Silently and Very Fast is a brief little novella - 22,000-odd words - and it has many of Valente's hallmarks in: a concern for storytelling and mythology (it opens with the myth of Inanna, and is shot through with fairy-tales, folk tales, and other mythologies, as well as the Oedipal monomyth); beautiful, intelligent, complex language; emergent narrative, which comes together only over time, with things revealed slowly but surely; and characterisation that is vivid and powerful.

Silently and Very Fast feels, in many ways, like an offspring from the same tree as Ted Chiang's Lifecycle of Software Objects, but with an awareness of that Oedipal monomyth, developed from R.U.R. through Terminator, into The Matrix and the (appalling, unAsimovian) film I, Robot which has so permeated our cultural understanding of A.I.  There isn't a plot to the novella as such, because what we instead have is a character portrait, of Elefsis, an autobiography in fact.  Told through a combination of mythology - "Tell me a story about yourself, Elefsis" - and recollection, gradually this novella builds up a portrait of who Elefsis is, how she became who she is, how she thinks and feels.  That picture is a powerful and effective one in part because it is told in a circumlocutory manner, without focussing in hard and fast on Elefsis whilst never ever losing sight of her; it's also powerful and effective because, quite consciously, Valente uses imagery in Silently and Very Fast that is directly drawn from Grimm, and therefore our own cultural memories. The way this story is told, therefore, draws on a lot of cultural assumptions, but in such a way as to build up a matrix of reality; Elefsis isn't a character in a monolithic way, any more than Neva, the other main figure in the novella, is, but rather as a matrix of facets and elements, drawn together by the concept of "I".

One of the most winning elements of Silently and Very Fast is the writing style.  Valente isn't afraid of big words, of complex ideas, or of lyricism; and indeed, all of these play a role in creating the developing (maturing?) character of Elefsis, as well as in building up our own vocabulary of story and of this story.  The direct and clear imagery layers over subtler imagery, and there are layers and layers of meaning in much of what Valente says; there is also simple clarity and beautiful style, and factual statements.  The simple joy taken in language, at times, is in its own way telling of the character of Elefsis, whilst the powerful and evocative imagery of the novel, drawing from so many cultural roots, is deployed very effectively in the service of story and idea.  Because this is a deeply idea-driven novella, in the way the best science fiction is; beautiful writing, and effective characterisation, and thoughtfulness, would add up to a pretty little piece of art without what Valente presumably started with here.  And that is the idea, and to quote Stephen Baxter, "ideas [are] the whole point"; certainly, the idea - or rather ideas - at the heart of this novella are powerful, and without them as a structure and core, I'm not sure it would work as well; but, because of their slow development and the way they're revealed and explored over the course of the story, and the nature of that revelation is rather important to our response, I won't spoil them for you.

Catherynne M. Valente has been an author with whose work I have, in the past, had a slightly mixed relationship. Once again, however, as with Prester John, Silently and Very Fast has very much brought me on board, with interest; and, given that it is available for free through Clarkesworld (that takes you direct to Part One), there is no reason for you not to try out this wonderful novella, and experience Valente's brilliant, complex writing first hand.
Lavie Tidhar has always had fun playing with reality and the intersectionality of fiction and reality; it's a marker of the Bookman Histories, albeit not one highlighted quite so much as it is here.  Osama, after all, is a noir novel, and noir rather lends itself to existential questions, universal doubt, crises of identity, and similar; which is what Osama really does best, alongside a beautiful prose style and some wonderful writing. This is, after all, Tidhar's undoubtedly strongest and most interesting work to date, and combines that with a potentially explosive idea...

The plot of Osama follows Joe, a PI based in Japan, who is hired to find Mike Longshott, a writer of a series of pulps called Osama bin Laden: Vigilante.  The narrative of the novel intersperses excerpts from these novels - descriptions largely of al-Quaeda/Islamist terrorist attacks from Nairobi onwards, although 9/11 is played oddly - with Joe's increasingly abstracted and frustrated search for Mike Longshott, and increasingly Joe's avoidance of a search for a fundamental truth: what is the nature of his reality?  The alternate history of Osama is slowly revealed, with the effects never quite clear in their totality, only partially; Tidhar's novel is not about the world but about it's nature, and that intersects with the plot in little notes - such as de Gaulle's death in 1944 in Algiers, rather than in 1970; or the failure by the Western powers to carve up the Middle East to suit themselves.  The whole novel's plot relies on those literal differences, to some extent, and our not knowing all of them; because this is a strange world apparently without terrorism, a world where noir is reality, and this leads to the fantastic intertextuality between the fiction of the Mike Longshott books, the fiction of Lavie Tidhar, and the real world, layering in on each other powerfully and incredibly to a point where reality itself - inside the novel, at a minimum, and probably also outside - is a construct, although whose and for what purpose is left tantalisingly unclear.

The character of Joe - the only real character in the entirety of Osama (who, tantalisingly, appears only on posters with the words "Osama bin Laden: Vigilante. Wanted Dead or Alive" in the novel, as advertisements for the Longshott books) - is one ripped straight from noir.  A PI who
drinks, smokes, takes a case because a dame walks into his office and pays him to find Longshott, stubborn and occasionally foul-mouth, Joe is a man lost in his world; his identity fraught with confusion and questions - as becomes increasingly apparent throughout the novel - and his certainty in existence and everything around him increasingly shaken.  The way Tidhar slowly erodes the foundations under Joe's feet is perfectly played, and the ultimate pulling away of the rug - Joe's choice, right at the close of the novel - is brilliant, and incredible; not one we can perhaps accept, but one we can understand, and one in character for him.  This is definitely a portrayal of a character as well as of a world...

But Osama is a portrayal of a world, and it does it beautifully.  The combination of styles - the noir, the evocative, beautiful and lush physical description which makes scenes and cities pop off the page, the powerful language, the short sharpness of the chapters, the clarity and conciseness of the language which says exactly what it means to and neither more nor less, make this not only a compact and pacy novel but one that is also almost leisurely; basking in the descriptions and the language Tidhar uses is just as possible as scratching one's head at the philosophical conundrums and reality-questioning engaged in, and both are as possible as simply enjoying the noir story.  Indeed, the multiple levels on which Osama should be enjoyed make it a book that really works well, because none of them are mutually exclusive, and combine to create a really effective novel.

