In summary: The book is not badly written - the writing voice and prose is competent. But, despite short chapters, a big world, and decent prose, it is a slog to read through and not very engaging. It's Song of Ice and Fire derivative, but lacking a key ingredient...(less)
Summary: If what you're looking for is a quick, entertaining thriller, briskly told and pleasantly entertaining, then this book is great. It's a perfectly satisfying airport paperback - great for whiling away a plane ride.
New Cairo is an underground city inside a giant crater, surrounded, like a crown, by waytowers / elevator exits. The roof of the city is covered in solar panels; an artificial sun lights the inside. Inside the city, many people are effectively cyborgs, augmented with artificial limbs and organs. Unrest is stirring: some affliction has been shutting down the augmentations, leaving people disabled, and even dead. A curfew has been put in place. People from the areas where the infection is common are not allowed to leave the city, supposedly to keep the outside world safe. But it does not seem like a coincidence that those are also the poorer areas of the city - augmentations being pivotal to hard physical labour and industrial work.
Then, a hooded stranger walks up to the waytower, seeking to return secretly to the city...
The Hive Construct won the 2013 Terry Pratchett Prize (for first novels). Despite its patron, this is not a comedy novel (nor a prize for humorous works). It's a thriller set in a future of CCTV-ridden, highly networked cities, of bio-augmentations and contact lenses that work much like Google Glasses. In terms of technology, there is nothing in the book that seems inconceivable - and nothing you haven't encountered before in other science fiction. But the story isn't really interested in technology: it's interested in the politics of resistance and uprising.
The main characters are a computer hacker with a past, a city councillor who is part of a dynasty of super-wealthy and politicians, and a mother who just lost her husband (a revolutionary) and who wishes to escape the city with her children. They all have different problems at the start: one wants to find and solve the virus problem, the second has been kidnapped, and the third finds herself drawn into directing operations due to her experience of running police ops from her computer.
The Hive Construct has several admirable qualities: it never gets boring, it builds up some degree of credibility in its characters and their actions, and everyone has their own problems to deal with. No one is a square-jawed selfless hero.
Set against that is a series of flaws. While the setting may be called New Cairo, it does not feel authentically Egyptian. Where Ian MacDonald creates immersive futures set in emerging nations, this novel just picks up a few vaguely Egyptian-sounding names, but could otherwise be just as easily set in America or Britain. And while the characters seem more or less believable, the story still treats the wider population - crowds especially - as a malleable mass, easily manipulated, directed, a flow, rather than anything feeling realistically like people. This gives the book a strangely detached feel, especially in the later chapters. These come across like a strategy game or a Roland Emmerich movie: lots of action, but not much punch.
In the end, it's a novel experimenting around with politics. Inspired by the Arab Spring, the Occupy Movement, the London Riots, every bit of unrest and economic disparity, it's really a novel wondering about the rich and the poor, about politicians and corporations, about ends justifying means and how the means might affect the ends. It's a thought experiment, dressed as a scifi thriller. It's not stupid, but, like other novels which toy around with such themes, it feels a bit too calculated, a bit too concerned with its points to really connect. It's like reading China Mieville's more political novels (e.g. Iron Council), but without the linguistic distractions.
As thrillers go, it's not bad, and on a par with Michael Crighton's work. I had hoped for something a bit more ambitious, though.(less)
A Darkling Sea is a novel about scientists and explorers on a distant moon. The moon is covered in a thick layer of solid ice, with a liquid, bitterco...moreA Darkling Sea is a novel about scientists and explorers on a distant moon. The moon is covered in a thick layer of solid ice, with a liquid, bittercold ocean underneath. There are three sets of scientists: humans, there to study the native life forms, native creatures, researching their world, and another alien species, coming to tell the humans off for violating a space treaty by having interacted with the native aliens.
With a novel that has two alien civilisations at its heart, there is huge room for imagination to run wild. So I was slightly disappointed that these aliens were not, psychologically, terribly alien. The natives may be beluga-sized crustaceans with claws and feelers and pincers - but their social order and organisation and mindset is only alien around the edges. They might have different notions of nurturing the young ones, no interest in sex, a different take on common law versus the law of owned and claimed land, different paths of inheritance, and various other things - but they still talk and think and interact and converse and research in ways that seem not that different from humans. There is something interesting going on in the way they recall events and talk about the past, but it's not enough. The second alien species is all about sex, emotions, consensus, but they, too, could feasibly be a human society, when it comes to their own culture and psychology.
The novel is at its best when there are culture clashes - when one group of aliens decides to research a creature they found, not realising that the creature is an intelligent character. Or when two aliens try to apply the most effective social pressure they can think of on a creature that is not culturally compatible with their approach. Such scenes are darkly funny.
