Thursday 30 August 2007

The Dreaming Void by Peter F. Hamilton

Peter F. Hamilton is one of SF's most reliably entertaining authors, churning out blockbuster epics so huge that the hardcovers can be used as aids to hippopotamus euthanasia, whilst retaining the ability to tell page-turning, gripping stories. His Night's Dawn Trilogy is a classic of the genre, but his more recent duology, The Commonwealth Saga, was a more mixed bag. An excellent and very promising opening installment, Pandora's Star, was followed up by the mildly disappointing Judas Unchained, which ended the story in a rather rushed and somewhat confused manner.

The Dreaming Void, Book 1 of The Void Trilogy, picks up the story in AD 3589, 1,205 years after the conclusion of the Starflyer War. Humanity is now split into three distinct sub-species: normal humans, Highers (who live in roughly equal paradise-like conditions with all their needs provided by their nations) and Advancers (who live essentially inside a vast cyberspace-like reality called ANA and download into biologically-grown bodies when they need to visit the real world). They are spread over a thousand worlds, unified as the Greater Commonwealth, which is now one of the most powerful forces in the Galaxy. Dozens of alien races have been contacted, many mysteries from the first two books have been solved (some of them rather dismissively explained within a few pages of the novel's opening) and mankind is now officially allied to the Raiel, now revealed as the most powerful race in the Galaxy. Life is seemingly good.

However, the black hole at the centre of the Galaxy, dubbed 'The Void' by some, is expanding much quicker than it should, threatening to shorten the lifespan of the Galaxy by possibly several billion years. According to hundreds of thousands of years of constant study by the Raiel, the Void is actually an artificial construction of unknown purpose, feeding on the surrounding stars to survive. One human, Inigo, claims to have made contact with the inhabitants of the Void through his dreams. In these dreams he reveals a beautiful world where humans live as natural telepaths under the protection of the 'Waterwalker' and the 'Skylords' who seemingly rule over the Void. Thanks to the Gaiafield, billions of humans have now shared these dreams and the Living Dream movement is gathering momentum, apparently planning on a mass exodus into the Void. This move is opposed by many who believe it will trigger a dangerous and possibly unstoppable expansion of the Void.

The book follows several key plotlines set in the Commonwealth, as some work for the Pilgrimage to take place and others attempt to stop it. Hamilton gives us several interesting new characters here, such as the purposely amnesiac assassin and secret agent Aaron, but it's the return of several key characters from The Commonwealth Saga, such as Paula Myo, whom fans will probably most welcome. Unfortunately, Hamilton's tendency to have one young, attractive female character who takes part in a number of rather explicit sex scenes resurfaces here. There's nothing too wrong with that save it adds little either to the character or the book overall. It is, however, made up for by the fact that some thought has gone into sex in the far future, with scenes involving gestalt humans, who control many bodies with one mind, generating interesting scenarios.

The Commonwealth storylines are all enjoyable and handled with Hamilton's typical confidence and verve. However, a couple of the stories are not as developed as deeply as might be liked. Whilst the timeline hints at the fates of key central characters from the Commonwealth Saga (the SI, Ozzie and Sheldon most notably) there isn't much about them in the text, which will confuse some readers of the earlier work. The storyline about the alien Ocisens is also dropped rather abruptly halfway through the novel despite being set up as a major force earlier in the book (and provides the cover image). There's also a slight feeling of being sold short: there are simply far fewer plotlines and subplots than in previous Hamilton SF blockbusters. Whilst this will no doubt please critics of his previous complexity, those who enjoyed that complexity may walk away feeling a little under-nourished by this offering. Finally, Hamilton seems to have tried to appeal to both fans of The Commonwealth Saga and the new reader and make the book accessible to both, but has instead fallen between the two stools, neither offering enough information to fully sate fans of the earlier series nor keeping such references limited enough so as not to confuse new readers.

