Friday 22 June 2007

King's Dragon & Prince of Dogs by Kate Elliott

These days, trilogies are so 1980s. To be a big-hitter in the fantasy league it seems you have to write a series of at least seven massive volumes, if not considerably more. However, writing a story that extends to many thousands of pages is an immense, complicated undertaking, and it seem very few writers who attempt it succeed in either maintaining quality all the way throughout, or if they do then usually it's with a few detours along the way and delays adding many years onto the release cycle of the series.

As a result, few of the 'long series' began back in the 1990s are as yet complete: The Malazan Book of the Fallen and A Song of Ice and Fire still have more installments to come, whilst both Harry Potter and The Wheel of Time's final volumes are finally in sight, but still not available yet. The only series from this period that comes to mind that is already complete, and thus ripe for assessement of the long-series-form as a way of telling a fantasy story, is Kate Elliott's Crown of Stars series, which consists of seven books starting with King's Dragon, originally published in 1997.

Elliott (the pen-name of American writer Alis A. Ramussen) sensibly starts things off on a small scale with the opening book in the series. The setting is the continent of Novaria, a fantasised version of Europe in the early medieval period. The opening volume takes place in the unified kingdoms of Wendar and Varre (Germanic states by other names), which through dynastic marriage are now ruled jointly by King Henry. However, his elder half-sister Sabella plots rebellion against him and mobilises the Varren nobles to war. At the same time, the savage nonhuman Eika are heavily raiding the northern coast of the kingdom and besieging the city of Gent, and King Henry's court is involved in intrigue as Henry plots to make his bastard son Sanglant (the result of a union between Henry and an Aoi or elf woman in his youth), his heir, to the displeasure of his eldest legitimate daughter Sapentia.

This opening novel follows three principal characters. Alain is a foundling, raised by his foster-family and promised to the Church. However, the destruction of the local monastary by Eika raiders sets Alain on a new path as his destiny intersects with that of Count Lavastine, who coincidentally once had a bastard son sent to be raised by freeholding family, a decision he now regrets. Readers may groan at this cliche and it is rather predictable in this opening volume. However, Elliott cleverly subverts this expectation in later volumes in the series.

The second POV character is Liath, a beautiful young woman who has spent much of her life on the run with her father, fleeing from unseen, unknown enemies who desire her father's immense knowledge of astrological magic. Unfortunately, whilst they evade their shadowy pursuers they run into the unwelcome attentions of Frater Hugh, a churchman with a hunger for knowledge, and for Liath.

The third POV, and the most interesting, is that of Rosvita, a churchwoman constructing an elaborate history of the Wendish peoples for the King's aged mother. Her role in the storyline is initially merely to give us a look at the inner workings of King Henry's court, but later she assumes a more proactive role.

This is a busy opening novel, with Alain and Liath both having quite active lives and the plotline twists and turns unexpectedly around them, whilst dynastic struggles ensure elsewhere. The general feeling of the book is a lighter, somewhat less accomplished (but not unenjoyably so) version of A Game of Thrones by George RR Martin. The political intrigue is simplistic by comparison to GRRM's masterpiece, but still more interesting than a lot of other fantasy writers attempt in their novels.

Elliott's biggest success is in her worldbuilding. Like GRRM, she has constructed a fantasy version that is so close to real medieval history at times you ponder why she didn't just write a historical novel, but the changes to real history are nevertheless interesting, such as the equally male-and-female-controlled Church. Like Robert Jordan before her, Elliott has gone to some difficulties to create an equal-opportunities fantasy world where men and women are equals and, like Jordan, she broadly succeeds, although you can poke holes in some of her reasoning as to how this came about. She also captures the fact that in the early Medieval period (the setting seems comparable to the 8th-10th centuries or so) battles were won and lost by small armies consisting of just a couple of thousand troops, and also that society was built on rising hierarchal tiers that were extremely difficult to bypass. Elliott also builds interesting characters and makes you care about them, particularly Alain, Rosvita and some of the secondary characters like Margrave Villam and Prince Sanglant.

