Category Archives: Sci Fi

The End of the Day by Claire North

Orbit | 2017 (6 April) | 416p | Review copy | Buy the book

The End of the Day by Claire NorthCharlie hasn’t been in the job long but there is much about it that appeals – the frequent travel all around the world, often to the most unexpected places, the chance to meet a wide variety of people, and good prospects. Because surely the one person guaranteed a long and safe future is Charlie, the Harbinger of Death. But for everyone else there comes an end of the day and there they will meet Death. But, before that, they meet Charlie.

Charlie’s arrival on your doorstep doesn’t necessarily mean an imminent death, as Charlie is at pains to answer whenever he is asked. Sometimes, he says, he is sent as a courtesy and sometimes as a warning, and he always brings a gift. Sometimes it is extremely difficult to deliver it because Death’s office in Milton Keynes can despatch Charlie to some of the most dangerous or remote places on Earth, such as the home of polar bears in the frozen north, the world’s war zones, dangerous city streets. Occasionally, Charlie will glimpse over his shoulder a pale-faced figure, sometimes male, sometimes female, but generally Death leaves Charlie to work alone. And as he carries out his important job, Charlie learns to question his own life by the examples of others that he observes and his views on death, life and the meaning of the end are challenged to their core.

Claire North is a fine writer of astonishing novels. Each time I read one I wonder what on earth she will write next but yet again, with The End of the Day, Claire North proves that there is no limit to her extraordinary imagination and her powers to convey ideas and themes – both grand and intimate – that can stop you in your tracks. As always, at the heart of the novel is a figure very difficult to forget (with the exception, of course, of The Sudden Appearance of Hope) and Charlie is a marvellous creation. He takes his job very seriously indeed, he wants to do a good job, and he welcomes the opportunities it gives him, and his heart is open. Strangely, if there’s one character even more humane that Charlie in this novel it’s Death himself, or herself. When he or she isn’t angry, that is.

There is a relentless bleakness about some of the places Charlie visits, the experiences he must undergo and the suffering he witnesses. Everything that is wrong with the world can be found in these pages, whether referred to in asides or presented explicitly. And while some of it is driven by a fear of death and a need to understand it or bargain with it, much of it is the result of an evil that Charlie struggles to understand.

There are so many clever ideas in The End of the Day, some fascinating recurring themes, characters and references, all adding to the meaning of the book’s title. The end of the day – but for what? for whom? If I had to to look for a fault, for me this would be the inevitability of some of the places that we’re taken to, the conscious topicality of its themes and sins, and, as result, this isn’t my favourite Claire North novel (the competition for that title is intense). But this is a minor point indeed when one considers what a clever and heartfelt portrait of the world Claire North gives us and what a gift we have in the character of Charlie.

Despite the darkness, I was left with such a feeling of warmth and wonderful weirdness from this novel. Its approach to death is compassionate while people are shown to be possible of redemption and the end, when it comes, needn’t be feared. Charlie endures for us all – it’s powerful and very well done. Picking one word to describe Claire North’s novels isn’t easy but if I had to pick one, the word would be ingenious.

Other reviews
The First Fifteen Lives of Harry August
The Sudden Appearance of Hope

Luna: Wolf Moon by Ian McDonald (Luna 2)

Gollancz | 2017 (23 March) | 400p | Review copy | Buy the book

Luna: Wolf Moon by Ian McDonaldWolf Moon follows directly on the heels of its predecessor New Moon, and is the middle book of what is probably a trilogy. You really need to have read New Moon first. This review assumes that you have and also that you don’t mind hearing a little about the repercussions of the events of the first novel. Because they have been huge.

