Thomas the Rhymer

By Ellen Kushner

Rating: 3 stars

Young Thomas the harper is taken in by an elderly couple to whom he returns again and again as his fortunes amongst the courts of the mighty wax and wane. One day he disappears without even his harp and they fear they’ll never see him again. But Thomas has been taken by the Queen of Elfland to be her lover and her harper, to return after seven years. And then he must make right the wrong to the woman he loves.

This is a slightly difficult book to review, as I didn’t feel much while I was reading it. There wasn’t a huge amount to the story and none of the characters really made me feel for them. I actually found the bookends around Elfland more interesting than the portion of the story therein. I suppose it felt more real, more human. The Elfland section sort of felt like nothing mattered, even once the mystery hinted at early on finally took on substance.

In tone, this book sort of reminded me of Mythago Wood, another book that I was ambivalent about. I think this sort of mythic fantasy isn’t necessarily for me. I can appreciate it but it doesn’t necessarily do anything for me. Not a fault of the book, but of the reader. I’ll probably not read much more in this vein in future.

Book details

ISBN: 9781473211629
Publisher: Gollancz
Year of publication: 1990

The Android’s Dream

By John Scalzi

Rating: 3 stars

A diplomat on Earth annoys his alien counterpart so much he literally dies. Thus sets off an unlikely chain of events that could ultimately lead to war, and it’s left to Harry Creek, the State Department’s Xenosapient Facilitator (aka the Bearer of Bad News), to find the sheep (yes, sheep) that would solve the problem.

This is an odd book. It started off very tongue in cheek and light hearted, with the low level diplomat literally farting his counterpart to death but there’s a lot packed in here and the tone does vary a bit going from broadly humorous to someone being eaten alive to (mostly off-page) torture, but for the most part Scalzi pulls off the changes in the tone.

The Church of the Evolved Lamb is a brilliant invention, worthy of Philip K. Dick (to whose Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep the title, and the breed of sheep in the book, are nods) himself. This is a church whose members know it was founded by a scoundrel just trying to fleece someone for money, so they, instead, turn their efforts to making the prophecies come true. It’s quite the theological conundrum and a lovely idea.

Harry Creek is a great character too. Someone who, by temperament, is suited to be able to give people bad news, who’s also a veteran and happens to have mad h3x0r skillz *cough*, I mean, is very good with computers. Sure, he’s not exactly an everyman, but he’s very likeable and I’d feel safe in his hands.

There are number of action sequences in the book and they’re all excellent. Sometimes I can find action sequences a bit dull or wordy, but Scalzi really pulls them off here, especially the one in the mall.

So an all round fun book, with a number of interesting ideas and good characters.

Book details

ISBN: 9780765348289
Publisher: Tor Science Fiction
Year of publication: 2006

Extracurricular Activities (The Machineries of Empire)

By Yoon Ha Lee

Rating: 3 stars

This is a wee short story in Lee’s ‘Machineries of Empire’ series, featuring Shuos Jedao when he was still alive and a rising star in the military. The tone of this was somewhat odd. Much lighter than Ninefox Gambit, as evidenced by the opening, in which Jedao finds a box in his quarters. There’s a fair bit of sexual innuendo (and a smattering of actual sex) as well as references to differing sexualities and gender identities which is always pleasing to see.

I’d say that it doesn’t feel as polished as Ninefox Gambit but it’s still nice to get a glimpse of Jedao before his infamy. This story also adds to the worldbuilding of the universe as we get to see some relations with another culture.

Book details

ISBN: 9780765394460
Publisher: Tor Books
Year of publication: 2017

Clarkesworld Magazine, Issue 73 (Clarkesworld Magazine, #73)

By Neil Clarke

Rating: 4 stars

This is a short story in Lee’s ‘Machineries of Empire’ series, set several hundred years before the events of Ninefox Gambit, when General Shuos Jedao was still alive and commanding armies. This story showcases the more tricksy (Shuos) side of the general, as he manoeuvres his weakened army into a position that he’ll be able to take on a much greater force.

