Saturday, 22 July 2017

Review: An Oath Of Dogs

An Oath Of Dogs is a novel of colonisation on an alien planet. Kate Standish, freshly defrosted from her cryosleep journey, arrives in the Canaan Lake settlement to be a Communications Officer. No, not a spindoctor: a techie in charge of setting up and maintaining telecomms networks. Except, before she even arrived, she's been promoted due to the disappearance / murder of her desginated manager, Duncan, while she was en route.

Kate is not a social butterfly. Still struggling to overcome an anxiety disorder, (with assistance of her therapeutic companion doggie, Hattie), she's abrasive, cynical, not really interested in making friends. However, everyone eyes her dog with distrust, and Canaan Lake is right on the edge of the frontier. Religious zealots, minimal police oversight, private security and rough loggers live side by side, with tensions broiling just beneath the surface. There are sinister secrets lurking in the forest...

The other main character is Peter, Duncan's ex, heartbroken biologist and suspected environmentalist. Being an environmentalist on a forest planet newly colonised is a social and political death sentence: the primary industry is logging; the colonisation there to exploit the planet's resources. Not to mention that there are eco-terrorists around, attacking logging facilities. Peter's real interest is research, rather than environmental protection for its own sake - but people eye him with distrust.

Kate and Peter are the protagonists, but the show stealers are Hattie (clearly, the author loves dogs) and Olive, a young farmer's daughter traipsing around the area like a forest sprite. It's when these characters come under threat that the tension builds up in the novel. And there are so many things that threaten them, from the local wildlife (sharp-clawed, blind leatherbirds) via a mysterious pack of rabid dogs haunting the town at night, to the sinister corporation that runs the planet (and its angry staff).

At times, Oath of Dogs reminded me of The Word For World Is Forest. However, it's not quite as overtly environmental. The combination of a forested planet and logging (of all things) as its main export industry is present in both books. Economically, it doesn't make sense in either (wood, no matter  how good or rare, seems an unlikely product to be worth transporting through space). But An Oath Of Dogs is subtler when it comes to its politics. The villains are not entirely villainous (in fact, quite heroic in some ways). Nature isn't purely benevolent - but genuinely alien. And at its heart, it's a murder mystery with canine monsters.

It's an interesting, entertaining novel worth reading. Especially if you like dogs. Or alien frontiers...

Rating: 3.5/5

Sunday, 4 June 2017

Review: The Girl with the Red Balloon by Katherine Locke

The Girl with the Red Balloon is a YA urban fantasy time travelling novel set in Berlin. Well, I don't know about you, but I'm sold based on that concept alone.

Ellie Baum, an American Jewish teenager, visits 21st century Berlin on a school trip, excited but slightly apprehensive as she recalls her grandfather's Holocaust-formed apprehensions about the German people. She spots a floating red balloon, and, recalling grandpa's description of beautiful days as "balloon days", asks her friend to take a photo of her as she grabs it... and, touching it, is pulled into night-time 1980s East Berlin. There, she meets a gypsy boy, a lesbian counterculture girl, and a conspiracy to smuggle persecuted people out of East Germany by means of magical balloons. Time-travel, it turns out, had not been a part of the plan.

The book is rich in atmosphere and detail - clearly, Katherine Locke has visited Berlin, and read up about history. It's also obvious that she knows a little German (but isn't at native-speaker-level), as she sprinkles German words and phrases into the book. The latter works up to a point: for any non-German-speakers, it undoubtedly adds to the richness of the details. To native speakers, her choice of words jars a bit, especially the repeated use of "Schöpfers", meaning "makers". Unfortunately, "Schöpfer" is used almost exclusively to refer to God as the creator. Similarly, her attempt at a compound noun is a bit befuddled.

When it comes to describing East Germany (and, in flashbacks to history, Jewish ghettos and concentration camps), the story feels grim and very claustrophobic. There's no way around the grimness for the scenes set in the Holocaust, but my impression is that the grimness of the DDR may well be overplayed in the novel. Germany is an odd case - because it reunited the communist, dictatorship East with the liberal democratic West, the transition was different from other countries. Because of the WW2 history, (West) Germany has a very self-conscious approach to looking at its history - so there are museums and memorials and movies about the horrors of the DDR. Other 'East European' countries also transitioned from Communist dictatorships to democracies, but didn't necessarily put the same amount of money, effort and cultural navel-gazing into looking at their past regimes. The result is perhaps a distortion of perception: Life in East Germany was no walk in the park, but it wasn't more terrible than life in any other country behind the Iron Curtain.

