This book's been in my collection for 15 years, according to the press release slip I found still preserved inside the cover. Fittingly, I read it onThis book's been in my collection for 15 years, according to the press release slip I found still preserved inside the cover. Fittingly, I read it on top of a cliff by the roaring sea. A man wakes up on a beach in a strange world, next to him is a woman he doesn't recognise but who he knows means everything to him. When she vanishes, he sets off to rescue her, taking him on a mind-bending journey that is a little like the Wizard of Oz for grown-ups, but with a lot more sea and a lot more sex. Themes of circularity, eternity, free will, love and the persistence of self in the face of death means this lines up very closely with my own stories, so I was bound to love it. Pleasingly enigmatic, gloriously written and full of invention, A Short, Sharp Shock is a book I'll come back to, perhaps in my twilight years. There's a certain comfort to it that takes the edge off mortality....more
A good book on my favourite sport. The author is overly didactic regarding what he sees as "proper" fencing, although I tend to agree with him. There'A good book on my favourite sport. The author is overly didactic regarding what he sees as "proper" fencing, although I tend to agree with him. There's some interesting biographies, and the sections on each weapon are good basic texts, but the pictures are poorly reproduced and there isn't much for someone who is already in the sport and wishes to improve their game....more
Part historical novel, part SF story set in Robinson's Accelerando universe, Galileo's Dream returns Robinson to his favourite topics: human failings, Part historical novel, part SF story set in Robinson's Accelerando universe, Galileo's Dream returns Robinson to his favourite topics: human failings, human potential, memory, being and truth (subjective and objective); set against an entertaining, science-fictional theory of multi-dimensional time. Galileo is one of the most important men in scientific history, whose observational rigour helped usher in the modern age. He is also, according to the book, an important nexus in the braided histories of reality, one whom the denizens of the Jovian moons in 3020 hold in especially high regard, partly because of his discoveries, but mostly because they are convinced that by altering his life, then later taking him to the future, they can shorten the centuries of horror that mankind must endure before achieving a state of rational grace. But Robinson is an author with a complex agenda, and the story is not so simple as all that. Galileo's Dream is a book of dualities. Robinson does a fine job of juxtaposing Galileo's choleric nature with his genius, his naivete with his wisdom, his ambition with his love for his family and friends. The inhabitants of the Galilean moons of Jupiter have the machine-lent powers of gods, and are diffident and arrogant because of it, but feud and scheme with as much enthusiasm as the Italian princelings of the great astronomer's time. In fact Robinson goes even further, repeatedly pointing out that as grim and cruel the 17th century was, that it was at least full of life. By comparison the 31st is aseptic and unfilling. Or perhaps just different, though the deciding argument in conserving a little bit of illogical barbarism in our make up comes when the entirety of the universe is revealed in full to the characters. Galileo stands exulted, having achieved his ambition of seeing God's work in full. The atheist 31st century characters by contrast are horrified, realising that they are not the epicentre of everything, but merely small parts of something vast (this in turn is reflected by Galileo's trial for heresy in 1633, where the papacy try him for promulgating Copernican heliocentrism). It is a playfully self-referential book, toying with actuality and recursion. Galileo burns at the stake, but does not, he dies as a young man in a cellar, but does not, because there is an infinity number of himself. The book replays events and stories, both within the memories of the characters and within the manifold of manifolds, Robinson's multi-dimensional infinity, which, he heavily hints, are pretty much the same thing. Each time the events related are different, sometimes they are even fictional. All are true, more or less. It is as a historical novel that Galileo's Dream is most successful. Life in the 17th century, good and bad, is beautifully depicted. Galileo himself is marvellously drawn, a complicated, arrogant yet lovable character, as misguided as the rest of us, but brilliant and possessed of a clarity of vision the mass of humanity simply does not possess. The passage of his life is effectively evoked, the tension of his trial gripping. As an SF novel it does not function quite so well. Robinson's Jovian worlds are obviously allegorical, to the point of pastiche. Allegory is among the higher forms of SF, but when set alongside his naturalistic depiction of 17th century Italy, there comes a disconnect that Robinson probably did not intend. (In