Frivolous Waste of Time

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Archive for the tag “science fiction”

Authority by Jeff VanderMeer

Annihilation was a wonderfully sinister bit of sci-fi horror and managed to get under my skin with almost surgical precision. It seemed quite stand alone and the sequel Authority ends up answering a few questions I’m not sure needed answers. Authority is a good book in its own right, but when compared to the haunting majesty of Annihilation it can’t help but feel a little lacking.

Authority shifts from the eerie first person narrative of the Biologist, to a third person narrative following John, the son of a senior intelligence operative, who chooses to go by the name Control. Control is sent to become the director of Southern Reach, the organisation which studies the mysterious and dangerous Area X, as well as manages the expeditions, such as the one we saw in Annihilation. Southern Reach is in a state of relative disrepair, underfunded and hounded by rumours and hearsay. Control must find out the secrets of Southern Reach, as well as perhaps Area X itself.

This is a very different book to its predecessor in almost every way. Where Annihilation horrified in a Lovecraftian sense, with a sense of the terrible and unknowable alien, Authority borrows more from Kafka, in bureaucracy and an odd feeling of people pursuing mundanity fervently despite the strangeness of their surroundings. The psychological impact of working near Area X is the main focus as we see several characters fundamentally damaged in a variety of ways. Authority is a fair bit longer than Annihilation and does have a little flab towards the middle. That said, Southern Reach is an interesting setting and VanderMeer conjures it well.

I have to say I missed the intimacy of the Biologist’s narration. We’re held at a remove from Control and he’s difficult to warm to or even become particularly interested by. Control is our audience cipher, so is perhaps not a particularly complex character in his own right. The characters surrounding him are brilliantly and vividly drawn, such as the hostile interim director who Control replaces, or a nervy scientist who has been far more affected by the omnipresent horror of Area X than he lets on. VanderMeer seems to have a knack for strong development of a small group of characters; the cast is slightly larger than Annihilation’s four, but not by much and they are given the same level of attention and detail.

Authority is a weird book and an odd direction to take for the series. I mostly liked it, but it felt slightly overlong. It does establish the final book to go to an interesting place however, and I look forward to reading the final of the trilogy, Acceptance.

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Three Moments of an Explosion by China Miéville

I’m eagerly anticipating China Miéville’s next full length novel, but a new short story collection is a more than adequate way to bridge the gap. The collection contains 28 stories, some of which are lengthy and involved and some are simply a couple of pages long. It’s hit and miss as most collections are, but the misses are never too egregious and the hits hit hard.

The titular opening story Three Moments of an Explosion is more of a tone setter than anything else; brief, unnerving and intriguing, but not much to talk about in of itself. The subsequent Polynia is much meatier, taking place in a London whose skies have been invaded by inexplicable floating icebergs and the story of a boy who becomes obsessed with them. Its environmentalist message isn’t exactly subtle, but its unsettling and awe inspiring nonetheless. Miéville does a brilliant job depicting the strangeness of the new world the Londoners find themselves in; at eye level all is the same, but a quick glance up and you can see that something is very wrong indeed. The Condition of New Death is another shorter piece, but one of my favourite of the collection; you’re given just enough for the bizarre premise to lodge in your mind for days. I adored the next story¸ The Dowager of Bees, where mysterious and arcane suits occasionally appear in the hands of those playing high stake card games. Again, a sense of unsettling and alienation is what Miéville goes for here. There’s a palpable sense of danger whenever one of these cards appears. It isn’t necessarily layered with meaning, but it’s easily one of the most fun stories in the collection. The following story is another long one, In the Slopes. This tale of two warring archaeologists as they uncover a strange civilisation and culture beneath the earth is generally quite popular, but it didn’t quite land for me. This story is pure Lovecraft, a writer Miéville owes a lot to in content if not in style. The story is told from the point of view of a bystander, which simply left me feeling remote from the events and struggling to care. Still, the image of what lurks beneath the earth is highly compelling.

