Friday, July 28, 2006

Anansi Boys - Neil Gaiman

I buy books for reading, not for collecting, so as a general rule I only buy hardbacks by authors I trust. Shelf-space is precious and you don't want it filling up with books you'll never read again. Until now, Neil Gaiman had been in the paperback-only category; Stardust and Smoke and Mirrors were good books, but American Gods left me pretty flat, and with a similar-ish premise I was afraid that this book would be more of the same. So, rather than splash out on the hardback, I waited and waited then painstakingly tracked down the paperback, cunningly hidden in a large display stand by the counter in Waterstones. I needn't have worried. This is a great book.

Anansi Boys has the same "ancient gods still with us today" theme as American Gods, but the treatment could hardly be more different. No dark and hungry Norse pantheon here; instead it's the trickster god Anansi and the exploits of his two sons, who find out one evening that their estranged father has died in a bizarre karaoke accident. Fat Charlie Nancy is a shy, bumbling misfit with no knowledge of his divine ancestry; his shaky relationship and dead-end job are thrown into upheaval when his long-lost brother arrives with, as they say, hilarious consequences.

It sounds horribly cheesy, but Gaiman carries this off extremely well, and with more than a hint of darkness. The Anansi legends he references are probably better known from Brer Rabbit stories (and also the El Arai-Rah stories from Watership Down), and it is this brand of mischief that permeates the story, rather than any sitcom tackiness. The simple writing style is also evocative of all those children's stories like Fantastic Mr Fox where the hero evades capture or punishment by various sneaky and outrageous means.

For some reason, this review has suddenly come over all pretentious, not entirely sure how that happened. Friday afternoon, I'm losing my ability to write. Anyway, the book's amusing without being laugh-out-loud funny; there is one slip into Pratchett-ism (where the three old ladies are trying to perform a ritual and could only get basic household goods rather than the proper magic ingredients) but I think we can forgive that. Overall, a good fun and entertaining read, and the next time Neil Gaiman puts a book out, I'm buying the hardback.


The Praxis - Walter Jon Williams

A few years ago, I came across the fantastic and deservedly award-winning short story Daddy's World - unfortunately, I immediately forgot the author's name, resulting in many unwise purchases of books by people who might have written it (Gene Wolfe, Damon Knight...). Recently I actually bothered to look it up, and found it was the relatively unknown Walter Jon Williams. What else had he written? Well, the place to start would seem to be his apparently seminal Dread Empire's Fall trilogy, the first book of which is The Praxis.

My high expectations were slightly tempered by the cover, which (as you can see) is a very bog-standard pulp-SF one; however, it also had a nice recommendation from George RR Martin which gave me hope, and it's true that even great authors like Jack Vance were badly served by their cover artists and blurb writers (the blurb of this one handily gives away half the plot, thanks guys!). Alas, the first impression of "pulp SF" proved to be the correct one.

That's not to say that this is a bad book; as far as it went, it was quite enjoyable. However, the promises of grand space opera went largely unfulfilled, the plot for the most part was fairly pedestrian and I even found myself skipping paragraphs during the lengthy passages about spaceship manouvres (there are quite a few of these). The characters had interesting premises behind them - social-climbing but basically decent Martinez, and bright cadet Sula with her dark past - but I never really engaged with either of them, and the side-characters were even more sketchily portrayed.

Luckily, it's quite short, which makes it worthwhile as a light read, especially if space-battles are your thing; there's also quite a good sense of humour there behind the words. I'll probably even read more of the series, when I have a few quid to spare and nothing more compelling on the list, but it's certainly not a priority. One to pick up second-hand or from a library - or just read Daddy's World instead.


Thursday, July 27, 2006

The Year's Best Fantasy & Horror, Thirteenth Edition - Ellen Datlow & Terri Windling (eds)

Short stories are a whole different ball game from novels. The emphasis is on brevity - instead of long and intricate character development or world-building, you need clever and concise descriptions that can set the background with the minimum of flab. Stephen Donaldson put it very well - he compared novels to a mud-slinging contest, where you can throw handfuls of words at the reader and hope that some of them stick, whereas short stories need to cunningly place the words in the reader's pockets. I like my short stories to be short, too - novellas seem to be the worst of both worlds; not enough material for a book, not enough editing for a short story.

One of the reasons I've posted so few reviews here recently is that I've been finishing off some large anthologies, full of lovely short stories. I originally thought I'd write mini-reviews for each one, but given that this book alone has nearly 50 stories in, that would a) take far too long and b) be pretty boring to read... so, I'm going to try clumping a few together and just talking about the ones that stood out, for whatever reason.

