Saturday, 28 April 2007

Richard Morgan Interview

Pat from Pat's Fantasy Hotlist recently gave me the opportunity to provide some questions for British SF author Richard Morgan, whose novels Altered Carbon and Black Man have been reviewed on this site. The full interview is now online at this location. Many thanks to Pat for this opportunity! Rob from Rob's Blog O' Stuff and SFFWorld also contributed questions along with William from I Hope I Didn't Give Away the Ending.

Tuesday, 24 April 2007

Un Lun Dun by China Mieville

Un Lun Dun is the fifth novel by British fantasy author China Mieville. Mieville has become the guiding light of the 'New Weird' fantasy movement which has become a major force in the genre in the last few years, and in his Bas-Lag novels he's created a compellingly different secondary world mixing elements of fantasy and steampunk to good effect. However, in this latest book Mieville takes a break from Bas-Lag to instead write and illustrate his first novel for younger readers. Given that Mieville's adult work has a grotesque fairy-tale quality to it, this isn't as strange a move as it first seems, and his writing and the subject matter turn out to be a winning combination.

Another world lies beyong this one, separated from it by immense distance but at the same time accessible through cracks in reality. Each city in our world has its own reflection or 'abcity' in this other world. The great metropolis of London is shadowed by UnLondon, a city of the dispossessed and the magical, a city under threat by a sinister force known only as the Smog. Into this world come two young girls, Deeba and Zanna, whose coming has long been foretold. They are prophecised to save UnLondon from the Smog, but there is one snag: they haven't a clue how they're going to do it.

Un Lun Dun opens with Mieville on slightly shaky ground, betraying a slight lack of confidence in tackling this new audience (particularly in his handling of how streetwise London kids talk and interact). Perhaps aware this isn't his natural element, he very quickly hurls his characters into the streets of UnLondon and unleashes his fertile imagination in full force, rapidly ensnaring our protagonists in a very strange but at the same time familiar landscape populated by all manner of weird and wonderful creatures. In the afterword to the book, Mieville expresses his thanks to Lewis Carroll, Beatrix Potter, Clive Barker and Neil Gaiman, and indeed the novel is reminiscent of a crazy mash-up between those writers in style and tone. But it is Mieville's constant invention that really impresses the reader, from the bullet-proof umbrellas to the ninja dustbins to the half-ghosts to the black windows. Nearly every one of the 99 short chapters introduces an impressive new concept or character or idea that will keep readers enthralled and rattling through it's 500 pages at quite a pace.

The novel follows in the recent footsteps of Phillip Pullman by being a fiendishly clever, original children's tale whilst simultaneously telling a different story to adult readers. Mieville's political leanings are pretty clear from his earlier work, but Un Lun Dun weaves them in perhaps more subtly than before, with some biting social commentary on the environment and the responsibilities of government. He even has time to mildly attack overly repressive anti-terror legislation, which is a surprising move in a YA novel, but something I suspect most younger readers won't even notice. Mieville doesn't pull any punches in this regard despite this being no doubt seen by some as a 'lighter' work; he's also not afraid to kill off characters either, lending the book a slightly darker edge than some other YA books around at the moment. Some very mild counter-points to the Harry Potter books can also be found in the novel, particularly Mieville's hatred of the class system and a very funny take on the nature of prophecy.

Aside from the shaky opening, Un Lun Dun's only other major flaw is that the ending is left perhaps a little bit too open for a sequel or three. However, the new world that Mieville has created is every bit as compelling and fresh and interesting as Bas-Lag is (if far more whimsical), and return trips to UnLondon and the other abcities will be most welcome. Praise must also be given to Mieville's illustrations, which adorn the book. They are superb, lying somewhere at the Monty Python end of the spectrum of surrealism (but pretty accurately depicting what's going on in the text) and adding a great deal to the enjoyment of the book.

