The Puppet Masters by Robert Heinlein is surprisingly readable. I say surprising because it has many dubious characteristics. It is shot through a chaThe Puppet Masters by Robert Heinlein is surprisingly readable. I say surprising because it has many dubious characteristics. It is shot through a chauvinist vein bordering on occasion on misogyny, features a couple of creepy Freudian relationships, and is driven by an anti-Communist paranoia that reads as nationalistic and xenophobic by today’s standards. It tells a story of the invasion of Earth alien slugs. These slugs control any human that they attach themselves to. The main character, who prefers to be known as “Sam”, works as an agent for shadowy secret organisation within the United States government. The story is told from his first person point of view as he battles the slugs and strives to save the Earth. The narration seems like it has been taken straight from a hardboiled crime book. The style is engaging and the plot has enough action, intrigue and twists to be compelling, even if it all gets rather silly at times. My experience with Heinlein is limited, and I wasn’t totally put off reading more by this book. Thin praise, but it’s the best I can muster....more
The Inheritors by William Golding is a book I struggled with. But I struggled with it in a good way. I struggled with its alien point of view, presentThe Inheritors by William Golding is a book I struggled with. But I struggled with it in a good way. I struggled with its alien point of view, presented in prose dense with description that is often difficult to decode. I also struggled with its brutal emotional heft and the book left me feeling gutted, confused and empty. The story is simple; the novel is anything but. The Inheritors is a prehistoric novel told from the perspective of Lok, a member of one of the last groups of Neanderthals. Readers meet Lok and his family as the move from their seaside summer cave to their winter refuge in an overhang by a waterfall. Golding paints these strange beings as completely empathetic, full of recognisable human qualities, but even more likeable for all their innocence and good nature. So when they start to be picked off one by one by a rival group of homo sapiens I was drawn into a tragic tale that left me on the verge of tears towards the end of the novel. This book is truly a work of art, rich with hidden symbolism and striking imagery, crafted from elegant, challenging and unique prose, and stabbing into the dark heart of human nature....more
I have to admit, The Day of the Triffids by John Wyndham was not what I was expecting. I had the impression it was a book about intelligent mutant plaI have to admit, The Day of the Triffids by John Wyndham was not what I was expecting. I had the impression it was a book about intelligent mutant plants taking over the world. Well, it is that, but there’s much more to it. Firstly, the plants are not the cause the novel’s apocalyptic scenario; merely the beneficiaries. Instead, the catalyst is something that initially appears to be comet debris in the night skies across the world. The next morning almost the entirety of the world’s population finds itself blinded by the eerie green lights of the previous evening. It’s in this scenario that Bill Masen finds himself the classic one-eyed man in the world of the blind. Bill was spared from being blinded due to bandaged eyes after an encounter with a triffid, a deadly bioengineered plants with an ability to ambulate, farmed for their valuable oil produce. In a world in which most of humanity is relegated to an existence without sight, the triffids start to multiply and take advantage of their newfound position as the dominant species. Bill, at first, struggles to survive in the immediate aftermath of the universal blindness and, in the longer term, strives to find a way to re-establish a future for humanity under the onslaught of the triffids. The Day of the Triffids remains a thrilling and thought-provoking post-apocalyptic sf novel and an excellent introduction for those interested in Wyndham’s body of work....more
In almost every way, The End of Eternity by Isaac Asimov is typical of what I’ve read from this author. Yes, frustratingly, the prose and characters aIn almost every way, The End of Eternity by Isaac Asimov is typical of what I’ve read from this author. Yes, frustratingly, the prose and characters are merely functional. But what Asimov also does in this excellent time travel novel is confirm his ability to blend epic sfnal ideas with carefully crafted plots. In doing so, he proves not that he is a great sage a future visions yet to come, but instead one of the great observers of the relationship between the progress of human civilisation and advancements in technology. What he adds to the mix specifically with this book is a story that uses the logic of time travel to construct an intricate puzzle that will keep surprising readers right up until the final page is turned. Admittedly, the first part of the novel moves slowly, as it sets up the novel’s complex scenario. Andrew Harlan is a Technician in an organisation known as Eternity that sits outside of Time. Eternity uses time travel to make changes to Reality for the benefit of all humankind throughout the centuries. However, when Harlan fall in love, he begins to manipulate Reality in ways they could lead to the destruction of all of Eternity....more
