Beckett's Dark Eden, a recently released dark, somewhat new-weirdy science fiction dystopia was beautiful, thought-provoking, powerful, intelligent, and wonderful.  So, as I said at the end of that review, I came back to Chris Beckett for more; and more, at the moment, means The Holy Machine. This is another novel in the same mode, whilst at the same time being different; hitting the notes of Gibsonian cyberpunk and Tanith Lee's Silver Metal Lover; The Holy Machine is a romance novel, a science fiction novel, and most of all, a meditation on humanity, the soul, and religion, and a powerful one at that.

The Holy Machine, like Dark Eden, has a plot in which a doctrinaire society - Illyria, whose doctrine is Reason, in a world where religious extremism has taken over everywhere else - eats itself from the inside out, evolving and changing; and following, in the first person, a character, in this case George, who finds himself limited by the society.  The thing about Illyria is that it is so single-mindedly scientific, and this is where the philosophical aspects of The Holy Machine starts to come in; discussion about the importance, or even vitality, of faith and religion to society (an explicit discussion of this happens towards the novel's end), what belief and faith actually are (especially with regard to faith in reason), and most central of all, the nature of the soul.  In common with Silver Metal Lover, the main point of comparison for this novel, Beckett has his protagonist fall in love with a sophisticated machine designed for pleasure, and that machine develop self-awareness; there are significant differences, not least in how Beckett handles that development and the nature of the intelligence (fantastically, by the way) but also in the scale of The Holy Machine: no one is changed by George's actions other than George, really, and he never sets out to make changes.  The plot is simple and well-written, with enough of an emotional punch and viscerally powerful descriptions of the darker moments in the story (and the semi-dehumanisation undergone by George during one sequence) to balance out the incredibly intricate and thoughtful speculations and keep the story moving.

The characters of The Holy Machine are also excellent.  George isn't the typical Campbellian emotionless superman, nor Asimov and Clarke's areligious scientist who needs nothing more than science; George has a yearning for more, beautifully and powerfully portrayed especially in his inability to articulate it, lacking a vocabulary to do so, and his unwillingness to let go of his rationality when he finds it.  George is a damaged, interesting character, thoughtfully portrayed, and incredibly human; his motivations are honest, his feelings universally understandable, his trials and tribulations complex but ones we can empathise with, and even when we think his decisions abhorrent, we can understand from where he is coming.  Similarly his mother, Ruth, who has withdrawn increasingly into SenSpace, essentially a full-sensory VR; having escaped from religious fanaticism and persecution to Illyria, she wants safety from the mob and the religious, and increasingly withdraws seeking it; her changing attitude is powerfully portrayed, and whilst we sympathise less with her - in part because unlike George we only ever see her through George's eyes or in the third person - it isn't as strong a connection as with George, but it's strong enough to let events over the course of the novel have real impact.

Like Dark Eden, The Holy Machine is not an easy, simple or uncomplicated book.  At the same time, Beckett hasn't given us here a series of meditations on philosophical issues or allowed the story to become subordinated to the intellectual side; instead, The Holy Machine has both work in a symbiotic relationship, and without either, this would be a much poorer book, and that would be a great loss to us all.  This is one of the most thoughtful and intelligent novels I have read in a very long time, and I can't recommend The Holy Machine enough.
Richard Morgan's Market Forces is unlike his further-future, planet-hopping and body-swapping Takeshi Kovacs novels and equally unlike his Land Fit For Heroes epic fantasies; indeed, in a moment towards the end of Market Forces, Chris Faulkner even seems to draw the distinction between himself and Kovacs, the reader told that he couldn't identify with a precis of Kovacs novels.  Rather, Market Forces is a near-future, 1980s-inspired dystopia; a neoliberal, Thatcherite grinding-mill, dark and deeply political, whilst also being deeply personal.

