Ellis' eccentricities are well known, showcased in Transmetropolitan especially; Crooked Little Vein is in many ways an extension of Transmet, albeit with the savvy Spider Jerusalem replaced with the rather less cool-with-it-all private detective and shit-magnet Mike McGill and his assistant/lover Trix (noticing some similarities already, I presume) navigating through present-day America at the behest of the Chief of Staff of the White House.

The plot is a simple detective story; McGill is hired by the Chief of Staff to find the "secret Constitution", a document written by the Founding Fathers that will reset America's morality and wipe out the "perversions" (and this book does have some seriously strange ideas in - some really weird sexual acts especially) that have sprung up during the 20th and 21st century.  Ellis takes us across America, a "crooked little vein" of a journey as it is referred to at one point, in the company of McGill, and we're treated to a demonstration of his miraculous powers as a shit-magnet: the strange and weird are attracted to him, so over the course Crooked Little Vein we meet serial killers, sexual perverts, prostitutes, porn-theatre runners, a pre-WikiLeaks prediction of Julian Assange, and more; the rich and powerful are at least as evil and twisted as the poor in the country, and have greater access to their strange tastes to boot, through money.  Ellis is not an optimist about human nature, it's certainly safe to say, and there doesn't appear to be anything sacred or taboo to his mind.  The plot works very well, though, driving forward with the little asides of shit-magnetism nicely included and integrated; and there is a fantastic subplot running underneath the search for the book of the growing romance between Trix and McGill.  Each is suspicious of the other, and Ellis manages to strike the right balance between having them fight and having them act as a couple; there are some sly little tricks sprinkled throughout the novel which really sell the pair as a couple.

The characters of Crooked Little Vein are also excellent.  McGill, as a private investigator, is well portrayed as a man in over his head, who has seen and heard too much and yet continues to be confused and disgusted by what happens in the world, and especially around him; he's believably squeamish, and believably scared by the original appearance in his office of the (terrifying) Chief of Staff.  There's a sense of humanity about McGill that many of the other characters, intentional caricatures, don't have, but there's also a sense of Everyman about him; we can all identify, because to some extent we are McGill, although without the skills, since unlike many PIs in fiction he is undoubtedly an excellent detective.  Trix is similarly effective; a polyamorous student studying sexual perversions and subcultures, she acts very much as a foil to McGill, fascinated where he is disgusted, naive where he is jaundiced, and experienced where he is naive.  This contrast acts very effectively in the novel as we follow the pair of them, as Ellis can show the reactions of each and let the reader find where they themselves lie on the scale, without didactically preaching to us.

Crooked Little Vein is a strange little novel, and a very eye-opening one, especially given that apparently very little of the content was invented by Ellis; the writing is punchy and pacy, the plot effective and unbelievable in an enjoyably Dan Brown kind of way (but, naturally, much better); and the characters believable, sympathetic and interesting.  I'd really recommend this.
Roma Mater is an... odd novel.  Like Emperor and in the same vein as The Sarantine Mosaic, this is a novel about a lesser known period of Roman history, the mid 4th century CE.  Unlike those, this spends much of its time in the fictional, fantastical created elements of its world, rather than the real and historical aspects; the Andersons seem to want to use the history as a way to work around much of the world-building, or perhaps to give us familiar points of reference (Caesar, for instance) that we can hang the fictional, Anderson-created elements of the novel on.

Roma Mater starts strongly, and gets progressively weaker as characterisations get fuzzy, plot disintegrates, external elements disappear from the scene and increasingly the novel becomes about Ys and her relationship with her gods.  The plot of the novel starts as Gratillonius' mission to Ys, to bring them on side for Magnus Maximus' (temporarily successful) bid for a role as Augustus of the West launched from Britain; but over the course of the novel we see his loyalty to Rome essentially vanish (whilst there are flimsy justifications of some of his actions as Rome-centric, his strongest actions on Maximus' behalf is in fact completely off-stage.  The other plot, of the religious conflict - between Mithras, the traditional trinity of Ys' pagan deities, and Christendom - and the mysticism underlying it, is equally strangely handled; we alternate between Ys' traditional deities fading and dying, and being resurgent and angry, or simply taking over everything, completely extant (which never seems to actually affect Gratillonius' beliefs in Mithras, oddly).  Both plots manage to work at odds with each other in that regard; not waxing and waning in concord, but just seeming to be confusingly attempting to bring the two parts together. There's also a very brief Irish plot - Niall maqq Echach attempts to raid Gaul, Gratillonius uses the magic of Ys to prevent it, Niall survives though his son dies, and then... Niall curses Gratillonius and vanishes completely.

