The Three-Body Problem by Liu Cixin

The Three-Body Problem | Liu Cixin | 2015 (English edn) | Head of Zeus | 399p | Review copy | Buy the book

The Three-Body Problem by Cixin LiuIn 1967 Ye Wenjie watches her father beaten to death by the Red Guards during the Cultural Revolution. Her father was a teacher and scientist and those who threw the punches and kicks that killed him were youngsters, some even his former students. Education, learning and science don’t belong in these dangerous times and so Ye Wenjie, herself an astrophysicist, welcomes her exile to a remote corner of China where she is enlisted in a programme to cut down the trees on a mountain side. But her hunger for the written word finds her out, the state seems determined to destroy her. Ye Wenjie is given one last chance to escape – she must sign her life and future away to Red Coast Base, a top secret facility that transmits signals into space.

Wang Miao is a nanomaterials researcher in present day China. Top of his field, the Beijing police ask him to infiltrate a group of elite scientists, the Frontiers of Science. A number of scientists have committed suicide, the police are none the wiser as to why, no link can be found. But when photography enthusiast Wang develops a roll of film and finds every photo labelled with a time, he understands the unbelievable. There is a countdown underway, one that only he and a few others can see. The answer lies hidden within the secrecy of the Frontiers of Science, the clues revealed in their extraordinary online game Three Body, a game in which Wang immerses himself. Seeking answers and fearing the worst, Wang must seek out the mother of one of the dead scientists for guidance, the elderly Ye Wenjie who has quite a tale to tell.

The Three-Body Problem, winner of this year’s Hugo Award, is a marvellous novel. I’ve been keen to read it since I first heard about it but I was slightly nervous that the solution to its ‘three-body problem’ might be a little hard for me to grasp. I needn’t have worried at all. This is a book rich in ideas, puzzles and theories but each of them is explained in a way that isn’t only accessible but is also absolutely engrossing. Using the medium of the Three Body game, Liu Cixin gives his ideas an added, colourful dimension, that is full of memorable and original (not to mention deliciously quirky) moments – for example, the ability of the characters to lie down on the ground, seep out all their body fluids so that they are completely dehydrated and can be rolled up and stacked in a warehouse, or the disillusioned philosopher who calmly steps into a bubbling cauldron to be cooked. In the world of Three Body chaos reigns supreme, thanks to the three-body problem at its heart. Can Earth’s scientists solve the problem or can they learn to cope with the triumph of chaos?

This isn’t all, though. While The Three-Body Problem pursues an extremely absorbing, and dramatically depicted, puzzle, it is also an apocalyptic novel on a huge scale. Wang is haunted by his countdown, conscious that the universe is flicking like a lightbulb about to go out for good, and he must find out why. It is in this part of the novel that Ye Wenjie comes to the fore. She’s an extraordinary figure – we have to feel sympathy for her but her character has a freezing chill at its heart. The enormity of what she discovers at Red Coast Base dominates her life, her relationships, everything, but, considering what it is that she learns, we can certainly understand why. Wang himself must commit truly terrible acts in the name of mankind’s survival – there is one scene in this novel that haunted me for nights, just as it must have haunted Wang for a lifetime.

The ideas in The Three-Body Problem are vast but they are beautifully expressed and, for this, credit must also go to Ken Liu who has done a fantastic job of translating this masterpiece. The characters are wonderfully portrayed – I particularly enjoyed police detective Da Shi – even those who are passing through. The chapters that focus on the game present a magically realised world that serves as a colourful contrast to the chapters set in the ‘real’ world. The novel invites the reader to look at the world around them and imagine a scenario in which he or she would welcome its destruction or, alternatively, the lengths to which they would go to save it. Wang and Ye Wenjie deal with this problem in their own way.

This review can only touch on the ideas contained in this novel. Much of what happens is revealed in a series of big shocks and twists that I have no intention of spoiling. I loved where The Three Body-Problem took me – it is tense, wondrous and fascinating and I am so ready to read its successor, The Dark Forest, the next in this exciting, original and gobsmacking trilogy.