Market Forces is an odd genre novel; most are, whilst having strong characters, plot-driven all the same, with the characters being secondary to the events of the novel.  This is as true in fantasy (what would The Steel Remains if Ringil was a different character? Now, how much more different would it be if the plot structure was changed?) as it is in science fiction (change Kovacs, and Altered Carbon is still basically the same; change the underlying thriller components, or the worldbuilding ideas, and it is a radically different nove); it isn't a bug, but rather a feature, of the majority of genre fiction, neither positive or negative, but simply a difference of emphasis.  The Complaints, a crime/thriller novel, was equally concerned with character and plot; change Fox or change the plot, and things are very different; but the character could be changed without changing the plot, and vice versa.  Market Forces is very different proposition; changing the plot wouldn't change the novel, although changing the worldbuilding would, but largely that because of the real heart of the novel: the character of Chris Faulkner.  Chris stands at the centre of this novel, with the plot, other characters, and to some extent worldbuilding moving behind him, influencing and being influenced by him; the maelstrom of Market Forces' fast-paced, anti-Thatcherite concept and plot exist to give us Chris, rather than Chris existing as a way to tell the plot (as in much fiction, good and bad).

So the first thing to discuss in the context of reviewing Market Forces is Chris' character.  He's not a hero, by any means; a product of his world, over the course of the novel Chris develops and changes very effectively.  Starting the novel, he is the new man in Shorn's Conflict Investment arm - Shorn being a financial investment powerhouse, CI being the branch which deals with international politics, ensuring power goes to whoever will make it most profitable in the sort of conflicts that are said to be endemic to places like Colombia.  He's got a rep as a cold, hard business man, ruthless but with humanity; and it's that humanity that's seen as a downside.  Over the course of Market Forces, Chris changes Shorn - or at least people in it - with his own ethos, which tends to the less lethal (promotion and tender are by fights to the death); but at the same time, Shorn - and forces within Shorn, naturally - changes Chris.  His humanity is slowly destroyed (the motif of his changing relationship with his non-corporate wife, Carla, is the best demonstration of this; as his humanity waxes and wanes, their relationship strengthens or collapses), and his compassion, ideals and personality are slowly broken down to be less human and more like a hyena (a motif that comes up a few times in the novel in regard to his character).  Chris sometimes knows that it's happening, and sometimes doesn't, and it's a brilliantly dark, painful and horrific portrayal of a person destroyed by achieving his aims and not knowing what to do next; though what those aims truly are is revealed as a late-game thing in the novel, powerfully and effectively.

The plot of Market Forces is a complex, and rather, strange one, which requires a bit of understanding of the worldbuilding.  Essentially, Morgan is positing the ultimate in Darwinian Thatcherite economics; the state has contracted almost completely, with healthcare privatised beyond even American levels, and the police run by corporations, and corporations are able to involve themselves in sponsoring regimes for financial payoffs - thus, in a more obvious and direct way than is presently the case, dictators are toppled not by their subjects but by their corporate sponsor, or propped up by them. In those corporations, it's a cut-throat world; to win a promotion, you have to kill (in a ritualised combat - Britain uses road-wars, with the intention to kill the opposing executive, Latin America seems to use knife-fights), and the same applies, against rival corporations' executives, in order to win contracts out to tender.  Into this world steps Chris Faulkner, and he's made friends and enemies in Shorn, shaking things up merely by his presence; but he's also having to deal with his actual job at Shorn, despite what seem to be attempts to sabotage him from above.  The plot is fast-paced, effectively and tightly written in a manner that takes us all over this post-Thatcherite dystopian London, from the estates - where the government contains lawlessness, rather than trying to fight it - to the heart of capitalism in the City.  The mix of corporate politics and Top Gear-style driving madness is really well handled, with the parallels between the two effectively drawn, and the fast-paced writing of the novel really adds to everything; but the brutality of those road scenes really works well, Morgan as normal not pulling punches but instead placing them well into the gut.  The development of the plot, as Chris is drawn deeper into the morally dark world of Conflict Investment and the (at times lethal) office politicking around him, and as he becomes more the hyena, abandoning his moral compass, is really well handled, without being either too clear or too mysterious; hints are given, but Morgan doesn't spell it out until the right moment at the very end.

All in all, Market Forces is a brilliant novel, and a fantastic, horrific character study of a person having to live in the Thatcherite paradise; very ideologically driven, but very well written, and very dark.  I really can't recommend it highly enough.
Liz Williams' work is very well regarded in the science fiction field, but - despite a recommendation from Tricia Sullivan herself - my previous experience of it has been... somewhat disappointing, given the lavish praise laid upon Williams' authorial skill.  Following the specifics of Sullivan's recommendation, however, has proven somewhat more of an explanation for the critical acclaim Williams has: Snake Agent, the first of the DI Chen novels, is a brilliant slipstreamy-type novel.