The Crawl is a weird one, describing scene for scene a trailer for a fictional movie about a civil war between two types of zombie. Stripped of context, it’s largely just a series of powerful imagery. I’m not really sure what Miéville is trying to say with The Crawl, whether it is meant as a comment on films and their marketing or simply a nugget of an idea he finds interesting. It’s odd but I liked it. Watching God is about an island where strange ships come and go and is surrounded by giant strange words. I suspect there was more to this one than I picked up, but it ends up as quite a compelling look at ritual and tradition and the way minor changes can throw a community into disarray. The brilliant The 9th Technique follows; it concerns a magical artefact created from the pain of a real life torture victim of Guantanamo Bay. The combination of the relatively familiar and fantastical world of dark magic and totems with the very real horror inflicted by those who many in the West consider to be ‘the good guys’ is deeply chilling. The Rope is the World could easily be stretched to an entire novel, and is written in the style of non-fiction, describing giant space elevators which have fallen into disrepair. Only a couple of pages long, Miéville asks a couple of fascinating questions and leaves it to the reader to answer them for themselves. The Buzzard’s Egg is one of the most overtly fantastical and is narrated by the elderly guard for totems of Gods taken by some kind of controlling empire. The nature of God, as well as how many may have been forgotten in the march of empires throughout history, is the order of the day here, with the rambling unreliable narrator putting everything through am intriguingly foggy lens.

Säcken is the most straightforward horror story of the collection, and is genuinely terrifying. It may lack the edge of satire seen elsewhere, but this story of a young woman and her older academic lover travelling to a lake in Germany is a huge amount of grisly fun. It was one of my favourites. Syllabus is just that for a strange university course. I’m ignorant enough of academia that I suspect any satire here flew over my head. Dreaded Outcome is probably the most straightforward story in the collection, but so much fun, following a psychologist and her unorthodox way of helping her patients. It’s silly, darkly funny and pretty broad, but coming around the middle of a collection it offers a nice bit of breathing space from the heavier stories that sandwich it. You need that breather because the next story, After the Festival, is the most grotesque of the collection, set in a London where a mainstream festival sees select Londoners place a severed and hollowed out animal head on theirs and parade through the city. As a comment on our culture’s attitude towards meat and animals it was uncomfortable and effective, particularly as a non-vegetarian like myself. This story is held back by a weak ending which aims for ambiguous but lands on unsatisfying, but that image of the grisly parade won’t be leaving my mind anytime soon. The Dusty Hat was a weird one; at first it appears to be a satire on the inability of the hard left to work together without splitting into warring factions, something which frustrates me as a proud Lefty myself, but it takes a strange turn into the fantastical which didn’t quite work for me.

Escapee is another entertaining fake trailer, although I think I enjoyed The Crawl more. The Bastard Prompt is a brilliant little thriller about actors who take work as fake patients for doctors to train on, who begin to name bizarre and alien symptoms. It’s chilling, sinister, fun and the symptoms themselves are gloriously inventive. I’d read an entire fake medical book if Miéville was behind it. Rules briefly describes a strange children’s game, interesting enough but not particularly memorable. Estate is another story set in London involving a strange ritual, a clear fascination of Miéville’s, where a burning stag is released through the city. I couldn’t work out what the point of this one was, but the imagery is very effective and powerful. Keep was another story with a great premise and an irritatingly obtuse ending, about a contagious illness where people sink into depressions in the ground if they are still for too long. It’s quite engaging, but doesn’t really come to much.

A Second Slice Manifesto is similar to Syllabus, following a strange new artistic method, but is a bit creepier and more atmospheric. I think it may be a bit of an examination on post-modernism, but I’m pretty ignorant about art so I may have missed something. Covehithe is awesome in the original sense of the word, where derelict oil rigs have picked themselves up from the ocean floor and begun to march on land. Similarly, to ­Polynia, the environmentalist message is pretty clear. It’s a cool story with some brilliant imagery in the vast, loping grace of the oil rigs. The Junket is the funniest story in the collection, about the murder of a screenwriter known for courting excessive controversy in his deeply offensive writing. It’s a brilliant take on an outrage addicted media, as well as the vapidity of offensiveness for offensiveness’s sake. Four Final Orpheuses briefly offers four alternative endings to the Orpheus and Eurydice myth; they’re mildly interesting but little beyond that. The Rabbet is a creepy little ghost story about a sinister animation, but I found it a little bit too straightforward. I really enjoyed most of the more straightforward stories in the collection, but I found this one a bit irritating, even if this one had an actual ending.

