Archives

SF Mistressworks publish my reviews!

SF Mistressworks has accepted my reviews! The project celebrates 20th Century sci-fi written by women and aims to make women writers more visible among what is perceived to be a male dominated genre. The first of my reviews was published on 17th February. I’m delighted. And now I have to go read more so I can write reviews.

Swords of Good Men

swords good menSwords of Good Men by Snorri Kristjansson
Published 2013, Jo Fletcher Books

Ulfar arrives in Stenvik with his cousin Geiri, thinking this is the last stop before returning home for exile. Instead, his life is irrevocably changed. Ulfar and Geiri make a mess of approaching the ruler of Stenvik, Sigurd, on behalf of his father and has to stick around until they can make it right. To the south, Olav, devotee of the White Christ, is gathering a huge army and forcibly repressing worship of the old gods. To the north, the most fearsome Viking captains are assembling under the direction of the witch Skuld in order to destroy Olav. The battle will centre on Stenvik.

I always enjoy Viking-based fiction and this is by an Icelandic author, which gives it an authentic feel. Probably entirely spurious, but there you go. Kristjansson has a stripped back, sparse style that carries the story forward at a cracking pace. Characters and setting are brought to life with deliberate, pointed description underpinning dialogue and action. It is enough but the setting, in particular, isn’t fully realised. Stenvik is the most completely evoked but it’s not clear where it sits in relation to anywhere else.

The big battle at the end is fantastic. It was exciting, thrilling and very gory. It’s fair to say I wasn’t really expecting the ending to go the way it did.

Diversity doesn’t come out brilliantly in this book. There is a character with a crippling illness and there are a couple of key female characters (in quite a large cast). They are quite stereotypical, but it’s fair to say that’s true of all the characters in the book. Most of the women are dead by the end and so are most of the men. Two thirds of the named characters are dead at the end. Very Shakespearean.

Overall, I enjoyed it. It was fun, fast-paced and surprising.

Starfarers

Starfarers, by Von5802nda N. McIntyre
Published 1989 by Ace Books

Starfarers is the story of a group of people who find themselves on a journey across the stars. For some that was their intention and for others it was the path circumstance led them down. They are scientists and artists for the most part. As Starfarers is the first book in a series so there are two stories. The series story is the one of what happens to these humans when they leave our solar system and can they maintain their ideals while they do it. In the first book, the story is how the characters overcome the internal and external obstacles to starting their journey.

McIntyre makes an effort to present a future in which humans act differently than they do now. Three of the main characters are in a polyamorous relationship which was once a group of four but they are grieving the death of the person who was at the centre of the relationships. I liked the depiction and I thought it came across convincingly. Each member has to manage their intimate relationships and also manage the group dynamic. That wasn’t portrayed as something too difficult but it also wasn’t swept under the carpet. The characters are highly emotionally intelligent and that helps. I liked that it was presented as a slightly old-fashioned relationship in that it was formalised.

The politics of this future world are described in the ways they impact the ship. It’s a research facility primarily so when countries don’t want to support it’s aims they pull finding and it affects directly the lives of the people on the ship. Their friends leave and they can’t get the supplies they’re used to. The ship believes itself to be egalitarian, but one character is a gardener and he observes that the academics don’t mix with the custodial staff so it’s not as free and equal as they’d like to think. There’s a fair amount of exposition in the book but for me I found it interesting and thought it was well-handled as character development and worldbuilding. But this is a vision of a future I’d like to buy into so perhaps I wouldn’t have thought that if McIntyre had been exploring different ideas. I enjoyed the worldbuilding and I found the characters real and engaging. I’ve been acutely aware of the monoculture of most of the books I’ve been reading and the conspicuous diversity, at least in gender, ethnicity and sexuality, was refreshing.

Clearly this is the first in a series and it is setting up what is the real story – due to political tension on earth the ship and its scientific mission is under threat and eventually the US tries to take it by force. They want to use it as a military base. As the ship is weapon-free their only alternative is to run – to start their mission understaffed, under-supplied and underprepared. It may only be the first peril they face on their journey but it was full of tension.

I enjoyed this very much and am keen to read the rest of the series, although the current book-buying embargo might mean that doesn’t happen for a couple of years.

The Death House

death-houseThe Death House by Sarah Pinborough
Published 2015, Gollancz

This is one of the free books I picked up at FantasyCon 2015. I’ve not read anything by Sarah Pinborough before but I have heard her speak at events.

In a post-apocalyptic future some people have developed a genetic mutation that reveals itself in the teenage years. It is so serious that children have regular blood tests and those that show the markers are removed from society. They are taken to homes where they are fed and watched until the illness presents itself and then they are taken to the sanitarium.

