Wednesday 31 October 2007

The Fade by Chris Wooding

The world of Callespa was long ago settled by humans. A rocky moon circling a much huger world (presumably a gas giant) in a binary system, the world became virtually uninhabitable when the stars' output dramatically increased. Humanity retreated underground, splintering into many tribes, leaving only those hardy people known as the SunChildren to dwell on the surface. For many years the nations of Eskara and the Gurta have been at war, a battle fought back and forth through vast subterrenean chambers with neither kingdom able to win a decisive advantage.

Massima Leithka Orna is a Bondswoman, an indentured servant of Clan Caracassa. She is also a member of her clan's Cadre, a collection of warriors and magic-wielders (known as chthonomancers) beyond compare, elite fighters at the front of every major push but also adept at assassination and espionage. During a brutal battle her forces are betrayed and her husband is killed. Taken prisoner to a Gurta fortress, Orna lives only to escape and find her son, now serving on the front lines.

The Fade is a terrific novel. Relatively short (just over 300 pages in hardcover) it is nonetheless superbly-written with vivid characters. The first-person narrative works well, as does the unusual structure (the present-day storyline alternates with flashbacks - in reverse order - showing Orna's history up until the point of her capture). Whilst the epic story of conflict between two civilisations forms the backdrop, the novel is much more concerned with Orna's emotional journey and her relationship with her late husband and her son, which is handled well with all the depth and complexity of real-life relationships. The underground steampunk-esque setting is extremely well-realised and atmospheric, as are the short sections set on the surface.

The Fade (****½) is a complete story in itself but a fair number of loose ends are left dangling for possible future sequels. The novel is published by Gollancz in the UK in hardcover and trade paperback.

The book is also available via for American readers.

The author has a website here.

The Long Price: Shadow and Betrayal by Daniel Abraham

A brief moment of explanation here. The Long Price Quartet is a fantasy series by Daniel Abraham published in four volumes in the United States: A Shadow in Summer (2006), A Betrayal in Winter (2007) and the forthcoming The Autumn War and The Price of Spring (both already completed and handed into the publisher). However, for the UK edition Orbit seems to be publishing them in two-volume editions, so Shadow and Betrayal combines the first two novels in one volume. Many thanks to Pat from Pat's Fantasy Hotlist (link in the list to the right), through whom I won a copy of this book.

The world is in a state of flux. The old Empire has fallen and the new upstart nation of Galt is flexing its muscles, making inroads on three continents. Yet the city-states of the Khaiem are not concerned. They wield the power of the andat, concepts and ideas that through the magic of those known as poets are given humanoid form and carry tremendous power, enough to give the rulers of Galt pause. To be a poet is one of the most prestigious jobs it is possible to achieve, but for every one who makes it many drop out in their training. A very promising young poet-to-be named Otah learns some unpalatable truths about his destiny and disappears during training, but leaves a vivid impression on another student, Maati. Many years later their paths cross in the fabled city of Saraykeht as they confront a dark conspiracy that could shatter the power of the Khaiem and cost one man his soul and self-respect.

Daniel Abraham's debut two novels are a tremendous breath of fresh air in the fantasy genre. Abraham hasn't gained as much attention as some other high-profile recent debuts (Abercrombie, Lynch and Rothfuss in particular), possibly as his European debut has some some time after his American, but hopefully this will be rectified. These two books are inventive, clever and possess a strong moral core. That Abraham attended writing courses led by George R.R. Martin should come as no surprise, but echoes of other fantasists (particularly the emotional resonance of Guy Gavriel Kay) can be detected as well in his work. His characters are deeply flawed and human, but also utterly convincing in motivation and deed. His fantasy landscape is well-realised, with summer-blessed Saraykeht and cold, distant Machi becoming as much characters as any of the humans (or magical andat) in the tales.

An area where Abraham wins out is his description of hierarchy. A lot of fantasy writers decide to have their heroes in a feudal society come to some pretty radical ideas (equal rights between the sexes, universal sufferage, even republicanism) very quickly, possibly out of fear that they'll be seen as endorsing feudalism or serfdom if they don't. Abraham doesn't do this. His is a world of rigid hierarchal layers with each person fitting into their allotted place, underlined by an alternate method of communication which relies on poses and hand-signals. When one character does start to question how his world does things, it is as logical development of his background and his upbringing.