Osama is up there with Chris Beckett's work in terms of thoughtful intelligence combined with sheer authorial craft; a few more like this, and picking a top 5 of the quarter is going to be intensely difficult! It's no wonder to me that Osama is up for a slew of awards, and good luck to Tidhar in them; I'd really recommend this novel to you.
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.
God's War is science fantasy after the Abercrombie model of fantasy: dark, gritty, grim, politically intelligent and without a single character we like or think is really at all competent.  As far as political intelligence in the novel goes, that too is tempered; whilst Hurley does indeed write about a world whose politics we can believe, the way she frames it (thinly-veiled Islam is evil and suppresses women! It's violent! Christianity is self-serving and violent and will enslave us all!) is deeply problematic in its simplicity, naivete and Islamophobia.

The plot is perhaps the strongest element of God's War; Hurley's novel doesn't have an original plot - bounty hunter versus bounty hunter versus bodyguarding bounty hunter, with the protagonist's dark and illegal past coming back to haunt them, and old allies and enemies popping up all over the place - but her handling of that (incredibly typical) plot is at least effective, as she takes us from moment to moment through the eyes of one of our various protagonists.  That those protagonists are a fractious, unlikeable bunch, unable to plan or anticipate and strangely blind at opportune moments, is an unfortunate point, but one worth noting; it demonstrates something that runs through Hurley's novel in her inability and/or refusal to write a competent character, and that does cause some problems for the plot.  Equally, the occasional moments of superhumanity (especially on Nyx's part) are rather ridiculous; after all, the amount she gets put through over the course of this novel, she should be many times dead by the end, but still manages not to be and to keep fighting, for reasons we don't understand.  However, the visceral writing really does bring some things back to us; whilst Hurley isn't good at writing a protagonist with mental impairments (drunkenness or high), she does write an incredibly good torture scene, or even simply a combat, which not only brings us into the action but shows us the blood and guts as they come spilling out, and the pain and emotionality as well as the speed and brutality of it.

The characters of God's War, then, aren't hypercompetent, or even competent (they fail more often than not - except when the plot demands otherwise, naturally); instead, Hurley has given us a set of unlikeable, odd characters who don't even really work as a group, despite the plot demanding such, and therefore a bit of a mess of a novel.  The thing about that mess is that it continues for 250-odd pages, and the dynamics of that mess just keep getting more ridiculous; time and again we see people acting out of character for reasons of plot, or just not really having a character.  Nyx is least guilty of this, as our protagonist; instead, she is simply someone who we can't really care about, because we have no reason to (she's not terribly effective, she's amoral, she has nothing she cares about, and she's somewhat of a violent sociopath).  God's War doesn't have likeable characters, it has a collection of people we need to follow to see what happens in the plot; and that makes it something of a slog to read, despite the action scenes (and occasionally, even those are a slog...)

Finally, a brief note on worldbuilding.  Hurley's obviously making the attempt to have God's War science fictional, especially with some of the reveals towards the end; but that would involve some plausible explanation for some of the things in the novel, which (and this is no bad thing - I rather enjoy fantasy and science fantasy, often more than classic SF) renders this science fantasy.  The problem comes with her science fantasy's politics; God's War has such contrived, strange and unbelievable politics (crossed with Islam, because religion at war with itself naturally brings Islam to mind, right?) added to problematic ideas of race (race, religion and nationality are inseparable in God's War... but only for the two nations at war, of course!) that make the world fall apart repeatedly, every time they're brought up or foregrounded; it's a really problematic world for me in that regard.

In the end, God's War has some brilliant ideas and some appalling politics, but whilst the gore and viscerality of the novel are excellent, it's deeply damaged by the messy plot and unpleasant, unlikeable characters.  Indeed, on similar grounds as my dislike of Abercrombie and Martin, I have to say that, based on this novel, I am not a fan of Hurley, either...
Alastair Reynolds' Blue Remembered Earth, the first installment in a new trilogy of a very different flavour to his Revelation Space universe, is a very unusual science fiction novel, especially in the context of a modern understanding of science fiction that, unlike Asimov and Clarke, revolves less around ideas and more around a violence-imbued plot.  Poseidon's Children, in fact, might be argued to be an answer to Walton's discussion of the universality of violence in SF on Tor.com, if it continues in this vein.  Blue Remembered Earth is a very unusual science fiction novel; optimistic (beyond simply the idea that we'll survive and spread, which as Reynolds has pointed out is itself optimistic) and thoughtful, it's got some really deeply concepts, and its Africo-centric view is a rarity, especially in Western SF.

The plot of Blue Remembered Earth is intimately tied in with the world that Reynolds creates in the 22nd century.  Augmented reality, a near-universal super-intellect that ensures that all on Earth and much of the inhabited Moon can't come to harm, Martian colonisation and economic utilisation of the Kuiper Belt, corporate wealth and post-global warming stability of the climate, African prosperity (seemingly on a post-scarcity level), easy space travel, and other elements which make the world of Poseidon's Children not a utopia, but a eutopia; it's not perfect, but it is good.  We're limited to the near-Earth parts of the Solar System, and the plot of the novel takes us over much of that area; interludes on Mars, Phobos and the Moon all happen in the wake of our African opening.  The novel follows members of the Akinya family tracing the footsteps of their pioneering matriarch Eunice, who was one of the earliest explorers of Mars and Phobos, and a settler on the Moon, before becoming a recluse in her personal atmospheric space station.  Geoffrey and Sunday, brother and sister and Eunice's grandchildren, have taken themselves out of Akinya affairs but Geoffrey is brought back in by Hector and Lucas in order to follow up an anomaly in Eunice's affairs, brought to light in the wake of her funeral; and that anomaly is what leads to the travels and complexity that ensue in Blue Remembered Earth.  Not a short novel, this is occasionally a little slow - Reynolds' need to explain some of the ideas behind his world do slow the novel - but it does keep the reader very much engaged, through an exciting and thought-provoking rather than action-filled plot, and by taking us around so much of the world; as well as with engaging, interesting characters.

