Category Archives: Sci Fi

Persepolis Rising by James S.A. Corey

Orbit | 2017 (7 December) | 549p | Review copy | Buy the book

The Expanse is, with no doubt at all, my favourite current science fiction series. I’m not talking about the TV series but the books. I love them. I have been known to hug them. For years now they’ve been going straight to the top of my reading pile and Persepolis Rising, the seventh, was no different. I daresay you could read Persepolis Rising as a standalone if you really wanted to but you’d miss out on so much. Holden, Naomi, Amos, Alex, Bobbie…. I love these people. This review assumes you do too.

About thirty years have passed since the events of Babylon’s Ashes. The solar system and the hundreds of colonies on the other side of alien ring gates are enjoying an uneasy but much welcomed peace. Survival on the colonies isn’t easy. Many are just one supply vessel away from collapse. Controlling traffic through the gates is key. And so these days the business of government isn’t done by presidents and politicians as much as it is by trade companies – the Transport Union to be precise. It’s the job of Holden and his crew aboard the Rocinante to police their laws. But the past is about to come back to haunt them.

The distant colony of Laconia disappeared from the attention of humanity thirty years ago. It has been forgotten. But now it is back, with the power and technology to support its ambition, which is immense. It comes at a bad time for Holden and Naomi. They were hoping to settle down to a peaceful retirement, on some paradise shore with cocktails. But at times of crisis Holden has always been called upon and now is no different. The stakes though are extraordinarily high. Laconia may not be aware what it has unleashed.

Each of the Expanse novels is different – they have moved along the story of the protomolecule and the ring gates in the most original and varied way. Their perspective shifts from the intimate to the universal. Persepolis Rising is equally original. For the first time in the series we have shifted forwards by decades. Holden and his crew have changed and we have to catch up with each of them. And the novel does that wonderfully. As always with these books, chapters shift between characters – not just between the members of the Roci crew but also between the other influential personalities of the novel, including the intriguing Governor Singh from Laconia. We are shown all sides and opinions. But just when we become comfortable with certain characters, we’re given a shock.

But the big strength of this novel, as with the others, is the portrayal of the Roci crew. The authors treat our heroes with great warmth and care. I love the crews aboard the Enterprise, Voyager and Discovery, and I love the crew of the Rocinante every bit as much. And now they’re all that little bit older. This adds something new. Some other well loved characters also make cameo appearances, I’m very pleased to say!

The plot of these novels has come a long way since the outstanding Leviathan Wakes. The plot here is deliciously complex and deep. There are hints of something ominous. The mystery surrounding the creators of the protomolecule and those other aliens who wiped them out builds. Every time I read one of these novels I’m left intensely anticipating the next book in the series. There are answers out there somewhere. The books are so satisfying to read while they also tantalise. I love this intensity as much as I love the worldbuilding, which is fabulous. Much of the action here is set aboard a space station and we’re left in no doubt as to what it’s like to live on it – cramped, smelly, dangerous, isolated, vibrant, exciting. The action sequences are as thrilling as ever.

Persepolis Rising is a superb addition to this fantastic series. It’s an immersive reading experience, particularly for those with any kind of affection for Holden and his crew. I find it incredible that the two authors who combine to make James S.A. Corey can maintain this momentum and originality year after year but they do. Likewise the quality of the writing is always tremendously high. Persepolis Rising is one of the very best of the series. It marks a new beginning in some ways, due to the years that have passed, but it points clearly ahead and I can’t wait to see what happens next.

Other reviews
Leviathan Wakes (Expanse 1)
Caliban’s War (Expanse 2)
Cibola Burn (Expanse 4)
Nemesis Games (Expanse 5)
Babylon’s Ashes (Expanse 6)

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Year One by Nora Roberts

Piatkus | 2017 (5 December) | 419p | Review copy | Buy the book

Year One by Nora RobertsWhen Ross MacLeod shoots a pheasant dead and its body falls to the ground in the centre of an ancient stone circle in Dumfries in Scotland, he has no way of knowing that he has sealed the fate of not just himself but of billions of people around the world. He and his brother and cousin are with their wives in a farmhouse miles from their homes in New York City, celebrating the New Year in fine and traditional fashion. But when Ross and Angie fly home to the States they carry with them an illness that the world will soon know as the Doom. It is merciless in its greed and ferocity.

But not everybody dies. As the world collapses around them, a few live on and they are helped in their survival by new and strange abilities. Some when they touch another person can sense their future, some can fly, some can move objects, some can create power and light. But there are others who have the power of darkness. Magic has returned to the land and with it hope but also danger.

Year One is a bewitching novel in so many ways. On one level it is a very good apocalyptic tale and, even though it is caused by disease, as one character declares, this is no zombie apocalypse. Phew! The chapters that describe the world’s descent into this chaos of death and fear are superb. It’s not only engrossing, it’s also emotional. We meet a great many characters in this novel and all of them have a tale of tragedy to tell. Surviving an apocalypse is as hard as succumbing to it.

