the series’ more interesting characters, a seemingly amiable half-human half-Jaghut warrior with great power but no memory of his past who is constantly driven to journey and to try to remember where he came from. Mappo is his friend and constant companion, but is also charged with making sure Icarium remains ignorant, since he knows that his friend is potentially very dangerous and has in the past brought down whole civilisations in made rages. Other encounters deal with the mystical Path of Hands, an ancient ritual followed by the Soletaken, people who have the ability to change into animal forms, often losing their humanity and sanity in the process.

The supporting plotlines vary in quality. Some elements of them are well-executed, Icarium and Mappo’s storylines is one of the more interesting in the series (although the events in this book are just the first instalment of it) and Felisin is in some ways one of the series’ best bits of characterisation – in a series filled with powerful warriors and mages it is an interesting contrast to spend so much time on a character who is in many ways very weak and suffers through some terrible and unjust ordeals. Felisin is not really a very likeable character due to her understandable bitterness at what she sees as her abandonment, but she is a believable character even when sometimes does some fairly stupid things. Other parts of the story are less satisfying; the plotline concerning the Jade Statue that Heboric and Felisin encounter is frankly incomprehensible and despite being revisited several times in later books has yet to really make any sense. The Path of Hands subplot is a bit more comprehensible and does have some interesting bits in it but it is difficult to really see the point of including it in the novel as it doesn’t add much to the story.

The overall quality of the writing has improved since Gardens of the Moon and most of the time the characterisation is better as well, although there are still some moments where character motivations are a bit difficult to follow – Kalam’s decision to take time out of his mission to help Sha’ik get a critical religious relic seems a bit out of character given his characterisation in the rest of the series.

In summary, Deadhouse Gates competes with the third book Memories of Ice for the title of the best book in the series. The central Chain of Dogs plotlines is probably one of the most entertaining, compelling and memorable Epic Fantasy storylines and many of the supporting plotlines are also interesting, although the quality does dip at times (the bizarre Jade Statue plot being one example that detracts from the overall quality of the book). It is not a perfect book, but is still an excellent piece of Epic Fantasy.

Rating : 9 / 10


“Gardens of the Moon” by Steven Erikson

gardens of the moon

Gardens of the Moon is the first of ten (or 17 depending how you want to count them) books in the Malazan Empire series.

The world the Malazan series is set in has a slightly more advanced setting than the typical medieval setting of many fantasy novels. The main focus of the series is on the Malazan Empire, an aggressive and expansionist Empire which in the space of a few decades expanded from an obscure island city mainly famous as a base for pirates to conquer several continents under the influence of its powerful and ruthless Emperor Kellanved. At times in the series the Malazans seem like imperialist villains, at other times they seem like the good guys (especially in comparison to some of their rival powers). The Malazans are in many ways quite enlightened by the standards of the world with a relatively egalitarian culture usually hostile to the feudal aristocracies or fanatical religious cults that held sway in many of the lands they conquered. At the same time, they are undeniably aggressive, starting many wars and can be uncompromisingly brutal when they think it is necessary. This is a common theme of Erikson’s work, it is very rare for any civilisation or individual in his books to be regarded as being entirely good, and equally many (although not all) of his major villains have some redeeming qualities. Throughout the series it is often ambiguous as to whether the Malazans should be supported in what they are trying to do, or opposed.

Although the Malazans are one of the most powerful of the current-day powers in the world, past civilisations and powers also play an important role in the series. Erikson trained as an archaeologist and has constructed a long history of his world filled with many Gods and civilisations and dozens of races, some of which still exist, some of which are extinct and some of which aren’t as extinct as they appear to be. The history takes in important events that happened millennia or even hundreds of millennia ago and in some cases the participants in those events are still alive (or at least, still animate). The variety of races are one of the most fascinating elements of Erikson’s world-building since he eschews the typical clichéd fantasy races with such inventive creations such as the four so-called ‘Elder Races’ - K’Chain Che’Malle (reptilian creatures with hive minds and highly advanced technology), Jaghut (tusked, strong, powerful sorcerers with vast power but whose stubborn individualism prevented them from working together), Forkrul Assail (tall humanoids with a fanatical hatred of other races) and the T’lan Imass (undead Neanderthals whose hatred of their Jaghut oppressors caused them to enact a magical ritual which gave them eternal existence as undead warriors).

