Papyrus to Datapad

Genre fiction of all kinds, from historical to science fiction, the past to the future.

Leviathan Wakes

Leviathan Wakes - James S.A. Corey

Space Opera as a genre for a long time had a bad name.  It was the "pulp" science fiction, generally considered low quality, low-brow and without literary merit.  Needless to say, I have always loved it.

 

It's back in vogue now, and with some real heavyweights producing some amazing work set against vast backgrounds full of aliens, wonders, conspiracies and good old-fashioned human foibles.

 

Leviathan Wakes, the first novel by a pair of well known authors using the name James S. A. Corey, has all of those and more.  Two very different protagonists, representing very different ways of looking at the galaxy, are both drawn into a plot that has been years in the planning.  A plot involving solar system wide war, the murder of millions in a science experiment, and the creation of.. something... that could put the future of the entire human race at risk.

 

Two things really stick out about this story.  Firstly, the emotional content.  This is a novel of feeling human beings.  Science fiction, being the literature of ideas, often has a muted emotional quality as the intellect is given center stage; whereas emotions, psychology and the damage events can have on people and their viewpoints are very much a central theme of this novel, and done well.

 

The second is a small thing, a detail.  It struck me the way the crew of one of the main characters, a ship captain, interact with him.  They are very relaxed, very coarse, very much like people I have known and met in my own life.  That this stands out enough, even in retrospect, for me to mention it is a sign of how rarely I have seen this done in shipboard science fiction.  Often, ship-focused science fiction is military science fiction, where even the traditional "swearing, down to earth nco's" have a certain amount of decorum and restraint that is totally lacking in this crew.

 

It was offputting at first, later amusing, and often quite hilarious.  It added something indefinable to the novel, the characterisation of that crew, that everything else seems to orbit.  I was thinking about them, and the easy camaraderie, even after I put the book down.  Whatever else is enjoyable about the book, the clever plot, the beautiful setting - it is these author's talent with characterisation that is going to live longest in my memory.

 

Recommended to all fans of Space Opera and Adventure Science Fiction.

Of Noble Family

Of Noble Family - Mary Robinette Kowal This book was horrifying, terrifying, horrible, emotional, wonderful, amazing.

At twice the length of previous novels in this series, this one definitely had something to say. It said it eloquently and with a passion that cannot help but stir.

Jane and Vincent travel to the Hamilton Estates in Antigua after learning of the death of his father. Trapped there by circumstance, they come face to face with the harsh realities of the slave plantations of Britain's distant Caribbean holdings and quickly become caught up in the life of the estate.

This was a novel that stands solidly on the strength of the previous novels in the series. Any gentleman or lady of the time who believed in abolitionism (as Jane and Vincent did) would have been shocked by the true situation in Antigua - and indeed, as it is pointed out in the book, many abolitionists had allowed themselves to believe that simply by banning the sale of slaves, they had in fact eradicated the evils of slavery - something that was definitely not the case.

However it is the character building that has taken place over the last three novels, the sense of justice and compassion that we have already seen displayed by the main characters and Vincent's experiences both with Vincent's father and the Napoleonic forces, that makes their response so believable and the story so wonderful. They are truly horrified by what they see and feel a deep compassion. Not merely "compassion for fellow humans", that weaker but still important emotion that led the abolitionists in London to fight the slave trade, often without any personal experience or stake in it. But rather, a deep personal compassion that leads them not only to seek to improve conditions of the local slaves, but to acknowledge and accept as family those who, by resemblance alone, obviously were just that.

It was this extensive background work that also leant credence to the idea that slaves in such a position might come to respect and trust the main characters, Jane who's health condition and actions draw sympathy from the female slaves, and Vincent whose scars mark him as one who has suffered, if not in the same way or as badly as the slaves (as he himself points out), at least in a way they can understand.

The story is powerful and sensitive, it treats its subject with respect and yet pulls no punches, draws no veils over the abuses that took place on estates such as the one described. It can be an emotional roller coaster at times, drawing both tears and anger in ways that few books I have read can manage.

It is easily the greatest novel I had read this year, perhaps in quite a few years, and without a doubt the best novel in a series that started in real style and has only gotten better since.

