BooksOfTheMoon

Brasyl

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

Planesrunner: Everness Book 1

By Ian McDonald

Rating: 3 stars

Everett Singh is a young geek whose physicist father is kidnapped before his eyes. But his father has left him something: an app on his tablet that turns out to be a map to the multiverse, something which some people would literally kill to get. A combination of skill and luck gets Everett to one of the parallel Earths where he falls in with the crew of the airship Everness. He must win their trust to help him in finding his father and escaping his enemies.

This was a pacey written book with lots going on to keep the reader interested. Everett is a likeable enough young protagonist and there are stacks of geek and pop culture references interspersed that would probably endear the book to the YA audience that it’s aimed at.

I couldn’t help thinking at times, however, that Everett is a bit too competent and calm under everything that happens. Or maybe that’s just me projecting (I’d fall apart, I suspect).

A decent enough book but not one that made me immediately want to go and find the next in the trilogy.

Book details

ISBN: 9781780876672
Publisher: Jo Fletcher Books
Year of publication: 2011

Chaga

By Ian McDonald

Rating: 3 stars

Gaby McAslan is a journalist, with special interest in the ‘Chaga’, an alien ecosystem spreading in the heart of Africa, amongst other places, after meteorites crash on Earth, following an earlier event in the Saturn system. Whilst being a hard-nosed journalist, she is irresistibly drawn to the Chaga (named for the first tribe in Kenya displaced by the spread).

I’m not really sure how to describe this book further. The first half of the book is very much about Africa, and Kenya in particular. Gaby finally gets posted to East Africa and the book is about her relationships there. The Chaga is a background, but Africa itself is very much to the fore. McDonald has form in this, with books such as River of Gods and The Dervish House being set in India and Turkey respectively, and where the setting is as much a character as any of the humans. Even when a man walks out of the Chaga (a feat believed to be impossible) with a message, it never really comes to the fore.

It’s only when Gaby finally makes a trek into the Chaga, does it finally come alive and we start to gain a feel for it, although one of the issues that I had with the book, is that that feeling seems vague, and you never really get much sense of what sort of potential threat that it could be, apart from the very human one of it expanding across Africa, and the UN attempting to evacuate people, towns, cities and eventually whole countries. The Chaga is eventually described as a sort of melting pot for evolution, with it changing the populations, but also learning from them and adapting itself to meet their needs.

The book very much felt like one of two halves, with the first being about Africa and the second more about the Chaga, and I’m not really sure how well the two meshed. After making a big fuss about the disappearance and re-emergence of the moon Hyperion as an object coming into Earth orbit, that sort of trails off. I’m not sure if it’s being left for the sequel, or if it just fizzled out, but I found the end quite unsatisfactory.

However, the descriptions of Kenya and its people and land were marvellous, and one of the major reasons that I read McDonald.

Book details

ISBN: 9780575060524
Publisher: Gollancz
Year of publication: 1995

The Dervish House

By Ian McDonald

Rating: 5 stars

I’ve been a fan of Ian McDonald for several years now, and this book does nothing to make me reconsider. From the opening paragraphs, introducing us to Istanbul, the Queen of Cities, the language is rich and beautiful and quickly draws you in. The story is in six strands, each following a different protagonist across five days following a terrorist suicide-bombing as their paths cross and weave. Interleaving Islamic mysticism, nanotechnology, a hunt for ancient Ottoman artefacts and more, this was a joy to read.

The characters are all drawn well and have good motivations and histories. The only thing that didn’t entirely work for me was the relationship between the financial trader Adnan and his wife Ayşe. I’m not sure why, and it may have been more to do with my prejudice against financial traders than anything else, and it certainly didn’t affect my enjoyment of the story.

The city was lovingly and beautifully described and crafted, becoming another character, and player in the mysterious plot. I did sort of wonder just how true that the characters were to Turkey, or whether they were just Westerners in Istanbul. However, I’m not really familiar with the country at all, so I’m going to give the book the benefit of the doubt and suggest that a near-future Turkey, just having joined the European Union would be modern, forward-looking and diverse, as this novel portrays.

The book isn’t short on SF ideas either, from a boy’s robotic smart dust that forms into animals, through corporate scams that would shame Lehman Brothers to how forward-looking terrorists might use nanotechnology. Believable, creepy, marvellous and at times terrifying. There’s a lot here to chew on and you’ll be thinking about it long after the final page.

Book details

ISBN: 9780575088627
Publisher: Gollancz
Year of publication: 2009

Sacrifice Of Fools

By Ian McDonald

Rating: 4 stars

An alien fleet is detected at the edge of the solar system, but they come not as invaders, but as settlers. Here to trade their advanced technology for land, to live amongst us. In Northern Ireland, people barely notice, wrapped up as they are in their own petty dispute, until an 80,000 strong colony of the Shian is deposited amongst them. Reformed ex-con Andy Gillespie works with them, helping to integrate them with the Human communities around them, and when a Shian family is brutally murdered he takes it upon himself to hunt down the killer.

To me this felt like quite a personal book for McDonald, set in the country that he’s called home for most of his life (and my own homeland, even if I’ve made the migration in the opposite direction). He’s scathing about it being wrapped up in its own politics of bigotry and fear that the “community leaders”, and some parts of the community are in this Province. It’s the old joke updated: “yeah, but are they Catholic aliens or Protestant aliens?” The first contact scenario lets him rake an outsider’s critical eye over Ulster and he finds us wanting.