Blue Remembered Earth's greatest strength may well be Reynolds' thoughtful characterisation.  Geoffrey, our main viewpoint character, has removed himself from the Akinya family business and become a researcher or conservator of elephants - which one isn't wholly clear, but then, the distinction isn't clear even now.  He's not terribly interested in the world beyond those elephants, which makes the way he's drawn into it by Hector and Lucas (with the bribe of additional funding) clever but also demonstrative of his nature: fiercely loyal to and possessive of his elephants, but that's something which changes over the course of the novel, slowly and definitely as things progress, an in an organic, human way, as he's exposed to bigger issues.  Sunday is also a rebel, living on the Moon in order to escape the all-seeing and risk-removing AI of Earth: she's an artist and involved in various subversive movements, and over the course of the novel uses those connections for help and aid.  She's also a trusting figure, despite her own self-image as a hard-edged cynic; one of Reynolds' better tricks is not simply showing her as self-deluding, but placing her on a scale, more cynical than Geoffrey but still not cynical enough.  The rest of the cast, whom the focus is on much less, is similarly well-written; there are no moral blacks and whites here, only shades of grey, with everyone acting from ulterior motive, very rarely simply for self-advancement, and that makes for not only an interesting moral, but also some points in the plot where Reynolds leaves the reader wondering whether the best ideology and people have been left ahead.

That is perhaps the best way to sum up Blue Remembered Earth; optimistic, complex and thought-provoking science fiction, in a world where blacks and whites are disparaged but still all-too-common, Reynolds has written a novel entirely in greys, and it's a beautiful, brilliant, highly recommended one.
Weber's Honor Harrington series is essentially Hornblower! IN! SPACE! One of the more famous and well-known military science fiction series, Weber's On Basilisk Station opens the series with a combination of poorly-written infodumps, badly-designed physics worked out in such a way to create the world Weber wants, characters which are damningly simplistic for the most part, and combats and politics that, despite their silliness, are actually quite compelling...

The first thing that will strike the reader about On Basilisk Station is the bluntness of its Hornblower-in-space style.  From the opening moments, we see a combination of the pomp-and-circumstance that is associated with the 19th century Royal Navy in the Royal Manticorean Navy, and the space elements as deeply drawn into the novel, with space ships, variable gravity, and similar.  That Weber throws us straight in at the deep end is sensible, since it rapidly sets up the atmosphere, but the prologue of the novel is slightly problematic in that sense - a Havenite meeting which, in some ways, spoilers much of the later plot, especially its more suspenseful elements.  The way that Weber makes other elements of the world-building work aren't as effective; huge swathes of scene-setting and explanation in On Basilisk Station are given in long-winded, unbelievable, and broken pseudo-scientific infodumps, completely unintegrated with the rest of the writing, just slammed in there in a very skilless way.

The plot of On Basilisk Station is significantly better than the above paragraph might suggest, however.  The complexities of Harrington's assignment on Basilisk Station are made worse by a combination of the famously incompetent superior and the equally famously evil European-socialist powers (the apparently dolist Havenites. Oddly, the UK itself is a heavily welfarised state); Weber's portrayals here are unsubtle, but the complex plan that's in progress, with its failsafes and backups, is brilliantly written, with powerful and fast-paced effectively written combat scenes between the ships.  That these draw so much on the high seas is odd, but that aside, they do work very well, and drive the novel along between more dialogue-based scenes dealing with intrigues and problems that Weber really does develop well.

In the end, On Basilisk Station is not perfect, but as far as milSF goes, it is powerful, moving, and effectively written, despite the infodumping.  I'd recommend it, especially given its importance as a landmark work in the field.
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.
Dorsai! is a seminal military science fiction novel; one of the early works popularising the subgenre, Dickson's novel still feels fresh and original today, despite its fifty-odd year history, and it avoids being dated.  Whilst its politics are at times distasteful to a left-winger like myself (it's more of a libertarian utopia, a trait it holds in common with much of Heinlein's work, a fellow pioneer of milSF), Dorsai! does a fine job of world-building, calling back to the Spartans and ancient Greece on some levels, and simply being itself on others...

Dorsai! is a tale of Donal Graeme, indeed, it is the tale of Donal Graeme.  We see a series of moments in Donal's life as he moves from adolescent through to being the most powerful military and political man in the universe; his political maneuverings, never quite clear in their motivations, are shown to us in stages as each shift in allegiances of the mercenary (always fulfilling his contracts) take him closer to this pinnacle of his power - and to the ability to crush his enemy, Prince William of Ceta.  The way Dickson follows that military career is excellent; we see a mix of specific battles, political maneuvers and meetings between Donal and various figures throughout the universe, and each of these is seen in a way that highlights the way in which it advances Donal - and how Donal anticipated it.  Indeed, the plot of Dorsai! is helped by this clear writing style; conversations are reported simply and neatly, battles shown frenetically and powerfully, with the chaos and the effects of things like phasing demonstrated very well, and insights into the future really effectively shown through moments when asides, as of a historian or biographer, are included.

The characters of Dorsai! are well-crafted.  Dickson's hero is, of course, Donal Graeme himself; he's who we consistently follow, and his willingness to manipulate others to his advantage is combined with a certain long-sighted ruthlessness that really does work powerfully to give Donal a personality as an outsider but one who doesn't quite understand why.  He's brash and rude at times, but sympathetic, because he's understandable; he's not working purely for ambition's sake, but his motives are often deeply unclear, and occasionally his manipulation seems small-minded.  The rest of the cast do suffer from the extent to which the limelight is on Donal, becoming rather two-dimensional; but Dickson manages to wield this two-dimensionality and writing stylishly and well, to the point that Dorsai!'s rather flat cast are lent life and veracity by virtue of a powerful writing style.

The politics of Dickson's novel do deserve comment, however.  Dorsai! has a capitalist philosophy at heart, albeit not uncritically; capitalism has to have humanism in its makeup as well, in Dickson's eyes, and his transhumanist moments are also well put across.  The problem is the concern with libertarianism; whilst Dickson does acknowledge that it is unstable, he seems to suggest that the lighter the hand of government on humanity the better, occasionally in a rather heavy-handed way.  The other huge political problem, and the thing which dates this book (indeed, dates it more than is perhaps possible...) is the misogyny; Dorsai! doesn't treat women as evil, simply as less intelligent, less logical, and less capable than men, which really doesn't allow for complex female characterisation in a full and rounded way, whilst also influencing the rest of the novel in some odd ways.