Five family corporations rule the Moon – five dragons. They are instinctively competitive and suspicious of each other, despite (perhaps even because of) the inter-marrying among these immensely powerful families. The Moon they control is a harsh place, its citizens living underground and undercover, the poorest in the stinking lower levels, and every one must pay for the air they breathe, however poor its quality. Everything about the Moon is hostile to mankind. It does all it can to kill the people who dare to live on, in or under it. But anyone who has lived there for two years or more has no choice but to risk it. Returning to Earth is not an option. The body has been so transformed by living on the Moon that the gravity of the Earth would be agonising and fatal. So people scramble to scratch a living. Except for the five dragon families who have it all. Or so they thought.

One of the five dragons is dead. The Corta Helio family has been destroyed, several of its members killed, its children scattered and its leader, Lucas, lost in space, presumed dead. Eighteen months have passed since the slaughter and the remaining dragons are jostling for supremacy and power, the Mackenzies mercilessly close to winning. But it isn’t that simple, there are divisions within the families, the Corta children are wriggling their way free from control, and it appears Lucas isn’t dead at all. Far from it, and there are things that he and his surviving children and nephews and nieces will do to survive that beggar belief. War is inevitable. It’s already here.

Luna: New Moon was one of the science fiction highlights of 2015 and I couldn’t wait to dive into Wolf Moon. It’s been eighteen months but New Moon remains as vivid as ever and Wolf Moon picks it up at full speed. It’s great to see some of these characters again, notably crotchety old Ariel Corta, the food- and sex-loving beauty Lucasinho, the fearless Robson (known for spectacular reasons as the boy who fell to Earth – although it was the surface of the Moon, not the Earth to which Robson fell), and then there’s Wagner, the moon wolf, possibly the most memorable of them all. But to counteract the warmth of some characters, others emanate cold evil, not least the revolting and predatory Bryce Mackenzie.

Amongst all the intrigue and plotting, there are some fantastic set pieces within Luna: Wolf Moon – there is the drama of some major catastrophes, there are nail biting scenes played out on the hostile surface of the Moon, on which life can be measured in seconds, there is Lucas’s almost suicidal determination to endure a journey to Earth that should kill him. And there are moments of great tenderness. In this society, where marriage is often a political or business tool, affection still survives and we see it here at its most kind, as well as as its worst. I did find it difficult to keep up with some of the novel’s more complicated developments, but knowing that another great scene or moment was just around the corner, around every corner, ensured I paid close attention.

There are a couple of things that I had issue with, mostly involving Lucasinho. At one stage he reels off a monologue about cake that seems to go on forever and I could have done without hearing all the explicit details of his sex life. This is a society in which attitudes towards gender, love and sex are fluid and that I found fascinating and sensitively handled, but Lucasinho did test my patience, despite my affection for him. His transformation is a particular strength of the novel. The book closes with a full dramatis personae and I found this very useful indeed, so much so that I copied it out and stuffed it in my kindle case. It is hard keeping track of the family members and their ties to the other families. This list helped with that enormously.

Luna: Wolf Moon is a fabulous, richly-layered vision of life on the Moon in the not too distant future. This is worldbuilding at its finest and the locations, whether in the Moon habitants, or on the surface of the Moon, or travelling to and from Earth, are drawn so well. It’s immersive and very rewarding. Although Wolf Moon is a middle novel, it didn’t really feel like that, possibly thanks to its strong ending, which allows for more storytelling but doesn’t insist on it. But knowing that there is more on the way is a very good thing indeed.

Other review
Luna: New Moon

The Collapsing Empire by John Scalzi

Tor | 2017 (23 March) | 333p | Review copy | Buy the book

The Collapsing Empire by John ScalziMankind has spread out from Earth, dispersed by the Flow, extra-dimensional pathways that move between planets, connecting worlds. The settlers have no say in which planets will be connected. They are randomly ‘selected’ and at great distances from one another. They are also largely uninhabitable, with humans having to live in sealed habitats underground, relying on other planets along the Flow for resources. As a result, the Interdependency has developed. The Interdependency controls trade between the Flow, the movement of power and wealth, and is ruled by the Emperox, who works in tandem with the other institutions of the empire’s establishment – the Church, the politicians, the guilds and the military. But Earth itself is barely even a memory. The Flow might seem stable and constant but it isn’t. Long ago Earth was lost when the Flow shifted. And now the signs indicate that the Flow might be about to undergo an even more drastic change, a change that could throw each colony along its course into an isolation that would mean its death.

