Monday, 24 October 2016

Book Review | Dark Made Dawn by J. P. Smythe

There was one truth on Australia, the derelict ship on which Chan was born and raised: you fight or you die. Usually both.

But everything on Australia was a lie. Abandoned and alone, Chan was forced to live a terrible existence on the fringes of society, Australia's only survivor after a terrible crash-landing on Earth.

But Chan discovered she was not alone. Together with the unlikeliest of allies, Chan carved out a place for herself on Earth. And now the time has come: she's finally found a reason to keep going. But friends have become enemies, and enemies have become something worse. It's time for Chan to create her own truths, and discover a life beyond fighting and death: a life beyond Australia.


The Girl Who Fell to Earth finds her feet in Dark Made Dawn, the vital concluding volume of the Arthur C. Clarke Award nominated Australia Trilogy by J. P. Smythe.

It's been a long road for Chan, who murdered her mother mere moments after we met her, crash-landed the prison ship she'd lived on her whole life a little later, and has had to do a whole host of other awful things simply to survive since—but her hellish journey is almost at an end. She's been reunited with her former frenemy, Rex; they've found employment, of a sort, amongst the automatons of walled-off Washington; and the nearby nomads have offered them a home away from home. In short, Chan's dreamed-of destination—a world in which she can be with Mae, come what may—is finally in sight, and I'll be damned if it doesn't look bright!

Then again, it's always darkest before the dawn, and as liveable as her life has been of late, Chan hasn't forgotten how horrible it was as of the offing. She remembers, especially, losing everything after she gave so much of herself to get off the Australia:
I was scared, living in a hovel, subsisting on whatever I could find or whatever Ziegler gave me. I had nothing. Now I can bury those memories, mostly. Those feelings. I've got something that feels like control over my life these days. I have a place in this city. A job. A role. A purpose. 
And so does Rex. 
It doesn't matter that our job is doing what they don't want others to do, or what the others won't. It's still ours. (pp.28-29)
Through their heavily-augmented handler, Hoyle—who just so happens to be sleeping with Chan—she and Rex have blackmailed and intimidated their way through the worst that Washington has to offer.

The job has hardly been a joy, obviously, but it has been a necessary evil. It's helped our poor pair fit in in a city that values obedience over everything else. Chan, for her part, has needed the leeway that being a good citizen has allowed her in order to find some trace of Mae, who was almost a daughter to her on the Australia. But when she and Rex are asked to outright assassinate their next target, they both know that the time has come to either poop or get off the pot...

Thursday, 13 October 2016

Book Review | A City Dreaming by Daniel Polansky

M is a drifter with a sharp tongue, few scruples, and limited magical ability, who would prefer drinking artisanal beer to involving himself in the politics of the city. Alas, in the infinite nexus of the universe which is New York, trouble is a hard thing to avoid, and now a rivalry between the city's two queens threatens to make the Big Apple go the way of Atlantis. To stop it, M will have to call in every favor, waste every charm, and blow every spell he's ever acquired - he might even have to get out of bed before noon.

Enter a world of wall street wolves, slumming scenesters, desperate artists, drug-induced divinities, pocket steam-punk universes, and hipster zombies. Because the city never sleeps, but is always dreaming.


He gave grimdark fantasy a knee in the rear with the wickedly witty Low Town trilogy. He tackled epic fantasy to tremendous effect across Those Above and Those Below. Now, as he turns his attention to urban fantasy by way of his brilliantly bold new book, one wonders: can Daniel Polansky no wrong?

That remains to be seen, I suppose, but he's certainly never done anything as resoundingly right as A City Dreaming. An assemblage of loosely-connected vignettes as opposed to a work of longform fiction—although it's also that, at the last—A City Dreaming takes some getting into, but once you're in, it's a win-win. Hand on heart, I haven't read anything like it in my life.

The first couple of chapters serve to introduce M, a rogueish reprobate who straddles "the line between curmudgeonly cute and outright prickish" (p.246) and can do magic, as it happens. "It would help if you did not think of it as magic," however, as our "incandescently arrogant" (p.149) narrator notes:
M had certainly long since ceased to do so. He thought of it as being in good with the Management, like a regular at a neighborhood bar. You come to a place long enough, talk up the chick behind the counter, after a while she'll look the other way if you have a smoke inside, let you run up your tab, maybe even send over some free nuts on occasion. Magic was like that, except the bar was existence and the laws being bent regarded thermodynamics and weak nuclear force. (p.1)
When M is finally called upon to pay the tab that he's run up (and up and up) in the pub that is the entirety of Paris, he decides, after some serious soul-searching over several such snacks, that "it might be time to toddle off" (p.6) to his old stomping ground in the States, because he believes he's been gone for long enough that the many enemies he made there have probably forgotten him.