The characters are equally uninteresting, with one possible exception.  Roma Mater has a set of characters who each have one characteristic; they're differentiated well, but they're still very two-dimensional, and this is especially problematic with the Nine, who are supposed to be intelligent, powerful and independent women and yet those we see most seem to be perfectly happy to defer to Gratillonius and think that he is far more wise than them.  That Dahilis' one characteristic is being utterly in love with Gratillonius makes that even worse - the women are so focussed on Gratillonius, whereas he's got aims beyond the women despite his love for Dahilis, is deeply problematic.  Gratillonius himself does go some way to saving Roma Mater's characterisation - his conflicting ties to Ys and to Rome, to Dahilis and Magnus Maximus, and to Mithras and the deities of Ys are thoughtfully set out, and his crises of faith and life are interesting and bring him to life as a believable and interesting person.  He is definitely a military man, and his memories inform his present character, as do his fellows; indeed, he's a well-constructed person to hang the narrative on, but unfortunately not enough to save the plot.

Roma Mater's style, on the other hand, is typical Poul Anderson: utterly brilliant.  The sections with the Scotti (Irish) are written in the style of an ollam's saga; it creates a sense of mythology, and of the strange, deity-infused world that the Andersons wants to create.  It's a lyrical, beautiful and powerful piece of writing, and also works incredibly well as a contrast with the sections following Gratillonius; those sections are in a drier, simpler and starker style.  Less related to the character and more straightforward, this style mainly serves to contrast the Ysan and Scotti sections, but they certainly do serve that purpose.

Overall, then, Roma Mater is a weak mess of a book for most of its length; the Scotti sections and character of Gratillonius do a lot to rescue the novel, but overall the Andersons really haven't risen to the heights Poul has achieved in the past with this novel.
Leicht's novel is very definitely urban fantasy, but it isn't urban fantasy as it is traditionally understood. Not only is Of Blood and Honey set against the background of Northern Ireland in the early 1970s, inherently a turbulent, violent setting (one of the most famous British atrocities in the history of the Troubles, Bloody Sunday, is written into this novel); but the portrayal of the Fae (and the Fallen), the use of viscera and violence, and the pretty relentless male focus of the novel are not quite in the standard mould...

The plot of Of Blood and Honey is an intermingling of two conflicts; first, the surface conflict of the Troubles, with Liam, our protagonist (I hesitate, for a number of reasons, to call him a hero) caught up in them first through incarceration in Long Kesh and then on Bloody Sunday arrested again.  This draws him into the IRA, although the plot only touches lightly on his actions in the IRA; this is rather more a way to lead into the plot of Liam's father Bran, and the war between Fae and Fallen that is being played out underlying the Troubles, with the Catholic Church playing a problematic role in the conflict as well.  It's a slowly told plot, jerkily transitioning in ways that aren't always clear (whilst Leicht dwells on certain sections with little happening for extended times, for instance the prison scenes and Liam's early IRA involvement, other bits are brushed over and referred back to in passing later, such as his IRA training), and it dwells on the violent scenes and moments for too long (given that this is a novel about violence and horror, this is perhaps intentional; but the timing feels very wrong when rapid, violent scenes are given so much space whilst we skip over so much).  It also requires a lot of wilful stupidity by a number of characters, to the point of straining credibility.

