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2020 is the year I rediscovered fiction, having largely confined myself to non-fiction for the best part of 20 years. As a young man (yes; even I was young once) I was particularly fond of Ursula Le Guin, Vonda McIntyre, and James Tiptree (another woman author, despite the pseudonym), so it seemed a good idea to try a bit of sci-fi. I downloaded Ann Leckie’s Provenance and Asimov’s Foundation trilogy onto my trusty Kindle, and started into it.

Well, all I can say is thank god for Ann Leckie, because…

Isaac Asimov

Foundation Trilogy

I know this trilogy was written a long time ago, so I quite expected it to be horribly dated, but I wasn’t expecting such two-dimensional crap. If we ever used to like this stuff, what the hell were we thinking?

All of the characters are Humphrey Bogart or Peter Lorre; they’re caricatures – not characters. The dialogue is laughable. The basic premise, treating people like gas particles, seems inventive at first glance, but a moment’s thought and the metaphor dissolves. The plot is the only saving grace, but most of the “big reveals” are telegraphed so they come as no surprise in the end. Only two significant “characters” (as poorly developed as the rest) are female, which we might overlook as being typical of the 50s and 60s, but the other faults have no excuse. Ugh!

Iain Banks

The Culture Novels (series)

Normally I don’t much like Banks’s Culture novels. I was put off by the first one, Consider Phlebas, which despite having been breathlessly recommended to me by someone, is disjointed and ultimately pointless. This thing happens, then that thing, then another thing; and guess what after that. I understand the author subsequently indicated that the pointlessness was the point he was trying to make. Yeah, nah. Worse than that, it seemed as if the first couple of chapters of some completely different story had gotten mixed up in the manuscript. Somebody stuck up a mountain with a broken leg or something? I can’t really remember. What the heck was that about?

So, anyway, I’m not recommending the series, but I did enjoy Player of Games as a stand-alone novel. A small handful of passages reek faintly of hormonal adolescence, which might try the patience of some readers, but at least it seemed to stick to a single narrative and did not squander its focus across a ridiculously-vast cast of ridiculously-named AI space craft and improbably evolved aliens. Which brings me to….

Excession. Buoyed up by Player of Games (a 50% strike rate is something I can work with) and, again on a recommendation, I gave Excession a try. The most I can say is that I managed to finish it. In the end, however, I was propelled more by bloody-minded determination than by any qualities of the story or the writing, which led me to think about why I didn’t like it. After all, the premise was intriguing, the AI-centric narrative was something that has previously appealed to me (Ann Leckie’s Ancilliary books; Martha Wells’s Murderbot Diaries), and who could doubt Banks’s writing ability after reading The Wasp Factory? But, here, the premise just fizzles out to nothing – it’s not even nihilistic for god’s sake – and the AIs are just stupid names and a handful of wisecracks, not characters at all. Banks’s indisputable talent is simply dissipated like a drop of wine in a lake.

AK Larkwood

Serpent Gates (series)

The Unspoken Name

The central character, Csorwe, is absolutely adorable. Even when she is being harebrained. And grows her adult fangs. I loved it, and I’m hanging out for the sequel (The Thousand Eyes; scheduled for release in 2021).

There are some scifi-lite elements in the story, and steam-punkish aircraft thingys, but the story is primarily ensconced in a straight-forward fantasy setting, with Old Powers and mages and swords. Goodreads suggests a similarity with Ursula Le Guin – I’m still undecided about that – but there are definitely some props in common with the Earthsea stories.

But, after all, props are just props, and “the play’s the thing” according to Shakespeare. And he would know. Shorn of its swords and magic, this is a story about loyalty, both misplaced and whatever the opposite is (“placed”?) Should gratitude engender uncritical loyalty? How much and how long? Surely even a huge debt cannot hang over your head forever, can it? Well, of course there are no answers to these questions, and Csorwe eventually comes to realise that … although by then it may be too late.

3 Jan 2021

Tamsyn Muir

Locked Tomb (series)

Gideon the Ninth has become my favourite book … perhaps ever. I cannot recall any book since Lord of the Rings which even remotely grabbed me like this. And Gideon is, frankly, better. It probably won’t age as well as Tolkein’s classic, but in the meantime it is vastly – Vastly! – more affecting.