He's wrong on that count, of course. But M's enemies aren't his most immediate problem. On the contrary, his most immediate problem, as he sees it, is how popular he seems to be.

Monday, 10 October 2016

Book Review | The Warren by Brian Evenson

X doesn't have a name. He thought he had one or many but that might be the result of the failing memories of the personalities imprinted within him. Or maybe he really is called X.

He's also not as human as he believes himself to be.

But when he discovers the existence of another—above ground, outside the protection of the Warren—X must learn what it means to be human, or face the destruction of their two species.


Area X meets Duncan Jones' first and finest movie Moon in a marvellously mystifying novella that wants to know what it means to be human in a world where people can be constructed like sculptures shaped from clay.

X is one such person; the last in a line of such people, even, although almost all of his predecessors, helpfully arranged alphabetically, persist within him. "X was the most recent, the closest to the surface; there was nobody beyond him. And yet he was folded in on himself, damaged." (p.55) Being more metaphysical than physiological, that damage is on display from word one of The Warren, which purports to be a record—though it is far from reliable—of X's pitiable existence:
I am writing on paper because I have seen the way that sectors of the monitor and other recording devices can become corrupted and whole selves, as a result, are lost. I am trying to leave behind a record that will survive. Apparently, judging from the passages that I do not remember but which are nonetheless written, I am not the only part of me writing this. (p.18)
Never mind for the moment our protagonist's matter of fact manner. Clearly, "something is quite wrong," (p.62) and that something has to do with the many competing personalities X carries, at least one of which is unwilling to lie back and think of Britain. "I am working against myself," it dawns on X on the day when he wakes halfway out of the Warren. "There are parts of me ready to betray me, and I no longer have clear control over them, particularly when I sleep." (p.38)

Tuesday, 4 October 2016

Book Review | Death's End by Cixin Liu

Half a century after the Doomsday Battle, the uneasy balance of Dark Forest Deterrence keeps the Trisolaran invaders at bay. Earth enjoys unprecedented prosperity due to the infusion of Trisolaran knowledge. With human science advancing and the Trisolarans adopting Earth culture, it seems that the two civilizations can co-exist peacefully as equals without the terrible threat of mutually assured annihilation. But peace has also made humanity complacent.

Cheng Xin, an aerospace engineer from the 21st century, awakens from hiber­nation in this new age. She brings knowledge of a long-forgotten program dating from the start of the Trisolar Crisis, and her presence may upset the delicate balance between two worlds. Will humanity reach for the stars or die in its cradle?


The translation and publication of Cixin Liu's Three-Body books has been a singular highlight of the science fiction scene in recent years. The Hugo Award-winning opening salvo of said saga took in physics, farming, philosophy and first contact, and that was just for starters. The world was wondrous, the science startling, and although the author's choice of "a man named 'humanity'" as that narrative's central character led to a slight lack of life, The Three-Body Problem promised profundity.

A year later, The Dark Forest delivered. Bolstered by "a complex protagonist, an engrossing, high-stakes story and a truly transcendent setting, The Dark Forest [was] by every measure a better book" than The Three-Body Problem. Not only did it account for its predecessor's every oversight, it also embiggened the Remembrance of Earth's Past trilogy brilliantly and explored a series of ideas that astonished even seasoned science fiction readers.

But "no banquet was eternal. Everything had an end. Everything." (p.27) And when something you care about does approach that point, all you can do is hope it ends well.

Death's End does.

Tuesday, 27 September 2016

Book Review | The Gradual by Christopher Priest

In the latest novel from one of the UK's greatest writers we return to the Dream Archipelago, a string of islands that no one can map or explain.

Alesandro Sussken is a composer, and we see his life as he grows up in a fascist state constantly at war with another equally faceless opponent. His brother is sent off to fight; his family is destroyed by grief. Occasionally Alesandro catches glimpses of islands in the far distance from the shore, and they feed into his music—music for which he is feted.

But all knowledge of the other islands is forbidden by the junta, until he is unexpectedly sent on a cultural tour. And what he discovers on his journey will change his perceptions of his country, his music and the ways of the islands themselves.

Playing with the lot of the creative mind, the rigours of living under war and the nature of time itself, this is Christopher Priest at his absolute best.


