November 24

Red Gloves by Beth Vaughan

I will admit when I started this book, I expected little more than a very average sword and sorcery adventure. And essentially that is what this book is, but Beth Vaughan has created a leading character that seems to jump off the page and attach herself to the reader. I will openly admit I really like Red.

Red Gloves is the nickname for a very unusual mercenary. Red and her sword sister Bethal arrive in the country of Palins looking for work. This land is on the verge of civil war, so well paid work seems likely. That is until Red is recognised as The Chosen, the prophesied new ruler of Palins. 

OK, so the plot summary is nothing new. Even the plot devices have been seen before, e.g. a common farmer who is really a lord in hiding, or the rebel forces that are gathering and training on another planet, or even the religious leader who is a skilled magician. All this and more is very typical of sword and sorcery fantasy.

But I will admit, I like Red. She is a no-nonsense woman who is very used to getting her own way. Her lifestyle is thoroughly mercenary and she is very happy that way. None of this weak, insipid female character who depends on magic to get her out of tight spots. Red will simply grab her sword and go for it. But Red has a secret, and one that makes her very human, even vulnerable. This adds a layer of complexity to her character that helps hold the reader’s attention.

But my next question is, are we every going to get the story of Black Gloves?

November 24

House of Suns by Alastair Reynolds

It seems like it has been a long time since I have read some ‘real’ scifi. Recent reviews have been as much ‘social commentary’ as scifi. But House of Suns is classic space opera.

The story takes place literally millions of years in the future and hundreds of years in time. In this imaginary future, several wealthy individuals have long since created hundreds of cloned personalities. Each of these groups of clones is referred to as a House or Line. Our story concerns the 1000 clones of the Gentian Line, and more specifically two members of this Line, Campion and Purslane. Once every circuit (of the Milky Way) the Gentian Line gathers for a meeting, to exchange memories and learning, before they each set off on another circuit. But this time Campion and Purslane are late, very late. As they approach the planet designated for the meeting, they pick up a distress message that tells them that the planet was under attack and likely to be utterly destroyed within days, along with the vast majority of the Gentian Line. Campion and Purslane together rescue a few survivors and escape to the emergency gathering point where they find only 40 or so other survivors. 

The gathering allows guests, and a few of the guests also survived, including three members of the Machine People race. The action is centred on these Machine People and their response to the Gentians.

I could easily go on. That’s the thing about a space opera, vast time, vast space and lots of action. This book is a real page-turner, especially for fans of this genre. Planets are destroyed, Gods are challenged, ships blown out of the sky, kidnapping and murder abound.

However, as with a lot of the spacy scifi, action and adventure are so thick and fast that there is little or no time for character development. Admittedly the reader gets to know Campion and Purslane well because each of them narrate alternate chapters. But the whole sidebar about Abigail Gentian? A waste of space.

I did like the fact that this tale included robots, but this time robots without the programming that includes Asimov’s Three Laws. At times it seems that Asimov’s Three Laws of Robotics are the foundation of every single robot and android in science fiction since the 50s. House of Suns could easily be seen as a cautionary tale for those who choose to ignore the established wisdom.

November 5

Twilight by Stephenie Meyer

I know this book has been around for a long time, and it seems very strange that I have just now found time to read it. My excuse is this, I don’t have to read books that are easily promoted by word of mouth, and even though I run a library, getting my hands on this series is difficult. Anyway, I was loaned this copy and made sure that I read it quickly.

I doubt anyone is going to need a summary of this plot. Forbidden love between a mortal and a vampire, how, why and what problems may arise. 

The story isn’t all that brilliantly original. Buffy ran for years on the theme of forbidden love with monsters. But Meyer’s interpretation of the vampire myths is original. The idea that their skin is cold and hard, the explanation of what direct sunlight does, and even the explanation of how one becomes a vampire is radically different from traditional lore, and worthy of careful consideration. 

This series of books has had a phenomenal response from young adults, and not just from the girls. With the release of the movie later this year, I would suggest that this book is not going to lose popularity anytime soon.

November 4

Joel and Cat Set the Story Straight by Nick Earls and Rebecca Sparrow

Two authors, one book. Is it any surprise that the most convenient format for this story was alternating chapters written by each author? What is surprising is how well it works.

Joel and Cat hate each other. They cannot stand being in the same room. Cat’s best friend and Joel have a ‘history’ and that is never good. Unfortunately through a series of misadventures the two of them are matched up for a creative writing assignment in which they are write a paragraph each day on a short story. The difficulty is that each paragraph must be emailed to the other at the end of the day, and the second one has to pick up the story and continue. So what if Cat’s favourite author is Jane Austen and Joel’s is Matthew Reilly. 