The characterisation is also weak.  The only developed character is Liam, so we'll cover the other main figures rapidly.  Most central is Father Murray; a Catholic priest, he's very simply and one-dimensionally portrayed, in no small part as simply a kindly old man who has a darker side - or rather, who is intended to have a darker side without ever actually showing it.  Mary Kate is similarly basic; her portrayal is as a passive, loyal female without any real personal agency (any agency she has is only ever off-screen, which is problematic in its lack of immediacy) and she is eventually fridged. Liam is the best character, and even he is intensely passive; much of the novel is spent watching things happen to him, and Of Blood and Honey as a result has a real problem with its drive and requires a lot of credit on the part of the reader.  He's also intensely obtuse - that is, the reader is given a lot of hints and clues and is very able to put them together, and Liam, with the same information, is always way behind us, which makes him seem rather... boring as someone to follow.  In the end, the enigmas of the secondary characters are far more interesting than any of our primary cast, simply because we don't see enough of them to realise how uninteresting they are.

In the end, Of Blood and Honey has great potential, but squanders it; there is some very visceral and powerful writing on display, but that isn't backed up with characters or a plot which the reader is invested in, and Leicht uses real events and gruesome horror as a cheap way to manipulate the reader.  The writing style is choppy and poor, and the unsubtle plot and politics - British bad, Catholic Church too dogmatic, Liam's eventual moment of glory (although even that is qualified and deeply passive in reality) - really do intrude for at least this (British) reader in such a way that it harms the novel as a work of fiction, making it more of a polemic.

And this doesn't seem to be what Leicht is after; on the terms the novel is presented in, Of Blood and Honey fails dramatically, since as fiction it doesn't make the reader want to keep reading, and as argument it falls down because we don't care enough about anyone to care what happens to them (except when it's so violent as to be nothing more than cheap, obviously-fridgey manipulation...).  I cannot help but damn this book; certainly, Of Blood and Honey isn't worth your money...
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.
Stephen Baxter is renowned as a hard science fiction author, and Emperor, at least in one regard, demonstrates some of the skills of hard SF: meticulous and detailed research, portrayals of the technological and societal situation as well as character (the epilogue of the novel has a great skit on this, about Lucian), and use of characters to explore the changing world.  Emperor, however, is essentially historical fiction, with a tiny tinge of fantasy; the fantasy is an excuse for continuity across nearly 400 years of Romano-British history, more than anything else...

Because Emperor doesn't really have a plot.  Instead, it has three (four, if you include the prologue) moments of plot, islands linked by a prophecy given in the prologue and by the family relations of the characters.  The first moment is resistance by three Brigantians to Claudius' invasion of Britain; in this telling we see the immediate and early effects of the invasion on the British people, and meet Vespasian, future emperor, as well as Claudius, the emperor of the moment.  The plot here is minimally, rather just following the responses of the three Britons to the invasion, and how they differ and have very different results - integration, death, or the semi-integration of life in Britain in Romano-British culture.  The second is in the time of Hadrian, and a visit to Britain; here every member is integrated to at least some degree with Roman society, and the plot concerns the machinations of Severa using the prophecy to try and gain profit from Hadrian's consolidation of the empire (in the form of the Wall).  The final is in the time of Constantine; his Christianisation of the empire, the institutionalisation of the Church, the taxation required to recover from the post-Diocletian civil wars, and so on result in descendants of the original family of Prophecy uniting, or at least appearing to, in an attempt to leverage changes in policy using the prophecy - though there are, naturally, games within games.  The point here being that the Prophecy comes in to play at three crucial moments in history for Britain, and vulnerability for Rome: Claudius' invasion; Hadrian's consolidation of empire, rejecting Trajanic perpetual expansion; Constantine's conversion, and this allows Baxter to explore those turning points.

The research behind Emperor is, whilst not perfect (we see glass mirrors, rather than just beaten bronze, and a penetration of the use of coinage that the last thirty years has cast significant doubt on), meticulous, and details are thrown in very neatly.  The cultural picture of Rome, and Roman imperialism, is painted very nicely and effectively; we see how the attitude of Rome changed to her provinces and provincials over time, meaning that what we get is a picture of Rome's decline.  It is perhaps a little caricatured, and there is certainly an extent to which for Classical scholars of Rome it will fall short, but Emperor does certainly paint a useful and intelligent portrait of three vital points in Roman history and explode many of the modern myths about our classical past, albeit whilst buying into others.

