I was already predisposed to like this book for various reasons. Firstly, I like "meta narratives" - books where the purported story you are reading i...moreI was already predisposed to like this book for various reasons. Firstly, I like "meta narratives" - books where the purported story you are reading isn't really the story at all; instead it is being told underneath, alongside or even outside the narrative, so here we not only get footnotes but also margin notes and even ephemera to add to the feel. Secondly, I like "stuff" - books where the physical object is as much a work of art as the content; the conceit that this is a 1950s library book is taken to almost perfect level. And thirdly, I like JJ Abrams' ambition - his tv shows are never less than fascinating, no matter how flawed or ultimately frustrating they end up.*
There's no point in recounting the details of S. - it somewhat defeats the object** and perhaps detracts from the overall effect. The basic conceit is hardly original - a translated text proving to be more complex than the translator imagined***, although the extra layer(s) of narrative imposed on top here is cleverly handled. And the production quality is glorious - a two-fingered salute to those who proclaim the death of the physical book by producing something that would lose an awful lot in an electronic form.****
In the end, I think it felt a bit too much like hard work. The puzzlebox nature of the book certainly works well, and there are moments when the bits suddenly fit together and you smile at the effort taken. But ultimately, I didn't care sufficiently for the characters to properly appreciate it as a novel. Even so, it gets four stars from me for doing everything else right.
* LOST probably being the canonical example*****, although I think that both Alias and Fringe are much better shows. ** And anyway, there is clearly no right answer here; every reader will probably have their own opinion as to the value and ordering of the "layers". *** Try The Athenian Murders for a really good example of this (especially since the English version has the meta-meta bonus of being a translation already!) **** Having said that, I can see that an annotated ebook ought to work quite well. But the electronic medium has different ways of doing fiction; it should be exploring them rather than revisiting print. ***** although I believe he didn't have much to do with the show beyond the basic premise, there may (or may not!) be links to it in S.(less)
Whilst it is increasingly difficult to class Pratchett's work as "humour" in the same sort of sense that "101 Uses for a Dead Cat" is humour, his dete...moreWhilst it is increasingly difficult to class Pratchett's work as "humour" in the same sort of sense that "101 Uses for a Dead Cat" is humour, his determination and commitment to satire is undiminished. And whilst none of the targets of Raising Steam are new within Discworld (we've had dwarvish politics/fundamentalist obsession/industrial revolution etc. often before), they fit together with the usual engineering quality that is a hallmark of the series and particularly appropriate to a story about controlling the world through measurement rather than faith.
The most striking thing about Raising Steam is the travelogue nature of the story. Most Discworld novels content themselves with one or two settings - even ones that are located in Ankh-Morpork are usually confined to specific places (like the University, the Opera House or the Bank.) Here, we revisit a lot of places that have appeared once or twice before (even if only in passing), and, combined with an alarming number of cameos from older characters (including HIMSELF), this gives a distinct sense that this is Pratchett perhaps saying his first proper goodbye to a world that no-one knows better than him.
The story itself is slight, but none the worse for that. And it gets an extra half-star from me because I am a lapsed train geek, so the engineering jokes and the railway movie references were all good fun (even if some of them were alarmingly unsubtle.) And I had more laugh-out-loud moments in this than I have for the last few of the series.
So no, objectively this is not one of the greatest in the series (although I think that it may well end up in my own personal top five simply because of the theme), but - as has been observed often before - even average Pratchett is better than the best of a lot of other people. (less)
The current genre trend of urban fantasy crossed with police procedural gains another quality entry here. This is definitely quite a bit darker than I...moreThe current genre trend of urban fantasy crossed with police procedural gains another quality entry here. This is definitely quite a bit darker than I was expecting, but I suppose that's only natural when the set-up gets deeply entangled with drugs, guns and, ultimately, occult forces. Cornell does a good job making his central characters sufficiently unlikeable that they have space to grow without becoming too "nice" at any point (I particularly liked the way that the black characters weren't identified as such until it became relevant), and he uses the London setting to great advantage. I was impressed by his approach to religion and faith (something that has been a cornerstone of his work without ever being overstated) - the scene with the police chaplains is cleverly positive and negative at the same time; he makes it clear that the world he is painting contains supernatural forces but he doesn't provide easy solutions to them and yet he manages it without making the "official" representatives of faith look stupid.
