The Dreaming: Beyond the Shore of Night

By Terry LaBan

Rating: 4 stars

I only found out that these spin-offs from Neil Gaiman’s Sandman series existed recently and I’m still confused as to why there are only two volumes collecting just 16 of the 60 issues of the series. From reading this book, which collects issues 1-8, split into three stories, the quality of both the stories and art is definitely high enough for me to want to read the rest of it. Who do I badger to get them on the case?

Of the three stories in this volume, I think the second one is my favourite, even though it’s the one least connected to the Dreaming. The first volume tells the story of Goldie, the golden gargoyle who lives with Cain and Abel and the third is also a Cain and Abel story, with an unwanted relative coming to visit them. While Cain and Abel can be fun characters, Cain’s bad habit of repeatedly killing his brother can get a bit wearing. The second story, The Lost Boy, tells the story of Brian Salmon, an architect living in the 1950s, who has an encounter with fairies and finds himself pushed forward in time, via the Dreaming, to the 1990s. Here, he has to try and survive the bizarre world he comes to and try and get home. There is also a cameo from Johanna Constantine and the main plot driver is Mad Hettie, both of whom appeared in Sandman.

There’s a lot of scope to tell stories set in the Dreaming, and I’d love to read them all. I hope that Titan or DC or whoever can do so, rethinks the lack of collected volumes of this series.

Book details

ISBN: 9781852869045
Publisher: Titan Books
Year of publication: 1997

Service With a Smile (Blandings Castle, #9; Uncle Fred, #4)

By P.G. Wodehouse

Rating: 5 stars

In this visit to Blandings Castle, we find the Duke of Dunstable plotting to steal the Empress, a new and insufferable secretary and, to cap it all, the Church Lads’ Brigade are camped all over the lawns. It’s a lot for the Earl of Emsworth to cope with, but he doesn’t have to do it alone. That general do-gooder, and all round nice guy, the Earl of Ickenham, aka Uncle Fred, is ready and willing to provide service with a smile.

Light, fluffy, funny and a balm to the soul, reading a Wodehouse novel is always a joy, and this is no exception. While I’m not as familiar with Uncle Fred or the inmates of Blandings as I am with Jeeves and Wooster, I’ve read some (and watched the BBC TV series) and it’s always nice to get better acquainted with them.

Book details

ISBN: 9780099513995
Publisher: Arrow
Year of publication: 1961


By Charles Stross

Rating: 4 stars

Robin comes out of memory surgery, not really knowing who he is any more. But something he quickly discovers is that someone or something is after him, wanting him dead, permanently. So he jumps at the opportunity to take refuge in a long-term experiment, where he would be isolated from the outside world. But the experiment isn’t what it seems, and soon Robin is fighting not only for his life, but for his very essence.

I enjoyed this far-future story, where Humanity, or post-Humanity, rather, has the ubiquitous ability to edit their physical forms and their memories at will. There are a lot of ideas here, starting with the idea of a censorship virus that affects the teleportation gates that bind human civilisation together: this virus edits the memory of whoever passes through it, so thoroughly that nobody now remembers what it was trying to suppress. This led to the Censorship Wars, which were won, but at the cost of fracturing the civilisation into isolated ‘polities’ and removing the authorisation and authentication protocols that form the basis of identity in post-Human space.

Within the glasshouse itself, we are shown the terror of really not being in control. The glasshouse is a panopticon, where the experiementers have total control over your body; but the story is tinged with the dark humour of the inmates trying to understand what it’s like to live in what the experimenters think may be something like the mid to late twentieth century. Also here is the attempts to hide things in the panopticon and even to ferment revolution.

Stross is good at thinking through the implications of a technology and following that through to conclusions that are unexpected and, at times, terrifying. Not always the easiest read, but definitely worthwhile.

Book details

ISBN: 9781841493930
Publisher: Orbit
Year of publication: 2006

Archer’s Goon

By Diana Wynne Jones

Rating: 4 stars

Howard comes home one evening to find the Goon sitting in the kitchen, demanding the two thousand that are owed by Howard’s dad. Over the next few weeks, Howard and his whole family start getting involved in what seems to be a giant conspiracy by a family of very powerful people. It’s up to Howard, doubtfully aided by his sister, Awful, and the Goon, to figure out what’s going on and sort it out.