There are language / communication barriers, and culture clashes, but ultimately, we have three species, all having two genders (males and females), all having an interest in researching / finding out information, all having good, clear reasons for everything they do, all motivated by things that human can understand and relate to.
It's undoubtedly a pleasant read, never boring, and entertaining. But it's not a book likely to stay with me for very long. (less)
Dark Digital Sky is a novel about a private investigator, initially hired to find a Hollywood powerbroker's progeny - three men who grew from his dono...moreDark Digital Sky is a novel about a private investigator, initially hired to find a Hollywood powerbroker's progeny - three men who grew from his donor sperm.
While his investigation swings into gear, America finds itself subjected to a series of crimes - heists and theatrics - and our detective tracks not just his own case, but keeps aware of the news.
There are many things to like about this novel, but also some which are a bit frustrating. Let's start with the frustrations: the plot takes quite a while before there's any real tension. For a good third of the novel, our PI basically stalks and manipulates three men and people connected to them, without anything other than an easy paycheck driving his ambitions. The plot does pick up, and eventually there are stakes - higher and higher stakes - but at the start, things aren't as mysterious and intriguing as you'd expect from a thriller.
With regards to our detective's work, there is a split between the technical and the human stuff: he's utterly convincing when using technology, hacks, botnets, and other digital methods to track down, investigate, spy upon, disrupt or manipulate. But when it comes to the human interactions, the story seems to be outside its comfort zone. Our hero's method is basically: find source. Ask source questions. Get all the answers. It's true that his angle of attack varies - slightly - between the people he approaches, but every single one of them ultimately answers all his questions with all the information in a single interview. A reader willing to suspend their disbelief would argue that this is the reason why our detective is so successful, why he can afford a Porsche and being quite particular about his methods and very direct when interacting with his client. Personally, I wasn't convinced - our hero is way too blunt with almost every character, and I simply did not believe that no one, when flustered, disengages from his confrontational approach. It felt too much as if each human character was treated as an information repository, which, queried by our detective, spills out all its data, exactly as laptops and hard drives spill their secrets once cracked.
The writing is to the point. Our hero is somewhat cynical, like a detective should be. He does have a tendency to opine about things that one does not expect a detective to be waxing lyrical about: he wears a different black rock band t-shirt each day and briefly describes each motif at the start of each day. He has read hundreds of books and watched many movies, and every evening he winds down simultaneously watching films, re-reading novels and keeping track of the news, in a multi-screen set up that could be straight from Back To The Future 2. Oh, and our hero is bipolar, with a keen interest in his medication (and a habit of describing it, and his brain, with the sort of attitude that wouldn't be out of place in a car enthusiast, fine tuning the engine of his most precious, if somewhat temperamental, classic sports car).
Having a bipolar detective as hero is not something I've encountered before. I guess after OCD detective Monk, in-care detective Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, a schizophrenic detective in Perception, a deaf detective in F.B.Eye, a paraplegic detective in The Bone Collector, and many, many arrogant geniuses with flaws where social niceties would be (cough, Sherlock, House, Lie To Me, cough), there isn't going to be any disability, physical or otherwise, that isn't going to have a detective series dedicated to it. That said, the manic episode is the most interesting and well-crafted part of the novel: it allows the detective to remain convincing while making decisions that would be out of character for a super-competent hero, so his condition certainly earns its narrative keep and does not feel like a gimmick.
The novel moves quite quickly, and while it takes its time to build up tension, it never gets boring. It's entertaining and smooth to read, comparable to thrillers by Michael Crighton, Jeffrey Deaver, Robert Galbraith and especially Michael Marshall (with a sub plot that slightly echoes the Straw Men mythos being built up by Marshall). It's a satisfying popcorn read, technologically convincing, and very smart when it comes to the baddies' attacks & the wider repercussions of those deeds. It's not as satisfying when it comes to character interactions, and every now and again the plot construction feels a bit forced, but to be fair, neither Dan Brown nor Michael Crighton worry too much about these things.
It's got a good pace and an interesting hero - it's certainly a promising start to a series. For comparison, I'm more likely to continue reading this series than I am to continue reading Jim Butcher's Dresden Files after trying the first two. (3.5/5)(less)
Starting out with a gruesome, gory prologue, this book got very close to turning me away before the first chapter even began. It's Pat Rothfuss's and Scott Lynch's blurby endorsements that made me read on.
