Category: Book Reviews

March 27th, 2017 by nicklavitz
The Iron Tactician

This is a bite-sized novella based upon the same characters as the excellent short story, “Merlin’s Gun”.

When I say “Bite Sized”, I mean, “I read this in the first 45 minutes of my flight to Miami.”

It’s not long.

Merlin is a rogue element escaped from a civilization, “The Cohort”, which is under existential threat by an aggressor known as the “Huskers”. They pursue pretty much any and all life in the galaxy and extinguish it, for reasons that have never been made clear.

The Cohort have taken to a fairly nomadic lifestyle in vast vessels called Swallowships to evade and combat the Huskers, and they have been losing a war of attrition over a very, very long time. By that I mean the kind of “long time” that only becomes possible when you start thinking in terms of relativistic time and long-distance space travel.

Merlin ran off, as was described in “Merlin’s Gun”, on a personally-appointed quest to find a weapon of vast power, which could tip the tide of war in favour of the Cohort, after endless engagements lost to the Huskers and centuries of running for their lives.

His quest is so spread out over time and space that Alastair Reynolds has built himself an endless story machine, not too unlike the Stargate franchise where you never really know what lies behind the next wormhole.

The fact that this is only the second story in the franchise demonstrates remarkable restraint, if you ask me.

Upon discovering a long-dead swallowship, Merlin finds out from their records that they traded a Syrinx (the alien artefact that allows him to travel an ancient high-speed galactic highway) a few thousand years ago in a nearby star system. Since his Syrinx has been damaged and his quest depends upon his ability to use the Ways, for which the Syrinx is essential, he goes in search of this rare and essential replacement, only to find himself embroiled in a local war between different planets in the same star system.

The story is well tied together, and Reynolds’ prose is tight, clear and well-edited as ever. The read is fun and satisfying. Don’t expect too much of a novella, there’s only so much space for character development. Also, it feels ever so slightly expensive for a meal consumed so rapidly. It is, however, a very good addition to the Husker/Cohort universe and to Merlin’s story and I’m glad to have read it, even if I still had to watch two movies and write 3 blog posts to get through the rest of the flight.

Posted in Book Reviews

March 2nd, 2017 by nicklavitz
The Burning Page (The Invisible Library series Book 3)

I find I’ve grown into Cogman’s novels set in parallel worlds connected through her great Library. Her confidence and comfort writing in this world that she’s created also seems to have reached new levels with this latest instalment, which also benefits from not needing to introduce the characters, since we know them from the previous novel.

Despite her heroism in saving the day in the previous novel, Irene the librarian is on probation for breaking quite so many rules in the process. She is therefore given sub-par assignments that are riskier than usual, but she seems to be taking it in stride. Meanwhile, the Library, eternal and unmovable and outside of space and time, is under attack. Quite how this is being achieved is not understood, but old enemies rapidly appear in central roles and a conspiracy begins to appear on the stage.

Our heroine, relegated to the sidelines by her superiors, finds herself rapidly drawn back to the center of current events, due in large part to a pre-existing relationship with the malefactor-in-chief. As she tries to play by the rules of the library, while nevertheless using her connection to the enemy to draw him out and foil (or at least understand) his plans, she comes to realise that she is not the only one preparing traps and moving chess-pieces on the board, and that everyone is not always what they seem.

The adventure is fun and the world and its rules are entertaining, but it is the characters that make the novel. It’s not that they’re drawn with incredible depth, in fact its rather the opposite, with Vale, Irene, Kai and almost every other character playing almost entirely to their stereotypes. With these simple notes, however, Cogman composes a highly entertaining score, and the pages turn easily as the story develops and the characters play their expected parts to perfection.