I enjoyed this YA fantasy novel, with the seven siblings who ‘farm’ the town that Howard and his family live in, looking after different aspects of the town’s infrastructure and civil society. Howard is a good protagonist, and Awful is as amusingly bad as her nickname suggests. The ‘farmers’ are grotesque in their own different ways, with music being played, gas and electricity being cut off, roads being dug up and more to try and get the two thousand from Howard’s dad.

A fun story, and it’s got a decent conclusion and ending as well, something that Jones sometimes struggles with, in my experience.

Book details

ISBN: 9780416622805
Publisher: Methuen Children's
Year of publication: 1984

Saga, Vol. 3

By Brian K. Vaughan

Rating: 5 stars

Volume three of this Saga is as marvellous as the rest of the story to date. This time we follow Alana, Marko and Hazel, along with ghostly babysitter Izabel and grandmother Klara as they go to meet the writer who wrote the book that they fell in love over.

I continue to love this story, and now am gnashing my teeth that there won’t be any more for some time to come, as I’ve caught up with the collected trade paperbacks (a similar problem as I have with Gunnerkrigg Court, although at least here I don’t have the temptation of trying to read it three pages a week). Alana and Marko continue to be great protagonists. Their love for each other should be sickening for a cynical old so-and-so like me, but it’s so, so sweet. And it’s so funny as well. So many great lines, but which would make no sense out of context, so there’s no point repeating them here.

This volume also introduces two new characters, a pair of journalists working for a tabloid who get wind of this star-crossed love story and start snooping around. Like every other character in the book, they aren’t 2D stereotypes, but are rounded and have their own problems (not least of which is being accepted as gay on their home planet).

I have no idea where Vaughan and Staples are going with this story, but I’m sure as hell enjoying the ride.

Book details

ISBN: 9781607069317
Publisher: Image Comics
Year of publication: 2014

Use of Weapons

By Iain M. Banks

Rating: 4 stars

Cheradenine Zakalwe is an occasional agent for Special Circumstances, the closest thing that the Culture has to a secret intelligence agency. His handler is trying to find him for another job, while the drone Skaffen-Amtiskaw thinks he’s burned out. This book tells his story, his history and his terrible secret.

I read this book nearly 20 years ago, it being the first Culture novel I ever read (at too young an age to grok it). I then mostly forgot about it and came back to it now because I’ve heard so many people talking about how good it was and after getting over remembered nastiness. And goodness, it was good, wasn’t it?

The structure, telling the story in the current, interleaved with chapters going backwards in time through Zakalwe’s life is still novel and works very well, setting up two big reveals in as many chapters at the climax of the book. I’d completely forgotten how funny the book is as well. It’s so Banks-ian and a pleasure to read. Coming back to this book after more than half a lifetime is probably the closest that I’ll get now to a ‘new’ Iain M. Banks book and I enjoyed it immensely.

Yes, the reveal is horrific, but nowhere near as bad as I remembered/imagined (or maybe I’ve just got more jaded in my old age). The humour throughout the book both lessens and heightens that horror but it’s never anything less than a joy to read.

Still not my favourite Culture novel (The Player of Games or Look to Windward probably still retain that title) but it’s definitely a damn fine one.

Book details

ISBN: 9781857231359
Publisher: Orbit
Year of publication: 1990

Reaper Man (Discworld #11)

By Terry Pratchett

Rating: 5 stars

Death has been fired (although allowed to keep the horse). This leads to some, er, inconvenience. Windle Poons is a wizard who was supposed to die, but finds himself at a loss so ends up back in his body, not quite dead, but not quite alive. You might say, un-dead. He tries to figure out what’s going on, while somewhere in the Ramtop mountains, Death learns about living.

I love this book. It’s an old favourite although I haven’t read it for several years now. Coming back to it, it’s still fresh and enjoyable as the first time I read it. It’s still laugh out loud funny, but also introspective, as Death (as Bill Door [and the scene where he realises that he needs a name and tries to find out is hilarious]) learns about the people that before he had only regarded as ‘the harvest’. And his speech to Azrael still tugs at my heartstrings. The speech ending with the quote ‘LORD, WHAT CAN THE HARVEST HOPE FOR, IF NOT FOR THE CARE OF THE REAPER MAN?’ puts a lump in my throat every time.