The reason I describe it as "slipstreamy" is because Williams mixes so many different kinds and categories into Snake Agent.  We see technology out of science fiction - literally liquid display screens that can be spread across any surface and biocomputing as an adjunct to the internet - alongside magic and active demons and gods.  All this in the context of a clearly futuristic P. R. China.  Combine this with the noirish feel of the narrative - although it builds up to be something out of the scope of most noir, in terms of conspiracies (stretching literally into the bowels of Hell!) - and the police procedural/whodunnit elements, and "slipstreamy" is simply the easiest, most complete description of the rolling, changing, shifting and never-quite-solidifying genre of Snake Agent.

The characters are, however, a quite different affair.  We have four main figures in Snake Agent, and they are all excellently portrayed, rounded figures.  The first, naturally, is DI Chen himself; a member of the Singapore Three police force, he deals with matters supernatural, and starts the novel by being asked to track down the kidnapped soul of the daughter of an industrialist.  As the plot progresses and grows more complicated, we see Chen really grow into himself - or perhaps into John Constantine, if we're feeling cynical; because it really does feel like Constantine is something of a reference point for Chen, but not in a bad way - rather they share a common heritage and feeling, as well as a world-weariness, but Chen's is leavened by his stronger urge to do good, and his attachment to Inari.
Inari herself is a demon, and Chen's wife - having fled from an arranged marriage in Hell with Chen's help, she's somewhat dependent on him, but the pair love each other; indeed, there is a beauty and power to their relationship and the way it is portrayed that works incredibly well.  Like all our characters, Inari is incredibly human, and an interesting figure; her inability to quite fit in with humanity and her problems attempting to are affectingly portrayed, as is her state of mind.
Zhu Irzh, Seneschal of Hell and a member of the Ministry of Vice (promotion, not eradication, naturally) is working the same case as Chen from the opposite end; again, he's a very human demon, neatly written as having different standards and ideas of duty as a human, but still having them - and following them.  It's an important note, because Zhu Irzh is so important to the narrative and as a character; Williams writes him very well, leaving him eminently believable.
Finally, Sergeant Ma, a human in the Singapore Three PD who barely believes in the supernatural despite the evidence and dislikes it, is a character like a duck out of water; he lets the reader be introduced to some of the concepts of the novel, and whilst not around for a huge amount of it, his naivety and distaste for demons give us a very different picture to Chen of human society and the world, and a necessary counterbalance.

The plot of Snake Agent is a complex one.  The aforementioned kidnapping is only the way into a complex conspiracy by one of the Ministries of Hell, which is also intertwined with attempts by Inari's spurned betrothed to take her back from Chen and Earth.  The personal, criminal and political run together in complex and unusual manners over the course of the novel, with hidden identities, magical responses, and larger scales than we ever expected at the start coming clearer and clearer, and the raising of the stakes gives rise to more and more elements of the plot being revealed and tied into the central elements, until at the end we have everything swept away, not with a deus ex machina, but with a brilliant resolution reminiscent of such - but far better foreshadowed and executed.

In the end, Snake Agent shows why Liz Williams is a much praised author, and DI Chen is a brilliant creation; I'll certainly be following along his journey.  Williams can, finally, welcome me aboard as a fan!
Deadline is the sequel to Feed, and the second novel in Mira Grant's Newsflesh zombie-thriller trilogy.  It also suffers a little from being the second book of a trilogy; but not too heavily, since many of the excellent elements in Feed are carried over here.  However, due to some late-game huge events in Feed, this review has no choice but to spoiler that book, and will thus be hidden behind a cut.  Venture behind at your peril!

Overall, Deadline manages to be an effective novel, but it isn't up to the standard of the first novel in the series in any department; as the middle novel of a trilogy, this is perhaps an inevitability, but it is an unfortunate one.  I'll still be picking up Blackout when it comes out, no doubt about that, but I'm a little more wary of it.  Feed, however, remains a stunningly excellent novel, so if you haven't, go and pick it up!
Feed is not what it appears to be on the cover.  Feed is not a horror novel - or rather, it is not a zombie horror novel; it is still deeply horrific, dark, and moving.  Mira Grant's strongest credential in this novel, to my mind, is that whilst the zombies are horrifying, the true threat is still humanity - because after the zombie apocalypse, after the geeks put their Romero-taught wisdom into practice... what happens next?  Feed is a good, if slightly dated (already!) attempt to answer that.