There is a strong magic element and I thought that this might be a hurdle I couldn’t overcome. I’m not a reader of fantasy and I particularly don’t read novels about magic, fairies and elves. But it’s integrated so well into what feels like reality that I found myself accepting every word of it. The magic doesn’t take over and generally it feels like another symptom of the disease and not otherworldly. Nevertheless there is something unworldly here but I loved how it’s done. It’s also fascinating to listen in to the discussions on how this came about. While one person might argue that the rest of the population were wiped out as a kind of cleansing and these new superhuman beings were born as a result, another believes that these new superhuman beings have been created as a source of hope for the continued survival of humanity. This element of hope is such a critical part of the mood of Year One. There is a sense that mankind is inherently good while it is clear that a few human beings are wrapped in sin.

I love the cast of Year One. We follow several small groups of people as they make their way to a safe place in the United States. The journeys are arduous, harrowing and packed with adventure. They’re so compelling. You have to keep your wits about you to remember who is in which group but so many of these people are three-dimensional with an interesting tale to tell. And the relationships between them are enthralling and moving.

Year One is the first novel in a new series – Chronicles of the One – and this did lead to my one issue with the novel. The ending, without giving anything away, wasn’t entirely satisfactory due to the number of loose ends that are left untied, the people that we leave in the lurch, as the focus narrows to follow just one person. I’m hoping that the answers will be provided in the next novel in the series. I’m so desperate to know.

But, above all else, Year One is an engrossing and original apocalyptic vision that takes an intriguing look into the future of a new form of humanity. I haven’t read any Nora Roberts’ novels before and I understand that this one is a little different from her usual fare. It certainly has me hooked.

Artemis by Andy Weir

Ebury/Del Rey | 2017 (14 November) | 320p | Review copy | Buy the book

Artemis by Andy WeirLife isn’t so easy for the poor in Artemis – the Moon’s one city. While the rich inhabitants and the excited tourists enjoy a pleasuredome of delights and privilege (complete with organised tours of the Apollo XI landing site), those who serve them in some way are lucky if they live in a room large enough to stand up in. Jazz Bashara, who’s lived on the Moon since she was six years old, doesn’t. She scrapes a living as a porter, delivering items from the cargo and tourist ships that regularly arrive from Earth, and supplementing that income with a good old-fashioned activity – smuggling.

Jazz has her dreams and to fulfil them she needs lots of ‘slugs’ (or money). One day one of her reliable wealthy clients offers Jazz the job of a lifetime. It goes beyond smuggling. It could get her into serious trouble, perhaps even deported to her family’s original home in Saudi Arabia, but the money sings. Jazz can’t say no. It’s not long before she wishes she had.

Artemis is the highly anticipated second novel by Andy Weir, author of The Martian. The wonderful and original The Martian is a very hard act to follow and the author has his work cut out. In some ways he pulls it off – the world building is fantastic. Just as he had made us experience the hostile surface of Mars, now we see what life could be like perched on the Moon’s surface in enclosed bubble domed cities, underground, in spacesuits, in tunnels and in its bars. It’s a claustrophobic and dangerous world (Moon dust can slowly kill) but it’s also exotic and beautiful – and it has a strong pride in its lunar history.

It isn’t just the landscape and environment that are visualised so powerfully – the society is also made real, complex and intimidating. Politics, economics, greed, science, innovation and inequality all play their part in shaping life in Artemis. While there isn’t much violence, there’s a sense that it may only be a matter of time. Once the shine has worn off.

Jazz is surrounded by a host of interesting characters, all with their own conflicts, hidden feelings and motivations, and many, but by no means all, are drawn towards Jazz. I really enjoyed some of these characters and if anything I wished we learned more about them. Jazz, however, I didn’t get along with so well. She’s supposed to be 26 years old but you wouldn’t know it unless you were told. She appeared to me as a stereotype of how a man might think a teenage girl might think and behave. This sounds harsh but I was really disappointed in her character and in the way she was written. Fortunately, the others around her gave me more to like.

My biggest issue with Artemis, though, is with its dialogue. At times I literally cringed at the juvenile squirmy jokes which are constant. The long-running joke about testing a condom wears thin (in a manner of speaking) as well. There’s a lot of talk about sex while nobody actually has it. Perhaps it’s to remind us that these young people are adults instead of the teens you’d assume they are. None of this dialogue seems realistic for a 26-year-old woman. A few characters – such as the police officer Rudy – speak with maturity but when they do they sound like parents chiding a child.

It’s difficult not to compare Artemis with The Martian, especially as I loved The Martian so much. As I say, there are aspects of Artemis that I really enjoyed, particularly with the visualisation of its setting and the composition of its society and rules, but, as a whole, I was disappointed by Artemis not least because I had such high and possibly unrealistic hopes. Those hopes, though, will carry me on to his next novel. I must say, though, that the cover of Artemis is spectacular!