In the first novel, Gardens of the Moon, the Malazans tend towards being the bad guys of the story, even if many of the Malazan protagonists are more sympathetic characters than their Empire is. It is several years after the assassination of the Malazan Empire’s founder Kellanved by his protégé and rival, the assassin Laseen who has now crowned herself Empress. Laseen kept up the pace of the Malazans’ wars of conquest while at the same time manoeuvring against many of those who were once loyal to Kellanved. The novel is set on the continent of Genabackis, one of the more recently-invaded lands of the Empire, and it begins as the Malazan forces are about to attack the city of Pale, one of the last of the Free Cities that once controlled most of the continent. The Malazans assemble a large army to besiege the city, but the main battle takes place above them in the form of a sorcerous duel between the Malazan’s Mage Cadre and the Free Cities’ ally Anomander Rake, an ancient sorcerer and leader of the Tiste Andii (a race from another dimension, exiled from their home many millennia ago). Despite heavy casualties (including most of the mage cadre being killed in an apparent act of treachery by its High Mage, Tayschrenn) the Malazans are victorious, Rake is forced to flee and the Malazans eyes start to turn towards the last, and richest, of the Free Cities, Darujhstan.

The Malazan books tend not to have a single protagonist. Perhaps the closest to a main character is Sergeant Whiskeyjack, a veteran soldier in charge of a squad of the Bridgeburners – previously an elite unit in the time of Emperor Kellanved but now regarded with suspicion by the new Empress. After the capture of Pale the Bridgeburners are despatched as an advanced party to infiltrate Darujhstan and leave it open for invasion by sabotaging its infrastructure. They take on the role despite misgivings about the casualties they took in the battle of Pale and suspicion that they may have deliberately have been placed in danger as part of an attempt to kill of loyalists to the old Empreror. They also have misgivings about one of their own, a young woman name Sorry who was a recent recruit but has a great capacity for violence and who may be much more than she appears. The Bridgeburners also have a new Captain in the form of Ganoes Paran, a well-intentioned young officer regarded with suspicion by the other soldiers because of Paran’s noble birth and background in a family that was very powerful in Unta (the Malazan capital) before the old Emperor began his pogroms against the nobility. He faces the risk of a knife in the back from one of his own subordinates if he can’t persuade them he is a worthy leader. Another major Malazan character is Tattersail, one of the few survivors of the Malazan mages, who is bitter against the apparent attack on her colleagues by Tayschrenn (the Empire’s most senior mage) whilst also guilty about some of her past acts for the Malazan Empire. Meanwhile the Empress’ senior aide Adjunct Lorne also travels to Darujhstan on a secret mission to unleash an ancient evil which once ruled the city in a reign of terror, accompanied by Tool, a T’lan Imass warrior who is the only member of the undead army that once served Kellanved still working for the Empire.

Meanwhile, in Darujhstan the plot centres on a group of young friends plotting to restore one of their number to his rightful place as head of a noble house, after he was deposed by his ambitious ex-wife and a rival councillor. They are also aware of the coming Malazan threat and their plotline interacts with that of the city’s powerful Assassin’s Guild as it contends with the Malazan’s elite assassins and the machination of a mysterious spymaster who uses the pseudonym of The Eel who is trying to rally the city’s defences.

It is common throughout the Malazan series for the plot to take place on more than one level. The most obvious plotlines involve the soldiers, battles, intrigues and ordinary people of the story. There are also more subtle plotlines as Gods and ancient powers manipulate events to further their own plans. One of the main plotlines throughout the series involves two of the newest Gods to gain power, the beings known as Shadowthrone and Cotillion, who have recently taken control of the long-abandoned realm of Shadow and who have far greater ambitions than just being two ordinary members of the Malazan world’s pantheon. In this case their plans are focused on Whiskeyjack and his squad of Bridgeburners, and particularly on their young recruit, Sorry.