The Interdependency has a new Emperox. Based on the capital planet of Hub, the Emperox is finding her new role difficult, relying on the memories of her ancestors to help her along. Rival noble families are becoming dangerously powerful. One planet, the most dismal of them all, and appropriately named End (it is the furthest planet along the Flow from Hub), is under attack from rebels and is threatened by all-out war. Terrorists, pirates and traitors are everywhere. The Emperox has no idea who to trust. But all of these problems fade away when she learns of the greatest threat facing the Interdependency. She becomes driven by her one goal – to save mankind.

I loved the sound of The Collapsing Empire and was keen to read it as soon as I heard about it but I had no idea just what kind of world I was about to enter. This is one of those rare treats of a book that I fell in love with on the very first page and my love didn’t fade from that page on. The story is absolutely fantastic and fully lives up to its glorious premise. Wormholes, conspiracies, colony planets, angry nobles, battles, pirates, impending apocalypse, sin and rage – all of these are promised and many more and each is delivered. I couldn’t lap it up fast enough.

Quite apart from the story which, as I say, is brilliant and never lets up from first to last page, John Scalzi gives us the best of characters. And I say ‘best’ but actually some of these people are the worst. But their bad behaviour is so well developed, I found I loved to hate them. Most of the baddies have a saving grace or two, even if it’s just how audacious their plotting is, or how extraordinarily deluded they are. But the characters I enjoyed the most are the Emperox and, supremely, the outrageous, foul-mouthed Kiva, the daughter of one of the largest and most powerful families and an absolute joy to accompany through this adventure. While the Emperox has the most to worry about, Kiva undoubtedly gets the best lines.

I love John Scalzi’s writing as much as I love his imagination – the prose is so easy to get along with, so descriptive and perceptive, but, above all, it is so witty! There are some great lines in these pages and they are delivered by some enormous personalities. And so the superb worldbuilding meets its match in the quality of the dialogue. All of this makes me realise that I mustn’t neglect Scalzi’s Old Man’s War series any longer.

The Collapsing Empire is hugely thrilling and very fast. It’s undoubtedly a pageturner. It does have a great ending (matching the superb beginning) but I was so relieved to see ‘Book 1’ written on the novel’s spine (I only spotted this as I finished it). This can only mean there will be a Book 2 and I was crying out for it as this first book came to its exhilarating end. Do not miss this!

Other review
Lock In

New York 2140 by Kim Stanley Robinson

Orbit | 2017 (16 March) | 632p | Review copy | Buy the book

New York 2140 by Kim Stanley RobinsonThe New York City of 2140 has been transformed by the First Pulse and then the Second Pulse of flooding, two catastrophic events which announced more clearly than anything that had gone before that Earth was well into its latest mass extinction level event. The environmental disaster was matched by financial collapse and political exploitation – most human life is now centred on the planet’s cities where it can be managed but many of the greatest cities are coastal, their streets flooded into canals, their skyscrapers towering like cliffs above the water, linked by high pathways, boats weaving around their roots. With land more valuable than ever before, the poorest live the most precarious lives in the intertidal zone where the collapse of old inundated buildings is a constant risk.

In New York’s flooded Lower Manhattan the skyscrapers are now themselves self-contained, self-sufficient cities, in which communities eat together and live closely. Everyone must contribute to the building’s well-being and productivity. The Met is one such tower and in it live people of every different type whose primary duty is for the good of the building, whether they care for its infrastructure, fixing its leaks, working its farms, dealing with waste, feeding one’s neighbours, putting a roof over everyone’s head, or governing its population, or entertaining them, perhaps occasionally saving their lives.