The Death House is the story of Toby and Clara who meet in the house and develop a sweet teenage relationship. It is beautifully written and the interactions of the characters are engaging and moving.

The trouble is I had expectations that something gory and gruesome was going to happen and it never did. I liked the book and I will read more of Sarah Pinborough’s work; she’s a great writer. I guess I had it in my mind that she was a horror writer of a more physical sort. The Death House is a lyrical horror of a more subtle type.

Damnation Alley

damantion alleyDamnation Alley by Roger Zelazny
Published 1971, Faber and Faber

This was so much fun. In a post-nuclear holocaust America only the coastal cities have survived. Boston has a plague that threatens its survival and Los Angeles has the cure. A messenger made the crossing to ask for the cure but didn’t survive the effects of the journey. The continent is racked with radiation, storms, quakes, monsters and feral humans. Hell Tanner, a Hell’s Angel, is offered the choice between attempting the drive or going back to jail. The rest of the story is Hell battling the environment to take the cure to Boston.

It’s a fairly basic plot and is well handled. There’s plenty of tension and excitement and the success of the mission is often in doubt. The worldbuilding is excellent and the description of the impact of the use of nuclear weapons is vivid. I’m not sure how scientifically accurate it is, but it makes good fiction. A film starring Jan-Michael Vincent and George Peppard was loosely based on the book Damnation Alley, and, ye gods, it’s awful. The book is much, much better.

The characters were a bit sketchy. It’s a fast-paced action story, so the characterization takes a back seat. Hell is a seventies-style anti-hero who does a good deed only because he’s forced into it, but is cool in a laconic, anti-authoritarian way. The supporting cast is handled in what I think of as line drawing. There’s little detail and not much depth, but the impression of the character is skillfully conveyed in brief strokes of the pen.

Since I’m now reading a lot of sci-fi and fantasy written more than twenty years ago, I’ve started noting the publication date. Where I can, that’s original publication date, not necessarily the edition I read or of the picture that goes with the post. The reason for doing that is to try to build up a picture of changing representations of characters who are not white, male, able-bodied, cis-gender, or heterosexual and to see whether there is a pattern of change over time.

Damnation Alley has, as I recall, two female characters. One is a wife and mother of a family that give Hell food and healing half-way through the journey. There are a number of background characters and they are overwhelmingly male and white. Near the end of the book, Hell is chased by a biker gang. He kills most of them and one of the women joins him, but she’s only there for Hell’s sexual relief and conveniently dies soon after.

Despite the disappointingly predictable lack of diversity, Damnation Alley is extremely enjoyable. If like me, you like action, adventure and bit of silliness.

Tea with the Black Dragon

Tea with the Black DragonTea with the Black Dragon by R. A. MacAvoy
Published 1983, Bantam Books

Martha Macnamara comes to San Francisco to see her daughter, a genius computer programmer, only to discover she’s missing. At the hotel Martha meets Mayland Long, an ancient black dragon taking the form of a human in order to seek enlightenment. Mayland is enchanted by Martha and agrees to help her find her daughter, Elizabeth.

This is, on the whole, a charming book. The first half somewhat more so than the second half. The set up, Martha and Mayland’s developing relationship, is delightfully engaging. Once the chase for Elizabeth starts, however, the tone of the book shifts. After a few clues are followed, and it starts to become clear what the mystery is, Martha is relegated to damsel in distress. Her ending seems unworthy of her character and is a sour note in an otherwise sweet tale. I especially enjoyed the descriptions of how Mayland responds to sunlight.

This is one of the books given to me by my emigrating friend and I picked it out of a stack because of the cover. I like the picture of the dragon statue. Surprisingly, it matches the description inside the book. Tea with the Black Dragon is interesting and unusual and worth a read.

Sapiens

sapiensSapiens by Yuval Noah Harari
Published 2011

Sapiens: A brief history of humankind is a very interesting book that challenges a lot of received wisdom about humans – what we are, why we do what we do, how we got to this point in history. Harari is a historian but this isn’t the history of a specific set of humans in a particular time and place. It takes the bigger picture view of anthropology and merges it with the storytelling of history. It’s a big, 500 page book covering some complex topics, yet it remains an easy read. I found it thought-provoking, amusing in places, and some of Harari’s theories are extremely plausible.

There was something horrifying and depressing about it though. As a species, homo sapiens sucks. We destroy everything we come into contact with and spend our time working out ways to do that even more efficiently. It didn’t leave me with much hope that homo sapiens can change.

Despite that, this is a fascinating book and I’d recommend it to everyone.