Un Lun Dun (****) is published by Macmillan in the UK in trade paperback and hardcover, and by Del Rey in the USA in hardcover. These editions are available now. Some more information on the book, including some of the illustrations and an interview with the author, can be found here. SF Reviews covers the book here. AVClub covers the book here whilst SFFWorld offers a review here.

Sunday, 22 April 2007

General Update

Just a note to remind those interested that Alastair Reynolds' The Prefect (****) is now available in the United Kingdom from Gollancz. My review is located here. The book is a very good SF thriller and, as both chronologically the earliest book in his Revelation Space universe and also somewhat more accessibly-written than his other works, marks a good point to jump into Reynolds' work.

American fantasy fans should be aware that Book 5 of Steven Erikson's The Malazan Book of the Fallen, Midnight Tides, is now available from Tor Books. This is a solid slice of epic fantasy and a worthy addition to the series which overcomes the initial problem of not featuring any locations or characters previously encountered in the series (with one exception). It's also the funniest book in a sometimes grim series. A proper review of the Malazan series will follow at some point, but on its own merits I would give the novel a rating of ***. Book 7 of the same series, Reaper's Gale gets its UK debut on 7 May, whilst the mass-market paperback of Book 6, The Bonehunters, was also recently published in the UK.

I am currently reading China Mieville's excellent first novel for children, Un Lun Dun, and will have a review soon.

Keeping It Real by Justina Robson

Keeping It Real is the first novel in the Quantum Gravity series by British SF author Justina Robson. Robson is a noted author of hard SF novels such as Silver Screen and Mappa Mundi, but for her latest project she has ventured into Science Fantasy, giving us a world where cyborgs and elves coexist with fairies and advanced AIs.

In 2015 the Quantum Bomb exploded. An accident at an atom-smasher has fractured reality and opened Earth - now called Otopia - to waves of immigration from other dimensions, home to demons, fairies, elves and elementals. It is now 2021 and Lila Black, a special operative condemned to live as a cyborg after losing her limbs on a dangerous mission, has been assigned as bodyguard to Zal, a charismatic elven rock star. Zal's decision to live among humans and do unelven things such as eat meat and exist as a celebrity has made him many enemies among his own people in Alfheim, some of whom have made threats against him. Black has to protect Zal from death or capture whilst uncovering secrets that threaten the relationships between the realms.

Keeping It Real is a book with a lot of excellent ideas. The combination of SF ideas and fantasy tropes works pretty well for the most part and the plot fairly clips along, as it has to in a relatively short (270-page) book. However, there is no denying that the central idea is pretty zany, and the reader is probably expecting a zany, funny book to explore it. This isn't what you get with Keeping It Real. This is a serious book which treats the central daftness of its concept with grim severity. There is some humour in the book - the demon bouncers for example - but overall this is a mostly laughter-free zone.

This wouldn't matter if the characters are likable and interesting. They are not. When she's not dwelling on her horrific injuries, being cut off from her parents and her somewhat tedious 'Game' relationship with Zal, Lila Black is an intriguing character. Unfortunately this is in only about a quarter of the book. The rest of the time her character is engaged in moody introspection about how awful it is to be welded into a metal body with enough firepower to level a small city secreted about your person. Zal is completely unlikeable from the second you meet him to the very last page of the book: a selfish hedonistic egotist with no redeemable features at all. Some of the other characters were much more intriguing - Black being forced to work alongside a rival intelligence agent who was responsible for her injuries is an interesting plotline - but with the two central characters being rather unsympathetic, this made engaging with the novel very hard work.

Luckily, the story kicks into gear towards the end, after the action moves from Otopia to Alfheim. The last 50 pages or so are much faster-paced and you do find yourself drawn into the action. However, for most readers I fear this improvement will come too late in the day to keep them interested.

Keeping It Real (**½) is published in UK by Gollancz and by Pyr in the USA. A sequel, Selling Out, is published by Gollancz on 17 May 2007.