In New York 2140 Kim Stanley Robinson tells the story of the Met during a period of two or three years of crisis through the lives of a handful of people who live within its creaking walls. The novel moves between them, carrying on these separate stories, which sometimes collide but all contribute to the whole, which is a vivid and rich portrait of a building and a city during this extraordinary period of man’s descent into extinction. This isn’t an apocalyptic tale nor, as it informs us, one for happy endings. There are no endings. This is a portrait of life trying to continue in the face of disaster. There are triumphs and there is hope – mankind is not an easy species to write off – but running through the novel is a commentary, overt and explicit in places, about the damage that has been and is being done to our planet.

The grand progression of the novel is frequently interrupted by some fascinating interludes – Amelia (the star of the cloud – a kind of YouTube star of the future) who spends much of her time aboard her airship, the Assisted Migration, trying to save the lives of the world’s endangered species, all in front of the cameras; Stefan and Roberto are two boys who constantly endanger themselves while diving for treasure; Mutt and Jeff find themselves caught up in a conspiracy that threatens them all; Charlotte is the manager of the Met trying to fend off a hostile bid to buy the building. And then there’s Franklin, surely the most selfish of them all, who seems to find himself constantly in the position of having to save Stefan and Roberto, when really all he wants to do is impress the glamorous Jojo. No easy task because, well, it’s quite clear, she doesn’t like him.

The shadow of finance and business looms over the events of the novel every bit as much as the environmental message. Man continues to inflict evil and he can do this in other ways than melting the ice caps. I must be honest and admit that I did get a little lost in some of this talk of hedge funds and so on and, for me, it all went on a bit too much. But I am a complete ignoramus when it comes to finance and numbers and so this inevitably left me cold. The human stories on the other hand were fascinating and the world building is superb – this is such an immersive read, rich in layers of life and experience. While reading it, I couldn’t shake it from my mind.

New York 2140, like so many of Kim Stanley Robinson’s novels, is clever, thought-provoking, memorable and absorbing. So many types of people can be found here, their motivations, relationships, hopes and fears shaping their lives. Instead of spaceships (as in Aurora), people are confined within a stranded city within a city, and instead of the Ice Age (as in Shaman), we have a new world evolving under environmental strain. Yet again, Kim Stanley Robinson takes the themes that fascinate him – the environment, the climate, man as a political animal – and places them in an original setting. Everything here is designed to make the reader think while being entertained. These are big themes and the overall message is, arguably, rather bleak, but it is dealt with with humour and kindness as well as with a warning finger.

A new Kim Stanley Robinson novel is always an event and New York 2140 shows yet again why. And what a fantastic cover!

Other reviews

The Return by Joseph Helmreich

Thomas Dunne Books | 2017 (ebook: 14 March; Hb: 14 March in US, 14 April in UK) | 248p | Review copy | Buy the book: UK, US

The Return by Joseph HelmreichIt’s a slow news day that brings TV news journalist Bill Allenby to the Bernasconi Hills in Southern California to report on a lunar eclipse. It’s a rare one because it coincides with the winter solstice and so Bill has a special guest for the occasion – Andrew Leland, a self-promoting ‘watered-down’ scientist who was once, many years ago, regarded as the heir to Stephen Hawking. It all goes well until Allenby notices a green spot against the now re-emerged Moon and it is getting bigger and bigger. Everyone runs except for Leland, who, before the eyes of the cameras, rises into the sky and is abducted by a giant spaceship, not to be seen again for six years but most definitely having left quite an impression on the TV audience.

