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REVIEW: Waking Hell by Al Robertson

 

"Crashing Heaven" was one of the best sci-fi debuts of last year. With hints of Iain M. Banks and Alaistair Reynolds but still with plenty to make it its own, this astonishing debut instantly made Al Robertson a formidable force to be reckoned with. To further prove the point here's "Waking Hell", "Crashing Heaven"'s sequel and a second installment in a series chronicling the events around Station, humanity's last outpost (and some might say its last chance).

In future the dead are not completely dead but have reached evolutionary point where consciousness can be preserved and a person can continue living through the wires. Utilizing an elaborate technology that involves the use of holograms and weaves, reality itself can be redefined and can become whatever you wish it be - that is if you have the funds. And funds are exactly what Leila Fenech is missing. She is dead and is living as virtual entity and while her terminally ill brother Dieter is alive, he has lost a chance to have a decent afterlife due to insurance scam he fell for and which caused him to lose all his digital memories - a future equivalent of Nigerian prince, so to speak. Leila proceeds to investigate the case and slowly uncovers the plot that could threaten not just her and Dieter but the entire Station. What starts slowly ends up being a wildly exciting rollercoaster ride packed with thrills through the world in which the borders between physical and virtual have been completely blurred and where the Gods is software. It's all very highly conceptual and very readable, written in a story that reminded me a lot of another underrated and sadly forgotten science fiction series - Eric Brown's Bengal Station.

Even though "Waking Hell" is technically a second book in the series you will have no issues by not having read the first one. "Waking Hell" has a different cast of characters and Station is a place that organically evolves through time so even the constant readers will be slightly disoriented. It's a wonderful place that's worth exploring at ease - it seems like even Robertson seems to appreciate this, filling the first part of the books with less action and more character and setting development.

"Waking Hell" is anything but a difficult second novel. If anything, there seems to be lightness to Robertson's writing. "Waking Hell" proves once again that he has plenty to offer to readers looking for intelligent science fiction filled with engaging characters, drama, emotions and advanced technology. Very recommended.


Review copy provided by Gollancz
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REVIEW: Elantris by Brandon Sanderson

 

Usually whenever a tenth or twentieth or, God forbid, thirtieth anniversary of a book I like comes out, I suddenly feel incredibly old. I will remember the good old days (hah!) when I first read it and realise I was, say, 15 at the time, and instantly I'm ancient. Interestingly enough the revised definite tenth anniversary edition of Elantris (to give it its full title) had quite the opposite effect on me. I couldn't believe only ten years have passed since it was published! I had a good thought about it and I think this is due to Brandon Sanderson being a writing powerhouse that he is - it's almost too incredible to comprehend that only ten years ago, he was a nobody, a budding author, especially when you put it against his staggering body of work. Yet, I do remember when Elantris originally came out. Regrettably, at the time I've completely ignored it even though I received a review copy. Similar to now, at the time I was reviewing books and similar to now, I was conscious of the fact that reading every fantasy debut that comes out would kill me so I was very picky. Eventually I've only crossed path with Elantris after falling in love with Mistborn and I was stunned how good it was and by the sheer force of Sanderson's imagination. It was unlike anything I've read before and since, and I will never forget the tale of Spirit and Sarene set in gormenghastian Elantris. This tenth anniversary was therefore a welcome excuse to read through it again and whether you read it or not I advise you to do the same. It's still an incredible book to (re)discover.

So, what's in this definite edition? When you look at the body of the novel, not a lot really unless you are really pedantic. There are couple of tweaks that make the story more consistent (for example, one of the houses is moved from one side of the city to another), and there is a plethora of bonus contest (some 10000 words). Out of these the most interesting for me were the essays on the genesis of the novel as well as a quite interesting deleted scene.