The novel is set in a generic Middle Eastern city, just to the side of reality and in a timeless pre-industrial period. The setting is influenced by Arabian Nights, but also by Persian, Bedouin and Ottoman themes. The story is that of a ghul hunter and his young (devout, strict, serious) disciple, facing up to the biggest demonic threat he has ever encountered. Along the way, we meet a magical girl who can turn into a lion, healers, magicians, religious police, deranged monsters, and a prince of thieves type. There's plenty of action and suspense, and, once the characters have a chance to interact, the story is engaging and entertaining. There are further battles / violent moments, but, unlike the prologue, they are all earned by the narrative, rather than trying to jolt the reader before there's any time to care about any of the characters.
It's not on a par with Alif the Unseen (which is a fantastic novel set in a contemporary Arabian Nights inspired generic Middle Eastern setting), but it's a fairly entertaining read.
Patricia is a senile old woman in a care home, struggling with Alzheimer's and her disappearing memories. But Patricia isn't like other people: we soon discover there is more to her confusion than memory loss. Those memories which she has contradict each other. It's not just memory loss, it's memory intersection - and she appears to remember two different lives.
After the (brilliant) first chapter, we follow Patricia's life (lives) in sequential order, from childhood, through to the decision after which her life went down two different paths, and all the way back to the care home. It is a journey through the twentieth century as it was, and as it might have been. Most of all, it is a saga of a life - no, two sagas, of two very different lives, in two very different worlds.
Life sagas are not usually my thing. It's a genre that tends to drift towards the bittersweet and the tragicomic and hefty doses of melancholy and golden-sheened drama. Forrest Gump, the Hundred Year Old Man Who Climbed Out of a Window, etc. etc. etc. ...
... but this book isn't like that. Yes, it zooms through Patricia's lives, sometimes at montage speed and sometimes one key moment at a time, but the split into two lives in two different versions of the 20th century is an inspired idea: the slog of one life contrasts with the bliss of another; the relief in one is mirrored by struggles elsewhere. This removes it from the "picking yourself up again after some setback" formula because we are allowed to see lives that don't have fast ups and downs determined by artificially imposed story pacing, but that have long periods of struggle (or contentment). The ups and downs of story mood do not determine the ups and downs of plot events as artificially as they do in other sagas. These lives are somehow more realistic and authentic because of that.
Meanwhile, some fascinating stuff is going on in the background: world history and political developments don't quite match our own. It is quite rare to encounter alternative history that doesn't have a singular point of diversion (what if X won war Y), but which winds and turns through the same century in sometimes familiar, sometimes surprisingly alternative ways. We know we're in different worlds because of the way the Kennedy Presidency ends - but it does not feel as if Kennedy is really the trigger for all the changes that come after.
There are many things to love about this book: the ideas, the elements of alternative history, the way a life-saga has been subverted into something rewarding, original and interesting... but perhaps the most compelling is the character of Patricia (and the people she loves): there is a fundamental, deeply embedded kindness to her, and a huge resilience. There are genuinely difficult periods (early Trisha chapters were painful to read), but even at her most oppressed, she has the ability to focus on the things she can do and the problems she can sort out. She is never given to depression, or to brooding with despair, even when her self confidence is badly damaged for a long period of time. Kindness, resilience, open-mindedness and a sort of matter-of-fact approach to everything that happens - there is a kernel of positivity, goodness, and something of the good egg about her. She makes the book very easy to love indeed. And she's not the only good egg in this novel.
Unfortunately, the final chapter is... well, I found it quite disappointing. I would love the final chapter to be completely different (although I'm not entirely sure what should happen in it). It ties things up and rounds them off and feels quite out-of-place to me. Until that chapter, my suspension of disbelief was never in doubt, and then it came crashing down, badly. (I rather wish people understood the so-called butterfly effect, and that the misconceptions about it did not dominate popular aawareness about it...)
... but it's still an excellent novel. 4.5/5 stars, as far as I'm concerned (and the 0.5 deduction is only the final chapter - the rest is fantastic).(less)
I very strongly recommend reading this book without reading the blurb on the back cover (or the introduction), or even the summary on Goodreads. They give more of the direction of the plot away than they should.
Elizabeth is an archaeologist on a dig in Central America. She can glimpse the past, especially at dusk and dawn. One day, one of the people she sees looks at her, and starts to talk to her...
Diane is Elizabeth's daughter, joining her mother on the dig after her father / Elizabeth's ex-husband dies. Diane hasn't seen her mother since childhood, and isn't sure what she has gone out to find.
The book tells the story in chapters alternating between the two viewpoints. It starts out intriguing, building up a world and characters carefully, one step at a time. Gradually, it gains tension, a sense of the uncanny, a foreboding feel...