Not surprisingly, some of the best stories come from the big-name writers. There are two by Neil Gaiman (Harlequin Valentine and Keepsakes and Treasures - A Love Story), both of which have his trademark theme of fairytale/mythical characters in the modern world, with a rather dark edge. Michael Marshall Smith, who is great at writing dysfunction and (particulaly) dysfunctional relationships, also has two stories in this collection (Welcome and What You Make It) - the former somewhat better than the latter, which has an interestingly nasty main character in a raid on a near-future Disneyland, but a disappointing conclusion. And Kelly Link's story The Girl Detective is, of course, excellent - Link's style is unique, like the disjointed logic of dreams, and it takes great skill to pull off a multiple-viewpoint plotless story with this amount of success. Ursula K LeGuin also has a poem and a story in this collection, but the poem is nothing special and the story, Darkrose and Diamond, is some awful teeny-goth romance that only narrowly avoids being the worst story in the collection.

Short stories are a good medium for humorous fantasy - the best examples here are Eleanor Arnason's The Grammarian's Five Daughters, a traditional fairy tale template with an interesting twist, and Susanna Clarke's excellent The Duke of Wellington Misplaces his Horse, which is her usual brand of 18th-Century-England-Meets-Faerie, set in the town of Wall from Neil Gaiman's Stardust. Kim Newman's You Don't Have To Be Mad... tries a bit too hard to be funny, but gets marks for the sneaky references to the real live villains of 80's Britain.

As for horror, the winners here are the chilling and claustrophobic White by Tim Lebbon, and the nasty little piece The Emperor's Old Bones by Gemma Files; Ian R MacLeod's The Chop Girl also deserves a mention. There are also quite a few elegant and moving fairy tales, notably The Paper-Thin Garden by Thomas Wharton and Jeffrey Ford's At Reparata. There's even a good ghost story, Small Song by Gary A Braunbeck, which takes the spookiness out and leaves in the poignancy.

The rest of the stories range between average and pretty good and there are very few real duds. A contender for Worst Story is The Disappearance of Elaine Coleman by Steve Millhauser, which has a plot seemingly lifted directly from an episode of Buffy, but this is pipped to the post by Paul J McAuley's Naming the Dead - an interesting concept of ghosts and spirits, but his main character's affected voice is like nails down a blackboard. My main criticism of the book as a whole is that many of these stories have now been anthologised elsewhere, so I'd read quite a few of them before. However, as the book's a few years old now, that's rather inevitable and not a complaint about the quality. Overall, a very good collection and certainly worth buying.


Wednesday, July 26, 2006

Estate Agents - huh? What are they good for?

Really, though. All they have to do is pass on messages. It's not like it's difficult. Just a letter like this:

Dear Solicitor,
Susi and Ben want to buy a house. Mr & Mrs Vendor have agreed the price of £XXX,XXX. The address is 1, Nice Street, Littletown, Sussex. Please proceed with your painfully expensive soliciting work so we can get this over with and all get on with our lives.
Estate Agent.

Does that really take over a week to do? Does it?

We had some junk mail through yesterday from the Brighton branch of the same agents (Fox & Sons). "We'll change the way you view estate agents!" it said. Yeah.

Monday, July 24, 2006

Stone of Tears - Terry Goodkind (BBHN)

Research purposes. That's my only excuse for reading this travesty of a book. It's not the kind of thing I'd ever pick up in a bookshop normally, but I've been very entertained recently by the Goodkind threads on, which convinced me to part with two whole pounds of my hard-earned cash so I could see the train-wreck for myself...

Stone of Tears is part of the "Sword of Truth" series, currently running at about 7 books. From all accounts, what started off as some very average Swords 'n' Sorcery nonsense has now become a vehicle for Goodkind's Objectivist doctrine and right-wing politics. The author now even claims that his books are not "fantasy," and derides any of his fans who dare to enjoy the books for the wrong reasons - presumably the ones who prefer the wizards and leather-clad dominatrices to the long, long speeches about Freedom and the Nobility of the Human Spirit. Or the ones who just read them out of horrified fascination at their sheer awfulness.

The hero of the books is Richard, who is a True Hero in every clichéd sense. A simple woodsman with hidden powers, who turned out to be the son of the evil wizard dark lord, he is strong, handsome, deadly with a blade, with lightning-fast reflexes and awesome yet untapped magical power, irresistable to women and kind to puppies - and not a hint of irony in any of this. He is also the embodiment of heroic and noble values, particularly ones that fit in with Goodkind's own jingoistic and Objectivist views. Any potentially immoral acts committed by Richard are generally written off in "end justifies the means" terms, as Richard's cause is so righteous that everything he does is, by definition, the Right Thing.