Ok, let’s deal with this. The small writing on the cover says “lesbian necromancers explore a haunted gothic mansion in space” or words to that effect. Poor Tamsyn Muir … I daresay you had to swallow that prurient drivel to get your book published. Stay strong; the day will come when you can tell your publisher to go to hell and put whatever you want on the cover. And I’m sure it won’t be that. To the best of my recollection there’s one kiss (on the forehead) in the whole book which, by the way, is a story about redemption; not a giggle-fest for spotty teenage boys who can’t get girlfriends.

And what a story! Atmospheric, inventive, dark and funny and exciting and sensitive and I can’t say enough good things about it. This is a book with soul. Awesome.

A month after reading this book, I picked it up again, idly glancing through the first couple of pages. Before I knew it, I was half-way through for the second time, and the other couple of books I had been reading had just become unwanted distractions. This is such a good book, and even better on the second time through, and better again on the third.

If you haven’t read it yet, avoid plot summaries (and in the unlikely event that the author ever reads this, ditch all the notes; they’re pretentious and unnecessary) because the story is all you need and anything else just detracts from it. The author will tell you exactly what you need to know, when you need to know it. Read it carefully and attend; it is not enigmatic if you stay on your game.

The characters are wonderful; all of them – not just the handful of centrals. Some you’ll love and some you’ll hate and some you’ll change your mind about part way through. That’s life, right? No first impression survives getting to know someone, and in this book we really do get to know all the characters. It’s like they’re our own real-world friends (and enemies). I don’t know how Muir does it, but the result is just stunning.

4 Jan 2021

Harrow the Ninth – Wow! Just, wow!

But, first, a note of caution for new readers: Do not buy this book unless you have already read Gideon the Ninth. This is not like a normal trilogy where you can read the books stand-alone; it is more like a single book published in three instalments. Unless you have read the first book first, this one will be simply incomprehensible. (For example, the flashbacks are different from what actually happened in the first book, and the differences are a part of the story, too.)

For those who already made it through Gideon, and presumably enjoyed it, this story picks up Harrow’s tale a short time after the other left off, but I found it quite a different read so I won’t directly compare the two other than to say Harrow is more difficult. You need your wits about you. I’m on my third time through and still picking up nuances.

As some other reviewer said (sorry; I can’t recall where I read this), it would have been so easy for author Tamsyn Muir to just write more of the same. Easier, safer, possibly more lucrative. But – thank you so much Ms Muir – you didn’t. What we have here a is whole different ball game; out of sequence, seemingly adrift, but packed with fresh ideas and, still, that wonderfully precise prose where every single word is exactly the right word, in exactly the right place. This book didn’t just happen; it was crafted.

Apparently some people are put off by the second person voice. But, for god’s sake! You read Gideon, right? You have to know … surely? Morons.

Again, Harrow requires you to stay alert, and read carefully, and know what’s going on. If you’re too lazy for that, and just want to dance over the pages to pick up the gist of the action, then there are plenty of other authors for you to read instead. You’ll recognise them: they write 800 page tomes on the reg, that you forget as soon as you’ve put them aside and started the next one. You won’t have to wait for the next installment; it’ll be out next week.

But we will have to wait for the next Locked Tomb story. Swallow your lust for instant gratification until 2022.

4 Jan 2021

Ann Leckie

Imperial Radch

I just re-read Ancillary Justice, thinking about a review. It made quite an impression the first time around on account of the different point of view, the approach to gender, the culture at the heart of the characters’ worlds. Obviously, this effect was lessened on the second reading; no longer a surprise. Nevertheless, the book earns five stars both times around and I have a sneaking suspicion I will have embarked upon re-reading the second Imperial Radch volume, Ancillary Sword, before this weekend is over. [I did.]

So, without spoiling anything or embarrassing myself by pretending to be some literary expert, which I am not, I enjoyed this book for its novelty, yes, but mainly for an interesting adventure story, well told, with sympathetic characters, and a mostly believable setting. To me it feels like traditional space opera, complete with space ships and aliens, but so vastly better crafted than the rubbish we used to read in the pulp days as to be a different genre. Bring your brain along to this party.

I cannot imagine reading these books other than in sequence, so the recaps near the beginning of the second and third books in the series, Ancillary Sword and Ancillary Mercy, seem unnecessary. To be fair, the recaps in Sword are handled very well; they flow seamlessly and almost disappear into the fabric of the story. Those in Mercy are slightly distracting. Nor do I feel they would be sufficient for somebody who had not read Sword first, so they seem pointless as well.