Finally, and least importantly (as Thalius says, the ideas are the point in this kind of fiction) Emperor does have a strong, varied cast of characters.  It's a wide cast, but they're each very individual; all influenced strongly by, defined by, and of their time, rather than standing out from it, which is perfect, and all showing the differences in culture by contrast, because in some ways there are continuities of character across the eras.  Baxter's writing is weakest here because they do occasionally delve into simplicity and monodimensionality, but at the same time they're fun, interesting characters who we do care about and want to follow, and their views of the Roman world are so fascinating because of their attitudes given what actually happened; again, for a Classical historian, a really interesting piece of writing.

In the end, whilst Emperor is probably weakened because of my university study of Ancient History (nitpicking: it's what we do), it remains a very strong, lightly fantasy tinged, historical portrait of three eras in Roman history, as well as being good fiction; very readable, and very informative, it's certainly worth a look.
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.
The Way of Shadows, first volume of the highly popular Night Angel Trilogy, is something I've taken a long time, and a lot of persuasion, to pick up a copy of and read; Weeks' work has received praise from writers like Sam Sykes, and there clearly are parallels between their work.  However, what Weeks does with his words and characters and what Sykes does with them are very different; the difference between The Way of Shadows and Sykes' Tome of the Undergates is one of quality and kind...

The plot of Way of Shadows is very, very messy.  Whilst Weeks may want to tie plots in and out of each other and use the idea of betrayal and counterbetrayal, alongside a variety of concealed identities and hidden pasts, in order to build a novel which will take Azoth from gutter rat to becoming Kylar Stern, Night Angel, he does so in such a way that puts too much pressure on the reader to try and make sense of plots that don't work, plans from people who are supposedly intelligent if not brilliant that are so dreadfully and deeply flawed as to be unrecognisable as a plan rather than just making it up as the characters go along.  The reliance on this complexity, and on the stupidity of every single character we meet, really grates; that Weeks seems to provide coincidence after coincidence to keep the plot moving (and not just coincidence, but extremely unlikely coincidence) and deus after deus out of the machinae to keep Stern alive demonstrate a weakness in the writing.  Combine this with inconsistent characterisation (or rather, acts extremely out of character and inexplicable); villains who are evil... because evil!; and the procrastination about getting to the point, and Way of Shadows has a plot that really, really needed streamlining and rewriting.

The characters of Way of Shadows are little better; as mentioned above, this is a novel plagued by inconsistent characterisation.  I expect, over the course of a novel this long especially, characters to change and develop; what I don't want to read is that characters have suddenly switched their whole thought-processes and how they work, or that the whole novel has been a lie in some way that makes the character suddenly not actually make sense; or that they're taking actions which are inconsistent with their portrayal, generally ones that make out a much lower level of intelligence.  That this is a problem across the board doesn't make it any better, it just demonstrates that it is something Weeks built in, either conciously or subconciously; but either way, ineffectively.  The problem of character is even worse when we extend it to villains; outside (not-well-written) fiction, is there an instance of someone doing evil for evil's sake? However, our villains here - both Rat and Roth, but also minor ones like Aleine - are precisely that; doing evil for the sake of doing evil, or for gaining power.  This isn't something found in nature, but The Way of Shadows actively cultivates that image, doing irreparable harm to the portrayal of the villains because they become so inhuman as a result.

In the end, The Way of Shadows is a mess of a book, and gives me no hope for the rest of the series; despite the popularity of these novels, I can't bring myself to even consider recommending them for more than a moment, because Weeks' writing is weak, his characterisation worse, and the whole novel devolves into a confusing, sloppy mess.  Best avoided at all costs.
Ganymede, the fourth installment in Priest's Clockwork Century series, may well mark a turning point in the setting of the series, both for Seattle and for the wider world.  Building on events in Dreadnought and Boneshaker, with possibly a reference to Clementine in there at the beginning.  Our main characters are the smuggler (or pirate, as the term seems to be in the Clockwork Century) Andan Cly and New Orleans madame Josephine Early, with Texas Ranger Horatio Korman reappearing along with Cly's crew.

