Fables: The Deluxe Edition, Book Five

By Bill Willingham

Rating: 4 stars

The major arc in this volume of the always marvellous Fables series describes Boy Blue’s return to the Homelands on a secret mission. And in the process, he retrieves huge amounts of intelligence, and finally uncovers the identity of the Adversary. Despite hints in previous volumes, I must confess that it took me by surprise, but it totally works (and his description of his rise to power is chilling). And Boy Blue is pretty awesome as a lone hero, cutting a swathe through the Empire on his mission.

Back in Fabletown, we see a delegation of Arabian fables arrive in embassy, and how the European ones struggle to deal with them, as well as seeing just how well, or badly, Prince Charming is dealing with being mayor. Some other old favourites get screen time too (including a surprisingly awesome role for King Cole, who’s been a bit of a comedy side character until now), and there are some surprises in store for others. Snow and her boys appear, but in a side capacity, just driving the plot forward.

Oh, and there’s also the preparation for the spinoff Jack of Fables series, which actually starts the book. I must confess that Jack has never really done an awful lot for me. He’s arrogant, lazy and a bit of a grifter. His escapades in Hollywood were mildly amusing, but I don’t really have any interest in seeking out the spinoff.

So, apart from Jack, another complete success. The whole ‘Adversary’ plot is picking up pace and after five volumes, I’m pretty invested in the major characters. I look forward to the next one now.

Book details

ISBN: 9781401234966
Publisher: Vertigo
Year of publication: 2012

All Systems Red (The Murderbot Diaries, #1)

By Martha Wells

Rating: 4 stars

I enjoyed this little novella quite a lot. A friend has raved about the Murderbot books for quite a while and after finally acquiring an ebook reader, I picked this up. Our protagonist is a SecUnit, a cyborg, with a piece of software designed to keep it under control at all times. Murderbot, as it refers to itself, hacked its ‘governor’ but rather than going on a killing spree, it prefers to download and watch serials and other entertainment, while putting minimal effort into its actual job as a security detail, at the moment for a survey team on a planet that may be available for colonisation.

Murderbot is cynical, misanthropic and gets very uncomfortable talking about its feelings. (So it’s British then.) But under that shield of armour and bravado there’s a kind being that wants to protect its humans. And there’s a lot of scope for world-building and in the idea of the ‘Units’, which appear to be sentient, and could be regarded as slaves.

I really like Murderbot as a character and would like to read more about it. Unfortunately, the novella format works against this, as they’re short (easily read in a couple of hours), but priced equivalent to a full length novel (other than the first one, which, I assume, has a lower price to act as a hook). I hope that an omnibus edition appears at some point, as I really want to see what Murderbot does next.

Book details

Year of publication: 2017

The Rise of Endymion (Hyperion Cantos, #4)

By Dan Simmons

Rating: 4 stars

Concluding the Hyperion cantos is a tricky job, drawing many threads together and providing some closure, and Simmons mostly does a good job. We pick up five years after Raul Endymion and Aenea found themselves on Old Earth, just as they have to leave. This time Raul is sent out alone to go and look for the Counsel’s ship, that they left on a planet somewhere along the River Tethys while Aenea goes on her own adventures. We follow Raul on his travels, hiding from the Pax and his eventual reunion with Aenea. A neat trick with relativity means that another five years or so have passed for him before the reunion, making her in her early twenties before the relationship foretold in the previous book happens, and so making the whole thing somewhat less creepy.

There are several points in the book where Aenea, now in full One Who Teaches mode, stops to provide several pages of exposition. This slows the book down a lot and it feels clunky to hear someone ask “Tell us about the Farcasters”, or whatever, and have an infodump thrown at the reader. I wish that a better way could have been found to handle that.

It’s also sometimes tricky to keep various versions of a story in my head at once. “So the Cantos said this about it, the Core says that, and now Aenea is saying the other.” Trying to remember all the different versions so that I could reconcile them in my head was sometimes tricky.

The Core comes out of this as the real villains, along with certain individuals in the Church who can’t see beyond their own greed. I’m left feeling almost sorry for Lenar Hoyt, now the Pope, who seems like a very weak character, who is entirely led by other people, and by the Core. It feels like a weakness that the final resolution seems to pretty much leave the Core out entirely. We never find out what happens to it, but I suppose there have to be some mysteries left over. And speaking of mysteries, the Shrike retains some of its mystery. We find out more about it, but the core (to me) item of why it was created and why it changed sides in the last book are still not clear.

Also, something that bugged me from early on was the revelation that Father Duré from the first books was still “alive”, in that he and Hoyt shared a body and each time Hoyt died and Duré was resurrected, he was killed by the Church to allow Hoyt to return. But Duré’s cruciform was cut from him by the Shrike in Fall of Hyperion, while in the Labyrinth (I flipped through the book to make sure I wasn’t imagining it, and I wasn’t). Since it’s never explained, I guess this is just a plot hole, but I would have thought that any beta-readers would have picked up on it (either that, or I missed something pretty important).

Definitely better than its predecessor, but perhaps not quite matching the first two books of the cantos, it’s worth reading to finish the story. Oh, and if I ever write a sequel to my blog post on big dumb objects, the Startree is definitely going on the list.

Book details

ISBN: 9780553572988
Publisher: Spectra
Year of publication: 1997

The Fall of Hyperion (Hyperion Cantos, #2)

By Dan Simmons

Rating: 4 stars

The Fall of Hyperion picks up pretty much from where Hyperion left off. We open with a young man going under the name of Joseph Severn being invited to a major party on the governing world of Tau Ceti Centre, to celebrate the departure of the fleet that will take back the world of Hyperion from the Ousters. We see much of the novel through Severn’s eyes, and through them, we also find out what happened to the pilgrims of the original novel.

