Wednesday, 27 December 2006

Perdido Street Station by China Mieville

I decided to put up a review I did a little whilst ago of the best book I read in 2006, although it was actually published back in 2000.

Welcome to New Crobuzon. A vast city of skyrails and towers, of elevated railway lines and glasshouses inhabited by sentient cactii-people, a city of squalor and beauty where insects make art and the government dines the ambassadors of hell.

China Mieville’s debut novel takes the reader on dizzying tour of his immense construction, a teeming steampunk metropolis of six million people, the industrial and commercial hub of his painstakingly-constructed fantasy world of Bas-Lag. Rarely has a fictional city been brought to life so vividly, its tastes and smells all but leaping off the page. New Crobuzon immediately joins Viriconium, Ankh-Morpork, Minas Tirith, Amber, Lankhamar and the city-castle Gormenghast as one of the great civic constructions of fantasy literature.

Enough of the backdrop, what about the story? The novel follows the misadventures of a mixed band of heroes and antiheroes, of the ‘rebel’ inventor and scientist Isaac trying to build wings for a flightless bird-man of the desert; of the half-human, half-insectoid artist Lin being called upon to create the most complex piece of art of her life; of a journalist working for a secret newspaper dedicated to bringing down the corrupt government. Combined with the backdrop of civil discord and even robotic rebellion, the stage would be set for a truly great story.

What we get instead is a bug-hunt. Naturally, it’s a very good bug-hunt, tremendously well-written and incredibly tense in places, but it does feel that Mieville, having built one of the most amazing constructions in fantasy history, didn’t know what to do with it, but happily caught a re-run of
Aliens on TV and was inspired. The slight mundanity of this plot compared to the amazing backdrop makes for a curious dichotomy. A bit like Tolkien creating Middle-earth and choosing to concentrate on the adventures of Thranduil fighting spiders in Mirkwood rather than on Frodo and Aragorn’s adventures. This lack is offset on a first read by the expectation of the story taking a more radical turn, and the introduction of the sentient, demigod-like Weaver does fulfil this criteria. However, although the Weaver is a fascinating creation and character, it does veer towards deus ex machina, being employed to rescure our heroes from certain death twice in a short space of time. Despite the slight dampening effect of this, Mieville turns things round for a satisfyingly twisted and melancholy ending. There are some plot elements that are not explained and are presumably being held back for later Bas-Lag novels (the enigmatic character of Jack Half-a-Prayer being one, hopefully), but overall Perdido Street Station emerges as an awesome piece of worldbuilding, with a reasonable and entertaining story tacked on. But you get the feeling Mieville could have done more with his story. And perhaps he will.

Perdido Street Station (****) is published by Pan in the United Kingdom and by Del Rey in the United States.

China Mieville is also the author of King Rat (1998), The Scar (2002) and Iron Council (2004), the latter two of which are also set on the world of Bas-Lag. He published a short story collection, Looking for Jake and Other Stories, in 2005 which includes a Bas-Lag novella featuring Jack Half-a-Prayer. His next novel, Un Lun Dun, is a young adult fantasy due out in early 2007. He has plans to return to Bas-Lag at a later date. Mieville is also a political writer: his PhD thesis was published in book form in 2005 as Between Equal Rights: A Marxist Theory of International Law.

Sunday, 24 December 2006

Altered Carbon by Richard Morgan

It's a world where human beings have become digital information, swapped between bodies, backed up on computer hard drives and sometimes illegally copied. It's a world where centuries-old rich folk have formed an elite watching over the rest of the human race. It's a world utterly unprepared to deal with a man named Takeshi Kovacs. Welcome to Earth in the 25th Century.

Altered Carbon, first published in 2002, is the debut novel by British SF author Richard Morgan and also the first to feature his antihero Takeshi Kovacs. Since the book was published, two sequels have followed: Broken Angels (2003) and Woken Furies (2005). Morgan has also written two non-Kovacs novels, Market Forces (2004) and the forthcoming Black Man (2007). He has also announced that his next project will be a fantasy trilogy, the first book of which has the interesting title of A Land Fit for Heroes. But it's his debut novel I am concerned with here.