Listen the Birds is the third and final fake movie script, acting as the others do as a palate cleanser of sorts before the final two stories. A Mount isn’t a story so much as a prose description of porcelain animals. I enjoy Miéville’s writing enough that even something like this has a strange majesty. The collection ends strongly with The Design, the story of a 19th century doctor who discovers beautiful scrimshawing on the bones of a body he has dissected and becomes obsessed with their mystery. Lovecraft rears his head again, with a similar sense of cosmic dread and human irrelevance. Are the bones a message from an alien or magical creature, or was God simply doodling? Answers are less important than the nagging discomfort of just not knowing.

Three Moments of an Explosion is a brilliant example of Miéville’s range. Some are a lot of fun, some truly horrific, some satirical and clever and, yes, a few are obnoxiously obtuse. Still, I’d take a self-consciously intellectual approach of Miéville over something that’s, well, stupid.

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Annihilation by Jeff VanderMeer

It’s been a while since a book got under my skin quite like this one. Annihilation is a book that plays with familiar ideas and themes in a unique way, bounding together familiar science fiction tropes with a palpable sense of Lovecraftian cosmic dread. In Annihilation, knowledge is deadly but irresistible, with those who are curious bringing about their own downfall.

Many of the details of the backstory are kept intentionally vague, but we do know that around 30 years before the book begins a bizarre ‘Event’ led to the creation of Area X, a fairly small section of coastal land separated from the rest of the world by a strange border. The exact natures of this land and border are unclear, so the Southern Reach organisation has sent forth 11 expeditions, of which none returned entirely intact. Annihilation is the story of the 12th expedition, as four women, known only by their job titles, set forth into Area X to attempt to unravel its mysteries. Our protagonist is the biologist and she is joined by the surveyor, the anthropologist and the psychologist. It is not long into their journey that they discover something not on their maps; a strange tunnel heading underground, which the biologist can only perceive as a ‘tower.’

Annihilation is told in the first person and is playful with the idea of an unreliable narrator. The biologist can’t quite trust her own senses and is quite upfront about the fact that she is distorting and twisting some of the information for the reader, and that some of what she sees is so indescribably alien it simply cannot be put into words. The atmosphere is pure Lovecraft; a recurring motif is our protagonist, a scientist, at the edge of something dangerous, knowing she should turn back, but utterly ruled by her curiosity and need to know, even if the consequences are hideous. Annihilation is not about eldritch and ancient beings viewing humanity with horrifying indifference, but it channels the same sense of unease.

It is the building of atmosphere which is Annihilation’s greatest triumph, particularly in scenes taking place within the tower. There is a sharpness and precision to VanderMeer’s prose; Annihilation is not a long book and could be called a longish novella rather than a full novel, but no moment is wasted. It is utterly lean and without an ounce of the flab which pervades the genre. I think Area X is meant to sound cliché; it sounds like the title of a cheesy 1950s sci-fi B-movie, but I think this intentionally bland name is to wrong-foot the reader about the kind of book they are reading and the reality of what Area X actually is. Alongside the solid world-building is very strong characterisation. The biologist is insular and driven and I loved spending time in her head.

Annihilation is the kind of book I’m going to be recommending to anyone who will listen, so I will scream into the void (this blog) to tell you to read it. I cannot wait to get to the sequels.

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The Boy on the Bridge by M R Carey

When M R Carey announced that he was writing a prequel to The Girl with All the Gifts, I was a bit sceptical. My tolerance for prequels is generally low, as they inevitably face a pressing issue of having to justify their own existence. There have been some great prequels, but I think more that have felt pointless. The Boy on the Bridge doesn’t quite succeed in justifying its own existence and it never feels anywhere near as strong as The Girl with All the Gifts, but particularly towards the end it comes together with certain moments of power held back by an oddly arch and impersonal tone.