The plot of Ganymede is relatively simple; Josephine, an old flame of Cly's, needs to hire him in order to get the submarine Ganymede to Union forces near New Orleans, which is held by the Republic of Texas on behalf of the Confederacy.  Complications, naturally, ensue, and there are two subplots; one to do with Cly's burgeoning relationship with Briar Wilkes, hero of Boneshaker, and his resultant plans to settle in Seattle, and the other to do with the increasing menace of the zombis in New Orleans - those affected by the gas found in Seattle; and it's this plot which returns Ranger Korman to the fray, trying to prove to his Texas superiors that the zombies are real.  The plot is mixed; there are a number of points when it moves fast, although those can move towards repetitiveness - and a certain uneventful repetitiveness too, both in the faster and slower-moving portions.  However, the faster moments are well-placed and well-paced, without losing focus or control, and with a certain stylish power to them; and the slower moments are also well-written, the romantic elements thoughtful and not overplayed, the more suspenseful moments not overblown or overplayed but adding a lot to the narrative.  The subplots don't always play the obvious role - the zombis especially being a matter of convenience, not logic, in their use, and some of the references to Cly's wish to settle down feel gratuitous, but overall it works well, and the Ganymede's role in the novel is well controlled, to bring multiple elements together.

The characters of Ganymede are perhaps the strongest point of the novel; Ranger Korman, Andan Cly and his crew we know, but Josephine Early and her employees are new, as is her brother Deaderick; and, unsurprisingly, they're all excellent characters.  Josephine continues the line of strong women that Priest seems to like (alongside the Clockwork Century, each installment of which has a strong female hero leading the case, we have Eden Moore and the Cheshire Red Reports series, both female-focused); she's thoughtfully written, with a combination of her racial politics and her care for the women who work for her making her a powerful figure whose motivations are complicated by her love for her brother.  The majority of the cast are equally interesting; they're not simple characters, but rather, people whose motivations can't be pinned down to one thing, and who have thoughts of their own, and influence the plot in well-thought out ways.

Overall, then, whilst Ganymede, like the other installments of the Clockwork Century, has its flaws, Priest does seem to be improving over time, and this is a fun, enjoyable and well-written story.
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...
Forbeck's novel of the Titanic's sinking - or rather, the sinking, and what came after it - isn't a strictly historical retelling of the 1912 disaster (a timely release, and probably one of all too many this coming year).  That the Carpathia came to the rescue of the survivors of the Titanic is a matter of history; presumably it was that name that inspired the subject of this novel by Forbeck - because in Carpathia are not simply travellers wanting to go to the Old World, but a hold full of vampires.  Thus what we have here is a tribute to Dracula - more naked than most - and a disaster story uncommonly familiar to us, but combined to great and positive effect.

The plot of Carpathia starts with the sinking of the Titanic, on which we meet Lucy Seward, Quin Harker and Abe Holmwood, our three protagonists (and if you recognise those names from the work of a certain Mr. Stoker, he is defined as an old family friend - Uncle Bram).  The three are fast friends, although the (strictly heterosexual) love triangle complicates matters somewhat; but over the course of the novel their friendship is tried and tested as they are forced to first fight to escape the Titanic, and then to escape the vampiric infestation of the Carpathia.  That they recognise the vampires for what they are is thanks in no small part to Uncle Bram, and its also thanks to him that they can fight them; the trio are very much strong characters, and never pretend for a moment to be otherwise, although Lucy has a moment at the close of the novel where she collapses into the role of early C20th woman who collapses into emotional chaos after being frightened (an annoyingly anti-feminist moment given the strength of Lucy and Maggie, a suffragette minor character who is very outspoken and powerful as a character, in the rest of the novel).  The growing horror and power of Carpathia comes from the change of the threat from that of nature to an unnatural one, and the inevitability of it; the infestation of the Carpathia is complete, and the effect of that on our characters' confidence is unmistakable and excellently portrayed, as is their realisation of just how real vampires are.

