Consider Phlebas by Iain M. Banks

Consider PhlebasTitle: Consider Phlebas
Author:
 
Iain M. Banks
Published:
 
1987
Publisher: 
my copy published by Orbit
Genre:
 
space opera
Source: 
own copy
Rating: 
6/10

The Culture and the Idirans have been at war for years. Billions have died and worlds have been destroyed. The Culture, a post-scarcity society of machines, humans and other races, is intrinsically opposed to warfare but has found itself with no choice but to engage. The Idirans on the other hand, are a race of huge three-legged warriors, who fight, colonise and enslave for religious reasons.

In the midst of the war, a Culture Mind – an incredibly intelligent and complex AI – escapes destruction and hides on Schar’s World, a Planet of the Dead. The Idirans – technologically inferior – want to claim the technology for themselves. The Culture wants to save the Mind and keep it out of Idiran hands. No one is allowed entry to a Planet of the Dead, but Bora Horza Gorbuchal, a Changer, used to live there with four other Changers who worked as stewards on the planet. Now, Horza is an Idiran agent, so they task him with going to Schar’s World and retrieving the Mind.

But it’s not that simple. Horza is left drifting in space following at attack on an Idiran ship, and is picked up by a band of mercenaries whose leader is searching for treasure. He needs to find a way to take over the ship and get to Schar’s World, but until then he has to stick with the mercs through their violent and dangerous campaigns. At the same time, two women from the Culture – a Special Circumstances agent and a brilliant problem-solver whose mind matches those of the machines – are trying to reclaim the Mind too.

 

Although I’ve loved Iain M. Banks’s Culture novels ever since I read The Player of Games in third year, it’s taken me a long time to read Consider Phlebas. I’ve had a copy on my shelf for years, but I could never never finish it. I tried 4 or 5 times, and never made it more than halfway before I lost interest or got tired. Only now, thanks to the stamina I developed from reading difficult review books, was I able to finish it. It was Banks’s first sci fi novel, and his second published novel after The Wasp Factory, and I think his relative inexperience shows. Consider Phlebas  is more dense and less elegant than the other books in the series. It suffers from very lengthy, often clunky infodumping, and neglects some of its best characters.

However, it does have a ton of dire action, violence, epic explosions, and more cool ideas than you can count. The plot is packed, and only about a third of it involves searching the Command Tunnels of Schar’s World for the Mind. The lecturer who introduced me to Banks said he had these really awesome ideas that most authors would write a whole book out of, but he’d just use them for a chapter or two and then move on. That seems especially true of Consider Phlebas. For example, I could imagine a novel based on the card game Damage, which is sort of like poker except that players can chemically alter the emotions of their opponents, and losing a hand means literally losing a life – one of two sacrificial volunteers or your own. Damage is ideally played in a location that’s about to be destroyed (which means staying in the game can be life-threatening as well) and the audience can also tap into the emotions of the players (and there are junkies addicted to this).

You could also write a novel based on Changers like Horza. They can’t transform instantly, but spend some time preparing the likeness of the person they want to imitate, including body language and voice. Changing back takes about a week too. They have incredible control over their own bodies (like the ability to cut off pain in an arm) as well as poisons under their nails and teeth for defensive purposes. Their ability to change brings up all sorts of identity issues that the novel mentions but doesn’t explore. Mind you, there’s so much going on I don’t think I could handle another major theme. Horza’s issues with the Culture already dominate the novel.

It’s unique in the series in that, not only does the protagonist come from outside the Culture, he hates it and fights against it. This means that the reader gets a very critical perspective of the Culture, although I’ve come across some of it in the other novels. The morality of Special Circumstances, for example, is an issue that’s come up often. Some of Horza’s other criticisms make sense, but most of them are deeply flawed simply because they come from deep-seated prejudice.

This makes him a mostly unlikeable but very interesting character. Horza doesn’t fight for the Idirans because he agrees with them, but because he hates the Culture. He actually recognises the barbarity of the Idirans. They’re a race of violent religious fanatics who go around the galaxy colonising other races or wiping them out.Horza himself doesn’t buy into this kind of religious belief or agree with the Idiran’s voracious colonisation, but he believes that they will eventually slow down and settle down, even if that only happens in hundreds or thousands of years (pity about the body count). He imagines that the Culture, on the other hand will just never stop expanding.