Sunday, 15 April 2007

Wertzone Classics: The Prince of Nothing Trilogy by R. Scott Bakker

Here's something a little different. Rather than just reviewing the latest book I've bought (old or new), I have decided to do some reviews on major works that have made a big impact on me over the years. After wondering whether to start at the beginning or the end, I decided mixing them up may be the best way to go. I start off with a more recent work of epic fantasy that has been a major critical success in recent times, with the author going from being unheard of to mentioned in the same breath as Erikson, Kay and Martin in just three years. This, then, is The Prince of Nothing Trilogy.

The Prince of Nothing is a series that also forms the opening three books of a much longer sequence (at least seven volumes in length) called The Second Apocalypse. As the title hints, the books revolve around - once again - the return of an ancient evil to a world that no longer believes in it. However, Scott Bakker writes in a manner far more reminiscent of Frank Hertbert than say Robert Jordan, mixing philosophical ruminations with explosive action sequences and machivellian politicking.

The setting is Earwa, a continent which resembles Europe in the Hellenistic era, although the technological level is more reminiscent of the Crusades. The new Sharia of the Thousand Temples of Inrithism has called a Holy War against the heathen Fanim, vowing to drive them out of the Holy City of Shimeh and recover it for the Faithful. The Nansur Emperor, Ikurei Xerius III, is determined to mould the Holy War to his design.

The plot of the Holy War is essentially that of the First Crusade transported to a much colder and more brutal secondary world. The Prince of Nothing is a somewhat pitiless series. Like George RR Martin, Bakker has no qualms about killing major characters or showing the ugly, horrific side of war. Enormous battles, particularly in the second volume, are described with enormous skill, but they aren't the focus of the trilogy. Instead, the focus is squarely on the characters.

Ansurimbor Kellhus is the Prince of Nothing of the title. A member of an
ancient and forgotten order called the Dunyain, Kellhus is a master manipulator of human thought and emotion, able to bend people's wills to his design by knowing their histories: what has come before determines what follows. This aids him on his quest to find his father, Moenghus, who long ago fled to Shimeh and 'went native', to the Dunyain's disgust. Along the way, however, Kellhus discovers that the evil Consult, the powerful force that served the No-God in the First Apocalypse two thousand years earlier, has returned. The non-human Consult and their skin-spies stand outside Kellhus' experience and knowledge, representing a challenge he cannot ignore.

The other main principal character is Drusas Achamian, a member of the Mandate. The Mandate knows that the Consult and the No-God will return and have stood guard against them for millennia, but their order is mocked throughout the Three Seas. Only their knowledge and mastery of the Gnosis, the most powerful form of sorcerery known to mankind, ensures their survival in the face of jealous rivals such as the Scarlet Spires or the Nansuri Saik. Like all members of the Mandate, Achamian, or Akka, is visited each night by terrible nightmares of the First Apocalypse, a warning left behind by their founder Seswatha so that may never forget their duty. Achamian's lover, the prostitute Esemenet, is another key character. Although her significance is perhaps unclear at the start of the series, she eventually moves into a key position and she is one of our main POVs on events in the series.

Cnaiur is a Scylvendi barbarian warlord, chieftain of the Utemot and a warrior beyond compare. The self-proclaimed 'most violent of all men' is haunted by memories of Ansurimbor Moenghus, who passed through the Scylvendi lands decades earlier, and for the chance to destroy Moenghus he eagerly sides with Kellhus and the Holy War. Meanwhile, Ikurei Conphas, nephew of the Nansuri Emperor and one of the most gifted generals alive, battles to seize control of the Holy War and direct it on the course his uncle has chosen.