There are some substantial flaws, however. It's incredibly difficult to like Liath because she spends pretty much every chapter moaning and whining about her circumstances, but is utterly unable to take action to change those circumstances. Her chronic inability to trust anyone and her inabilty to tell her few friends about the secrets that haunt her makes her a wearying character to read, and her cruel tormenting by Hugh inspires only pity, not respect or true sympathy. The fact that she has to be rescued from every situation by someone else eventually makes her an even more tedious character. Similarly, there are some irritating repetitions of phrase and a certain blandness in some parts of the writing that let the overall story down.

That said, Elliott manages to intrigue you with events in this first volume and the cliffhanger ending does make you want to pick up the second book, which I suppose was the main objective all along

King's Dragon (***) is published by Orbit in the UK and DAW in the USA.

Please note that the review for the second book entails spoiling certain plot elements from the first book.

Prince of Dogs picks up shortly after the first book ends. The Battle of Kassel has seen the defeat of Sabella's rebellion. Alain has been proclaimed heir to Count Lavastine, and now learns the way of rulership. Liath is now a King's Eagle, a trusted messenger, but her heart is torn by the death of Prince Sanglant in the Fall of Gent to the Eika. With King Henry's army badly mauled at Kassel, he has to entrust another to create a force and retake Gent. However, Prince Sanglant yet lives as the captive and plaything of the Eika warlord, Bloodheart, and Bloodheart's fifth son, who has forged an unusual connection with Alain, must return to the Eika homeland to raise a new force, but plots against his father along the way. Finally, rumblings come from the east that after a lengthy period of quiet, the Quman tribes of the marchlands are once again raiding and causing trouble.

Prince of Dogs sees the smaller story that was contained within King's Dragon explode outwards in all directions, with the addition of several new POV characters including the captive Prince Sanglant and Anna, a young girl who escapes the Fall of Gent with her brother to face an uncertain future in a refugee camp, whilst Biscop Antonia, a key villain in the first book, also has a few POV cameos. The political intrigue of the book is ramped up following the events of the first volume, as is the action quotient as the Eika's ravaging of the countryside around Gent is described, along with the campaign to retake the city. There is also a nice convergence of plotlines, as Alain and Liath meet for the first time and Rosvita moves more towards opposing the villainous and increasingly influential Hugh. Mercifully, although there are some more Liath/Hugh scenes, these are not as irritating as in the first volume as events conspire to seperate Liath from Hugh for most of the book. However, the fact that once again she is powerless to help herself and relies on others to protect her makes her a difficult character to admire.

Elliott's writing is stronger and more confident in this second novel, and the worldbuilding deepens (although the fact that half the locations mentioned in the book aren't on the accompanying map is irritating). It's still impossible to see what the overall plotline of the series is meant to be, however. The metaphysical aspects of the story, such as the role of astrology, magic and the Aoi in the narrative, is still very unclear, which makes it all the more irritating when these elements are referred to without explanation. Nevertheless, those explanations do come in time, and these sequences are more satisfying on a re-read.

Prince of Dogs (***½) continues the narrative begun in the first book and expands upon it, introducing new characters and situations whilst thankfully reducing those elements which weakened the opening volume. The book is again available from Orbit in the UK and DAW in the USA. Incidentally, the US edition has one of the most spectacularly awful covers I've ever seen grace a fantasy novel.

The author has a webpage here. Orson Scott Card has an interesting and highly enthusiastic overview of the series here, although beware that he does spoil one of the overriding mysteries of the series.

The subsequent volumes in the series are entitled The Burning Stone, Child of Flame, The Gathering Storm, In the Ruins and Crown of Stars, and I will be reading and reviewing them all over the forthcoming weeks, although I will take a break to tackle Ian Cameron Esslemont's Night of Knives along the way.