Readers of The Girl with all the Gifts will remember the Rosalind Franklin, a tank/lab sent out by the remaining seat of UK government of Beacon after the arrival of the cordyceps plague of hungries/zombies. Melanie and her group took refuge in the abandoned tank and it played a vital role in the closing sections of the book and

The Boy on the Bridge is the story of the Rosalind Franklin and the crew of scientists and military who populate it. The Boy on the Bridge jumps into the heads of most of the crew of the tank, sent from Beacon to try to find a cure. Dr Samrina Khan is a scientist who discovers that she is pregnant shortly into their journey. She has a strange bond with Steven Greaves, a sort of autistic-savant young man who is considered by some to be the best hope for formulating a cure. Whilst in the highlands of Sctoland, Greaves discovers a group of child hungries who act like no other hungries they’ve seen before. This discovery kicks off the events which eventually culminate with an abandoned Rosalind Franklin, somewhere in London.

Although there’s a lot that is interesting in The Boy on the Bridge, for much of my time reading I found myself wondering why this story needed to be told. Revelations, such as the cognisant child hungries, will be of no surprise to those who have read The Girl with all the Gifts and it’s difficult to say what more this adds to our understanding of the setting. Carey uses the enclosed and claustrophobic space of the Rosalind Franklin well and I enjoyed the details of the strange life they’re all having to live together. It suffers somewhat from the horror movie problems of much of the plot being based entirely around people doing very stupid, illogical things. Obviously I would rather read characters driven by emotion than logic as I’m not a robot, but too often I just found myself exasperated, when I think I was meant to be horrified.

The lack of a clear main character hurts the book; there’s no one that can rival Melanie in terms of sympathy and engagement. There are some intense moments which should hit harder than they really do, because perhaps with the exception of Greaves I never really felt like I got a grip on any of these people. Greaves is a good character and I think the novel would have worked better if structured more clearly around him, as The Girl with all the Gifts was with Melanie.

The Boy on the Bridge is perfectly readable and I wasn’t bored, but I can’t imagine it making anywhere near the splash of The Girl with all the Gifts. That said, an intriguing epilogue sets the stage for a potentially great follow up. I’d be all for this, moving the series forward rather than returning to the past.

 

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Caine’s Law by Matthew Stover

The Acts of Caine series seems to follow a cycle of something contained and disciplined followed by something more grand and ambitious. The first cycle of this technique, Heroes Die followed by Blade of Tyshalle, didn’t really work for me. This second cycle, with the focused Caine Black Knife followed by the unhinged and bizarre Caine’s Law, works much better. The sense of having bit off a bit more than he can chew persists from Blade of Tyshalle, but by keeping the focus firmly on the titular protagonist it avoids its worst missteps. Caine’s Law is ambitious, dazzling and genuinely unique and a memorable ending to one of the strangest fantasy series around.

Caine Black Knife ended on a series of cliffhangers; Orbek’s upcoming trial-by-combat with Angvasse Khaylock, the nature of the Smoke Hunt and, most significantly, Caine’s final arrest and removal, crippled once again, to Earth. To give any significant plot summary for this book without spoiling it feels like an impossible challenge. Caine’s Law takes place in a variety of times and places, some before the events of Heroes Die, as well as between Blade of Tyshalle and Caine Black Knife. The core theme of the novel is deity and religion; considering that at least three figures throughout the series can be said to have ascended to becoming demi-Gods, it’s a theme worth exploring and closes out the series in suitably epic fashion.

Whilst I appreciate the ambition, as with Blade of Tyshalle things fall apart a bit in the execution. I really love what Stover is going for here, but it’s a bit too opaque, a bit too dense. It’s well aware of its own confusing nature, but being aware of your own flaws don’t necessarily stop them from being flaws. The book feels like a dense weave of subplots, rather than having a core strong plot in itself. Some of these subplots work better than others, with a little bit of overindulgence in some areas. A very interesting new character known as the Horse-Witch plays a vital role, but I think perhaps a bit too much time is spent with this storyline, as well as a lot of mediation about horses in general. Still, I ultimately had a better time with Caine’s Law than Blade of Tyshalle because it continues the wise trend from Caine Black Knife in focusing entirely on its titular protagonist.