The year is 2040, two and a half decades after the zombies rose up (an event referred to the Rising, appropriately) thanks to Kellis-Amberlee syndrome - a combination of two retroviruses, one to cure cancer and the other the common cold.  The side-effect is that in combination, these two highly contagious viral drugs turn any mammal over a certain body-mass into a zombie when they die - or otherwise activate the syndrome, making everyone infected (meaning everyone) a potential ticking time bomb.  In this world, bloggers provide the backbone of the media - they were the first to break the zombie-apocalypse story, whilst the print and traditional media were denying it; and they can either go solo or have their blogs supported by a major outlet (the idea that this would take a crisis is, well... dated, as those links go some way towards demonstrating).  Thus the title, and cover art; a gentle pun - Feed, after all, has two different definitions...

Feed lives and dies on its characters, and has a huge benefit in that Grant can do character.  Our central cast is three characters, expanded for a large chunk of the middle to four, the team behind After the End Times, a blog following Senator Peter Ryman as he progresses through the Republican primaries for the 2040 Presidential Elections.  Our narrator is Georgia Mason, a journalist dedicated to the truth and unwilling to spin or lie; she's an incisive, direct interviewer, a keen observer of people, and an intelligent, thoughtful young woman, as well as being emotionally stable and willing to go the distance where necessary.  Her adoptive twin, Shaun Mason, is a thrill-seeker of a reporter; he goes out hunting for zombies in order to sell the danger to the public, and he's hot-headed, but in a crisis, he's decisive, and he knows very well what he's doing.  Finally, Buffy - a "dumb blonde" who, whilst ditzy, is a technology genius and a brilliant fiction writer (taking inspiration from the news collected by the Masons, largely); a devout Catholic, she's a rounded, well thought-out character, rather than being defined purely by her religion or her technical ability.  The other characters are a little less well-written, especially the villain, who is blindingly obviously such from the word "go" (to the extent that the first few times he appears, the reader may think he can't be the villain because it is too obvious); but the central cast, their emotions, and their interactions - highlighted by the nature of the first-person narrative from Georgia - are pitch-perfect.

The plot is a very strong one.  Feed sees the After The End Times team reporting on the Presidential run of Senator Ryman, and slowly sees the emergence of a conspiracy - though even by the end of the novel, we're not quite sure against what or whom it is really directed.  The tension is ratcheted up slowly, with interludes in zombie-combat interspersed amongst the political playbook, which is completely changed by the post-apocalyptic setting; and Grant feeds the flames very effectively, with some passages towards the end of the novel literally forcing tears from the reader on behalf of the characters, as the emotional turmoil and pain going on in the novel is so palpable and we feel so close to these characters.  There's no safety and no security, and the plot doesn't let the reader forget that; certain elements of the novel fall into a new pattern in hindsight, and it's very effectively done.

Feed is one of those books that will stay with the reader long after they've put it down, and is emotionally honest and painful.  It is what literature constantly derides genre fiction for not being, whilst also being about zombies.  If you only read one zombie novel, or one horror novel... make it Feed, because Grant has turned in a work of genius, and I'll be following the rest of the Newsflesh series as soon as I can.
"This is Istanbul, Queen of Cities, and she will endure as long as human hearts beat upon the earth." (p472) Ian McDonald's near-future science fiction masterpiece, The Dervish House, is as much a novel about Istanbul and about its history as about its future; as much about the city and the contradictions at its heart as it is about nanotech, about economics, or even about the characters.

The city of Istanbul, in 2027, provides the backdrop to The Dervish House, and runs through the novel so central to its characters' lives and outlooks and so often in the background; but it is there and vital.  McDonald, amongst the high concepts and global issues he pulls out around our heads, brings the Istanbul and Turkey of a decade and a half in the future to life full and true; it is a living, breathing city.  It has scars from its violent, long history, and it has integrated Europe and Asia together, but even then only somewhat; as now, it is a city divided.  The ideologies of the city are not those of now, and it is a member of the EU; nano is a relatively normal part of life, something people use as they now use performance-enhancing chemical drugs.  The way that McDonald normalises everything - it is how life is, for the characters; it doesn't need explaining, just as the Bazaar, as the divided city, as the nature of Istanbul and Turkey, don't need explaining, because we understand them by seeing.  This may be the greatest piece of world-building I have read in a science-fiction novel, because it is so true and simple.