Altered Carbon comes very highly recommended and, for the most part, this can be agreed with. This is a book with serious attitude, with a take-no-prisoners approach as body-hopping ex-Envoy Takeshi Kovacs (think of an entire SAS platoon rolled into one person) is freed from prison (digital storage) in return for investigating the murder of a wealthy 'Meth', one of the long-lived elite who effectively control Earth. Kovacs may be a hardened killer and a one-man army, but he's from the provincial colonies with no clue how life works on the old homeworld and it's this juxtaposition - an experienced warrior in an unfamiliar environment - that gives Morgan a way of feeding us information on this futuristic society. Sometimes he misses the target completely: a very implausible conversation in a diner lets us handily know that an advanced alien civilisation used to exist on Mars and they left behind the locations of many other inhabitable worlds, giving mankind a roadmap to follow in its colonisation of the Galaxy. It's a fascinating idea, but very clunkily handled.

It's a tribute to Morgan's writing that this is just about the only flaw I could find in the book. Otherwise it's a clever, often exceptionally violent trawl through the underworld of a far-future San Francisco, taking in heavy torture and a heavy bodycount along the way. A strong stomach is certainly recommended for some parts of the book. There's a great line in dark humour (Kovacs' sidekick through part of the book is the sentient AI system that runs his hotel) and some very well-realised characters as well.

The SF thriller has undergone something of a renaissance in the last decade. Isaac Asimov arguably first mastered the genre back in the 1950s with his Elijah Bailey novels (The Caves of Steel and The Naked Sun, plus their much-delayed sequel, The Robots of Dawn) before cyberpunk dipped its toes in the pond, but Peter F. Hamilton's enjoyable Greg Mandel Trilogy brought it back into focus in the early 1990s before Alastar Reynolds' excellent Chasm City was released in 2001. Morgan sits amongst their ranks with ease. Hamilton is a big fan and I'm pretty convinced that some of the body-hopping and rejeuvenating antics in his recent Commonwealth Saga (combined with a futuristic detective subplot) may have been influenced by this book.

I'm now looking forward to picking up and reading the sequel.

Altered Carbon (****) is available from Gollancz in the United Kingdom and Del Rey in the United States.

Monday, 18 December 2006

The New Tolkien Book

In 2007 the biggest and most important author in the history of 20th Century Fantasy releases his new book. This is an impressive feat, coming as it does thirty-four years after he died.

The Children of Hurin by JRR Tolkien is published by HarperCollins in the United Kingdom on 17 April 2007, with a cover by Alan Lee, the noted Tolkien artist who is responsible for both a lavish illustrated version of The Lord of the Rings and also worked on the movie adaption by Peter Jackson. A second edition of the book, which includes several full-colour illustrated plates by Lee, is released on the same day. The legend of Hurin and his children is a long-standing part of the Tolkien legendarium, first seeing print in The Silmarillion in 1977, although it was referenced in The Lord of the Rings (published in 1954). Tolkien actually wrote the very first version of the story in the late 1910s when he began work on the creation of Middle-earth.

The new version of the story has been coallated from several sources: a prose version of the story that Tolkien wrote called The Tale of the Children of Hurin, apparently in the 1950s and 1960s and included in the 1981 collection Unfinished Tales; a much earlier version, written not long after The Fall of Gondolin, the very first tale of Middle-earth that Tolkien wrote in 1917, and included in the two-volume 1983/1984 collection The Book of Lost Tales; and a poem in alliterative verse from slightly later. Most interesting is the fact that a lengthy 'new' section has been added focusing on the journeys of Hurin himself. This story was written by Tolkien but witheld from previous collections, and presumably forms the meat of the new narrative.

The new narrative has painstakingly created by Christopher Tolkien, who has edited and presented virtually all of his father's unpublished materials from The Silmarillion onwards, including Unfinished Tales and the twelve-volume History of Middle-earth series. His role in the construction of the new tale has been mildly controversial, since this is the first time since The Silmarillion that Christopher has assembled an actual story out of his father's writing (rather than presenting the extant story fragments with editorial commentaries) and, whilst JRR certainly intended that Christopher present The Silmarillion for publication following his death, no such intention is known with regards to The Children of Hurin. Nevertheless, Christopher Tolkien's well-known fidelity to his father's work and his frequent turning down of opportunities to 'cash in' on his father's success (by writing totally original Middle-earth fiction, for example) means that this is certainly not a quick-fire 'cash in' work in the vein of Brian Herbert and Kevin J. Anderson's ill-considered additions to the Dune universe.

The Children of Hurin will likely be one of the most intriguing and controversial SF&F releases in 2007, and it's not too far off either.