In the end, Dorsai! more than earns its place in the canon of military science fiction, and Dickson's writing proves itself incredibly powerful.  The problems of the novel are not discountable, but they also aren't insurmountable; this is an enjoyable, thrilling and fast-paced novel, and I would recommend it, albeit with caveats, especially to the feminists among you.
I came to Dark Eden with high expectations, after an extract posted by my favourite book-blogger (The Speculative Scotsman) and a very favourable and thoughtful review in that not-entirely-genre-friendly (although nor is it hostile to genre fiction) publication, The Guardian.  Chris Beckett's "superior piece of theologically nuanced science fiction" instantly attracted my attention, and looking at the beautiful, simple cover of the novel (the best depiction of a slake-moth that isn't meant to be a slake-moth I've ever seen, incidentally) simply confirmed that this was a book I ought to read... and I am seriosuly glad that I did.

The plot is a complex, thoughtful and brilliant piece of creation all on its own.  Dark Eden takes place on the planet Eden, populated by the five hundred person family, all descended from the same couple (and so various deformities - harelips, or batfaces; and deformities of the feet, or clawfoot - are relatively common); and that population lives in hope that one day, they'll be rescued and returned to Earth - though, having forgotten much in the century and a half since the original couple arrived, they don't understand things like Rayed Yo, Lecky-Trickity and Telly Vision.  The plot of the novel sees one member of the Family, John Redlantern, breaking away from the traditions of the family and trying something new; it's a social novel, seen through a number of characters' first-person eyes including John himself, and we see the increasingly stakes-raising actions of John as he rebels against the strictures of a society that stifles innovation and is slowly strangling itself.  The extent of his rebellion increases over the course of the novel, and Beckett makes the relatively slow plot engrossing and engaging in its development and thoughtful building up - and with the underlying theories of history behind it.

The characters are also well-written and interesting; Dark Eden has a population that is, of course, alien and yet akin to us, descended from a population in our future.  They are constrained by the strange dystopia that is the planet of Eden, and the static (if not degenerating) society of the Family); and that makes them brilliant, combined with the quality of their writing.  John Redlantern is well-written as an introverted, restless young man; he's not a hero - he does bad as well as good, and he can make mistakes, endangering others; he also doesn't necessarily think consequences through.  But he is an interesting and sympathetic character; an impulsive, sometimes-unwise young man who is driven to change things for what he sees as the best.  Tina Spikehair, another of our major characters, is an outside observer of John's actions: a young woman of about the same age, at first she's drawn to John by his impulsiveness, and it's mostly through her we see his very mixed character, because she's the one who best of all gives us insight into his flaws as they're expressed to her.  In fact, Tina is a thoughtful and interesting character in her own right; not a visionary like John, but instead more of a character who can both see the flaws of the Family and with her feet on the ground.  The rest of the cast are slightly less fleshed-out, but are still well-written; we see some fantastic characterisation, especially when they're written from a first-person perspective, but less attention is paid to them and their motives.  The focus is very much on John but over the course of the rest of the novel, the entire cast is really fantastically portrayed as thoughtful and interesting.

In the end, Dark Eden is a fascinating, intellectual and ground-breaking novel, not only well-written and with a good cast but immersed in its world and in the ideas that make up that world; this is deeply thought-provoking science-fiction, and very much worth the read. I'll definitely be back with Chris Beckett for more!
Blish's novel, in many ways, feels like the precursor of Mary Doria Russell's The Sparrow; it is a first-contact story strongly, and intimately, concerned with the personal and theological impact of that first contact on a Jesuit, and the struggle to integrate the alien species into pre-existing Catholic theological models.  The differences are larger than the similarities, however, because whilst in The Sparrow much of the struggle is with atheism or nihilism, A Case for Conscience sees Father Ruiz-Sanchez struggle with Manichaeism.

The plot is in two parts; the first sees the end of the expedition to Lithia, in order to classify it, of four scientists, including Father Ruiz-Sanchez, a Peruvian Jesuit who is also a biologist.  Lithia is an inhabited planet, and the four scientists each have a different attitude to it; but Ruiz-Sanchez' attitude is changed dramatically on learning, at the last minute, some significant facts about the development of Lithian young and the nature of Lithian thought.  This makes him suspect the whole planet of being a Satanic creation, to deceive Christians - thus, flirting with Manichaeism.  On returning home, Ruiz-Sanchez is is presented with a Lithian baby, which he accepts and returns to Earth with.  The second part of the novel sees the consequences of the first come into action; the Lithian, divorced from its society and natural environment, developes amorally and amorality, using its exotic nature to propogate such doctrines amongst the disaffected society of mid-21st century Earth.  This draws all four scientists in, in very different ways.  That the second half of the plot is harder to describe than the first is, in part, because it is messier and less well-controlled (much of what happens is not really connected together very well and occasionally Blish introduces elements which go nowhere, despite routes both obvious and logical for progress); and because it spends an awful lot of time building a projected future, reliant on some interesting ideas - but ones which, especially since the close of the Cold War, are demonstrably failed futurism.

The strength of A Case for Conscience is in its first half, and in its characters - or at least, some of its character.  Father Ruiz-Sanchez is a brilliantly written figure, sympathetically and thoughtfully portrayed without his failings being whitewashed.  This is encapsulated by his contradictory attitudes to Lithia; despite his fears about the planet, he is still drawn to the Lithians themselves.  Blish's characterisation is well-written and intelligent, with Ruiz-Sanchez; he brings together the various aspects - scientist, Jesuit, and human - of his personality into a single, and very believable, whole.  However, the problem comes with the rest of the cast; from Cleaver, one of the first characters we meet, on, everyone is pretty much a caricature.  Everyone seems to have their single characteristic - which may at least change across the course of the novel, as Michelis does - but that's about it.

In the end, A Case for Conscience isn't about the characters, or even the plot, really; it's about the essential, theological problem at the heart of the novel, and in that, it is a really strong novel, because it treats it intelligently, thoughtfully, and without ever coming down on either side of the equation.  A thought-provoking, if perhaps not well-written, novel.
Adam Christopher's Empire State is an interesting novel, to say the least; but it's interesting for its concepts more than its content, which is unfortunate when the concepts are delivered through the content, albeit in rather infodumping form.

