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

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

A Canticle for Leibowitz

By Walter M. Miller Jr.

Rating: 3 stars

Structured in three distinct parts, this book tackles the slow reconstruction of society after the “flame deluge”, when nuclear warheads fall across the world like rain. Knowledge and science are blamed for the deluge, and those burning the books and bearers of knowledge proudly proclaiming themselves “simpletons”. In amongst this, an engineer by the name of Leibowitz starts an underground network for the preservation of books and knowledge. Six hundred years later, America has retreated to a new dark age, and the Church once again finds itself with the responsibility for preserving the knowledge of the past, specifically through the Blessed Order of Leibowitz. Another six hundred years after that, an Enlightenment is happening, with secular scholars rediscovering the knowledge that had been lost, and the Order of St Leibowitz gaze upon the first electric light for over a thousand years. But with the coming of the Enlightenment, once again there comes strife between the ancient Church and the emerging state. And finally another six hundred years pass and the heavens are once again opened to mankind, as colonies spread amongst the stars. But back on earth, global tensions are high and rumours are rife of construction of forbidden nuclear weapons…

This is a difficult book to discuss. Miller was a convert to Catholicism and the Catholic church is portrayed very sympathetically, as the preservers of knowledge that the secular world would otherwise have completely burned. For the first section of the book, you’re unequivocally on their side. The second section reintroduces the tensions between emerging nation states and the Church, and the age old question of whether knowledge should just be preserved for the sake of it or whether it should be brought into the light and used. The final section is more difficult, as the abbot of the abbey of St Leibowitz of that time takes a very hard line stance on euthanasia even in the face of the immense suffering through radiation poisoning that he sees around him: crystallised in one woman and her child who are dying anyway and want to go to the state-sponsored clinics.

The abbot espouses the age-old doctrines of the church, but in the face of immense suffering, I saw it as nothing more than the ancient fact of a bully trying to hold power over the powerless. But then you’ve got the final few chapters which may be just the ravings of a dying man, or may be something else entirely.

The themes of the book seem to be about the inevitability of the cycle of history; about how man will raise himself up to be like a god, but can never sustain himself and lose his feet of clay. It’s quite a depressing message: after the first two sections in which (despite the inevitable death and destruction at the human level) civilisation is on an upwards trajectory, the final one seems to suggest that we’ll never be able to overcome our animal natures, and may even spread the cycle to other worlds.

There is a seam of mysticism that runs throughout the book that I’m not entirely sure what to make of, with Rachel in the last section, and the old hermit (or something like him) showing up in all three. Miller does seem to be clearly hinting towards a conclusion that God definitely exists and is an interventionist God.

Finally, for those, like me, whose Latin is restricted to the odd phrase here and there, the wonderful Wikipedia has a handy translation of each Latin phrase in the novel.

Book details

ISBN: 9780552094740
Publisher: Corgi Books
Year of publication: 1959

The Three-Body Problem (Remembrance of Earth’s Past, #1)

By Liu Cixin

Rating: 4 stars

I enjoyed this story mathematics, computer science and first contact. It felt quite old-school, with maths and science to the fore, and the characters being not as well developed – not that I have any major problem with that (I am, after all, a fan of golden age SF). In the midst of China’s cultural revolution, a young woman watches as her father is killed for his beliefs. Forty plus years later, a young scientist called Wang Miao is asked by Beijing police to investigate a secretive organisation of scientists known as the Frontiers of Science. His investigations lead to a virtual reality computer game, and beyond into something that may threaten the entire human race.

My favourite scene in the book, I think, was the first in the present day. After everything that went on in the Cultural Revolution period that immediately preceded it, it was a shock to see a scientist “giving lip” to the authorities, and that very nicely showed the passage of time and that things had changed immensely in China in the intervening period.

Although Wang is our main protagonist, he doesn’t get much in the way of character development. We know he has a wife and child, but they get exactly one scene and we see little of his life. The character who gets the most development is probably Ye Wenjie, the young woman from the start, whose life dovetails with Wang’s in important ways.

The translation by Ken Liu is excellent, with the narrative flowing without much in the way of awkwardness. And it’s very interesting to read SF from a different cultural point of view. Liu’s take on first contact is unusual and worth reading.

One thing I didn’t realise when I started this book was that it was part of a trilogy. The story doesn’t really come to any neat conclusion at the end of the book, so be aware of that.