Luckily, the book's weaknesses are pretty much swept away by the book's major subplot. Set inside the Void, this story follows the life of Edeard, a young 'shaper' whose life is changed forever by a cataclysmic event and he finds his way to the great city of Makkatheren where he enters the service of the constables. Almost completely separate from the rest of the novel (though the final revelation can perhaps been seen from several chapters away), this storyline would, by itself, qualify as the best epic fantasy so far released in 2007 (easily blowing away both The Name of the Wind and Red Seas Under Red Skies, as fine as they are) if it wasn't constantly interrupted by the SF plotlines set in the Commonwealth. Hamilton's revelation that the sequel will focus much more on Edeard's odyssey is thus most welcome.

The Dreaming Void (****) is yet another very fine Peter F. Hamilton novel which sees him breaking new ground with a possible stealth move into fantasy whilst retaining the hallmarks that made his previous books so readable. There are some minor flaws, but Hamilton's decision to produce a shorter book (even if only by own standards) has paid off nicely, leaving the reader wanting more rather than feeling a bit bloated as with some of his prior books. The novel is published by MacMillan in the UK and will be released by Del Rey in the United States in February 2008. The second book in the trilogy, The Temporal Void, will follow at the end of next year.

Looking for Jake by China Mieville

Looking for Jake (2005) is China Mieville's fifth book and his first short story collection. The thirteen short stories and one novella are mostly set in London, but in nearly every story London has changed or been altered in some strange, often undefinable manner, creating a highly unsettling atmosphere that permeates every story in the collection.

The book opens with 'Looking for Jake' itself. The title story is a letter from one inhabitant of London to another, against the backdrop of a city where people have vanished and an overwhelming sense of listlessness has overtaken the populace. It's short, haunting and sets the tone for the book impressively. 'Foundation' follows things up in a similar manner and is arguably the most horrific story in the collection, with it's protagonist who sees what other people cannot.

'The Ball Room', cowritten with Emma Bircham and Max Schaefer, is an ambiguous, murky little ghost story with an unusual setting which is highly disturbing, digging into the fears of every parent. On the other hand, 'Reports of Certain Events in London' is one of the most 'fun' story in the collection. The narrator is Mieville himself, claiming to have received a curious package of documents through the post which suggest that there's far more to the winding backstreets of suburbia than first meets the eye. There's a nice line of humour in this tale that contrasts well with the grimness of some of the other tales, and is one of Mieville's stories where the influence of Neil Gaiman on his writing is most evident.

'Familiar' is a downright grotesque tale of survival and identity with some nevertheless darkly amusing moments. 'Entry Taken from a Medical Encyclopedia' is a nice idea, a sterile examination of an apparently supernatural event which concludes with a mundane explanation being given which is nevertheless still horrific. There's a nice little trap that Mieville lays for the reader which is quite funny, but I defy any reader not to momentarily worry about the consequences.

'Details' is another psychological horror story, probably not best read by or to anyone with OCD. 'Go Between' can be read as an intriguing take on the War on Terror, with the protagonist being used by one side in an unknown conflict, and becoming paralysed by indecision: will acting save lives or kill them?

'Different Skies' opens with a pretty standard fantasy trope but its elderly narrator has a very different reaction to what you may expect from such a story. The tale plays with fears of mindless hatred and persecution and Mieville invokes the mindset of the OAP narrator in a most convincing manner. 'An End to Hunger' is an excellent commentary on those Internet charity chain-letters and the conclusion is darkly amusing.

'Tis the Season' is set in a world where Christmas has over-commercialised and priced out of the reach of most people, where only those with licenses can put up Christmas trees. The obvious (and perhaps slightly clumsy) metaphor is made up for by a nice line of cynical humour and a nice ending. 'Jack' is a must for fans of Perdido Street Station, returning to New Crobuzon and focusing on the character of Jack Half-a-Prayer. Those wondering what happened to him after the novel's conclusion have their question answered here, but in a manner they were not expecting at all.