The Prince of Nothing is not a fluffy epic fantasy full of farm boys saving the world and virtuous princesses cooped up in their towers. It is dark and it is often brutal. There are rays of light penetrating the gloom - moments of good humour and fellowship - but these are few and far between. Yet it is compellingly readable. Bakker has a superb prose style, easy to follow yet packed with information that rewards careful reading and re-reading. In this sense he is very similar to Frank Herbert, and indeed The Prince of Nothing often feels like an epic fantasy version of Dune, reinforced by the fictional quotations that open each chapter and the absolutely massive glossary that makes up nearly a fifth of the third volume. Bakker is interested in philosophy (indeed, his masters' degree in the field was put on hold whilst he worked on this trilogy) and this comes through in the books, with characters frequently pondering the nature of life, of war and of thought. The shadow of Nietzsche lies heavily on the books in particular. Whilst it never overwhelms the plot (the philosophical interludes are delivered in bite-sized chunks rather than massive info-dumps), some may find that this slows down the proceedings. I can say I didn't, and tore through all three books in a matter of days.

The Darkness That Comes Before opens proceedings well, but it is a somewhat slower book that introduces the concepts and the characters. The main focus of the book is on the build-up to the Holy War, on the political strife between the kingdoms contributing to the crusade and on Akka's discovery of the first evidence in two millennia that the Consult is on the move. There is a huge, fascinating battle sequence that establishes key character motivations and relationships for later events in the trilogy, but generally this is a set-up book, as first volumes usually are.

The Warrior-Prophet is the story of the Holy War as a third of a million soldiers traipse south through burning deserts and across dry rivers, their eyes fixed on distant Shimeh. Akka and Esme come to the fore in this book as the battle for control of the Holy War rages amongst the higher echelons and, almost hidden from view, Kellhus slowly weaves himself a new identity and purpose. Whilst The Darkness That Comes Before was a powerful work, The Warrior-Prophet is an astonishing one, eliminating many of the first book's minor problems (the slower pace, the slightly longer musing on philosophy) and delivering an avalanche of intrigue and action. Individually, it is one of the best fantasy novels published in the last decade.

The Thousandfold Thought sees the Holy War finally arrive at Shimeh and begin the final battle against the Fanim. As the action unfolds outside the city's walls, Cnaiur and Kellhus must seek out Moenghus and learn the final revelation of the Thousandfold Thought, a secret which puts Kellhus on a very different road to the one he was pursuing before. Whilst Bakker successfully and somewhat elegantly resolves the story of the Holy War, the stories of our main characters is very much left open. For that reason the book suffers somewhat, although this problem will fade when the next part of the overall sequence is released.

The Prince of Nothing is a major, key work of modern fantasy that deserves to be read by all with an interest in the genre. It divides opinion massively between those who think it is too cold, too brutal and too dark to read, and those who think it borders on genius. I quite happily fall into the latter category.

The Darkness That Comes Before (2003, ****) is published by Orbit in the UK, Overlook in the US and Penguin in Canada.
The Warrior-Prophet (2004, *****): UK, US, Canada.
The Thousandfold Thought (2005, ****): UK, US, Canada.

Alternate reviews and interviews with the author can be found on the SFFWorld website located here. Sandstorm Reviews has covered the first book here. Nethspace has covered the whole trilogy here. Hope I Didn't Give Away the Ending covered the trilogy here as well.

British editions linked to are mass-market paperbacks. US editions are trade paperbacks only. The Canadian editions are mass-market paperbacks apart from The Thousandfold Thought, which is only available in trade at present.

Scott Bakker has since completed work on an SF thriller named Neuropath, which is looking for a publisher. The Great Ordeal, Book 1 of The Aspect-Emperor, will be published in May 2008 in the UK, picking up the storyline twenty years after the events of The Thousandfold Thought. It is already my most anticipated book of 2008.

Saturday, 14 April 2007

Movie Review: Sunshine

Sunshine is the seventh movie to be directed by Danny Boyle, whose debut film Shallow Grave was a cult hit before he hit the big time with Trainspotting. He was lured to Hollywood to make A Life Less Ordinary and the The Beach, but their mixed critical success saw him return to Britain to make the extremely successful 28 Days Later (a sequel, 28 Weeks Later, is out next month with Boyle as producer). Sunshine continues the collaboration between Boyle and writer Alex Garland, which began with The Beach and continued in 28 Days Later. Although Boyle's previous films had dabbled with SF ideas and fantastical dream sequences and imagery, Sunshine is his first out-and-out SF movie.