I wasn't surprised to discover from his endnotes that it originally started out as a tv pitch; all I can say is that the commissioning editors were idiots to turn it down. (edit: and now I understand that it has finally been "optioned" for tv. Huzzah.)(less)
Any series of books that has reached #9 is one (or both) of two things: successful enough to have a readership base to sustain itself / intricate enou...moreAny series of books that has reached #9 is one (or both) of two things: successful enough to have a readership base to sustain itself / intricate enough to mean that new readers should absolutely not start here. Whilst I have no idea about the first condition (although I imagine it can't just be vanity publishing!), the second is most definitely true. Although the basic plot is sufficiently independent to be comprehensible to newcomers, the universe building is not explained at all, and several crucial parts of the dénouement do require background knowledge to understand.
Duane's Wizard series is very strange in one particular way - the first book was written nearly 30 years ago* but the timeline of the story is very compressed: only a couple of years have actually elapsed in "real" time. But she has been forced to make the technology upgrades that have transformed our life in the last few decades, which makes for a weird experience if you read the first one now. *I think that it was only the mid90s reprint that reawakened interest in the series and led to the new books though.
Still all that hardly matters. This is another solid entry in a generally pretty solid series, with some proper character development and tantalising hints of what is to come. The core story is a fine romp, albeit a tad predictable, and the resolution is satisfying even if Kit and Nita come across as being far too nice given what has gone before.
And the major loose end still dangling is nicely set-up for the next volume. Can't wait.(less)
One of the great paintings of Western European art, the van Eyck portrait of the Anolfinis turns out, in the hands of Caola Hicks, to tell you everyth...moreOne of the great paintings of Western European art, the van Eyck portrait of the Anolfinis turns out, in the hands of Caola Hicks, to tell you everything you ever wanted to know about how Western Europe became the powerhouse of global civilisation. This is essentially two separate books - one on the symbols and meanings within the picture itself, and the other on the complex history of an important historical artefact. The approach of interleaving these two lines of thought in alternate chapters is hardly original but it works very well, with some good linking between the themes in each part. The discussion of aspects of the painting itself is fascinating - why the woman probably isn't pregnant, why the room is laid out the way it is, and so on. And, just like any other masterpiece, the painting is resistant to any sort of definitive explanation. Meanwhile the parallel story of the history of the picture is a reminder of just how fragile our culture is; how easily things get lost or destroyed and what a mistake it is to presume that they will survive even when in an apparently safe place.
The book is not perfect, but this is mostly because the author sadly died before she could finalise the manuscript. Her husband has done an excellent job of tidying up some of the loose ends, but there is still a feeling that a final polish was needed (there is perhaps a little too much repetition of information at times); this does not detract from what is a wonderfully accessible book about a fantastic piece of art.
Oh yes, and - of course, - the observation about how Mr Arnolfini looks just like Vladimir Putin is hard to forget once it has been made...(less)
Not quite as much fun as the first, but perhaps more intense. The first-person narrative manages to keep the suspense level high, and yet manages to t...moreNot quite as much fun as the first, but perhaps more intense. The first-person narrative manages to keep the suspense level high, and yet manages to tell plenty of other stories without them feeling artificial (not too much overt plot-exposition here.) (less)
Generally (and rightly, in my view) considered to be the best of the Holmes novels, tHotB is just fantastic from start to finish. Here we find Holmes...moreGenerally (and rightly, in my view) considered to be the best of the Holmes novels, tHotB is just fantastic from start to finish. Here we find Holmes at the top of his form, piecing together an intricate puzzle from disparate clues - admittedly some of which we aren't properly shown, but such is Conan Doyle's touch that we don't actually complain about this fact (a trait he shares at times with Agatha Christie.
There are times when the story feels padded, to be sure, but the atmosphere of increasing dread and tension that it creates is palpable at times - the impact of the climax on the moor itself would be much less if the setting hadn't been carefully built up. Even the unexpected subplot involving the servants isn't annoying, but merely serves to sustain the guessing game.
