Equations of Life by Simon Morden

 

Equations of Life by Simon MordenTitle: Equations of Life
Author: Simon Morden
Series: Samuil Petrovich #1
Published:
 1 April 2011
Publisher: 
Orbit
Genre: 
science fiction, post-apocalyptic
Source: 
eARC from the publisher via NetGalley
Rating: 
5/10

Samuil Petrovich keeps a low profile. After escaping the nuclear fallout in St Petersburg, he lives a spartan life in the post-apocalyptic London Metrozone. He’s just another immigrant, just a postgrad student, not worth paying attention to. In truth, he’s a genius when it comes to physics and computers, and he’s got a SECRET PAST that he’s kept neatly covered up for the last few years.  The last thing he wants is to get noticed.

But then Petrovich sees a young woman about to be kidnapped and instinctually moves to rescue her, dodging bullets and running from gangsters until his weak heart fails him and he’s rushed to hospital. The woman turns out to be the daughter of Hamano Oshicora, a Japanese mobster with criminal operations all over the city. Oshicora is extremely grateful to Petrovich and wants to reward him. Detective Inspector Harry Chain wants to know who Petrovich is and why he’d put himself in hospital for a stranger. A Ukrainian mobster named Marchenko wants Petrovich dead for ruining his chance to kidnap Sonja Oshicora. Sonja herself is now drawn to her cute young rescuer. And Petrovich is getting way more attention than he’s comfortable with.

He tries desperately to avoid getting involved with any of these people but instead he keeps getting more tightly wrapped up in their troublesome affairs. In addition, he and his research partner are on the verge of making world-changing breakthroughs in physics. Then something called the New Machine Jihad comes along and threatens to put London – if not the world – through a second Armageddon. Instead of just disappearing like he planned to, Petrovich reluctantly tries to do the right thing and save the city.

 

I decided to split this review into two parts, one for the first half or so of the novel, and one for the second. I felt quite differently about them, and most of what I want to discuss about the novel falls into one of the two sections.

So, Equations of Life starts out quite well. The London Metrozone is a post-apocalyptic society, but not a dystopian one. It’s recovered somewhat from Armageddon, a series of nuclear explosions set off two decades ago, in European cities. Obviously life isn’t the same, especially if you’re a poor immigrant, but on the whole it’s not too bad – there are cars (including self-driving models), a university, restaurants and cafes, decent infrastructure, reliable telecommunications etc.

I’m a bit sketchy on the political details, because Morden avoids info dumping and his characters have no reason provide a detailed explanation of global politics. What I do understand though is that Japan has been destroyed and America essentially destroyed it, or at least a political movement/party in the USA called the Reconstructionists did. For the sake of his lost homeland, Oshicora is creating a highly realistic VirtualJapan in which the Japanese diaspora will be able to hold on to some experience of home.

He asks Petrovich to help with the project, but Petrovich politely declines on the basis that getting involved with gangsters will be fatally bad for his health. He plays the situation very carefully, so that Oshicora is not offended but has great respect for him. In general though, I thought that Petrovich wasn’t really as cautious as the blurb suggests. He avoids attention, but once he finds himself in compromising situations he lets his temper flare. He tends to hurl a combination of brutal honesty and Russian invective at the rather dangerous men who have him at their mercy at various points in the novel. I thought this made him a more interesting character though; I had pictured someone older and rather timid, but Petrovich is smart, smart-mouthed, and often daring. What I don’t like about him is his tendency to do all his swearing in italicised Russian. And since Petrovich can barely utter two sentences without cursing in Russian, this quickly gets very irritating. It’s also a tad incongruous – he speaks perfect English otherwise, so I don’t see why he’d switch languages to swear.

Anyway. Another interesting character is Sister Madeleine, a genetically (I think) enhanced nun who is two metres tall, wears some pretty awesome body armour under her habit and carries a massive pistol. She’s a proper nun – vows and all – but she’s also a bodyguard for her church’s priest, who is targeted by the gangs of a nearby ghetto. Sister Madeleine saved Petrovich and Sonja Oshicora when Petrovich’s heart gave in, and from then on the two have a an uneasy kind of connection. with the result that Madeleine breaks her vows to help Petrovich when the shit hits the fan.

 

Which brings me to the second, less positive part of the review, about the second, less interesting part of the book. After a certain point – when the New Machine Jihad starts going seriously destructive, I guess – the book gets and chaotic, silly, and wasteful. Some of the more interesting ideas set up earlier in the novel get used in boring or relatively minor ways. I’d guessed early on what the New Machine Jihad was, only to find that it was actually a more dull version of what I’d assumed. Petrovich’s research partner Pif (Epiphany Ekanobi, a physicist from Nigeria) has done breakthrough work that Petrovich then builds upon, but it doesn’t have any real bearing on the plot. I hope Morden is at least saving that seed for later books.