Burnt Paper Sky by Gilly Macmillan

Burnt Paper Sky | Gilly Macmillan | 2015 | Piatkus | 384p | Review copy | Buy the book

Burnt Paper Sky by Gilly MacmillanBen Finch is eight years old. He has yet to sleep without his comfort blanket and he adores his favourite teddy but, confident and happy, he’s just reached the stage where he doesn’t like to hold his mother’s hand within sight of the school gates. He’s growing up. So his mother Rachel gives in to his pleas and lets her son run ahead with his dog Skittle through the woods to the playground and swings. It’s no distance at all. And it gives Rachel a moment’s peace to think about what is most troubling her – her divorce from her husband John and his recent remarriage. But all it takes is a few moments. Rachel finds the playground empty, the swing gently moving to and fro. Ben and the dog are gone.

What follows is the trauma of a missing child, with all of the tension and distress, false hopes and desperate acts that this involves. Told from a future perspective, but without giving anything at all away, we are given two narratives. Rachel tells us what happened from moment to moment, driven to do so by the horrendous treatment that she received from the media following her completely understandable outburst of rage at a press conference. She wants us to know why she behaved as she did, what it’s like to get up and move around under the crushing weight of this unbelievable worry and distress. Rachel isn’t the only one affected. The other narrative comes from Jim Clemo, the detective in charge of the investigation, and takes the form of his notes written a year later for the police psychologist. Jim has had a breakdown. He needs to work through events for his own well being, so that he can sleep – and for the sake of his future career.

Throughout the book are other bits and pieces – transcripts of the psychologist’s interviews with Jim, newspaper reports, Facebook entries, blog posts, as well as extracts from books on the methodology of finding missing children. But as the hours and days pass, the greatest fears are those left unsaid.

Burnt Paper Sky is an utterly compelling read, a book that I did not want to put down unfinished. It is beautifully written. Both Rachel and Jim are fully realised figures, their portraits sensitively drawn by Gilly Macmillan. Neither is in a situation where we see them at their best – to say the least – and so it’s not important that we like them but it does matter that we believe them and understand what they’re going through. And we do, completely. Rachel, in particular, is magnificent. I hung on to her every word, feeling for her as family and friends move around her. As the police probe into her past and into these relationships, we learn more about Rachel than she would ever have wanted anyone to know (before she lost her son and these things became unimportant).

This is a novel full of mysteries and secrets, the greatest being the missing Ben but there are plenty of smaller puzzles, too, all showing how complicated lives can be once they are put under such intense scrutiny. We are placed in the heart of it, watching people unravel. Burnt Paper Sky gives us so powerfully and dramatically a taste of what this terrible trauma might be like, while making it imperative that we keep turning the pages to find out what happened.

I don’t want to give the impression that the book’s a distressing read – it isn’t. The time gap, knowing that events are being told to us from a future perspective, distances us to a more comfortable degree. More than anything, Burnt Paper Sky is a pageturner of the highest order and quality.

The novel gets its name from the contemplation of watching a piece of paper briefly burn against the sky. Its smoke, for an instant so intense, rapidly disappears, nothing is left. It’s a poignant metaphor for Rachel’s loss as well as a clue to the quality of Gilly Macmillan’s writing and the novel as a whole.

Scourge of Rome by Douglas Jackson

Scourge of Rome | Douglas Jackson | 2015 | Bantam Press | 416p | Review copy | Buy the book

Scourge of Rome by Douglas JacksonScourge of Rome is the sixth novel in Douglas Jackson’s superb Gaius Valerius Verrens series, surely one of the finest of all series, regardless of genre. While I would advise that you give yourself the pleasure of reading all the books in sequence, this latest book works extremely well as a stand alone novel. In many ways, the leading figure, Verrens, is starting again from scratch and so Scourge of Rome would also make a great introduction to the series.