The founding premise of the series, of parallel worlds each on a spectrum between orderly or chaotic, allows Cogman immense freedom to invent universes inspired by the works of Arthur Conan Doyle, with a shot of steampunk and the occasional flying sleigh or talking bear. The implausible becomes plausible when things like magic, sorcery and impossible technologies are justified as manifestations of chaos that grows and fades as opposing forces of the fae and dragons bring their influence to bear on each world. More than in the previous novels, it becomes apparent that one cannot exist without the other, and that chaos and order do not correlate nicely with “wrong” and “right”, and perhaps this will be further developed in future novels that are sure to come.

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February 27th, 2017 by nicklavitz
Gilded Cage: A BBC Radio 2 Book Club Choice 2017 (The Dark Gifts Trilogy)

The Gilded Cage is a new novel by Vic James, and the first part of a new trilogy, and a very promising beginning to a new world of stories.

A revisionist take on history tells us of a world divided between the skilled, known as Equals, and everyone else. Those born without hereditary Skill are bound by law to serve ten years of their lives in service to the skilled, and these ten years are known as the slavedays. This metaphor for empowered nobility versus serfdom is the foundation upon which the story rests, and from which a more intricate tapestry is woven.

While the individual characters remain drawn in shades of fairly strict moral and ethical black and white, the pieces are mingled. Some slaves are quite nasty individuals and some Equals are strong moral characters. Of course, most of the pieces still land on the expected side of the chessboard but there’s enough ambiguity to keep things interesting.

The story is then told from the point of view of a family of five about to begin their slavedays. Trying to get it over with early on in their lives, the group manage, thanks to an enterprising elder sibling, to get assigned to an important family of Equals, thus dodging the unpleasantness of Millmoor, the slavetown on the outskirts of Manchester, where they live.

From here we are drawn into the politics and conflicts of an England more polarized by class than even your most staunch and radical socialist could have imagined, with individuals entitled by birthright dominating the rest of society in a way reality hasn’t seen since the Middle Ages.

But the politics are modern, and the intrigue is simple enough to understand without lessons in the politics of this alternate reality.

Vic James draws you into her world and its intrigues with skill and strong prose, and the result is amply rewarding.

My only regret is that by the end of the novel, despite the ordeals of the major characters and the events that have unfolded, nothing much has changed. A few unanswered questions and open threads lead clearly into the next novel, which I will no doubt anticipate with bated breath, but as far as this first novel is concerned, the characters have evolved, but their environment has not. A few Equals have had their political intrigue, but from the point of view of a commoner, the world remains much the same, and I was really hoping for a cliffhanger of epic proportions, rather than the very personal story that will form the beginning to the next novel.

For sure, their situation of our heroes is both complex and dire, but if we accept the founding premise of the book that the Equals have real power, rather than just some inherited noble title, then it will take events of much greater import than we have seen so far to change the structure of this world for the better. A hint at what those might be, rather than the vague shadows of possibility we have glimpsed, would have been welcome.

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February 26th, 2017 by nicklavitz

The last time I wrote a film review, I had just seen quite possibly one of the worst science fiction films of all time. I was close to despairing at the paucity of decent stuff coming out of Hollywood.

Moreover, although I didn’t review them, the latest Marvel and DC Comics offerings have, to my mind, been driven far more by Hollywood profits forecasts and a need to overcome a Godzilla threshold than by inspired or original storytelling (even if it’s with established characters). Just because it worked in the comics doesn’t make it a good story on the screen.

So Doctor Strange is more than a good film, it is a huge relief.

It would be too generous to say that the Hollywood profit motive was not present. The stunning special effects take took perhaps more share of mind when compared to the storytelling than would have been ideal, but that’s my biases showing. Not every film can be written and directed by Christopher Nolan.

Also, to claim that this movie didn’t also suffer from a by-the-numbers Godzilla threshold trope (and I use “suffer” very deliberately) would be untrue, but it’s an Avengers film, and in this context, anything less than the end of the world does not a story make.