When Leland turns up again six years later, walking in the desert, he denies the entire experience. But that doesn’t stop his extraordinary fame, not to mention his influence in converting hordes of people from conventional religion into another type entirely, one that has more to do with the stars and aliens than with heaven. Young scientist, and drop-out, Shawn Ferris is obsessed by Leland. He believes that he can do what nobody else can – make Leland talk about what really happened during those missing years. And so Shawn hunts Leland down. Unfortunately, he’s not the only one. A secret organisation is after Leland and soon they want Shawn, too. It’s not long before both men are on the run together and Shawn realises just how big the stakes are. The mystery remains to be solved, though – what did happen to Andrew Leland on that hilltop in California?

It’s difficult to imagine a premise more enticing than the one that made me so desperate to read The Return – alien abductions, spaceships, strange technology, a splash of science, secret organisations, conspiracies, people on the run…. This book ticks all the right boxes for me and I dived into it as soon as it arrived.

On the whole, I think that The Return lived up to that promise. I found it very well written, with some interesting turns of phrase that were at times quite poignant and full of meaning. Whatever happens to Leland and Shawn through this novel has consequences for themselves and for others. There’s a sense that what is happening is of greater significance than individual lives, but to my mind I found an even larger sense that individual lives matter more than ever, and some here are discarded in ways I found extremely sad. I’m not often moved in a science fiction thriller but there were a few occasions here when I really was. This is also because I came to feel quite invested in the main characters, especially Shawn and someone else that I didn’t expect to care for at all at the beginning. I’m giving nothing more away – read it to meet these people. Leland is unknowable – and I think that’s part of the point.  I found it hard to engage with him, perhaps my only issue with the novel, but I’m sure Shawn would say the same thing.

But the main mood here is one of thrills as we pursue the hunt for Leland across much of the United States and Alicante in Spain (I particularly enjoyed the latter as I was there myself only last month!). It’s exciting stuff and I didn’t want to put it down at all. I thoroughly enjoyed The Return. I loved the story and the people caught up in it and I really, really wanted to know what happens!

The Weight of the World by Tom Toner

Gollancz | 2017 (16 February) | 478p | Review copy | Buy the book

The Weight of the World by Tom TonerThe Weight of the World continues the extraordinary Amaranthine Spectrum series that began in such spectacular, wondrous style with The Promise of the Child. Don’t even think about reading The Weight of the World without having read The Promise of the Child first. This is not a series to dip in and out of. This is a series to lose yourself in, to become enchanted, to fall lost in wonder through its myriad of worlds, marvelling at its wealth of species, both grotesque and beautiful. This review assumes you’ve read The Promise of the Child first. If you haven’t, don’t deny yourself the pleasure any longer.

It is the 147th century. Mankind as we know it has evolved into a range of forms we would barely recognise, some even a hybrid of man and animal. But humans were not the only hominids to originate on Earth that evolved and settled across the Galaxy, living within hollowed out planets and moons – there were others and their legacy is astonishing, terrifying and utterly fascinating. A few humans, though, have survived the millennia as the Amaranthine, immortals with great power, with memories of a distant human past. But immortal they might be in theory, in practice all too often they end their lives in madness and despair, crushed and altered by the weight of time. Once the Amaranthine were revered across the worlds. But now their innate cruelty is revealed, their domains shrinking as war divides the Galaxy and other species compete for glory. Some believe that the longest lived of them all might be the one to save the Amaranthine. Others are more wise.

The Weight of the World continues where The Promise of the Child left off, throwing us back into the heart of the fight for supremacy and knowledge. Lycaste, a beautiful giant, an inhabitant of the Old World or Earth, continues on his mission to discover himself and put right a wrong he believes he has committed. Having left the home planet behind, he journeys with the Amaranthine Maneker (and a rather cantankerous Vulgar), not quite sure where he is being led. Back on the Old World, Lycaste’s old friends, the sisters Eranthis and Pentas, are on an extraordinary journey of their own in the company of another Amaranthine, Jatropha. They carry with them the hope for the future in the shape of Pentas’ baby. But the destiny of the child is far from clear and its burden is immense. This will be a dangerous journey. They will be hunted.