It is AD 70 and Rome is about to embark on one of its darkest deeds – the brutal siege and destruction of Jerusalem. Vespasian is new to the imperial throne. His hold on it is not secure. His eldest son Titus must likewise prove himself as a leader, a General every bit as good as his father, before he can be declared heir. Glory will be his if he can stamp out the Jewish revolt once and for all, so that this irritating region will no longer trouble its Roman masters.

Gaius Valerius Verrens was once one of Rome’s most experienced and admired centurions, his wooden hand never harming his skill on the battlefield. But his reputation is in shreds, his death narrowly avoided. With Domitian, Vespasian’s younger son, after his head, Valerius has no choice but to leave Rome and head east to redeem himself by the side of his former friend, Titus. It’s good timing. Never has Titus needed a soldier of Valerius’ prowess as much as he does now as he builds his siege works around the unhappy walls of Jerusalem.

I could rave about the Gaius Valerius Verrens series all day, and whenever a new book in the series comes out I do just that, but I have no hesitation in declaring Scourge of Rome the best of all so far. This is quite a feat but Scourge of Rome is a wonder.

There are many reasons why Scourge of Rome is so good. Douglas Jackson’s sensitive characterisation is one of them. You don’t expect Roman soldiers to be vulnerable and tender but Valerius is such a man, even more so than before due to the great sacrifices he has made to survive. The fact that he can become a killing machine in the heat of battle gives Valerius no comfort, quite the reverse. Perhaps even more powerful a portrait is that of Serpentius, Valerius’s friend and bodyguard, who comes into his own in this novel, with mental and physical injuries that go even deeper than his friend’s.

There is another fascinating presence in Scourge of Rome – the Jewish traitor and historian Josephus. Infamous in history, Josephus is a charismatic, enigmatic figure in these pages and one that Valerius must depend on as he goes behind enemy lines in the lethal streets of Jerusalem.

The crowning glory of Scourge of Rome is undoubtedly the siege of Jerusalem itself. Douglas Jackson does not spare us. This is a horrendous episode in Roman history, made even worse by the desperation of the city’s defenders, themselves torn apart by conflict and hatred. While we spend much of the time observing events from the Roman side, we do venture inside the city walls and meet leading figures from Jerusalem’s warring factions. Everyone is fighting to capture the powerfully symbolic Temple, everyone is prepared to see it burn.

The danger that Valerius and Serpentius face in the streets and tunnels of the city is matched by the peril of those inside the walls as they are pounded by Roman artillery, and of those outside as they are attacked in a series of frenzied skirmishes. The siege and battle for Jerusalem is vividly brought alive here in all its brutality and confusion. The pace never drops. The human tragedy as great as the trauma done to this great city.

Titus himself remains an elusive figure, arguably not the man Valerius once knew – just as Valerius is irretrievably changed himself. Light relief is provided by intrigue in Titus’s camp, led by the cunning Queen Berenice of Cilicia who has her own agenda and vested interest in Jerusalem’s fall. Her agents increase tension but one of them at least offers Valerius the chance to know love again, of which he is in dire need.

Scourge of Rome is a thoroughly exhilarating and pulse-thumping read. Douglas Jackson is a fine writer, both of action and of character and both play vital roles here. This is Roman historical fiction at its very best.

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The Samaritan by Mason Cross

The Samaritan | Mason Cross | 2015 | Orion | 416p | Review copy | Buy the book

The Samaritan by Mason CrossCarter Blake is not a detective, nor is Blake his real name. With a history in the military but with an unknown present, Blake makes it his business to find people who don’t want to be found. He’s very good at it indeed.

When young women begin to be abducted from their cars in the Los Angeles hills, their bodies dumped, Blake recognises the killing style. He suspects that he may know the man, quickly named the Samaritan by the police for his method of pretending to help women broken down on these dark remote roads. Blake also fears that the Samaritan may have a killing history that stretches far back through the years and extends way beyond California. It’s not long before local detective Jessica Allen realises she’s out of her depth, in need of the help of the enigmatic Blake, despite the misgivings of her partner Detective Jonathan Mazzucco, her bosses and the increasingly involved FBI.