Valour and Vanity

Valour and Vanity - Mary Robinette Kowal Once again, Kowal has shifted the type of novel she is writing with the fourth book in her award winning series. If the first was an Austen Regency Romance, the second Austen crossed with Bernard Cornwall and the third a more purely historical novel filled with politics and family, then this fourth novel was equal parts historical regency novel and Oceans 11.

Robbed and conned out of everything they own, Vincent and Jane find themselves confined to the island of Murano, with no friends and no resources. Without even a place to sleep they first have to see to their immediate needs, and then they need to fight back.

What follows then is the best heist story i've read since the Lies of Locke Lamora. The scheme is clever, fun and involves a group of nuns, a puppeteer and a particularly roguish English poet.

It's difficult to discuss the plot at all without giving away details and the true fun of this novel is the twists, the revelations, and the way the heist plan comes together in unexpected ways. We'll just leave off by saying if you enjoyed the previous three books (and if you didn't, why would you be looking to read the fourth?) you wont be disappointed by the latest installment.

Glamour in Glass

Glamour in Glass  - Mary Robinette Kowal Much like the previous book in the series, Glamour in Glass starts slowly in Kowal's charming, Austenesque way, and builds to a page-turning, action filled climax.

The title of this book refers to experiments in recording a glamour in glass, much the same way as sound can be recorded on wax cylinders or records. One of the truly stand-out aspects of these books are the attention to detail paid to the world building, to the extent of inventing terminology and scientific (within the context of the world) reasonings and theories as to how the fantastic element, glamour, works. This book does an excellent job of introducing this material without ever becoming dry or boring, and using that world-building in the later, most action-packed sections of the book.

The stage this time is Belgium; Brussels and a small town nearby. It is set not long after the previous novel, following a successful commission for the Prince Regent, and occurs during the time of Napolean quitting his exile on Elba and attempting to retake his empire - leaving our heroes caught between Napolean's revived army and the army of the Duke of Wellington, just prior to what would be, in our own history, the battle of Waterloo.

What begins as another charming Austen-like tale gradually evolves into something much more, involving espionage, politics and the horror of being a foreigner in a country at war with itself. It does this without ever losing the regency style, despite the subject matter being far from anything Austen herself ever put to paper. There is real pain and tragedy in this novel, far more emotionally striking for its context than much of the overdone violence and grimness so prevalent in recent modern fantasy. If the first novel were a fun, relaxing romp through regency romance, this one is both something more and less. It gives up that relaxing lightness but in return delivers something very real, very human, and very affecting.

Kowal is a breath of fresh air and has, I think, brought something quitedifferent and original to the corpus of fantasy fiction with this series. I cannot recommend it highly enough.

Without a Summer

Without a Summer - Mary Robinette Kowal After reading the first novel in Kowal's Glamourist Histories series, I was concerned that the following novels didn't seem to have anywhere else to go. The first novel was very much in the style of the regency romance, and in such novels the pairing of the main character and her chosen is usually the end of the story. I have never been so happily mistaken.

The second novel gave us the continent, and the return of Napoleon from Elba as our key action sequences. This novel keeps us closer to home - London, and a tension filled charge of treason.

In previous novels we have heard of Vincent's poor relationship with his overbearing father. This relationship, and the character of the two men in contrast, is very much at the center of this story. We see the strength of Vincent's character far more strongly in comparison with his father's scheming, and his petty minded nastiness that shocks against the mores of the time.

The central conflict of much of the first half of the book is powered by a series of misunderstandings, in true romance novel fashion. I don't much enjoy this particular plot device, however the misunderstandings are all understandable in their way, follow quite naturally from what we have learned of the characters over the series, and are themselves followed by a series of events both powerful and believable. In the final, tension filled scenes the characters acquit themselves with style and are rightly vindicated.

Acting as both a plot device and a backdrop against all of this is the changing London of the times. Poverty is rife in city, fueled by the early starts of industrialisation, such as the introduction of looms and weaving machines, and further exacerbated by the discharge of thousands of soldiers and sailors no longer required now that the Napoleonic wars have drawn to a close. Additions brought in by the magical side of the world-building are also revealed, such as the specialised glamourists called coldmongers whose guild is comprised primarily of young boys, complement and fit in with the history beautifully.