Richard comes from the Westlands, where everyone is heroic and free. In the previous book, he travelled from there to the Midlands (yeah, I know) which is a loosely-aligned assortment of kingdoms, riddled with stupid superstitions, often feuding amongst each other and occasionally being overrun by evil goose-stepping dictators. To the east is an even more evil empire, where no-one is free and everyone has to suppress their individuality for the good of the collective... look at all familiar? Unfortunately this is about as subtle as it gets.

The plot is almost as bad as the setting. Some evil nuns want to kidnap the noble Richard, which separates him from Kahlan, his bride-to-be, on the eve of their wedding (oh no!); some dark forces are loose in the land and only Richard has the power to stop them; it has been prophesied that Kahlan will have to be executed to save the world; the evil Stone of Tears has been given by a wise wizard to a small girl for safe-keeping. And it's not just the plot that looks contrived and unnatural - there are all sorts of gems in the details, too. The totally unnecessary monster-sex scene where the evil nuns show exactly how evil they are by, er, consorting with demons; the overly specific plot-device prophecies ("I see Richard dying while wearing a red coat!" "Oh no! I'd better warn Richard never to wear a red coat!") and my personal favourite, the evil magic-draining artifact in the form of a small pewter statue of a wizard holding a crystal, obviously purchased from the local goth tat shop where they sell the unicorn figurines.

To be honest, I'm only halfway through the book, and I only got that far because I deliberately left all other books at home and have nothing else to do on the train. Really bad writing does have a certain appeal, and there are definitely some quality moments, but for the most part the book's just very boring and not even worth reading for the comedy value.


Tuesday, July 18, 2006

The Lies of Locke Lamora - Scott Lynch

This seems to be the book that everyone's reading at the moment, and with good reason - it's fantastic. Scott Lynch has conjured up a kind of alien 15th-Century Venice, and has also pulled off the rare task of creating a gentleman-thief character who's not a complete pain in the arse to read. All too often these fellows succumb to self-important campness, but Locke Lamora and his band of Gentlemen Bastards are surprisingly likeable, if not exactly self-effacing.

I've always had a fondness for characters that can make cunning plans and get themselves out of tricky situations, and there is plenty of that in this book. The Gentlemen Bastards are engaged in an elaborate plan to con large amounts of money out of a nobleman, breaking not only the law of the city but also the secret rules of the criminal underworld; at the same time, a mysterious and powerful vigilante called the Grey King is bumping off various other criminals and starting to show an unhealthy interest in Locke's small gang... it all makes for some complicated bluff and double-bluff antics, and manages to be a whole lot of fun while still maintaining a darker edge.

The world (well, city anyway) is well realised, from the Duke's elderglass towers to the creatures lurking in the harbour, and the little glimpses of history in the flashback interludes are very nice indeed. I sincerely hope this is the start of a long, long career for Mr Lynch, so he can write loads more books that I enjoy as much as I did this one.


Thursday, July 13, 2006

Scar Night - Alan Campbell

Naughty, naughty... this is an even less ethically-sound review than the one of Ben's book, as I actually did some editing and critiquing of this one a couple of years ago. Nobody else has posted a review on Amazon yet though, so I thought I'd set the ball rolling and hopefully give Alan's sales a boost, with a review that was good-but-not-too-good, to prevent my being rumbled as an interested party... pain in the arse to write, I can tell you! Nobly resisting the temptation to just praise the bits I'd thought of ("Dill! What a great name! And what fantastic punctuation!"), this is what I wrote:

A city in chains hanging over an abyss; a dark, gaslit warren of streets; the ancient, brooding temple of an arcane death-cult... the first thing that strikes you about Scar Night is the setting. This is not your average steam-punk slush; the background descriptions are as beautifully written as anything by Mervyn Peake or Gene Wolfe. Neither is it just a pretty travelogue, however - the second thing you notice is the mounting piles of bodies and copious amounts of blood. And that's before you even get to the end of the second page.

For a debut author, this is astonishingly good. You can almost smell the burning tar and the filthy kitchens as the story rattles through the city of Deepgate, following the cast of monsters and misfits in their quests for vengeance, glory, catharsis or just a nice creamy pastry...