The Samaritan follows on from the excellent The Killing Season. While it’s not crucial to have read The Killing Season first, I would certainly recommend that you do so because it does a fine job of introducing the strong and compelling character of Carter Blake. The story lines, though, are completely independent of one another. Indeed, The Samaritan gives us a little more about Blake, filling in just a few of the many gaps in our knowledge – but not enough to disperse the mystery, which is an enjoyable quality of both novels.

As in the previous novel, Blake is again aided by a local detective who is fascinating and well-realised in her own right, in this case Jessica Allen. Personally, I also had quite a soft spot for Mazzucco. The main drama, though, is the one surrounding the man terrorising the LA hills, an area that presents its own difficulties for the police.

I thoroughly enjoyed The Killing Season and I was expecting this book to be as least as good. Unfortunately, for me, its predecessor gave The Samaritan too much to live up to and I didn’t find this second book as polished or as thrilling as I’d hoped. This may have been caused by the flashbacks to the past or the fact that Blake has a very good idea who the killer is. There is a fair bit of jumping about and the whodunnit element is missing. While there are some edge-of-seat moments (not to mention emotional shocks and twists), I felt less involved in the drama.

Nevertheless, I think that this is a fine series with an enormous amount of potential and a great future. I will be reading.

Other review
The Killing Season

Rebellion by Livi Michael

Rebellion | Livi Michael | 2015 | Penguin | 353p | Review copy | Buy the book

Rebellion by Livi MichaelIt is 1462 and Edward of York now sits on England’s throne as Edward IV. The Wars of the Roses, though, are far from over. Henry VI still lives and is prisoner to Edward and England’s most powerful nobleman, the Earl of Warwick. Henry’s Queen, Margaret of Anjou, is in exile in France with her son Prince Edward, trying to raise funds and arms to return to reclaim her son’s inheritance. But a more immediate threat to peace comes from an unlikely source. The Earl of Warwick is restless. Despite years of fighting for Edward and the Yorkist cause, Warwick now feels challenged by a new influx of influential men to Edward’s court – the family of Edward’s new bride, the entirely unsuitable and ambitious Elizabeth Woodville. More years of battles will follow, more of England’s royal and noble lines will fall, often under the blade of the executioner’s axe, until only two heirs remain.

Rebellion focuses on the plight of the mothers of England’s last Lancastrian and Yorkist heirs – Margaret Beaufort, mother of Henry Tudor, and Margaret of Anjou, Queen of a deposed yet divinely anointed king and mother to his heir (and Henry Tudor’s cousin) Prince Edward. Both boys are of a similar age, straining at the leash to escape their mothers and fight for their cause. But there is much more to Rebellion than this. Its scope widens to portray the dramatic lives of Edward IV and his Queen and brothers, the innocent Henry VI, Margaret Beaufort’s unhappy husband Henry Stafford, the indecisive Duke of Somerset and, perhaps most powerfully of all, Kingmaker Warwick and his family.

Livi Michael makes effective use of her sources. Extracts from primary accounts are sprinkled throughout, especially at the opening and close of many of the chapters. These are supported by the chapter headings themselves which are well chosen. The extracts don’t interfere with the flow of the story – this is a novel not a history – but help to move along the history of the war on a national scale while keeping much of the drama of the novel itself within family homes, ships, castles, prisons and palaces. This represents a shift from Rebellion‘s predecessor Succession, which, for my tastes, relied too heavily on extracts, distancing us from the characters, and which also presented the perspectives of a cast that grew too large.

I should say that Rebellion follows directly on from Succession but both novels are self-contained.

The characterisation of Rebellion is well done indeed. None of the women in the novel is especially likeable – thinking particularly of Margaret Beaufort, Margaret of Anjou and Elizabeth Woodville – but they are placed strongly within their time and it’s easy to feel for them with their fortunes ebbing and flowing by the moment. Margaret Beaufort’s enforced estrangement from her son Henry Tudor is gently handled and very moving, as is an astonishing scene on a boat on a stormswept sea on which Warwick’s young daughter strains to give birth amidst the utmost misery and danger. Livi Michael makes good use of male and female characters. This is a novel about a war that has violently split a family in two and it has done damage to all, whatever their gender. Edward IV is a fascinating, flawed character and it’s hard not to feel sympathy for Henry Stafford.