All of this historical background is woven into the story with a deft hand, so much so that it is absorbed almost without notice - a skill that is often sadly overlooked when performed well, but woefully obvious when absent. Kowal is remarkably good at this, never once in any of the three books does anything jar the reader out of enjoyment of the scenes with exposition or awkward devices designed to pass this information on.

The first book was compared to Jane Austen by many readers and reviewers, and indeed it was not an unfair comparison to make with regards to either style or substance. The second novel took a long step away from this with a plot focused on war, the military, and the tragedy that befalls both Vincent and Jane as they get swept up in it.

By this third book, the comparison is being made perhaps out of rote, rather than with any real feeling, and is no longer fair or valid. The charm of the Austenesque prose remains, as does the regency setting, however the series has now evolved into something entirely different. Kowal has made something of her own here, unique and beautiful and a pleasure to read.

I could write more, but I am anxious to move on to the next one.

Raisins And Almonds

Raisins And Almonds  - Stephanie Daniel, Kerry Greenwood Phryne doing what she does best, seducing young men and solving crimes. As always, Phryne comes across cold and somewhat mocking of the men in her life, though she is not as unlikeable with it as in the previous book.

Greenwood's depiction of the jewish community in the early 20th century Melbourne is colourful and very enjoyable. The mystery is steeped in the culture, allowing for discussions of early century zionism, jewish mysticism and other rabbinic studies, and the yiddish language.

On the whole it was light, entertaining and you might even learn a few things.

Mockingjay

Mockingjay  - Suzanne  Collins Surprisingly, and disappointingly, I did not enjoy this final book in the Hunger games series anywhere near as much as the first two.

To speak of the good first, it did resolve a number of dangling threads, providing interesting reasons for details that I had wondered about - such as why President Snow's breath smelt of blood, and the truth about the nature of the overly handsome victor. However, these small things, and indeed the entire first half of the book which was of a similar vein, cannot make up for the disappointments of the second and final half.

The single biggest failing of the story is the complete lack of agency given to the main character. Katniss is a pawn, not a hero. For the first two novels, this was known and accepted - she had some limited agency, in her actions during the game sections, but outside of this she was very much at the mercy of the forces arrayed against her (primarily the government).

However, this final novel is worse, precisely because it pretends to give her real agency towards the end. Free of both the government control and the restraints of the rebels she has fled to, for a brief moment she has an opportunity to actually _act_ rather than simply react. During this time she completely fails to live up to her promise of the first two novels, dithers, gets a bunch of people killed and then, as we approach conclusion, events place her back in the role of puppet dancing on a string.

Without giving too much away, the author has events come to a head at a perfect moment to take from Katniss of any real agency or effect, all to set up yet another tragedy and a series of events which are likely supposed to push the underlying themes of the novel, however are so obvious that they can't possibly qualify as a twist and certainly not as any sort of "decision" on Katniss' part.

In the end, we are left with what is essentially a deus machina, the only time in the novel where katniss actually acted of her own free will is robbed of all meaning and affects absolutely nothing, and even the love triangle, which I had already commented was the focus of an irritating amount of page-time throughout the novels, is resolved not with an actual resolution but a handwave that does serious disservice to what has been shown of the characters involved. The shallowness of feeling, or the cowardice, involved in the resolution of this triangle on the part of one of the players is almost impossible to accept, given the amount of time spent showing him as exactly the opposite.

This is not a story of a girl whose actions sparked a revolution, and who helped topple a government.

This is a story of a girl whose accidental actions were manipulated by two opposing factions in their personal war, and whose intentional efforts made no difference whatsoever on either of them.

Shades of Milk and Honey

Shades of Milk and Honey  - Mary Robinette Kowal At first blush it's difficult to know what to make of this book, Shades of Milk and Honey, by Mary Robinette Kowal. The tagline description I read somewhere that originally inspired me to give the book a look is probably still the best descriptor I could come up with myself: It's the book Jane Austen would have written, had she written fantasy.