There have been a lot of unstoppable, ridiculous fantasy badasses, but Caine may be the best I’ve ever seen. More than anything else, this book breaks down exactly who, and what, Caine is, to the very core. Supposedly Stover is writing another book in the setting focusing on Raithe, and despite what I’ve said earlier, I think keeping Caine out of future books, or as a supporting character, is for the best. We know him now, intimately, inside and out. A lot of the time badass characters achieve that through mystery, but we now know pretty much all we could ever want to know about this character, which makes his unique perspective and strength somehow even more compelling. Caine is to fantasy what Batman is to comics, or John Wick to cinema.

Caine’s Law is an ambitious and bizarre way to end the series. Stover doesn’t quite stick the landing, but there’s a lot to be said for shooting for the stars, even if you ever so slightly miss. I look forward to delving into some of his other works, although I think I might skip the novelisation of Star Wars: Revenge of the Sith.

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Touch by Claire North

Touch is the third Claire North book I’ve read and, whilst it is very good, it bears more than a little resemblance to The Sudden Appearance of Hope, the book which followed Touch but I read first. This similarity undermined it slightly for me, but nonetheless this is another exciting sci-fi tinged thriller from someone who seems to be a master of them.

Claire North’s books are about people with strange abilities, which are both a blessing and a curse, hidden within our world. Where The First Fifteen Lives of Harry August covered reincarnation, and The Sudden Appearance of Hope the idea of being forgotten, Touch is about a being (known as a ghost) that possesses different bodies but has no form left of its own, transferring through touch. The protagonist is known as Kepler and is around 300 years old, hopping from host to host, usually with the host’s consent in exchange for a large pay-out at the end of the possession. When Kepler, in her host Josephine, is gunned down in a Turkish train station, Kepler manages to escape before her host dies and goes on the run in the body of her would be assassin, pursued by the mysterious organisation to which he belongs.

Touch, similarly to her other books, is a globetrotting conspiracy story, as the protagonist moves through a vast range of locations, exploring what it means to be human. It does this very well, but by this point the three books have begun to blur into one. She’s chosen a particular thing that she is going to do and she does it really well, but an element of fatigue begun to slip in. I probably should have left a bigger gap between The Sudden Appearance of Hope and this. Where Harry August posits that humanity is tied to mortality, and Hope Arden suggests it is tied to connections we make to each other, Touch is about the physical body itself. The horror inherent in the concept is not shied away from; although Kepler herself is sympathetic, North never suggests that the experience of having your body stolen against your will is anything but terrible. One plot thread involving a body taken for decades is particularly harrowing. The flashback stuff is generally very good, with some great scenes set in the Ottoman Empire and 1950s Hollywood. The present day storyline stumbles slightly, with lots of scenes of Kepler travelling places and investigating things and generally moving the plot forward, but in a rambling and vague fashion. Touch, and to an extent all of North’s books I’ve read, seems to be at their best when simply wallowing in its own concept, with the core narrative holding it all together being somewhat less compelling.

You may have noticed that I’ve gendered Kepler as female when I refer to the character; her biological sex naturally varies depending on her host, but the voice that came through all of these I couldn’t help read as female. I could go through everything I’ve written and alter the pronouns to ‘it’ and I almost did exactly that, but I actually think it’s interesting how Touch ended up making me project gender onto a genderless entity. I wonder what in my own personal biases made me read Kepler as female, because I’ve read that many people have read the character as male. In Kepler, North provides an interesting cipher to examine our own thought processes and assumptions. An area I wish North had touched more upon was the racial element; Kepler refers to having marched as an African-American with Dr. King in the 1960s, but at the end she could jump into the skin of a white person and avoid any of the consequences of being black in America. North prods at the idea of appropriation, but never really jumps into it. Since the big conceptual stuff worked more for me than the core thriller narrative, I’d have liked to see Touch go further down this path.

All said however, Touch is a very good book. If you’ve read any of her other books recently, maybe give it a little break to keep things feeling a bit fresher, but it was nonetheless thought-provoking and intriguing. I don’t know what angle of humanity North is going to pursue next, but I do know it will be interesting.

