Thursday, March 20, 2008

Soul Music - Terry Pratchett

Rock 'n' roll comes to the Discworld®. Disaffected young bard Imp y Celyn arrives in Ankh-Morpork seeking his fortune, and ends up buying a second-hand guitar of Mysterious Origins from a strange little music shop. In the manner of magical instruments everywhere, it provides untold fame and fortune - but at a price. As the power of the music sweeps through the city, it looks like Imp's destiny is to live fast and die young, taking his band members with him. Only one ANTHROPOMORPHIC PERSONIFICATION on the Disc has the ability to change this, but he's not been feeling himself lately, and picks the least opportune moment to go walkabout. His granddaughter Susan has been protected from the rather, um, less conventional aspects of her family's history, but she's going to have to get the hang of it quite quickly...

This is Susan Death's first Discworld outing, but apart from that, it's all pretty standard stuff. The story is the usual device of New Magical Power Appears To Threaten the Discworld®, But Is Thwarted And Life Continues As Normal, with the added Death side-story of Death Tries To Understand Humans, Fails. These are both formulae that work well enough in other Discworld® books, but here it's looking particularly stale. One of the main reasons for this is probably that Pratchett is writing about a subject he doesn't really understand, and it's slightly embarrassing to watch, like politicians talking about how much they like the Arctic Monkeys.

Let's be clear about this - Soul Music is no Spinal Tap. It's not an affectionate insider's view of the music biz; it's the view of the slightly smug middle-class, who think that headbanging teens are incomprehensible but rather funny. And yes, they can indeed be funny, and there are even plenty of laughs in here, but the veneer of amused superiority adds a nasty taste to the humour. That's not to say it's all bad - the references to 1950's pop culture were fine by me as they pre-date my own teenage years by some decades, and some of the subtler gags were particularly clever. Not so the constant references to Buddy's "Elvish" appearance, however, which I thought were rather overdone (though apparently my dad didn't get it till right at the end of the book, so maybe Pratchett judged that one right after all).

Now, onto the good points. As well as introducing Susan Death, this may well have been the first appearance of Hex, the wizardly computer in the High Energy Magic building, and one of my favourite minor players. The elderly, overweight wizards suddenly acting like rebellious teenagers was also quite entertaining, plus the usual cameos of Ankh-Morpork street life and so on, and Death's soul-searching was also a nice deeper touch. Basically, it's just a standard, slightly inferior Discworld® novel; good enough for a few hours' entertainment if you can grit your teeth past the patronisation, but far from being Pratchett's best.


Tuesday, March 11, 2008

Faction Paradox: Newton's Sleep - Daniel O'Mahony

Being sent review copies is a wonderful thing; not only do I get free books (hurrah!) but I also get to read things that I might not have otherwise picked up. Obviously, this has its downsides when the books in question are crap, but on occasion something brilliant turns up. Newton's Sleep is one of those Jackpot! moments, combining wonderfully-written historical fiction with a dash of time-travel and interdimensional war. The characters are sharp, varied and entirely believable; the historical detail is accurately and intelligently presented with a minimum of clumsy infodumping, and the sci-fi background is slightly confusing (what time-travel story isn't?) but basically sound. This is good. This is very good.

"We were cursed when time entered the world." The bottle was almost empty, so she slugged it back and let the dregs drip moistly onto her lips. "Do you still like me, Sam? I have a room a little way from here." Actually it was bloody miles, but she doubted he'd want to walk that far.

"You're old, Aphra," Sir Samuel Morland told her wistfully, "and you were never that pretty."

He had to duck then. The bottle bounced off the wall and shattered among the shit and vomit on the street, a fine carpet for a stinking city. Aphra Behn felt the wine stewing inside her and began to plot a play that would last. It was to be all about the folly of reasonable and rational men, those foolish tinkerers in mechanicks who thought they had forged keys to unlock men's souls. So you want to go to the moon? Well then, I will have a great emperor descend from Selene to mock your worldly follies and conceits. I will turn you into greedy and foolish alchemists and make sport with you all, and I care not if I am remembered for it. All pages are burned by history, all inscriptions fade, and all finery turns to dust. Time does this.