fact, so unreal is this future, it is hard not to imagine his Jovians prancing round a modernist setting wearing togas). Galileo also has the tendency to pop out of joint, becoming less a convincing portrayal and more of a mouthpiece for Robinson's opinions, set to odds with the equally didactic strawmen of Jovian politics for the reader's edification. This is probably a conscious effort to mimic the Socratic dialogues common to Galileo's own work, but it jars with the naturalism of the other sections, especially when Galileo is required to oscillate between all-knowing genius and amnesiac naif, sometimes with unbelievable rapidity. That, however, is a corollary of the story's ambition, and perhaps this roughness in some ways highlights Robinson's intentions. Either way, it distances the reader by way of disassociation. It needn't have been this way, both his 17th and 31st centuries are equally fictional, after all. Despite these slightly jarring moments, this is a book full of wit, a definite return to form for Robinson. ...more
The first Straub I've read (the wife has stacks of them) proved to be more or less satisfactory. Straub's story of modern wizards presents a dark andThe first Straub I've read (the wife has stacks of them) proved to be more or less satisfactory. Straub's story of modern wizards presents a dark and intelligent interpretation of magic, mixing up fairytales, psychology, coming-of-age tropes and inter-generational distrust to good effect. A little too languid and dreamlike in places to generate intense engagement consistently, at moments it managed to enchant and horrify. However, I believe that Voice of Our Shadow, by Jonathan Carroll, explores similar ground more affectingly....more
A great book, not so much for its multiple and mostly inventive twists, but for the wry observations Flynn makes of modern life and marriage. The mystA great book, not so much for its multiple and mostly inventive twists, but for the wry observations Flynn makes of modern life and marriage. The mystery element of the story is compelling until about four-fifths of the way through, where Flynn has no choice but to beging wrapping things up. Once the final revelation has occurred, the story loses its compulsive impetus, and as usual with books that depend on such to engage, its finale is a little unsatisfying. Nevertheless, this is fine read....more
Robert Holdstock has a special place in the hearts of serious fantasy lovers. Unlike the majority of the books nestled in the fantasy section of yourRobert Holdstock has a special place in the hearts of serious fantasy lovers. Unlike the majority of the books nestled in the fantasy section of your local Waterstones, Holdstock owes little to Tolkien, but hearkens back to the tradition from which Tolkien himself sprang: our common mythic heritage. It’s a branch of the fantasy family tree that bore most of the fruit before the good professor set pen to paper, but which has since been almost shaded out by others trying to mimic what Tolkien achieved, more’s the pity.
Most of Holdstock’s books take place within Ryhope Wood, a three square-mile patch of ancient forest in Herefordshire. A fragment of the greenwood that once covered all of Europe, there’s deep magic within its bounds. It is semi-sentient, paradoxically huge inside, and can conjure legendary beings out of the minds of the humans who dwell near its boundaries. These ‘myth imagos’ gave the name to Holdstock’s first Ryhope book, Mythago Wood, published to great acclaim in 1984. Holdstock has revisited the wood many times since then, but Avilion is the first direct sequel to that first tale.
Stephen Huxley, Mythago Wood’s protagonist, has been living deep in Ryhope with a mythago of Guiwenneth, a celtic archetype whose historic personage gave rise to the legends of Guinevere and others, and who he claimed back from death. They have two half-human children, Yssobel and Jack. Jack yearns to experience the world his father left behind, Yssobel is being drawn into ever greater affinity with the magic of the wood and has unwittingly called Jack’s murderous brother, Christian, back into being. This so upsets her mother (whom Christian kidnapped, raped and murdered many years earlier) she departs on a quest for revenge. The dismayed Yssobel sets out to bring her mother home, changing all their lives forever.
The narrative of each successive Ryhope book has grown more impenetrable, like a wild thicket. The questions of who calls whom into existence and whether any of it has any kind of objective reality weave a tricksy glamour about Holdstock’s stories. But these are not books of easy answers, and his interlaying of psychology, myth, and ontology with raw emotion, sometimes falteringly conveyed in verse, conveys the messiness of real life. Like real life, like the bark of the trees he so loves, Holdstock shows us the roughness of magic and nature, bound up in blood and filth. Avilion is penetratingly honest, there is no idyll to be had, and happiness comes with its fair share of suffering, loss, and self-delusion. Wisdom in Holdstock’s world is bought with pain.