 

Caine Black Knife by Matthew Stover

The previous book in the Acts of Caine series was the ambitious, but frankly incoherent, Blade of Tyshalle. It drastically expanded in scope from the first book, but at the cost of what made Heroes Die so engaging to begin with. Caine Black Knife is a simpler, more straightforward return to form for the series. Where Blade of Tyshalle got bogged down in numerous sub plots and supporting characters, Caine Black Knife is all Caine, all the time. It is a shorter, leaner and more focused book and all the better for it.
Caine Black Knife follows two timelines; one takes place a couple of years after Blade of Tyshalle, with Caine heading to the Boedecken Wastes to save his Orgrillo friend Orbek, who has fallen into trouble. The other timeline tells the story of Caine’s most notable Adventure, and the one which propelled him to massive stardom; Retreat from the Boedecken. We’ve heard this story alluded to many times in the previous books, about how Caine destroyed the infamous Black Knife Orgrillo clan and earned his reputation for stunning competence and cruelty. Caine’s actions 25 years in the past are still influencing the present, as figures from his past come back to haunt him and the consequences of his actions finally catching up to him.

Where Blade of Tyshalle covered a significant geographic range and focused heavily on metaphysics and mysticism, Caine Black Knife takes place mostly in one location and drops (to an extent) many of the elements which bogged down the previous book. It’s an exciting and tense book, with the stunning violence the series is known for still in full effect. Just when you think this series couldn’t shock you any more, Stover manages to conjure up something truly horrible. The crucial difference is that it feels less gratuitous, but also more honest. This series has long had a history of slyly satirising the fantasy industry’s propensity for grimdark violence whilst also acknowledging the undeniable visceral thrill this violence provides. The first book got the balance right and the second got it wrong, but the fine balancing act is pulled off here. Caine wasn’t so brutal against the Black Knife clan in the Boedecken because it was the clever or tactical thing to do, he did it because the audience back on Earth loved it.

There’s a sense of fun to Caine Black Knife, even in its grimmest moments. Caine is a relentlessly enjoyable protagonist, utterly loathsome but impossible not to like. There are odd cracks of sentimentality, which are usually punctuated by something unforgiveable. Removing Caine from the core of Blade of Tyshalle was a mistake, because he truly is a brilliant protagonist and this book benefits massively from keeping him as the key PoV at all times. Most of the previous supporting cast is absent, a handful of cameos aside, but the new cast is filled with interesting figures for Caine to murder or generally infuriate, both in the present day and flashback storyline.

Caine Black Knife is a fun, horrifying and deeply satisfying book. We know that Caine murdering his way through swaths of Orgrillos shouldn’t be as fun as it is and Stover never stops winking at the reader. He keeps escalating things further and further, seeing how far our sympathies will stick with Caine, with the answer being worryingly far. The sense of satire, as well as being just a damn good fantasy novel, makes Caine Black Knife a return to what made Heroes Die great.

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Snapshot by Brandon Sanderson

A new Brandon Sanderson novella is never a bad thing and Snapshot is a lot of fun, if a bit lightweight compared to some of his other efforts. Its high concept is a bit over reliant on exposition, compared to the relative elegance with which he creates entire worlds in stories like Shadows for Silence in the Forests of Hell or Sixth of Dusk, but it’s a fun bit of popcorn reading nonetheless.

Snapshot follows two detectives, Davis and Chaz, as they investigate inside a titular ‘Snapshot’, an entire recreation of a day in a city, used to investigate crimes in real time. This is set in the Reckoners universe, or multiverse, or whatever’s going on with that setting. During a routine investigation, Davis and Chaz stumble upon a crime they weren’t meant to know about and take it upon themselves to investigate.

The actual story itself, in terms of character and motivation, is fairly thin. What saves the experience is a playfulness with reality and perception, as well as Sanderson’s signature world building. The people within the Snapshot are, disturbingly, implied to be sentient and that every time the Snapshot is shut down they are essentially murdering thousands of conscious minds. Sanderson doesn’t shy away from this inherent darkness, with the most interesting element of the plot being a badge which, when shown to someone in the Snapshot, makes them aware that they are, essentially, not real. The differing reactions are very interesting; some laugh, some cry, some kill themselves and some kill others. Still, the actual story wrapping up the interesting ideas isn’t particularly memorable. It’s got a couple of twists, but without much of a reason to care about the characters they’re robbed of impact.