That said, I enjoyed both Sword and Mercy the second time around even more than the first time. Both, but particularly Mercy have more plot than I remembered, some terrific characters, a messy ending which is supposed to be messy (some baddies slink away without an adequate thrashing; a few things left up in the air) but all the main narratives wound up satisfactorily so you don’t feel you’re being blackmailed into buying a sequel. (There aren’t any more books in the series, so far as I know, although Provenance is set in the same alternative reality.)

There are some great reviews of the Imperial Radch series available but, like most reviews and contrary to my own preferences, they are invariably littered with plot summaries. If the author had intended you to have a plot framework in mind before even starting the book, she’d have given you one. But she didn’t, so clearly that’s not the way you’re supposed to approach the book. Just read it; you don’t need the Star Wars-style “long, long ago, in a galaxy far, far away…” thingo.

4 Jan 2021

Sam Sykes

Seven Blades in Black

Seven Blades in Black is the story of a swaggering, wise-cracking heroine, who insults the villains who seem about to kill her, and always seems to take the path of greatest resistance – or greatest personal danger, at least. Each chapter (or so it seems; possibly not literally true) presents a new hazard that only the serendipitously timed and highly improbable appearance of some other actor permits our hostess, Sal, to spit and curse her way through to the next chapter.

It is all utterly peurile. A 13-year-old boy who doesn’t get out much may possibly find this drivel amusing; I cannot think of anybody else who might.

There are no characters; even the ridiculous Sal is a cardboard cutout. There is no allegory. The story, such as it is, is entirely plot-driven. In this respect it somewhat resembles much of Edgar Rice Burroughs’s work – just one damn thing after another, to misquote somebody famous – though I cannot imagine Sal having the longevity of Tarzan … or even Tanar of Pellucidar!

It’s a shame, really, because the writing is reasonably good. Hmm; not sure I really mean that. But some passages are quite exciting and, despite everything, I managed to read the whole book, so there must have been some saving grace present.

Martha Wells

Murderbot Diaries

Ann Aguirre

Sirantha Jax

Becky Chambers

Wayfarers

The Long Way to a Small, Angry Planet surprised me in a good way. This book comprises a series of little vignettes, each dealing with some moral quandary currently in vogue with the woke crowd, which would normally annoy me immensely. However, the “substories” are uncharacteristically nuanced and carried off with considerable aplomb, which kept me reading and, all else being equal, would have earned five stars. But, oh, Becky! The past tense of the verb to lead is “led”. No ‘a’. The word that sounds like led but is spelled with an ‘a’ is the noun for element number 82 on the periodic table, a malleable silvery metal formerly used for plumbing and paint, until people realised how poisonous it was. (Refers to Kindle version of the book; perhaps the paper versions had editors who could spell?)

I gave the benefit of the doubt to the second book in the series, A Closed and Common Orbit. I had assumed it would resume with the ship and the crew, but no. Instead, we take up with two minor characters, following their “exit, stage left” from the first book. Alternate chapters provide the current narrative and a detailed backstory for one of them. Ms. Chambers is still bravely nailing some kind of woke banner to her mast, but there are (mercifully) fewer separate strands in the bien pensant lash this time around, which at least leaves a little room for some story amongst the moral instruction we obviously all need. The narrative sags a bit in the early second half, and the ending is clearly signalled so there is no dramatic tension at all, but I quite enjoyed it for all that.

Record of a Spaceborn Few is the third book in the Wayfarers series. All three books are characterised by a sanctimonious tone, often falling little short of didactic hectoring, instructing we lost souls in what all Right Thinking People must hold to be self-evidently true. This is extremely annoying but at least the first book, and the second to a slightly lesser extent, rewarded our forbearance with a good yarn. This book does not: Nothing happens; there is no story. Oh, yes, somebody dies in an accident halfway through – Half. Way. Through. – but even after reading 50% of the book we have so little investment in any of the characters that we simply do not care. I had only just set the book down having turned the last page (I forced myself to finish it, so I could write a fair review) and I could not for the life of me recall any of their names.

What on Earth is the point of this book? Nothing happens. None of the characters is memorable. Paid by the word? One star for writing her name correctly at the top of the page, and frankly I think that’s generous. In summary, the book is garbage, fit only for the recycling bin.

I will probably never read the fourth book in the series, The Galaxy, and the Ground Within. Just the title suggests more adventurous readers will be in for a good telling off.

Peter Hamilton

Commonwealth

Shelby Mahurin

AG Riddle

Pandemic

Arkady Martine

Dan Simmons

Yoon Ha Lee

Machineries


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