Which is a fair point. The Idirans would naturally be hated by the people they kill and colonise, but the Culture is just so nice. They could keep expanding partly because lots of races would want to join them, and they are so very hospitable. Extremely liberal, casually hedonistic, technologically advanced, with infinite resources. They don’t have money or a government because they don’t need either. Everyone is well-nourished and extensively educated. They make their own stunningly beautiful worlds for people to live on. No one needs to work because the machines take care of everything, so the inhabitants are “free to take care of the things that really mattered in life, such as sport, games, romance, studying dead languages, barbarian societies and impossible problems”. Honestly, if a drone appeared right now and offered me an immediate one-way ticket to the Culture, I would say yes. I want it like I wanted to walk through the back of my cupboard and go to Narnia.

Horza would scoff at this. He hates how impressed some people are by the Culture, but not only because he thinks it’ll eventually take over the universe. The other major reason he dislikes the Culture is their machines. The ships and habitats are run by unfathomably intelligent and powerful Minds, and intelligent drones also form a major part of the society. In the Culture, the AIs are considered people. Destroying one is considered murder. And they do have emotions and personalities. One of my favourite passages in the book describes a drone’s feelings about a woman it works with:

Jase, which deep down was a hopeless romantic, thought her laughter sounded like the tinkling of mountain streams, and always recorded her laughs for itself, even when they were snorts or guffaws, even when she was being rude and it was a dirty laugh. Jase knew a machine, even a sentient one, could not die of shame, but it also knew that it would do just that if Fal ever guessed any of this.

Horza, however, believes that the machines will eventually consider the humans in the Culture to be “wasteful and inefficient”. He is suspicious of their plans (which no one could fathom because they’re so intelligent). He does not consider machines to be people no matter how intelligent they are, believing they “ought to stay in their place”. `That quote really highlights Horza’s problem. He’s the kind of bigot who thinks society will crumble because slavery’s been abolished or women have been given the right to vote. And, as with any bigot, the faults in his reasoning are easy to see.

Throughout the novel, Horza encounters things that expose the absurdity of his beliefs about the Culture or his support of the Idirans. He meets religious fanatics who range from simply annoying to extremely cruel and dangerous. He meets an Idiran who loathes him along with all other humans and doesn’t buy the idea that he’s an Idiran ally. In the meantime, Horza has a relationship with a woman named Yalson, who looks human but has a light covering of fur over her dark skin. An interspecies relationship like this would be easily accepted in the Culture, but no doubt considered disgusting by the Idirans. He is often saved or assisted by Culture technology. He cannot help but admire the beauty, power and efficiency of things made by Culture. The entire plot is based on the Idirans’ attempt to retrieve a Culture Mind, the kind of technology they are nowhere near creating. Things get particularly interesting when Horza has both a Culture agent and an Idiran officer as his prisoners. Admittedly, Banks was being a bit heavy-handed here, but that’s in comparison to his later works. It’s still more sophisticated that other action-heavy novels.

So, overall, I liked Consider Phlebas for its amazing ideas and the fantastic characters that I know I can always find in a Banks novel. That said, it’s the only Culture novel that I’m not interested in re-reading. The worldbuilding information can be picked up from the other novels or you can go and read the many articles written about it. All the action didn’t make up for the fact that it’s overly long and dense. But I’m glad I finally read it.

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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.

Up for Review 25/06/2012

God Save the Queen by Kate Locke (Orbit Books)

Marketing copy from Netgalley:

Queen Victoria rules with an immortal fist. 


The undead matriarch of a Britain where the Aristocracy is made up of werewolves and vampires, where goblins live underground and mothers know better than to let their children out after dark. A world where being nobility means being infected with the Plague (side-effects include undeath), Hysteria is the popular affliction of the day, and leeches are considered a delicacy. And a world where technology lives side by side with magic. The year is 2012 and Pax Britannia still reigns.