This is the Dark Age.

The setting is England at the time of the Protectorate and Restoration, which we see from the viewpoints of our three main protagonists. Nate Silver is a genial philosopher turned scientist, who came back from the dead clutching a mysterious egg-shaped artefact; Aphra Behn is a spy and playwright working for the Secret Service, haunted by a red-haired angel; and Mistress Piper, her mundane life overturned by the Plague, is the latest recruit into a war she doesn't really understand. Through a series of short cameos spread non-sequentially across the mid-late 17th century, we pick up hints and indications of secret societies, international intrigue, alchemy and strange science, which gradually reveal some alien or future intelligences meddling in human history, and a war in the heavens that is spilling over onto the Earth.

Aside from the human protagonists, the force behind the story is Faction Paradox, a chaotic-neutral sect of voodoo time travellers who delight in spreading misrule and disorder, but are now in danger of being wiped out. I'd never heard of them before, but a quick Google revealed that they are already the subjects of several shared-world books, and in fact originated as (wait for it) a Doctor Who spinoff(!!). This brings up the one single criticism that I would make about the book, which is one that applies to shared-world fiction in general: to maintain continuity, the author is always having to build on the existing work of others, and some of it may not be that good. While the idea of a group of rogue Timelords is an absolutely terrific one, it's hard to forget that they come from a long line of two-dimensional Doctor Who villains whose main job is to run around in a gravel pit wearing a rubber suit. Some aspects of the Faction Paradox just look weird, for example their insistence on wearing skull masks in public, which is a clear hangover from their low-budget origins. O'Mahony does his best with the material available, but a few of the cracks still show.

The only other reviews I've found of this have been, not surprisingly, on Doctor Who fansites, many of which have just been complaints about the difficult words and non-linear narrative. This is a real shame; while spinoff novels are quite rightly stigmatised and rarely touched by the regular SF-reading community, work of this quality deserves to be read by much more than just Doctor Who fans. I'd even dare to suggest that O'Mahony's writing approaches Bakker or Duncan standard, and is wasted on such a niche audience. Don't let the unfortunate associations put you off - this is a fantastic book, and comes very highly recommended.


Saturday, March 08, 2008

Automatic Goodkind Story Generator

Tairylib (keep refreshing it for new stories)

Sample text:
Dick and Klan are walking around in their world which is clearly not a fantasy world, otherwise the story would be about the world rather than the people and the important human themes, discussing characters who don't matter anymore, if they ever did. Suddenly a war breaks out. nigh infinite members of the Imperial Order are preparing to attack them. Richard's thing rises and they all die with melon-sized holes punched in their chests. Kahlan is kidnapped and almost-raped by a gang, that likes to bang, but is saved at the last moment by a convenient deus ex machina. While searching for his True Love, Richard finds a village full of people who are pacifists. Richard makes a speech that goes on for 9,558,647 pages and the villagers all abandon their individuality commie pinko ways to help him find Kahlan. Richard finds the evil villain who attacks him with prophecy. When it looks like Richard is about to lose Richard realizes he loves the villain and is thus able to use his sword. Richard and Kahlan go off and explain why Richard is always justified no matter what he does while the war continues to be ignored. Next volume: Tairy splorts out 600 more pages.

- Probably Phelan Arcetus, based on the URL, but please correct me if I'm wrong!

Friday, March 07, 2008

The Reavers - George Macdonald Fraser

Who doesn't love a good bit of swashbuckling? Wherever there are chandeliers to be swung on, stallions to be galloped and moustachio-twirling villains to be dispatched, you can guarantee that there will be a handsome rogue with a twinkling eye ready to do the necessary. This rollicking tale of the Elizabethan-era Border Reivers is the last book by Flashman-author Fraser, and delivers on all the above counts; unlike Flashman, it takes its history with a large dash of Hollywood colour and a deliberate cavalier disregard for factual accuracy, and much more closely resembles Fraser's other non-Flashman book, The Pyrates. All you really need to know is that it's set in 159- on the Scottish border, then forget the details and hang on for the ride.