These are the two main narratives of The Weight of the World but there are several more, some of which take up rich swathes of the novel, providing other perspectives of the war and giving us insight into the great mystery at the heart of the Amaranthine Firmament. Each of these strands takes us to different planets and starships. The variety is immense and they each come alive due to the sheer quality of Tom Toner’s imagination and writing prowess. World building doesn’t come better than this. I really believe that. The things we see and experience! Some of it is utterly horrible, even gruesome; some of it is frightening (the scratch of claws in the dark); some is light and bewitching – there may be evil but with it comes love, not to mention humour and wit. Creatures who have lived for millennia have seen it all. There are also moments here that filled me with awe and wonder.

There is no doubt at all that this is proving a complicated, multi-layered story. I needed the glossary of names and places, that’s for sure (plus the catch up summary at the beginning). And the size of that glossary hints at just how much variety and breadth there is in these pages. But while it took me about a third of The Promise of the Child to grasp its wonder, there was no such delay with The Weight of the World. I was hooked from the very beginning. We haven’t yet reached the stage of the series in which we can find resolutions and there are as many questions as answers but I love the ways in which it’s heading as well as its pace which allows us the time to explore.

Tom Toner paints his characters and worlds beautifully, even when they’re at their ugliest. This is a clever, ambitious, inventive, wondrous series, brilliantly executed, that leaves me wanting more and soon. It might be only February but this is the science fiction novel to beat this year and it most certainly won’t be easy.

Other review
The Promise of the Child

Six Wakes by Mur Lafferty

Orbit US | 2017 | 352p | Review copy | Buy the book

Six Wakes by Mur LaffertyThe starship Dormire is bound for the planet Artemis, a paradise virgin planet that will be colonised by the ship’s sleeping cargo of thousands of humans. Watched over by the AI, named IAN, the ship is crewed by three men and three women. Not quite human, the six are clones whose bodies can be rebooted at lifelong intervals during this long voyage through the stars. But something terrible has happened. All six awake at the same time, reborn in the cloning tanks, and around them in the zero gravity float the slaughtered, murdered corpses of their clone predecessors – themselves.

The six soon realise that years have passed and none of them has the memories of what has happened. But the ship is off course, the AI is disabled and the food printer produces only hemlock. There can be no doubt – one of the six is a murderer. But which? It could be any of them for not only are all six clones, they are all criminals and each has secrets to hide.

Six Wakes is a fantastic, brilliantly imagined and executed novel, combining science fiction with crime mystery and doing such a good job of both. We have a small group of suspects, confined together in a completely isolated environment, and every one of them has a motive. But it’s much more complicated than that because of the added clone dimension. Some of these people have lived for hundreds of years, witness to the struggle of clones to achieve legal status and all too aware of the ways in which clones have been abused and manipulated. Each of them has a story to tell and we hear them, interspersed throughout the novel, and this mix of past and present adds such depth and curiosity to the murder mystery at its heart.

The characters are great! Each has a distinct voice and they are so fascinating. We know that each is a criminal but this is much more subtle than that. There are reasons for what they’ve done. And this means that our sympathies are torn. Good and evil aren’t quite as simple in this world and in this extraordinary place.

The cloning aspect of the novel is compelling and clever. It mixes politics and ethics with something much more human and also much more devious. I love the way in which the stories from the past throw light on the present and it’s such a rounded world, even though we see most of it from within the claustrophobic confines of the Dormire, only escaping in the flashbacks to the past.

The mystery element is just as successful as the science fiction and we are caught throughout in twisty traps and surprises. I don’t think I guessed any of it. The atmosphere is sustained throughout and I loved its mood. There are characters here I won’t forget in a hurry. Six Wakes isn’t currently published in the UK but you can buy the import paperback (linked to at the head of the post). I really recommend it as this well-written novel is one of the most enjoyable science fiction and mystery tales I’ve read in quite a while.