The Dervish House isn't let down by its characters either; each of them is so unique and well-written, because they are simply human.  Can, the bright 9-year-old with a heart condition that condemns him to artificial deafness, is deeply moving; he is well-written, sweet, with high ideals and high ideas, aspirations far greater than himself.  He is driven and thoughtful, but obsessive and occasionally thoughtless to those around him; and he is made human by his condition, that limits him.  Georgios, a Greek living in Istanbul, is aged and a grandfather figure to Can; he is wise and yet stupid at times, driven by the ideas of economics and the aggregate wisdom of the group.  Furthermore, he is haunted by his past, a past that has taken in coups both political and academic and never left him untouched; now his genius is fading, but still more than strong enough to help him as he is tapped for a security service analysis group.  Ayşe, a female antiques dealer married to Adnan, is questing for a Mellified Man - a legendary artefact in Istanbul's history that will see her explore myth, architecture, religion, and the city's darker underbelly and history; she is also embroiled in her husband's financial dealings.  But she is also an aesthete in her own right, with a meticulous eye for beauty and fakery; and she is deeply embedded in the city of Istanbul in many of its facets.  Adnan himself, one of the four Ultralords of the Universe, is engaging in shady (nigh-illegal) business dealings through Özer's financial markets; self-assured to the point of being full of himself and annoying to boot in his arrogant insouciance, Adnan is nevertheless symapthetic in part from his clear drive to succeed and his obvious love of Ayşe.  Leyla is an ambitious young woman just arrived in Istanbul from the country, aiming to make a professional name for herself in the city of Istanbul; offered a job with her family to try and work a small tech-company startup, one which would revolutionise the world, into a major business operation, she does her best to manage it, and learns some important personal lessons.  Finally, Necdet, fleeing from something unknown at home and caught in a terrorist attack, begins to see djinni in the wake of the bomb; and he sees true things as well, becoming a minor sheykh in his own right, a prophet he never wanted to be.

Each of these six lives are, in the wake of the explosion, affected to various degrees, and they intertwine and come together over the course of five days, Monday to Friday, in the grand city of Istanbul; events set in motion on the Monday come to fruition each day, slowly but surely and inevitably, bringing them into contact and conflict, whether great or small, through the location of the tekke, or dervish house, of the novel's name.  Each plot is discrete and self-contained at the start, but they slowly converge, whether in a large or a small way, and they come together with a brilliant, powerful, crash at the close of the novel, into two different strands, but even these strands interconnect; no characters are left untouched by the motions set in part at the beginning of the novel, and every character has grown and changed and learned something about themselves.  The Dervish House has a plot spanning everything from the financial crisis and what led up to it ("‎As weapons of mass destruction go, unrestricted market economics are among the more subtle but sure." (p178) to nanoterrorism (an analogue, perhaps, for bioterrorism in the modern world?); and it is complex, thoughtful, and interconnected in the way that only the real world is.

In sum, The Dervish House is an absolute tour-de-force; I have never read any science fiction, or anything, remotely like it, and until I read McDonald again likely never will.  I can see why it's a BSFA winner and a Hugo nominee; it is a wonderful, powerful novel. I recommend it highly, and wish I had come to it - and McDonald's writing - sooner.
Jones’ novel of a near-future England (specifically England: written in 2001, Jones is predicting the dissolution of the Union wholesale) is a musically-infused, aesthetically-engaging and near-future science fiction novel with a whole lot of politics, and political taboos, packed in tight. But Bold As Love is only partly about the politics; the other, possibly even larger, element of the novel is its concern with three people and their relationships with each other.