The characters of Carpathia are also well written.  Each of our three principal characters are intelligently and thoughtfully drawn, with a sensitivity for emotional detail and crisis that makes the romantic element all the stronger, and their falling out over it all the more effective.  Similarly, their strength is very believable, because they're strong despite being scared; Carpathia doesn't have the kind of emotionless hero who is simply brave, but nor does it have heroes who are terrified but act despite it without reason, instead being blessed by Forbeck with Lucy, Quin and Abe, a trio who are brave because it is what they feel they ought to be, or because of each other.  It's a real strength of the novel, because it makes it much more plausible; these are characters who feel human and alive.  That goes just as strongly for the principal vampires, Brody Murtagh and Dushko Dragovich; despite the full range of vampiric powers (Forbeck has clearly done his homework), they feel very human, motivated by human concerns and desires, simply altered in their scope and the nature of their species-loyalty by their nature.  It's brilliant writing, especially in Dushko, who is evil (a vampire, after all) but at the same time sympathetic.

If we are to see a slew of Titanic-related fiction in 2012, and I suspect we very much are, then I hope Forbeck's novel is indicative of what we can expect: intelligent, well-written and enjoyable fiction that doesn't take itself too seriously without descending into farce.  Carpathia is definitely a novel to watch out for.

Review based on an eARC provided by Angry Robot Books.  Carpathia will be published in the US and in ebook format on February 28th, and on March 1st in the rest of the world.
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.
Carrie Vaughn's Kitty Norville series is regarded as one of the better urban fantasy series; it doesn't break new ground - vampires and werewolves, in rivalry, underground but starting to enter mainstream conciousness, in a manner recognisable from anything from The Dresden Files through Blade and Underworld.  Vaughn's novel sticks closely to the conventions of the genre, and it is clear why Kitty and the Midnight Hour picked up an award from Romantic Times rather than anything in SFF circles; what is less clear is why it won any awards...

The first thing to note is the blandness of the plot.  Despite the apparent violence and horror elements of Kitty and the Midnight Hour, Vaughn really hasn't put much of a plot into this novel; we're given a serial-killing werewolf partway through the novel who appears to be intended to be a main element, but really so little is made of him for the majority of the time that he simply doesn't matter; we're given Kitty's radio show and the conflict it induces between the vampires and werewolves, which again has very little made of it and appears to simply peter off without resolution and rapidly; we have Pack dynamics, of which more later because of disturbing implications, which again are made very little of for the majority of the novel.  Even with its shortness, Kitty and the Midnight Hour spends an awful lot of time doing absolutely nothing with its plot, and that really is quite disappointing; there are plots there to be advanced, but Vaughn simply doesn't, in part because of the nature of Kitty's character.

Because Kitty is, essentially, passive.  There are one or two moments when she takes initiative - in changing the format of her show and demanding that she be allowed to keep it, despite her alpha telling her to stop (an argument she wins by bribing him); and at the end of the novel, she suddenly takes the initiative completely.  But for most of the novel, Kitty, our title character, remember, is simply buffetted by external forces, not even reacting but simply accepting what comes to her; the moments when she does take the initiative therefore actually feel out of character, and that despite being some of the best moments in the novel.  As opposed to Anita Blake or Jayné Heller, Vaughn doesn't give us a strong female lead character, and not only is it a loss, it's a real problem, because the only other female character we ever see is a manipulative, behind-the-scenes powergrabber; that is, Vaughn presents women as either passive or evil.  Her portrayal of men is much more nuanced, but also problematic: T.J., a gay werewolf and the Pack's beta, is completely desexualised throughout the novel, and one of three characters to die (the only one who dies not attacking Kitty); Cormac is a strong and powerful character, who Kitty first meets because he's trying to kill her, something which apparently makes him attractive to her; and Carl, the Pack alpha, is an abusive and manipulative man who she can't resist and feels, again, deeply attracted to.  What we're getting here is something really disfunctional.

That's only heightened by one of the revelations in chapter 9, and it's one of the real low points of Kitty and the Midnight Hour.  Vaughn gives us Kitty's backstory - how she became a werewolf; and it starts not only with her boyfriend being abusive and neglectful, but then raping her.  We're not shown the rape, but we're told in no uncertain terms that it happens.  Kitty is then attacked and escapes, becoming a werewolf.  Neither of these events leaves any trauma.  The morning after, Kitty's shaken, but otherwise basically fine.  This is, remember, in the wake of being raped by her boyfriend.  This is followed up by, throughout the book, Kitty justifying actions by Carl that she explicitly notes would be abuse if between humans because they're both werewolves; it's not a matter of saying they're not abuse because they're werewolves, but rather that the abuse is acceptable.  The novel also infantilises Kitty, and says she infantilises herself; this in a scene where Carl is about to assert dominance by having sex with her.  The sexual politics in this novel are not only extremely disturbing, they're inescapable; you can't read it without being slapped in the face with some really deeply problematic conceptions of gender and sexuality.