 

Xandra Vardan is a member of the elite Royal Guard, and it is her duty to protect the Aristocracy. But when her sister goes missing, Xandra will set out on a path that undermines everything she believed in and uncover a conspiracy that threatens to topple the empire. And she is the key-the prize in a very dangerous struggle.

God Save the Queen will be released on 3 July 2012 by Orbit Books. Follow the link to read the first chapter. You can check out the author’s website here.

___________________________________________________________

Advent by James Treadwell (Atria Books)

Marketing copy from NetGalley:

1537. A man hurries through city streets in a gathering snowstorm, clutching a box in one hand. He is Johann Faust, the greatest magician of his age. The box he carries contains a mirror safeguarding a portion of his soul and a small ring containing all the magic in the world. Together, they comprise something unimaginably terrible.

 

London, the present day. Fifteen-year-old Gavin Stokes is boarding a train to the countryside to live with his aunt. His school and his parents can’t cope with him and the things he sees, things they tell him don’t really exist.
At Pendurra, Gavin finds people who are like him, who see things too. They all tell him the same thing: magic exists, and it’s leaking back into our world—and bringing something terrible with it.

 

     Advent is an epic novel with heart-stopping moments, notable as much for its atmosphere as for its pace and sense of place. With numerous themes deftly woven throughout the compelling narrative, this novel is a spellbinding return to old-fashion storytelling and impossible to put down.

Advent was published in the UK on 2 February 2012. The US edition will be published on 3 July 2012 by Atria Books. You can check out the author’s website here.

Review of Germline by T.C. McCarthy

Title: Germline
Author: T.C. McCarthy
Series: The Subterrene War #1
Published: 
26 July 2011
Publisher: 
Orbit
Genre:
 science fiction, military sf
Source: own copy
Rating: 5/10

“I’ll never forget the smell: human waste, the dead, and rubbing alcohol – the smell of a Pulitzer.”

That’s what journalist Oscar Wendall thinks as he makes his way to the front line of the Subterrene War. It’s the 22nd century and the USA is once again fighting her old favourite enemy, Russia, in a bloody war over the mineral resources buried in the mountains of Kazakhstan (simply referred to as Kaz). Oscar is the first member of the press allowed on the front line (currently underground), but he doesn’t find a story so much as a new life, fighting alongside the soldiers amidst plasma bombs that will cook you alive and flechette bullets that rip you to shreds.

In fact, Oscar is a dreadful journalist but a decent soldier. It’s not long before he gets fired by his paper, but he finds ways of getting back into his armour and out onto the battlefield. He falls in love with one of the “genetics” – beautiful teenage girls genetically engineered to be the USA’s supersoldiers. They’re clones, indoctrinated all their lives with a religion that teaches them to live for war and hope for a glorious death in battle. They’re often on Oscar’s mind and he finds his way from one battlefield, trying to deal with all the horrors of war.

Germline is known as a non-stop, action-packed novel about the brutality of war. This is true. I couldn’t keep track of the number of battle scenes, each of them full of explosions and death. The novel hurtles along from one action scene to the next and apparently doesn’t have much time for things like character development or world building.

The result is that a lot of events or emotions feel tacked on. It’s not that these things are necessarily implausible, but the build-up to them is rushed and insubstantial. The author tells you things that you don’t quite feel. For example, we’re told that fighting underground causes soldiers to be fearful of the surface. In the tunnels, danger comes from only one direction, but topside it can come from multiple directions, with the sky being the most threatening. This makes perfect sense, but it doesn’t feel right for Oscar to develop this fear within the very first chapter. The novel doesn’t give us a chance to really understand the experience of being in the tunnels and the effect it has on people. We just get a quick run-through, and suddenly Oscar is speaking like a war vet.

There are other examples. Oscar makes a few friends among the soldiers and when some of them die he goes on and on about how deeply this affects him. It sounds insincere when these friendships don’t have much time on the page and Oscar doesn’t even bother to learn the soldiers’ real names, going only by their nicknames. When Oscar falls in love with a genetic named Bridgette, he does so in a matter of hours, claiming that it “was easy to fall in love because neither of us was likely to live long anyway” (p.66).