Friday 15 June 2007


Scott Lynch's Red Seas Under Red Skies will be available in the UK from 21 June onwards. Full review here. The US release is now scheduled for 31 July, although unconfirmed rumours of a possible one-week delay to 7 August are circulating. In addition, the UK mass-market paperback of The Lies of Locke Lamora has been reissued with a new cover. On his website, Scott Lynch has confirmed the titles for the five remaining books in the sequence: The Republic of Thieves (due summer 2008), The Thorn of Emberlain, The Ministry of Necessity, The Mage and the Master Spy and Inherit the Night. He has also placed very short and cryptic plot summaries on the site.

Although it's not SF (Iain M. Banks references aside), Hot Fuzz, from the makers of the excellent sitcom Spaced and the zombi rom-com Shaun of the Dead, is now available on Region 2 DVD and I recommend it thoroughly.

I am currently re-reading Kate Elliott's Crown of Stars series (review to follow) and will try to get hold of Ian Cameron Esslemont's Night of Knives and Paul Kearney's This Forsaken Earth for review in the coming weeks.

Wednesday 13 June 2007

Weapons of Choice by John Birmingham

John Birmingham is an Australian author who caused a bit of a stir in his homeland a decade ago with his cult debut novel, He Died With a Felafel in His Hand, a look at housesharing in Australia in the 1980s and 1990s. However, his latest work is an altogether different beast. The Axis of Time Trilogy is a high-paced, high-tech alternate history thriller, probably what Tom Clancy and Harry Turtledove would come up with if they were locked in a room together.

The book opens in the year 2021. The western world has been at war with terrorist extremists for almost two decades. London and Tokyo have suffered massive terrorist attacks which outstrip even 9/11 in ferocity, Iran and Iraq have fought a second and bloodier war, and the west's military forces have become used to fighting with ultra-high-tech arms and equipment against a shadowy enemy often hiding amongst civilians. When extremists seize control of Jakarta and begins executing foreign nationals, the United Nations authorises a massive military response. An enormous flotilla of ships from half a dozen nations assemble under the leadership of Admiral Kolhammer on his flagship USS Hillary Clinton (who in this timeline was President and a great champion of the US Navy until her brutal assassination). A research vessel conducting atom-smashing experiments in an attempt to create stable wormhole technology is caught up in the flotilla when her escorts are ordered to join it. Ill-advisedly, they continue with their experiments in the midst of the fleet, and accidentally destroy their vessel by creating a 15km-wide wormhole which sucks the entire fleet into it and dumps them in the North Pacific in June 1942. Right on top of Admiral Spruance's fleet sailing to relieve Midway Island.

Since the first ship that Spruance positively IDs is a Japanese reconnaisance vessel attached to the UN force, he orders his ships to open fire. In a matter of hours the course of history is changed as the retaliatory strike from the UN fleet wipes out the US Pacific Fleet before they realise what has happened. Once that realisation sets in, the UN force has to work very hard to keep history from unravelling and earn the trust of their new colleagues.

It's a pretty solid, high-concept basis for a novel, essentially a reverse of the 1980s movie The Philadelphia Experiment on a much bigger scale with a dash of Harry Turtledove's Worldwar saga thrown in for good measure. Birmingham makes several references to this series in his book: President Roosevelt, upon hearing that twelve thousand people from eighty years in the future have shown up with enough firepower to wipe out several dozen cities, states, "Next you'll be telling me the space lizards have arrived!" There are also references to Steve Stirling, another alternate history author.

At first it appears that the war is going to be pretty one-sided. As is shown in several engagements, the UN Taskforce possesses weapons so advanced they can obliterate entire Japanese fleets and industrial centres from hundreds of miles away. However, their weapons stocks are finite and the industrial base required to build new ones will take decades to establish. Also, in an interesting move, the incredulity which greets the arrival of the Taskforce is amended somewhat by it being in line with Einstein's own theories (Einstein has a couple of brief but amusing appearances in the novel, and in a funny scene is given a laptop as a gift). Unlike Turtledove, Birmingham tries to keep the famous historical figures restricted to brief cameos, with really only Admiral Yamamoto and Admiral Spruance receiving significant time on the page.