Book details

ISBN: 9781784971571
Publisher: Head of Zeus
Year of publication: 2008

Speaker for the Dead (Ender’s Saga, #2)

By Orson Scott Card

Rating: 4 stars

Three thousand years have passed since Ender Wiggins committed unwitting xenocide in Ender’s Game, but thanks to relativistic interstellar travel, both he and his sister Valentine remain young, as they search for somewhere to release the last of the alien ‘bugger’ hive queen. On the colony world of Lusitania another alien species has been found, this time in a primitive state. To prevent another xenocide, the Hundred Worlds Starways Congress enacts a law much like the Prime Directive forbidding interference in the culture of the new species, colloquially known as ‘piggies’. However, despite this, the colony’s xenobiologist still dies, vivisected by the piggies. Ender, now a Speaker for the Dead, is called to speak his death. Twenty years pass before he is able to arrive (only a few weeks for him) and he finds a colony full of pain and secrets. It’s up to him and the hidden AI sentience known as Jane to try and prevent another xenocide.

Although it’s been a very long time since I’ve read Ender’s Game, this feels like a very different book. It’s a talky book, with a very interesting alien ecosystem at its heart. I was frustrated at by the lack of information about that for most of the length of the novel, as just asking some basic questions would have resolved matters. Regarding that, Ender’s explanation of the motives behind the ‘prime directive’ law makes an awful lot of sense and I can understand it in that context.

I found this a very humanistic and compassionate book. As Ender digs into the life of the man he’s come to Speak, he finds many secrets and buried pain, but he excises it like a surgeon, skilfully and without malice. I appreciate that writer and book are different things, but I can’t really match the writer of Speaker for the Dead with Card’s politics and other views. I prefer the Card who wrote this book.

Although there are unresolved plot threads left hanging at the end of this book, there is closure, so I don’t feel the need to read the sequel. This is perfectly readable as a standalone book (although I’d still read Ender’s Game first to understand the character of Ender better).

Book details

ISBN: 9781857238570
Publisher: Orbit
Year of publication: 1986

American Gods (American Gods, #1)

By Neil Gaiman

Rating: 4 stars

A few days before he’s let out of jail, Shadow’s wife Laura dies in a car crash. Numbly, he tries to return home and get on with his life, but he meets a stranger on the journey, who offers him a job. With nothing to stay for, he accepts, and begins a journey through the heart of America, and into the oncoming storm.

This is possibly the most ‘Neil Gaiman-y’ of Nail Gaiman’s books. It’s about mythology, belief, gods and monsters, what it means to be human, and more. Shadow is a sympathetic protagonist, although he can be passive at times. He accepts the world of mythology and gods he’s been thrown into with barely a quizzical eyebrow, but he still has agency when it matters and his actions drive the plot forward.

The writing is very pleasurable to read as well. I’ve always been a fan of that, and while it’s no Ray Bradbury in my book, I do enjoy the cadence of Gaiman’s prose and his choice of words is evocative.

If you’re new to Gaiman’s work, this is probably a good place to start into his body of work. It’s very typical of his work and rich enough that you’ll know after you’re finished it whether to read any more of his work, without needing the commitment of something like the Sandman series.

Book details

ISBN: 9780747263746
Publisher: Headline Review
Year of publication: 2001

Agatha Heterodyne and the Guardian Muse (Girl Genius, #10)

By Phil Foglio

Rating: 4 stars

Volume 10 of the adventures of Agatha Heterodyne sees her trying to save the lives of herself and her potential beaus, Gil and Tarvek, from a deadly Spark disease, dealing with the deadly guardian of the pit and trying to stop her mother taking over her body (repeatedly) while fending off the Heterodyne imposter, Zola and trying to repair the castle to defend the town.

As with the other Girl Genius books, the art is beautiful, the story hectic and the laughs keep coming. I still read the webcomic regularly but there’s nothing quite like sitting down with a book and being able to blitz through a whole story in one go, rather than trying to remember what’s going on at the (somewhat glacial) pace of three pages a week.

This volume is somewhat lacking in Jaeger activity, although that is corrected in the excellent short story Maxim Buys a Hat, included at the back of this volume. Other supporting cast get a bit more to do: we see some romantic interests blossoming between some of the minions hangers-on and, in particular, we see some intriguing hints that Airman (Third Class) Higgs is much more than he seems.