The plot of Empire State is hard to describe, as is the novel itself; secondary-world noir, perhaps, is the best descriptor, but the plot has little content beyond explaining that.  Essentially, a murder investigation spirals out into a huge, world-shaking set of overlapping, and ill-explained, events and plots which are variously misconceived, hidden, or underexplained and driven only by dei ex machinae heaped on top of each other until the whole edifice creaks and crumbles with each rapid-fire twist and turn; that's when the broken story-telling style doesn't end up with events happening backwards or sideways, or with the disjointed narrative leaping around without any real sense of what's happening or clarity.  The consistency of the problem is disturbing, and really makes this a hard novel to read.

The characters are just as bad; from Rad Bradley, our main character, down, every single individual in Empire State is consistent only in their one-dimensionality and cod mysteriousness.  I say cod, because that mysteriousness really isn't terribly well conveyed; instead of making characters mysteries, Christopher instead uses statements that go nowhere, false trails that avoid conclusion and aren't actually followed up on, and on many an occasion, a musing of Bradley's that just is dropped as soon as plot or convenience demand and allow.  Rather than constructing a noirish and strange-yet-mundane world, Christopher's efforts in Empire State actually combine to create a confused, and indeed confusing, mess of characters and plot; we have no clear-cut clarity, except where we're having information fed to us in a rather constrained and over-basic manner.

I'd really like to have enjoyed Empire State, and Christopher's attempts to bring in superhero and noir to his work looked like they could have been fascinating; but in the end this novel just spends far too long trying to be mysterious, and not enough time being, well, anything.
Brightness Falls From The Air is one of Tiptree's few full-length novels; it's also a strong demonstration of the tragedy of that scarcity.  A space opera with both a beauty and horror implicit across the whole novel, and with a series of interlinked plots happening in the same place at the same time (in a well-worked manner, thankfully) and some thoughtful science fictional concepts, this is a speculative novel that really does dare to dream.

The plot of Brightness Falls From The Air concerns the planet Daimiem, and the three humans who stay there to protect the Daimeii (beautiful, winged insect-descended humanoids); at the start of the novel, a ship offloads a number of tourists onto the planet in order to watch the aftermath of an exploding star wash over the planet: a shell from a supernova, whose electromagnetic effects are visible in their impact on the atmosphere, and have a strange other effect too... but not all the travellers are what they seem, and Daimiem has been the sight of a very lucrative and vile criminal smuggling operation in the past, and some seem to want to restart that enterprise.  The plot seems complex - and, indeed, it is complex; but it's told straightforwardly, start to finish, with other elements of plot and with backstory integrated really well, and the use of multiple character viewpoints builds the plot slowly; the one major problem is that there are a number of points where characters appear to be wilfully or purposefully blind purely in order to advance the plot, rather than for character-related reasons.

The second greatest strength of Brightness Falls From The Air is the cast; whilst their actions do occasionally let the novel down, they themselves don't.  Each character breathes with a life of their own, and the large cast - there are fourteen major players in the novel! - is handled so well and so effectively that they're not only easily distinguishable, and not only understandable on their own terms, but even individually and separately interesting and empathetic (with a couple of notable, intentional exceptions up towards the end).  That each character has time to grow and move in their own world, and act on their own terms to show off their strengths, is wonderful; and that all of them are so powerfully and evocatively written, without anyone being a superhero but rather every figure a really believable person, is an incredible achievement.

However, the greatest achievement in Tiptree's novel is the style that she brings to bear in her writing.  Brightness Falls From The Air is a beautiful, evocative and powerful novel; throughout, there are major aesthetic considerations to be taken into effect, and Tiptree really does have a strong eye for the beauty of those aesthetics, and a vivid imaginative landscape to create a world that lives and breathes to the point where we can imagine it, and the creatures in it.  Equally, she seeds tragedy throughout the novel; whilst there is bravery and happy endings for some, Brightness Falls From The Air is also a tragedy, and a tragedy of human making.  Tiptree's vision of human nature is not a happy one, and the darkness throughout this novel is so well worked in and so beautiful as darkness that it really does take the whole thing to another level.

I really do highly recommend this as beautiful, well-plotted and well-charactered science fiction, but more than anything I would recommend Brightness Falls From The Air as a stunningly well-written, and moving, tragedy of human nature...
Marion Zimmer Bradley is best known for the Avalon and Darkover series, one Arthurian fantasy and the other science fiction. Darkover: Landfall is the first in the latter series in internal chronology, although it was published fourteen years after the first Darkover novel; Bradley uses it to set up the earliest history of the colony.

The most notable feature of Darkover: Landfall is how Bradley does this set-up; unlike the seminal Mists of Avalon, there is a lot of dead space, mystery, poor writing and slack, unfortunately. The first thing to note is the characters of the novel; it’s got quite a large cast, but an oddly weak one. Our main characters are Rafael MacAran, a colonist with geology specialism, and Lieutenant Camilla Del Rey (named, perhaps, for Lester Del Rey), the ship’s first officer. The former is an interesting, well-written character, reasonably rounded except for in his feelings towards Camilla (obvious, badly developed) and for women generally (problematic in the 1950s, let alone the 1970s, and forget the 21st century future Bradley was imagining!); indeed, his pioneering spirit and willingness to defy the established order is quite well written, without being pushy. Camilla, on the other hand, is appallingly written; she’s a very basic weak and feeble woman, in theory and practice, largely obsessed with men – ironically, I don’t think this book is actual Bechdel-compliant, even with its reasonable number of female secondary characters.

The plot is more interesting; a colony ship crashes on an Earthlike, inhabitable planet at the start of the novel, and Darkover: Landfall concerns itself with the question of whether the colonists and crew will focus on repairing the ship, or instead on settling the (at this stage unnamed) planet. MacAran and Del Rey are on opposite sides of this argument and, through a series of rather extremely contrived events, the settlers win the argument. This is combined with a strange, and rather impossible if not hilarious, natural environment predicated on human psi powers and alien beings who can easily communicate with humanity; all in all, Bradley appears to feel a need to throw as many elements in as possible, and ends up with a hodgepodge of a plot that combines Gary Stu (MacAran), very negative gender messages (surprising for the author of Mists of Avalon), and a mess.