The whole thing just descends into an absurd action/disaster plot. Petrovich runs around the city – sometimes accompanied by Madeleine – trying to stop villains, save victims and not die horribly as the city is destroyed by machines and the people turn violent. He gets the shit beaten out of him then keeps going like a good reluctant hero should. It reads like it would rather be an action movie than a book and drags on for far too long. Morden mentions in the acknowledgements that this novel began as a series of short stories set in this world, and it’s in this part of the novel that the seams start to show. There are too many ‘episodes’, too many different encounters, which is understandable if Morden tried to fit all those stories into a novel shape. Understandable but untidy.

As he runs for his life, Petrovich’s character becomes increasingly implausible. Note that he’s a skinny young man with a weak heart. Saving Sonja Oshicora puts such a strain on it that he had several heart attacks on the way to the hospital. He needs a new heart, and spends the rest of the novel worried about the twinges in his chest. And still he makes it through numerous heart-stopping fights and other dangers. I don’t know where he got the skills to survive either.

You have to wonder why Petrovich is willing to put himself through all this. Turns out he’s looking for redemption: he did bad things in his past and he’s trying to make up for it. As if that wasn’t bad enough, Petrovich has to profess his determination to save Sonja, the Metrozone, the world, etc. with as much blustery Hollywood bravado as he can muster. It’s so ridiculous, like this moment when Petrovich learns that Sonja is in danger again and decides that he’s going to stand and fight instead of running away:

 “I am the one who decides when I’m going to die, you little shit. You want this done the hard way? Fine. I will take you down. I will cause you so much grief and pain that you’ll wish you’d never been born. And you can tell Sonja this: I’m coming. One way or another, I’ll save her. Have you got that?”

Petrovich also claims that he decided to “spit in the face of destiny” that he wants”to make a difference”, that he “made a promise I have to keep” even though it might all cost him his life at the end. He keeps chucking out lines like this, although the ones i hated the most came from Madeleine, explaining why she chose to risk her life helping Petrovich:

I’m possessed by some overwhelming madness that forces me to desert my vocation, my sisters, my duty, my priest—and go with you instead, you foul-mouthed, unbelieving, weak, selfish criminal who by some freak chance or divine plan has not only captured my stone-cold heart but seems to embody the virtue of hope in a way I have never experienced before, inside or outside the church. That’s why.

I cannot take this seriously. I’m not interested in reading any more of it either. When I started Equations of Life I thought it could be one of the few series I actually stick with. By the end, I’d decided to stop at book one. I liked the Petrovich I met at the beginning, but I have no interest in the clichéd, hard-headed bravado-spewing hero who he proved to be later on. Guys like that are all over the damn place and there are far more exciting ideas to be found in other novels.

The cover is really cool though; I almost bought the whole series once, just because they look so good.

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Review of God Save the Queen by Kate Locke

Title: God Save the Queen
Series: The Immortal Empire #1
Author: Kate Locke (pseudonym for Kathryn Smith)
Published: 03 July 2012
Publisher: Orbit Books
Genre: science fiction, urban fantasy
Source: eARC from the publisher via NetGalley
Rating: 6/10

It’s the present day in an alternative vision of our world. History took a different turn in the 19th century when a mutation of the bubonic plague – known as the Prometheus Plague – turned Britain’s aristocrats into vampires, werewolves and goblins. Apparently they really did have better blood, because the rest of the human population died by the thousands. Society is now divided according to the level of plague in your blood – there are the aristos (fully plagued), the halvies (half-plagued hybrids born of human mothers and vamp or were fathers), and humans. Queen Victoria, a vampire, is about to celebrate 175 years ruling the still-powerful British Empire.

At both the top and the very bottom of the social ladder are the goblins. Technically they’re the most ‘aristocratic’, since they’re the most plagued, but as the most bestial of the races they’re hated and feared by all. They live underground and feed on any flesh, be it aristo, halvie or human.

Alexandra (Xandra) Varden is a member of the prestigious Royal Guard, a security force sworn to protect the aristos. Like most halvies, she was trained to fight in order to provide security services to the aristos, and Xandra was at the very top of her class. She’s an ass-kicking, corset-wearing, vampire halvie with hair as red as blood. Her father is a duke, and she’s unquestioningly loyal to queen and country. Her comfortable view of English society begins to crack and crumble when Xandra learns that her sister Drusilla (Dede) committed suicide after being sent to Bedlam, a notorious insane asylum. Refusing to believe that Dede would do such a thing, Xandra investigates the highly suspicious circumstances surrounding her ‘death’.

Nothing she finds puts her mind at ease. Conspiracies roil beneath the surface of British society, implicating the aristos in horrific crimes that Xandra cannot believe them capable of committing. A rebel group fights for democracy, denouncing the superiority of any race, calling the aristocracy a dictatorship. Such treasonous ideas go against everything Xandra believes, but in her stubbourn search for the truth she’s slowly forced to rethink her view of the people she loves, the races she’s judged and the ideals she’s based her life upon. She runs headlong into danger, romance, and an unbelievable new life.