In terms of freedoms, living in the DDR probably wasn't worse than life today in Egypt or Cuba. In some areas of life, I suspect the likes of Egypt and Cuba today are less accommodating than the DDR had been. For example, I was a bit surprised that Mitzi, the lesbian, feared persecution, or that a pregnant woman out of wedlock would have been in terrible trouble: the DDR had a reputation for being ahead of West Germany in women's equality & sexual promiscuity / sex-positiveness. For example, the DDR 'legalised' homosexuality in 1957, 12 years before West Germany did. (In West Germany, the supreme court re-iterated in 1957 that homosexuality was obscene, and 50,000 men were arrested before it was legalised in 1975). As for racism, while it's never gone, the prejudice against Jews and gypsies that appear in the book strike me as unlikely in 1980s Germany (West or East). At times, Katherine Locke's DDR feels like it hasn't changed much from Nazi Germany, and that is, in my opinion, an exaggeration,

That said, Ellie being an English-speaker behind the Iron Curtain, she has to spend much of her time in hiding, forcing a claustrophobic tension into the story that feels warranted and authentic. Perhaps East Germany feels extra grim partially because of the culture shock and contrast she experiences.

While much of this review details the aspects of the novel that made me bristle a little, I would nonetheless recommend it. It's a good, exciting story, with shedloads of atmosphere and enough authenticity for most readers. If you were alive during the Cold War, or if you're a German native, you might find some things to quibble over, but if neither of those statements applies I suspect you'll enjoy the setting, atmosphere, detail and tension of the book.

Rating: 4/5

Monday, 29 May 2017

Review: River of Teeth by Sarah Gailey

River of Teeth is a novella that is completely irresistible. Here's the back cover blurb:

"In the early 20th Century, the United States government concocted a plan to import hippopotamuses into the marshlands of Louisiana to be bred and slaughtered as an alternative meat source. This is true.
Other true things about hippos: they are savage, they are fast, and their jaws can snap a man in two.
This was a terrible plan.
Contained within this volume is an 1890s America that might have been: a bayou overrun by feral hippos and mercenary hippo wranglers from around the globe. It is the story of Winslow Houndstooth and his crew. It is the story of their fortunes. It is the story of his revenge."

An alternative Western, full of hippos and cowboys riding on hippos, herding hippos, ranching hippos? As alternative histories go, that has surely got to be one of the most unashamedly fun premises ever conceived, made all the more delicious by the fact that it is based on a real historic plan which never quite got carried out..

And as far as the hippos go, the novella doesn't disappoint one bit. Ruby, Abigail, Rosa and Betsy (the hippos) are show stealers: the human cast of the story are, to be honest, not half as interesting as their mounts.

Aside from the novelty factor, River of Teeth is a fast moving story of revenge and a great caper totally-above-board operation, featuring an evil robber baron as villain, as well as a motley crew of Western archetypes: an ex-rancher, a gun-for-hire, an assassin, a technical (explosives & poisons) expert, a pickpocket con woman...

This being 2017, post Hugo-gamergate-alt-right-social-justice-warrior kerfuffle, the cast is ethnically and sexually hyper-diverse to the point of very ham-fisted pandering to (certain) audiences' demands. It's mildly distracting, until one of the plot points is the fact that the only white male of the group has become unavailable for a task that only a white male with a moustache could accomplish, putting the quest at risk. That particular obstacle, and its resolution, are more full of plotholes than an Emmental cheese.

As a matter of fact, the story as a whole is quite full of holes and discontinuities: it could have used some editorial browbeating into something that has convincing internal logic. For a novella, the cast of characters is quite big, so the story spends 40% of its length on putting the gang together. Some characters turn out to not have very many tasks to accomplish within the gang, fulfilling narrative purposes rather than fitting the mission. Internal logic, it turns out, only mattered to the author when it comes to the hippos (the appendix contains a detailed history of this alternative America and its hippos). For the main plot, not so much.