Fifty years into the future, the Sun is dying. For reasons never fully explained, the Sun is growing colder and the Earth has been plunged into an ice age. And things are getting worse. With mankind threatened with extinction, a young scientist named Capa has built a 'stellar bomb' which he hopes will kick-start the Sun back into operation again. The ship designed to deliver the bomb, Icarus I, is lost on its first attempt, so a second bomb and a second ship, Icarus II, are comissioned. However, the creation of this bomb depletes Earth's store of heavy elements. If this mission fails, humanity dies.

The film's plot initially feels uncomfortably like that of the The Core from a few years ago (a movie that falls squarely into the 'so bad it's hilarious' school of film-making), but Boyle is too far a skilled and canny director to simply write an SF action movie. The science throughout the film is pretty robust: the Icarus II has a massive solar shield to prevent it being incinerated as it gets close to the Sun, whilst the stellar bomb itself is built on quantum principles that seem reasonably sound (although it also comes across as being vastly more sophisticated and advanced than any other future tech in the movie). This fidelity gives the opening part of the movie the feel of 2001: A Space Odyssey, especially the sequences set in airlocks which recall the Pod Bay of Discovery. There's even a very nice direct tribute to the film when a bunch of monoliths turn up when you least expect them. There's also an obvious homage to Silent Running and possibly even a few nods to Event Horizon (a more-successful-than-not SF/horror hybrid from ten years ago).

Whilst 2001 was somewhat sterile, Sunshine is - forgive the pun - much warmer. The characters are introduced quite deftly and are an interesting bunch. Chris Evans (no, not that one, UK readers) is shown to be a better actor than perhaps his performance in The Fantastic Four hinted at, whilst Cillian Murphy is as excellent and intense as ever. Michelle Yeoh also delivers a fine performance whilst Hiroyuki Sanada (previously best known for nearly decapitating Tom Cruise during the making of The Last Samurai) displays immense gravitas as Captain Kaneda. Clifford Curtis gives some particularly interesting depth to the ironically eccentric psychiatrist Searle. The other characters are somewhat less well-developed, but their lack of screen time means this isn't too important.

As the movie continues, Boyle deftly provides large amounts of misdirection to the audience. Is the computer going to go mad and kill everyone, as with 2001? Is there a supernatural event going on, as with Event Horizon? Is there a stowaway on board? Are aliens involved? The audience is constantly left thinking and theorising, even as the movie dismisses one possibility only to open up another. At the same time, Boyle delivers some stunning imagery. A simple shot of Mercury passing across the face of the Sun becomes, with the help of a remarkable soundtrack, a moment of some beauty, whilst a dangerous EVA mission to repair some fried solar-reflection panels features some astonishing physical and CGI work. In fact, the effects throughout the movie are incredible. Those used to George Lucas delivering thirty thousand rapid-fire shots of CGI overload will probably find Sunshine's use of long, stately effects shots with the action based on real-life physics most refreshing, and far more impressive. This film also features one of the most disturbing scenes I've seen in a film for some time, with Boyle making inventive use of near-subliminal imagery. It only lasts a few minutes but is more disturbing by itself than most entire horror movies. Look out for it when the characters explore a dust-shrouded environment.

There is a slight problem with the ending of the movie. An entire subplot that unfolds in the last twenty minutes or so of the film feels very badly like a studio note about how to make the finale more exciting. It sticks out like a sore thumb, although Boyle makes as good a fist of it as he can, and the final few shots of the movie make up for it.

Sunshine (****) is an excellent SF movie which combines scientific fidelity with decent character-building and delivers an atmosphere that is at times quite eerie. The film focuses on the theme of death, but not necessarily as something to be feared, which is an interesting and successful directorial choice. The ending is perhaps misguided in conception, but Boyle just about manages to pull it off. This is a film that needs to be seen on the big screen, as its scale is immense and overwhelming at times. The movie is on general release in the United Kingdom at present and will be released in the United States in September 2007.

