After Atlas

This book was given to me by the author. This summer I went on an Arvon course on Science Fiction and Fantasy writing led by Emma Newman and Peter Newman. The week is mornings of workshops, afternoons of working on your project, and evenings of readings. On the first evening the tutors read from their own work and then generously gave us each a copy of one of their novels.

After Atlas by Emma Newman is set in an frighteningly plausible future dominated by corporations where advertising is omnipresent and indentured servitude has made a return. Carlos Moreno is a detective, but he is indentured. He has a contract which he has to work off before he can be free. In this story, Carlos is asked to investigate the murder of the leader of a cult called the Circle, from which Carlos escaped when he was 18. It was this escape that led to his capture and slavery. Returning to the Circle to solve the case stirs up a lot of memories, and the cult is not what he thought it was.

The future imagined in this book is an extrapolation of neo-liberal economics and its impact on democracy and any parts of life that are not economic. It is extremely unequal and highly surveilled. Almost nothing a person does goes unnoticed and privacy is reserved for the very rich. I liked the way it was handled and found it believable. I think the question of the balance of convenience and privacy is interesting. The concept of privacy is really a quite modern one. Centuries ago when people lived and worked in the same place all their lives everyone in the village knew everyone else’s business. Living in cities has given us a sense of anonymity that we’ve grown used to and are reluctant to give up.

The other thing I liked about this book is that it is a diverse cast of characters at all levels. A lot of this was done in a quite subtle way and I was a good way through the book before I realised it.

After Atlas is a science-fiction crime thriller, a genre of which I’m fond. It’s fun, and while it touches on some quite serious and weighty topics, it does so with a very light hand. Emma Newman is a good writer and this is an easy and engaging read. I liked it a lot.


Skin by Ilka Tamke is the first in a fantasy trilogy set in Britain in the early 1st century AD. Ailia is a child without skin, which means she doesn’t know her place in the world. Rome is poised to invade and the Britons are divided between those who would fight and those who would make peace. They are waiting for a spiritual leader. Ailia undergoes several trials and may be the one they are waiting for.

There’s quite a bit I liked about this book. The cover is beautiful and is a good representation of what the book is like. It’s in first person and set entirely in Ailia’s head, which means it’s not always clear what is going on because Ailia is young and doesn’t know who can be trusted. The worldbuilding is really great and the setting is brought to life with a mystical touch.

But, I wasn’t hugely engaged with the characters and the story. The ending sort of fizzled out. It is the first in a series, but even so, the ending felt as though the story just stopped, rather than coming to any resolution, and unfortunately didn’t set up any desire for me to find the next book.

The cover says it would suit fans of Game of Thrones which I think is a bit misleading. If you’re looking for hard-bitten political, dynastic fantasy, this is not it. Skin is an emotional, mystical story. It’s worth a read if that’s your cup of tea.


Blue Remembered Earth

bluerememberedearthBlue Remembered Earth, by Alastair Reynolds, is the first in the Poseidon’s Children sequence.

Set one hundred and fifty years in the future, in a utopian society in which African is the dominant geographical power on earth, the moon and Mars are colonised, and asteroids are mined for water and minerals, the story centres around one family. The Akinyas are wealthy and powerful family with varied business interests, but Sunday and Geoffrey want to pursue lives unconnected to the family business. Geoffrey wants to study elephants in the Amboseli basin and Sunday lives in an artists’ commune on the moon.

When the reclusive and eccentric matriarch and founder of Akinya Industries, Eunice, dies she instigates a treasure hunt through the solar system. Sunday and Geoffrey follow clues that Eunice hid on the moon, on Mars, and finally on the space station where she spent her last decades. Their cousins, Hector and Lucas, are the ones that currently run Akinya Industries and are concerned that the mystery Eunice is set on revealing will be bad for the business.

Along the way, Reynolds introduces us to his world and the players in it. Poseidon’s Children starts with a human level story and develops into space opera. Geoffrey and Sunday are ordinary people thrust into a game initiated by their grandmother, who was far from ordinary. It ends with a hint at what she might have done a hundred years ago, something that goes against all the principles of the society she lived in.

