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Friday, 15 January 2016

January Reviews at the Nameless Zine

I write book reviews for The Nameless Zine, an online zine run by the Western Science Fiction Association (WesternSFA), a non-profit fandom group based here in Arizona.

As the Nameless Zine follows a graphical indexing system, I also maintain my own text index of what I've written at my own website. You can find it here at the Reviews at the Nameless Zine page.

Reviews at the Nameless Zine post monthly on the 15th of each month and January's batch are now online. I reviewed six books this month:

Mortal Gods



I was surprised at how much I enjoyed Antigoddess, given that it was a YA book. I didn't know that when I picked it up and, frankly, it didn't matter. It just meant that the vocabulary was a little less ambitious, but the story was fun and the prose was capable.

It was the first book in the Goddess War trilogy, which continues with this one. Kendare Blake's basic concept is that the Greek gods are real. They're still alive, as you might expect for immortal beings, but they're also starting to die, as you might not. They're struggling to coming to terms with the idea themselves, because after thousands of years, dying isn't exactly top of their agenda.

Antigoddess focused their struggle into a war between two factions, each of whom believes that killing the other side might just stop the process. Complicating the situation are a group of humans who are reincarnations of people who fought in the Trojan War. They're potentially showing up as weapons for the gods to use, starting with our heroine, the modern reincarnation of Cassandra.

This second book starts to explore what this situation really means. The gods, or at least the ones who survived the first book, grow as characters because their apparent mortality brings other changes too, leading to some real frustration on their part. The humans grow as characters too, because while the gods are losing their power, they're gaining some. It's a really interesting situation for both sides and the fact that they have to work together causes agreeable conflict. With the war a constant background but rarely a focus, we concentrate predominantly on this growth and that's a good thing for a middle volume.

For more, visit my review at the Nameless Zine. I also reviewed the first book at the Nameless Zine: Antigoddess.

Ungodly



And with the second book in the Goddess War trilogy out of the way, here's the third one, which I enjoyed most out of the three for a few reasons.

One is that the people caught up in this war finally figure out what's really happening and what they need to do about it. Another is that this means that things get serious; as much as they fight, many of these gods have been trying to hide from their apparent mortality and that can only work so long before other feelings start to really take effect. And that means that the key characters get out there and follow their particular agendas, rather than stay at home in Kincaid, NY and wait for things to happen.

I liked this move for the tougher. It progressed things nicely and it wrapped them up nicely too. I had some problems with the series but mostly enjoyed it. I don't read a lot of YA so it was good to find a series that worked for adults too, even if it meant that it was missing the depth that a serious adult author could reach.

New characters come into play here for the final act, some of whom have to for the story to work and others who have to only for some of those we know to progress properly. One negative is that a bunch of prominent gods don't make an appearance and that seems rather odd given the magnitude of what is going down.

For more, visit my review at the Nameless Zine. I also reviewed the first two books at the Nameless Zine: Antigoddess and Mortal Gods.

The Fractal Prince



Here's another trilogy whose first volume I'd previously reviewed for the Nameless Zine. It's the Jean le Flambeur trilogy from Finnish-born advanced mathematician, Hannu Rajaniemi, and it's so complex that there's little chance of providing a synopsis for one book let alone all three.

Put absurdly simply, we're in a post-human future where we've colonised the solar system but not in ways that traditional science fiction has suggested. Instead we've followed different paths that aren't entirely compatible, have already led to one war and are heading towards another. There are the Sobornost, a hive mind attempting to conquer death by uploading copies of everyone's minds to dump into bodies as needed, often into millions of them. There are the zoku, descended from MMORPG guilds who see everything in terms of game theory. There are those in the walking city of the Oubliette on Mars who have built their world around privacy provided by quantum level encryption.

And here we meet the humans in Sirr, the last city on Earth, who are as high tech as the people I've just mentioned but cloak it within concepts we know from ancient fantasy: flying carpets, jinni, gods, exorcism, jewels, secret names and hidden words of power. I found this Arabian Nights approach fascinating, as each time honoured concept is explained in technological terms, reminding of Clarke's Third Law.

Onto Earth comes Jean le Flambeur, gentleman thief, but his quest is nestled within stories inside stories inside stories. The Fractal Prince is as much a puzzle as it is a novel and it's a fascinating one to unwrap. This book might work as a standalone, but I'd recommend reading this trilogy in order and together. It's that dense with concepts.