What we do have is a brilliant Benedict Cumberbatch (nightmarish American accent notwithstanding) in a fully fleshed-out role, introducing us to a universe of magic and urban sorcery that does not rely on any of the existing Marvel franchise. In fact, other than two references in the entire movie, the rest of the Marvel universe stays politely in the toy box.

Doctor Stephen Strange is a man who, despite being roguishly lovable and appreciated by a number of his peers, is clearly so self-centered and imbued of his own ability as a surgeon that his world-view is entirely egocentric. Take a man at the pinnacle of achievement and arrogance and strip him of everything in a terrible accident. Watch him wither on the vine and, at the last moment before total self-destruction, provide him with a new path to which he is uniquely suited, and which he would never have found had he not been through the pain and self-annihilation of his recent experiences.

In search of a cure for his broken hands, he finds something else, a role as a member of a society protecting the earth from forces unknown. His photographic memory and talent for all things complicated make him ideally suited to the task of mastering sorcery, something which is learned and not given, practiced and not innate.

His discovery and growth in this new world coincides (obviously) with the manifestation of one of the greatest mystical threats ever to face the earth, and he finds himself in the thick of it before he is entirely ready. But we are never ready, as the Sorceror Supreme, played by Tilda Swinton, tells him.

An visual feast and a fun story to complement it, not to mention a wonderfully hammed up performance by Benedict Cumberbatch who appears to enjoy every moment of playing Doctor Strange, this is definitely a film to take its rightful place at the very summit of the Marvel franchise.

Unfortunately now they’re going to mix Strange with Iron Man and Thor because that’s what they have to do to justify putting a new, bigger Godzilla on the screen, and like fine wine, you can only go bigger, never backwards.

Posted in Book Reviews

December 4th, 2015 by nicklavitz

The Fifth Season: The Broken Earth, Book 1, WINNER OF THE HUGO AWARD 2016

To start (and to state my conclusion), this is a fantastic book with brilliant worldbuilding that confounds traditional characterizations of nature, government, allegiances and magic.

Nature is out to get you, vindictive and vengeful. The system uses gifted individuals like animals, their enslavement preordained and accepted by all as a part of the natural order of things. Selfishness and brutality are enshrined in a hybrid of law and religion known as stonelore, which also provides guidelines for the survival of a Season – a period of tectonic, volcanic upheaval that occurs when vengeful Earth makes her festering hatred for mankind felt.

Orogenes are the magic-wielders of this world. Capable of sensing and influencing the seismic activity around them. At once necessary and feared, they are able to cause and prevent the very thing everyone fears most – seismic activity. The Guardians control the orogenes, ruthlessly, keeping everyone safe through a form of indoctrination and partial enslavement of orogenes.

Being born an orogene is to be born into a life of self-hatred, knowing you represent all that everyone fears and that your society will kill you sooner than let you breathe the same air. The day your parents give you up to a Guardian, they will be happy to see the back of you.

People live in comms, communal arrangements akin to fortified villages, designed to survive the Seasons when they come. They do this by keeping out those who would steal the comm’s stockpiles and by ensuring limiting its members to those who can contribute, and never more than the comm is able to feed. This is considered a good thing. It is written in the lore.

Into this stable, accepted but somewhat unpleasant context, Jemisin pours her characters. We follow them through three separate timelines that interrelate in ways that gradually become apparent around the middle of the novel. Jemisin’s world is a rich tapestry cleverly and thoughtfully woven to provide a coherent and satisfying environment for the story. This is the greatest strength of the novel, in my opinion.

The story is the second strong point – there are actors and factions in significant number, although the main characters are kept to a disciplined minimum, allowing us to keep track of how we feel about each of them, and follow their desires, constraints and difficulties in great detail. These characters have roles, by which I mean they play a significant role that goes beyond their desire to satisfy their own needs – they have little choice in this, it follows them like a curse. A lesser writer would have written about prophecies, fate or destiny, but Jemisin describes the events, and we see the pattern ourselves for what it is.