It doesn’t really matter that the reader is left struggling for sense on occasion, Holdstock’s ethereal prose is all encompassing, his use of language so affective that it swallows you whole. He’s one of the few authors capable of not only showing another world, but actively transporting to it. He writes of love and death in a shyly awkward way, a poet wrapped up in the privacy of his word-wood. Coming out of the end of one of his novels is to emerge from this private world feeling like you’ve been living another life, as fragmentary, chaotic and disordered and as bound up by story as a real one. It’s an immersive experience that few other authors can match, though the stories sometimes make as little sense as the dreams they resemble.
Avilion is not quite as potent as some of the other entries in the series, but it offers much as Jack and Yssobel attain adulthood in very different ways, and discover what ‘home’ really means. Good fantasy, like myth should transform. Much fantasy, despite its wars and intrigues, is really about maintaining the status quo, its vacuum-sealed kingdoms and shallow-worn paths from kitchen boy to king providing a cocoon of comfort for the reader. Holdstock cocoons you alright, but his twiggy bowers offer little comfort; his kings are the real deal, plucked bloody and raging from myth, all are remembered for their suffering as much as their success. It’s arguable that all myth and great fantasy, all great literature, even, employs loss as an engine for transformation. Ryhope Wood continues to provide both.
Did you know?
Avilion is the name Alfred Tennyson used for Avalon in his poem, Morte D'Arthur....more
A book that promises rip-roaring nautical adventure, and then resolutely stalls for time and page count.
This is a simple book set in a simple world wiA book that promises rip-roaring nautical adventure, and then resolutely stalls for time and page count.
This is a simple book set in a simple world with a simple story. But, like a soap opera, though it is pretty much devoid of any kind of artistic merit, it entertains, and you could never accuse Anderson of running a sloppy ship – The Edge of the World sails at a fair clip.
As far as epic fantasy goes, The Edge of the World is not a bad book. It is, however, guilty of false advertising. You think you are going to get a nautically based tale of exploration, as the ship Luminara sets out to rediscover the holy land, but it is soon destroyed, and though a new expedition is proposed, that ship is destroyed also, leaving us to wait until book two before things get going. Instead of the offered adventure we’re given nearly 600 pages of war preparations as the two opposing kingdoms of Tierra and Urab come to blows following a series of terrible misunderstandings.
These kingdoms are the most cardboard of creations. Based very obviously on Christian Europe and the Muslim East, both follow similar religions with key, aggression-causing differences. It’s an artificial set-up, Anderson’s kingdoms exist in a vacuum, have complications regarding their scale and, most egregiously, the Arab-analogue, though possessed of a fine and cultured ruler, is populated by hateful zealots. There’s a conscious effort to balance the two sides, but inexorably, the scales of evil swing to the disfavour of the southern desert dwellers.
Anderson’s gift is in keeping all this moving at such a pace that you don’t care, but if you slow down for even a moment it all becomes painfully clichéd: the wise King, the equally wise Emir-type, the avoidable war, the white woman taken into slavery to become queen of the heathens, the giant octopus, the childhood sweethearts… It’s a long list of very obvious orientalist fantasy tropes. An uncomplicated pleasure, perhaps, but life’s too short when there are so many great books out there. ...more
The Forest of Hands and Teeth is a cross between M. Night Shyamalan’s The Village and Day of the Dead. Yep, it’s another zombie story.
Zombies are surf The Forest of Hands and Teeth is a cross between M. Night Shyamalan’s The Village and Day of the Dead. Yep, it’s another zombie story.
Zombies are surfing high on zeitgeist, why we’re not sure of exactly, their enduring popularity baffles, and all the weaknesses of the zombie genre are apparent in The Forest.
Set well after your typical plague-of-undead, survivors persist in a handful of fenced-off enclaves, living like pioneers. It’s the timescales that are the problem here: Where do the zombies come from, if people are so few? This illogicality is par for the course in a book that too often tries to have it both ways, like she writes often of putrefaction, but then specifically tells us her ‘Unconsecrated’ do not decay; protagonist Mary is breathtakingly selfish for a woman brought up in a village that relies on self-sacrifice, and the plot depends on complete isolation for the village, yet still having fenced paths linking it to others.
The book trips on the narrative problems posed by these paths – it says the chain link fences are maintained, but where do the raw materials come from? Why do maintenance crews from different villages not meet when out repairing the path fences? If, on the other hand, they only maintain them sporadically, why do the fences not rust away or get breached by falling trees? There are other unanswered questions: Why don’t the villagers hunt the zombies out? If they have access to supplies of wire, why don’t they make armour? Why do the characters not get other infectious diseases after being raked by rotting fingernails? Details are iffy too: crossbows fire bolts, not arrows; arrows are nocked, not notched; and a scythe - taken up by the heroes instead of a couple of handy swords - is next to useless as a weapon. Ryan is replaying magpie-gathered bits of popular culture here, she’s not bringing any fresh flesh to the dining table.
