Saturday 29 July 2017

Book Review: The Blood of Angels by Johanna Sinisalo

I'm attending Wolrdcon in Helsinki this year. After Loncon, which I loved, I determined to visit every Worldcon I can (or rather, every Worldcon that does not take place in the US, because I'm not interested in going through US immigration / airports / TSA stuff).

As excited as I am about Worldcon, I discovered that I've never actually read any books by the Guests of Honour. So, with just a few weeks to go, it seemed a good idea to do some catch-up reading. First, I chose The Blood of Angels by Johanna Sinisalo. (Reading something written by a Fininsh native seems only polite when attending a convention in Finland).

Enough preamble. The Blood of Angels tells the story of Orvo, a Finnish hobbyist beekeeper, in a near future. In this future, Colony Collapse Disorder (where entire bee colonies disappear from hives without a trace) has become Colony Collapse Catastrophe in America and several other regions of the world, but not yet Finland. The world's agriculture industry is in growing disarray: without its most effective pollinators, entire types of crop are failing, and this has knock-on effects. One day, Orvo finds one of his hives empty. As he recovers a dead queen bee, there are flashing blue lights outside, and then things become... interrupted.

The Blood of Angels is a novel at the literary end of science fiction. Don't expect pulpy heroes, grand adventures, dystopia. Instead, Orvo narrates his story, day-to-day, as memories (flashbacks) interrupt him and take his mind to places it usually does not want to be. We learn about his world gradually, one memory and one event at a time.

Pretty early on, it's clear that something dramatic and ominous has happened in his life, but Orvo shies away from thinking about it because his mind can't process and cope. Meanwhile, he reads through the blog posts of his activist, vegan son, and discovers that the attic in his barn has a door to another universe... but even that portal is understated; the other universe not all that 'other'.

This is a thoughtful sensitive novel. It's written with great authenticity and skill. The story walks the tightrope between very grounded, realistic personal drama on one side, and science fiction, mythology and portal fantasy on the other, in a way that is engrossing and rewarding for the reader. The story never becomes boring, and though it takes itself seriously, it never commits that gravest of sins of being too up its own a**e.

It's not a beach read, but The Blood of Angels is definitely worth your time. Well-written, intelligent, authentic and rewarding. I can see why Sinisalo is a GoH at Worldcon, and I intend to read more of her books in future.

Rating: 5/5

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