If I had to pick one Holmes novel to keep, it would be this one. (If I had to pick one Holmes overall, it would probably be The Dancing Men, but that's a short.) And in my list of favourite novels, this is a fixture.(less)
In the all-too-crowded "Teen Fantasy" section of the market, this is a stand-out entry, possibly because it was written before the recent revival of t...moreIn the all-too-crowded "Teen Fantasy" section of the market, this is a stand-out entry, possibly because it was written before the recent revival of the genre. The central premise is pretty traditional (lonely and bullied teen discovers superpowers and/or alternate world) but there is a real feeling of a carefully worked out backstory here even if later books in the series have to do a bit of retcon work on it.
But all the basic elements are well-handled - that magic should have a physical cost, that "evil" is always alone whilst "good" is many, that keeping a secret from your family is hard and so on. But Duane also brings in some unique ideas: the Manual is a particularly clever one, and the underlying foundation of the "Choice" that drives all the stories in myriad ways is nicely introduced.
Oh, and the fact that our heroes have clearly Hispanic names isn't commented upon at all; it's just taken for granted. Now that's subtle.(less)
This is a historical curiosity as well as a piece of mind-blowing hard SF. I first read it soon after it was originally published, and although I coul...moreThis is a historical curiosity as well as a piece of mind-blowing hard SF. I first read it soon after it was originally published, and although I could still clearly remember the jaw-dropping parts, I had clearly forgotten most of the actual plot.
The premise is exactly the same as that of Arthur C.Clarke's Rendezvous with Rama - an alien spacecraft enters the solar system and we follow the stories of those sent up to explore it. But, of course, that's about where the similarities end. In this case, the "Stone" has a very different background and reason for existing, and it's a doozy, and the theoretical physics employed in the explanations are almost graspable (to this layperson, at least.)
But the human tension is the story is driven by something that now feels rather quaint. Originally published at the height of the "second" Cold War - the mid 80s when Star Wars (the space laser defence system, not the movie!) was a theoretical possibility and tensions between East and West were very real, Eon offers us a vision of a world in which the Berlin Wall never fell, but where the arrival of the "Stone" generates a whole new level of paranoia and overreaction, leading to disaster.
To his credit, Bear does create a very good "alternate history" of the twenty years or so after the original publication, but we can read it now and perhaps laugh rather than be scared by the vision he offers.
Once the action has shifted to the Stone proper, I think the book falls down by using the old stand-by of simply taking two parallel storylines and switching between them, which I found somewhat annoying rather than tension building. And the political plot which drives the second half is extremely difficult to follow, although some of the neat paradoxes inherent in the main idea are cleverly introduced and explained (indeed, he's obviously so keen on one of them he explains it twice!)
Overall, I enjoyed my revisit, but that's about all I can say really.(less)
I have a very soft spot for the computer game on which this novel was based. It was over-ambitious, flawed and frustrating but it did some things that...moreI have a very soft spot for the computer game on which this novel was based. It was over-ambitious, flawed and frustrating but it did some things that even all these years later have yet to be equalled in terms of conversational AI.
And I also have a soft spot for this novelisation because at the time of the game they posted the entire text of the novel on the official website. But they did it by sorting all the words into alphabetical order first. It was a typical Adams idea - funny and off-beat but which also made you think, just a little.(less)
Whereas I argued that you could read Timewyrm: Revelation without knowing anything about Doctor Who, and you'd be confused but not baffled, Time's Cr...moreWhereas I argued that you could read Timewyrm: Revelation without knowing anything about Doctor Who, and you'd be confused but not baffled, Time's Crucible is close to being what is now known as "fanwank". It's not just a major attempt to define whole aspects of the Who mythos, drawing on multiple trivial details from the series, it also tries to be an intricate time-travel story operating in multiple time-periods at once.
And it has to be judged a failure. Even though I've given it four stars! But then I'm a fan, and I love so many of the ideas found in here, but the execution is far, far more confusing than it should be.