The story leaves a lot unanswered, as befits the first book of a series, but I felt a comforting subplot was missing from the narrative – something that would provide at least a sense of resolution at the end of the book rather than a fairly long list of open questions that no doubt lead to further questions.

I had only one real problem with the novel, and that was with the relentless attention of the sexual oppression of the characters. There is not a single one who is not either in some way sexually oppressed, violated or abused, or either gay, bisexual, transgender, androgynous or cross-dressing. Most can tick at least one box from both lists.

While I applaud and encourage the inclusion of these elements into characters in novels, their omnipresence in The Fifth Season felt “shoehorned-in” by the final third of the book. A new character’s introduction at this point leads to a patient wait for the big reveal when they will turn out to have been raped as a child, to actually be the opposite gender I thought they were, or turn out to not be a gender at all, or a “Breeder” or a sexual surrogate or something. This isn’t a problem per se, but felt somehow cloying by the end of the book. It isn’t a function of, and doesn’t contribute to, the overall story, so it feels unnecessary. Perhaps I will get used to this by the next book and it will become part of the story and less of a distraction. I hope so.

This minor gripe aside, the world as built by Jemisin is a glorious landscape for the construction of a fantasy novel, a new take on magic and its presence and role in the world, and I look forward to the next installment. The broad recognition this book has garnered is well-earned.

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November 10th, 2015 by nicklavitz

Ancillary Mercy (Imperial Radch Book 3)

The Imperial Radch series is funnel-like. It starts with an eye-opening vision of a civilization ruled by an all-powerful distributed leader, and shows us this through the eyes of the final fragment of a destroyed ship, the last ancillary of the Justice of Toren, betrayed by her ruler in a civil war of a monumental and complex nature, dealing with loss and a crisis of identity on a tragic scale. What vistas, what scope!

As we follow Breq and discover her predicament, her self-imposed mission and the universe in which it all takes place, we are given vast horizons to contemplate. Her mission takes her all the way to Anaander Mianaai, ruler of the Radchaai (or at least one part of her), and there we discover the details of the civil war, the split within Mianaai herself.

In the second book, the funnel narrows. We are taken to Athoek Station, where Breq, now wearing the Mianaai surname, takes control of a politically complex situation, but compared to the war raging in the universe at large, we know that what happens here is a storm in a teacup. Athoek is not critical to the ongoing civil war. Important perhaps, a staging point for future conflict, perhaps, but not the turning point. This gives us an opportunity to examine more closely the social and political consequences of the civilization Ann Leckie has invented for us. This is well done in the second book, which explores the social mores, complex emotional states and intricate rules of conduct of the Radchaai in great detail.

I was hoping that the third book would broaden the scope again, giving us the vistas glimpsed in the first tome once more, and showing us the conclusion of the war into which Breq, her ship and her crew have been entrained.

In fact, we are still at Athoek, and the narrative takes a philosophical turn. Leckie has always liked exploring the societal consequences and complex mannerisms engendered by the culture she has imagined, but here we go into full-on obsessive mode with deep analyses of the internal emotional states and moral convictions of various individuals, all witnessed through the all-seeing connected awareness of our main protagonist. This is a universe in which making tea in the wrong china set can cause such offense that it leads to a depression that needs medication from a professional doctor, and I’m barely exaggerating.

Breq looks very tough in large part because everyone around her is either visibly falling apart or hiding their emotional fragmentation behind vast reserves of stoicism. Every sentence spoken is a minefield, every politeness is a potential insult to a third party, every act a move on a moral and emotional chessboard of ever-increasing complexity, but often of little real consequence. The absence of a supporting influence is enough to cause characters to fall apart emotionally to the point where they must be sedated. This went a little far for me.