It is difficult to answer whether you should buy this new version of Elantris if you already have it but I would rather say yes than no, if only to gift your old copy to someone else. For a start, it is the definite, authoritative version of a classic fantasy novel and the bonus content alone is worth the entrance fee. So, join me in saying happy 10th anniversary Elantris! You've aged well!


Review copy provided by Gollancz
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REVIEW : The House of Shattered Wings by Aliette de Bodard

 

Obsidian & Blood was one of those series whose existence sounds completely implausible. I certainly never thought I'll ever get to read anything that even comes close to Aztec fantasy and initially I've thought that Angry Robot were taking a huge gamble with it. Couple of years later I simply had to admit that I was wrong and that Angry Robot had some really good editors at the time. The simple fact is that, putting the subject and the niche interest aside, Aliette de Bodard knows her way with words and that I would read her works even if she wrote about making a pizza dough. Perhaps I am pushing the metaphor too far but that's only to say that I'm not in the least surprised that she made it to the major league and that her latest novel, wonderful "The House of Shattered Wings", is being published by none other than Gollancz.

"The House of Shattered Wings" is a strange book but strange in this context is a good thing because it is a de Bodard flavour of strange. Story itself is slightly hard to explain. Taking place in a fantasy version of Paris, we find the city in the aftermath of Great Houses War that nearly destroyed the city with magic. The once beautiful city is filled with burning ruins and even some of the landmarks haven't survived the destruction. Notre-Dame is no longer recognizable. And yet, among all the chaos there is beauty in everyday life that keeps on going despite everything. One of the most powerful Parisian houses, House Silverspires, has lost a lot. Its leader Morningstar for a start. No one knows what exactly happened with him, whether he's dead or he just left and as if that wasn't enough there's a new trouble looming on the horizon. Within its rank, three people work together to salvage what’s left. First and foremost a Fallen called Isabelle, and an immortal but not Fallen Philippe, as well as alchemist Madeleine. Last but not least Selene, the Head of the Silverspires. It is up to them to navigate the fragile city ravaged by conflict and power struggle that takes no prisoner and try to find sense in the happenings.

Reading "The House of Shattered Wings" was initially slightly confusing. You, as a reader, are thrown in an aftermath of a monumental event that changed everything and yet, there's is scarcely any information about what really happened to cause the whole thing. And there's a wealth of things to understand in relation to the society itself. But in my opinion that's part of its appeal as it makes you read the book really slowly, with appreciation for its carefully crafted atmosphere and characters. To conclude, if you enjoyed last year's Son of the Morning by Mark Alder which was also published by Gollancz you should definitely pick up "The House of Shattered Wings". Its intriguing mix of mythos and magic is a perfect introduction to Aliette de Bodard's new creation and I’m already looking forward to sequels. This is definitely Paris like you've never seen before.


Review copy provided by Gollancz
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REVIEW : Crashing Heaven by Al Robertson

 

The press release that came with Al Robertson's debut novel "Crashing Heaven" is an impressive statement that clearly showcases how much the publisher is behind this book. It is always impressive when William Gibson, Alastair Reynold, Richard K. Morgan and even Neal Stephenson are mentioned in a single breath and the six figure sum always catches attention. Admittedly you'll be disappointed if you expect it to be an amalgam of their works in any shape or form because "Crashing Heaven" simply isn't what's promised on paper. It would be simply an impossible feat to achieve it but Al Robertson touched all of these authors in a small way. There's plenty of imaginative spirit in Robertson's writing and subtle nods to his contemporaries for "Crashing Heaven" to pull it off handsomely and that's an achievement in itself.