For all that, The Forest... is diverting, its mixing of romance and zom-conventions oddly engaging. Expect sequels....more
Despite featuring yet more flesh-eaters, these grown from ET spores borne to Earth in the wake of some cosmic disaster, One is an entirely different k Despite featuring yet more flesh-eaters, these grown from ET spores borne to Earth in the wake of some cosmic disaster, One is an entirely different kettle of fish to your usual zombie fare. It’s a typically bleak UK vision of the post-apocalyptic future, almost grim as Simon Clarke’s blood-drenched tomorrows.
Written by up-and-coming author Conrad Williams, One presents the most horrifying of horror through the most poetic of language. If at times Williams’ prose overpowers the story, in the main his richly phrased sweeps of language hit the mark, laying bare the bittersweet joys of parenthood. That is what One is really about. Williams twists together a neat braid, juxtaposing the sanctity of human reproduction against the vile way the alien Skinners both breed and feed. Not since Alien has the dual dismay and joy of birth been tapped so well.
The force of Williams’ catastrophe is such that there seems to be little hope on his irradiated Earth, blasted by a stellar gamma ray burst, but there is, and he nurtures it in the reader as skilfully as he builds tension. With a mastery of language and theme rarely seen in the genre, Williams’ manages to bend the unsavoury trend in modern horror to disgust (and it is disgusting in places) to his own ends, and the result is gripping. ...more
Like a so-so episode of the X-Files, Browne’s book brings pulp style and a whole heap of coincidences to a fairly unlikely plot where a sinister gypsyLike a so-so episode of the X-Files, Browne’s book brings pulp style and a whole heap of coincidences to a fairly unlikely plot where a sinister gypsy appears to be bumping off incarnations of the same woman over and over again. To say more of it will spoil what surprises there are. Which is not to say there are many of them, the plot is pretty well signposted throughout, but the enjoyment in these crime thrillers is to be had almost exclusively from watching them click along their pre-ordained paths, not from trying to figure out who the killer is a la Agatha Christie. Bloody these plots may be, but this type of low-rent genre fiction offers a kind of comfort. This is particularly in the case of Kill Her Again, with its overtones of fate and arrow-straight seam of true love.
It’s easy to see the book as a mid-range Hollywood effort, and it is exactly as imaginative as that makes it sound. In the end it’s a massive case of sibling rivalry. The police procedural aspect of the story is a long way from Thomas Harris’ quality, while the supernatural goings on are at best serviceable. If you want the definitive scary American gypsy story, read Stephen King’s Thinner. This is pulpy trash; diverting for two hours, but one to toss in the airport trash when done. ...more
Joe Abercrombie’s made a big splash in the fantasy world, and, having read this, I can see why. There’s enough wit, pace and élan in Best Served ColdJoe Abercrombie’s made a big splash in the fantasy world, and, having read this, I can see why. There’s enough wit, pace and élan in Best Served Cold to entertain the most rabid anti-fantasist, let alone a simple lapsed believer like me. This is the crackling, bitter, bloody antidote to anodyne sagas. Spiked with cynicism and, indeed, spikes, Best Served Cold has as much in common with a Hollywood caper as it does with the rest of its genre.
The story concerns Monzcarro Murcatto, mercenary general in the fractured land of Styria. Dumped off a mountain by her employer, her brother (and lover) slain in front of her, she somehow survives, puts together a team of misfits and sets out for vengeance, whereupon everything gets horribly out of hand.
The setting, based on Renaissance Italy, is pitch perfect, as full of plague and poverty as it is heroism and swordplay. It feels genuinely late Medieval, only, if anything, grimmer. Even Monzcarro’s unlikely position as general is well explained (unlike those of oh-so-many powerful female characters in too many off the peg fantasy worlds). Moral ambiguity, hard violence, and that weaving of laughter, horror and pathos real life brings further make it breathe, though the brilliant characters are what really make it roar.
