Invisible Planets

By Hannu Rajaniemi

Rating: 4 stars

I first became aware of Hannu Rajaniemi through The Quantum Thief and its sequels. I knew that he could have some dazzling ideas very well implemented in the long form, but didn’t know how he was at the short. This collection shows that he’s very assured there as well. This collection contains a mix of big idea space opera, Finnish mythology and micro-fiction. The first looks at the after-effects of being a god and the second is full-blown giant-scale space opera. It’s with the third, that we come right back down to the human scale with the story of a girl on her own on the moon.

I loved His Master’s Voice, a story about uplifted animals trying to find their lost master. Other highlights are The Jugaad Cathedral about what happens when we lose control of our computing devices, and the inventive ways people will find around it, if it’s important enough; and Paris, In Love is a delightful little tale about what happens when a city falls in love with a Finn. My favourite story in the collection is probably Skywalker of Earth, a loving pastiche of E. E. Doc Smith’s Skylark stories, updated for the 21st century but I was also intrigued by the idea behind Snow White is Dead, an interactive fiction designed to work with an EEG headset. The collection is rounded off with a number of micro-stories that Rajaniemi had written on Twitter which were fun enough to make me start following him.

I was less keen on some of the more down to earth stories, which often fell back on Finnish mythology as their backdrop. This is probably because I’m unfamiliar with the original myths, so am probably missing some layers and entry points into the stories.

So a good collection from someone with a great, and well-deserved, reputation as a rising star in the genre.

Book details

ISBN: 9781473210233
Publisher: Gollancz
Year of publication: 2010

Revenger (Revenger, #1)

By Alastair Reynolds

Rating: 3 stars

Two sisters run away from home and join the crew of a sunjammer – a solar sail ship that searches the remnants of the solar system looking for locked micro-worlds containing relics and money that can be sold. However, there’s more than treasure out there – not least pirates, including the infamous Bosa Sennen.

Blimey, this book was not what I expected at all. I was thinking I was in for a bit of light adventure in the Congregation that huddles around the Old Sun, which is more or less what I got for the first section, but then it suddenly changes, goes much darker in tone and becomes a revenge story. Fura Ness starts off as a likeable protagonist but she changes, becomes much harder and driven as the story goes on, making difficult choices and, to my mind, becoming much less likeable. I’m not really fan of that sort of revenge story either, so this ended up being a bit of a slog for me.

The worldbuilding in the book is fantastic. I really want to know more about the Congregation, and how they survive as billions of people hanging on in or on millions of tiny worldlets that emerged after the “sundering” of the worlds of the Solar System. The history stretches back ten million years or more, and this is the thirteenth time that the system has been populated (the 13th Occupation) in that time. Much of what is locked in the baubles comes from those older Occupations. That’s a huge amount of history and I’d really love to have seen more of that. But, I suppose there’s only so much that can be drip-fed without it seeming like infodumping.

Apparently this book is YA. That makes me think twice about today’s young adults. I thought it was very dark in places and so wouldn’t have called it that. I know the protagonist is young but beyond that, I couldn’t see anything differentiating this from an “adult” novel. I thought the language wasn’t toned down (apart from the made-up words: lungstuff, squawk etc) and it was very readable.

I think I figured out the whole Bosa Sennen being a really hideous Dread Pirate Roberts fairly early on – and who the current one was. The first encounter with her was really tough on me. We had this crew that I was starting to like and I was expecting to see much more of, and suddenly they’re all dead. In really horrible ways. That being quickly followed by the section back on Mazarile almost made me put down the book.

This would be two stars for me in terms of enjoyment, but I’m giving it the third star for how Reynolds made me feel throughout. That’s a skill and it deserves to be recognised.