Despite the OTT diversity pandering and the very loose attitude towards internal logic, River of Teeth is rollicking fun. Ultimately, this is a Western filled with hippos, and it moves fast enough and has hippos enough to make its narrative sins more than forgivable.

Great fun!

Rating: 4/5

Saturday, 1 April 2017

Review: Rococo by Sue Hollister Barr

Rococo is a short science fiction novel. Set in a future where people can choose to limit their physical interactions with others and rely on food printers & virtual communications, it's not very far fetched at all.

Our heroine lives in Alaska, isolated enough so she can't even see any other people or infrastructure from her comfortable home. However, her new boss has insisted on a "phys" meeting, so the start of the novel finds her in an office in a big city, trying to cope with her germ-phobia and emotional turmoil (anger and rage). It's not entirely clear whether she is more germ-phobic than average: clearly there are many people who live their lives similar to us today, while her own habit of avoiding the risk of contamination is common enough not to raise any eyebrows. (I guess if we no longer even notice that many Asian people wear medical face masks whenever they are outdoors, the sort of germ-avoidance  described in Rococo can't be far off)

The business meeting is surreal and strange, not least because of the Rococo fashion affecting people's speech and dress code, but it's when she points out that the starship drive she's been designing is only capable of a one-way trip that we realise why her manager insisted on meeting up in person: he needs to shut her up before she says or writes something in a way that is monitored. The story moves, smoothly, from slightly surreal, unsettling, into thriller territory.

As it develops, the sense of "something wrong with the world" steadily builds. From the fads and fashions, to the sense that all electronic communication is monitored, to the way people mess with minds, to the aliens - things are complicated and messy and a bit corrupted, just like the mind of our narrator. Rococo is a novel that could have been written by Philip K Dick, if Dick was still alive today.

It's a compelling novel because much of it is based in a very near future. The shifting employment patterns already have a name - they are currently being called "the gig economy" - while the 3D-printers and food synthesizers are just around the corner. The reliance on electronic communication and social networking (and its permanent record of every human interaction) is already here. The sort of self-driven, fast, flying personal transport envisioned is staple of SF, though unlikely to ever become quite as smooth and fast as it is in these stories.Really, it's only the aliens and the mind-messing that seem a little unlikely.

Don't expect a long novel: there are only really three main characters, and a few extras. Initially, I thought it was a novella: Somehow, I've gotten so used to modern SF novels being quite walloping in size, I forgot that the form used to average 50,000 words, not 100,000, in the not-too-distant past. That said, the shorter length suits the story very well, and ensures that the pace never slacks.

If you want a quick, Philip K Dick style thriller, written for a 21st Century audience, then Rococo should be right up your street.

Rating: 4/5

Tuesday, 28 February 2017

Review: Fahrenheit 451 by Ray Bradbury

Fahrenheit 451 is one of those books I'd always meant to read one day, but it never quite bubbled to the top of my list until I saw that the Cardiff Book Collective was reading it. Running my own book club, I've always been a bit curious about what the other local book clubs might be like, so I figured this would be a useful excuse to check out the competition.

It was good fun, and if your booky tastes are a little more literary / less genre-bound than mine, it's a book club I'd recommend for people in Cardiff. Top tip: if you want to make a good impression on bibliophiles, I can now heartily recommend not declaring that an antagonistic fire chief who burns people's books, libraries and occasional bibiophiles is the true hero of a dystopian novel. Sharply indrawn breaths all around the table... ;-)

Fahrenheit 451 is a classic, superfamous dystopian novel. It's not quite up there with 1984 and Brave New World, but leading the charge of the second tier of the genre, alongside The Handmaid's Tale. Everyone knows that the title is derived from the temperature at which paper burns, and most people probably know that the book is a bout a firefighter in a world where firefighters don't extinguish fires, but burn books instead.

Our hero, Guy Montag, is a firefighter dancing on the edge of mania. From his rictus grin at the start of the novel (as he throws flames with his kerosene hose) to the paranoid feeling that someone has been watching him on his way home from work, he is clearly just a little off balance. It's when he meets a stranger - 17-year-old Clarissa, that his life really begins to change.

