By Iain M. Banks

Rating: 4 stars

Edit 2019: I think I’ve never really properly appreciated Banks’ writing ability until this time round. While I still love the story, this time round I read it a bit slower and just appreciated some of his turns of phrase and some of his philosophy that he espouses through his characters.

Excession is probably one of my favourite Culture novels, and one that I’ve read several times. It concerns the appearance of an impossible object in an obscure area of space and the various mischief and knots that the Culture and other galactic inhabitants get caught up in regarding it.

The excession itself is almost a perfect big dumb object in that it doesn’t actually do anything, at least until quite late in the book, but its very appearance sets all sorts of things into motion. And what plans they are. These being Mind-plans, of course they have multiple layers, depths going back decades and multiple levels of indirection.

I must confess that I possibly didn’t really appreciate the Affront sub-plot until this time round, particularly just how deep that plot went. The Affront themselves are a marvellously horrible creation, almost baroque in some ways. I can just imagine Banks giggling (or possibly cackling) to himself as he put finger to keyboard to bring them into existence.

Of all the Culture novels, this is probably the most Mind-oriented, in that the Humans (and, indeed, drones) of the book run around doing things, but their actions, in the end, don’t really matter that much. It’s all about the Minds, their plotting and their interaction.

A highly entertaining, intricately plotted novel, both for existing Culture-philes and a great jumping on spot for newbies.

Book details

ISBN: 9780553374605
Publisher: Bantam Books
Year of publication: 1996

The Venging

By Greg Bear

Rating: 3 stars

I mostly enjoyed this collection of early-ish fiction by Greg Bear, although I have taken a star off because many of the stories had endings that jarred with me, or seemed abrupt or unfinished. The best example of this is probably Mandala. This is story with a great hook: the living cities of the planet God Does Battle threw out their inhabitants a thousand years ago because they were unworthy. One man is trying to get into a city to be made whole and discovers more than he bargained for. This is a great setup, it’s going at a great pace, there’s several huge revelations, one after the other, and suddenly the story just stops. No conclusion or resolution. I appreciate that sometimes this is the effect being aimed for, but it’s not one that I like. Petra doesn’t have quite this problem, but that story of life trying to continue after chaos has overtaken the world tries to pack too much plot into the last few paragraphs, and that doesn’t entirely work either. My favourite story in the collection is probably Hardfought, which tells of alien communication, an eternal war and over-specialisation. This is a great story, but it also has an ambiguous ending, leaving more questions than answers.

There are also two early stories that Bear has reworked and added to this edition. Those are decent, although I was left scratching my head at one of them. The last one is rather heartbreaking though.

Book details

ISBN: 9780712650519
Publisher: Legend
Year of publication: 1983

Yellow Blue Tibia

By Adam Roberts

Rating: 3 stars

Just after the Second World War, Konstantin Skvorecky was a science fiction author who was gathered by Stalin along with several of his fellow writers to concoct an invasion story that would unite the whole world against an (imaginary) alien threat after the inevitable fall of capitalism. Soon afterwards, the operation is abandoned and the writers all told to forget what they were doing, on pain of death. Many years later, in the Perestroika era, Skvorecky meets one of his fellow writers from that time who tells him that what they were working on at that time is starting to come true.

This was an odd book. Skvorecky has a great narrator’s voice. Ironic, deadpan and authentically Russian. Not many other characters get as much detail but that’s okay because Skvorecky is the one at the heart of it all. He’s a comedic, tragic figure straight who could have been written by one of the greats of Russian literature.

The plot is confusing, to say the least. I still don’t necessarily understand a lot of it, but there’s the involvement of an American Scientologist who gets killed, dragging Skvorecky into the Soviet Kafka-esque legal system. There’s the prediction that Chernobyl will be blown up, as will Challenger; there’s the other American Scientologist; there’s the constant attempts to kill our protagonist; and that’s just scratching the surface.

There’s some plot thrown in towards the end, mostly relating to Quantum, but if it’s plot you’re looking for, this book probably isn’t for you. It’s Skvorecky and the situations that he finds himself in that drive the book and everything in it. Amusing, probably quite deep, but somewhat bewildering as well.

Book details

ISBN: 9780575083585
Publisher: Gollancz
Year of publication: 2009

May Contain Traces of Magic (J. W. Wells & Co., #6)

By Tom Holt

Rating: 3 stars

Chris Popham is a travelling salesman, although rather than purveying electrical goods or tupperware, he sells magical tat, relying on his trusty SatNav to get him to his destination. He’s only slightly surprised when his navigational aid starts talking back, advising him on making sales and so forth, and then Things start to happen to him. Demons start appearing around him, his boss saddles him with a graduate trainee and his best friend starts acting oddly. And that’s just day one.

This book had a pretty complex plot, and I’m not entirely sure it pulled off the trick of telling the story through the knots in the plot. Trying to keep track of who was alive/dead; lying at any given time; or remembering the small details that would, no doubt, turn out to be important was tricky, to say the least.

Chris was a likeable enough protagonist, just trying to make sense of the world around him, which seemed to have gone mad. He’s as grounded as someone whose day to day job involves selling portable parking spaces and bank holidays in a DVD can be.

Oh, and despite spotting that the dried water was a Chekov’s Gun, I still have no idea what it really did or why it was important to the plot. Still, for all that, I did find myself still thinking about the book, trying to unravel it for a day or two after I finished it. It would probably make more sense on a second read, but I don’t know if I can really be bothered.

Book details

ISBN: 9781841495057
Publisher: Orbit
Year of publication: 2009

Whores, Harlots Wanton Women: The Story of Illicit Sex

By Petrina Brown

Rating: 2 stars

This book aims to be a history of forbidden sex through history, but falls some way short of that. Despite the title (which, I suspect, may have been imposed by the publisher, as the author refers to the book as A History of Forbidden Sex in the introduction), only one chapter of nine specifically discusses prostitution – albeit the largest chapter in the book, taking up about a quarter of the page count).

The chapter on prostitution is oddly structured, trying to spend time on different geographical and temporal sites, but focuses mostly on Britain from c. 1000 CE to 1900 CE. I was disappointed that it didn’t continue on into the modern era but seemed content to stop with the Victorians. The focus on Britain was disappointing as well, as some of the other sections offering interesting glimpses into the attitudes of the rest of the world.

The prostitution chapter is probably the best in the book. Large chunks of chapter four (‘The Seduction of the Harem’) and chapter seven (‘Unveiling the Harem’) are identical and every time the author moves from plain facts to opinions, the book starts to feel like an undergraduate essay. There are lots of ‘perhaps-s’ and references to Freud (!) in the final chapter (‘Perversions’).

The book has some sources sprinkled through the text, but not collated into endnotes, nor is there a bibliography nor index, making this poor material for any serious scholar. The images aren’t sourced either, and some of them seem to be details of others from later on, with no explanation why.

In general then, this is a poor book, that has grand ambitions but fails to fulfil them, only scratching at the surface of homosexuality, polygamy, masturbation any other sorts of “non-traditional” sexuality. Even when covering prostitution, it fails to make much of an impact. Oh, and you cannot drop a bombshell suggesting that castrated penises can sometimes regrow and then just go on to talk about an obscure 18th century Russian sect and never mention it again!

Book details

ISBN: 9781848681279
Publisher: Amberley Publishing
Year of publication: 2008

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