Snapshot is a decent enough read, but definitely doesn’t pack the punch of some of his other short fiction. If you fancy a sci-fi tinged detective story you could do worse, but there’s better out there too.

 

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The Sudden Appearance of Hope by Claire North

I really liked Claire North’s last book, The First Fifteen Lives of Harry August, and The Sudden Appearance of Hope does very much feel like a companion piece to her last book. As with Harry August, this book is about a person with a strange power (or curse) and the unique perspective this gives them on our world.

When Hope Arden turned sixteen, people began to forget her. About two minutes after the end of any conversation or contact, the person she is communicating with will forget the encounter ever happened, even her own parents. This leaves Hope unable to form relationships, get a job, buy a home or live any semblance of a normal life, so she has naturally become a thief of the rich and famous, more for the thrills than the material gain. Her next target is a leading member of Prometheus, a company known for creating the app Perfection, which has the aim of encouraging people to be their ‘perfect’ self. Of course, Perfection is based around an ideal of someone white, rich and American and the addictive quest for perfection is ruining lives. Hope discovers that Perfection is even more sinister than it first seems and sets about using her unique ability to take them down.

The core forgetting concept is so interesting that when the Perfection angle was introduced I felt a little put out; why have such a great concept being wasted on a standard social media = bad story? Perfection is fairly Black Mirror as a concept and not miles from sci-fi dystopias we’ve seen before. I think what makes it more interesting is the international angle seen in The Sudden Appearance of Hope. This book takes place all over the world and seeing people trapped into striving for a vapid Western ideal is interesting. The forgetting element in Hope ties in very nicely with Perfection. For a user of Perfection, their life is like a performance where being known to have experienced something is more important than the experience itself; for Hope this is impossible. The book regularly refers to her life being trapped in the present tense, with the implication that everyone else is trapped in the future. Hope is genuinely free in a way few people are, but it’s a freedom that comes at a terrible cost. Therefore, the two elements which make up this story reveal themselves to be utterly entwined and compelling.

The Sudden Appearance of Hope is, much like The First Fifteen Lives of Harry August, told in a relatively non-linear fashion. It can feel a bit vague and directionless at times. I appreciate that the sense of displacement is intentional, being fairly central to the main character, but it’s a bit too easy to lose the thread of the actual story running throughout. Where Harry August was more impersonal in tone, The Sudden Appearance of Hope is much more internally focused, with more than a few lapses into stream of consciousness. North is a bit more risk taking in her prose here, which feels less controlled and more chaotic. It’s never less than compelling though, allowing us to empathise with a figure who is, in many ways, very alien.

Hope is an interesting character, but doesn’t feel like a fully-fledged person. This is undeniably intentional and perhaps a reflection that we can only truly be defined against other people. If you cannot form relationships, you are incomplete. Hope seems, at least to some extent, aware of her lack of identity and desperately seeks one. She’s a fascinating character and, similarly to Harry August before her, a bit of an enigma. The supporting cast are interesting in this one, such as Luca Everard, an investigator for Interpol who has pieced together Hope’s existence from her crimes and the gaps in memory she leaves. I really liked Byron, a mysterious online figure with a grudge against Perfection. In her own way, Hope does make some connections to people, but the hurdle of forgetting creates some fascinating dynamics. The characterisation in this book is a lot better than its predecessor.

The Sudden Appearance of Hope is another great book from Claire North. She reminds me a bit of David Mitchell, one of my favourite authors, although she dips more thoroughly into science fiction than he does. I’m looking forward to going back and reading Touch, which was published before Harry August. This is another piece of genre fiction which I would recommend to anyone, regardless of tastes.

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Blade of Tyshalle by Matthew Stover

This is a weird, weird book. It is the sequel to the outstanding Heroes Die, the first in Matthew Stover’s Acts of Caine series. It abandons a lot of what worked well in the first book and doubles down on things that didn’t, but it’s sheer ambition is giddying. Stover goes all out here and it results in a book which is a structural mess and becomes borderline incoherent, but is an undeniably fascinating read. I don’t think I’ve ever read a fantasy novel like this.