While this is a novel about people and relationships, it is most definitely also about war and politics. The Wars of the Roses was a complicated affair, not helped by the multiple marriages and interconnected family lines as well as the overuse of certain names. There are far too many Henrys and Edwards (the novel’s family tree is vital). Nevertheless, Livi Michael guides us on a clear course through events, helped by the use of primary extracts. These were terrible times but they make a fine subject for a historical novel and Rebellion, engrossing throughout, places us in the heart of it all, capturing so well the confusion, violence and uncertainty of the Wars of the Roses as well as the misery it inflicted on so many families.

Other review

Zero World by Jason M. Hough

Zero World | Jason M. Hough | 2015 | Titan Books | 489p (640p with Dire Earth novella) | Review copy | Buy the book

Zero World by Jason M. HoughPeter Caswell is about to embark on the most important mission he’ll never remember. Caswell is a spy, an assassin, but with a difference. Not only has his technologically-enhanced brain been re-worked to turn him into a superhuman killing machine, but it has also been ‘hotwired’ so that he will forget days at a time. Once the trigger is set, he will carry out his orders, keeping an eye on the hours or days counting down on his watch until the moment of reset arrives. He will then forget everything since the trigger, with no idea what he has done or where, with only one clue that he always leaves himself – the number of bottles turned round in the fridge tells him how many lives he has ended. With no memories, Peter does not feel like a killer. He knows, though, that he is deadly.

Some decades in the future from now, Peter Caswell is given a mission, hot on the heels of his last, and it is an emergency. This means that none of the rituals he normally needs to ease his conscience can take place. Years ago a spaceship, Venturi, vanished. It has now re-appeared with all of its crew dead but one. Crew member Alice Vale is missing. Peter is sent up aboard vessel Pawn Takes Bishop to investigate the ghostship and trace Alice. When one of Pawn’s crew makes a discovery on one of the Venturi computers, Peter undergoes an emergency trigger. Knowing that he has a set number of days to complete his task, and assured that he will forget everything he does during that time, Peter is instantly transformed and his mission begins.

On the trail of Alice’s landing craft, Peter finds himself travelling through a rift in space, a wormhole, which takes him to a world that he recognises. It looks like Earth, it is inhabited by humans who speak an English dialect, but it is not the planet he left. This is a twin of Earth, a planet with 1950s’ technology. This planet has undergone a trial that Earth escaped – a bombardment of asteroids a couple of centuries before has left it with a vast area of desolation separating north from south, both regions now regarding the other with nothing but hostility and potential violence. Melni is a southern spy working in the north, investigating the north’s recent leaps in technology. Suddenly, Melni finds her mission compromised by a most unusual stranger.

Zero World is packed with thrills from the outset. The trigger to Peter’s brain sets off the action and it never lets up, not least because we know that the clock is ticking until Peter resets. It’s a novel premise and it is handled brilliantly by Jason M. Hough, author of the fabulous science fiction trilogy, the Dire Earth Cycle. Zero World takes the strengths of the Dire Earth Cycle – adventure, shocks, excellent characterisation, mystery – and turns them all up a notch. Zero World might be a thrillfest but it is also ambitious, clever and confident.

In many ways, Zero World has the feel of a Cold War spy thriller, although it is hard to work out which of the two factions on this alien Earth is the side worth fighting for. Peter Caswell has to scramble around to understand the politics and beliefs of the planet, just as Melni has to come to terms with the reasons for Peter’s difference. To call it a massive culture difference would be quite the understatement. Both Peter and Melni are in for shocks, and matters aren’t helped by the fact that Peter’s body cannot cope with many aspects of life on this world. The relationship between Peter and Melni is wonderfully depicted, the little differences they discover in each other adding charm and humour when all around them there is bloody mayhem – and a rising body count. The worldbuilding is particularly well done – everything is familiar enough and yet still frighteningly different and sinister.