Birmingham's portrait of the world of 2021 is pretty grim, showing a world where the War on Terror has grown in size to endanger the lives of everyone, with suitcase-sized nuclear bombs destroying large chunks of major cities and the world militaries becoming hardened to the point of heartlessness with regards to mass casualties and suffering. Yet he also contrasts this nicely with WWII. WWII weapons may be vastly inferior, but in enormous quantities they maul the Taskforce quite badly on its arrival. And whilst the entire world may be at war, the clearly-delineated lines between good and evil, right and wrong give the people hope for survival and eventual victory, whilst the soldiers from the future are altogether more cynical and downbeat.

This interesting sociological portrait is probably the greatest strength of the novel and is what lifts it above other identikit military thrillers from the Clancy/Brown school of writing. The other thing is Birmingham's clever depiction of futuristic technology. Since the book is only set fourteen years hence, it doesn't go too overboard, although some may feel the use of implants capable of shooting medicine straight into soldiers and sailors at AI command is a little bit more advanced than that. The US fighter jet of choice is a more advanced version of the F-22 Raptor (which has just entered service in real life), whilst the new standard US supercarrier is the George Bush-class (actually, in real life, it's going to be called the Gerald Ford-class, but the novel was written before that decision was made).

Despite Birmingham's technical proficiency and his intriguingly bleak outlook of the future, he suffers from some weaknesses. Whilst the shock the 1942 US miltary feels at fighting alongside female, black, homosexual and Asian officers is perhaps understandable, Birmingham does repeatedly make the point about the period being casually rascist, sexist and homophobic to the point where it starts to get a bit tedious. There are also some leaps in logic in the middle of the book. The first half or so is pretty much entirely devoted to the shock of the Transition (as it is called) and its aftermath and barely covers 24 hours. The second half covers another month or so and ranges over a much vaster area, from Moscow and Berlin to Tokyo to Los Angeles and Brisbane. The transition between the two styles is a little jarring. Given the size of this novel (just shy of 800 pages) compared to the two sequels (450 and 380 pages respectively) one wonders if splitting this book in half to make the change in style work better would have been a better idea.

At heart, this book is an above-average military blockbuster with an interesting SF twist and better-than-normal characters. As the series progresses and moves further away from real history, I suspect the books will get less interesting (as happens with most Turtledove series), but the first book leaves enough cliffhangers and unresolved plot points to make the sequel, Designated Targets, worth a look when Penguin publishes it (presumably at the end of 2007. I'm particularly looking forward to seeing how Britain's Prince Harry - in the novels an SAS Captain in his late 30s - is treated in the sequels, where he apparently plays a bigger role.

Weapons of Choice (***½) is a solidly enjoyable if not revolutionary SF thriller. It is published in the UK by Penguin. It is available in the USA from Ballantine. The second and third books, Designated Targets and Final Impact, are already available in the USA and Australia and will be followed by two more books set much later in this alternate history.

Sunday 10 June 2007

The Road by Cormac McCarthy

Cormac McCarthy is one of the USA's biggest and most important literary novelists, laden with awards and praise throughout his lengthy career. It is almost unnecessary to review The Road, his latest novel, as it has already won this year's Pulitzer Prize for Fiction and garnered a major sales-boosting appearance on Oprah Winfrey's US book club, but it was a book of such impressive power I felt compelled to add my thoughts.

Some have already argued that The Road is not really science fiction, since the book features nearly nothing about the holocaust that destroyed civilisation before the book began (there are hints of it being either a nuclear war or an asteroid impact), little about how humanity develops afterwards (aside from the obvious descent into barbarism) and little in the way of an effective plot. The story is instead a series of viginettes that follow the unnamed protagonist ('the man') and his unnamed son ('the boy') as they head south, away from the freezing winter that is consuming the devastated USA, hoping to find a safe haven along the coast. Along the way they occasionally meet other survivors, they loot abandoned shops and homes, and find themselves relying on one another to keep going. However, science fiction is more than just about machines and sociology: it's about people, and how the impact of a future event (such as an atomic holocaust or an meteor strike) effects them and their lives. In this regard, The Road is essential science fiction.