Unfortunately, most of this matters little to the physical reality of Athoek system. Athoek, in turn, matters little in the overall scheme of the civil war. Either the very real, very military strategies at play will work in Breq’s favour, or they will not, and Breq rolls the dice on her military decisions with far more recklessness than (s)he manifests in her/his delicate management of interpersonal relations.

So much of the book is internal dialogue explaining the consequences of this or that on someone’s emotional state that it implies the individuals in the story are more important than the civilization tearing itself apart in the background. The civil war unfortunately only serves as a backdrop to the narrative. Don’t misunderstand me, it is interesting to explore how such convoluted social rules lead to extremes of emotion in individuals upon whom entire star systems depend, but I would have preferred it if these emotions were not the dominant thread in the narrative.

I very much enjoyed the first and second books, and was hoping that the third would veer away from introspection and towards Breq’s role in the greater events at work in the universe around her. How does one resist or fight or outwit a schizophrenic, megalomaniacal, near-omniscient multi-bodied ruler who doesn’t know her own mind? I was hoping an answer would be forthcoming. Unfortunately for me, that’s not where this book was going.

Much of what happens here is critically important to the individuals concerned, but in the grand scheme of things, with which we were teased in the first novel, it is a storm in a teacup. Although you’ll soon find out it’s a 3000-year-old teacup that belonged to an extinct dynasty from a conquered world.

Conclusion: Well written, well worth the read, and I did enjoy it, but if the first book set you up with expectations that you were going to see, first hand, the evolution of the Imperial Radch at this turning point in the civilization’s history, reset those expectations before you jump in. Then you’ll be fine.


Addendum: I suppose it would be odd not to comment on the deliberate use of the pronoun “she” to describe every character in the book. This has been commented on to death elsewhere, favourably and unfavourably. It didn’t do much for me, and I would personally have preferred a normal use of pronouns, but it neither makes nor unmakes the book. As you read, you quickly learn to ignore it and it fades into the background apart from occasional moments where it can cause a little gender confusion. It is, however, a relevant brick in the edifice Ann Leckie constructs, and it is relevant to the societal norms and cultural eccentricities that are very much at the heart of the novel, so it has its place here and is more than a gimmick or a political statement.

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October 30th, 2015 by nicklavitz

Aurora

There’s an introspective and meditative quality to Robinson’s novels that comes, I think, from his avoidance of page turner strategies. He avoids chapters that end in suspense, making you want to know what happens next, and we don’t get the multiple interwoven storyline treatment that allows the author to always have one cliffhanger active at any given time.

So what we get is a novel that is more centred on real, physical challenges faced by the population of our interstellar ship. Problems related to closed-loop ecologies, population control, artificial intelligence (and its definition), and the concept of authority and hierarchy on a multi-generational starship. These are all tackled in a fictional context, but with great attention to the inner workings and intricate details of each challenge.

There is a clear sense that Robinson has a stack of research on his desk a mile high.

The story covers the last few years before a starship launched from earth several generations ago arrives at Tau Ceti, its destination. The people on board have never known Earth, and are aware only of their own small microcosm – the Ship. We see events unfold through the life of Freya, the daughter of a well-known member of the community, Devi. Unlike Devi, who is, by virtue of her understanding of the ship’s mechanisms, the default engineer in chief, Freya lacks the mind for the task and is more interested in how people behave.

Our narrator is the ship’s nascent artificial intelligence, which is writing a narrative account of the journey at Devi’s request, and after a number of aborted attempts, focuses on Freya as a protagonist to give the narrative structure. The process of writing the narrative account neatly tracks the Ship’s evolution towards true intelligence, both in the narrative style and in the content and questions asked as the narrative unfolds.

As an investigation of the difficulties of reaching far-distant stars through the use of long-lived starships, the novel is extremely thought-provoking and challenges the often-made assumptions that allow us to do away with considering the real problems such an endeavour would face. For example, Robinson undertakes a detailed examination of the chemical reactions that immobilise vital elements that are in short supply, and the resulting effects on the ability of the ecosystem to continue to function. Through this part of the story, he demonstrates that the problem-solving required in even this single discipline is insufficiently developed at this time for us to even consider a project of this kind. We depend on so many things that our environment on Earth provides without our needing to manage it that we are ill-prepared to take on the challenge of recreating the right conditions for long-term life away from our cradle.