"Crashing Heaven" is a bleak, hard science fiction tale set in a future where the Earth is left behind and the humanity has moved to a Station, an asteroid made habitable by sentient consciousness of the Pantheon. Even in space the conflict is still raging and as it eventually folds, Jack Forster and his sidekick Hugo Fist return to the station after a war against a group of rogue AIs called The Totality, only to be accused of treachery. In the middle of the conflict Jack surrendered to the enemy and everyone on Station knows it. Jack was an AI killer, primed for violence and combat. It was a traumatizing experience but despite what really happened, he's been the lucky one here. He has survived while his other friends have died. Determined to discover what actually happened, Jack is set to enter another war, one which threatens to destroy both him and Hugo. However, stakes depending upon the outcome of his struggle are much higher than he ever imagined. Even humanity's future is uncertain. For Jack the time is running out as soon Hugo is set to take over his body so there's not much hope left. Hugo Fist is a strange creation, a virtual entity designed to help Jack fight a war and is a great character in itself. Their internal dialog is such a treat. Similarly, Station as a living, vibrant space is depicted superbly. Robertson manages to capture claustrophobic and chaotic existence of one such place. Existence made bearable only by the application on augmented reality called the Weave - a popular mean of escape from reality.

Still, the synopsis itself doesn't do justice to "Crashing Heaven" because on the surface of it, it presents Al Robertson's debut novel as a set of instantly recognizable SF tropes which includes everything from messy post-apocalyptic aftermath, humanity's migration to space, rogue AIs and everyone's existence balancing on an knife's edge. "Crashing Heaven" is better than the sum of its parts. It's an all-encompassing landscape upon which the story unfolds and at times I was even slightly overcome by too much of everything. And yet, as I've mentioned before, the whole thing somehow works together. "Crashing Heaven" is a completely insane book and for what is worth I believe that publishers were right to believe so firmly in its success. Jam packed with innovative ideas and fresh approaches to storytelling, "Crashing Heaven" could just be the one book that everyone will talk about in 2015. I certainly hope so.


Review copy provided by Gollancz.
Order "Crashing Heaven" by Al Robertson here:

REVIEW: Crosstalk by Connie Willis

 

Connie Willis is a special kind of author. Fiercely intelligent with a keen eye for detail and an intriguing story to tell, she comes across as a modern version of a traditional storyteller - her tales will stay with you for a very long time and you probably won't be able to sleep until you know what happened in the end. Tomorrow you will wake up and tell your friends about them as they will be so fascinating and through intriguing. I still remember how impatient I was when I finished an advance copy of Blackout and was forced to wait for All Clear to arrive. It was not nice. “Crosstalk”, her latest novel is thankfully a self-enclosed tale and is not part of Oxford Time Travel sequence. On the face of it, it is something of a departure from her work up to this point but is still deliciously twisted tale that only she knows how to deliver.

"Crosstalk" may initially seem like a romantic comedy of sorts. Briddey is working in product management in mobile phone industry for a hip company called Commspan, and her biggest ambition in life is to surpass anything that new iPhone will deliver.It’s a worthy goal but in personal life she seems to have everything lined up as well as the love of her life (or at least love of the previous six week), Trent is working together with her and their relationship is blossoming. He is sharing with her everything apart from his inner thoughts and that is exactly what he is giving to her as a sign of his love - an EDD procedure. EDD is something truly frightening. If you thought people expose too much of their private lives on social media, EDD, or emotional telepathy as it is better known, will send shivers down your spine. It is basically a procedure that will enable two people to sense each other's feelings, experiencing their innermost emotions as their own. Doing something so intrusive can't possible end up right, and it's exactly what happens. Briddey gets much more than she bargained for as her procedure develops a staggering side-effect.

"Crosstalk" is not the most innovative or the best novel that Willis has written in her career but it is certainly the most playful one.  Extrapolation of present day technology where everyone is willing to share every last minute detail of their private lives to a whole new level is incredibly intriguing and for me absolutely terrifying. And yet the story itself is anything but. It is a light-hearted tale that borders on comedy of errors and a treat to read.