I enjoyed this. It’s the first of Reynolds’ books that I’ve read and I understand that a utopian vision of the future is different for him. The worldbuilding was excellent and I liked the unique elements of it. It was a great demonstration of how to use plot and character to create the world rather than relying entirely on description. I will read more of these. Once book mountain isĀ  conquered, obvs.

The Bees

BeesI love my kindle. It’s much better not having to carry around several books and I run out of something to read much less frequently. I still read and buy physical books but I don’t think reading on the kindle is a less rich experience. The one downside of the kindle, though, is I can’t see what other people are reading. Maybe a display panel could be added to the back, because I quite often read books that I’ve seen people reading on the train.

The Bees, by Laline Paull, is one of those books. It’s about a swarm of bees and describes a cycle of their lives. It’s told from the point of view of Flora 717, a worker bee who is able to transcend the bees’ caste system and take on several roles from nursery nurse to forager.

Paull’s world is based on some facts about bees but is essentially magical realist in tone. The bees are anthropomorphised and the hive is turned into a golden palace. It does require some suspension of disbelief but if you’re prepared to give yourself over to this world it is truly lovely.

In order to relate the events of the book, Flora has to be able to move out of the caste she’s born into and this is unusual. Most bees have their role and stick to it. Except foragers. Any bee can become a forager. But Flora is special and only she can save the hive. Flora isn’t so much a character as a device, but for this type of novel, it works. It’s not perfect, and the lack of any real danger to Flora lets the book down in a couple of places. Point of view slips towards the end and an authorial voice intrudes.

I didn’t like the prologue and epilogue which offer a human view of the hive. The book would have been better without them, and the epilogue in particular was overly sentimental.

I enjoyed the world-building. I was completely sucked into the book and found it beautiful, lovely, and captivating. Paull evokes both devotion and menace very well.

There are some weaknesses to the book but, overall, I enjoyed it. It’s unusual, and what’s good is really good. And there’s a happy ending, which was the perfect choice.

100 Books in 2011: The Left Hand of God

The Left Hand of God by Paul Hoffman is the first of a trilogy following the life of Thomas Cale, a strange boy with a dent in his head and the uncanny ability to anticipate an opponent’s moves.

We meet Cale in the Sanctuary, a sort of monastery/training school for boys who are to become Redeemers. The faith expressed by Redeemers is a thinly veiled version of the Abrahamic religions and the Sanctuary is a brutal environment where the boys are treated with such violence and neglect that many of them don’t survive. Cale is a survivor and what that makes of him is delicately handled, for the most part.

Cale discovers one of the Redeemers dissecting a girl while another girl is tied up waiting for it to be her turn. He kills the Redeemer and then has to escape. He takes with him two associates (friendship is an offence punishable by being beaten to death) because he believes they will suffer once he is discovered missing.

Against the odds, they evade the Redeemers sent to capture them and end up in Memphis, capital city of a nearby Empire. There they discover a world ruled by subtle gradations of status conferred by birth and bloodline. The Chancellor is a talented and intelligent man and recognises that Cale can give them information about the Sanctuary. He sends them to the Empire’s military training academy where they wreak havoc and make some enemies. In passing, Cale meets the daughter of the Marshal of the Empire and falls in love. Said daughter, Arbell Swan-Neck, is kidnapped by the Redeemers in an attempt to draw the Empire into battle. Cale rescues her. The Redeemers attack again and Cale is forced to admit that the tactics they are using are his, but that he doesn’t know what the big picture is. He doesn’t know why the Redeemers are attacking, or really why they do anything. In the end, Cale finds himself back in the possession of the Redeemers.

This is an odd book. It starts off well. The initial chapters introducing us to the Sanctuary and the relationship between the boys are great. They are delightfully disturbing and the environment is solidly evoked. This world seems very real. The writing style is compelling and engaging. Characterisation is good, although less so for the female characters. The action and dialogue are great, keeping the book moving at a nice pace. This first quarter of the book is definitely the best and it is worth reading just for this.