While Bill Door’s story is touching, that of Windle and the wizards over in Ankh-Morpork is downright hilarious. The wizards always provide great fun, and Windle and his merry band of undead is a great group that I wish we’d seen more of (although Reg Shoe pops up in more than one book later one).

And, of course, this is the book that introduces us to the Grim Squeaker: the Death of Rats, the most adorable creature to ever wield a scythe.

Warm-hearted, hilarious and thought provoking. This is Pratchett at his finest.

Book details

ISBN: 9780552134644
Publisher: Corgi Books
Year of publication: 1991

The Boat of a Million Years

By Poul Anderson

Rating: 4 stars

In this novel, Poul Anderson tells an audacious story, spanning at least two thousand years, and forward into an unknown future. Across history, a tiny number of people are born immortal, with wounds healing quickly and never ageing beyond a vigorous early adulthood. Most of this book follows a number of these people as they flit from identity to identity, staying out of the way of history. Eventually, they are uncovered, and the Human race develops immortality for all. In the new utopia that follows, the original Survivors become more and more out of place, and they eventually take to space; even without faster than light travel, their immortal bodies mean that the time between stars is not a problem.

I really enjoyed the scale of this story, with its sweep of history and how the immortals stayed out of its way. Apart from a few encounters, the eight Survivors that eventually take to space together don’t really find each other until the twentieth century, when the globe is shrunk by technology.

Perhaps we don’t necessarily get a deep insight into the mind of these immortals, the eldest of whom was born in Tyre, about three thousand years before the twentieth century. They remain ciphers and archetypes, but that didn’t reduce my enjoyment of the story, but then, these sorts of epic stories – almost myths – often appeal to me, and being the fan of old golden age SF that I am, lack of characterisation doesn’t bother me that much.

Definitely worth reading for the scope of its history, and the vision of its future.

Book details

ISBN: 9780747406099
Publisher: ORBIT (an imprint of LITTLE, BROWN UK PAPERBACKS)
Year of publication: 1989

The Gospel of Loki

By Joanne M. Harris

Rating: 4 stars

This book retells the fairly familiar story of Norse mythology, but from the point of view of the trickster god, Loki. As you may imagine, the Trickster isn’t the most reliable narrator, but Harris does a good job of getting inside his head and making him sympathetic, even when recounting some of his more unpleasant acts (such as arranging the killing of Baldor). As well as that tale, we have other familiar myths recounted here, including his involvement in acquiring mighty weapons for the Aesir, getting Thor to dress up as a bride and tricking Frey to give up his runesword.

This is all told in the first person, and we see Loki from the start, when he was tamed from the Chaos by Odin, to the early desire to belong and fit in at Asgard to the disillusionment and anger that leads to his turning his back on the gods and eventually to Ragnarok.

Loki is an engaging narrator, with a wry wit and humorous turn of phrase. The reader finds themselves being drawn into his point of view and wanting him to succeed, even as we follow him to the final betrayal at the end of the world.

Harris has done a great job here of finding a fresh retelling of the Norse myths and this is a very enjoyable way to rediscover them.

Book details

ISBN: 9781473202368
Publisher: Hachette Australia
Year of publication: 2014


By Charles Stross

Rating: 4 stars

I enjoyed this novella that covers some of the more intricate nature of time travel. The Stasis is an organisation that has access to time travel and uses it to shape human history, preserving the human race, and reseeding it on Earth after it goes extinct, as it inevitably does.

Our protagonist is Pierce, someone plucked out of time in the early 21st century after he fulfils the initiation of killing his own grandfather and we follow him as he progresses through his training to a full agent of the Stasis, his loves and lives (yes, lives: time travel, remember). The palimpsest of the title refers to time being overwritten and the creation of unhistories as it is done, something that becomes important later.

The scope of the ideas in this short novella are amazing, as two competing futures are described, each spanning deep time, and the kinds of mega-scale engineering required for both is quite brain-popping and jaw-droppingly impressive. It takes some concentration to keep on top of the timey-wimey stuff but it’s totally worth it.

Book details

ISBN: 9781596064218
Publisher: Subterranean Press
Year of publication: 2009

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