Friday, August 22, 2008

Matter - Iain M Banks

Technically, due to his recent catastrophic drop in quality, I no longer buy Banks books in hardback, but it was my birthday, and Matter was on my Amazon wishlist, so I ended up with this one anyway. It's his first Culture novel since the distinctly average Look to Windward, and his first SF novel since the execrable Algebraist, so my expectations were very, very low. Whether this was a factor or not I am not sure, but I actually found Matter a damn good read. It has the Big-Concept inventiveness that he used to be so great at; some interesting characters, including a family whose background surprisingly lacks any Dark Secrets of incest, murder or betrayal; and a refreshing lack of preaching.

The main setting, the shellworld Sursamen, is one of the best aspects of the book. Shellworlds are artificial planets created by some long-dead race, consisting of several concentric spheres, each of which now contains its own distinct civilisation. This particular one is outside Culture-controlled space, and managed by a loose hierarchy of other species, not all of which are as neutral as they claim to be. Down below the surface, the humans of the Eighth Level have just discovered gunpowder and steam engines, and are making war on the Ninth with the covert help of their Oct overseers. Ferbin, dissolute princeling and heir to the throne, accidentally witnesses his father's murder and is forced to flee offworld, leaving his younger brother in the clutches of his enemies. The only one that can help them now is their absent sister Anaplian, who left fifteen years ago to join the Culture, and is now an agent-in-training with Special Circumstances. Normally, events on Sursamen would fall outside the Culture's mandate, but a number of other suspicious happenings in the region means that Anaplian may be heading to just the right place at the right time...

The most interesting (and sympathetic) character is probably Oramen, more intelligent than his loose-living older brother, but still young and naïve, and oblivious to the plots of the regent, tyl Loesp. As a convincing baddy, tyl Loesp fails miserably, being little more than a moustachio-twirling pantomime villain, though he still manages to be slightly better than whatisface from The Algebraist; still, it's soon clear that he's far from being Top Banana in the bad guy stakes, and the real players are considerably more deadly. Anaplian is also something of a cardboard cutout Hard Culture Chick, and Ferbin isn't much deeper, though as the standard Clueless Toff, he at least provides plenty of entertainment. The only other character worthy of note is Ferbin's assistant, Holse - as the token Working Class guy, he occasionally strays a bit too close to being an authorial mouthpiece, but luckily this rarely goes much beyond telling us again how much Banks really, really loves playing Civ.

It's hard to tell how much I would have liked this if it hadn't been preceded by so much crap, as it's definitely not up there with Banks's best work (everyone has different favourites, but my top 3 are The Player of Games, Against A Dark Background and Feersum Endjinn, for comparison), but I'd confidently say it's better than anything else he's done in the last ten years, with or without the M. A very pleasant surprise, and a hopeful sign that maybe Banks can bounce back after all.


Tuesday, August 12, 2008

Graceling - Kristin Cashore

Among those familiar with genre in-jokes, the name Mary Sue is regarded with alarm and suspicion. Used to describe an implausibly talented, attractive and Extra Speshul protagonist, it's been thrown around so carelessly of late that it's become next to useless as a criticism; surely all heroes have an element of Mary Sue in them, somewhere? However, if there ever was a character to really deserve the epithet, Graceling's heroine Katsa could well be that one. The book's not actually that bad in the end, but this is no thanks to our first impressions of the protagonist.

Katsa is the Graceling of the title, Graces being preternatural talents possessed by any individual with mismatched eyes. A Grace can be anything from cooking to archery to swimming; Katsa's particular skill is killing, which she's been doing since the age of 8. In the service of her wicked uncle, King Randa, she is used as his assassin, debt collector, enforcer and general thug, though he also insists on making her wear pretty dresses (yuck!) and trying to marry her off to some old ugly dude (urrr!). Being a Good Person, Katsa is unhappy about all this violence she is forced to commit, so has managed to set up some kind of secret international network of do-gooders, the Council. It is during a Council-mandated rescue mission that Katsa gets involved in a deeper mystery - someone had kidnapped the elderly father of a neighbouring king, but why? Aided by an Enigmatic Prince, she sets off to find out... and suddenly the book stops being annoying, and actually becomes quite good.

I'm not entirely sure how this transformation came about. The first half of the book was a real struggle to get through, consisting largely of Katsa's constant whining about how her life is So Unfair, and court politics so simplistic that it makes Robin Hobb look like a Machiavellian strategist; the second half was a compelling and decently paced adventure with a sympathetic and capable heroine. It's like a whole different author took over. It had always been a bit hard to credit how a stroppy, unstable teenager like Katsa had managed to set up a continent-wide spy network, even given the implausibility of the existing political structure, but with the Katsa that emerges in the second half, it doesn't seem so far-fetched after all. Patchy writing, maybe, but better late than never, say I. Time away from the courts also gives some much-needed distance from the silly non-politics, and instead we get more action and an interesting streak of darkness. Happily, the storyline is all wrapped up at the end, too - if a trilogy is planned, Cashore is not relying on any cheesy cliffhangers to pull us in.

Apart from Katsa's initial characterisation and the overly simple background, the only other real flaw in the book is the names. Surprisingly, Katsa is far from being the silliest name in the book; there are plenty of others that are much, much worse. King Thigpen? Prince Tealiff? Prince Po? King Randa himself, who lives in Randa City, capital of the Middluns? Do the cities (and roads) all change names every time a new king takes over? Still, at least Cashore doesn't go making up daft fantasy words for things like beer and horses, and once you get past your initial smirks, the names aren't too bad. Overall, after a shaky start, I was pleasantly surprised by this, and certainly wouldn't object to reading more of Cashore's work in future.


Tuesday, August 05, 2008

The Mirrored Heavens - David J Williams

2110. The long years of the Second Cold War are coming to a close, and the super powers of the US and the Eurasian Bloc are starting to develop a tentative detente. However, all is not entirely peaceful. With much of the world's economy now depending on space, the critical equator launch stations are now the focus for local resistance groups in South America and Africa, funded by a shady and nefarious group called Autumn Rain, whose location and goals are a mystery. The US military hierarchy is divided against itself, with factions struggling for control of the forces and access to the Throne. Any wrong move could destabilise the uneasy peace and throw the world back into open war...

Jason Marlowe is a mech, a power-suited, tooled-up infiltrator sent on dangerous missions to the heart of enemy territories. Claire Haskell is a razor, a hacker with wires in her head who can break through the toughest of firewalls - necessary now that the Web is no longer World Wide, and has been harshly fenced off into Zones. She thinks that she and Marlowe have a history together, but neither of them can trust their memories. Also in the mix are the Operative, another infiltrator on his way to the far side of the moon, who is starting to question the motives of his superiors; and Spencer, an industrial spy from the Neutral Territories of Europe whose cosy data-theft job is suddenly compromised by a man on the run; between them they begin to uncover a massive conspiracy that threatens the whole world.

The Mirrored Heavens is a solid piece of cyberpunk, with plenty of fast and brutal action sequences to complement the hacking and the intrigue. Williams has chosen to use the present tense throughout, which keeps up the feeling of immediacy, and overall the writing is clean and competent. A few bits of dialogue come across as stilted (particularly from the Operative, strangely) but really, that's not what you're reading it for, is it? While there is nothing particularly groundbreaking here, it's a very entertaining read; plenty of action, food for thought with a scarily plausible future, and convoluted plot threads which are (slightly messily) tied up at the end. Not quite Richard Morgan, but think Total Recall for the Noughties and you won't be far wrong.