Then it all gets a bit wobbly. The quality of the writing remains high and the style is still compelling. In fact, the writing style is basically what carried me through the rest of the book because there are some weaknesses. The main weakness is the worldbuilding. When the setting is the Sanctuary it’s really good. This is a real place with great detail and an oppressive sense of horror about it. Outside the Sanctuary, everything seems a bit haphazard. Nothing seems to fit together particularly and there is some confusion about where places are in relation to each other.

If the POV was tight third person centred on Cale you could argue that he wouldn’t have the first idea about the world outside the Sanctuary and that it would all be confused. But Hoffman uses a loose third person POV for various characters and frequently slips into an omniscient POV where the authorial voice can be used. His handling of POV is good and the changes flow smoothly. The use of the authorial voice contributes to the engaging nature of the writing style. However it jars badly with the poor worldbuilding. There are POV characters who would know exactly how their world works but they are never used to convey that information to the reader. And there’s no map so you can’t check (although I believe that if worldbuilding is done well a map is unnecessary).

To compound the rather haphazard communication of the worldbuilding, Hoffman randomly throws in elements of the real world, which, to my mind, only adds to the confusion. It starts with a reference to the Norwegians (never followed up), then one to the Middle East, then the Redeemers attack a city called York. I’m wondering if this is more of an alternative history than a fantasy but this is never revealed. (Whilst looking for the image for this post I went on the Left Hand of God website which has a map. It’s not this world.) Towards the end, in a discussion about the cost of war, there is mention of a group of people called Jews who happen to live in a ghetto and lend money.

I know most fantasy worlds are based on elements of the real world and that some authors are better at it than others, but this is just lazy. It feels like he was just making it up as he was going along with absolutely no regard for internal coherence. It’s annoying. But other elements of the book are really good. I don’t really know whether to recommend it or not. I enjoyed it but also was frustrated with it.

Thoughts on reading: Whit

Whit by Iain Banks has been on book mountain for a while. Years in fact. I was put off Iain Banks’ mainstream fiction by not being able to get through A Song of Stone.

It’s a slow start and I only stuck with it because this is my work. If I was reading for entertainment, I probably would have put it down well before I got halfway through. Not that there’s anything wrong with it – Banks is a fine writer. It’s just that the story wasn’t compelling. I know what I like; vikings, vampires, adventure and sex. There was none of that. It was a story of a insular community and their relation with the outside world and it wasn’t that interesting to me. Until about halfway through. Then it becomes clear that certain people are up to no good and there is a bit of a mystery at the centre of the story.

So, the second half of the book is better, but I don’t think I liked it that much. Which is not really the point as we’re here to talk about the writing. The main thing I noticed about this book was the worldbuilding, perhaps because I don’t expect it to be so obvious in mainstream fiction. Banks is describing the world of a group of people who live in a way that makes them quite alien to ‘normal’ people. He carries this off well. It is in the first person and the (sole) POV character, Isis, is completely invested in her way of life. She is special in this world, the very opposite of an outcast, and it takes several large event to make her start questioning the status quo. The worldbuilding takes place via Isis, and as she’s not an outsider, Banks has the discipline to convey her total acceptance of her world. It is the outside world, the contemporary world, that is portrayed as strange. Her strangeness, the weirdness of her world is shown to us by her skewed interpretation of the people and events around her. It was a skillful demonstration of worldbuilding that brought the reader into the world, rather than leaving them watching from the edges.

The other element of note is almost the flipside of the first. Choosing a protagonist who is at the centre of her world, with high status, who feels loved and accepted, enabled excellent worldbuilding. But it also meant that shaking that belief in the goodness and rightness of the worldbuilding would take some significant events and that had to be done convincingly. I feel that contributed to the slow pace of the unfolding of the plot. Banks spent the first half of the book building Isis and her world up and then the second half tearing it down. I think I would have prefered more foreshadowing than Banks gave us.

In non-fiction, I read The Biology of Belief by Bruce Lipton. I thought it would be about how humans are biologically wired for faith, but is actually more about how beliefs affect the science of biology. Some interesting ideas, if not a totally convincing theory.

