Schismatrix Plus

By Bruce Sterling

Rating: 3 stars

This volume collects the novel Schismatrix and all the short fiction set in the universe, starting with the novel. I’m not sure that it might not have been better to reverse the order and put the short stories first, giving you a more gentle introduction to the world, since the novel does throw you in at the deep end. It follows a natural born human called Abelard Lindsay, who is trained as a diplomat by the Shapers – those who have genetically reshaped their genetic heritage, in opposition to the Mechanists – those who use mechanical augmentation to enhance themselves. Lindsay is exiled from his home and finds himself travelling the solar system in order to, er, well, I’m not really sure. Survive? Thrive? Get revenge?

The action jumps around from lunar orbit, to the outer planetary rings, and there are sometimes large jumps in time. This sort of stuttering narrative makes it difficult to get a handle on what’s happening (not helped by my own intermittent reading of the book) and made it less likely for me to want to pick it up again. I did eventually get properly into the story towards the end of the novel, but it took quite some time.

The short stories are easier, both because they focus on a single story, without the sprawling feel of the novel, and perhaps because several of them touch on characters or themes that I had previously read about from a different angle in the novel.

I mostly read this because several authors whose work I like cited this as an inspiration. I think this may reward rereading but to be honest, I don’t feel that, for me, it would be worth the effort.

Book details

ISBN: 9780441003709
Publisher: Ace Books
Year of publication: 1995

The Fifth Elephant (Discworld, #24)

By Terry Pratchett

Rating: 4 stars

I haven’t read this book since the first time round, but a friend has been re-reading the Discworld books and suggested I give it another go. Re-reading it has reminded me what I disliked the first time round – Colon’s field-promotion and the Carrot/Angua angst – but also reminded me how good Sam Vimes is when he’s at his best.

There’s a new Low King of the Dwarves being crowned in Uberwald and the Patrician sends his Grace, the Duke of Ankh, aka Sam Vimes of the Watch, as his ambassador. But being Sam Vimes, he can’t keep his nose out of a crime, even when it’s as far off his turf as this. Soon he’s being sucked into politics that could have ramifications throughout the continent, and old, stale ideas are being brought kicking and screaming into the Century of the Fruitbat.

As I say, that’s good bit, Vimes getting stuck into a crime, failing to be diplomatic and generally being a clever bugger. The less good bits are much smaller in number, but obviously stuck with me. The idea of putting Colon in charge of the Watch has comedy gold written all over it, but it doesn’t feel that way, it just feels sad. It’s a perfect example of the Peter Principle, as acting-captain Colon relies on clamping down on the minutiae to cover his own incompetence. While the story moves back to the city more infrequently as the book goes on, it was enough to keep me away from it for years.

There were several of the little things that Pratchett is always so good at that I missed from before, from the name of Leonard’s deciphering machine to Vetinari’s desire for a code that is merely fiendishly difficult, not impossible, to crack.

The stuff with the dwarves and their lack of recognition of genders other than ‘dwarf’ felt a lot more smoothly handled here than it did in Raising Steam, and it was nice to see Cheery back, and the idea that freedom includes the freedom to not wear a dress resonates even more today.

So all in all, a better book than I remember. 3 1/2 from me, rounded up (Vimes’d go spare if I rounded down…)

Book details

ISBN: 9780552146166
Publisher: Corgi
Year of publication: 1999

Neptune’s Brood

By Charles Stross

Rating: 4 stars

Set in the same universe as, but thousands of years after Saturn’s Children, this book sees historian of banking Krina download into a distant star system on an academic pilgrimage, only to find that she’s being stalked by someone who wants to kill her and the cousin that she’s here to see has disappeared. Chased across a solar system, she has to unravel a mystery that leads back to something lost millennia ago.

I must say that I struggled with some of the economics here, but there was enough action going on that I could cope with it. After a few pages of pontification on the nature of debt and kinds of money, Krina is kind enough to get kidnapped or something blows up to distract you. That’s not to say that it’s difficult or unreadable – some of the ideas are very interesting, and I like that Stross has obviously give a lot of thought to how an interstellar economy, without FTL, would work. The explanation of slow money made sense as I was reading it, but as soon as I tried to explain it to someone else, it just decohered in my head.

On the other hand, bat-pirates (sorry, privateers), a Church dedicated to looking after and spreading the Fragile (ie us old fashioned squishy humans, who died out before Saturn’s Children and which this book suggests have been revived multiple times in the intervening time), a mermaid kingdom and those aren’t even the most mental ideas in the book! Krina is a fun character, someone who would really be working on a spreadsheet but who gets caught up in huge adventures after rumours get out about what she and some of siblings have been working on for fun for decades.

So come for the intrigue and stay for the interstellar economics (and bat-pirates! Did I mention the bat-pirates?).

Book details

ISBN: 9780356501000
Publisher: Orbit
Year of publication: 2013

The Lost Child of Lychford (Lychford, #2)

By Paul Cornell

Rating: 4 stars

It’s nearly Christmas in Lychford but local vicar (and, coincidentally, witch) Lizzie is finding it awfully stressful. While she worries about her parishioners (and bad Christmas songs), something terrifying is worming its way into Lychford, and the ghost of a young boy has started following her around. With her friends (and fellow witches), Judith and Autumn, she has to get to the bottom of things before the big day.

Moreso than the first book in this series, this reminded me of Cornell’s London Falling, where there is doom and forces out to destroy humanity around every corner and only the will and faith of a very small number of people prevents it, and then at great personal cost, and by the skin of their teeth.

I like the very different characters of all the witches; and while I’m not a person of faith, and usually don’t have much interest in books that bring it to the fore, the faith here was done well and with enough facets to be interesting, not preachy. Like the previous book in the series, and the aforementioned London Falling, there’s a sense of ancient and malevolent forces that care nothing for us or anything like us and the incredibly thin line (or, indeed, blind luck) that’s kept us going thus far.

Engaging and with more depth than a novella of its size should be able to produce, I still don’t know if I can face the next book, where Lychford comes face to face with Brexit.

Book details

ISBN: 9780765389770
Year of publication: 2016

Embers of War (Embers of War, #1)

By Gareth L. Powell

Rating: 4 stars

Trouble Dog is a warship, one of a pack. But after a brutal war, her conscience forces her to resign her commission and join Space International Rescue the House of Reclamation to try and rescue those in distress in the depths of space. As she and her misfit crew race to the aid of a downed cruise ship, an intelligence agent is also heading there, to find a poet who was on the liner, and who isn’t what she appears.

I really liked the premise of this book. A lot of space opera is set around conflict and I liked the idea of a book set in the aftermath of the conflict when trying to win the peace. In saying that, there’s still a lot of shooting going on here, despite the best efforts of Trouble Dog and her crew.

I liked pretty much all of the characters here: Trouble Dog – one of a pack who’s now exiled from from her siblings; her captain, Sal Konstanz – who’s anguished about decisions she made both in the war and in her time in the House; the alien engineer Nod – who just wants to get on with fixing things and sleeping and who I can’t see getting out of the series alive; and Ashton Childe, the intelligence agent who’s stewing in a backwater jungle and hating every second of it. All the characters have their problems and their own issues, and seeing how these are drawn out and woven together is lovely.

While being complete and satisfying in and of itself, I liked the setup for future stories – hints that Something is coming and that the House of Reclamation may have to do more than just pick up the pieces when it gets here.

Book details

ISBN: 9781785655180
Publisher: Titan Books
Year of publication: 2018

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