Peter is an intriguing figure and not your typical hero – constantly struggling with his conscience and the morality of his choices – but Melni is the delight of Zero World. She is such a likeable figure, committed to her cause and enormously brave, but also open-minded, warm and generous. She’s a pleasure to spend time with.

Zero World is a self-contained thriller but I have every hope for a sequel.

Fans of the Dire Earth Cycle like me will be very pleased to discover that Zero World is accompanied by the prequel novella, The Dire Earth, in its entirety. Major bonus!

Husk by J. Kent Nessum

Husk | J. Kent Nessum | 2015 | Penguin | 368p | Review copy | Buy the book

Husk by J. Kent NessumIn the near future, if you’re rich enough, you won’t have to die. Your consciousness will be removed from your failed body and stored for eternity in a format of your choice – as a computer programme, in a hologram or a robot. But there may be occasions when this will not do. At those times you may choose to use a ‘husk’, a human being who rents out his or her body for a maximum of 72 hours, during which time you will be pretty much free to do whatever you wish – so long, of course, that the husk’s cuts and bruises will be non-permanent and quick to heal. This is strictly illegal but, if you have enough money, then the future is yours, forever.

Rhodes is a husk, as is the woman he thinks he loves, Ryoko. Rhodes sees little alternative. He’s handsome, fit and desirable and the money he receives for prostituting his body out removes him from the fear experienced by most in these depressed times – he knows where his next meal is coming from, he has a roof over his head, and gadgets galore to numb his anxiety over the many missing hours and the aches and pains. But now Rhodes is experiencing something worse than cuts on his face and bites on his arm. He is haunted by dreams or flashbacks, there is a rage in him that he’s not felt before. And when violent accidents, even death, befall other husks, Rhodes begins to fear for his life and sanity. But when you’re dealing with dead men as powerful as these, a way out is not necessarily easy to find.

Husk presents a bleak and dark portrait of a near-future world in which the poor, or the unlucky, are only just hanging on to the means for existence. Food and water are scarce and expensive and comfortable accommodation is now a luxury.The dividing line between rich and poor has now become so great that death may become something reserved just for the poor, while salvation is solely for the wealthy. Husks can imagine themselves among the elite – they are attractive and well-paid but they are indeed just ‘husks’, shells for the wealthy to abuse and exploit. Husks have no memory of what use their bodies were put to when invaded by these rich men’s thoughts (it’s mostly men), but the way in which Rhodes calmly accepts that he needs an HIV injection after one such infestation suggests that they’re no fools.

We’re told Rhodes’ story in his own words and it’s a tale that grows ever more grim as we, and he, realise that his control is lessening. The tension increases, as does the helplessness and frustration, as fear torments his every waking hour. There is such a sadness in the relationship of Rhodes and Ryoko. They use passwords in their conversations so that they know they are both real in the moment and not possessed.

The characters of some of the clients are terrifying, they are so removed from human life, almost (occasionally completely) monsters. While we are permitted to feel pity for one or two – the man who misses his dead wife dreadfully, or another who simply wants to spend time alive again just to share a cigar and drink with a friend, but others are demons. There are times when Rhodes must make a deal with the devil.

While I found Husk a clever and fascinating novel, I did find it an extremely grim read and at some point about halfway through I realised that I admired it but no longer found it enjoyable to read. I needed to know what happened to Rhodes and Ryoko and so I read it until the end but when I got there I realised that there is no light in this novel at all. It’s darkness throughout, backed up by strong language and violence. I also found it hard to care for Rhodes, however much I wanted to. By contrast, though, the baddies of the novel are wonderfully done. The scenes in which they feature are ominously sinister.

If you enjoy horror and dark tales then I have a strong feeling that Husk may well have a strong appeal. It is certainly clever.