The plot is well-paced, though it does stray dangerously close to cliche on occasion. The characters, however, for all that they have fantasy archetypes at their core, are properly developed and have motivations that you can care about; there's some good dialogue, too. This is one author whose next book I will be eagerly awaiting.

9/10 - yes, really!

Friday, July 07, 2006

The Inhibitors series - Alistair Reynolds

Revelation Space
Redemption Ark
Absolution Gap

Alistair Reynolds seems to have the perfect mix for a SF writer - he can string a good sentence together and he knows his astrophysics, he has great ideas, interesting (if slightly irritating) characters and can do Grand Space Opera without fluffing the science. On reading the first of these books, I thought I'd discovered a wonderful new author with a promising series... and yet, only three books later, I've already taken them to the charity shop and decided not to buy any more. What happened?

The story begins in Revelation Space... well, actually it doesn't, and here lies the first of the flaws. Reynolds has been developing his universe for some time now, and much of this has been in short story form. There is a long backstory about mankind's colonisation of the solar system and beyond and the development of various spacefaring cultures, none of which is absolutely essential to the story at hand, but which Reynolds tends to reference with an assumption that we know what he's talking about. But anyway. Revelation Space otherwise sets up the series nicely with a tale of dead alien cultures, mutant space captains and a very nasty answer to the question "Is there anybody out there? And if not, why not?"

Skipping over Chasm City*, it's not until the next book that the cracks really start to show. Here, we don't just have background inserted from the short-story prequels, we have a bunch of the characters too, carrying on the feuds that they started in a completely different set of stories. I never particularly liked Clavain anyway, so was most annoyed to see him pop up in a novel set hundreds of years after he was supposed to have died. The writing was still good, but the plot was not at all memorable - apart from Volyova trying to rescue people from a planet in a big ship because she felt guilty about her past crimes (Redemption Ark, geddit?) and Clavain (yawn) fighting some cartoon evil chick, I have very little recollection of what this one was about. Still, big space battles, reluctant assassins, Hell-class weaponry and the universe on the verge of extinction - plenty to keep me going, and certainly not enough to put me off the series.

Absolution Gap started off slightly suspiciously, with some rather deus ex machina magically acquired weaponry and a fatuous continuation of the Clavain/wotsername feud, but it picks up soon afterwards. Leaving the main characters and plot strand behind, the story moves across the galaxy to a holy moon where giant moving cathedrals continually circle the equator, keeping in sight of the gas giant which it orbits, a gas giant which has been known to mysteriously vanish (hence the holiness). Clearly, there are some great powers here and may be what Our Heroes need to defeat the Nasty Baddies. This part of the story follows a girl with the uncanny ability to tell when someone is lying to her (suspiciously similar to Asimov's Nemesis, but never mind) who is trying to uncover the dark secret of the cathedrals. This goes on in fine form until about 9/10 of the way through the book, at which point you start thinking "how on earth is he going to get the story all wrapped up in the few pages that are left?", at which point the rest of the characters turn up, there's a fight, some explosions, and hey presto! Everything's OK and the universe is safe. What?

I'm really not sure what happened to Reynolds' writing here. Maybe he'd painted himself into a corner and really didn't know how to get out of it without inventing new galactic superpowers to save the day. Maybe he was under pressure to churn out a book a year and didn't have time to edit it properly. Either way, Absolution Gap has one of the worst and most contrived endings I've ever read. Such a shame; not only is the book ruined, but all the suspense of the entire series is blown because you know it has such a trite conclusion. To anyone thinking of reading these books - stop at the end of Revelation Space and pretend that's where it's all resolved, because otherwise it's just frustrating.

Revelation Space: 8/10

Redemption Ark: 6/10

Absolution Gap: 4/10

*This was actually Reynolds' next book and is set in the same universe, but has a stand-alone plot so I'm not including it here. Plus, it's the only one that didn't go to Oxfam so I'll probably review it when I re-read it next.

Sunday, July 02, 2006

The Isle of Mull

It's been a while since my last post, and there's a good reason for this - I've been on holiday on Mull, where I didn't even have any mobile reception, much less net access. Didn't get a whole lot of reading done, but it's a great place for taking photos so I'm putting the best ones up here.

Duart Castle, from the ferry

Duart Castle

Puffins on Staffa


Coastline near Salen

Aros Castle

Aros Castle

Ruined Farmhouse

Ruined Farmhouse

Bird life

Oystercatchers & Seagull





Iona Abbey

Castle Stalker

Castle Stalker

OK, this isn't actually on Mull, but we stopped by there on the way back to Glasgow