That isn't mere hyperbole either, everything about the novel from it's beautifully rendered setting to the elegant prose, to the plot line focused on the romantic lives of two sisters living in an entailed estate with a father worried for their inheritance, none of it would shame Jane Austen herself.

Added to this mix is magic. Not the magic of fireballs and lightning, which would seem not only out of place but discordant in the environment, but glamour, the magic of illusion, which fits into the setting like a velvet glove and a blushing young lady.

What results is an absolutely charming romance story, with proper gentlemen, roguish cads, glamour-focused artists (glamourists) and even a pistols-at-ten-paces duel of honour. It is sedate for the most part, picking up pace towards the end.

The characters and plot bare similarities to period novels of the same type, such as Pride and Prejudice or even Little Women, however Kowal brings them to life with a wonderful freshness.

In the end, it's a perfect relaxing read, and for me an enjoyable alternative to my more usual fare. Highly recommended to anyone looking for something without the grimness that seems almost mandatory in current science fiction and fantasy.

Catching Fire

Catching Fire - Suzanne  Collins Much of what I said about the previous book can be read as applying to this second title in the trilogy as well. The story is still fast paced and interesting, even more-so as the lens draws back and we understand more of what's truly at stake beyond the protagonist's survival. Katniss is still terribly unlikeable, and we are still drawn in to wanting to see her win despite this, and the love triangle, if possible, has become even more irritating.

The main difference between this book and the previous is definitely the drawing back of perspective. Now a victor in the games, she has unwittingly laid the groundwork for revolution against the central government (though careful readers, after the revelations in this book, will realise that she has been manipulated into this all along - the signs were placed with careful foreshadowing and clever foresight.)

There are a lot more deaths unrelated to the games this time around, as the government tightens it's totalitarian grip harder against the sand slipping through its fingers.

The biggest issue this story has, at this point, is the behaviour of the government itself. This is a totalitarian dictatorship that has held 12 districts under its thumb for seventy-five years, yet everything they do during this book seems to serve two purposes: one, to put a dark underline under "EVIL" against their name (there are no shades of gray in this story, not where the government is concerned) which makes it a bit one dimensional, and also to provide more reasons for the districts to rise against their oppressors.

This seems counterproductive to me, and to any student of history I imagine. Every action they take seems calculated to make the situation worse instead of better, despite the fact that President Snow (the man who is described, inexplicably, as having 'the scent of blood' on his breath) appears both intelligent, and to want to prevent these uprisings rather than force them into existence.

If anything, that's the biggest issue I have. The government, the president, it's minions, are all faceless, cliche evil, one dimensional and boring. They aren't so much people as emotionless obstacles for the characters to overcome and be afraid of, and to act as a reason for the uprising. The main conceit of this novel's central part, the competitors chosen for the next year's games, could not have been more poorly chosen if their goal was really to prevent an uprising.

There is one more book to go, and although this one does a far better job of making some important revelations at the end, it still leaves a lot dangling. That will tell if the government's inexplicably stupid behaviour is explained in the final book, and if the dangling plot threads are fully resolved by the end. As before, this book does not tell a full story and taken on its own the ending would be unsatisfying. Hower, taken as part of one, long story, it's a decent middle that keeps the pages turning and the tension high.

The Hunger Games

The Hunger Games  - Suzanne  Collins There is a lot to dislike about this ridiculously popular book. The main character, the rather awkward romance triangle, the "wow i'm so tough and jaded" constant inner monologues of the main character. The self serving nature of the main character. The rather obscure, evil-for-evil's sake of the central government. The main character.

As you can see, i'm not Katniss' biggest fan at this point.

However one thing remains true despite all of this. It's a very entertaining story.

The idea of modern "death games" competed in by children is not new by any stretch of the imagination (see Battle Royale and The Running Man for two modernish examples), however it is depicted well here and fits nicely into the dystopian world Collins has created. Irritating Katniss may be, and not particularly likable, but she is still a compelling character and you find yourself rooting for her throughout the story regardless. The story packs some real emotional punches too, some of them arguably cheap shots but done with class and very effective.

At the end of the day, the story kept me turning the pages late into the night, and any story that can do that is a successful one.