In a way, the novel is slightly defeatist in this regard, and perhaps that’s a shame, because such an in-depth investigation could have led somewhere more rewarding without the need for sugar-coating. Some of the challenges (perhaps the most difficult and insurmountable) faced by the population of the ship are somewhat deus-ex-machina in terms of their formulation, and the premise that any planet worth occupying will already have some form of life inimical to our own is not necessarily something that I feel is properly explained or defended in the book.

Nevertheless, Robinson has taken the premise of a generational starship reaching for the stars further and deeper than anyone before, and while the novel may not leave you with the sense of wonder that drew some of us to the science fiction genre in the first place, it is an enriching narrative, a good story and an extremely valuable addition to the science fiction bookshelf.

Highly recommended.

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October 6th, 2015 by nicklavitz

Forty Signs of Rain (Science in the Capital Trilogy, Book 1)

The science fiction in Forty Signs of Rain is subtle, permeating the book through little snippets such as wrist-mounted screens and small technological improvements to the devices we already have. This is a very far cry from the omnipresent enhanced reality of Charles Stross’ books or any other number of interpretations of how technology will change our future.

In fact, this is a book about the intersect between global warming and politics, or perhaps the lack of an intersect where one ought to be. It’s near future setting looks forward to a gradually worsening environment, rather than new technological marvels.

We are presented with the problem of global warming from the point of view of individuals who do not need to be convinced of the truth of its impact, who can understand and even to a certain extent predict both the timing and the consequences of what a shift in climate is going to do to the world, but who find themselves powerless to do anything about it despite their position as some of the most influential individuals in the field, in the most powerful country in the world.

Without pointing a finger at it, naming it or bemoaning it directly, political apathy and institutionalised immobility are omnipresent in the book, seen through the eyes of people who are seeking, each in their own way, to advance an agenda that will lead to a change in environmental policy. Their efforts are real and tangible, their eventual impact less so.

The main characters include senior scientists at the National Science Foundation, both a director and a visionary scientist on a temporary assignment in her organisation. Also the director’s husband, who is science advisor to an influential senator and devoted to passing a bill, sponsored by his senator, that represents a big step in the direction of reduced emissions and other measures to mitigate climate change.

Instead of presenting their efforts as a mission or a quest, each has exposure to the environmental issues as a core part of their job. Their knowledge and conscience lead them to seek change in the context of their daily work, and they are motivated by their own personal belief systems. In this the book is very realistic – change is effected by individuals such as these, not often by crusading heroes tearing down old paradigms. Unfortunately, their collective effort is insufficient to cause any real change in policy or on the environment.  In the real world, they would undoubtedly fail also, how could they not, given the vastness of what they must achieve to have even the most subtle impact.

So as we see them each apply pressure to the system in their own way, we also see the deteriorating environment as a general backdrop to the novel. Catastrophic changes in salinity and sea temperature are mere pages away from meetings with the president’s chief scientist in which it becomes obvious that no amount of statistics, reason or argument will move the policy needle. I was strangely reminded of the resistance to gun control during this scene in which logic was happily brushed to one side in favour of doubt, votes and the avoidance of cost. The country, as embodied by its leaders, finds it easier to ignore the problem than  deal with it.

Woven into the story are small hints at things greater than ourselves most obviously in some interesting interactions between main characters and some Tibetan monks who are the catalyst to major changes in the way a scientist, Frank, perceives his role and the role of science in the world. This provides Robinson with the opportunity to theorise how it is not cold science alone that will change things, because it takes energy and passion to overcome societal inertia.