We see more into Jedao’s head again here and I felt the tone here was more in keeping with Ninefox than the previous short story, Extracurricular Activities. These little glimpses into the universe help expand it (although I still feel strongly that the calendar-based exotic technologies are much more in keeping with fantasy than SF) and a nice little appetiser for the next novel in the sequence.

Book details

Publisher: Wyrm Publishing
Year of publication: 2012

Adventures of Luther Arkwright (Luther Arkwright, #1)

By Bryan Talbot

Rating: 4 stars

I’m really not entirely sure what to make of this graphic novel. It was very dense, in multiple senses of the word, and I did get lost more than once. Luther Arkwright can travel without technological aid between the worlds of the multiverse, and he’s working with the stable, ordered Earth of zero-zero to try and prevent a weapon that will destroy Earths throughout the multiverse from being found and unleashed.

The first thing that hit me here was Talbot’s art style. As someone who’s only really familiar with his work through Grandville and its sequels, this is very different indeed! Lots of line work and intricate detail, it’s lovely but in a way that requires more effort than the clean lines of Grandville.

The story itself is a twisting, turning tale encompassing parallel universes, variations of Earth where the British Empire never fell or where the English civil war waged for three hundred years. It’s on this latter plane that we spend most of our time, as Arkwright manipulates the nations of this world into a position where the enemy will be forced to reveal themselves, rather than to work through shadowy agents. And that’s another facet to the book: conspiracy theories to your heart’s content, along with secret societies and hidden manipulators of worlds. It’s all here.

Oh, and, of course, the religious symbolism is fairly intense, especially later on. The recurring motif of the figure dying with their arms outstretched (not to mention Arkwright’s little resurrection trick!) is a powerful image.

There’s a lot to digest here, and I suspect it’s a book that would reward rereading.

Book details

ISBN: 9781593077259
Publisher: Dark Horse Books
Year of publication: 1989

Ninefox Gambit (The Machineries of Empire, #1)

By Yoon Ha Lee

Rating: 4 stars

Captain Kel Cheris is to be disgraced for use of “unconventional” formations during a battle against heretics against the hexarchate. However, she gets a chance to redeem herself in putting down a major heresy at a nexus star fortress. As her major weapon, she chooses the undead general Shuos Jedao, who was imprisoned centuries ago for slaughtering his own troops, as well as those of his enemies. With such uncertain allies as this and her own chain of command watching her distrustfully, Cheris must wage her war.

We’re thrown into this book at the deep end, with Cheris in the middle of a battle and we have to learn what formations are and what relevance the calendar has pretty darn quickly. But Cheris is a great protagonist, sympathetic and easy to like and root for and it’s alongside her that we quickly pick up the structure of her society and military and start making headway into the jargon.

Jedao, the undead general who is Cheris’ (quite literal) shadow for most of the book is intriguing and he also gets a fair degree of character development. He starts off as a monstrous figure of legend, famous for never being defeated in battle, but turning on his own side for no apparent reason. As the book goes on, his conversations with Cheris reveal a complex figure

Although, to be honest, I never really worked out why he hates the hexarchate as much as he does.

EDIT: this is clearer on a second reading.

From fairly early on, this book made me think of Clarke’s third law (“Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic”). The technology seems to rely on a calendar and associated belief system: it quite literally goes full Tinkerbell, which is an interesting notion, albeit one I’m not hugely fond of, although I couldn’t tell you why I like this less than, for example, Vinge’s A Fire Upon the Deep, in which the laws of physics are different depending on where you are in the galaxy. I guess in that, it’s still about natural laws, while here, people can affect reality, which seems much more a fantastical notion than a science fictional one to me.

Still, that’s a moderately minor complaint. I enjoyed the book an awful lot. For a first novel, it’s very accomplished and I look forward to the sequel.

Book details

ISBN: 9781781084489
Publisher: Solaris
Year of publication: 2016

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