Friday 26 September 2014

Dark Digital Sky by Carac Allison

Dark Digital Sky is a novel about a Private Investigator, initially hired to find a Hollywood powerbroker's progeny - three men who grew from his donor sperm.

While his investigation swings into gear, America finds itself subjected to a series of crimes - heists and theatrics seemingly motivated by some kind of political agenda - and our detective tracks not just his own case, but keeps aware of the news.

There are many things to like about this novel, but also some which are a bit frustrating. Let's start with the frustrations: the plot takes quite a while before there's real tension. For a good third of the novel, our PI basically stalks and manipulates three men and people connected to them, without anything other than an easy paycheck driving his ambitions. The plot does pick up, and eventually there are stakes - higher and higher stakes - but at the start, things aren't as mysterious and intriguing as you'd expect from a thriller.

With regards to our detective's work, there is a split between the technical and the human stuff: he's utterly convincing when using technology, hacks, botnets, and other digital methods to track down, investigate, spy upon, disrupt or manipulate. But when it comes to the human interactions, the story seems to be outside its comfort zone. Our hero's method is basically: find source. Ask source questions. Get all the answers. It's true that his angle of attack varies - slightly - between the people he approaches, but every single one of them ultimately answers all his questions with all the information in a single interview. A reader willing to suspend their disbelief would argue that this is the reason why our detective is so successful, why he can afford a Porsche and being quite particular about his methods and very direct when interacting with his clients. Personally, I wasn't convinced - our hero is way too blunt with almost every character, and I simply did not believe that no one disengages from his confrontational approach, when flustered. If someone met me under false pretences and revealed their lie, I'd walk away. None of the characters in this novel do. It felt too much as if each human character was treated as an information repository, which, queried by our detective, spills out all its data, exactly as laptops and hard drives spill their secrets once cracked.

The writing is to the point. Our hero is somewhat cynical, like a detective should be. He does have a tendency to opine about things that one does not expect a detective to be waxing lyrical about: he wears a different black rock band t-shirt each day and briefly describes each motif at the start of each day. He has read hundreds of books and watched many movies, and every evening he winds down simultaneously watching films, re-reading novels and keeping track of the news, in a multi-screen set up that could be straight from Back To The Future 2. Oh, and our hero is bipolar, with a keen interest in his medication (and a habit of describing it, and his brain, with the sort of attitude that wouldn't be out of place in a car enthusiast, fine tuning the engine of his most precious, if somewhat temperamental, classic sports car).

Having a bipolar detective as hero is not something I've encountered before. I guess after OCD detective Monk, in-care detective Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, a schizophrenic detective in Perception, a deaf detective in F.B.Eye, a paraplegic detective in The Bone Collector, and many, many arrogant geniuses with flaws where social niceties would be (cough, Sherlock, House, Lie To Me, cough), there isn't going to be any disability, physical or otherwise, that isn't going to have a detective series dedicated to it. That said, the manic episode is the most interesting and well-crafted part of the novel: it allows the detective to remain convincing while making decisions that would be out of character for a super-competent hero, so his condition certainly earns its narrative keep and does not feel like a gimmick.

The novel moves quite quickly, and while it takes its time to build up tension, it never gets boring. It's entertaining and smooth to read, comparable to thrillers by Michael Crighton, Jeffrey Deaver, Robert Galbraith and especially Michael Marshall (with a sub plot that slightly echoes the Straw Men mythos being built up by Marshall). It's a satisfying popcorn read, technologically convincing, and very smart when it comes to the baddies' attacks & the wider repercussions of those deeds. It's not as satisfying when it comes to character interactions, and every now and again the plot construction feels a bit forced, but to be fair, neither Dan Brown nor Michael Crighton worry too much about these things.

It's got a good pace and an interesting hero - it's certainly a promising start to a series. For comparison, I'm more likely to continue reading this series than I am to continue reading Jim Butcher's Dresden Files after trying the first two.