The world building is equally feeble. We’re told almost nothing about the war beyond the simple fact that Russia and the USA (along with some allies) are fighting over mineral resources in Kazakhstan. But how did the war start? What are the metals they’re mining used for? How the hell can the Americans lay claim to mineral resources in Kazakhstan? (my boyfriend answered that last one by pointing out that they’re basically doing the same thing in the Middle East. Fair point). What kind of social changes allowed the USA to regress to the extent that genetics have replaced female soldiers with the idea that there will be more women to give birth to more soldiers? What do US citizens and the rest of the world think of the war? Is McCarthy saving the details for the second and third books in the series?

As a journalist Oscar is the ideal character to give the reader this information, but he’s so bad at his job that he just doesn’t seem interested in any of it; he just wants to be in the warzones with a gun in his hand. I can’t understand how even a barely competent editor could have given him this assignment. Besides being an awful reporter, he’s got a long history of substance abuse. He actually picks up a new drug addiction in the first chapter, and seems to be addicted to being in the war as well. That’s the only good explanation I can think of for why he insists on staying. Oscar himself is rather evasive on the topic. For all his interior monologues on the war, his character is a bit flat. We don’t learn much about anyone else either – a disappointment for me, because I really wanted to know more about the genetics, the most interesting feature of the novel. I wanted to know more about their weird religion (a kind of modified Christianity), the prayers they say before battles, and the fact that they are shot when they turn 18, because their minds become unstable and their bodies begin to rot. Oscar’s obsession with the genetics seems to end at wanting to be close to one of them; he doesn’t ask them many questions when he is.

So let’s face it – the focus of this novel is combat. It’s about the weapons, the armour, the explosions, the gunfire, the corpses. It’s a barrage of bullets, grenades, plasma bombs, blood, gore, faeces, and mangled bodies. We follow Oscar from one battleground to another, with him pontificating about the war in between. He talks about his armour, mostly about how disgusting it is when it comes to waste disposal (or lack thereof). He goes on about either wanting to fight or wanting to get out. He talks about the friends he’s lost. And then a bomb explodes and he’s running for his life.

Despite all the graphic violence, Germline has this odd PG-13 feel to it because anything sexual is glossed over. When Oscar puts on his armour for the first time and hooks up the tubes used for his waste disposal, he refers to his penis as “your you-know-what” (3). Later, there are a few sex scenes, but they’re all just start with a bit of kissing and then fade out with “when we were done” or whatever. It’s like either the author or the publishers are trying to keep this clean enough to market to a teenage audience, and violence, insanely, has always been deemed more acceptable than sex. However, it seems so ridiculous that a man like Oscar is uncomfortable referring bluntly to his own genitals or that he’d go into detail about everything that happens to him but not the sex that he apparently finds so fulfilling. A pity; I think the sex scenes could have done a lot to give a little emotional depth to this novel.

In many ways, this Germline reminds me of The Forever War by Joe Haldeman (1974) – the constant fighting, the pace, the lack of character development, and a sense that the war is being fought for its own sake, rather than for the reasons stated. But even though I often didn’t understand the science of The Forever War and I found the characters forgettable, it still made an impact on me. You really felt the brutality of the war, and the unbelievable waste of life. It was a short book, but a forceful one.

Germline is longer but has less of an impact. It didn’t live up to the hype, and I didn’t particularly enjoy reading it. With its lack of emotional engagement or details about its world, it was often boring. All those action scenes just didn’t do it for me, especially since I didn’t really care what happened to Oscar.

Strangely enough though, I’m actually looking forward to reading the sequel, Exogene. Exogene’s protagonist is a genetic, and shows the war from their perspective. I wanted to whack Oscar over the head for not asking more questions about them, but book 2 will give me a chance to get that story while Oscar won’t be there to get in the way.