Review copy provided by Gollancz
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REVIEW: The Bone Collection by Kathy Reichs

 

Some of the best crime stories come in form of novellas. It is this shorter form that will usually bring out the fresh elements in any established author, one who would generally keep pumping out novels year after the year, setting itself into a comfortable routine. Novellas give way to a more experimental writing and allow space for stories not necessary fitting to be fleshed out to 400 plus pages but that still deserve to be told. Think of them as one night stands, or a passionate short relationships that fizzle out quickly even though you have the time of your life. "The Bone Collection", the latest collection by Kathy Reichs firmly occupies this territory. It features four blood chilling tales, one of which is completely new to this collection and goes to the very beginnings of Reich's most famous creation, forensic anthropologist Temperance Brennan. It was amazing to realise that even after all these years that particular story has never been told before. One after another they're all exciting and unputdownable reads.

The collection opens with "Bones in her Pocket" and it is simply a showcase of why we treasure Reichs. A number of bones turn up in a lake and what initially looks like a clear cut case of identification ends ups being something far more complex. I particularly enjoyed the ending which came out of nowhere and simply blew me away. Due to limitations of novella, the characters are not as fleshed out as you would expect them to be but it's still fascinating to see how effortlessly Reich managed to condense a novel-worth of story into such short tale.

Following on is "Swamp Bones", another previously published novella that sees Dr. Brennan going on vacation to Florida Everglades. While there Brenna is helping a friend with a local situation involving a python when human bones are found. It's such an interesting setting for a story and once one, there is much more to the plot than it initially seems. This is probably my favourite tale in the collection.

But if you enjoyed the setting of "Swamp Bones", it is nothing compared to one you'll find in "Bones on Ice", a story that involves mummified corpse retrieved from the Death Zone on Mount Everest. It's a breathless tale with plenty of twists of occupy your thoughts.

So far so good but the last novella in the collection will end up being the one everyone will be talking about. "First Bones" is a fascinating insight into how Temperance Brennan became what she is today and presents us with her first forays into the world of forensic science. Reichs has always tried to make Dr. Brennan an ordinary human being so it is not weird that she stumbles upon her future occupation almost by accident. Plenty of familiar face make an appearance so for fans of the series "First Bones" will be cherished and re-read.

"The Bone Collection" is an extremely accessible collection that I would wholeheartedly recommend to both new and constant readers of Reichs. Best enjoyed one at a time, these four novella showcase perfectly her ability in crafting a story that will leave you breathless and asking for more I am jealous of readers who are meeting Temperance Brennan for the first time - you are in for a ride.


Review copy provided by William Heinemann
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REVIEW: Obelisk by Stephen Baxter

 

If you have never read anything by Stephen Baxter, "Obelisk" is, in a nutshell, a perfect representation of his works. Stephen Baxter is something of a phenomenom in this day and age. With one foot he's firmly in the past and can be considered something of a spiritual successor of science fiction giants he admires so much, H.G. Wells and Arthur C. Clarke. With the other he is in the far future imagining alternate histories and possible futures for all of the mankind. 

Seventeen stories (two of which previously unpublished) in this collection are separated in four section, first one containing stories set in his recent duology "Ultima" and "Proxima". First one is "On Chryse Plain", a meditation on our reliance upon technology and the consequences of getting disconnected. After a nearly death crush that leaves three people stranded on the Mars' surface, the difference between the life and death will be decided by the unlikely source - an old piece of space tech you might be familiar with called the Viking. It's a stunning story to open a collection. Following on is "A Journey to Amasia", story that feel like the deleted scene from "Ultima" / "Proxima" and will also strike a chord with readers who enjoyed this year's collaboration with Alastair Reynolds, "The Medusa Chronicles". "Obelisk", the third story in the collection, is definitely one of my favourites and explores the development of human settlement on Mars, and the way low gravity can be user of incredible feats of engineering. It's wildly imaginative story that at its heart is still about the human condition. The final page will make many of you shed a quiet tear. Finally, in this section we find "Escape from Eden", a short but pleasurable episode in Martian life.