In the end, Darkover: Landfall is not one of Bradley’s better novels, and certainly not a part of the canon of feminist SF; an easily-overlooked, poorly-written novel.
Wolfe's Book of the New Sun sequence is one of the defining works of 20th century fantasy, although - with its setting on an Urth with a dying sun, and cultural setting of a post-galactic empire which has collapsed back down to a single planet and lost its past knowledge - it technically, perhaps, counts as science fiction; Shadow of the Torturer introduces us to some stylistic quirks of Wolfe's style in the series, and introduces us to both our narrator and the main character, Severian.

Severian is the only character we get to know in Shadow of the Torturer, for two reasons; first, Wolfe's strictly realistic first-person style means we only ever know Severian's suppositions about other characters, and explicitly so, and we know how unreliable Severian is as a narrator early on; secondly, other characters appear only briefly across the span of the novel, attaching themselves to and then vanishing from Severian's sphere, affected by and affecting him but never there long enough at this stage for us to truly know any of them.
Severian's character, as demonstrated in Shadow of the Torturer, is a compelling enough one for us to follow in this novel and beyond, however.  Because he's an unreliable narrator, and we're seeing his own portrait of his youth, it's hard to know what to trust, but the character that emerges is a none-too-sure one, uncertain about what he wants to do with his life; indeed, Severian is torn in two by competing loyalties, and pastes love of various women on top of that, in a wrought and well-written adolescent style.  A sheltered youth thrust out into the world, Severian's character does draw us in, especially with the overlaid character of the elder, wiser Severian laid atop the young lad; thus we come to care for Severian even as we know he must survive.

The plot of Shadow of the Torturer is very simple, and yet avoids the trap common to many opening novels in series; whilst it is brief, and does set up future books, it avoids feeling as though that is all it did.  We follow Severian as he grows up in the Guild of Torturers, focussing on a small number of events, and as he is then cast out and sent to be a carnifex in Thrax.  Thus we discover the world Wolfe has created, of Urth, and we learn about what place the Torturers have in it, as Severian tells us those things, and - possibly - as he himself discovers them; what is fascinating about Wolfe's style is that he foreshadows future events simply by dropping references about the present Severian, rather than by more extreme or obvious methods, and that he uses the simplicity of the plot to allow him to explore the fascinating and fantastical world and draw the reader in with a beautiful, idiosyncratic prose style that is all his own.

Shadow of the Torturer is a strong opening novel to a renowned fantasy sequence, and - especially as it is usually found bound together with the second novel of the quadrilogy - an excellent draw to the series, and Wolfe's work; I'll certainly be following the rest of the Book of the New Sun, and I recommend you do, too!
Swanwick's The Iron Dragon's Daughter has been recommended by some very prestigious left-wing authors as essential genre reading for socialists, and the messages of the novel certainly seem to fit with that recommendation - its nihilism aside, perhaps; the problem is that, as essential reading goes, it is actually a bad book poorly written, and that really does show through strongly.

Swanwick's novel has as confused a plot as any novel you are likely to have read.  Jane is a changeling working in a factory at the start of the novel, and wishes to escape; with the help of the iron dragon of the title, Melanchthon, she manages this and we explore parts of the world Swanwick has created through her eyes.  The biggest problem is the way in which we do this; a sex-obsessed, message-laden, chaotic, cyclical and above all poorly plotted out novel (when decisions have consequences, they need to have consequences, not just have brief consequences and then vanish despite the scenario appearing again in future; when you've set a theme, follow it through; when a character has learned something, they need to not forget it at opportune moments for purposes of plot). Indeed, those flaws rather run through the story of the novel; and are backed up by something worse - bad characters.  Jane is poorly written, simplistic, and rather more bounced around by others' than driven by her own desires and decisions, with the occasional brief exception which always fall apart rapidly after opportunities have been seized; and no other character has even as much three dimensionality as Jane, rather being simple and basic, designed as foils or friends or teaching aids for the changeling.

The problem becomes acute as we see, in different situations, the same scenarios explicitly repeat, with characters reappearing and (perhaps) resurrecting; the cosmology of The Iron Dragon's Daughter is never explained and just assumed, but in such a way that beggars understanding, as people keep popping up without any explanation or logic behind it, and sometimes in multiple forms simultaneously.  This is backed up by a world that is built to have different elements which both cannot and do co-exist; we see a world simultaneously pre-industrial, industrialising, and post-industrial, without any logical reason for the different elements and kinds of world to co-exists.  And the nihilism at the heart of the novel is just horribly overstated, and yet at the same time undermined, in no small part by the plot itself, and writing style Swanwick employs (that this novel did not win a Bad Sex Award is surprising; the sex is frequent, appalling written, and deeply voyeuristic, and the incoherence of the novel as a whole is reflected in individual elements of Swanwick's style).

In the end, I came to The Iron Dragon's Daughter with high expectations and a willingness to give Swanwick a lot of credit; but the credit was squandered and my expectations were not only quashed but completely destroyed.  A really disappointing read.
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!
Prologue by George R. R. Martin
Martin’s prologue to the Wild Cards series, as well as this instalment in it, sets up the backstory quite efficiently, albeit in a slightly “As you know…” manner; however, since it’s presented as an oral history, that works incredibly well. Indeed, the different voices of the story, and their slightly-overlapping timeframes and deeply-at-odds perspectives are very realistic, and really give a sense of what was going on. Good stuff.

30 Minutes Over Broadway! by Howard Waldrop
Waldrop’s story is brilliant; the title belies the seriousness of it, and yet there is humour there too. Jetboy’s a wonderful character, a kid prodigy well-written and thoughtfully put together who has the benefits and the downsides of his history presented well, especially losing touch with his past; and Dr. Tod is a brilliantly Blofeldian villain, with all that implies about his motives and characterisation. However, the story does excellently address the roots of the Wild Cards universe, as well as being well-written and with a brilliant squib on the comic book industry reminiscent of certain bits of Captain America.