Buy Germline (The Subterrene War #1) at The Book Depository

Up for Review: Books I’ve bought

Publishers using NetGalley occasionally fail to mention that their eARCs are in fact part of a series, but not the first book. These days I try and remember to double check before requesting a book, but in the past I’ve been too careless or excited to seek out more information before hitting the “Request!” button. As a result I’ve received a few second-in-series eARCs. This means very late reviews because I don’t have the first book, it takes a while to get it, and by then I have new ARCs to worry about. After failing to get copies from the publishers, I went and bought the books myself. In one case it would have helped if I’d waited a little longer, but hey, I’m impatient. And it’s always nice to have hardcopies 🙂

Anyway, here are some of the books I bought recently, so I can read and review them before moving on to their sequels. Eventually.

The Habitation of the Blessed (A Dirge for Prester John #1) by Catherynne M. Valente
Cat Valente is one of those authors I’ve been wanting to read for a long time, so I decided to read this one first and finished it on Monday. I was not disappointed. The Habitation of the Blessed is a beautiful, utterly enchanting novel. Review to follow next week.

This is the story of a place that never was: the kingdom of Prester John, the utopia described by an anonymous, twelfth-century document which captured the imagination of the medieval world and drove hundreds of lost souls to seek out its secrets, inspiring explorers, missionaries, and kings for centuries. But what if it were all true? What if there was such a place, and a poor, broken priest once stumbled past its borders, discovering, not a Christian paradise, but a country where everything is possible, immortality is easily had, and the Western world is nothing but a dim and distant dream?

Brother Hiob of Luzerne, on missionary work in the Himalayan wilderness on the eve of the eighteenth century, discovers a village guarding a miraculous tree whose branches sprout books instead of fruit. These strange books chronicle the history of the kingdom of Prester John, and Hiob becomes obsessed with the tales they tell. The Habitation of the Blessed recounts the fragmented narratives found within these living volumes, revealing the life of a priest named John, and his rise to power in this country of impossible richness. John’s tale weaves together with the confessions of his wife Hagia, a blemmye–a headless creature who carried her face on her chest–as well as the tender, jeweled nursery stories of Imtithal, nanny to the royal family. (Goodreads)

The Habitation of the Blessed was first published in March 2010 by Night Shade Books. The sequel, The Folded World, was published on 15 November 2011.

Germline (The Subterrene War #1) by T.C. McCarthy
This is a popular one. I actually could have requested it when it came out, but I was unsure of whether or not I’d like it. I found the synopsis of the sequel, Exogene, instantly appealing however, so I’m more confident about reading this.

Germline (n.) the genetic material contained in a cellular lineage which can be passed to the next generation. Also: secret military program to develop genetically engineered super-soldiers (slang).

War is Oscar Wendell’s ticket to greatness. A reporter for The Stars and Stripes, he has the only one way pass to the front lines of a brutal war over natural resources buried underneath the icy, mineral rich mountains of Kazakhstan.

But war is nothing like he expected. Heavily armored soldiers battle genetically engineered troops hundreds of meters below the surface. The genetics-the germline soldiers-are the key to winning this war, but some inventions can’t be un-done. Some technologies can’t be put back in the box.

Kaz will change everything, not least Oscar himself. Hooked on a dangerous cocktail of adrenaline and drugs, Oscar doesn’t find the war, the war finds him. (Goodreads)

Germline was first published on 26 July 2011. Its sequel, Exogene was published on 1 March 2012 by Orbit Books.

Of Blood and Honey (The Fey and the Fallen #1) by Stina Leicht

Liam never knew who his father was. The town of Derry had always assumed that he was the bastard of a protestant — his mother never spoke of him, and Liam assumed he was dead. But when the war between the fallen and the fey began to heat up, Liam and his family are pulled into a conflict that they didn’t know existed.

A centuries old conflict between supernatural forces seems to mirror the political divisions in 1970’s era Ireland, and Liam is thrown headlong into both conflicts! Only the direct intervention of Liam’s real father, and a secret catholic order dedicated to fighting “The Fallen” can save Liam… from the mundane and supernatural forces around him, and from the darkness that lurks within him. (Goodreads)

Of Blood and Honey was first published on 1 February 2011 by Night Shade Books. The sequel, And Blue Skies From Pain, was published on 6 March 2012.