You think you know the story of Frankenstein? Well, you don’t until you read Mary Shelley’s masterpiece of Gothic fiction. The story commences in theYou think you know the story of Frankenstein? Well, you don’t until you read Mary Shelley’s masterpiece of Gothic fiction. The story commences in the form of letters written by an Arctic explorer named Captain Walton to his sister in England outlining his expedition. Walton and his crew are trapped in ice and while they wait for release they spot a gigantic human shape in the distance, travelling at speed on dogsled. Not long after they see another figure in pursuit, who becomes stranded on a floating ice raft and seeks assistance. This second figure is an emaciated Victor Frankenstein (there are no prizes for guessing who the first figure might be). Once rescued, Victor relays to Walton his tale of misery and anguish. It is a ghost story in which the monster is created by modern science, rather than given a supernatural origin. What’s more, Frankenstein’s monster is a tragic creation, a being that reads Milton’s Paradise Lost and sympathises with the plight of Satan cast out of Heaven by his creator into an existence of loneliness and misery. Throughout the novel, Victor’s torment at the hands his creation is contrasted against splendid descriptions of nature and landscapes: from the picturesque Swiss Alps to the desolate isles of Scotland; the sparkling rivers and ruined castles of Germany to the icy wastelands of the Arctic. ...more
Despite what you may think, The Martian Chronicles (or The Silver Locusts as it was first published in the United Kingdom) is not the sf that your graDespite what you may think, The Martian Chronicles (or The Silver Locusts as it was first published in the United Kingdom) is not the sf that your grandfather read. Instead, it is the sf that your crazy uncle read. In the church of 1950s sf, dominated by writers of hard, engineering based fiction, Ray Bradbury was an iconoclast. While this interrelated collection of tales connect to tell an overarching story about the colonisation of, and eventual exodus from, Mars, and features more than a few sf tropes, such as space travel, telepathy and atomic warfare, Bradbury is more interested in finely-crafted prose, evocative imagery and haunting atmosphere, rather than presenting and exploring hard sf concepts. In this way, he writes more in the tradition of Poe, Lovecraft, Bierce and other fabulists (who he openly homages in one of the stories contained in this tome, named “Usher II”). His rockets are Roman candles, his aliens are ghosts, and his Mars is a haunted dreamscape version of rural America. While some stories are undeniably stronger than others, with highlights including "—And the Moon Be Still as Bright", “The Martian”, and “There Will be Soft Rains”, the overall effect of the book remains potent, and it deserves its classic status....more
Who could you trust more than writer, critic and editor Brian Aldiss to provide you with a primer of classic sf short stories? First published in 1973Who could you trust more than writer, critic and editor Brian Aldiss to provide you with a primer of classic sf short stories? First published in 1973, the Penguin Science Fiction Omnibus collects three seminal anthologies edited by Aldiss for Penguin from 1961 to 1964. There are over 30 tales drawn mainly from the 1950s, with barely a dud to be found. Aldiss provides prime examples which demonstrate the range and depth of short form sf of the period, drawn from a variety of sub-genres, from post-apocalyptic (“Lot” by Ward Moore”), first contact (“Skirmish” by Clifford Simak), time travel (“Poor Little Warrior!” by Brian Aldiss), to planetary romance (“Grandpa” by James H Schmitz), comic sf (“The Liberation of Earth” by William Tenn), postmodernism (“Built Up Logically” by Howard Schoenfeld), and alternative history (“Eastward Ho!” by William Tenn). The anthology also contains some outright classics of the field, including “Nightfall” by Isaac Asimov, “An Alien Agony” by Harry Harrison, "The Tunnel Under the World" by Frederik Pohl, and “Common Time” by James Blish. While the absence of works by names such as Theodore Sturgeon, Alfred Bester and Robert Heinlein is more than forgivable, what is harder to overlook is the almost total absence of any of the fine female writers of the period, with “The Snowball Effect” by Katherine MacLean being the only representative. This shameful oversight mars what would otherwise be a comprehensive and entertaining anthology of classic sf for the interested reader....more
City of Blades by Robert Jackson Bennett is the follow up to the World Fantasy Award nominated City of Stairs and second book in his The Divine CitiesCity of Blades by Robert Jackson Bennett is the follow up to the World Fantasy Award nominated City of Stairs and second book in his The Divine Cities trilogy. At first, I wasn’t confident that City of Blades was going to live up to the superior standard set by the first book in the trilogy. This book follows the same template as its predecessor, mixing the flavours of the spy thriller genre with secondary-world epic fantasy. However, it lacks the benefit of surprise the first book had; the feeling of bringing some subversive, exciting and unique elements to a familiar and formulaic subgenre. But at about the halfway mark, I’m pleased to report, this book not only recaptures the flame of the first book, but also maybe burns a little brighter.