One final note, the book does not end particularly well. Not much is resolved beyond the immediate (the games are over), the tension gets knocked up yet another notch at the end rather than tapering into a conclusion, and it feels... cut off rather abruptly. This is not a complete story in a book, though it could have been with a bit more finesse. You shouldn't plan to read "The Hunger Games" but rather "The Hunger Games Trilogy", because by itself it's ending would be disappointing. Seen as a lead-in to the next novel, as it is obviously intended to be, you can perhaps forgive this somewhat.

A Poisonous Plot: The Twenty First Chronicle of Matthew Bartholomew

A Poisonous Plot: The Twenty First Chronicle of Matthew Bartholomew - Susanna Gregory I have a lot of books on my to-read list so it is rare that I am "waiting" for a book to come out. However, I find myself growing excited when I hear a new Matthew Bartholomew novel is due for release, and for the first time in quite a few years, found myself dropping it straight to the top of my read pile on release.

Gregory does not disappoint. The twenty-first entry in the ongoing mystery series and Matthew is showing every bit of the wear from the previous books, completely disillusioned with love and personal matters but holding strong to the core of him, the love of healing.

Cambridge is once again nearly aflame as the always-simmering tensions between town and university are once again encouraged, this time by a devious and remarkably clever antagonist. With half of the university pushing to decamp from cambridge for the fens, and a large portion of the town calling for exactly the same thing, everyone is at each other's throats. Add to this a strange disease running rampant through the town, an arrogant but incompetent doctor recently arrived, a noxious dyeworks opened in the city by Bartholemew's own sister, Michaelhouse's near financial ruin and a steadily increasing bodycount, and the stage is set for what could well be the end of the university, if not the entire town.

With such high stakes, and tempers flaring all over Cambridge, not even priests are safe from attack.

There is a lot to love in this book for fans of the rest of the series, with one stand-out being a more visible role being played by Dickon, the Sheriff's wild son, now ten years old and dying his face red like a devil, with his hair fashioned into two tiny horns. He patrols by day with his father, terrifying scholar and townsman alike.

Anyone who is a fan of historical crime novels will love this book, though if you've never read any of this series before do yourself a favour and begin, as they say, at the beginning. The journey is worth it.

Urn Burial

Urn Burial - Kerry Greenwood, Stephanie Daniel A wholly enjoyable murder mystery, written as a deliberate pastiche in the classic "golden age" style, whilst simulataneously subverting the rules (for instance, there is certainly a Chinaman involved in the story. Two, in fact.)

I sometimes find it difficult to like Phryne Fisher in these novels, and so it was in this book, particularly in the way she flaunts her short affair with Gerald in front of Lin, her chinese lover and her guest at the house in which they are staying.

It's a small thing, and an important piece of characterisation for the character, which is in keeping with how she has been written throughout the series. It's also good to see a strong, female lead character who isn't at all ashamed of acting like many of her male counterparts - and at the very least, less deviously than most of them.

However hard it can be to like her sometimes, it's never difficult to admire her. She bursts into full life in every story and this is no exception - even her enjoyment at playing at Poirot in the ending is obvious and fitting.

In golden age fashion, every major player has a secret in this story, and though not all of them are surprising by the time they are revealed, there are enough sudden twists and surprise reveals to make it a delight to read.

Apothecary Rose: The First Owen Archer Mystery

Apothecary Rose: The First Owen Archer Mystery - Candace Robb Though I first encountered historical mysteries through the tv show based on Ellis Peters' Cadfael, and have since come to quite enjoy those of Peters' books I have read, my long running love affair with Historical Mysteries began here, with Candace Robb and Owen Archer, in 14th century York. There are perhaps better historical mystery writers than Robb - I am a massive fan of Susanna Gregory's Bartholemew series for instance - but rereading this book takes me right back to that first time, discovering a whole new genre i'd never read before and loving every second of it.

Nostalgia aside, this book, and the series as a whole, deserves the 5 stars. It is a solid detective story where the process is more important than the killer (who is known to the reader right from the start), and the story itself is solidly grounded in the culture and history of the setting. The characters are three dimensional and leap into life on the page, with Summoner Digby playing a very surprisingly sympathetic hero's part.