Review of Emperor Mollusk versus The Sinister Brain by A. Lee Martinez

Title: Emperor Mollusk versus The Sinister Brain
Author: A. Lee Martinez
Published: 05 March 2012
Publisher: Orbit Books
Genre: science fiction, fantasy, comedy, space opera,
Source: eARC from the publisher via NetGalley
Rating: 7/10

Emperor Mollusk – the genius octopus from Neptune, home of the smartest, squishiest beings in the galaxy – has done it all. He’s destroyed worlds and conquered others. He’s pushed the boundaries of science and invented bizarre and dangerous things. He’s defeated every one of his enemies, including himself (a rogue clone). He even conquered Earth – a planet that had always resisted alien invasion – using global mind-control. He settled down to become the Terra Sapiens’ benevolent dictator, ending all Earth’s wars, solving the energy crisis and repelling the invasion of the Saturnites. No big deal for someone as smart as Emperor Mollusk.

But now it seems there might be a brain even more brilliant than his. Someone is out to get him…. Well, actually beings from all over the galaxy are out to get him, but this seems to be the plot of an evil megalomaniac and Mollusk will have to come out of retirement to stop him. At his side is Zala, his unwanted Venusian bodyguard. The Venusians want Mollusk dead too, but they want to be the ones to bring him to justice, so for the moment they’re trying to keep him alive. Together Mollusk, Zala, and Mollusk’s invincible pet cyborg ultrapede thingy, Snarg, travel across Earth and around the solar system, following the clues that they hope will lead them to the Sinister Brain behind it all. On their adventure they encounter such things as mutant dinosaurs, a giant blob monster and an immortal mummy Queen.

Good words for describing this book include “whacky”, “zany” and “preposterous”. It’s a totally tongue-in-cheek sci-fi caper, composed of equal parts action, humour and ridiculousness. It’s full of kooky sci fi tropes like death rays, giant bugs, and evil geniuses. The characters have names like “Blug”, “Kreegah” and “Snarg”.

It’s also intentionally, amusingly narrow-minded. Pretty much all the aliens come from the moons or planets in our solar system, and can speak English. They might look outlandish, but they’re still mostly based on stuff you could find on Earth – Mollusk is an octopus, the Saturnites are some kind of rock-people, the Venusians are reptiles with feathers. As you can imagine, the book is full of wonderfully silly lines like this:

The south wall disintegrated and a squad of jetpack assassins flew into the room.

 

Mutant insects were eating Kansas. Again.

 

Relations between Terra and Luna had been strained since the Lunans had eaten Neil Armstrong in 1960.

In the middle of all this craziness, are some rather good characters who you can take seriously even though everything else is a joke. I really liked Mollusk, who is the nicest intergalactic villain you could ever hope to meet. He might have conquered Earth by brainwashing all the humans, but he also stopped all the wars and prevented environmental catastrophe. Despite the terrible things he’s done in the past, his many experiences have made him a much more considerate being. He’s even making a serious effort not to kill people just for annoying him. The thing with Mollusk is that he’s not exactly evil, but rather far too smart. He’s in constant need of something to keep his mind occupied, so he goes around conquering planets, inventing things and, inevitably, taking on all the enemies he makes along the way. The only enemy he can’t defeat is boredom itself.

I also came to appreciate Zala, the Venusian soldier whose job it is to protect Mollusk so that her own species can take revenge on him. In many ways Zala is trapped by her race’s codes of honour and obedience and she finds it difficult to break out of her fearless soldier mould. However, she has a talent for unnerving Mollusk with insights into his personality:

“It must be irritating,” she continued. “To have that great intellect at your disposal and yet you’re not sure what to do with it. I’d imagine it must be quite a burden finding challenges worthy of it.

 

It’s amazing that someone who claims to be as intelligent as you are has spent more time designing doomsday machines and time radios than contemplating his own motivations.