The plot of the series is undeniably complex and Erikson took a deliberate decision to start his first book in what was, in many ways, the middle of the story. It is initially quite confusing as within a few chapters the reader is launched into the battle of Pale and introduced to a dizzying array of characters and races, many with long and complex histories which will not be fully explained for several books to come. Erikson’s often inventive world-building can also add to the confusion, his magic system is based on the control of the powers of alternate dimensions known as Warrens (different Warrens having different properties such as being associated with darkness, illusions, fire, water etc.) and it takes a long time for even the most rudimentary explanation of how the Warrens work (and even after ten books it is still not entirely clear). As the book goes on it does gradually make more sense but some persistence is required to get through the initial confusion. Although it can make the series sometimes difficult to understand, the complexity and imaginativeness of the setting and plot are one of the Malazan series strengths and overall it is probably more Epic than just about any other Epic fantasy series.

Gardens of the Moon was Erikson’s first full-length fantasy novel and it does have some flaws that debut novels often have. The quality of the writing, prose and dialogue can be a bit variable, at times Erikson has some very good writing but at other times the prose can end up seeming a bit clunky and awkward and the dialogue stilted and unconvincing. The quality of the characterisation is also variable, Erikson does have some memorable and interesting characters but the cast of characters is so large than some of them have fairly shallow characterisation. The characterisation can also sometimes be unconvincing and sometimes character’s motivations for their actions do not seem satisfactorily explained. To take one example, at one point in the book Captain Paran takes immense risks that could imperil not just his life but also his immortal soul in an attempt to save from captivity two creatures which shortly beforehand were trying to kill him and it does not really seem believable that he would take such a huge risk.

It is far from the being the best book in the series, Erikson’s writing would improve in later volumes and although there are plenty of interesting moments in the plot the overall storyline often fails to be really compelling – one of the main problems being that it is hard to really be invested in caring about whether the Malazans succeed or fail in their war against Darujhstan. When considered alongside the rest of the series there are also quite a few things that contradict later books, Erikson would revise quite a few elements of the setting in later novels.

Overall, this is an entertaining fantasy novel with plenty of interesting ideas and concepts which large make up for the sometimes variable quality of the writing.

Rating : 7 / 10


“Assail” by Ian C. Essslemont


I've found Esslemont's previous Malazan books to be a bit mixed, at their best they have had some fascinating world-building and compelling plots but they have a tendency to be let down by often bland characterisation and some of his plots have been a bit underwhelming. I thought Assail was a reasonably entertaining book but I think it's one of the Esslemont's weaker efforts. One problem is that the continent of Assail where the book is set is probably one of the less interesting settings in the Malazan world and it feels a bit underwhelming compared to how it has been built up by mentions in previous books by Erikson and Esslemont. In previous books Assail was referred to with dread by many characters but while it is an inhospitable land I would say there have been more forbidding settings in previous Malazan books (including the jungle setting of Esslemont’s last book, “Blood and Bone”). Many Malazan books are based on a diverse group of different factions journeying towards a convergence at the end of the novel and this is no exception. Most of the characters seem to spend most of the novel travelling to the same destination and while the pacing is reasonable (it isn't as tedious as some of the journeying in Erikson's later Malazan books) this part of the story isn't all that compelling. Once the journeying has ended the pace does pick up and the plot does become more compelling, the book does have a good ending and offers some conclusion to long-running plotlines first brought up in Erikson's books over a decade ago, although some bits do seem a bit rushed and a key part of the final confrontation seems to centre on a character I can barely remember from a previous Esslemont book. It's also a bit irritating that although it's nice to finally have a conclusion a plotline left hanging at the end of Erikson's "Memories of Ice" (which I read over a decade ago) virtually the first thing that happens in this book regarding the plotline is an explanation about why what the ending of Memories of Ice implied about the future was inaccurate, and the actual plotline seems less interesting than what I was expecting.