In the end, Kitty and the Midnight Hour is a novel without enough plot, with a main character who doesn't drive the novel or assert independence until too late, and with so many problematic gender issues that it actually hurts to read it.  That it is the first novel in an extremely successful UF series can only be another nail in the coffin for most UF to my eyes, because this really is a disturbing and appalling book.
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!
Ian Rankin's crime novels have always been intimately concerned with Edinburgh and its environs, normally through the eyes of his most famous creation, DI Rebus. In the wake of Rebus' retirement, Rankin has created another cop, another member of Lothian and Borders - Colin Fox; but rather than a rule-bender, Fox is one of The Complaints: the men who guard the guards and keep the other cops in line.  This isn't a crime novel, or at any rate, that's only part of the point of The Complaints - that, and not to be Rebus, of course; it's other life is as a thriller, and it works beautifully as both.

The Complaints is defined equally by plot and characters, so we'll cover the latter first, to mix things up a little.  Our primary character is DI Colin Fox, one of the Lothian and Borders PSU; straight up the line, very much a man of the rule-book, Fox over the course of the novel is put through the ringer.  A little bit of a coward at the start, but good with his team, he turns into a man who has to force issues and bring himself to be brave; moving through the plot, Fox becomes a more interesting and more rounded character as he resists his impulses (as a recovering alcoholic) and has to act in ways alien to his character.  The other characters are all equally well fleshed out; they sometimes seem to be rather basic but, as the novel developes, even the simplest characters become more interesting and more rounded, their motives becoming more interesting.  This really does drive the novel well and make it readable...

The complaint about The Complaints is also its greatest strength; it doesn't pull punches.  The Complaints is a dark, grim novel, which really does take on and deal with at full force the corruption of the police, the organised crime in Scotland, and indeed the links between the two; it also doesn't avoid one of the biggest stories of its time of writing (and, for that matter, now) - the beginning of the financial crisis, as banks started to teeter and topple (ironic moments when RBS is referred to, though!).  The plot of the novel begins with Fox being asked to put another police officer under surveillance under suspicion of accessing child pornography, but the real plot is concerned with Fox's sister's boyfriend being murdered.... and Fox is under suspicion, and increasingly a target of his own tactics and team.  The whole plot is brilliantly written, and Rankin creates a complex, incredibly dark world in Edinburgh.

All in all, the crime novel-cum-thriller that is The Complaints is fantastic; Ian Rankin really has created a new character with the potential to be as popular as Rebus himself, and a dark world for him to inhabit.
Tidhar's third volume in the Bookman Histories not only returns to, but surpasses, the promise of the first volume of the series.  The Great Game - a name instantly suggesting the subject-matter of the novel - is a fun, and enjoyable, thriller, which winks slyly at the audience with literary and historical allusions (our viewpoint characters include Lucy Westenra and Harry Houdini, and the rest of the cast draws on characters from Mycroft Holmes to Charles Babbage via Colonel Creighton and M.; the novel's front cover also shows off one of the more significant influences on the novel...)

The Great Game's plot follows three strands, each of them building together in complex ways to a conclusion that is powerful, horrific and rather unexpected.  The plot follows Smith, a retired agent of the Bureau - Mycroft Holmes' British intelligence service - as he begins a last mission in the wake of the assassination of Mycroft Holmes, hunting down the assassin.  The plot also sees Lucy Westenra similarly sent on a last mission by the great detective's even greater brother, and Harry Houdini set on something of a collision course with Lucy by the Vespuccian secret service.  Each plot strand builds on things learned in the others, and the division into parts of the novel, and only following one character in each part, really does help keep clear what's going on; though the differentiation of character and location is no small boon in that regard too.  It's a nicely controlled, and well-written plot that is both mysterious and brilliant homage to spy thrillers of all sorts; Tidhar's writing really does keep the plot moving fast and stops the mysteries and hidden elements getting annoying, whilst also avoiding letting things slip early or unneccessarily.