Book details

ISBN: 9781890856533
Publisher: Airship Entertainment
Year of publication: 2011

The City & The City


Rating: 4 stars

This intriguing book posits the two cities of Beszel and Ul Qoma. These cities aren’t just neighbours, they sit on top of and alongside each other. Some posit a ‘Cleavage’ in deep history, others a Conjoining, but the origin of the cities is lost in antiquity. What is remarkable about the cities is how they live together: citizens in both are trained from an early age to ‘unsee’ and ‘unhear’ everything in the other, from the buildings and architecture to the people sharing the streets to the cars on the road. And overseeing it all is Breach, which enforces the separation with an iron fist.

In Beszel, Inspector Tyador Borlú finds himself heading up the case of a murdered woman, which turns out to be more than he expected, and soon finds himself having to make the journey of a few steps physically, but enormous distance psychologically, to Ul Qoma and eventually gets on the trail of a mysterious third city, rumoured to share the space between the other two.

There’s a solid hard-boiled murder mystery at the core of this book, and Borlú is a good hard-boiled detective, trying to do what’s right while navigating the labyrinthine laws and mores of his society. The real stars of the book are Beszel and Ul Qoma. It’s fascinating seeing Miéville constructing this very believable twinned but very much separate society and the effort that both sets of citizens go to to maintain it. Every so often, Miéville throws in something that lets you know that this isn’t some fantasy world: the city and the city are somewhere on the edge of Europe, in a world where there’s Coke, Google, and so forth. It makes them feel even odder, but at the same time, there’s nothing that I couldn’t particularly believe might go on somewhere in the depths of Eastern Europe.

The language of the book is quite spare and easy to read, although I did find something about it that meant that I had to parse a sentence a few times before I got it. It’s not the writing or the grammar, but sometimes oddly placed commas or (lack of) paragraph breaks just made me pause and think a bit. It just goes to show how important that these structures are to our writing, no matter what some people might insist.

An enjoyable book that definitely keeps you on your toes while reading, and never ends up going where you think it will.

Book details

ISBN: 9780330534192
Publisher: Pan Books
Year of publication: 2009

Saga, Vol. 1

By Brian K. Vaughan

Rating: 5 stars

Two soldiers from a galaxy-spanning war meet, fall in love and have a child. This is their story, and that of the child as they struggle to survive, being hunted by all sides for just trying to live.

The story in this graphic novel doesn’t hang around. It grabs you hard right from the opening panels. You sort of fall in love with these two people, and their obvious love for each other. The fact that one of them has wings and is from a technological civilisation, while the other has ram’s horns and can do magic is neither here nor there.

The backstory is intriguing, some of the secondary characters grotesque and intriguing (what’s with the Robot kingdom, for a start?) and I really like Izabel, the ghost child. The main plot is also really interesting and certainly makes me want to read more. Great cliffhanger too.

Book details

ISBN: 9781607066019
Publisher: Image Comics
Year of publication: 2012

Agatha Heterodyne and the Heirs of the Storm (Girl Genius, #9)

By Phil Foglio

Rating: 4 stars

Volume nine of Agatha Heterodyne’s exciting adventures see her ensconced in her family seat: Castle Heterodyne. The castle turns out to be a sentient fortress, albeit one that is badly damaged and whose consciousness is fragmented and which is a death trap. Complicating matters are Agatha’s friends who have come in to help her, but who she sees as a burden that she must protect, and her enemies, also in the castle, trying to destroy it. And it doesn’t help that even the bits of the castle that acknowledge her are becoming increasingly erratic.

The story in this ongoing webcomic is becoming ever more complex, and catching up in the hard copy volumes makes it much easier to track what’s going on, and who the various characters are. The love triangle between Agatha, Gil and Tarvek deepens and is becoming more interesting as it goes on, with Agatha being continually embarrassed both by the gentlemen in question, and by the bystanders who Assume Too Much.

My favourite new character, though, is the Castle. Castle Heterodyne is an ancient, somewhat deranged personality with the most awesomely perverse sense of humour. Every time it speaks (possibly with Christopher Lee’s voice), it dominates, even without the physical presence of its many torture machines, death traps and gizmos.

The only thing missing from this volume (as Kaja Foglio acknowledges at the end of the book) are the Jägermonsters, but we do at least get some short strips (and lovely full page art) featuring them at the back.

Book details

ISBN: 9781890856526
Publisher: Diamond Comic Distributors
Year of publication: 2010

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