The Shian were pleasingly alien, in mind, if not necessarily in body. Although they are sexless apart from two mating seasons a year, they are humanoid and can pass well enough that sub-cultures spring up, attracted to them. The idea of encoding language in chemistry and being able to pass it on by exchanging bodily fluids is fascinating (and pleasingly icky).

Of our two point of view characters, ex-con Gillespie is easy to like. He’s the real hero of the book, trying to find a new family to replace the one that fell apart with his marriage and he thinks he’s found it amongst the Shian, until the murders begin. Our other protagonist, Detective Sargent Roisin Dunbar is much less likeable for most of the book. She has entrenched, old-fashioned policing ideas (not necessarily good, when the old police is the RUC) and her prejudices lie near the surface. But as we spend time with her, and get under her skin we start to empathise with her. A neat trick that McDonald pulls off well.

The book, set as it is in the first decade of the 21st century, has now become alt history. It was written in 1996, when the peace process that would lead up to the Good Friday Agreement was still in its early stages, and the Joint Authority (shared sovereignty of Northern Ireland between the UK and the Republic of Ireland) is an interesting alternative, although one that, I think, would have been much harder to get through, than the devolved settlement that we eventually got.

McDonald never shows us how the rest of the world is coping with the Shian, and that also can be a metaphor for Northern Ireland: parochial, petty and wrapped up in its own affairs. Maybe I’m being harsh on my homeland, and maybe the same can be said of most nations but given that apart from a brief mention in the prologue of how the UN was reacting to the news, our focus never leaves Northern Ireland (except for a brief trip to Dublin).

A good first contact story and a good murder mystery. I’ve been a fan of McDonald for some time and this book does nothing to change that.

Book details

ISBN: 9780575060753
Publisher: Victor Gollancz
Year of publication: 1996

Speaking in Tongues

By Ian McDonald

Rating: 4 stars

I mostly enjoyed this collection of short stories. McDonald’s lightness of touch and his eloquent use of language are present and correct but some of the playfulness of his other work is missing. Some of these stories are pretty dour, and some of them (probably) contain Meanings that I didn’t fathom in the single reading that I gave them. Still, there are others here that do show the playful spark that keeps me coming back to McDonald, and his evocative use of language still made this a very enjoyable read.

Book details

ISBN: 9780553292398
Publisher: Spectra
Year of publication: 1992

Scissors Cut Paper Wrap Stone

By Ian McDonald

Rating: 3 stars

As a bright art design student, Ethan Ring helped discover fracters: the synthesis of images that bypass the mind and directly affect the brain, bringing healing, pain, freezing of time sense, death and more. He was later recruited by the European Security Forces as an agent but his troubled soul is now on a journey of self-discovery through Buddhist temples in Japan.

The mcguffin of this book is faintly ridiculous, but I was able to suspend my disbelief enough to enjoy it. I’m a fan of McDonald’s work, and, although somewhat muted, the lyrical, somewhat whimsical, style that I enjoy so much was detectable through the work. The book starts with Ethan’s pilgrimage and the story of how he came to help create the fracters is told in flashback alongside his journey through a Japan filled with street gangs and private security firms happier to wield the bullet than the notebook, fighting his desire to use his fracters, for good and ill, along the way.

Like I said, the fracters themselves are faintly ridiculous, so it’s Ethan’s spiritual journey as he fights against the powers that bind him and against the demon box full of images that has his soul in hock that really holds the book together and drives the plot. Worth reading.

Book details

ISBN: 9780553561166
Publisher: Spectra
Year of publication: 1994

Hearts, Hands And Voices

By Ian McDonald

Rating: 4 stars

The Land is the last province of a dying Empire. It has had advanced biotechnology for a thousand years, but this land that should be paradise is riven by the same old evils of religious and nationalist violence. This is the story of Mathembe Fileli and her family who are made refugees in the conflict and Mathembe’s trials and tribulations as she loses one after another of her relatives and has to rely only on herself to get through them all and find her family again.

Like his first novel, Desolation Road, this is a very lyrical book. McDonald knows the rules of English very well, and knows exactly when and how he can break them with impunity. This makes for an exhilarating read. Mathembe, who has chosen never to speak, is a fascinating character who is very easy to empathise with, and the descriptions of the Land and Empire are wonderful; McDonald did a very neat trick of starting with a very narrow focus to his story and then slowly widened it so that you see the narrowness of the protagonist’s world just as she does and your field of vision expands with hers. There’s tantalising glimpses of the fact that there’s an outside world beyond the Land and Empire and they are watching and judging, something that grounds the book in reality for me.

Finally, the religious/nationalist conflict of the book is one that was reasonably close to home for me, and, I imagine, the author, given that he’s lived most of his life in Northern Ireland.

Book details

ISBN: 9780575050617
Publisher: Gollancz
Year of publication: 1992

Desolation Road (Desolation Road Universe, #1)

By Ian McDonald

Rating: 5 stars

This was a a great book about a town on a terraformed planet that shouldn’t exist and its many and varied inhabitants. It’s a very well-written book, full of strange characters, locations and things. And lists, lots of lists. The writer obviously had fun writing it and some of the language and descriptions are excellent.

Book details

ISBN: 9785553372484
Publisher: Spectra Books
Year of publication: 1988

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