Empire Sample

I mentioned earlier how Orson Scott Card's Empire has had a somewhat 'mixed' reception. This sample I believe explains why. It is simply one of the most turgid pieces of writing I have experienced since seeing excerpts from the latest Goodkind novel. The difference here is that Orson Scott Card is a writer who has written some good books in the past. The total lack of any kind of effort that has gone into this sample is startling, coming as it does from a major author.

Saturday, 16 December 2006

Galacticawatch 2

As expected, Battlestar Galactica's 'Season 3.0' has come to an end, leaving our heroes dangling on a perilous cliffhanger for five weeks until the season resumes on Sunday 21 January 2007. The latter batch of episodes has restored some faith in the series, which after the barnstorming four-episode opening arc had been looking decidedly ropey.

Unfinished Business had a somewhat bizarre framing device - an onship boxing match - but the flashbacks to the year on New Caprica were interesting, showing Tyrol and Cally settling down, Adama and Laura relaxing together and, most notably, revealing the destructive events that tore Apollo and Starbuck's relationship apart. The episode has some good music and a tremendous sense of melancholy since the audience knows that the society they are building will soon be shattered by the Cylons. There is also a very funny scene where Adama and Roslin take time out to smoke a joint. There are some flaws, most notably the exercising of the subplot in which we find out how Starbuck and Tigh became buddies all of a sudden, but overall this is a satisfying episode that answers a lot of dangling questions.

The Passage is a 'prelude' to the two-parter that bridges the mid-season divide. The Galactica and her fleet have to force their way through the blinding layers of radiation surrounding a dense star cluster to reach a lifebearing planet so they can replenish their food supplies. The Viper and Raptor pilots have to guide the civilian ships through the radiation storm, but the heavy workload and stress of the mission start to take their toll, particularly on Kat, who is also being blackmailed by a mysterious newcomer. This episode gets points for the 'passage' storyline, which is nicely filled with tension and some breathtaking CGI, but the soap opera-ish elements revolving around Kat's secret past are a bit tedious.

The Eye of Jupiter is the first part the mid-season cliffhanger and is an appropriately superb episode, the best of the season since Exodus, Part 2. The Galactica and her fleet are resupplying food stocks from the brilliantly-named 'Algae Planet' when Chief Tyrol stumbles across what appears to be a temple left behind by the Thirteenth Colony. The Cylons soon show up looking for the temple and a stand-off ensures, with the Cylons threatening to destroy Galactica if she tries to recover the mysterious 'eye of Jupiter' from the temple, whilst Adama threatens to nuke the temple if the Cylons try to land on the planet. This stand-off is a catalyst for a number of impressive confrontations as various storylines that have been building over the past few weeks come to a sudden fruition: Three and Baltar find themselves working together; the deception over the fate of Helo and Athena's baby is brutally exposed; Athena and Boomer come face to face; and Lee and Anders clash over Starbuck. The episode is nicely written, not too obviously cut to pieces by the editors (a problem that has been plaguing the show all season), with a number of interesting 'firsts' (such as the first time the Cylons actually talk to the crew directly rather than just try to kill them), the multiple cliffhanger works quite well and a number of very interesting issues are left open to be resolved. A welcome return to Galactica's better form.

309: Unfinished Business ***
310: The Passage ***
311: The Eye of Jupiter ****

Forthcoming: Rapture (21/01/07), Taking a Break From All of Your Worries (28/01/07), The Woman King (04/02/07), A Day in the Life (11/02/07), Dirty Hands (18/02/07), Maelstrom (25/02/07), The Son Also Rises (04/03/07), Crossroads, Part 1 (11/03/07), Crossroads Part 2 (18/03/07)

Friday, 15 December 2006

Just a Round-Up...

Orson Scott Card - who has milked his status as the writer of one of the most iconic SF novels of the 1980s (Ender's Game) for all it's worth - has released his newest book, Empire, in the USA and it's kicked up a bit of a storm. Essentially it's a near-future novel chronicling the USA falling into a civil war between the right and the left, and apparently Card paints liberals as evil weaklings who will lead the USA to destruction. Okay. The book has not had a good reception so far.

Robert Jordan's publisher, Tom Doherty of Tor Books, has indicated that they currently plan to publish the twelfth and final installment of The Wheel of Time, A Memory of Light, in early 2009. The longer-than-normal wait is due to the book's much greater length than the prior volumes (themselves of not inconsiderable size) and because of Jordan's serious illness. He is battling a very serious blood disorder called amyloidosis and has vowed to beat it, although it is not a curable condition at present. His fans have given large sums of money to the charities dedicating to beating this illness, and was the basis for a recent article on the Forbes website.