Jones really has three characters in this novel; Ax Preston, Sage Pender/Aoxomoxoa, and Fiorinda. Each of the three is a different kind of rockstar, showcasing a different element of the classic rockstar stereotype; Ax is a man with grand visions of his future – truly, epically grand, at that. He’s also personable, but prickly, and willing to do whatever it takes, and sacrifice himself, for his vision and for those he loves; it’s easy to see Paul Atreides and Ax Preston getting on incredibly well, and the latter seems (especially in his conversion halfway through the novel) to be closely modelled on the former. Sage, however, is a very different beast, presumably modelled on the original shock-rocker Alice Cooper; he’s a dark, violent figure who has suppressed his addictions ruthlessly after they threatened to destroy his life. He also has a very tender side which he seems to keep hidden, and a dogged loyalty; the famed Head Ideology (he’s a Dead Head, in more ways than one) is the guiding principle of his character, unclear as it remains throughout the novel. Finally, Fiorinda – Fio – is a fey, strange girl; abused by her father as a child, she seems emotionally withdrawn and damaged by it, and yet at the same time she is an incredibly strong, powerful character. There’s a lot about Fio that Jones withholds, and yet the reader falls somewhat in love with her, as does virtually every character in the novel, because of her combination of strength and vulnerability, and her slightly fey nature.

Bold As Love has a very strange plot, to bring these characters together and develop the very strange relationship between them. It seems to be a sort of Glastonbury-writ-large; in the wake of the Dissolution, the government woos the counter-cultural groups through their rockstar icons, until one starts a violent revolt. That is when the action really starts, and Jones takes us on a tour of Britain in its wake; variously we see action and war, rock concerts and mob violence, plots and plans, and all sorts of other neat tricks. Ax, Sage and Fio stand at the centre of it all, the eye of the whirlwind, as Ax uses the confusion to rise to the top, Muad’Dib style, with the same level of intention – and Jones makes this a very effective piece of writing, with the various characters who intersect our trio used well and written effectively, if without the same depth.

Bold As Love proves itself to be a well-written, interesting novel about a near-future England of counter-culture and the strife that attempting to govern through counter-culture brings; but more than that it’s a novel of the relations between Fio, Sage and Ax. Jones has written a novel by turns scary, powerful, clever and funny, and it works really well, brilliantly English. A really strong work.
Stross' loose sequel to Halting State is a second techno-thriller crime novel; following, once again, Liz Kavanaugh (now of the Rule 34 squad) in a series of crimes that baffle the imagination, along with Anwar, an ex-con caught up in some seriously dodgy international dealings, and the Toymaker, a paranoid schizophrenic whose real name we never learn.  The novel is, in some ways, an attack on the Singularity and AI (as usually understood); and in others, a fun exploration of a number of ideas.

Stross' characters are, once again, second-person; it's always you.  There's bigger problems here than in the first novel, however; Kavanaugh is burned out to such an extent that it's hard for the reader to understand why she's taking her job even as seriously as she's taking it, and her personal life is only seen when it's useful, without surfacing most of the time - this is, I find, quite an issue here, because it's very jarring to see her personality undergo such massive shifts.  The Toymaker is also a caricature, in the worst sense of the term; he's a caricature of paranoid schizophrenic psychopathy, which links in rather grimly with Stross' habit of caricaturing all sorts of aspects of the world (from paperwork, through corporations, to government itself), to take a lot of realism from the novel and turn it into satire-without-seriousness.  Anwar is the only really well-drawn viewpoint-character, but he is at least well-drawn (and possibly the sole one in the novel, viewpoint or otherwise); conflicted, human, without breakneck emotional switches and odd personality changes without reason behind them and a brilliant character with a good sense of humour combined with a guilty conscience ("As long as you avoid the fermented fruit of the vine, you're not entirely doing it wrong: the Prophet said nothing about Deuchars IPA, did he?" p19).

The plot is a murder-mystery techno-thriller; it doesn't make much sense and is only ever at best half-resolved, with a lot of active deus ex machina, occasionally acknowledged but all too often just ignored.  It's also reliant on people who are supposedly intelligent acting in ridiculous, if not stupid, ways; apparently unable to notice what's happening around them or put things together - this occasionally does get lampshaded, but most often it's just taken as read, and the whole thing just seems to flail at such a loose end overall that it really doesn't seem to go anywhere, though occasionally it gets a nice block of Author Filibuster.