It’s too slick to be affecting, and the plot reversals, skin-of-the-teeth escapades, witticism and coincidences are all rather broad. In fact, although it seems more realistic than most fantasy, it actually is not. It has the hyper-real feel of a cynical play put on in the world Abercrombie describes. As a result, it struggles to say anything worthwhile, (that we think the author might be capable of it is compliment enough in this market), but this is the highest grade of adult, commercial fantasy we’ve seen for a while. Pure entertainment....more
It's not often that you will hear a journalist to admit this but Lavinia is a book I really do not feel appropriately qualified to review. It's not juIt's not often that you will hear a journalist to admit this but Lavinia is a book I really do not feel appropriately qualified to review. It's not just that it takes inspiration from one of the great texts of European literature – the Aeneid, by Vergil (or Virgil, if you prefer), which I fear my minor critical skills provide too small a set of cutlery to properly digest, but that it is such a perfectly balanced blend of feeling, metre and storytelling it is hard to describe.
This is a book that is as perfect as an Autumn day, or a truly great wine. It is possible to break down both of these things into their component parts. What is good about an Autumn day? The warm feel of the sun through cold air, the clarity of light, the smell of wood smoke, clouds of breath on the air, the crackle of leaves and frost. What is good about a glass of wine? Its blend of flavours, the process of its making, the time in which and the company with whom it is drunk. But this mere listing of attributes does nothing to capture the essence of the experience, even for oneself, let alone to convey the fullness of sensation to another. It takes a poet to do that. Le Guin, like Vergil, is up to the task. This is no simple entertainment, one among many such similar entertainments. This is life, coaxed onto the page.
The Aeneid was Vergil's attempt to emulate Homer, and to glorify Rome and the Julian clan. The first half of it details the wanderings of Aeneas, one of the few survivors of the sack of Troy, as he seeks out his prophesied homeland (Vergil's Odyssey). The second half the war he fights when he reaches it, with Turnus of the Latins (Vergil's Illiad). He marries Lavinia, daughter of the King Laternus, and his heirs go on to found Rome.
Lavinia is barely described in the poem. She is incidental to the grand plot of wars, gods, heroes and destinies. Le Guin flips this on its head – Lavinia becomes the focus, the narrator. The war between Trojans and Latins becomes the backdrop, the focus becomes life, life that goes on no matter what (though Le Guin envisages an ultimate end to everything by war).
Le Guin is overwhelmingly, frighteningly wise. Core to her penetrating appreciation of life is her deep understanding of what divides, and unites, the genders. She is a feminist, but hers is an inclusive feminism. She has a woman's affection for men, she does not despise them or pity them. She shames us with wisdom and glorifies us with love, we men. We'd do well to pay heed. Her Aeneas is a hero. He is a killer. He is lauded for being the former, and tortured by guilt for being the latter. He is loved by Lavinia anyway. Le Guin understands people like few can. We will always need heroes, and we will always have killers. Often, they are the same. She laments war, but unlike some she does not condemn men for it, and nor does she absolve women of guilt for it.
Lavinia carries and air of pensive sorrow for a life run out, while encouraging celebration and an acceptance of those parts that do not bear celebration. In any case, the days roll on, and on, Spring turns to Summer turns to Autumn turns to Winter turns to Spring again. The characters' individual stories eventually stop, they die, but the seasons never do. The people are remembered, in some way or another, by those that follow, by history, by the landscape. Vergil himself appears, a half-formed wraith from the future of Rome's glory, he is a dream to Lavinia, she a creation of his. Both of them creations of Le Guin. After we have gone, all that is left of an individual is a story, maybe that is enough. Only life itself is eternal.
Is this a book, perhaps, about Le Guin's own story? In this way Lavinia is reminiscent of Sheri Tepper's less focussed The Margarets, a long, fond look back over a life well lived. Unlike Aeneas or Dido or Vergil, Lavinia does not enter the afterlife, her existence fades into that of an owl. The owl's cry of "i,i,i" is 'go on' in Latin. It is also a modest echo of the very much capitalised 'I' in Robert Graves' I, Claudius, with which this book has been compared. But it could also be Le Guin, calling out for remembrance.
Either way, she is telling us that she knows that the world will persist without her, as Lavinia's story continues past the end of Vergil's poem, past the death of Aeneas. It is not a book about great deeds, of turning points or moments, it is a book about the persistence of life, the passage of time, the sowing of crops, the sorrow of mothers for sons killed, of disagreements and reconciliations and child rearing. It is a book of bittersweet sorrows, of shared joys. It is an Autumn day, it is a fine glass of wine....more