I think the biggest problem is that while the characterisation isn't exactly bad (there are a decent variety of characters and there is some reasonable character development), there is a lack of really memorable characters. This is perhaps not helped by a sprawling cast that means most characters don't get a huge amount of time spent on them, even important characters like Silverfox. Comparing the two Malazan authors I'd say this is one area where Erikson does have a real advantage, while his characterisation was always a bit hit-and-miss he does have some fascinating and compelling characters.

Overall, this is a moderately entertaining epic fantasy novel but I suspect it won’t turn out to be a particularly memorable one and it feels a bit underwhelming for something described on the cover as the ‘Final Novel of the Malazan Empire’.

Rating : 6 / 10


“The Goblin Emperor” by Katherine Addison

goblin emperor

In some ways this feels like a very traditional epic fantasy, it has elves and goblins in it, it is set in an empire with an ancient history and its main character is a young man plucked from obscurity to play a crucial role in the fate of the empire. In other ways, this is less traditional, there’s no dark lord to overthrow, no epic quest and no pitched battles between good and evil. There’s enough here to inspire some nostalgia for the epic fantasies I used to read when I was a teenager but in many ways this is a more interesting story.

The book starts with the protagonist Maia being woken in the middle of the night by a courier sent to tell him that his father and half-brothers have been killed in an airship accident. Since his father was the Emperor and his elder brothers were his father’s heirs this means that Maia is suddenly thrust into the position of being the next ruler of the Empire of the Elves. As the book’s title alludes to, this is something that many of his new subjects find controversial since Maia is half-breed, his late mother having been a goblin who married the Emperor in a short-lived and unhappy political marriage. Maia has grown up in obscurity, effectively in exile in a distant part of the Empire under the care of his often cruel cousin and warder, and with no contact with his father or other living family. There is a huge amount of culture shock as he suddenly finds himself in the capital living at the Royal Court where he knows no-one and where he knows little of the workings of the Empire. As the book goes on Maia must deal with the various challenges of the situation, ranging from challenges to his rule from ambitious nobles to more personal challenges as he has to find a way to be happy in his new role. He is a young man with trouble making friends when there is an inevitable separation from his subjects and it is difficult to tell friend from foe.

Although there are a number of interesting plot points, including a couple of conspiracies against Maia’s rule and the investigation into the airship disaster that brought him to the throne, I wouldn’t say this is a particularly plot-driven book. Instead, the main attraction here is the characterisation and the setting. I found Maia to be a very compelling character, it’s very easy to like him and sympathise with some of the troubles he encounters. If I had a criticism it would be that occasionally his actions seem a bit too selfless (he tends to be a bit too forgiving to some of his enemies, for example), but he is an interesting character and gets some good character development as he learns how to adapt himself to the new role he finds himself in. The supporting characters are also interesting with some good subtle characterisation where sometimes it is important to pay more attention to character’s actions than what Maia thinks of them since, at least at first, he isn’t always the best judge of character, and being the Emperor people will tend to tell him things they think he wants to hear rather than what they necessarily think themselves. It’s also possible to see how the perceptions of other characters towards their Emperor changes as the book goes on, many of the characters seeming to have judged him based on what he was or what they have heard of him, and as they get to know him better their opinions of them change in a variety of ways.

There may be a small number of brief action scenes but for the most the part plot advancement is done via dialogue as Maia tries to navigate the convoluted world of court intrigue. Despite the lack of the type of action traditionally seen in epic fantasy stories there do manage to be some tense scenes as Maia’s grasp on power can start to seem fairly tenuous as the book goes on. I think it manages to be a compelling story although the finale to one particular plot thread does fall a bit flat and it does feel like the novel ends slightly abruptly (although on a fairly appropriate note).