Are there flaws? Some. The underlying 'threat' in both books is pretty similar and it could be argued that Betrayal is somewhat of a rewrite of Shadow but in a different season and setting. However, the emotional cost to the characters is much greater in the second volume and its ending propels the series onto a different tack altogether. Another potential problem for readers is that Abraham adopts a Columbo-like approach to the story, giving us both the protagonist and antagonists' point-of-view so that the reader is (mostly) in full knowledge of all aspects of the plot. This is an idea I haven't seen pursued in SF&F much and I found it quite intriguing, but I can see some complaining that it reduces tension. Another problem is a fault of the publisher, not the author, and that is that the sudden twelve-odd year leap forward between the two books is a bit jarring.

The Long Price: Shadow and Betrayal (****) is a superb, resonant story that catches the attention and engages both the intellect and heart. It is published by Orbit in the UK.

A Shadow in Summer is available from Tor as a mass-market paperback in the United States.

A Betrayal in Winter is available from Tor in hardcover in the United States.

Daniel Abraham is also the co-author of the recently-published Hunter's Run (with Gardner Dozois and George R.R. Martin) and has a website here.

Wertzone Classics: Blood Music by Greg Bear

Back in the 1980s Greg Bear became one of the biggest names in American SF through his exploration of big concepts such as biological technology and vast space constructions, although he also gained a reputation for blowing lots of really huge things up a lot (spaceships, infinite corridors through the space/time continuum, the planet Earth). Along with Gregory Benford and David Brin, Bear was one of the 'Killer Bs' and penned several notable novels throughout the decade. In the 1990s his work tailed off somewhat and today he seems to mainly work on SF thrillers. Hopefully one day he will return to his former mileu and again dazzle readers with large-scale epics intent on putting the sense of wonder back into SF.

Bear is perhaps best known for Eon (his quantum rewrite of Arthur C. Clarke's Rendezvous with Rama), but for me his strongest novel remains Blood Music. Originally published as a short story in 1983 and winning the 1983 Nebula Award for Best Novelette and the 1984 Hugo Award for the same category, it was expanded to novel-length in 1985 and was nominated for both the Nebula and Hugo Best Novel awards.

Vergil Ulam is a biotech researcher working at the cutting edge of genetic engineering, helping in the creation of organic computer systems. Ulam becomes obsessed with his own brand of research, believing he can create sentient cells within the human body. Eventually he is fired, but carries on his research at home. This leads to a series of catastrophic events, culminating in the quarantining of the North American continent and resulting in the transformation of humanity as we know it.

Blood Music is a rather brief book (less than 300 pages) but is all the more powerful for its focused brevity. Bear describes the motivations of Ulam and his other key characters succintly and constantly poses moral questions to the reader. If this is the way forward for the human race, should base fear prevent it from taking that step? The fear of the unknown plays a key factor in various characters' reaction to the crisis and is a key theme of the novel.

If there are any major flaws in the book it is that the ending is somewhat over-ambiguous and one plot development (the biological Singularity) comes out of nowhere in the last few chapters, whilst cynics may point out that just as Bear would revamp Rendezvous with Rama as Eon, so Blood Music comes off as a retooled version of Childhood's End with the biological infestation replacing the Overmind of Clarke's novel. However, the differences are sufficiently great that this does not impair enjoyment of the novel.

Blood Music (****½) is available in several editions in the UK, where it is published by Gollancz. It is part of the Future Classics range and is also part of the SF Masterworks Series.

Oddly the only current US edition I can find on is the iBooks edition.

Friday 26 October 2007

Update and News

Apologies for the lack of blog activity of late. Just started my new job and sorting out a mountain of paperwork and debt from the house move has left me with little time to read. However, reviews of Greg Bear's Blood Music and Daniel Abraham's The Long Price: Shadow and Betrayal should be up in the next few days.

I'm also hoping to finally get those SF&F computer game reviews underway, but I've said this before and not been able to follow up on it. Those looking for some good spec fic on their PC should check out the imminently-released The Witcher (based on Andrzej Sapkowski's novels) and the opposition-crushing Crysis (from the makers of the classic Far Cry).

In other news, Battlestar Galactica's fourth season has been confirmed for April 2008 in the USA (and shortly afterwards on Sky One in the UK). Razor will still air as planned at the end of November though.