 

Although Mollusk and Zala become reluctant allies in this adventure, I like that they remain enemies who can’t quite trust each other. It adds a bit of fizz to their relationship. Mollusk in particular is always keeping important information from Zala, with amusing results. Their banter is fun, especially with Zala’s tendency to make snarky remarks. That said, one of the downsides to the novel is that it didn’t find it quite as funny as I’d hoped. It’s a source of constant amusement but few laugh-out-loud moments. But then again, humour is a very subjective thing and I think I’m a tougher audience than most. Either way, Emperor Mollusk is a wonderfully ludicrous sci fi adventure and I’d recommend it to genre fans looking for a light read and a bit of a laugh.

 

Buy a copy of Emperor Mollusk versus The Sinister Brain at The Book Depository

Review of The Troupe by Robert Jackson Bennett

Title: The Troupe
Author: Robert Jackson Bennett
Published: 21 February 2012
Publisher: Orbit
Genre: fantasy, mythology
Source: eARC from the publisher via NetGalley
My Rating: 7/10

At 16, George Carole ran away from home to join the vaudeville circuit. His remarkable talents with the piano meant he quickly made money and a name for himself, but then he gives it all up to chase after the mysterious Silenus Troupe. They are the very reason George went into vaudeville – he’s learnt that the Troupe’s leader, Hieronomo (Harry) Silenus is his father, and the circuit gave him the best way of tracking the man down.

But when George finally meets Harry and gets involved with his troupe, he finds nothing is as he expected. Harry is not warm or loving and doesn’t welcome his long-lost son with open arms. He’s a gruff and grumpy man with many burdens who reacts to the discovery of a son with dread rather than happiness. George had dreamed of joining his father’s troupe and touring the country as a famed pianist, but the Troupe has no space for an extra feature, and as it turns out, their purpose was never even entertainment at all.

This is where the novel departed from my expectations as well. The marketing speaks of fantasy tinged with horror, and hints at stage acts that don’t rely on illusion but make use of supernatural realities. This is true, but not in the ways I’d assumed. What is revealed is not merely a fantasy world but a mythos behind the creation and structure of the world as a whole. The plot is not just about the Troupe, but about a desperate attempt to save the world from the evil that is trying to consume it.

In the beginning, we’re told, the Creator sang the world into existence, and then disappeared. Soon after, the darkness came to life and tried to reclaim the world. Much of it was devoured and turned back into the darkness that existed before, until humanity discovered that the First Song, sung by the Creator itself, still existed in the world. They found fragments of the song, and by singing it they could restore and protect the world from the darkness.

Performers have done this throughout the ages, in an endless battle for survival. The Silenus Troupe currently carries this burden, travelling to towns where reality is growing ‘thin’. The Troupe has three amazing acts, but they are just a cover for the fourth act, in which the First Song is performed. No one can ever remember hearing it, but they leave feeling rejuvenated.

Thus George finds himself caught up in something far bigger and more mysterious than the idyllic vaudeville life he imagined. The Troupe generally tells him as little as possible about themselves, their acts and the Troupe’s purpose, even though circumstances seem to be getting increasingly dire. The agents of darkness are right on their heels, and they’ve somehow become more resilient to the power of the Song. The resulting novel is not just a tale about saving the world, but a well-rounded story vividly written characters, emotional depth and existential musings. In fact, I’d say the large-scale, world-in-peril aspect of the plot is couched in a character-based drama. The main characters each have a strong, memorable presence, albeit one that’s weighted down by tragedy. It’s very easy for you to be invested in their emotional tangles and there are quite a few heartfelt moments.

I love the way Bennett handles George as a boy in his late teens, for example. There are a lot of factors playing into George’s character. His musical talent has made him proud, arrogant, and a little too accustomed to getting what he wants. This makes it harder for him to handle the way Harry and The Troupe react toward him. They can be a rather harsh bunch though, so I often felt sorry for George, especially when he’s trying to cope with his father’s attitude toward him. George also falls painfully in love with Colette, the Troupe’s stunningly beautiful, statuesque singer and dancer. Unfortunately, she’s a few years older and has little interest in a 16-year-old boy.