It is certainly advisable to read City of Stairs prior to tackling City of Blades. While both books have distinct plot arcs, Bennett handled most of the exposition and world building in the previous volume, and City of Blades is a more streamlined book, more focused on plot and thematic concerns. Bennett returns readers to the Continent, once the dominant world power thanks to the worldly presence and assistance from the Divinities. However, as those who have read City of Stairs will know, many years ago the subservient Isles of Saypuri staged an uprising against Continent and its divine overlords. Three Divinities were destroyed in this uprising and the others went into hiding, leaving Saypuri the new world power due its technological superiority. Nevertheless, the events recounted in City of Stairs made it clear the influence of the Divinities has not entirely left the Continent.
The protagonist of City of Blades is Turyin Mulaghesh, an important supporting character from the previous volume. The chief character from the earlier book, Shara Komayd, is relegated to (mostly) an off-screen role here, pulling the strings from Saypuri as she struggles to maintain her embattled and unpopular prime ministership and reconstruct the war-ravaged Continent. Following the Battle of Bulikov at the climax of City of Stairs, Mulaghesh was promoted to the rank of general, essentially a political and ceremonial appointment by Shara. Yet Mulaghesh soon wearied of the position, and at the beginning of City of Blades, set five years after the last book, the “sound of [her] resignation still echoes through Ghaladesh”. Mulaghesh has retired to a beach cottage, where she lives amongst a “graveyard of wine bottles and filthy plates ... and an abundance of threatening things: bolts, bolt-shots, swords, knives, and in one corner, a massive rifling – a firearm with a rifled barrel”.
Mulaghesh is suffering from “war echoes”, and awakes every night trying not to scream:
“She pushes and strains as her brain insists she’s still there, she’s still at the embassy and it’s still five years ago, her arm trapped under the rubble and the sky thick with smoke, the whole world ruined and gone in an instant. She’s still turning over on the street, still glimpsing the young soldier facedown on the concrete, a dew drop of blood in his ear that swells and swells until it brims over, and a trickle of red weaves down his smooth cheek, the cheek of a boy.”
Despite her reluctance Mulaghesh finds herself being forced back into Shara’s service to complete one last job. She is asked to travel to Voortyashtan, the “hinterlands on the globe, the military outpost you get shipped to only if you sleep with or kill the wrong person”, to investigate the disappearance of a delegate from the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, named Sumitra Choudhry. It seems Choudhry was sent to Voortyashtan following the discovery of a unique ore named thinadeskite:
“If you are unaware, no conductor is perfect – whether it is copper or steel, some electricity is lost along the way. But with this material, none is lost. None. And… some recent reports suggest that it possesses properties far, far stranger than that…”
Voortyashtan was the seat of power of Voortya, the now deceased Divinity of war, death and the sea, and a major harbor, which plays a pivotal role in Shara’s plan to revitalize the economy of the Continent. However, the thinadeskite might be further evidence of continuing divine influence on the Continent and Shara needs somebody she can trust, somebody like Mulaghesh, on the ground to investigate.