Friday, 6 April 2007

Lostwatch 2: Season 3, Episodes 7-15

After its weak opening six-episode arc, Lost returned from its extended break to run interrupted all the way through the end of the season. We're now halfway through this second run and it seems like a good time to assess the show once more.

Lost has, against all the odds and predictions, made something of a return to form in these latest episodes. The producers have seemingly decided to concentrate once more on showing as much of the cast as possible each week, with seperate plots and subplots giving more of the cast time in the limelight. This has had some ramifications (the supposedly long-running Paulo and Nikki subplot was curtailed and ended rather abruptly in the episode Expose) but overall has worked quite well. The characters feel more connected and the somewhat lightweight subplots back on the beach have contrasted nicely with the claustraphobia of the Others' storyline.

First out of the box was Not in Portland, the conclusion to the story arc that had Kate, Sawyer and Jack as prisoners of the Others for the first part of the season. The producers made a major mistake in not transmitting this with the first batch of episodes, as it would have provided satisfying closure to the mini-arc that opened the season rather than left us hanging on the rather insipid cliffhanger provided by I Do. Nevertheless, Not in Portland was a good episode which provided some decent backstory for Juliet and got Sawyer and Kate out of that damned prison.

Flashes Before Your Eyes is an odd episode, seemingly breaking one of Lost's fundamental rules by having one of our characters travel in time. The opening and conclusion of the episode are fine, although the dramatic final revelation lacks bite (on a show that is as profligate with its heroes' lives as Lost is, hinting that Charlie - not the most essential character on the show anyway - may soon die is not that interesting). The heroic effort to recreate London in Hawaii deserves some respect, but the basic errors that creep in are still irritating (few English pubs in London have a massive Union Jack over the bar and the mis-spelling of posters and signs with American words is just plain sloppy). The story itself is interesting and Desmond remains one of the most compelling characters on the show, but overall the episode felt somewhat lacklustre and didn't really feel like an episode of Lost at all.

Stranger in a Strange Land is yet another Jack flashback. A very weird and somewhat surrealistic tone to the episode actually works quite well, but the problem is that the mystery the show reveals - what is the significance of Jack's tattoos? - is a mystery that is far more interesting to the writers than the fans.

Tricia Tanaka is Dead is far more impressive. It's quite a funny episode (highlight: the meteor destroying Hurley's restaurant) with a somewhat whimsical plotline, whilst remembering to keep the main plotline chugging along in the background (Kate recruiting a band of asskickers to go rescue Jack). Plus the fate of the dog, Vincent, is revealed, which was of some significance for a large chunk of the audience.

Enter 77 is a bit of a fan-pleasing episode, as we see the Flame Station and some important backstory to the Others and the DHARMA Initiative is revealed. Sayid's backstory is a bit irrelevant, but Naveen Andrews turns in an excellent performance as usual. However, they really need to keep Locke away from computer terminals.

Par Avion showcases a much-guessed but previously unconfirmed connection between two of the major characters and also features the goriest death in the series to date, even if the Sonic Fence feels like something from the Command and Conquer games. Locke's increasingly bizarrre behaviour is also made more apparent, and the cliffhanger is quite mystifying. Unusually for Lost, we get some answers relatively quickly. The Man From Tallahassee answers probably one of the single most mused-over questions in the show - how did Locke end up in the wheelchair? - and features a very nice, large explosion. Inbetween there are some great acting and writing moments and the final shot of the episode is pretty bizarre, although apparently it won't be expanded upon until episode 19 (due to actor availability, I guess).

Expose is a mixed episode, focusing on the backstory to the somewhat tedious Nikki and Paulo, although apparently this is their last appearance on the show. Recreating the plane crash was quite impressive and seeing some characters again who've met their ends on the show is enjoyable, but some plot points seem unlikely (Paulo and Nikki knew about the drugs plane, the Pearl Station, Ben and Juliet weeks before anyone else did?) and the ending is just disturbing. The episode is saved by lots of loose ends being tied up and by some pretty funny dialogue, not to mention a brief appearance by Billy Dee 'Lando Calrissian' Williams as himself.