The story begins with Cat setting the scene in an early morning, gentle, slow and introspective. Joel’s paragraph introduces high adventure including a skydiving spy. Get the picture? But as the story continues the two of them learn to talk to each other, and more importantly listen, and a friendship is born.

This is a book full of good humour and fun. Neither author takes the project too seriously and the fun they had while writing it literally jumps off the page. Apparently Earls and Sparrow accepted advice from fans via a blog or even SMS as they were writing. Some of the very strange passages from the short story truly indicate the wild imagination as fans tried to set the authors challenges.

Did I like the book? Absolutely. Is it great literature? No, but sometimes it is nice simply to have something fun to read.

November 3

The Steel Remains by Richard Morgan


It appears to be a growing tendency of current fantasy writers to at least ignore, but more likely deliberately distort the traditions of the genre. In the blurb to this book Morgan is credited with ‘taking an axe’ to the clichés of fantasy. Clichés or traditions, this book certainly breaks all the rules.

For the most part this book is three separate ‘hero’ tales. Ringal, bearer of the named sword Welcomed in the House of Ravens and other Scavengers in the Wake of Warriors, AKA Ravensfriend, is making a living telling tales of his war exploits and occasionally cleaning up some local trouble. In a most unlikely scene his mother asks him to rescue his cousin who has been sold into slavery. The second tale is of Egar Dragonsbane, a man who has fought dragons and survived. But currently he is Clanmaster, and not very good at the job. He likes the fringe benefits, but administrivia bores him. The third tale is about the half-breed Archeth, a woman abandoned by her family who has some understanding of the ancient Kiriath technology. She has the honour of being an advisor to the Emperor. Each country is experiencing strange deadly events, a city destroyed, a collection of living heads grafted to logs, or simply superstitious mutterings from those that live in the marshes. Something evil is coming, but can humanity stand together to fight.

As you can see this is not your typical sword and sorcery fantasy. Each ‘hero’ is flawed. Ringal is flagrantly gay and delights in watching others squirm when confronted with his sexual preferences. Egar kills four of his brothers in order to retain his position as Clanmaster, but then immediately heads south to warmer climates. Archeth is addicted to the stimulant krin. Personally, I think these flaws make the characters more realistic, but there will be many fantasy fans who will find these flaws too difficult. And the bad guys are just as grey. The Dwenda are humanoid, bent on recapturing the planet, but not above forming an attachment to humans when given the chance.

There are bits of this book that are wonderful. The evening-before-the-battle speech is great. The image of the ‘god’ rising up to rescue Egar with his grass demons will stay with me for a very long time. The fights are almost choreographed on paper, a film director would have no difficulty converting the words to visual images.

There are also bits of this book that are unnecessarily graphic. I would hate to know how many times f@#% is used each chapter. And the sex scenes leave very little to the imagination. This book is certainly intended for a mature audience.

But Morgan, is the Dark Lord who I think it is?


November 1

The Bible of Clay by Julia Navarro

Hmmm. A very interesting book. Yes it is another in the Indiana Jones, archaeological adventure genre, but this book is very different. There is far fewer guns and explosions than many in this growing genre. In fact, you will need to keep thinking as you read, or expect to have to re-read large passages. This book is actually three stories, each one a strong plot for its own novel, but carefully interwoven to build a complex plot that doesn’t depend on action for its tension.

The book opens with unknown archaeologist Clara Tannenburg standing up at an international conference claiming that Abraham was actually the first of God’s prophets to dictate Genesis, and she knew where to find the clay tablets where the scribe recorded the message. Enter an international ring of art dealers who specialise in stolen ancient artifacts. Enter a young priest who has heard the confession of a man about to commit murder. Enter a group of Nazi death camp survivors determined to wipe the name Tannenburg from the face of the earth. Place the excavation site near ancient Ur, currently south of Baghdad in late 2002.

Navarro is a very talented writer who builds tension with great skill. She does not reveal the motives of her various groups until well into the story. She simply reveals the hatred, the anger and the suspicion and gradually reveals the motives. At the excavation site itself she placed a series of assassins and thieves all watching each other and wondering who and why they were there. She places the climax of the story in the days before the invasion, and uses the underlying suspense to sweep the story through to the eventual conclusion.

This is a book that needs to be read in a few sittings with plenty of time available. But with the Christmas holidays in sight this would be a good acquisition now to read then.