Blade of Tyshalle takes place seven years after Heroes Die: Hari Michaelson, famed as the Actor for Caine, has been left crippled after the conclusion of the previous book and is now living his ‘happy ending’ as the Administrator for the Studio for which he used to work. Things are far from perfect, with a tense marriage to his wife Shanna and a dangerous nostalgia for his violent past as Caine. His purest joy is his adopted daughter Faith, child of Shanna and Lamorak. His closest companion is former nemesis Ma’elkoth, the former Emperor of Ankhana who was dragged along with Hari when he last left Overworld and unable to return, now known as Tan’elkoth. Hari’s quiet life is interrupted when he discovers an outbreak of HRPV in Overworld, a mutated and more deadly form of rabies which had swept the Earth decades prior. With no immunity or vaccination, the people of Overworld are defenceless from a hideous death and so Hari sets about to get to the bottom of the outbreak, dragging him back into the habits of the past and re-awakening the dormant Caine within him.

Heroes Die was a relatively focused novel, taking place over six days and primarily within one city. Blade of Tyshalle has no such structure, or seemingly any structure at all. The frustrating thing is just how frequently brilliant this book is; there are isolated chapters which are as good as anything else you’ll read in the genre, but there are a lot which descend into endless mythological and metaphysical mumbo-jumbo. I loved the opening, which shows us Hari’s early days training to be an Actor through the eyes of Kris Hansen, who wants nothing more than to live in Overworld as an elf-like Primal. The biggest issue is the emergence of the true villain, a figure whose presence doesn’t gel at all with the previous book and is too abstract to truly fear. The core of humanity which made the previous book so good is still there, but there’s an unbelievable amount of time spent on conflicts which involve one demi-God communicating with another demi-God in an incomprehensible manner. When Blade of Tyshalle brings itself back down to Earth the book soars, but much of the climax is robbed of impact. It seeks to be too epic, with a villain who is essentially a manifestation of the worst vices of human nature, but this is a story which works best when it is about scrapping in the streets.

From a prose standpoint though, Blade of Tyshalle is seriously great. The action scenes are still pretty much the best I’ve read. I may not have thought it possible to crank up the violence any further from Heroes Die but, well, here it is. This time though…I think he went a too far. The violence in Heroes Die felt like a winking allusion towards a shift in fantasy tastes at the time but Blade of Tyshalle doesn’t function as a commentary on the fantasy genre as well as Heroes Die. The violence, and some of it really is stomach churning, feels like shock for shocks sake. Rape, both physical but also mental, shows up time and again in the story. The victims are denied any real voice, both before or after and once again it feels like it was deployed for shock value. The world building and dialogue are top notch, but it feels like Stover descends into self-indulgence here and without the defence of being a satire that could be claimed by Heroes Die.

Caine/Hari continues to be so much more interesting than he sounds, with new character such as Hari’s academy friend Kris and the vengeance driven monastic warrior Raithe being well and fully drawn. As I said before, the main villain is the weakest link and never manages to match up to the brilliant trio of antagonists from Heroes Die: Ma’elkoth, Count Berne and Arturo Kollberg. One of the most interesting themes of this novel is that of friendship. Caine has a lot of odd friendships, forged in strange ways, which arise throughout the novel. One of the chief joys of Blade of Tyshalle is the bizarre love/hate relationship between Caine and Tan’elkoth, former nemeses who, by circumstance, have become best friends, but it’s far from the only relationship like this. Betrayal is the mirror theme of friendship and is also core to the narrative and it’s these complex, shifting relationships which kept me most engaged in the book.

Blade of Tyshalle is hugely ambitious book which falls short of the mark. It’s too long and self-indulgent and could have done with a pretty brutal editing. There’s so much potential in this book, so many interesting ideas and characters toyed with, which are abandoned in favour of a fuzzy and vague message about humans being better as individuals and more flawed as a collective…or something? I don’t really know what this book is trying to say. Heroes Die was a relatively straight forward satire of the fantasy market and the human lust for violence and it worked so much better than whatever this is. Blade of Tyshalle is a very interesting book and one which I think I’m going to think about for a while, but it’s too unfocused to be the genuine classic Heroes Die is.

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