Second section "Other Yesterday" features the stories occupying a different side of the spectrum when Baxter's work is concerned. His constant readers will remember "Time's Tapestry", "Mammoth" and "Northland" all being series exploring alternative histories. This is where Baxter usually gets to be playful and explored what might have happened if a crucial turning point in history went the other way. Chilling "Darwin Anathema" exploring the concept of modern age inquisition digging up Darwin's corpse to ravage his life and work is one of the best stories Baxter has wrote so far. "Mark Abides" is another bittersweet stories that explored the final moments of human race as it succumbs to radiation sickness and internal fighting. Impressive stuff.

Third section "Other Todays", with only two stories as closer to home. Playful "The Pevatron Rats" involves particle accelerators, rats that propagate through black holes and quantum tunnelling. It's a sly dig at some of the ridiculous press stories surrounding the LHC. 

Final section, "Other Tomorrows" opens up with "Turing's Apples" and concludes with "Starcall", two of my favourites, first a powerful tale about the first contact and second an incredible tale about the AI controlled starship travelling to the stars and a little boy who grows up on Earth during the trip. Ever ten years he makes a Starcall to the AI and receives an answer in return. Through the calls, Baxter explores the development of society and science leading up to a heart wrenching finale. Simply stunning.

Whether you are a constant or a casual reader, "Obelisk" is something you should treat yourself to. It's an incredible collection from a modern age successor to H.G. Wells.


Review copy provided by Gollancz
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REVIEW : Radiant State by Peter Higgins

 

"The Wolfhound Century" is one of those series that defy easy description. Peter Higgins' literary fantasy tour the force is a historical tale steeped in Slavic mythology and it was quite unlike anything else out there. Oft quoted comparison to China Mieville was particularly apt while that to Vandermeer less so. Any yet, if the first two instalments were hard to classify, "Radiant State" completely tears up the rulebook. It's mad in a way to topple the scales with the final part of the trilogy and yet that exactly what Higgins has done here - he goes out with a bang.

"Radiant State" is a crux of all that happened until now and we see the Josef Kantor's plan as it reaches its fruition. The Vlast Universal Vessel "Proof of Concept" stands proud ready to take his latest reincarnation as President General Ozip Rizhin to the stars. The price of progress, as in countless many versions of Soviet Russia, is the suffering of its people. Vissariom Lom and Maroussia Shaumian don't share his enthusiasm. They're still reeling in the aftermath of the previous volume "Truth and Fear" but there's not time for rest. Standing on the knife's edge they're in their biggest pickle yet. They'll do everything to stop Kantor. And while this short synopsis might make you believe that the story itself is a rather straightforward affair, it is its delivery that sets it apart from other books that occupy similar territory, albeit with a slightly less supernatural elements, i.e. Jasper Kent's Danilov Quartet or Sam Eastland's Inspector Pekkala. Higgins peppers chapter with nuggets of wisdom, all carefully taken from rich soviet literary history. Particularly fitting is the opening quote from Mikhail Gerasimov, Russian poet from early 20th century who said "On the canals of Marks we will build a palace of world freedom". This quote perfectly sets the stage for what's to come. Some are downright frightening and ominous like Josef Stalin's "If you're afraid of wolves, stay out of the forest." All this makes "Radiant State" a rather immersive reading experience.

While I won't go further into details of the story, I'll just mention that I feel that the final, fourth part of the story provides worthy conclusion for the entire ride. It was a glorious tale, and "The Wolfhound Century" as a series has succeeded where many others have failed - it has managed to carve a new niche for itself. I predict it'll be a series against which many others with be judged.  It's innovative, often unique in its setting and so beautifully written. I expect I'll be returning to it many times in the future and if you're even a little bit intrigued by its subject or you like the poetry of Mieville or just plain gold old history, I urge you to give it a try. It might just blow your mind.