The book ends with two different styles of story. 'On the Way to the Front' is a graphic short story, illustrated well by Liam Sharp, about a shadowy war being fought in plain sight on the streets of London. It's the most subtle story in the collection (which is saying something) with may different interpretations of the events possible. 'The Tain', on the other hand, is the longest story (actually a 100-page novella originally published in 2002 by PS Publishing) and sums up much of the feelings generated by the rest of the collection. London, and this time the world, has been devastated by an invasion it was not expecting in the slightest. One man leads the fight back. Or does he? The final line subverts the expectations the reader has been lured into by decades of SF movies and some of the more unimaginative fantasy epics.

Looking for Jake (****) is typical of Mieville's work, being haunting, original, dark, poetic and mysterious without ever being frustrating. A couple of the stories are less accomplished than the others, but this is still a fine piece of work from one of the best writers working in the genre today. The book is published by Pan MacMillan in the UK and by Del Rey in the United States.

Night of Knives by Ian Cameron Esslemont

The Malazan Empire is expanding in all directions, consolidating its control of the Seven Cities subcontinent whilst its armies fight a grinding war of attrition on Genabackis against the Crimson Guard and their allies and an ugly stalemate develops on the continent of Korelri. The Empire's expansion has carried the glory and centre of attention away from the place where it was founded, the island of Malaz located off the coast of the Quon Tali continent. The empire was born on Malaz Island, but the empire has grown up and moved out of home. Yet, on the night of a mysterious convergence known as the Shadow Moon, this backwater city once again becomes the centre of attention...

Night of Knives is set in the same world as Steven Erikson's Malazan Book of the Fallen series, which now encompasses seven novels and three novellas with at least three more novels to come. Ian Cameron Esslemont and Steven Erikson created the world jointly in 1982 and expanded it over many years of gaming and storytelling. Whilst Erikson was published first - his Gardens of the Moon first appeared in 1999 - the plan all along was for Esslemont to expand on the universe with at least five of his own novels. As Erikson himself says, this isn't fan-fiction but a new chapter in the same world created by the person who created such characters as Caladan Brood and Anomander Rake, who have already achieved iconic status in Erikson's hands.

To start with, Night of Knives shows every sign of being a more viable place to start reading the overall Malazan series than Gardens of the Moon. Esslemont's style is more traditional and the plot is much slighter than in any of Erikson's books. However, Esselmont's rawer style (this is his first novel) soon tells, as he fails to set up several key events in the novel ahead of time. Thus some plot elements seem to emerge from nowhere. Whilst the book promises to tell the story of what happened between Surly, Kellenvad and Dancer on the night of Kellenvad's disappearance, this key event takes place off-page. We are also promised a major clash between the Malazan mages and the enigmatic Stormriders, but again this takes place off-page. The Stormriders themselves, a most fascinating race that was intriguingly set up in Erikson's novel The Bonehunters, are also given short shrift, making the ending of the book even more frustrating. In fact, the largest and most important revelation of the book will mean nothing to those who have not already read the main sequence (although it may clarify events in House of Chains). In short, you probably don't want to make Night of Knives your first stop in the Malazan series. If nothing else, the revelations about one character could seriously undermine some cunning plot misdirection tricks Erikson employs in the first and third volumes of the main series.

That said, Esslemont possesses a solid gift for creating interesting new characters. Temper and Kiska are likeable protagonists, and there is nice line in humour in the book, although it falls short of Erikson's much drier and funnier wit.

Night of Knives (***) is a solid first novel which does nicely expand on many plot elements hinted at in Erikson's novels. Esslemont can clearly write and it will be interesting to see what next year's Return of the Crimson Guard brings, which will apparently be both longer and will directly tie in with the main series (being the story of what happened on Quon Tali whilst the Bonehunters were sailing to Lether). The book is published by Bantam in the UK and Canada, but does not have an American publisher at this time.