Marc Platt wrote Ghostlight, which is now one of the most respected old Who stories, in which he helped to create what became the NA Seventh Doctor - a devious manipulator who never even starts a game he can't win, even if that involves cheating. But at the time it was received with polite bafflement, as time pressures meant that a complex plot became semi-incoherent through editing.
Time's Crucible is semi-incoherent without needing that editing. Like Ghostlight, it does in fact make perfect sense if you are able to hold all the minor details in your head and are willing to take the effort to keep track of where the story is and how the different parts relate to one another. But that's a very difficult job, and generally not something that you (as a reader) expect to do with what is "only" a book, and definitely not a great classic.
So it's flawed. And the whole underpinning story on Gallifrey is really only of any interest to Doctor Who fans; it doesn't really make much difference to the main plot (which would have worked satisfactorily without it), and some aspects of it (notably "The Other") would confuse even fans who weren't intimately acquainted with what didn't actually happen on-screen.
But I still admire the attempt and there is much to enjoy here: the imagery of the City is remarkably vivid, and most of the characters are well-drawn. As long as you go in knowing that you will have to work whilst reading, this is perfectly fine. But of course that's not what most people want from their "casual" reading...
Next up: Cat's Cradle: Warhead, in which the last script editor of Doctor Who on tv, and architect of much of what Platt writes about here, has his take on the series.(less)
It feels slightly mean to only give this three stars, but fundamentally the problem is that it simply doesn't feel like a Doctor Who story - it's more...moreIt feels slightly mean to only give this three stars, but fundamentally the problem is that it simply doesn't feel like a Doctor Who story - it's more like the author took a story out of his drawer and stuck the Doctor and Ace into it.
But much of the actual story - the alternate world of Tir Na Nog, the interface between there and our own world, the vivid characters and the descriptive work - is excellent.
The major plot twist towards the end is rather clichéd, but to be fair it isn't massively predictable even though all the clues are given to you fairly. And I can just about forgive him the outrageously plagiarised "American Werewolf in London" subplot simply because it's so blatant it's funny.
Anyway, it's not a bad book, but I think that it fails as a Who story. Marks for effort.
Next up is the debut from someone who went on to write for the new series. Here comes Professor Nightshade...(less)
Andrew Cartmel was the last script editor of "old" Doctor Who (the version of the show that ran from 1963 - 1989.) During his time in charge, the show...moreAndrew Cartmel was the last script editor of "old" Doctor Who (the version of the show that ran from 1963 - 1989.) During his time in charge, the show began to introduce elements that would today be called "story arc", although this was still a pretty new concept in SF television. I note this because it is an important part of understanding why I felt Warhead was less successful than Time's Crucible in defining the Seventh Doctor as he would mostly appear in the NAs.
Cartmel had posited that the Doctor was "more than just a Time Lord", albeit without quite explaining what this meant; it was something that he intended to explore in the series except that it was cancelled.
And it becomes clear in Warhead that he wasn't entirely sure himself. He gives us an excellent portrait of the manipulative Doctor who appears to gamble whilst always stacking the deck, but he doesn't quite deliver on what he promises - although he does set in motion some things that are clearly intended to be paid off in future books, which feels good.
However, he's not a particularly great writer - although after two highly "literary" entries in the NA series, it's refreshing to have a more straight-forward narrative in a much more comprehensible setting (one that still feels prescient, even today.)
The story isn't anything like as involving as it should be, and I think that Ace is particularly badly treated with some inconsistent characterisation that makes her look stupid at times.
As with the Xanth books, this series shows Anthony's endlessly creative imagination in full flow. Here he pulls off a masterly cross-over between the...moreAs with the Xanth books, this series shows Anthony's endlessly creative imagination in full flow. Here he pulls off a masterly cross-over between the fantasy and science fiction genres, keeping both clearly discrete and yet interacting in a truly boggling way.
It's only his complete inability to write convincing characters that stops this from being a great book. But alas, even Stile is little more than a cipher to enable the plot to function, and as for Sheen and Neysa... well, I don't think that the excuses Anthony actually incorporates into the book justify the way he handles them.
This is, however, a terrific start to one of my favourite series - hmmm, must go and reread it soon.(less)