Review copy provided by Gollancz.
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REVIEW : The Thing Itself by Adam Roberts

 

I should probably admit straight at the start that Adam Roberts' latest novel "The Thing Itself" confused me completely. It is one of those rare books that I have read twice in quick succession simply for the reason that first time around I've just skipped some of its more experimental chapters in an effort to grasp what's it about. It was a bit much for me as I just don't think I'm learned enough about philosophy to truly understand it. As I turned the finally page I wasn't even sure what it was that I have just read and I can already see that I should prepare myself for another thorough re-read. "The Thing Itself" is a really good novel but one I don't think I'll every completely figure out. It is basically a new genre in itself. In a similar way that Greg Egan writes the hardest Hard Science Fiction there is, Roberts has created something akin to Hard Philosophy Fiction, a metaphysical novel that explores the nature of the reality and existence through Kant, AIs and Fermi's Paradox. And it's dense. Very, very dense.

Purely on the story level, "The Thing Itself" is about a life-long connection between two men, Charles and Ray, who back in the 80s as part of ongoing SETI research embarked on a polar expedition together. They're total opposites and their stay at a remote base is strenuous at best. Ray is an introverted computer geek who's obsessed with Kant. On the other hand, Charles is a scientist who is very down to earth. He writes letters, even playing a chess game with a friend through them, reading newspaper that occasionally arrive. One night, Ray tries to kill Charles and leaves him to die in cold. After suffering though frightening hallucinations and frostbites, Charles loses fingers and toes, and effectively ends up scarred for life. Ray ends up in mental institution. From that point on Charles' life is one big downward spiral. First losing his job at the university, due to drinking problems he also loses his post as a teacher, and ends up working a bin men. All through his life he's been shadowed in his dream by a strange kid, Ray's still writing to him. It all comes back again when a stunningly beautiful woman appeared on his doorstep. She's asking him to join the shadowy Institute which does research into AI, remote viewing and the nature of reality in general. They want both Charles and Ray in their ranks. In-between this, relatively straightforward story, is a series of experimental chapters, each delivered in a different style - one that's particularly hard to read because there's no punctuation marks in it. Another one's written as numbered list.

So, in the end, is "The Thing Itself" a good novel? It's an experimental novel so it all depends on your preferences. Personally, I found it deeply fascinating but hard to understand. The closest reference point for me was Philip K. Dick's VALIS trilogy which fits in the same general literary area but "The Thing Itself" is definitely much more fun.


Review copy provided by Gollancz
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REVIEW: Undertow by Elizabeth Heathcote

 

Elizabeth Heathcote's “Undertow” is one of the more interesting debuts of the year. However, while a psychological thriller at its heart, "Undertow" is something of a trickier beast as far as its story is concerned. Filled with complex characters and plotlines, it is an immensely pleasurable piece of atmospheric domestic noir, which although not without its, admittedly easy to overlook, faults, manages to grip from the opening page.

Carmen is happy in her marriage with ten years older, successful lawyer, Tom, but unfortunately she can never escape the felling that something is missing to complete the picture. Problem is mostly with Tom who simply can't get over the death of his beautiful love Zena. He left his first wife for her even though they were happy and had three children. For outside, it's almost like he is doing the same thing to his second one as well as Zena is never out of him mind. However, Carmen is happy to gloss over the issue as she and Tom are looking forward to starting a family of their own until the moment where a series of tiny signs start to point towards an unbearable truth - that Zena's death by drowning was anything by an accident. It increasingly looks like Tom was responsible for her death. Carmen, journalist by trade, can stop herself being curious and slowly open a door to a terrifying fact and unpredictable outcome.

For a debut novelist Elizabeth Heathcote is surprisingly skilful with words even though I feel that some of the passages have been terribly overwritten. Luckily these are few and far between and Undertow is a perfect jumping board for Elizabeth to continue honing her skills. I have no doubt “Undertow” is an intriguing debut well worth checking out.


Review copy provided by Quercus Books
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