Pro tip, folks: never, ever, ever ask artists where they get their ideas from. It's not a trade secret or anything so sensational—it's just a silly question in the eyes of the aforementioned, and at best, silly questions beget silly answers, such as the bit about the Bognor Regis-based ideas dealer Neil Gaiman used to use. The fact of the matter is that art is inherently personal, and people, whatever their superficial similarities, are completely unique, so what inspires one person in one way isn't likely to inspire another, and if it does, it'll be differently.

That's just one of the lessons the eventually-fĂȘted composer Alesandro Sussken learns in The Gradual: a dreamlike diatribe on the source of song and scene and story and so on, arranged, somewhat like a literary symphony, around one man's lifelong journey through the tides of time.

Like The Islanders and The Adjacent and a bunch of other Christopher Priest books before it, The Gradual takes place in the Dream Archipelago, which is to say "the largest geographical feature in the world, comprising literally millions of islands." The Susskens—a family of musicians, mostly—live on Glaund, which is at war with Faiandland, and has been for as long as anyone can remember, for reasons no one can rightly recall. This sort of thing is not uncommon in the Dream Archipelago, so Alesandro doesn't take it too personally... that is, until his older brother Jacj is enlisted.

Years pass. Indeed, decades do:
Jacj's absence was eternally in the background of everything I did. Whatever had happened to him gave me feelings of dread, misery, horror, helplessness, but you cannot work up these emotions every day, every hour. I feared for him, was terrified of the news that I felt would come inevitably: he was dead, he had gone missing in action, he was horrifically wounded, he had deserted and been shot by officers. All these I pondered.
Yet the time went by... 
As time tends to. Inevitably, Alesandro has to direct his energies elsewhere, and perhaps it's the fact that Jacj may yet be out there somewhere that leads to our hero's first fascination with the world outwith his.

Friday, 23 September 2016

Book Review | Revenger by Alastair Reynolds

The galaxy has seen great empires rise and fall. Planets have shattered and been remade. Amongst the ruins of alien civilisations, building our own from the rubble, humanity still thrives. And there are vast fortunes to be made, if you know where to find them...

Captain Rackamore and his crew do. It's their business to find the tiny, enigmatic worlds which have been hidden away, booby-trapped, surrounded with layers of protection—and to crack them open for the ancient relics and barely-remembered technologies inside. But while they ply their risky trade with integrity, not everyone is so scrupulous.

Adrana and Fura Ness are the newest members of Rackamore's crew, signed on to save their family from bankruptcy. Only Rackamore has enemies, and there might be more waiting for them in space than adventure and fortune: the fabled and feared Bosa Sennen in particular.

Revenger is a science fiction adventure story set in the rubble of our solar system in the dark, distant future—a tale of space pirates, buried treasure and phantom weapons, of unspeakable hazards and single-minded heroism... and of vengeance.


Fresh off of finishing the magnificently ambitious Poseidon's Children trilogy and collaborating with fellow science fiction superstar Stephen Baxter on the rather marvellous Medusa Chronicles, Alastair Reynolds returns with a stirring story about a pair of sisters who enlist on a spaceship and set about looting the rubble of a ruined universe. Featuring dollops of derring-do and not a few space battles too, Revenger might be Reynold's most accessible solo effort yet, but there's no dearth of darkness in this light-looking bite of a book.

The universe has seen better days, I dare say. Aeons on from the forging, so many civilisations have risen and fallen that the current population of the Congregation live every day as if it's apt to be their last. Piracy is inevitably prevalent, but rather than stealing from one another, most pirates plunder the remnants of ancient races from the hundreds of thousands of dead worlds distributed in the distance.

Most pirates, but not all. Not Bosa Sennen, who has carved out a terrible legend for herself in the blood and the bodies of those unfortunate enough to have found themselves near the nightmarish Nightjammer: a sneaky little spaceship with black sails, according to the tales, the better to board you before you know it.

Pol Rackamore is one of the scant few souls to have come face to face with Bosa Sennen and survived, though not without paying a perilous price: the loss of his dear daughter. He'll see her again before Revenger is at an end, however—as will Adrana and Arafura Ness, the well-to-do young women at the centre of Reynolds' enticing text.

When said sisters, so long under the thumb of their failed businessman of a father, hear that Captain Rack is hiring, they jump at the chance to crew the Monetta's Mourn for a couple of months. They hope to "go out, just for a while [...] then come back home, and share what we've made." (p.15) Needless to say, dear daddy doesn't agree, but then, he can't stop them, can he?