Thoughts on reading: Black Man

I read a lot and as I’ve got better at writing (and more confident in my writing), most of what I read either makes me feel ‘I can do this too’ or ‘That’s a good way of doing it’. Occasionally, I read something that makes me feel talentless and stupid, that makes me realise how big the gap is between where I am and where I want to be. Richard Morgan’s Black Man is one of those books. It was amazing.

Something about this book made it seem better than everything I’ve read in a long time. All the basics are there and are done well. It’s a great plot, with twists and turns but no cheats. There are two key moments where I wasn’t sure what was going to happen next (in a good way) and in the end everything came together to create a full understanding of what had happened. The plot was really strong and well paced.

Worldbuilding is something I particularly noted. Morgan throws the reader into his world immediately and just leaves them to catch up. It’s slick and realistic. I don’t know if it’s just that I haven’t read much new science fiction lately, but it seemed really modern. It seemed like Morgan is really up on current affairs, cutting edge science and social/psychological theory and his vision of the future jumps off from now. He has lots of little details that really ground the book and make it real, such as having the characters reference celebrities, music, intellectuals and gurus. My over-riding impression was that this was a really intelligent, thorough book.

The characters were well-drawn, believable, with deep inner worlds and congruent outer actions. It was all done through inner monologue, for the POV characters, dialogue and action. The action scenes were exciting, convincing and pacy.

It’s not perfect. I noticed one or two clunky adjectives and awkward turns of phrase but that was all in a 600+ page book. I think that what makes this work so well is that all the elements are done to a high standard. There are many enjoyable books that have good plots with ok characters, or great writing and weak plots, or fascinating characters with nothing to do. Few books get everything right, and this is one of them. And on top of that, the themes are intelligently thought through in a fascinating way. Read it. It’s amazing.

In non-fiction news, I read The Courtesans by Joanna Richardson, which is a book of short biographies of 19th century French courtesans. Interesting, and full of tidbits for the work-in-progress!

Thoughts on reading: A Game of Thrones

A Game of Thrones by G.R.R. Martin is book one of A Song of Ice and Fire which features in my top ten favourite books of all time. This is the third time I’ve read it and this time I was able to get past the awe and look at the writing. Well, sometimes. There was still a lot of awe; I love this book and its sequels. I can’t wait for the next one, A Dance of Dragons, and I can’t wait for the HBO series coming next year.

So, getting over the love, what did I notice about the writing? First of all, there’s a lot of backstory in the early chapters. It’s very tightly related to the story of the novel and is actually quite sparing. There’s enough to create the sense of a large world with a rich history, without overwhelming current events. It’s usually done a few sentences at a time to add detail but occasionally, one of the POV characters spends a few pages reminiscing. There are two things that I think makes this amount of backstory work. One, chapters are organised by POV and there are a lot of POV characters. This means that each character can give a bit of backstory relevant to them and that past events can be perceived differently by different people. The reader gets to piece together backstory from several versions of the same event. The second thing is that the backstory stays relevant to the POV character. They only tell the reader what matters to them. Every piece of exposition is doing at least two jobs; it’s adding backstory as well as giving characterisation or world building.

The other thing that Martin does really well is characters. His POV characters are great but one expects that. It’s the little characters, the ones that only appear once or twice, the ones that only have a tiny role. They are invested with as much personality and uniqueness as any of the main characters. There is not one that is a cardboard, cookie-cutter character.

He also has a lot of description in the novel. His locations are vividly realised. Again, this information isn’t dropped on us in one lump. Each character has something to say about where they are which builds up to a detailed, solid setting. The description is put to work to support characterisation and theme. I noticed that I tend to skip over description as a reader, as I want to get to the action, so I tried to slow down and pay attention to the descriptive writing. It’s made me think a lot about how I can improve that in my work-in-progress.

All in all, this is a masterpiece, from one of the greatest fantasy writers there is. I loved it as much the third time round as I did the first time. I can’t recommend it highly enough.

The Left Hand of Darkness

I put The Left Hand of Darkness by Ursula Le Guin up for my book club to read. There was a point before I’d read it where I was getting worried that it would be really hard going, because two people had given up on it only a few pages in.