Book details

ISBN: 9780575090552
Publisher: Orion Publishing Co
Year of publication: 2016

How the Marquis Got His Coat Back (Rogues, #18)

By Neil Gaiman

Rating: 4 stars

I’d been wanting to read this short story after reading Neverwhere, for a while but was never able to find it, so I was chuffed when I found this little hard copy in Waterstones for a couple of quid. The story is fairly slight (the premise is entirely described by the title) but it was nice to revisit the world of London Below again. We get a bit more insight into the Marquis de Carabas and are also introduced to his brother, Peregrine who’s awfully intriguing. Gaiman also shows more of his world, with the Elephant and Castle and the frankly terrifying Shepherds of Shepherd’s Bush.

So a fun story that helps expand the world of London Below and is well worth a read.

Book details

ISBN: 9781472235329
Publisher: Headline
Year of publication: 2014

Descender, Vol. 1: Tin Stars

By Jeff Lemire

Rating: 4 stars

In a future galactic civilisation, robots live and work amongst their biological cousins. One day, giant planet-sized robots appear out of nowhere, wreak havoc and then disappear just as mysteriously. Ten years later, anti-robot feeling has run rampant, and most robots are hunted down and destroyed. However, on a distant mining colony, a child’s companion robot wakes from a ten year sleep and, as his codex matches that of the now disappeared Harvesters, he is suddenly wanted by half the galaxy.

I really enjoyed this really wide-canvas story. Tim-21 is disoriented and afraid; this makes him relatable (and not as annoying as I often find children in these sorts of scenarios – or even pretend children). The back story of a galactic civilisation pushed to the edge and falling apart in the wake of the attack is nicely played. Some infodumping, but minimal enough to be unobtrusive and almost expected in the comic format.

The art, by Dustin Nguyen, is rather lovely, the watercolours lending a surreal or dreamlike effect to the whole thing, which somewhat offsets the hard SF tone of the story, not to mention some of the horrific things that happen (on- or off-page)!

While the dialogue can sometimes be a bit clunky, the story is compelling, the world-building is well done, Tim-21 himself is someone who you just want to protect (even though he’s supposed to be a protector himself) and the cliffhanger has left me wanting more. Roll on volume 2.

Book details

ISBN: 9781632154262
Publisher: Image Comics
Year of publication: 2015

The Tourist

By Robert Dickinson

Rating: 2 stars

Another review of this book suggests that to really understand it and get the most from it, it needs at least two reads. I didn’t do this, one was quite enough for me, so I’ve still come away awfully confused. Time travel is generally confusing (although the timeline chart at the front helped – it would have been more useful if the chapters had been numbered to match the chart!) and this book is no different. Trying to keep track of who everyone was, which version of them was present at any given time and also try and figure out the plot was a bit exhausting. And I still don’t think I figured that out properly.

So, in the future, there was a near-extinction event (NEE) after which civilisation had to rebuild itself. Sometime after this, they invented time travel and there’s now a fixed link to the early 21st century, where tourists from the future come to gawk at us “natives”. Oh, and those in the even more distant future reject attempts to reach their era, but sent back a set of records of people from the travellers’ era. The book follows three different people, in the first person for travel rep Shens, who manages to lose one of his tourists on an excursion from the resort; in the second person for Karia, who is from a repressive regime that avoids contact with the rest of the world; and Riemann, who we don’t follow directly, but see through the eyes of the other two. And then there’s a whole timey-wimey plot about free will, a very long-term (if that means anything in time travel) conspiracy and a lot of confusion.

I didn’t really feel that any of the characters were that well developed; I would especially have liked to have seen more delving into Spen’s fellow rep Li, who enjoys the 21st century much more than most of her fellow reps. The presence of the people from the future obviously causes a lot of nervousness and resentment amongst the people of the era, and in this post-Trump, post-Brexit world, it’s entirely conceivable to see how this was stirred by self-serving politicians into a hate movement.

So perhaps this book would make more sense on a reread, but neither the plot nor the characters are enticing me to do so not to mention the grindingly depressing ending.