The book is beautifully, starkly written. McCarthy employs a stripped-down prose style with some minor embellishments to keep the story moving. Given that many pages are covered by simple, short sentences as the man and the boy exchange views, the book is actually much shorter than its 300-page count would suggest, and easily readable in a couple of hours. The lack of plot is unnecessary, as this is a stunning atmospheric mood piece with some biting observations on the nature of humanity.

It is difficult to find anything worth criticising about the book. Some may feel there isn't enough plot or backstory or in-depth character history, but that's not the aim of the work. It's about two people and what keeps them going when everything else has been destroyed. In that regard, it works brilliantly. There are some vague similarities to earlier works - this could almost be said to be a road trip (but less revelatory) version of Richard Matheson's I Am Legend - but nothing that is particularly offputting.

The Road (*****) is a haunting novel of impressive power, and well worth reading. The book is published by Vintage Books in the USA and Picador in the United Kingdom. William Lexner has reviewed the book here.

Friday 8 June 2007


Andrzej Sapkowski's short story collection The Last Wish, an introduction to his Witcher series of collections, novels and a forthcoming computer game, is available now in the UK. My review here. The books is an engaging and enjoyable collection of stories with strong overtones of Jack Vance. Despite the grim nature of the story and stoic protagonist, there are some nice flourishes to the story and some great humour. The book is well recommended.

It has been confirmed that Battlestar Galactica will indeed end with its fourth season, which will consist of twenty episodes airing from January 2008. An additional two-part story will air as a TV movie event in autumn 2007, to be released on DVD shortly thereafter. Provisionally entitled Razor, this story focuses on the Battlestar Pegasus prior to its destruction. Season 4 will pick up the Season 3 cliffhanger and take the story forward to its inevitable conclusion, the finding of Earth. Shooting on the TV movie is already underway and shooting on Season 4 proper will begin later this month.

Babylon 5: The Lost Tales is the long-awaited return to the Babylon 5 universe. This is a special DVD release comissioned by Warner Brothers to celebrate the immense profits it has reaped from its release of the original series on DVD. The DVD consists of two short episodes revolving around the tenth anniversary of the founding of the Interstellar Alliance. Bruce Boxleitner resumes his role of President Sheridan, whilst Tracy Scoggins and Peter Woodward resume their roles as Colonel Lochley and the technomage Galen. If successful, creator-writer-producer J. Michael Straczynski plans an irregular series of releases in the same series, with the second featuring the return of Garibaldi and Emperor Londo Mollari. The DVD will be released on 31 July in the United States and in September in the United Kingdom (no Amazon listing at this time).

Thursday 7 June 2007

Lostwatch 3: Season 3, Episodes 16-23

Lost's unexpected but most welcome return to form continues through the latter part of the third season, which addresses some of the series long-standing questions and hints at a potentially titanic shift in perspective and format to come in the fourth season.

Last time we covered up to the episode Left Behind, which had Jack finally setting out to rejoin the beach camp after fourteen episodes as a prisoner of the Others. In One of Us the long-expected reunion takes place. However, between the back-slapping there is an element of tension over the presence of Juliet, which leads to a well-acted confrontation between her, Sayid and Sawyer in which Juliet emerges on top through her expert use of their backstories against them. Her own flashback reveals her true purpose in being on the Island - investigating why every woman who has conceived on the Island dies before their third trimester - and is quite compelling, as well as revealing previously unknown information (Juliet and Goodwin, the Other killed by Ana-Lucia in The Other 48 Days, were loves; there was a massive battery of TV screens picking up satellite news from around the world in the Flame station before Locke blew it up). A solid episode with a strong final scene that sets up the end of the season nicely.