...any more need-to-know history will be sprinkled in lightly as we pursue our headlong tale of adventure, romance, knavery, ambush, disguise, escape, abduction, seduction and Kindred Mischiefs, deploying an all-star cast of steely-eyed heroes, noble ladies, unspeakable villains, gorgeous wantons, corrupt creeps, maniacs, freebooters, freeloaders, and hordes of colourful extras, in a variety of Great Locations, including lonely fortresses, mysterious mansions, hide-outs, dungeons, boudoirs, bawdy houses, wizards' caves, dens, kens and the occasional shed and hovel - for while there will be ample cut-and-thrust, passion tender and blazing, splendid costumes, Technicoloured set decoration, and four-page menus, we'll not neglect the squalid social material for those in search of a Ph.D.

Our heroine is the statuesque and imperious Lady Godiva Dacre, who is dispatched northwards by a jealous Queen Bess to take care of her family's holdings near the border. On encountering the two heroes of the piece (a dashing Scottish highwayman and stalwart English adventurer respectively), she finds herself embroiled in a dastardly plot by evil papists, appropriately named Operation Heretic; they plan to abduct King James VI before he also becomes King James I, replacing him with their own candidate for the throne. In classic Roger Moore-era James Bond style, our heroes (and heroines) have to thwart the wiles of the villains and resolve the messy love-triangle that results...

Fraser is sadly no longer with us, so the Flashman Papers will never be completed. The last one, Flashman on the March, was rather po-faced and disappointing, so while it's a shame that we never got to find out about his part in the American Civil War, his adventures in Mexico or his treasure-seeking days in Oz, it may be just as well that Fraser left him where he did. Instead, as his final book, this is a great high note to go out on. He will be much missed.


Wednesday, March 05, 2008

Mistborn: The Final Empire - Brandon Sanderson

For some annoying reason, Amazon decided to send me the crappy US paperback edition of this one, which meant flimsy pages, ink that comes off on your fingers, a ridiculous picture* on the front and a massive spoiler on the back. Luckily, the story and the setting were of much higher quality. This is a classic tale of rebellion against an evil Empire, with undertones of the corrupting effect of power, and a nice mystery at its core. For a thousand years, the Lord Ruler has held sway over the Final Empire; the nobles oppress the downtrodden commoners (known as skaa) but are themselves policed by the Obligators and the very nasty Steel Inquisitors. All the leaves are brown, and the sky is grey; ash is constantly belched from volcanoes, which fills the air and covers the ground. The skaa are also held in check by their superstitious fear of the mists, which rise every evening; only magic-users dare to go out in it, gaining them the titles of Mistings and Mistborn. Vin is a half-skaa street-urchin who finds she has Misborn powers, and this is mainly her story as she joins the rebellion to overthrow the Lord Ruler and bring freedom to her fellow skaa.

One of the things you'll see in nearly every review of Mistborn is praise for the logical and original magic system, and this praise is well deserved - just as well, too, as this is definitely at the higher end of the fantasy spectrum, with magic sitting firmly in the centre of the plot. Vin is taken under the wing of the rebellion's leader, Kelsier, who is also a Mistborn and spends much of the book teaching her to use her new powers. The main magic system is Allomancy, where different metals are consumed by the magic-user to produce specific effects - it's an interesting idea and well played out, giving strong support to the central rebellion storyline. There is also a good backstory about the Lord Ruler's origins and the emergence of this grey, ash-filled world; while Mistborn is a self-contained book with a proper ending, this sets up a load of questions and possible directions for the sequel.

The writing wasn't as good as it could have been, and was often rather clunky, but the story more than made up for it. It was refeshing to see a magic-based story in a city setting; the strong worldbuilding was a huge positive point; and Sanderson very cleverly led the plot off in an unexpected direction at the end. Vin's slightly cheesy love story was something of a let-down, but in general this was a very good read, and I'll certainly be picking up the sequel.


*can I just say again how much I hate that cover art? It may be accurate, but it's appalling!