I thought the writing was very good. The dialogue may not be to everyone’s tastes since it uses a lot of deliberately archaic and formal-sounding language but I thought it felt very appropriate to the setting. The world-building manages to suggest a lot of depth and a long history without getting bogged down in too much exposition, where it makes sense there is some exposition as other characters explain things to Maia he doesn’t know but other elements that he would already be familiar with, such as the Empire’s religion can be picked up from the brief mentions of them. Sometimes the plethora of titles and foreign terms and the large number of named characters can start to seem a little bit overwhelming but for the most part I didn’t find it too confusing.

Overall, I’d say this was an Epic Fantasy novel that in many ways wasn’t particularly epic but that didn’t stop it being compelling. I don’t know if the book will be to everyone’s tastes but I found it very enjoyable. As far as I know there isn’t a sequel planned, but I’d happily read one if it was written.

Rating : 8 /10


“Sailor to a Siren” by Zoë Sumra

sailor to a siren

It is apparent from just the first couple of chapters that “Sailor to a Siren” combines an intriguing, and relatively unusual, mix of genres. The first chapter opens in the middle of a heist with member of one gang (including two of the novel’s protagonists) stealing a drug shipment owned by a rival gang. That this isn’t a mundane crime novel is soon obvious since the rival gang members are aliens who look a bit like giant birds and they have a human woman helping them guard the shipment who can do what the characters describe as magic.

The setting feels like a classic space opera setting with humanity now dispersed across half of a galaxy dominated by two superpowers that seem to be in the middle of a lengthy Cold War. The planet most of the book is set on is largely populated by the bird-like aliens but it’s also home to a large community of humans as well as various other assorted aliens. The Spellweavers add a touch of what feels like urban fantasy into the setting, although there is some brief exposition about how the magic they do has a complex scientific explanation.

Traditionally Space Opera stories have taken place on an epic scale but despite the setting this doesn’t feel much like a traditional Space Opera plot. The story focuses on the aftermath of the heist that takes place in the first chapter, as two brothers Connor and Logan try to find a way to sell what they’ve stolen while surviving the rival gang’s retaliation and having to navigate the complicated politics of the planet’s underworld. From the very first chapter onwards they have a feeling that they’ve stumbled into something more dangerous than they expected, since no ordinary drugs shipment should have been guarded by an expensive Spellweaver. They soon find they’re in more trouble than they anticipated but even in desperate circumstances Connor always keeps looking for a way to turn the situation to his advantage. A complication is provided by the third of the book’s main characters, an old flame of Logan’s named Eloise who is part of a group of Spellweavers hired to crack down on the planet’s trade in illegal drugs.

There is a lot of plot packed into a relatively short book. This is set in a brutal world where life is cheap and everyone from the gangs to the police have their own agenda and nobody other than family can be fully trusted (although sometimes loyalty can be found in surprising places). The story gets increasingly complex as it goes along before the various factions all converge together in a final confrontation which I thought was the highlight of the book – a clash between multiple different groups where none of them are entirely in control of the situation. The setting is very claustrophobic, the stakes are high and it remains tense throughout. There are plenty of double-crosses and most characters have some hidden motivations which kept the plot unpredictable.

Due to the nature of the plot we only get glimpses of the wider setting but the book does a good job of suggesting a long history and there is plenty of material for other books in the setting to explore – the long-running conflict between the two rival guilds of Spellweavers seems particularly intriguing.

I thought the characterisation was good. I wouldn’t say most of the characters are likable – Connor and Logan are hardened criminals who loyalty to each other is probably one of their few redeeming features – but they are interesting and compelling characters. There may be a lot of action in the book but in between the three main characters do get some effective character development, and it’s also interesting to see the contrast between how they are perceived by other characters and how they perceive themselves when we see things from their perspective.

Overall, I thought this was a compelling mixture of gangland thriller, space opera and urban fantasy and I look forward to reading more books in the same setting.

Rating : 8 / 10


“The Three-Body Problem” by Liu Cixin (translated by Ken Liu)


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


“Guns of the Dawn” by Adrian Tchaikovsky


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


“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


“The Martian” by Andy Weir


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


“Ancillary Sword” by Anne Leckie


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