The Sleeper by Roger Zelazny
Zelazny’s Sleeper is fantastic; it takes the idea of the wild card virus and extends it, from a general wild card – where each individual infected is affected differently – to a specific; Croyd Crenson is repeatedly changed, from ace to joker and all variants between. Zelazny plays this neatly, with hibernation between each phase, and Crenson slowly catching on to his best course of action; we also see him leaving his normal humanity behind, especially in contrast to Bentley, who was turned into a joker and cured, never losing the humanity that he had. Indeed, The Sleeper really does go into the effect on one’s humanity of the wild card virus, and combined with a strong plot (albeit also a heavy-handed anti-drugs message!) it creates a really good story introducing us properly to the Wild Cards world.

Witness by Walter Jon Williams
Williams takes on one of the worst American domestic excesses of the Cold War in Witness; his story is about HUAC, and about its effects on those it called – both those who spoke, and those who didn’t. Williams’ core cast – Earl Sanderson, a Paul Robeson-style ace; Jack Braun, all-American farmboy with super strength; David Harstein, the Jewish charisma-exuded; and Archibald Holmes, their non-wild carded handler (à la Charlie of Charlie’s Angels, without the anonymity) – are all very different, and individually and well written; it’s obvious from the off that the story is driven by politics because everything is framed in those terms, and especially in terms of Braun’s (our viewpoint character’s) apathy towards such. The climax of the story is the HUAC hearings, and everything hinges on those; we see everything going upwards, and after HUAC it all falls apart for the cast, and lives are destroyed. It’s a really brilliant, and also damning, piece of work, that won’t let the evil of the communist witch-hunt be forgotten.

Degradation Rites by Melinda M. Snodgrass
Snodgrass’ story is quite the dark one, really; indeed, dark on a level Witness didn’t manage to reach, continuing on from there effectively. Told from the point of view of Dr. Tachyon, it tells of the burgeoning relationship between himself and Blythe van Renssaeler, an ace with the power to absorb minds completely (akin to Rogue, but without draining the original person). Tying into Witness directly, we see the relationship take strength… and then HUAC imposes itself, and things turn very dark; people end up destroyed, and Snodgrass is merciless and relentless in her treatment of the effects of it on both Blythe and Dr. Tachyon. If this is the theme of the book and series, Wild Cards appears to be a very grim and bleak universe.

Captain Cathode and the Secret Ace by Michael Cassutt
Captain Cathode… is another great story about the effect of the wild card virus on individuals; and another really, really dark one. Coming seemingly some time after the HUAC hearings and their fallout, we still have jokers being outcast and aces treated with suspicion, but there’s less Red Scare combined with it, and jokers are more like an underclass than anything else. The characters are up to the usual excellent standard of this mosaic novel, and the ability of Cassutt to make them real people is brilliant. The darkness at the heart of the story is an inevitable one, and less surprising as time goes on (though occasionally there is a false trail laid); but the variety of cards shown is fantastic, contributing to a colourful, effective story.

Powers by David D. Levine
Levine’s telling of the U-2 Incident in 1960, the dying days of Eisenhower’s Presidency, is shot through with accurate history, and reads like a better class of Tom Clancy novel; indeed, we even have an intelligence analyst as hero, a Polish-White Russian ace. The whole story’s combination of real-world and Wild Card history and mythology is brilliantly played, since it really does have some excellent characterisation and the style is pitch-perfect for the content. It’s also the first in this collection not to be dark; it certainly has dark moments, but in the end Levine has constructed something which is really quite happy, and is certainly well written. Wonderful stuff.

Shell Games by George R. R. Martin
Martin’s story is brilliant; we’re talking pure 1930s-50s pulps, here. This story could be retitled the Redemption of Dr Tachyon or the Rise of the Superhero, since it’s both those things; we see equally a tactical superhero – the Turtle, a brilliantly thought out idea that really does deserve it’s own full comic series, because it’s just so fun – and Tachyon at his lowest ebb and his recovery from it. It’s a powerful story also in showing how far the wild cards fall in the world, and the Civil Rights parallels are not exactly made subtly, but work effectively for all that. This is a rather nice, and quite uplifting story, and Martin’s obvious homage to the pulps is all the better for its respect for the source the material.

The Long, Dark Night of Fortunato by Lewis Shiner
Shiner’s story is not a terribly good one; it seems, in many ways, to be an excuse to write about occultism and tantric sex (indeed, just eroticism generally), and to treat women as objects, without really hanging it together in a decent frame. After all, Shiner’s use of the wild card virus is so different from anything we’ve seen previously, in a rather ridiculous way; and the whole story is premised on some really rather disturbing ideas about people. That the plot’s quite poor and thin and the characterisations even worse doesn’t help this at all; in the end, it’s occultism and prurience, and nothing more.

Transfigurations by Victor Milán
Milán’s story is a really mixed one. The wild cards seem to come into play really late into the story, and without any real logic – especially that of Grabowski, which seems oddly timed convenient only to the story, and not to the logic of the virus or his life. The characterisation is also quite two dimensional, with Mark Meadows the typical geek who can’t quite be hip, and Grabowski a middlebrow rightwing counter-counter-culture thug motivated by religion and his past; in fact, the extent to which Grabowski’s past isn’t itself coherent and seems to have been left so far behind in his character is itself problematic. The whole plot’s a bit strawman-based, and in the end, this story doesn’t stand up under the weight it tries to take onto itself.

Down Deep by Edward Bryant and Leanne C. Harper
This Vietnam-and-Watergate era story is quite a strange one, a real mix of light and dark. Not without problems – the centrality to one of our narratives of rape, and of the helplessness of a woman to do anything but be a nurturer, is one such – the narrative does work remarkably well as the disparate elements come together. There are strange moments – for instance, the lack of police repercussions for the acts of the Mafia, and the lack of any real motivation for some of our characters to act as they do, especially since at other times they appear to be content to be much more passive as the narrative demands. It is, however, a satisfying story, in the end, and that, really, is what we ask of it.