However, Stross' use of Anwar and his language and style do draw the reader in, and make it an enjoyable novel to read; fast-paced, interesting and stylish, Rule 34 is not the best read on the planet by any means, but it does have its upsides.
Reading Guardians of the Phoenix in the wake of Alastair Reynolds' talk got me thinking about Eric Brown's work; whereas Reynolds, and much other contemporary science fiction, has a deep pessimism amongst the trappings of optimism (space flight), Brown has it the other way round.  This novel on its front is deeply, deeply pessimistic about the future... and yet, if you can read through it and not have an overriding sense of hope by the end, it would be a strange accomplishment.

The characters of the novel are a mixed bunch.  Whilst Dan, Kath, Ed and Paul are well drawn, and Xian, for all the brevity of her appearances, is a poignant and beautiful character of the past, the villains of the piece - and they are clearly villains - are really terribly two-dimensional, Samara and Hans both being bluntly boring characters, just straightforwardly villainous without any real depth, especially in the case of the psychopathic and bluntly evil Hans.  Our heroes, on the other hand, are a bunch of people doing good and trying to keep civilisation going in the face of a post-collapse world, after nuclear wars and global warming have taken a huge toll; they're interesting, well-written and well-rounded characters.  They each have different histories and backgrounds, and have dark impulses and imperfect lives; they are also emotional, and so we do have moments when the reader will be in tears because, as in his other works, Brown knows how to really play the heartstrings and draw out pathos.

The plot is very much a mixed bag, like the characters.  The survival-story is wonderful, and the quest; it's detailed, interesting, plausible and with a really good combination of worldbuilding and exploration, with the future-history neatly incorporated into the wider plot and the state of the world revealed slowly and neatly.  However, the inclusion of Hans drives a violent little subplot that really isn't necessary; the brutal horrors of how some choose to survive, as encapsulated by Samara, would have been far better served by the loss of Hans from the plot and a quieter, subtler contrast of Samara and Dan as leaders of colonies.  It also takes something from the discovery element of the plot, because suddenly there's artificial conflict; not every novel, to my mind, has to have this sort of blunt violent confrontation near the climax...

Overall, this is a beautiful, hopeful book, but I can't whole-heartedly endorse it; two-dimensional villains plague the novel, and the artificial crowbarring in of the violent plot makes Guardians of the Phoenix something of a mixed bag.  Decent, but sadly not quite up to the excellent standard I've come to expect of Brown.
Roberts' novel of philosophical, sociological, political and military observations is interesting and well-written, if rather overtaken by the concepts the author is fascinated by and wants to taken on.  Indeed, New Model Army is perhaps more an exploration of those than a novel itself; the features of a novel are there, but to some extent they are simply a way for Roberts to teach his audience about the real subjects of the novel.

Roberts' characters are, without doubt, well drawn and interesting; the mysterious Colonel, the fighters of Pantegral, and Tony are all well-drawn and well-rounded figures, about whom we discover more - indeed, much more; Roberts is a great proponent, here, of the slow, eventual revelation - as the story progresses.  So much is kept in reserve however that at times things are confusing and appear to contradict themselves, later revelations appearing to contradict earlier ones until an anvilicious and/or author filibuster moment comes along to both dispel the confusion and elucidate some complex point of philosophy.  The characters, whilst being indeed characters and people in their own right, have a tendency - especially our viewpoint-character Tony - to simply become mouthpieces for philosophical arguments.

The plot, on the other hand, is much stronger; it's not actually that action-packed, or at least not directly (though far more so by implication) and it is really well written; indeed Roberts handles his plot with great aplomb almost to the end, though at the last hurdle he stumbles quite significantly and the last 30-odd pages ramble and roll somewhat appalingly, jarringly even.  However, the plot does keep the novel moving and interesting, with a juxtaposition of combat and non-combat scenes adding a wonderful element whereby we see an army fighting and at rest.

The setting is another problematic element; it's near-future, but it's never really clear what's happened or happening.  Indeed, it's a combination of near-future and present-day to the extent that 2030 really isn't different enough, and politics haven't changed enough, from 2010; Roberts doesn't even seem to take into account developments after 1995, let alone 2008.  It's a real problem for the novel that the near-future world described just doesn't seem real, because it's too close to now and also too far from today to work.

All in all, then, whilst the explorations of concepts are interesting, they would have been better served by a nonfiction piece, and whilst New Model Army has a very interesting style and manner, it's not a terribly good novel.


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