Left Behind is very much a transitional episode, clearing up the loose threads of the Others' storyline and putting our heroes back together again. Some impressive visuals (especially finding out what that slightly preposterous Sonic Fence is really for) and at least one major question being addressed (what is the connection between the Others and the Monster?), if not answered, leads to an enjoyable episode, especially when combined with Sawyer's subplot back on the beach. The flashback was somewhat pointless, but happily did not outstay its welcome.

307: Not in Portland ****
308: Flashes Before Your Eyes ***
309: Stranger in a Strange Land ***
310: Tricia Tanka is Dead ****
311: Enter 77 ****
312: Par Avion ****
313: The Man From Tallahassee ****
314: Expose ***
315: Left Behind ****

Forthcoming: One of Them (11/04/07), Catch-22 (18/04/07), D.O.C. (25/04/07), The Brig (02/05/07), The Man Behind the Curtain (09/05/07), Greatest Hits (16/05/07), untitled 2-hour Season 3 finale (23/05/07)

Tuesday, 3 April 2007

The Last Wish by Andrzej Sapkowski

Andrzej Sapkowski is apparently the biggest fantasy author in his native Poland, best-known for his character Geralt, a 'witcher' who tracks down and eliminates monsters for cash. Although his books have been translated into several other European languages, The Last Wish marks his debut in English, with a translation by Danusia Stok.

The Last Wish (published in Poland in 1992) is the first book featuring Geralt, preceding Sword of Destiny (1993) which has not been published in English yet. Presumably this is because the first three Geralt books are stand-alone volumes that do not require knowledge of the others. There is an additional Geralt story in another anthology, Something Ends, Something Begins (2000). There is also a five-novel sequence featuring Geralt entitled The Blood of the Elves (1994-99), which Gollancz will be publishing in English translation from August 2008 onwards.

Enough of the publishing context, what of the book? The Last Wish is a mosaic novel consisting of several short stories linked by a framing sequence. After Geralt is injured in battle, he recuperates in a temple and has flashbacks to recent events in his life. The stories themselves vary in tone but the quality is pretty consistent. There's an undercurrent of whimsical humour in the stories that is very reminiscent of Jack Vance. Like Vance, Sapkowski successfully creates a world where his characters feel totally at home. This world is a mix of the traditional D&D landscape of elves, dwarves and evil wizards, and of fairy tales. In this manner the stories' tone and atmosphere is very similar to that of Vance's superb Lyonesse Trilogy, although Sapkowski is not as continuously and unrelentingly funny as Vance; he also lacks Vance's gift for intricate wordplay. That said, when the book is funny it's very funny indeed. The comic highlight comes when Geralt and his sometimes travelling troubadour companion Dandillion are confronted by some kind of bizarre goat-man entity whose preferred method of combat is to pelt attackers with iron balls. Under strict instructions not to kill anything in the area, Geralt has to engage the goat-man in a particularly preposterous wrestling match. Sapkowski also employs Vance's melancholy aspect, such as Geralt's musings on a world where the fantastical is dying and the mundane is taking over. And, in a hint that this is our world in some remote epoch (shades of The Dying Earth), there are also hints in the book that changes in the Sun are causing many of the problems in the world.

The translation is first-rate, or as far as I can tell, neither being able to read or speak Polish. There's occasional awkward moments (the noble Hereward's rank changes from Prince to Duke at random; sometimes words are repeated very close together) but the stories come through feeling very fresh and energetic. Sapkowski is very good at creating interesting, imaginative characters with unusual levels of depth to them, not least Geralt, whom people are consistently underestimating. Early stories feel slightly repetitive, with Geralt unleashing bloody mayhem to win the day, but in the second half of the book there is a shift in tone with Geralt employing more imaginative methods to overcome the obstacles in his path. There is a great deal left unsaid in the stories in the book: we see the start of Geralt's relationship with the sorceress Yennefer but not its later development, and have to put together what happened with the help of Geralt's thought processes in the framing story. This helps give the book a feeling of greater immersiveness, although the knowledge that there are seven other books featuring these characters perhaps merely means that more events take place in the other volumes clearing up these questions.