George R.R. Martin has confirmed that, as expected, he will not be able to finish A Dance with Dragons, the fifth volume of A Song of Ice and Fire, before the end of this month. However, he does plan to finish it early in 2007. Publication will likely now slip until the autumn of 2007 at the earliest. However, comments by the artist Ted Nasmith (best known for his work on Tolkien) have suggested that the long-awaited The World of Ice and Fire companion book, co-written by Martin with the admins of the Westeros fan site and forum Elio 'Ran' Garcia and Linda Antonsson, may follow quite quickly in the spring of 2008. It should be noted that this date is not final, however.

PS Publishing have confirmed that Steven Erikson is writing a new novella set in the Malazan world, entitled The Lees of Laughter's End, to be published in early 2007, likely around the same time that Reaper's Gale, the seventh novel in the main series, is published by Bantam.

Friday, 8 December 2006

Award Season!

A few websites are now holding their annual Best Of polls. SFX Magazine is going to be one of the biggest, with its 3,000-odd forum members and 30,000-odd readers voting on the Best SF of 2006, but Wotmania Other Fantasy is also having theirs as well.

In summary, 2006 was a reasonable year for SF&F. Less big name releases than 2005 (when Jordan, PF Hamilton, Gaiman and Martin all hit us with new books), although we still got new volumes from Bakker, Erikson, Reynolds, Keyes, Elliott, Brooks, Stross, Feist and Pratchett. 2006 will probably be better known for its avalanche of fresh new voices entering the genre: Scott Lynch made the biggest impact of any new author for several years with The Lies of Locke Lamora, although Joe Abercrombie, Naomi Novik and Alan Campbell weren't too far behind; Tom Lloyd and Brian Ruckley were less unanimously well-greeted, but nevertheless picked up some fans as well. Robert Charles Wilson has been around for a while, but languished in relative obscurity until his Hugo Award win for Spin brought him some more attention.

The film scene was less impressive: The Prestige aside, the year struggled to provide much of interest. I missed Superman Returns and Pirates of the Carribbean 2 (but in both cases, apparently I didn't miss much) but Clerks II raised a chuckle.

On television things were stronger. Heroes was the major success of the new season, but Battlestar Galactica reached new heights even as Lost began to show the first signs of a terminal decline. The less said about the embarrassing Torchwood and Hyperdrive, the better. Doctor Who abandoned any pretence it had of being anything other than a cheesy kid's show, despite a heroic effort by The Satan Pit two-parter to remedy that.

On the computer front there was a decided absence of big-name SF&F games. Medieval 2 and Company of Heroes are both strong strategy games, but not in the genre. Neverwinter Nights 2, I have not played yet. Half-Life 2: Episode One was excellent, but short. Thus the best game of 2006 must go to Oblivion, a beautiful game riddled with minor flaws (such as the repetitively tedious Oblivion Gates) but nevertheless a compelling and impressive gaming experience.

My summary of the year:

Best Novel: The Lies of Locke Lamora by Scott Lynch
Best TV Series: Battlestar Galactica
Best TV Episode: Exodus, Part 2 (BSG Season 3, Episode 4)
Best Movie: The Prestige
Best Computer Game: The Elder Scrolls IV: Oblivion

Thursday, 7 December 2006

What's Cooking

What I'm doing at the moment:

Currently Reading: Altered Carbon
by Richard Morgan and The Korean War by Max Hastings
Currently Watching: Battlestar Galactica Season 2 and Seinfeld Season 7 on DVD
Currently Playing: Medieval 2: Total War on PC.

Altered Carbon is a pretty good book, well-written, interesting with a compelling storyline and a good mystery element to it. About 100 pages in so far. The Korean War is a period of history I'm not too hot on and with the recent tensions with North Korea, it seemed like an idea to get into the background of it. Hastings' style is dry, but informative.

Battlestar Galactica is my favourite TV show at the moment, but rewatching the second half of Season 2 is a bit wearying. Got hung up a while ago on Epiphanies and haven't managed to get through it yet. Seinfeld is a great comedy show, not very well known in the UK, but I got into it a while back thanks to late night BBC2 repeats. Season 7 has a pretty funny ongoing story arc (George trying to get out of getting married) and there's some great jokes in here.