Rating: 3.5/5

Sunday 21 September 2014

Throne of the Crescent Moon by Saladin Ahmed

Starting out with a gruesome, gory prologue, Throne of a Crescent Moon got very close to turning me away before the first chapter even began. It's Pat Rothfuss's and Scott Lynch's blurby endorsements that made me read on.

The novel is set in a generic Middle Eastern city, just to the side of reality and in a timeless pre-industrial period. The setting is influenced by Arabian Nights, but also by Persian, Bedouin and Ottoman themes. The story is that of a ghul hunter and his young (devout, strict, serious) disciple, facing up to the biggest demonic threat he has ever encountered. Along the way, we meet a magical girl who can turn into a lion, healers, magicians, religious police, deranged monsters, and a prince of thieves type. There's plenty of action and suspense, and, once the characters have a chance to interact, the story is engaging and entertaining. There are further battles / violent moments, but, unlike the prologue, they are all earned by the narrative, rather than trying to jolt the reader before there's any time to care about any of the characters.

It's not on a par with Alif the Unseen (which is a fantastic novel set in a contemporary Arabian Nights inspired generic Middle Eastern setting), but it's a fairly entertaining read.

Rating: 3.5/5

Saturday 13 September 2014

The Falling Woman by Pat Murphy

Advice: I very strongly recommend reading The Falling Woman without reading the blurb on the back cover (or the introduction), or even the summary on Goodreads/Amazon. They give more of the direction of the plot away than they should.

Elizabeth is an archaeologist on a dig in Central America. She can glimpse the past, especially at dusk and dawn. One day, one of the people she sees looks at her, and starts to talk to her...

Diane is Elizabeth's daughter, joining her mother on her archaeological dig after her father / Elizabeth's ex-husband dies. Diane hasn't seen her mother since childhood, and isn't sure what she has gone out to find.

The book tells the story in chapters alternating between the two viewpoints, and telling the back story via flashbacks. It starts out intriguing, building up a world and characters carefully, one step at a time. Gradually, it gains tension, a sense of the uncanny, a foreboding feel...

This is a rare novel: it is speculative fiction where most of the characters are women. Not just women, but realistic, credible women, complex, competent, sometimes confused or confusing, sometimes sweaty and smelly and itchy from insect bites, sometimes unkind and uncommunicative and flawed. There are male characters in the novel too, also convincing and authentic, but at its heart, the plot is driven by a triangle of female characters.

The world-building is superb, and the cultural differences between Americans, local present day residents, urban and rural people, older and younger people, and the past native tribal characters, all these cultures are drawn superbly and convincingly and with a deft, subtle hand. This novel is set in a rich world, where each character, even if only appearing in a single scene, has a reality of his/her own, with a sense of a full life and their own concerns.

Combine the rich world building with detailed, convincing and compelling characters, and set them in a plot that gradually gears up tension, and you are in for a literary treat. This novel won a Nebula Award - it deserves every award it could feasibly win. It's a masterpiece.

Rating: 5/5

Tuesday 9 September 2014

My Real Children by Jo Walton

Patricia is a senile old woman in a care home, struggling with Alzheimer's and her disappearing memories. But Patricia isn't like other people: we soon discover there is more to her confusion than memory loss. Those memories which she has contradict each other. It's not just memory loss, it's memory intersection - and she appears to remember two different lives.

After the (brilliant) first chapter, My Real Children follows Patricia's life (lives) in sequential order, from childhood, through to the decision after which her life went down two different paths, and all the way back to the care home. It is a journey through the twentieth century as it was, and as it might have been. Most of all, it is a saga of a life - no, two sagas, of two very different lives, in two very different worlds.

Life sagas are not usually my thing. It's a genre that tends to drift towards the bittersweet and the tragicomic and hefty doses of melancholy and golden-sheened drama. Forrest Gump, the Hundred Year Old Man Who Climbed Out of a Window, etc. etc. etc. ...