Clarissa opens his eyes to the world. She does this by asking questions (to which he has no answers) and teaching him to pay attention to... well, things, people and the world. And then she and her entire family disappear.

Montag begins to crumble. He's been stealing and hiding books in his house. His marriage is hollow and empty. The girl who fascinated him is gone. And then an old lady decides to die a firey death with her books rather than allowing herself to be taken away and thrown in a mental facility. Meanwhile, the cyborg hound (eight-legged, dog-brained, mechanical) in the fire station responds to Montag as if he were a threat, and his colleagues and chief notice his increasingly odd behaviour...

As a dystopia, Fahrenheit mixes the uncannily prescient (re: the media, the anti-intellectualism, the dumbing down of people) with the future-blind (gender equality / women's lib was seemingly unimaginable to the author, while nuclear wars seemed inevitable). It's absolutely worth reading, for the ideas behind it more than anything else.

Rating: 4/5

For me, the entire novel exists in order to justify one character's monologue. SPOILERS AHEAD!

Sunday, 26 February 2017

Review: The Ninth Rain by Jen Williams

The Ninth Rain is the first novel in a new fantasy series by Jen Williams. It's also the first novel by Jen Williams I have read, so I didn't quite know what to expect. The description and blurbs by other authors sounded a lot more promising than the cover looks (I pretty much hate the cover).

Ebora is a fading civilization. Ever since their tree god Ysagril died, these long-lived elven people have been in decline, their main source of longevity being its sap. Soon after Ysagril's demise, they discovered that drinking the blood of humans could reinvigorate them. After some decades and centuries of gory vampiric excess, they find that drinking the blood of humans is, ultimately, poisonous and fatal. Oops.

In the prologue, Tormalin turns his back on his people and their dying nation: he wants to see the world before the inevitable creeping death catches up with him. His sister names him The Oathless and stays behind. He takes his famous sword, The Ninth Rain, and sets out to have adventures...

Fell Noon, as drawn by Jen Williams
Fell Noon, meanwhile, is kept imprisoned in the Winnowry with all the other fell witches. Hated, feared, oppressed and exploited by priests and nuns, the fell witches live miserable lives. Their magical winnowfire is unlike any other, and the Winnowry uses it to produce drugs and products that no one else can manufacture (it's handy, having a monopoly on a manufacturing process). At the same time, the fell witches are seen as the root of all evil. It's slavery and misogyny and exploitation at its ugliest, but Fell Noon does not resist, because she has her guilty past... and because punishments for resistance are severe.

It's Vintage, a woman from a rich landowning wine-producing family, whose projects will ultimately lead to their paths crossing. Vintage's passion is (scientific) research. Almost as a side effect, this involves exploration: her research is focused on remnants and artefacts from the previous Eight Rains, which are spread all over the world.

The Rains are terrible periods: every few hundred years, this world is invaded by powerful aliens. So far, only the Eborans have been able to prevent defeat, but the Eborans are almost all gone...

It took me a while to get into The Ninth Rain. This may be because I was reading it alongside other books (which I was under some time pressure to finish), but I also suspect that starting with Tormalin and a fairly extensive set of pre-plot scenes may have had a slowing effect on some readers. However, I did get properly hooked (by the time the story reached the mushroom forest), and by the end I struggled to put down the (whopper of a) book at all. It's gripping stuff once you get into it.

The world of The Ninth Rain is not too different from other fantastical worlds (although I must admit, vampire elves are new to me, and such a logical thing I am surprised that no one else has thought of this until now). What makes a big difference is the Rains. They give a much more credible context to the returning evil, which contrasts with the out-of-nowhere corruption that spreads in classics like Lord of the Rings. The Rains come from somewhere - it just happens to be off-world. Just like The Rains, other aspects which seem like staples of the genre are cleverly explained within the novel, which reinvigorates them and lifts the book above using cliches.

The heart and soul of a novel of great length is its characters and the chemistry between them. Sure, the skirmishes and fights are exciting, the chasing pursuit tense, the world intriguing and the sense of building tension builds up pleasantly like a slowly accelerating river on its way to the falls, but The Ninth Rain is above all a novel about three interesting people. Vintage is the glue that holds everything together, immensely likeable, yet quite tough when she needs to be, and not flawless either - she has her hypocritical sides. Noon, the poor thing, seems in urgent need of a hug. Tor, meanwhile, is a bit too pompous for his own good.