The Last Wish (****) is an enjoyable book full of stories both melancholy and comic. The book will be published in the UK by Gollancz on 19 April 2007 in hardcover and trade paperback. No US version appears to be forthcoming at this time. Gollancz will publish Blood of the Elves, the first novel in the series of the same name in August 2008. In September 2007 a PC roleplaying game based on the character of Geralt will appear, entitled The Witcher. The developers have a website here.

EDIT: As I have been informed by several Polish commentators, my original story order was incorrect, so this has now been fixed. Thanks!

EDIT: Pat from Pat's Fantasy Hotlist has reviewed the US edition here and was somewhat cooler about it than I was. Check it out!

Monday, 2 April 2007

Before They Are Hanged by Joe Abercrombie

Before They Are Hanged is the second book in The First Law Trilogy and the sequel to The Blade Itself, which I reviewed favourably here. In this middle volume of the sequence, Before They Are Hanged picks up the storylines left dangling from the first novel and develops them further. As with the first book, this volume often feels like a 'standard' fantasy novel with lots of standard tropes in use, but Abercrombie successfully continues to put a subversive spin on events which keeps things fresh and interesting.

There are three main plot threads in the book. In the Northlands, the Union Army prepares to face the forces under Beothed. They have enlisted the aid of Threetrees and his band of cutthroats and warriors, but Marshal Burr and Colonel West find their hands full with just keeping their feuding generals from each others throats and babysitting the preening, useless Prince Ladisla.

Meanwhile, in the South, the city of Dagoska falls under siege from the army of the Gurkhal Empire. Inquisitor Glokta, in the city to investigate the disappearance of his predecessor, finds himself orchestrating the defence of the city against a vast and powerful foe, but finds himself making alliances with suspect forces in order to ensure the city's survival.

In the West, Bayaz and his band of unlikely companions continue their journey to the edge of the Circle of the World, to recover a weapon of tremendous power. Their journey will take them through the fallen remnants of the Old Empire, an ancient city and a towering mountain range before their goal can be achieved.

Abercrombie's story rattles along at a fair old pace. With the characters introduced, there is no more need for scene-setting and the plot explodes with vigour. More happens in this 450-page novel than some writers struggle to squeeze into an 800-page tome, and it's all invigorating, page-turning stuff. There's a lightness of touch and plenty of humour in the writing which makes reading the book all the more pleasurable. The characters become more interesting, with Glokta particularly becoming a morally ambiguous person whom the author gives real character to, his decisive ruthlessness coming as quite a shock in some parts of the book. Meanwhile, in other parts of the story other characters undertake unexpected transformations. Meeting other people who know Bayaz forces from earlier in the world's history force the reader to reconsider their opinion of him, whilst another character undergoes a startling personality transformation which is kept quietly in the background, hinting at some darker force moving in the storyline which will be explored further in the final book of the series.

The only criticism that comes to mind is, once again, the lack of a map. This is even more of a problem in the second novel as much vaster areas of territory are covered. One of the problems of not having a map in the book is revealed by the fact that, until an offhand comment made in this volume, I was unaware that Midderland (the Union homeland and location of its capital, Adua) was an island. A second, even more minor problem is that a skirmish in an ancient, ruined city threatens to feel like the use of one standard fantasy idea too many. Luckily, Abercrombie's writing is strong enough to avoid this problem, especially as it provides some of the most memorable imagery in the novel.

Before They Are Hanged (****) is published by Gollancz in the UK in trade paperback and hardcover. A US edition from Pyr will follow, probably in 2008. The final book is entitled The Last Argument of Kings and is tentatively slated for publication on 1 March 2008.