R. Scott Bakker's much-awaited The Great Ordeal has been pushed back to January 2009, which is most disappointing news, as this was formerly my most-awaited book of the year (following A Dance with Dragons, obviously).

JV Jones' A Sword From Red Ice was finally published in both the UK and USA this week. I'm hoping to get a copy for review in the near future.

Monday 8 October 2007



Forming the Tower of Reading over the next few weeks:

Fairyland by Paul J. McAuley
Spirit Gate by Kate Elliott
The Fade by Chris Wooding
The Long Price: Shadow and Betrayal by Daniel Abraham
The Confusion by Neal Stephenson
Dreamsongs: A RRetrospective by George RR Martin

Plus the concluding volume to highly-acclaimed debut trilogy by British fantasy author, which I'm hoping to get in the next few weeks.


The Bionic Woman

After watching the first episode I have to say this holds a lot of promise, but has some clunky dialogue and huge chunks of exposition. Half the cast of Battlestar Galactica turning up on it is fairly distracting as well. I'll give it a few weeks to see where it's going.

Heroes: Season 2

A slower start to the season than last year, which came out of the stables blazing in all directions, but definitely some interesting writing choices being made here.

Battlestar Galactica: The First Cylon War

It's a bit hard to write a meaningful review of something you can watch in less time than it takes to read the review. I'll wait until all eight parts are up. The only thing I'd say so far is that the guy they have playing young Adama really does look like a younger version of Edward James Olmos, which is interesting. Future eps feature massive space battles featuring the old Cylon Raiders and Basestars from the original series, which is pretty cool as well (in a kind of nerdy flashing-back to late 1980s BBC-2 after school kind of way).

Tuesday 2 October 2007

Black Sun Rising by Celia Friedman

Twelve hundred years ago, a sleeper ship from Earth deposited several thousand colonists on the wild, untamed world of Erna. Seismically active Erna is a harsh planet to survive on, made worse by the presence of the Fae, a source of energy that permeates the elements and can be harnessed by certain humans to further their own ends. Unfortunately, the Fae can also be manipulated subconciously, resulting in the people's fears and nightmares taking on solid form.

With all high technology lost in the birth of a new religion, the colonists of Erna have descended to a Renaissance level of technology, although retaining certain advanced medical, astronomical and scientific knowledge. Damien Kilcannon Vryce, a warrior-priest of the Church and one of the few churchmen able to wield the Fae, arrives in the city of Jaggonath to adopt a new and difficult role in the Church hierarchy. However, when a local Fae-wielder is brutally attacked and her ability to wield the Fae is neutralised, Damien is drawn into a lengthy quest that will lead into the dangerous rakhlands to confront a powerful sorcerer. Along the way Damien is forced into a most uneasy alliance with the cold and arrogant Gerald Tarrant, a powerful wielder of the Fae who has secrets of his own...

Black Sun Rising (1991) is the first novel in Celia Friedman's Coldfire Trilogy. This SF-epic fantasy hybrid was very highly regarded upon its initial release in the United States, but oddly it wasn't until a year or so ago that Orbit finally published the first UK edition.

The novel is a mixture of the familiar and the use of more original tropes, although the familiar does win out in the end. This is a quest story, with an interesting band of 'heroes' setting out to right a great wrong and travel across a vast chunk of countryside in the process. The world of Erna has some interesting facets to it but the travelling makes for the more tedious part of the book, especially the endless mucking around in caves. Page after page of description of rocks and tunnels does not make for entertaining reading.

Fortunately, Friedman's characters are an interesting, if largely unlikeable bunch. She isn't afraid to kill off major characters and paints them in convincing detail. Less impressive is that secondary characters are not very well developed at all. The rakhs' motivations in particular could have been fleshed out more and one key character who hangs around for a good 150-200 or so pages doesn't even get a name.

The plotline is intriguing and there's no denying that the worldbuilding is quite well-thought-out. The cliffhanger ending comes out of nowhere and the enforced humour at the end of the book doesn't really work as well as intended. That said, the book was enjoyable enough to make me look forward to picking up the second volume, When True Night Falls.

Black Sun Rising (***) was surprisingly disappointing for such a widely-acclaimed novel. The author is a good writer but needs to lighten up a bit. The world is unrelentingly grim but Friedman isn't in the same calibre as Scott Bakker, who can make such a world come alive and become compelling.

Black Sun Rising is available from DAW in the United States and Orbit in the United Kingdom.