With its cute, bold cover and enticing blurb, God Save the Queen gives a good impression of being loads of fun and just really cool. And when you read it you can’t help but imagine how awesome it would look as a movie because it really is full of cool, fun stuff. Xandra is a very sexy heroine with great hair (one of the advantages of being a halvie or aristo) in a rare, bright red colour (all halvies have colourful hair – indigo, pink, blue, etc.). She can rock a corset and kick ass in an evening gown. With a talent for violence and a wicked temper, she’s always getting herself into action scenes, often with a frock coat swirling stylishly around her. And speaking of action and style, Xandra also hooks up with Vex McLaughlin, the ultra-sexy Scottish alpha werewolf, who I imagined being played by Joe Manganiello (Alcide from True Blood) in a gorgeous tailored suit. Yum. God Save the Queen hits plenty of the right buttons with a bit of sex, lots of violence, alternate history, vampires, werewolves, corsets and really awesome hair, so it would have been a really great novel if it wasn’t so damn sloppy.

My first issue – it’s supposed to be very English, but it feels very American. It might take place in London in a world where the sun hasn’t set on the British Empire and an iconic English queen holds the throne, but it reads like it was written by an American, for other Americans, based on an American idea of England (although apparently the author is Canadian). Xandra uses words like “bollocks”, “knickers” and “fag” (as in cigarette), but it’s not going to fool anyone when ‘lieutenant’ is spelt “leftenant”, presumably to force American readers to use the English pronunciation. I think it’s weird to say “leftenant” too, but that just made me cringe. The novel lacks the right feels for its setting, and it doesn’t help that Xandra keeps making comparisons with American things (action movies, their eagle), as if to help US readers relate to this foreign fantasy setting. Is that necessary? And why would Xandra’s character be thinking of America? In this world, the British Empire reigns supreme; it can’t be assumed that the USA would have the same cultural dominance that it has in our world.

This brings me to my next issue – world-building with an alternate history. There are many interesting if awkward info dumps to explain how this science fantasy version of London came about – the biology of the plague, significant historical events, contemporary social structures, law, tech, etc. – but it’s not thorough enough. Locke devotes about half a paragraph to mentioning how the rest of the world looks, although Africa is entirely forgotten. Rather odd, since Britain has kept most of its colonies, but apparently a few extra decades of British imperialism and slavery aren’t worth any ink. London appears to be a multi-species but mono-cultural city where the aristocracy are so old-fashioned they hold balls every week and use horse-drawn carriages. Not that there’s any shortage of modern technology; humans and halvies use all the conveniences we’re used to – cellphones, cars, computers, tracking devices, DVDs. These things have different names and aren’t quite as slick as our own, but it’s hardly worthy of the term ‘steampunk’. Neither of the two World Wars happened, so why has technology advanced as if they did, especially when many aristos shun such things?

Look closely, or just attentively at God Save the Queen and you’ll notice that it’s rife with holes, inconsistencies and absurdities. How does Xandra ride a motorbike while wearing an evening gown with her hair pinned up? How does she manage to be stealthy with that striking red hair? If halvies and aristos age very slowly, then why have all the halvies in the novel aged like normal human beings?

Locke also commits many mystery-plot sins, making her characters ignore the obvious or suspicious, avoid pressing questions, withhold information or suddenly turn into morons, all to prolong the suspense. In the first chapter, Xandra goes to the goblin prince for information about her sister, because somehow the goblins know about everything that happens topside. If the novel stuck to that premise, it could have been a lot shorter. Dede commits suicide by setting herself on fire, which is such a dumbass way of killing yourself that I couldn’t believe Xandra was the only one to consider the possibility that her death was faked and a body burned to make identification difficult. Their brother Val is an investigator for Scotland Yard, but he just runs with the theory that Dede was “hatters”.

Xandra is right, of course, but she’s not always that sharp. Like when she sees a woman who looks exactly like her, but just can’t put her finger on why she looks so very familiar. Yes, really.

The novel seems to improve in the second half, perhaps because some secrets are revealed so there are fewer investigative shortcomings. Once the plot gets going there’s less opportunity to dwell on problems in world-building, and it probably helps that there’s lots of action and that Vex is so incredibly hot.

I also appreciated Xandra’s character, to an extent. OK, she’s a temperamental bitch, but intentionally so, and she has to deal with some major life changes. At the beginning she’s blindly patriotic and openly, unabashedly prejudiced. She tends to jump to conclusions and cling to them, so on the whole she’s rather close-minded. She’s clearly being set up to have her mindset challenged if not bludgeoned, and it’s pleasing to see that happen. She’s still a bitch at the end, but that’s ok. Good girls are overrated.

If you can avoid being fussy or demanding, God Save the Queen is a decent entertaining read. It’s annoying at the start, but it gets better and there’s a wonderfully satisfying demise for one of the villains. I like the ideas at the core of the novel, I just wish they’d been properly fleshed out. And yeah, I’d read the sequel, The Queen is Dead, due out in 2013. I like a good American action movie as much as the next person.

Buy a copy of God Save the Queen at The Book Depository.