As the environment gradually slips into catastrophe and sea levels rise inexorably, the discussion continues, and the book culminates with a flood in Washington DC, the monuments surrounded by water, the zoo animals running wild, and a sense, more or less unspoken, that even this will not be enough to instigate any meaningful change.

I found the book a little depressing in that our main characters are revealed to be somewhat impotent in the conflict they are a part of. This is contrary to what we often seek in a story – we want the protagonist to overcome the obstacles and demonstrate strength while being changed for the better by the effort of reaching his goals. Perhaps to a certain extent this is true of Frank, but the goals seem unattainable.

The typical heroic narrative is abandoned here perhaps to serve the larger goal of getting a message across. This eminently readable book is holding up a mirror, and perhaps a few people will look long enough and with eyes open enough to see a reflection of society that they didn’t expect. I have no problem believing that the events portrayed are totally realistic and even likely to occur, and that we will soon be facing exactly the problems described, and that we will have done no better than the fictional nations in Forty Signs of Rain to compensate for a warming climate, rising oceans and more violent weather by the time these phenomena are too advanced to address with preventative measures. As a message, this book works well, and I hope it is widely read, although if it is right in its diagnosis of the root of our apathy and denial, it won’t make a difference, because perhaps nothing can.

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September 29th, 2015 by nicklavitz

The Invisible Library (The Invisible Library series Book 1)

I enjoyed a thoughtful post on Charles Stross’ blog recently, saying good things about the Urban Fantasy genre, and I was inspired to go looking for a novel that might get me back into it.

My issue with urban fantasy is that if I have to read another scene about a breathless teenager falling in love with a vampire or yet another sexual domination metaphor dressed in werewolf tropes, I might just have to write off the genre entirely, and I know that’s not fair.

The reason I know it’s not fair is because we have works in this genre that, even if they aren’t always to my personal taste, are unambiguously good. Be it the idea behind Mortal Instruments or the deep well of new ideas that made up the Harry Potter franchise, or the deeper, more intricate and fantastical Neverwhere by Neil Gaiman, which took the language of London and wove an incredibly rich tapestry. Unfortunately, for each of these comes a tidal wave of pulp concerning mythical creatures spouting incessant clichés.

I was quite keen, therefore to read  The Invisible Library since it was quite highly recommended for the originality of its concept. I bought it on Kindle and swallowed it whole over an afternoon.

I suppose that’s the first thing to say about the book; this is not like The Bone Clocks by David Mitchell, where my reading slows down because of the density of the pattern being woven. This is a fun read, and the pages are turned quickly. You will not need to keep track of the movements of dozens of characters, nor will it be necessary (or necessarily possible) to understand the motivations of several of the characters. The book is about the action that occurs, and to a certain extent the secrets being kept.

Our protagonist, Irene, works for The Library. Capitalisation is important, The Library is not any library, it sits outside of time and space and exists for the sole purpose of collecting and preserving the works of fiction from different alternate worlds. Irene is an agent of the library, and she goes into these worlds and collects books for the library at the behest of senior librarians, such as her mentor, Coppelia.

The library also exists on the periphery of a struggle between the forces of chaos and the forces of order. By definition linked to the forces of order, the library has to be careful of chaos, which manifests in various alternate realities through the appearance of illogical things or impossible science, such as vampires, irrational magic, unexplainable mechanisms and more generally, the fae.

Irene is sent to collect a book from a world that is somewhat too far down the chaos end of the spectrum for comfort, and she soon discovers that the book she has been sent to find is important to others also, possibly critically important to all concerned, and that these others are prepared to go to great and violent lengths to obtain it.

So it’s an adventure mixed in with a detective novel, with some alternate realities and magical creatures thrown in.