Book details

ISBN: 9780356508184
Publisher: Orbit
Year of publication: 2016

Descender, Vol. 2: Machine Moon

By Jeff Lemire

Rating: 4 stars

Picking up from where volume 1 left off, this volume continues the story of Tim-21, a child’s companion android, who has just been introduced to another of his siblings, Tim-22, in the middle of a daring rescue. We’re introduced to both the Hardwire (the robot resistance) as well as another pivotal character who joins the manrobot-hunt for Tim-21. And all the poor kid wants to do is to find the child he was assigned to and drop out of galactic politics entirely.

The art is still gorgeous, with that watercolour style that lends the whole work a slightly surreal or dreamlike quality that you might not think would work in a sci-fi space opera setting but it really does.

Beyond Tim-21, there are some interesting new, and recurring, robots, chief of whom is Psius, the head of the Hardwire. We also get to spend a bit more time with Driller (who’s a real killer, as he never gets tired of reminding us) and the irritatingly yappy robo-dog Bandit. The organic characters are worth mentioning too, from the cowardly roboticist Dr Quon (who’s got more revelations to come, after the biggie in volume 1) to Captain Telsa, who’s just trying to do her job and stay alive in a universe that seems to have gone mad in the last week or so. I look forward to meeting them all again.

Book details

ISBN: 9781632156761
Publisher: Image Comics
Year of publication: 2016

The Long Way to a Small, Angry Planet (Wayfarers #1)

By Becky Chambers

Rating: 5 stars

After I finished this book I wanted to hug every single crew member of the Wayfarer (yes, even Corbin). Since that wasn’t possible, I settled for the next best thing: I hugged the book instead. I absolutely adored this book but I’m struggling to put just why into words. The plot concerns the crew of the wormhole tunnelling ship Wayfarer, recently joined by Rosemary Harper, who is running away from her past. The crew is a heterogeneous affair, captained by a Human but with several other species on board. Right from the start you realise just how integrated they are, the lizard-like Aandrisk navigator, the strange double-minded Navigator, the jovial Dr Chef (whose name encompasses his functions), not to mention the ship’s AI, Lovey, as well as the human techs and algaeist who keep the ship running. Rosemary is lost at first, but soon settles into this odd crew, who are just about to get the contract of a lifetime.

The blurb on the cover of my copy uses the word ‘humane’ to describe the book, and I think that’s a great word. There’s something about it that gives you hope for Humanity and its future. One thing that I liked about it was that humans aren’t top dog in this universe. They’re Johnny-come-latelys to galactic society and only by accident at that. Humans messed up their own planet and had to flee, some to the solar system and others built a big fleet and sailed off into the unknown. If they hadn’t been found by an alien probe, they would all have died, and this has given them a sense of humility, one entirely lacking in current society. The ‘Exodans’ (those descended from the exodus Fleet) are mostly pacifist and have an understanding of themselves that I hope that we can achieve without having to lose the Earth.

So yes, humane, joyous, fun. For once, the cover blurbs are entirely accurate, as far as I’m concerned. I grew to care deeply about the crew of the Wayfarer and their very disparate lives and societies, yet bound together with ties of friendship and more. I was welling up more than once while reading this book, and rarely because of sadness. The writing is absolutely lovely and had me going at the good as much as the bad. And there’s certainly darkness in this universe. We see that in the “practicality” of the Galactic Commons, in the stories of Rosemary and Dr Chef and in hints at the past. But this is a galactic culture that accepts its history and looks forward as well.

I know there’s a companion novel (not sequel) to this coming out, but that seems to have a different focus. I really hope that there’s more stories to be told about the Wayfarer. I, for one, am going to desperately miss her crew.

Book details

ISBN: 9781473619814
Publisher: Hodder Paperbacks
Year of publication: 2014


By Ian McDonald

Rating: 3 stars

This is a difficult book to describe and even after a few days of musing, I’m still not entirely sure what I thought of it. It follows three storylines, in three different time periods: 18th Century Brazil, following a Jesuit priest as he tracks down a rogue member of his order in the uncharted depths of the continent; modern day Rio where an ambitious television producer plans her next hit; and São Paulo in the 2030s as we follow a young favela entrepreneur and his entanglement with quantum computing.