I was never a fan of Shogun or Medieval, but Rome was a very good strategy game. Medieval 2 has turned out to be a great playing experience, despite some minor bugs. It's also distracting me from the heartbreaking loss of my Oblivion game saves (along with 25+ hours of playing) when my hard drive blew up a few weeks ago.

Friday, 1 December 2006

Author Profile: Guy Gavriel Kay

Guy Gavriel Kay is a Canadian writer of fantasy novels and poetry. He was born in 1954 in Weyburn, Saskatchewan and raised in Winnipeg. In the early 1970s, whilst at the University of Manitoba, he came into contact with Christopher Tolkien, the son and literary executor of the late JRR Tolkien. In 1974 Christopher Tolkien requested Kay's aid in the editing of The Silmarillion, the vast collection of myths and legends that forms the immense backstory to The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings. Kay accepted and spent ten months outside Oxford working on the project. In the 1980s he published his first - and to date only - epic fantasy trilogy, The Fionavar Tapestry, which was well-received. Resisting the urge to do a straight sequel, he set about writing a series of 'historical fantasies', books based very closely on a real time and place. This resulted in the book largely acknowledged as his first masterpiece, Tigana, inspired by Renaissance Italy. In Tigana the protagonists are battling for the very heart and soul of their nation, the spirit of which has been crushed in the conflict between two powerful warlords and the name of which has been removed from its people's memories.

Kay followed Tigana with A Song for Arbonne. Inspired by Provence and the south of France, the book is a slightly more traditional fantasy than Tigana, but remains a vital and engaging work, painting the country of Arbonne and its neighbour Gorhaut in vivid detail. There are hints that Arbonne and Tigana are set in the same world (and both may be on the same world, or at least in the same universe, as Fionavar), but Kay eschews traditional worldbuilding, preferring merely to tip the hat between his works.

Kay followed this with the book widely acknowledged as his second masterpiece, The Lions of Al-Rassan, based on Spain during the Reconquista. This book and the three subsequent novels are all set in the same world, a world which is clearly a fantasy version of Europe. Interestingly, these books take place at different parts in history, but as they share little except for some parts of their maps overlapping and some references, the background can safely be ignored. Instead, Al-Rassan's story shines through, combining a love triangle with religious strife against the backdrop of a struggle for power on the peninsula between several groups. The history is rich and the writing elegant and layered.

Kay's next project was The Sarantine Mosaic, a duology based closely around the history of Byzantium (Constantinople). The two books had dark, haunting atmospheres but for me they fell short of his best work and the story felt slight for it to span two novels and over eight hundred pages. Nevetheless, the writing is still as impressive as ever and eagle-eyed viewers will spot references to his earlier work (including the subtle mentions of a man called Ashar, who goes on to found the Asharite faith which plays a major role in Al-Rassan).

Following a poetry collection, Beyond This Dark House, Kay's most recent novel is The Last Light of the Sun, set between the Mosaic and Al-Rassan. This time the setting is England at the time of the Viking invasion and the central character is closely based on King Alfred the Great (he who burned the cakes). Some fans found Sun disappointing, but I enjoyed its setting, storytelling and the nice parallels and contrasts between the various characters.

Kay has moved to pastures new with his forthcoming, newest work, Ysabel. Published here in the UK in March (January for Canada and February for the USA), Ysabel is a modern story employing elements of urban fantasy and myth. Reviews have been extremely positive, some citing it as Kay's best work to date.

In a world dominated by five-book-plus series made up of brick-thick volumes, Kay is a writer who shows that sometimes less is more. His books are extremely pleasent to read, his prose is sparkling and poetic and his characters are engaging.

Home Page
A review of Ysabel courtesy of I Hope I Didn't Just Give Away the Ending.
An interview with Guy Gavriel Kay at OF Blog of the Fallen, conducted on 16 August 2006.

The Fionavar Tapestry
The Summer Tree (1984) ***
The Wandering Fire (1986) - unread
The One Tree (1987) - unread

Tigana (1990) *****
A Song for Arbonne (1993) ****
The Lions of Al-Rassan (1995) *****

The Sarantine Mosaic
Sailing to Sarantium (1998) ****
Lord of Emperors (2000) ***

Beyond This Dark House (2003) - unread
The Last Light of the Sun (2004) ****
Ysabel (2007) - forthcoming