The Armageddon Rag by George RR Martin

Sandy Blair is a former rock journalist turned novelist whose latest project isn't turning out as well as it should. However, when the former manger of one the most vital rock bands of the 1960s - the Nazgûl - is murdered in a satanic ritual, Sandy finds himself drawn into an investigation that leads him back to his roots and to some unsettling home truths. Meanwhile, an engimatic promoter is determined to reform the Nazgûl for a reunion tour - difficult since their lead singer was shot dead a decade earlier - that will have a startling outcome.

Like the opening volume of A Song of Ice and Fire and Fevre Dream, The Armageddon Rag (1983) is only superficially a genre story. The SF&F trappings don't kick in until very late in the day (actually far later than either of the first two works; nearly three-quarters of the book go by before any SF or horror elements creep in at all), and once more the focus is squarely on the fascinating characters GRRM creates. There is more of a hint of nostalgia here though, as GRRM also grapples with the death of the ideology of the 1960s and 1970s amidst the rise of ultra-capitalism in the 1980s.

The book thrives on fascinating details: the carefully thought-out Nazgûl album covers, the songs, the setlists. Creating a fictional band and making them feel 'real' is an incredibly difficult task, arguably only successfully achieved in parody (Spinal Tap being the obvious example), but GRRM pulls it off here. Knowing that 'The Armageddon/Resurrection Rag' and 'Ragin' don't actually exist doesn't stop the reader wanting to go and download them from iTunes.

Those familar with GRRM's work will draw a lot of enjoyment from seeing connections that are deliberately drawn: a band called the Fevre River Packet Trading Company or a Nazgûl song called 'Dying of the Light', for example. There are also hints of what is to come in A Song of Ice and Fire: a father-son relationship that is reminiscent of the Tarlys, a giant hulking warrior (or in this case a bodyguard) and a similar mixture of pathos, nostalgia and cruelly unexpected plot twists.

There are a few minor faults with the novel: the events of the ending are ambiguous and one plotline is left seemingly dangling, although I suspect this was deliberate (either as a hook to a potential sequel or, more likely, simply so the book's conclusion wouldn't feel too neat and tidy). Otherwise The Armageddon Rag is an excellent novel that demonstrates the author's variety by producing a work that is as far from his later epic fantasies as is nearly possible whilst staying in the same genre, yet very nearly as compelling. Highly recommended.

The Armageddon Rag (****½) is published by Bantam Press in the USA. Imports are freely available in the UK from Forbidden Planet or

Ongoing technical difficulties mean that I cannot directly hotlink to other sites at the moment. This will be rectified as soon as possible.

Monday 27 August 2007


Now settling into my new house in Ireland and preparing to start a new job and get on with some more reviewing. However, some technical difficulties are preventing me from updating the blog very frequently at the moment. Normal service will be restored as fast as possible. However:

The Dreaming Void by Peter F. Hamilton: ****
Looking for Jake by China Mieville: ****
Night of Knives by Ian Cameron Esslemont: ***
The Armageddon Rag by George RR Martin: ****½

Tuesday 14 August 2007


I'm about to move house (all the way to the Republic of Ireland) so will be offline for a while, hopefully no more than a couple of weeks at the outside, although if I get a chance I'll put up the Dreaming Void review from an internet cafe. As a mini-review it's an interesting change of pace from Hamilton, marking a maturing in his writing style (although the somewhat unnecessary sex scenes are still present and correct), but there are some minor problems in pacing. However, it's the first Hamilton book in a while that doesn't feel overloaded with secondary characters and plotlines of limited importance, and the book ends leaving you wanting more, which is a good sign. A more detailed review to follow.

I continue to read China Mieville's Looking for Jake and will probably follow that up with Ian Cameron Esslemont's Night of Knives.

Sunday 5 August 2007

In the Ruins & Crown of Stars by Kate Elliott

Finally! A good six weeks after setting out on this project, I finally completed Kate Elliott's enormous Crown of Stars series. Seven volumes, over 5,500 pages and a fairly complicated storyline later, I feel like I've run a marathon. Sometimes it was an easy task and sometimes a gruelling one, but overall I feel this series has enough positive aspects to make reading it a worthwhile endeavour.