The scope of this book is absolutely huge. It spans time and space, it covers the rise and potential fall of gods and still has time to deal with the minutiae of human life, and this makes it extremely an compelling read. For me, it really put the ‘opera’ into ‘space opera’. It has the huge scope and wide brush strokes that I associate with classical opera, and also, to be honest, has that thing where the plot doesn’t entirely makes sense but you get so swept up in it that you hardly notice. It also has a mixture of a huge sense of loss combined with a great change that changes everything. Whether for better or worse, is left in the air.

So a compelling book, with satisfying conclusions to the stories of most of the pilgrims, especially Sol Weintraub and his daughter, Rachel and one that expands the scope of the story in a satisfying way.

Book details

ISBN: 9780575099487
Publisher: Gollancz
Year of publication: 1990

Hyperion (Hyperion Cantos #1)

By Dan Simmons

Rating: 4 stars

The idea of the Canterbury Tales in space always sounded like a good one, and it’s been well executed here. Seven pilgrims are making a pilgrimage to the Time Tombs on the planet Hyperion and as they travel, they tell each other their tales of their previous connection to Hyperion and what they’re looking for. This acts as a framing narrative around a number of other stories and it works really well. It wasn’t until about the third tale that I realised that as well as being different genres, each of them had their own voice that was completely distinct from the ones around it. It takes real skill to achieve that, and still form a cohesive whole around it.

The tales themselves are all engaging, some more emotionally hard-hitting than the others with the Scholar’s tale being the stand-out. In some ways it feels of its time, in its descriptions of women being very physical, all breasts and curves, which feels a little off, reading it in the 21st century but that can be overlooked in favour of the solid and very intriguing story being told. Each tale sheds light on the ones that came before it, and provides groundwork for the ones to come, so that by the end, your understanding of the Hegemony, the “angel of pain”, the Shrike, and the threat faced has radically changed.

So a great book, and I’m definitely going to have to pick up the sequel, to find out how the story ends – this isn’t a complete narrative in its own right: it ends as the pilgrims reach their destination, with doom hanging in the air. And after a serious and portentous book, I loved the incongruous closing paragraphs where the pilgrims join arms and make their way to the Time Tombs all singing the theme tune to The Wizard of Oz. It’s so bizarre yet it works – it lightens the mood without dispelling the atmosphere that Simmons has so carefully built up. Genius.

Book details

ISBN: 9781407234663
Publisher: Gollancz
Year of publication: 1989

Nebula Winners Sixteen

By Jerry Pournelle

Rating: 3 stars

This anthology brings together the Nebula short fiction winners from 1980 along with some other fiction and essays about the state of the genre and fandom in that year. Of the fiction, I’d read a number of the stories elsewhere but I still very much enjoyed Grotto of the Dancing Deer in which an archaeologist learns about the past through an unexpected source; and The Ugly Chickens, a humorous story in which a young academic starts on the trail of the possible discovery of a lifetime. I was less taken with the novella, The Unicorn Tapestry, about a therapist who takes on a new client – a vampire. I found the protagonist irritating and I’ve never really been a fan of this sort of slower, psychological SF. Of the non-fiction, I must confess to skipping most of Algis Budrys’s essay What did 1980 Mean which tried to being a critical analysis to the start of the art in that year, but did nothing for me. The most interesting non-fiction piece for me was 1980: The Year in Fantastic Films, by Bill Warren which looked at 1980 in film and TV. Although most of what he talks about have sunk without trace over the years, there were two that stood out, and it’s interesting to see how time has changed the way we look at both: The Empire Strikes Back and Flash Gordon. Warren regarded Empire as inferior to A New Hope and gave interesting reasons for this. This was written at the time, before the trilogy was complete and the darkness that is now most commonly praised was held up as its major flaw. Flash Gordon on the other hand was considered to have been made by people contemptuous of the genre and without love, whereas time as turned it into a bona fide classic, albeit a very camp one!

So an interesting snapshot of the state of SF in 1980, both in the fiction and the essays that accompany them. As you’d expect, the stories range in scope and taste but definitely worth dipping into.

Book details

ISBN: 9780352314239
Publisher: Star
Year of publication: 1982

Monstress, Vol. 1: Awakening

By Marjorie M. Liu, Sana Takeda

Rating: 4 stars

I had never heard of this series before it won the Hugo Award for best graphic story in 2017. I’m quite glad that I did pick it up though, as it’s got an intriguing story and is lushly drawn. It’s got a very striking first page, with a full page image of a naked woman, and it’s only on second glance that you see the missing arm from the elbow down, the collar and the anger in her eyes. The woman is Maika Halfwolf and the story takes a flying start from there, as we’re thrown into this rather horrific steampunk world, with Maika trying to find out about herself, her mother and her history while trying to stay alive and out of the hands of the many factions who want to either kill or use her.

The world that the story is set in is fascinating. There are dead gods, immortals mating with humans to create a race of magic-using Arcanics and a war that could destroy everything. There’s a monster inside Maika that she struggles to understand, much less control, but as the fox-child Kippa says, monsters are people too.

There’s a lot to unpack here, and although I’ve reread segments, I think it’s probably worth rereading the whole thing. I certainly look forward to the next volume to see what Maika, Kippa, the cat Ren and Maika’s monster get up to next.

Book details

ISBN: 9781632157096
Publisher: Image Comics
Year of publication: 2016


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

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

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