Thus City of Blades sets the scene for a beautiful and nuanced exploration of war and its warriors, life and death, and religion and atheism. These are not unique themes in epic fantasy, but it’s rare to see them handled with such sophistication and intelligence. Within the book’s narrative Bennett references real-life contemporary conflicts, portraying a guerrilla war against occupying forces, waged by a group of indigenous insurgents who have made a bloody type of existentialism out of ongoing conflict (“They don’t have strategies, they don’t have goals. That’s why they seem to win”). Bennet folds his thematic concerns seamlessly into his fantasy world building and the book is layered with metaphors and imagery that resonate with meaning. I was particular taken by the idea that the warriors of Voortya are not, in fact, those who wield the swords, but the swords themselves:
“Voortyashtanis believed that if you picked up the sword of an ancient sentinel it would possess you, take you over –you’d become them, in essence, but cease being you … to them, a sword was a vessel of the soul.”
The book presents a dialogue between those who see war as a natural state of human existence and those that see war as an aberration:
“Warfare is light. Warfare and conflict are the energies with which this world functions. To claim otherwise is to claim your very veins are not filled with blood, to claim that your heart is still and silent. You knew this once.”
City of Blades seems to ask, if this is so, if war is a natural state of being for humanity, then why does it leave its agents so scarred and damaged? The book contrasts one concept of soldier – one who sees “no difference between the soldier and the civilian keeping that soldier on their feet” – with another concept of solider:
“Sure, when people think of a soldier, they think of soldiers taking. They think of us taking territory, taking the enemy, taking a city or a country, taking treasure, or blood. This grand, abstract idea of ‘taking’, as if we were pirates, swaggering and brandishing our weapons, bullying and intimidating people. But a soldier, a true soldier, I think, does not take. A soldier gives.”
Obviously, the second book in a series is going to be compared to the first and readers will hope for a story that’s at least on par, if not an improvement on what came before. Admittedly, it took some time for City of Blades to warmup for me. Bulikov, the setting for City of Stairs, was such a unique creation within secondary world epic fantasy and I felt the setting of Voortyashtan paled somewhat in comparison. But soon into novel Jackson introduces some splendid creations that rival anything from City of Stairs, such as the Teeth of the World where the ruins of a Voortyashtani holy place rest and the memories of the goddess reside.
For me, Mulaghesh is a stronger protagonist compared to Shara from first book. Though Shara was certainly unique protagonist in epic fantasy, she lacked a lot of influence on the progression of the plot and would have benefited from more agency. What’s more, Shara was overshadowed somewhat by her sidekick, Sigrud je Harkvaldsonn, who was probably one of the main attractions and stole many scenes in that first outing. While Sigrud does indeed make a reappearance in City of Blades, unfortunately his impact here isn’t as great and I felt he was under utilised. Conversely, this does give space for Mulaghesh to shine and, as I say, she is stronger primary character than Shara, and Bennett imbues her with a much greater sense of agency within the plot.
Until the end of the novel the narrative exclusively follows Mulaghesh (putting aside an entertaining first chapter told through the eyes of a timid and bumbling Ministry of Foreign Affairs official, Pitry Sutarashni). Yet towards the novel’s climax, the narrative point of view begins to jump around a bit more, creating a slightly uneven and messy structure. Unfortunately, the biggest flaw of the first book is also repeated; that being the decidedly deus ex machina vibe to the resolution of the plot.
But putting these minor niggles aside, City of Blades remains a superior work of secondary world epic fantasy. Bennett masterfully intertwines the mystery elements of his narrative with the details of world building, creating a tantalizing sense of wonder and discovery for the reader. What’s more, he skillfully layers the book with intelligent and emotionally engaging insights into military occupation and battle trauma. I would recommend City of Blades, and its predecessor, to anybody looking for an example of cutting edge, subversive and self-aware epic fantasy, with a strong flavour of spy thriller fiction. I sincerely hope this will be a landmark trilogy that, like the deathblow to a Divinity, will have a rippling effect on the epic fantasy genre for years to come.
City of Blades: The Divine Cities Book 2 by Robert Jackson Bennett Published by Jo Fletcher Books, January 2016 448 pages ISBN: 978-1848669581 Review by Luke Brown...more