... but this book isn't like that. Yes, it zooms through Patricia's lives, sometimes at montage speed and sometimes one key moment at a time, but the split into two lives in two different versions of the 20th century is an inspired idea: the slog of one life contrasts with the bliss of another; the relief in one is mirrored by struggles elsewhere. This removes it from the "picking yourself up again after some setback" formula because we are allowed to see lives that don't have fast ups and downs determined by artificially imposed story pacing, but that have long periods of struggle (or contentment). The ups and downs of story mood do not determine the ups and downs of characters' life events as artificially as they do in other sagas. The lives chronicled in this book are more realistic and authentic because of that.

Meanwhile, some fascinating stuff is going on in the background: world history and political developments don't quite match our own. It is quite rare to encounter alternative history that doesn't have a singular point of diversion (what if X won war Y), but which winds and turns through the same century in sometimes familiar, sometimes surprisingly alternative ways. We know we're in different worlds because of the way the Kennedy presidency ends - but it does not feel as if Kennedy is really the trigger for all the changes that come after (nor does it feel as if the events in the novel affected the Kennedy presidency).

There are many things to love about this book: the ideas, the elements of alternative history, the way a life-saga has been subverted into something rewarding, original and interesting... but perhaps the most compelling is the character of Patricia (and the people she loves): there is a fundamental, deeply embedded kindness to her, and a huge resilience. There are genuinely difficult periods (early Trisha chapters were painful to read), but even at her most oppressed, she has the ability to focus on the things she can do and the problems she can sort out. She is never given to depression, or to brooding with despair, even when her self confidence is badly damaged for a long period of time. Kindness, resilience, open-mindedness and a sort of matter-of-fact approach to everything that happens - there is a hard kernel of positivity, goodness, and something of the good egg about her. She makes the book very easy to love indeed. And she's not the only good egg in this novel.

Unfortunately, the final chapter is... well, I found it a let down. I would love the final chapter to be completely different (although I'm not entirely sure what should happen in it). It ties things up and rounds them off and feels quite out-of-place to me. Until that chapter, my suspension of disbelief was never in doubt, and then it came crashing down, badly.

... but, aside from the ending, it's a stunning and thoughtful, excellent novel.

Rating: 4.5/5

Monday 1 September 2014

Sequela by Cleland Smith

Sequela is not a fancy plural of 'sequel' - I had to look it up to find that it means a slow / long-term / delayed effect of a medical condition. So, for instance, the herpes virus attacks the nervous system, which may result in brain damage that leads people to be unable to recognise animals, and other long-term harm to the brain. Which makes Sequela a great and fitting title of this novel, but it's still a word I doubt everyone knows.

The book tells the story of a scientist who moves from public-sector-funded academic research into commercial viral design in the private sector. Set in a future London which is strictly divided into The City (i.e. yuppieland) and the outside, with security checkpoints and all kinds of (legal, physical and social) barriers between the two, his job is to create sexually transmitted viruses(STVs). In this future, STVs have become fashionable - they indicate whom one has slept with, which in turn indicates a connection to power. Each symptom pattern is linked to different powerbrokers, and every 'player' is trying to have the most prestigious rash pattern. Our hero, however, has different ideas for what viruses could be used to achieve: instead of rashes, they could make the wearers more beautiful - and cement the fashionability of infections.

This is also a world where infections are a choice - people have implants that replace their immune systems and screen for viruses, giving them control over what they do and don't allow to affect their health. The implants, of course, are expensive, and only the well-off have them. As a hobby, our hero wants to create a different method to work the immune system, through easily transmitted viruses, rather than expensive artificial implants.

It's high concept, but really, this is a character-based thriller. The book starts with a tense job interview and grows from there, never letting up tension, and indeed driving it up with every chapter. The tension comes from social interactions, from office politics, from personal relationships and how they develop - as well as the threat that viruses (and viral attacks) represent.

It's stunningly realised, with each character believable and not always predictable, each social interaction authentic and natural, each dialogue utterly convincing. All that, and with a plot that gradually gets more and more tense, without ever descending into action-movie blockbuster nonsense.

I'm very, very impressed with the craftsmanship of this novel. I would cheerfully recommend it to anyone with an interest in scifi and some tolerance of occasional sex in literature: although it stays broadly unpornographic in descriptions of the encounters, the text is necessarily full of sexual events.

Rating: 5/5