Strings by Stephen Leigh

Strings is quite a plain story, really; it taps into some American mythology with its own version of the civil rights movement, and the anti-Vietnam movement for that matter, but makes it really quite a dark, damning one, attacking those movements in many ways; it’s also a really quite obvious story, which telegraphs its twists far too early on to really make it at all surprising. Indeed, we’re lacking in curveballs or (terribly) compelling characters, instead using excessive tragedy and poorly-concealed “twists” to try to avoid having such things; it’s a bit of a disappointment, but it does fill in some gaps in Wild Cards history, even if the ending’s very anticlimactic.

Ghost Girl Takes Manhattan by Carrie Vaughn
This is one of the better stories in the rump-end of the collection; Vaughn’s construction of the story has some brilliant twists in it, and a really nice building of tension with later sudden releases. Indeed, the plot does manage to combine two separate storylines really well, what with Jennifer’s search for Tricia, and her adventures with Croyd, running parallel but effectively combined; and the characters are really well-written, with Croyd playing true to type and very well written, and Jennifer a brilliant new character, her ace talent played close to the chest for a while and then revealed in the best possible way. A really great story.

Comes a Hunter by John J. Miller
Miller’s story is possibly the single best story in the collection, in part because it reminds me so much of the genre that Martin’s whole universe is playing off: superheroes. Whilst Shell Games manages to be an homage to the pulp era in general, Miller’s story is an homage to Green Arrow in particular, and a brilliant one at that; a normal man avenging his friends against aces, and leading into a fight against crime, using a bow and arrows, with a false name and mark to boot? This is genius stuff, beautiful homage to the superhero comics which pit ordinary humans against meta- or super-humans; and the way Miller plays it, there’s doubt, right until the last, over who’ll win. Amazing.

Interludes/Epilogue/Appendices by George R. R. Martin & others
These little bits and pieces to tie into the world and give a wider view than the stories can tend to be very good in a functional, and stylistically realistic, way.  The problem is that they're not in themselves interesting; as a wider view on the universe, they're great, but some of them are basically impenetrable (Interlude Four especially), others not useful or contributory (Interlude Five, the section in the Appendix entitled "The Science of the Wild Card Virus).  Worldbuilding by telling isn't terribly effective, and texts which go too far in the direction of stylistic mimicry become impenetrable, and that's a flaw in a number of these little linking sections.

Overall
Martin has put together an almost entirely excellent collection here, a brilliant homage to the superhero genre of comics that rises above it's origin by moving away from it, whilst remaining closely linked with it stylistically and ideologically.  The use of the mosaic style and the various different authors writing linked short stories is managed excellently, especially the various characters who move between different stories smoothly and simply.  The world's intriguing and the quality of the stories great, so I'll certainly be exploring this universe further!
The Star Fraction is another MacLeod-authored political science fiction novel.  Unlike my previous experience with MacLeod, however, The Star Fraction really fired me up; politically speaking, but also as a work of speculative fiction.  The comparison which springs immediately to mind is Gwyneth Jones' Bold as Love - indeed, The Star Fraction feels almost like a what-came-next for that novel, a response to it, but more powerful and better (with some really cool humour).

The world of The Star Fraction appears to be set in the non-too-distant future, although MacLeod is careful never to really give a date on it; first published in 1995, that seems to be a good thing, since whilst some references have become a little dated (although others seem more prescient - Iraq has become a verb for aerial submission, Afghanistan is a tribal mess after increasing American intervention), the majority of the book is relatively timeless.  What MacLeod has changed, however, is quite significant (and appears to stretch into the past - there's an odd reference to A. W. Benn's History of Western Philosophy).  The UK has been a socialist Republic and then had the monarchy forcibly restored, before tiny free states and leftist splitter-groups have sprung up all over the place, and technology has been advanced significantly beyond where it stands today; The Star Fraction paints this world excellently, although occasionally one does wish it took the time to be a little more clear about what happened to take us from now to then.

The main characters of The Star Fraction are absolutely fantastic.  Moh Kohn, our primary protagonist, is a Trotskyist (and very ideologically driven) who believes in the revolution, but not in the allies many of the other leftist factions have made.  He's an intelligent, well-written character, who has a dark past and all sorts of strange events relating to it happening throughout the novel; indeed, he becomes programmed as the carrier for an AI for much of the novel.  However, he's well-portrayed as a leftist with big ideas and a big heart; a very strong character.  Janis Taine, a biologist working on a project that is verboten by the authorities, is drawn into his circle, and is an equally strong character; much less ideological, she's a well-thought-out figure and written with a sympathetic, sensitive eye for detail.  She's a strong woman who comes into her own as the novel goes on, gaining revolutionary convictions and ideas, as well as becoming more of a humanist than is obvious early on.  Finally, Jordan Brown, a capitalist atheist brought up in a Christianist free-state part of London, is a stock-market jockey; he gains an awareness of the outside world, of humanity, and of the politics of the world as the novel goes on.  He also appears to become more sympathetic to faith, as his libertarianism asserts itself with greater strength; it's an excellent piece of characterisation, as he would be easy to make a strawman but MacLeod treats him sympathetically and well.  Indeed, even the antagonists are human, acting from the best of motives as they see them, and this make The Star Fraction a thoughtful and intelligent novel in a way few are; MacLeod can see through the political opposition to their basic humanity, and this makes his writing much more thoughtful.

The plot of The Star Fraction is also strong.  Drawing together multiple plot-lines down into one unit, MacLeod explores the build up to and beginning of a revolution to unite the DisUnited Kingdom; we see it from multiple perspectives, including that of those who don't believe it is possible.  MacLeod paints a portrait of the left as factionalised, disunited, at war with itself (often literally), and threatened; this plays into the plot strongly as various factions within the left come to the fore or receded, and equally as various factions of the anti-revolutionary movements (little more united than the left) interchange.  The role of technology and AI in the revolution is central, and MacLeod portrays it excellently, with a very human sensibility; and equally, the role of people and their basic motives is important.  It's a plot that barrels along and, whilst not always simple or clear, comes strong in the end, taking no prisoners as it goes, with a particularly tragic ending.

In sum, The Star Fraction is a fantastic, deeply political novel; MacLeod's ability to paint a picture of the factionalised left in this future Britain plays into some excellent characterisation and some powerful writing.  Brilliant, and revolutionary, work; I'd highly recommend it, especially to the lefties out there.
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!

SPOILERS SPOILERS SPOILERS )
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.

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