I had second thoughts when I realised that I would be reading about alternate universes – another trope all too often abused – but it was well managed here, in that it gave meaning to the illogicality of much of the fantastical things that go on in the rest of the book. If glamours and charms work outside of a solid system of magic, it is because we are in an alternate world that is corrupted by the forces of chaos. Since these break down cause and effect and therefore open the gate to the irrational and the impossible, and in the context of this story, this is most definitely not a good thing.

Irene is a likeable protagonist, and even if adventurous librarians is not bursting with originality as a concept, the nature of this library (somewhat irrational in and of itself, if you ask me), is deeply original and very interesting.

This will no doubt become a series, I believe the second book is already out. I will probably read it because I enjoyed the first one. Let’s hope that the originality can keep coming and that the framework laid out in this first book is not the entirety of the edifice. If there is more to the world-building in the coming volumes, there might turn out to be a very good series behind this excellent novel.

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September 25th, 2015 by nicklavitz

Alive: Book One of the Generations Trilogy

I read some strong reviews of Scott Sigler’s latest book, Alive, and was looking for something to get my teeth into as I managed to free up some time for reading again. Unfortunately, there was a gap between my expectations and what the book delivered that made it hard for me to enjoy it.

That obviously doesn’t mean that the book isn’t good, but I’m not good with young adult fiction unless it’s sufficiently complex under the surface or it has a sufficiently powerful underlying premise or message.

In this case, unfortunately, that didn’t work out for me.

This is a book that keeps a secret from you and sets up a big reveal. You feel the secret building as you go, in the unanswered questions and in the gaps between the questions that have been asked, and that gets you to keep reading, playing a game of guessing the outcome before the story gets to the point where all is revealed.

It’s like painting with negative space, where it’s the bits of the canvas you don’t actually fill in that contain the detail of the image, and you can only see the shape of what’s being drawn when either the rest of the canvas is sufficiently filled for a shape to emerge, or when the artist helpfully traces a line around the edges of the object on the page.

As a consequence, there’s very little I can say about the book without revealing the contours or that image and spoiling the story for you.

As an aside, the author has a request to reviewers at the end of the book asking that they not reveal “spoilers”, and obviously I wouldn’t, but isn’t it sad that it’s necessary for an author to actually outright ask people not to spoil the book for others.

The reveal is satisfying (it’s not like Lost, at the end of which I was abruptly furious with the writers), in the sense that everything does hang together. Unfortunately it wasn’t interesting enough for me to feel that it was worth the buildup. Luckily, since the writing style is clear and the story fairly straightforward to follow, I blasted through this book so fast that I didn’t feel I had lost loads of time on it, so I wasn’t upset. It was more like a meal that leaves you strangely unsatisfied at the end of it.

What I can tell you is this – a group of youths awaken in coffins, they have no memory of how they got there, no idea what they are doing there, and no knowledge of their own names except for the engravings on the coffins they woke up in. From there they start to explore and discover their environment, and others like themselves.

The youths are marked with symbols on their foreheads, and these symbols correlate to specific skills and/or character attributes, which are drawn with so little subtlety that you have absolutely no doubt about who is what. It does get a bit tedious having people referred to as circle-stars or whatever, and the author in my opinion tries to mine this somewhat shallow vein for more than it’s worth.

As they explore, they will discover more about what they are doing there, who they are, and what’s going on. The big reveal isn’t wholly original, although there are interesting aspects to it which I thought were great and could have been explored more fully – but I can’t tell you what they are without comprehensively ruining the novel, and for all my reticence to rank it highly, it is probably quite a good read in the young adult category – I’m just a poor judge of that kind of material because it doesn’t push my buttons.  At the same time, there are scenes of brutal violence which don’t really belong in the YA category, so I’m not sure what to make of the book overall – it doesn’t sit well in any of the categories.

It’s the first part of a three-part series. I can see where the story could go, but don’t really feel the need to find out exactly what happens next, and will probably give the rest of the series a miss.

Some reviewers loved this book, so read other reviews before you decide, I seem to be somewhat of an outlier on this one.

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