For more, visit my review at the Nameless Zine. I also reviewed the first two books at the Nameless Zine: The Quantum Thief.

The Causal Angel



And with the second book in the Jean le Flambeur trilogy out of the way, here's the third one, The Causal Angel, which ratchets up the scale to points that might surprise even those of you who can think big.

With previous books unfolding on Mars and Earth, this one shifts mostly out to Saturn to look at how the zoku work. They're groups of people descended from MMORPG guilds, which means that they see everything as a game, even the most serious threats imaginable. Another neat touch is how they connect to each other in an emotional way, ensuring that their actions aren't merely in their own best interest but also that of their zoku. This is very different to the hive minds of the Sobornost who are coming to fight them again, but still more than human.

One thing that leaps out of these books is how varied our race could turn out to be once we reach the singularity and become post-human. It isn't just a single step and we're done. It's a gateway that opens up many possibilities and this trilogy offers a fascinating glimpse at a number of them.

While this is the most ambitious but also the most accessible book in the trilogy, it's perhaps also the least engaging because the ideas take over from the characters. The most resonant to me are dead or gone, while the ones that remain are cyphers or less interesting. Fortunately the ideas are on overdrive and if you like your science fiction idea-heavy, this is your dream world.

For more, visit my review at the Nameless Zine. I also reviewed the first two books at the Nameless Zine: The Quantum Thief and The Fractal Prince.

The Warlord of the Air



Regular readers will know I'm a steampunk fan and that I'm keen to look back to the proto-steampunk books that help shape the genre. There are a few that sit in between the old days of Verne and Wells but before the founding triumvirate of Blaylock, Jeter and Powers. The Oswald Bastable books of Michael Moorcock are a great example. There are three of them and this was the first, back in 1971.

It's written in the style of the Victorian scientific romances and sits well alongside such philosophical science fiction works as The Time Machine because it takes a character into the future (or here an alternate future) and lets them discover utopias and dystopias and figure out how they came about.

Oswald Bastable is a British soldier fighting in northern India when an escape within the vast Temple of the Future Buddha sends him into 1973. Neither world war happened, so empires didn't fall. Instead a balance was found between the British, French, Japanese, Russian and American empires and each progressed in their own way. However, the disparity between the colonists and the locals eventually finds its way to war and that brings things back full circle to events we know about but in different times and places.

Beyond Bastable, characters include some that would go onto other Moorcock works and alternate versions of real people as diverse as Mick Jagger, Enoch Powell, Joseph Conrad and Lenin. Ronald Reagan, then just the governor of California, is hilariously awful and ably highlights which way the American empire went with Europe as strong as ever.

It's a lot of fun, for those who appreciate the scientific romances of the Victorian era and I'll be back with a review of its sequel, The Land Leviathian, next month.

For more, visit my review at the Nameless Zine.

Quest of the Spider



I've been reviewing a Doc Savage novel every month, working in the order they were published in the pulps rather than the Bantam paperbacks. Third up is Quest of the Spider, from May 1933, which has often been talked down in fan circles as a weak entry. I partially disagree.

It's a much more conventional ride than the previous two books, with the swamps of Louisiana replacing the lost worlds we've seen thus far. It has a weak villain in the Gray Spider and a really dumb disguise for Doc at one point.

However, it's also a more grounded mystery focused around an attempt to take over the lumber mills of the south for sheer profit. It has good tension, finally some work to do for Doc's men and some scenes of real power at a couple of points, one when Doc appears to have died at the hands of an alligator and another when a good deed prompts one of the villain's subhuman henchman to see the light and sacrifice himself for others.

There's also an actual mystery, given that the big boss could easily be either of two people, making up for the clearly obvious villain of the previous book and the giveaways of the first. And Doc is a little less superhuman here too, much more capable than the rest of us but more believably so than in the second book where he could effortlessly achieve feats that nobody else in the world could manage.

I liked it and felt that, after an establishing novel for Doc but not his men and then a weak follow up, the series was starting to move in the right directions. Next month's thrilling episode is The Polar Treasure, which is better yet and proves that things were getting better and better for Doc!

For more, visit my review at the Nameless Zine. I also reviewed The Man of Bronze and The Land of Terror.

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