The three plotlines are very different, with very different characters. I was never too fond of Marcelina, the TV producer, and her constant hunger for The Next Big Thing. Edson the favela kid trying to get out is complex, always willing to take on a challenge. Father Luis Quinn, the Jesuit priest, is possibly the most sympathetic of the characters, as he is sent to Brazil to take on “a task most difficult”.

The three plots only just come together at the end, sort of, at least. There’s a lot of quantum and multiverse-related weirdness and it all didn’t really work as well as I’d hoped for me, to be honest. I’m generally very fond of Ian McDonald’s work, but this just didn’t draw me in. He usually has an eye for fantastic use of language, but it wasn’t as apparent here as in several of his other books (possibly most noticeably Desolation Road and The Dervish House). There’s still an awful lot to enjoy (and some really neat ideas) but I don’t think it’s his finest work.

Book details

ISBN: 9780575082885
Publisher: Gollancz
Year of publication: 2007


By Paul J. McAuley

Rating: 2 stars

Alex Sharkey lives by his wits as he develops drugs only just inside the law, drugs based on genetics. When he falls in with Milena, a girl who seems to know too much, they hatch a plan to liberate the genetically engineered ‘dolls’ that do so much manual labour in the early 21st century. This book follows the consequences of that fateful decision.

I must confess that I’m not really that fond of cyberpunk, so didn’t hugely get into this book. It was that sort of tarnished chrome near-future stuff (to start with, at least) that’s not fully dystopic but well on its way there. And the first segment was set in London as well, so a society that I’m familiar with, and I was much more interested in the untold story of why the welfare state and NHS had collapsed than the dolls storyline, which didn’t help my engagement with the story.

The three parts of the story take us progressively further forward in time, although all within a single lifetime, as Alex tries to come to terms with what he’s done, and find Milena again, which is what drives much of the second and third parts of the book.

There’s a lot of good imagery here and some very interesting ideas (I’m still not entirely sure if all the animals are actually dead or not, although I’m pretty sure it was heavily implied [yet another untold story that I would have liked to read more about]) but I wasn’t hugely invested in Alex or any of the other viewpoint characters and, really wasn’t sure where we were by the end of the story.

So not really my cup of tea, but in no way am I saying that this is a bad book, it’s just one that I didn’t enjoy.

Book details

ISBN: 9780575600317
Publisher: Cassell
Year of publication: 1995

Rivers of London: Black Mould

By Ben Aaronovitch

Rating: 4 stars

Another fun outing for PC Peter Grant in sequential art storytelling format. This time, DC Guleed (hurrah, she’s back, I did miss her in ‘Night Witch’!) accidentally runs into some “weird bollards” while checking out a house as a favour to a friend so calls in everyone’s favourite nerd/copper/apprentice.

This volume felt quite light and fluffy compared to the child kidnap of the previous volume but a lot of fun. I particularly liked the return of Tom Debden from the first graphic novel and Nightingale having to deal with a little bit of fallout from that, which was sort of hilarious. No sign of Lesley or the Faceless Man this time round, which I’m perfectly comfortable with. Keep Lesley in particular for small doses, she’s much more effective that way. Mind you, I’d have preferred more Molly, but ain’t that always the case. And when she does show up it’s in a hilarious and very cute ‘kitty’ night shirt. Good show, Aaronovitch et al, good show!

The art is still consistently good; cartoony but carries the tone of the story very well. There’s a great sequence that’s a few pages long and entirely silent, being carried by the art. Creepy and very effective.

As much as I enjoy the graphic novels, I do sort of wish Aaronovitch would space them out a bit more and spend more time on the novels. I miss being inside Peter’s head more, with his first-person narrative. Of course, I’ll keep buying them, but it would be nice to get more long-form written-word storytelling.

Book details

ISBN: 9781785855108
Publisher: Titan Comics
Year of publication: 2017

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