Catch-22 focuses on Desmond, and gives us a very enjoyable Island 'jaunt' where Desmond, Charlie, Hurley and Jin set off on a trip into the jungle (albeit with Desmond's foreknowledge of an important event about to take place). This quickly turns into something more serious, as once again Charlie is in danger of being killed, and a newcomer arrives on the Island, bringing the possibility of rescue with her. Flashbacks deepen an understanding of Desmond's character, revealing his time spent in a monastery (hence his constant use of 'brother' as a mode of address) and chronicling his first meeting with Penny, although it also features another hint that outside forces are manipulating Desmond for unknown reasons (the mysterious old woman from Flashs Before Your Eyes is revealed to know the head of the monastery). Another solid episode with some good laughs, although the Charlie-dying-wait-no-he's-not storyline is in danger of becoming repetitive.

D.O.C. follows up on One of Us by having Juliet learn of Sun's pregnency. She takes Sun to the medical station to find out if she conceived on the Island. The flashbacks cover Sun being blackmailed by Jin's estranged mother and reveal how exactly Jin ended up working for Mr. Paik as his enforcer. This is a very startling and telling scene which completely shifts all of Sun's past actions into a new light (as well as featuring a nice Lost Experience crossover, hidden away in Mr. Paik's Korean dialogue). The result is a strong episode focusing on the emotional turmoil of the characters, something the show did very well in the first season but has been on shakier ground with since. Fortunately, Yunjin Kim turns in a great performance and makes for a solid episode.

The Brig, on the other hand, is a great episode. Locke recruits Sawyer to kill his father, resulting in a dramatically powerful series of confrontations between Sawyer and Cooper and, in flashback, between Ben and Locke. All of the actors are on top form here, and Josh Holloway gives a career-best performance in the closing scenes of the show, whilst once again there is the feeling of events accelerating out of control as we run towards the season finale. The result is the strongest episode of the series for over a season and a half.

The Man Behind the Curtain is mildly disappointing. It's Ben's first flashback episode and features a lot of backstory revelations, such as much more info on the DHARMA Initiative's presence on the Island and their relationship with the Others. However, the flashback is light on real meat, not telling us anything major that had not already been concluded by avid viewers. The absence of the Monster (at least in its smokey form) in the flashbacks is also mildly irritating, as this was a prime moment for the producers to shed more light on it. That said, any lingering sympathy the audience had for Ben is extinguished by the end of the flashback, which sheds a slightly more serious light on the comical events in Tricia Tanaka is Dead. The on-Island storyline is much more interesting, as Locke and Ben go to see the mysterious Jacob. What follows is hands-down the single most bizarre scene in the history of the entire series, rivalling Twin Peaks at its most surreal. At the same time there is finally a hint that an answer actually exists that accounts for a large chunk of the show's lingering mysteries. And the ending is powerful and startling, Lost at its best.

Greatest Hits is more lightweight, but also more emotionally interesting. Charlie has been given a bad ride as one of the weakest characters on the show, and certainly since he kicked the heroin habit in early Season 2, his storyline seems to have been going nowhere. However, in this episode he has a fair amount to do, which Dominic Monaghan pulls off with aplomb, and his flashbacks are actually quite appropriate for the episode. Combined with a surprising ends, this makes for a good episode.

The season finale, Through the Looking Glass, is the show's best finale to date. Once again Lost employs its large ensemble cast and the two-hour length of the finale to have a busy episode with lots going on and all of the characters having their moment in the sun. Timelining everything so it all happened at the right time must have been tricky for the writers, but they did it quite well. Lots of action - this is easily the most action-packed episode of Lost ever - and startling revelations give way to a surprisingly upbeat final on-Island scene. The knowledge that Jack would be the focus of the flashbacks was puzzling, as his backstory doesn't seem to allow for much in the way of series-changing major events, but the writers pull off a brave move for the show which should see it transformed next year. It's not an original idea - Heroes did something similar fairly recently and Babylon 5 did the same thing several times over its run - but the introduction of flash-forwards to the show's arsenal of storytelling tricks is very welcome, and the glimpse of what happens to our heroes a couple of years after they get off the Island is intriguing.