This is a rare novel: it is speculative fiction where most of the characters are women. Not just women, but realistic, credible women, complex, competent, sometimes confused or confusing, sometimes sweaty and smelly, sometimes unkind and uncommunicative and flawed. There are male characters in the novel too, also convincing and authentic, but at its heart, the plot is driven by a triangle of female characters.
The world-building is superb, and the cultural differences between Americans, local present day residents, urban and rural people, older and younger people, and the past native tribal characters, all these cultures are drawn superbly and convincingly and with a deft, subtle hand. This novel is set in a rich world, where each character, even if only appearing in a single scene, has a reality of his/her own, with a sense of a full life and their own concerns.
Combine the rich world building with detailed, convincing and compelling characters, and set them in a plot that gradually gears up tension, and you are in for a literary treat. This novel won a Nebula Award - it deserves every award it could feasibly win. It's a masterpiece.(less)
Pulp fiction. It's a bit like Die Hard, our narrating hero gets so beat up. No barefoot walks across shards of glass, but plenty of bruises and injuri...morePulp fiction. It's a bit like Die Hard, our narrating hero gets so beat up. No barefoot walks across shards of glass, but plenty of bruises and injuries. Shedloads of action, but nothing very interesting going on.
No idea why this series is so popular: it's popcorn entertainment at its shallowest, no smarter than Twilight or Mills & Boon.
Oh wait. Now I understand why it's so popular.(less)
In summary: I'm very, very impressed with the craftsmanship of this novel, and would cheerfully recommend it to anyone with an interest in scifi (and some tolerance of occasional sex in literature).(less)
In summary: This book throws a gazillion genres together. Unfortunately, it does not throw them together in a particularly interesting story. Despite a promising cover and exciting blurbs, sadly the book does not deliver the joy it promises.(less)
A fantastic, funny start, followed by a novel which has somewhat too many viewpoint characters and frequently doesn't really have a singular, coherent...moreA fantastic, funny start, followed by a novel which has somewhat too many viewpoint characters and frequently doesn't really have a singular, coherent story. Perplexingly, the villainy which starts it all off is only a nebulous background, and it's not until the very end that we re-encounter anything from the very beginning.
It's a pleasant read, but not terribly coherent in its direction. The diverse elements don't stick together in a singular whole, which means much of it lacks tension and drive.
Promising, rather than accomplished: the writing voice, the humour, the tone are all good, but the structure is not yet there. I suspect I'll give the author another try some day.(less)
In summary: The Just City is an enormously playful and accessible novel. Even without knowing much about philosophers or history, it is a delight to read, and it sparks and fizzes with ideas, discourse, creativity and joy in its thought experiments. The characters leap off the page and dazzle. I'd heartily recommend the novel to anyone, and can't wait for the sequel...(less)
The Tale of the Dueling Neurosurgeons is a slightly misleading title: there is not a single incident of dueling neurosurgeons in the book.
As a non-fiction, popular science primer on neuroscience, however, the books is splendid. I've heard quite a few of the anecdotes / case studies before, but this book pulls together all the incidents and anecdotes that have shaped neuroscience, and presented them in an engaging, fun way. It's a "Horrible Histories" book for adults, in some ways.
The book is not too bothered about chronological order; instead, it presents the knowledge obtained thus far by brain region and by type of brain functionality. This works very well - but it does give a somewhat more logical and structured impression than the history of neuroscience and its theories probably warrants. And there's always the sense that bigger, clearer discoveries might be just around the corner...
Many of the scenarios do resonate with me as a reader & movie watcher: clearly, the likes of Hitchcock and Philip K Dick were inspired very much by real conditions - and the effectiveness of uncanny stories is directly linked to how closely they resemble everyday (or not-so-everyday) brain misfirings...
I'd highly recommend this book to anyone - it is a compelling, entertaining and educational read: pop science as it should be done.(less)
This book takes the form of a diary of a teenage girl living in New York. She receives it as a birthday present, and chronicles the next six months of her life. They are eventful six months, both for her, personally, and for the wider US: caught in a long-term recession and decline, stability is crumbling and pockets of violence and societal collapse are forming at the edges, and her own family is just about to descend from lofty upper middle class to struggling working class, as her parents' exuberant and careless spending habits and debts catch up with them.
It's a bit strange to read Random Acts of Senseless Violence. Written in the mid-1990s, before the internet and mobile phones became truly universal, yet set slightly in the future, without any real technological advances. In some ways, this enhances the novel: it does not get caught up in the blips and fads and things that are quickly replaced in our lives. It makes it more universal. On the other hand, it makes it feel slightly old-fashioned, as characters rely on landline phones in ways that now feel entirely alien to most readers.