The characters of The Great Game are also well-written, especially Smith himself.  Smith's a nicely amoral creation, but a loyal one; loyal to Mycroft and to Britain.  His satisfaction in his job is evident, as is his borderline sociopathy; that Tidhar makes such a character an interesting, empathetic and indeed in some ways attractive is the mark of a fantastic writer, especially as we're never quite easy with Smith and his actions.  All of our characters, however, are united by one thing; their role in the game (which is, of course, afoot!).  And in no small part it is the effect of the game on our characters which this novel is about; they have very different outcomes, having gone in as very different and differentiated unique characters, each fantastically well-written, but each put painfully through the wringer and, mercilessly, ground down.

In the end, especially as this can stand-alone whilst referring back to events in prior novels in the Bookman Histories, I heartily recommend The Great Game; not only a satisfying read, but an enjoyable, fun, and interesting one too.

The Great Game will be out at the end of this month in ebook form and in the US/Canada, and on February 2nd in paperback form for the rest of the world.  Review based on an eARC provided by Angry Robot Books.
Giant Thief is a very traditional fantasy novel on some levels, and a would-be ground-breaking one on others.  Tallerman's bought into the idea of the unheroic protagonist (as seen in various works from Abercrombie down) and the combination of thief-and-brawn (as seen in works from Leiber on down!) and combined them with high fantasy (of the Tolkeinian style, really - right down to the long travel scenes).  The problem is that in amongst this, Tallerman doesn't give us some of the essential ingredients of a novel: a strong main character, a plot we can believe, or a compelling writing style...

To start with the second first, the plot of Giant Thief - such as it is - follows small-time petty thief Easie Damasco as he steals from rampaging warlord Moaradrid, and ends up with more than he bargains for; a stone that could determine the fate of nations.  Naturally, Damasco's reaction to this is to flee, and keep fleeing - and to try to hang on to the stone, which has no intrinsic value and only keeps him in mortal peril.  If you're wondering why Damasco does this, you're not alone - though Damasco himself doesn't ever consider it.  Damasco also picks up Saltlick, a giant, whom with the power of the stone he can command as if he were the giant king; Saltlick, over the course of the novel, helps and refuses to help Damasco by turns, oddly enough demonstrating a problem that Tallerman refuses to address and setting up huge plotholes, given the absolute power the stone theoretically bestows.  Worse still, much of the novel is spent on chases and travelling; time spent which could better be used to advance plot or character development is instead spent drawing out scenes which should be fast-paced, or at least moving us, is wasted in following our characters from one location to another.

Those characters are, of course, another of the problems of Giant Thief.  Tallerman appears to have had a plot outline in mind, and then tried to draw up characters to fit that outline; but the problem here is that the characters he uses to do so don't actually manage it.  Damasco himself is a small-time thief drawn into larger events - but, despite repeatedly wanting to escape from them, he never really does anything to try and do so.  Instead, he gets moved from crisis point to crisis point by the actions of others, never really claiming any agency himself, and especially with this novel being told from a first-person point of view that really draws a lot of power from the novel: much of it is spent watching Damasco watch others take action, and tell us about it, and that makes for a boring viewpoint, and a boring novel.  The other characters are all rather basic; they're not entirely two-dimensional, at least in some cases - Marina Estrada is a rather nice character, with some decent rounding out, albeit occasionally reverting to previous form and losing character development, and Saltlick's rather underutilised character gleams through the dross with some interest.

All in all, Giant Thief is an incredibly disappointing book; with some interesting ideas, Tallerman has written a book that is boring and characterless, conspiring to throw us out of the action repeatedly and with menace aforethought, and characters who don't stand up to scrutiny.  I've come out of this novel with the feeling that I just had to slog my way through it, not of enjoyment, and that's never a good position to be in...

Giant Thief is out at the end of this month in ebook format and in paperback in the US and Canada, and the 2nd of February for the rest of the world. Review based on an eARC provided by Angry Robot Books.


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February 2012

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