The romance angle, though a trifle simplistic, is heartfelt enough to be warming rather than eye-rolling in the end. It is easy to empathise with both the main characters, and thus to enjoy this process despite its simplicity.

On the whole, a solid and highly enjoyable book that evokes the setting without overwhelming the reader with pointless trivia. As i've mentioned in other reviews, it is a common thing for writers of historical novels to want to cram as much of their hard-earned research into the book as possible. Robb handles this with such expert ease that you don't notice it at all, you just experience and enjoy.

Story Engineering

Story Engineering - Larry Brooks This book hovers on the brink between 4 and 5 stars for me. In the end, it gets five, if only because it contained so much useful information and analysis that I hadn't before seen written in such a clear, concise manner. The section on story structure, the largest section of the book, is itself worth the price of admission and although i'm not yet sure I agree with everything he said, it's certainly making me look at stories I am reading in a different way, more analytically, with an eye to what the author is doing in each part.

The major downside of this book is that much of the space is wasted. Brooks has clearly been teaching and pushing his views on planning and structure for a long time, and in that time has encountered a great deal of resistance from people who prefer to work "organically", without planning their stories, and who view any sort of planning or structure as some sort of offence against their own creative impulses. I've certainly met people who held this view myself.

In this book, Brooks strives to meet those objections head on, and argue against them. However in doing this, he finds himself constantly repeating himself, making those same arguments, over and over in almost every section, when discussing any new topic. These discussions alone probably take up a full third of the book and after reading the same line of argument for then third, fourth and fifth times, the author starts to come across as very defensive.

Brooks is also very proscriptive in this book. He has obviously been working on these ideas for a long time and come to the conclusion that they represent Truth. This likely also goes part of the way to explain all of the arguments presented against the expected detractors. I can't help but feel however that the direct proscriptiveness of his approach may well work against him if his goal really is to reach those that might otherwise be unreceptive to his message here, I found my own inner stubborness rising at several points, despite having no real personal disagreement with anything he said.

All that aside, there is real, solid gold insight in this book, and whether or not it really does represent Truth in Storytelling, there is definitely more than enough to get you thinking productively about craft, story and structure.

Highly recommended.

The Doomsday Brunette

The Doomsday Brunette - John Zakour GraphicAudio is a fantastic concept really, a throw back to the old radio dramas of the 30s and 40s, making use of modern technology to create amazingly well produced full cast audiobooks. With the right source material, it's going to be a gold idea every time.

John Zakour's series about the last Private Eye is wacky, ridiculous and hilarious - a perfect match for GraphicAudio and a stunning, highly entertaining package over all.

The twists and turns never really stop from the first page onwards, and underneath the anything goes humour is a very cleverly crafted story that plants seeds early on and pays them off with style. It's not long but the pace never slackens and the ending ties everything up in a very satisfying way.

Highly recommended.

Lexicon

Lexicon - Max Barry Lexicon is, at it's heart, a story about neurolinguistic programming and what happens when a group of people not only have access to its power, but keep it a secret from the rest of the human race. It's clever, weaving in recent politics and societal trends into the framework of conspiracy, and painting a Darwinian picture of the nature of such a society within society.

The neurolinguistic aspects of the story hark back to Neal Stephenson's brilliant Snow Crash, but this is a very different beast. Absent the futuristic dystopia, any reference to a cyberpunk like "cyberspace", this is a novel set very much in "contemporary" times with contemporary technology.

Absent too is much of the wry humour of Stephenson's Snow Crash, making this a much darker and far more brutal novel than the former.

That said, it is a thought provoking page-turner that grabs the reader with the initial questions and doesn't let go, dragging us through an adrenaline filled present interspaced with chapters of a fascinating past, and challenging us to guess how we got here from there - until all threads are tidily, and satisfactorily, resolved in the climax and denouement.

There is great tragedy in what is in some ways an epic, blood-stained love story, contrasted against another, very sad one.

In short, brilliant. Read it.

Currently reading

Three Kingdoms (Chinese Classics, 4 Volumes)
Luo Guanzhong, Moss Roberts
The New Annotated Sherlock Holmes: The Complete Short Stories
Arthur Conan Doyle, Leslie S. Klinger