In the Ruins picks up the storyline from the end of Book 5, The Gathering Storm. The long-foretold cataclysm has come to pass and the continent of Novaria has been devastated by the return of the Ashioi. However, whilst the Ashioi argue amongst themselves about what attitude to take towards humanity, the kingdoms of Wendar and Varre once again fall into bitter infighting whilst their old rivals in the east, particularly the Arethousans, advance their own plans.

In the Ruins (***) is actually the first half of one novel, chopped in half when it got too large to publish in one volume. As a result it is the least self-contained of the seven books in the series, lacking any kind of climax or resolution. Despite this, the established storylines tick along nicely and we start seeing how some of the less-prominent storylines that the series has followed are starting to come together quite nicely for the conclusion. As with the others, the book is published by Orbit in the UK and DAW in the USA.

Crown of Stars is the concluding volume of the Crown of Stars series and is a very interesting book to study. As I said at the start of this reading project, my goal was to assess how it is possible for a huge (more than four volumes) fantasy series to have a really worthwhile and satisfying conclusion, given that so many of the big hitter series remain incomplete, such as Steven Erikson's Malazan Book of the Fallen or George RR Martin's A Song of Ice and Fire. Crown of Stars was pretty much the only series of this length I could find that was actually finished.

Crown of Stars delivers a reasonably strong conclusion to the series. Elliott addresses every plot point and storyline raised from the earlier novels and gives a mostly satisfactory resolution to the story, tying everything up but not necessarily very neatly. The world is left a much more murky, dangerous place then we found in King's Dragon and there are hints of greater struggles to come in the future. This is as it should be: the sense of life continuing after you close the page is an important factor in whether a book's conclusion is convincing or not. That said, there are also many plot points left unclear towards the end, and the discovery that Elliott plans to write sequel novels and series (although she has an unrelated new seven-volume series called Crossroads to complete first) is mildly disconcerting. The novel itself ends with a somewhat pointless coda set 50 years after the rest of the series which seems to bring nothing to the story except reinforcing the point that life carries on. I also felt the conclusion to both the Hugh/Liath storyline and the return of the Ashioi were handled very curtly and lacked the sense of drama and tension that thousands of pages of build-up beforehand really deserved.

That said, the character of Alain was handled quite nicely in the conclusion of the series. What or who he is or represents is question Elliott leaves for the reader to work out, and it is satisfying that she trusts the audience enough to work out what should be painfully obvious after reading the last few books in the series.

Crown of Stars (***½) is also available from Orbit and DAW.

Overall, I would say that the Crown of Stars series is needlessly overlong and could have handled having a couple of volumes shaved off from it. It also suffers from the occasional bland turn of phrase, and the characters do seem to engage in a lot of repetitive getting captured, escaping, getting captured again stories, which occasionally has the disconcerting effect of making the reader think he's watching a late 1970s episode of Doctor Who.

On the other hand, I would also say that Crown of Stars features some excellent worldbuilding. Elliott has researched the historical period very well and, for everything she has changed, she's left enough alone that the series actually becomes mildly educational (her realistic use of the hierarchy of medieval power is very satisfying). Many of the characters are intriguing and their storylines worth persevering with (namely Alain and Stronghand), whilst others are a bit flat and tedious (Liath's, mainly).

Among epic fantasy series, there are certainly far worse available, but also ones that are far better. If you are looking for an already-completed, entertaining epic fantasy series, then Crown of Stars is worth a look.

Series rating: ***½

I am currently reading Peter F. Hamilton's The Dreaming Void, which is a most enjoyable and satisfying work, as I have come to expect from him. Expect a review in the coming days.

Wednesday 1 August 2007

Joe Abercrombie Website Now Live!

Joe Abercrombie's website is now up and running at this location. The author confirms that The Last Argument of Kings has been edited and sent to the publisher for publication in the UK in March 2008.

Check out my thoughts on The Blade Itself and Before They Are Hanged and also this interview with Joe carried out by Aidan Moher at A Dribble of Ink!