Overall, Lost's third season began very poorly, but soon picked up a gear as the producers and writers finally delivered on their promise to tell us more about what's going on. The finale was a particularly impressive piece of work, and the change in the flashback structure of the show was long overdue. Against all odds, Lost has returned to the quality it enjoyed in its first season and the start of its second. Whether it can maintain that into the final three seasons is another question, but the fact that the show now has a definite end date (May 2010) and a finite number of episodes left (48) to tell its story should focus the writers on making the journey ahead as interesting as possible.

316: One of Us ****
317: Catch-22 ****
318: D.O.C. ****
319: The Brig *****
320: The Man Behind the Curtain ****
321: Greatest Hits ****
322/323: Through the Looking Glass *****

Forthcoming: Lost Season 4 will debut on ABC and Sky One in February 2008 for a 16-episode run.

Wednesday 6 June 2007

Brasyl by Ian McDonald

In River of Gods, Ian McDonald's award-winning 2004 novel, the author explored the future of India, a country not normally noted for its appearances in SF. Brasyl is a thematic sequel, set in another country which receives short shrift in depictions of the century ahead. It is also an accomplished, startling novel which I wouldn't be surprised to see walk off with the Hugo next year.

Brasyl is split into three narrative strands and the novel alternates between them sequentially. In Rio de Janeiro in 2006, a reality TV producer named Marcelina pitches a killer idea for a new show that sees her tracking down a retired footballer blamed for disgracing his country in a former World Cup defeat. However, a mysterious woman seems out to wreck Marcelina's life and her career.

In Sao Paulo in 2032, a city watched over by satellites where criminals must be tech-savvy in order to survive, a thief named Edson finds himself embroiled in a strange sequence of events revolving around quantum computers and a beautiful computer scientist.

In 1732 a Jesuit priest named Quinn is tasked by his superiors to travel up the Amazon in search of a priest who has gone rogue and is carving out his own kingdom as a false messiah. This Heart of Darkness-style journey leads Quinn into a very unusual place, and the key which binds these three stories together.

Brasyl is a remarkably assured, accomplished book. It is an SF epic that explores quantum science more successfully than just about any other attempt at it in fiction to date. It is partly an evocative description of a fascinating country, bringing Brazil to life in a remarkable fashion. The hot jungles, the music, the people, the dances and the whole atmosphere of the country is brought to life in a highly vivid manner, even if McDonald's casual use of Brazilian terminology soon has you scrambling for the Portugese glossary at the rear of the book on a regular basis. It is beautifully written, but not at the expense of a highly intriguing story or fascinating characters. There is a lot of humour here (the opening sequence where one of Marcelina's programme ideas backfires is a prime example), as well as unexpected action, a lot of it involving the Q-Blade, a futuristic energy weapon that makes lightsabres look clumsy in comparison.

What is most impressive is how each of these three storylines develops in turn, involving the reader in each cast of characters before switching to another POV, and then another. I suspect readers will come to like some of these characters more than others, and will be tempted to skip the characters they like less. This would be a major mistake, as the storylines' combined development works both thematically (as the three, arguably four, main POV characters develop in tandem, allowing the reader to contrast their differing reactions to their circumstances) and literally, as McDonald pulls off a late, game-changing plot development that would be lessened by reading any one of the storylines in isolation.

is a remarkable novel, causing the reader to think and ponder the significance of the storyline (probably whilst pondering how much a holiday to Rio would cost) for some time after it is finished. There are some very minor flaws - a series of exposition-heavy sequences near the end of the book feel a tad out of place and unnecessary - but it overcomes these with aplomb.

Brasyl (*****) is available in the USA from Pyr Books now (note: please avoid the Harriet Klausner review on the link as it does spoil the major plot revelation from the end of the book). It will be published on 21 June by Gollancz in the UK.