Unsurprisingly, for a novel written in the 20teens, the characters are of different skin colours and sexual orientations, but the diversity is utopian in its equality: people on this world have their prejudices based on physiological differences (bloodsucking, fire-starting, life-draining) rather than cosmetic ones (skin colour and sexual preferences). It's a bit like Star Trek in that regard.

Tor, as drawn by Jen Williams
It's better than Star Trek at putting women in the driver's seat: Vintage is the captain, so to speak, and Noon is the most intriguing character. Even Tor's manipulative sister Hestilion (whom I found quite sinister) is filled with drive and agency. In comparison, the only male (and presumably white) main character, Tor, is a vampiric elven sex toy / whore, who drifts through a changed world, uncertain of his place or purpose now that his kind are no longer physically protecting anything nor exerting any real power. Hmmm, what would a 'meninist' say? (I'm being facetious in case this isn't obvious)

The Ninth Rain is a novel where pretty much everyone tries to get along, or has really really strong motivation for adversarial actions. It is part of the softening trend in genre fiction. After hyper-gritty and ever more grimdark excesses, there's an entire spate of novels that are written (often by women writers) with a kinder core. Think Long Way to a Small, Angry Planet, or the Natural History of Dragons series, or The Best of All Possible Worlds, or even The Collapsing Empire. All of these novels, to my mind, have something Whedonesque about their core groups of characters (Firefly's spirit lives on): the protagonists tend to form groups that are a bit family-like, only less dysfunctional. Expect bickering, a bit of banter, and plenty of fuzzy feelings. The Ninth Rain evoked similar reactions in me.

Also, the novel is filled with adorably loyal giant bats.

The Ninth Rain is a wonderful novel for fantasy readers. It's big, filled with ideas and fun. One of the early highlights of 2017: not to be missed.

Rating: 4.5/5

PS: On the topic of that cover: there is so much I dislike about it. The picture of a griffin? There is no important griffin in the book. The cover looks a bit like something I'd expect to see on a self-published novel or a small press novel. But most damningly of all: our heroes are a black woman, an olive-skinned woman and a vampire elf. I find myself wondering whether putting some fantastical creature (which makes no significant appearance in the story) is a symptom of a marketing department's fear of putting people who aren't white on the cover of a fantasy novel.

Saturday, 18 February 2017

Review: 21st Century Science Fiction by David G. Hartwell, Patrick Nielsen Hayden

21st Century Science Fiction is a collection of short stories curated by Patrick Nielsen Hayden and David G Hartwell. They set out to create an anthology of stories by authors who rose to prominence since the year 2000 (regardless of whether the authors had published anything before that). For each of these authors, one story is included, preceded by an introduction by the editors.

The list of authors is impressive: every one of the writers included in the anthology is respected, influential within the scifi genre, and critically acclaimed / award winning. Many are also bestselling writers.

Readers of my blog may know that I rarely review short story collections. The reason is simple: I rarely finish reading them, even if they are full of brilliant stories. They are just too easy to put down between stories and then not pick up again. However, 21st Century Science Fiction is our February read in my Scifi & Fantasy Book Club in Cardiff, which helped nudge me into reading the whole lot. Even with additional motivation, it's an unusual achievement: the last few times we read short story anthologies in the group, I failed to read all tales.

The reason I was able to complete 21st Century Science Fiction, despite its hefty size, is that the stories were of a really high standard. Even the two or three that I didn't enjoy were well crafted and well written, so I could at least appreciate the craftsmanship that went into them, even if they didn't make me want to read anything more by their authors.

As such, 21st Century Science Fiction is exactly what we were looking for in our book club: a taster introducing us to contemporary writers. A collection of trailers that will hopefully help us pick some future reads. A broad spectrum overview of the best of the genre. Oh, and in many cases, it was good fun / thrilling / exciting / thought provoking, too.

I look forward to our discussion tomorrow - I'm sure everyone found some stories they loved and some they didn't, and it'll be interesting to see what everyone thinks of the stories.

Highly recommended.

Rating: 4.5/5
(The intros before the stories did, in my view, give away too much about the stories themselves in many cases)