But I have two hours of commute and I was determined to see it through to the end. As I am quite interested in gender representations in literature and keen to avoid problematic stereotypes in my own writing, I felt that this was an important book to read. Le Guin sends a male protagonist, Genly Ai, as an ambassador to a world in which people are not defined by gender. Each person has a monthly cycle in which they are sexually active for about a quarter of the time and pairings change into male/female pairings depending on the interaction of hormones between them. Every person will be male sometimes and every person will be female sometimes. Every person will be both father and mother.

The first third of the book is hard going. There is fantastic depth to Le Guin’s worldbuilding and there’s a lot to take in. The narrator of this section, Genly Ai, is also highly unreliable, although that doesn’t become clear until later in the book. While reading it I was disturbed by the judgements Ai was making, in particular the negative qualities he clearly identified with the female. The book was written in the late sixties and reflects a very stark correlation of masculinity and positivity. I’d like to think that is less true today, but perhaps it’s just less boldly stated.

Anyway, the world that Ai is visiting is split into nations and there comes a point at which Ai goes to another nation. Here the book changes. Another character, Estraven, becomes a POV character. Through Estraven’s eyes we see things differently and realise just how unreliable Ai is as a narrator. The pace of the story picks up and in the last half is quite the adventure story.

I was awed by Le Guin’s worldbuilding. Her world is worked up from the bottom meaning that everything is different and new and we can’t make any assumptions. After having read so many fantasies lately where the worldbuilding has been quite superficial, this was both inspiring and intimidating! The writing is wonderful; I really enjoyed the lush, detailed language. The characterisation is subtle and effective. If was going to make any criticism it would be that the various voices could be more differentiated, but it’s a tiny point. The Left Hand of Darkness is amazing; go and read it now.

For non-fiction I read A History of the World in Six Glasses by Tom Standage, which looks at beer, wine, spirits, coffee, tea and cola and their impact on society. It was entertaining, easy to read, and offered a unique way of looking at history. I learnt stuff I didn’t know before which is really what I’m looking for.

Priestess of the White

Priestess of the White by Trudi Canavan is not a small book. It’s the first part of a trilogy and is a massive 650 pages. The first hundred or so of these pages made me feel that finishing it would be a chore. It didn’t turn out to be, but I can’t say it turned into a real page turner either.

Priestess of the White is an epic tale of religious war between the good White and the evil Black sorcerors from the south. Problematic. I tried very hard not to draw conclusions about who was supposed to be good and evil, but in the end I was left with the idea that the author was deliberately employing stereotypical symbolism. White equals good, kind, just, true and right. Black equals evil, trickery, cruelty, lies and wrongness. These days I’m not comfortable with these racist constructions.

Compounding this are the inevitable religious parallels. Again through the use of familiar symbolism White is associated with christianity (good) and Black with paganism (evil).

I don’t know if this was deliberate on the part of the author or whether this was a case of lazy worldbuilding. Much fantasy is based on historial societies and transfers the insitutions, economics and social dynamics wholesale. Done well (e.g. The Lies of Locke Lamora by Scott Lynch) this can provide a solid base for a recognisable and believable world. I think that a lot of care needs to be taken that the fantasy world is more than a thin veneer.

Done badly, it becomes hard for the reader to immerse themselves in the fantasy world. I was wondering if it was meant to be allegory and thinking that if it was, it wasn’t clear what Canavan was trying to say.

Characterisation was okay, in some respects quite superficial but better than some stuff I’ve read recently. The same goes for the writing. It was unsophisticated but not the worst I’ve read lately. It did pick up as the story got going. By and large, Canavan avoided big chunks of exposition, which was nice. Overall, I felt that it lacked depth and in a book of this length that’s a real problem.

I think I will read the rest of the trilogy at some point because there were some ambiguities in the ending that suggest that Canavan is preparing to subvert and confound the assumptions she’s set up. I would really like to see that.

The non-fiction interlude was Mauve: How One Man Invented a Colour that Changed the World by Simon Garfield. This was fascinating, full of lots of interesting things to know and less of a biography than an exploration the impact of the discovery of synthetic colour.