The universal feel makes the authenticity of the story - and its prescience - all the more unsettling. Our protagonist's family tumbles from debt-bubble-financed luxuries down to a fragile, easily exploited situation, and as reader, you realise just how precarious their situation was just before the tumble began - and just how rapidly things are sliding out of control. The downward spiral is mirrored - or perhaps caused - by the terminal decline of the entire US economy, but of course, our teenage narrator only includes tiny glimpses of the wider world in her diary, snippets from the news and overheard conversations and adults' anxieties. We're presented with adults who are over-medicated, stressed to near-breaking point, and a sense of widespread, near-universal mental ill-health. Adults are cracking up, and the children are not sure what to make of it. At one point, our narrator notices that adults seem to be all crazy, and comments that she can't afford to get any more crazy herself.
Meanwhile, there's the matter of puberty (the diary carefully notes each instance of her period, as a teenage girl perhaps might), and sexual awakening, and peer pressure, bullying, domestic abuse, isolation...
Random Acts of Senseless Violence is a masterpiece of writing: its characters and story developments are absolutely believable and authentic, echoed worryingly in things that have come to pass in recent years: the debt bubble, recession, collapse of the Rust Belt / Detroit and New Orleans, the riots in London and the Occupy Movement, the political leaders who seem impotent to turn things around and haunted by their own lack of effectiveness, holding on to power despite widespread disillusion and protests... but a much more compelling feat of writery craftsmanship than its prescience is the gradual, subtle and entirely radical shift in the narrative voice. This teenager is meeting new people, and her vocabulary, her sentences, her speech patterns, her entire language changes. At first, she simply reports the dialogue, but slowly, one tiny step at a time, her own lines of dialogue, and then her entire writing voice, shift, until by the end, you are reading something which is unrecognisable when compared with the start, the writings of a different person who somehow emerged by coming of age in that time and that place and through those events...
...all of which does not mean the book is actually fun to read. It is enormously talented, clever, a masterpiece of craftsmanship - but the sort of work you appreciate, rather than enjoy. Hence the 4/5 rating: I cannot praise the genius of the book highly enough, but I can't claim that it made me feel good while I read it. And, to me, the entire point of reading is about enjoyment (even if a story is dark or harrowing). This book is simply a bit too relentlessly troubling for me. (less)
It took me a bit longer than usual to find my feet with Ancillary Justice: the novel starts out telling two timelines in parallel, and with all the ot...moreIt took me a bit longer than usual to find my feet with Ancillary Justice: the novel starts out telling two timelines in parallel, and with all the other ideas and the usual flurry of strange names, I found it quite tricky to keep track.
Once things clicked, it quickly became a very rewarding read. Ancillary Justice is the story of Justice of Thoren One Esk Nineteen, and, by extension, that of Justice of Thoren... ah, wait. Rewind. Deep, grumbly, smoky movie trailer voice: "In a world, where giant spaceships and thousands of troops share joint hive minds, what would happen, if one trooper *lost* her hive?"
There, that's better. So, we meet one human with the remnants of a hive mind in her head - a tiny fraction of what she once was - and we also meet the hive prior to the split. A hive mind / ship which was thousands of years old before the first of the storylines started, and is another thousand years older by the time One Esk Nineteen gets split from Justice of Thoren.
If you think that's high concept, there's more in store for you. The spaceship / hive minds come from a culture that views gender / sex differently, so One Esk by default refers to every character as 'her' and 'she', and even if One Esk knows a character is of a different gender, rarely makes the effort of using a male pronoun. Or perhaps there are very few male characters in the book (although I'd swear that one started out as male and later was female, in a discontinuity).
Oh, and One Esk /Justice of Thoren is part of an ever-expanding colonialist galactical empire, going through one "annexation" after another, and brutally and violently taking over new civilisations, absorbing them into the empire through brute force and a flexible approach to theology. And the entire empire is run by a different hive mind spread across hundreds of clones.
There's a lot of world building, many ideas, lots of high-concept thoughtplay - and the book is thoroughly entertaining once you learn to tell the character names apart (always my weak spot when reading).
It's a cracking book - but I suspect it isn't the sort of seminal classic which will stay with me for months / years. Well worth a read for anyone who likes scifi - and even though I don't love space opera as a genre, I found this a good read.(less)
A beautiful and atmospheric novelette, perfectly formed. If I could change one thing, the thing in the cave would not explain itself, as the story has...moreA beautiful and atmospheric novelette, perfectly formed. If I could change one thing, the thing in the cave would not explain itself, as the story has already done that, but apart from that, it is almost perfect.
The live-reading, with music, is something special and wonderful. This print version is lovely, too.(less)