On the more amusing side are George’s attempts to be seen as a stylish intellectual, which typically make him look a bit ridiculous. He quotes “fashionable” articles on composers whose music he’s never heard; he talks about the finest tobacco and whiskeys although he’s only had the cheapest stuff; he wears tweed and waistcoats because “that’s what men of standing wear”. Of course, he also uses some of these things to try and impress Colette, and fails dismally.

Colette herself is an extremely proud, independent woman who also happens to be a dark-skinned person living in the openly racist society that is the USA in the 1910s. She has ways of dealing with this, but you see the pain it causes her as well. Then there’s Stanley, who is easily the most likeable of the characters and my clear favourite. He’s a man who never speaks and always has an air of sadness about him, but he never fails to treat others with kindness and friendliness and he gives the reader a particularly strong emotional connection to the story. Another friendly, but very distant troupe member is Franny – a small, skinny woman who performs a miraculous strongwoman act. Franny never sleeps, often seems out of touch with reality, and is always dressed from head to toe, either in baggy clothes or stained bandages.

And of course there’s the abrasive Harry Silenus. He’s hard to like, being dreadfully rude and sometimes cruel, but nevertheless wins some sympathy from the reader when he reveals himself to be a man suffering under the weight of multiple burdens, with little skill when it comes to dealing with his personal troubles. He’s a man desperately searching for god and meaning, but finding only endless struggle instead.

The novel as a whole, often seems surprisingly religious, thanks to Harry’s yearning and because some aspects of the creation myth at the heart of the plot sounds very much like the Christian one. However, I’d call it spiritual rather than religious. There are some key differences from Christianity and the other two major monotheisms – the Creator is absent, there are no devils  or angels, and neither morality or faith are important issues. However, the characters pose some cosmic questions. Why did the Creator make the world? Where has the Creator gone and would it ever return? Why continue this endless fight against the darkness if everything will die eventually?

A related theme is the longing for fathers and the inadequacy of father figures. George of course, is desperate for a loving father, but Harry almost always hurts him instead. Harry is looking for a creator who abandoned his creation and hasn’t returned to save it. Then there’s the very creepy story of Kingsley, who performs the Troupe’s unsettling puppet act. It’s pretty obvious to the reader that the puppets are alive and Kingsley is only pretending to voice them. It’s a pity that we don’t see that much of the puppets, because they are figures of absolutely delicious horror. The puppets are actually the kind of thing I expected this novel to be about They refer to Kingsley as “Father” and insist that they are “real enough” to be given their freedom. However, the whole ‘father’ concept is pushed to grotesque, terrifying extremes.

Less scary than the puppets, unfortunately, were the villains of this story – the darkness and its agents, who appear as anonymous men in grey suits. There’s a sense of menace to them, but somehow they don’t case as much tension as I would have liked. They’re also known as wolves, even though most of them take the appearance of men, which gets a bit confusing.

Also tainting this story somewhat is that annoying American bias, common to apocalyptic stories, wherein ‘the world’ seems to mean ‘America’. The Silenus Troupe only ever performs on the North American continent and the plot implies that they’re the only ones in the world who perform the song. Based on the mythology however, the entire Earth, if not the universe should be under threat, and the darkness wouldn’t have much trouble devouring the world if its only obstacle never left the States. Of course, myths are typically narrow-minded because they come from cultures that knew little or nothing about the world beyond their own borders. Set in about 1910 in a fantasy version of our world however, this novel doesn’t have that excuse.

But even though this bugged me, it can be ignored  (most of the world is probably used to having to do this). The Troupe wasn’t what I expected, but it’s a good book that boasts wonderfully crafted characters with an ability to keep you emotionally invested. There were times when the story got a bit too sentimental for my tastes, but most of its more emotional moments simply made me feel very strongly for the characters. The resolution of the mystical aspects of the story wasn’t quite what I’d hope it would be, but the novel as whole is nevertheless a solid fantasy read dosed with myth and horror.

The Troupe is being released today. Buy a copy at The Book Depository.