Other review
The Martian

Places in the Darkness by Chris Brookmyre

Orbit | 2017 (9 November) | 416p | Review copy | Buy the book

Places in the Darkness by Chris BrookmyreCiudad de Cielo (CdC) is the City in the Sky, humanity’s gateway to the stars – or at least that is the intention. Located many thousands of kilometres above Earth, CdC is a space station comprising two enormous Wheels that whirl around a central trunk, each Wheel the home to thousands of men and women. Their mission is to create and construct the first of the generation starships that will carry mankind to a new home. There are no children. Everyone on CdC has a place and a purpose, an inspiration, and so there is no serious crime. That is the official line.

In reality CdC is also known to its inhabitants as Seedee, a fitting name indeed. While the prosperous enjoy comfort and space in Wheel Two, the rest are squeezed into Wheel One and life thrives behind doors, in bars, clubs, brothels, gambling dens, gardens of sin. Contraband alcohol is the currency of choice and competition for the good stuff is fierce. Two club-owning gangsters are fighting a turf war but, when one of their men is murdered horribly, the authorities are most concerned that news of it doesn’t reach Earth. Wheel One is policed by the Seguridad and Nicola Freeman is one of their sergeants. She’s the perfect choice to investigate the murder, not because she’s a fine detective but because, if there’s a pie, you can be sure Nikki Fixx has got her finger in it. Unfortunately, Nikki has been given a partner, a young and new arrival to CdC, Jessica Cho, a formal observer from Earth’s Federation of National Governments and a walking rule book. And nothing at all as she seems.

Chris Brookmyre is a familiar name in crime fiction for his Jack Parlabane novels (I loved Black Widow). Now he looks to the future and the claustrophobic, dangerous and exhilarating space station of CdC. As soon as I heard about Places in the Darkness I was desperate to read it. Its premise is fantastic. But what I discovered in these pages is something even better than that.

The worldbuilding in Places in the Darkness is jaw droppingly brilliant. It is immediately striking, vivid, dark, chaotic but also strangely appealing. And this is all summed up by the character of Nikki Fixx. She is dangerous to know, undoubtedly hated by many for good reason, corrupt, venal and at times extremely unpleasant. But we’re never entirely allowed to believe the worst, even when we watch her bulldoze her way through other people’s lives. Watching Nikki and watching the underworld of Seedee get through each one of its strange days is compelling. It’s violent and thirsty, sex-driven and greedy. But somehow it works. Until the murder happens and it’s soon clear that this odd world is about to be turned upside down.

The character of Nikki is offset by Jessica and, as the novel went on, I began to like her just as much as Nikki. This is helped by the pacey, present-tense narrative shifting between the two. Sometimes events overlap slightly as we see them from both perspectives. We’re not let into all the secrets by any means – and there are an awful lot of those. It’s as if we’re slowly allowed into Nikki’s confidence just as we’re slowly acquainted with Jessica.

The pace builds and before you know it we’re aboard a runaway train. Places in the Darkness is tremendously exciting. Full of surprises, deadly chases and dark conspiracies, all taking place in the contrasting shadows and artificial light of Ciudad de Cielo. When I reached the end I was surprised at how far this book had taken me. It’s not a straightforward journey but it is most certainly thrilling. This is one of the best science fiction crime novels I’ve read in a long time – with the best of characters, story and mood – and I can only hope that Chris Brookmyre takes us into orbit or beyond again.

Other review

Black Widow

Austral by Paul McAuley

Gollancz | 2017 (19 October) | 276p | Review copy and bought copy | Buy the book

Austral by Paul McAuleyAustral is a husky, a genetically-edited person, moulded to fit to life in the extreme environment of the Antarctic – bigger, faster, stronger than others who view her and those like her with hostility and fear. Austral is also the child of ecopoets, the engineers who have reworked land, plants and animals to survive. The planet has warmed and the northern islands and coasts of Antarctica have been transformed by forests and cities. The focus of the world has shifted southwards.

There are few jobs for huskies like Austral. She is a guard in a prison, far from settlement, who spends her days leading teams of prisoners outside to build and construct. But at this edge of the world, the distinction between prisoner and guard is blurred, most particularly between Austral and her prison’s most dangerous criminal Keever. But the arrival of an influential politician and his daughter throws the prison into turmoil, offering opportunities, dangers and the chance of escape.

Austral is a beautifully written novel, which portrays in stark and stunning terms the new frontier of Antarctica. It’s warming up but not fast enough for Austral. Much of the novel is a pursuit across this country and it couldn’t be more harsh. The adventure that Austral undergoes is so well evoked. It feels dangerous. It’s full of traps, barriers and extreme cold. The story is told by Austral as if she were dictating it and this gives us the humanity of someone who is regarded as less than human. It also internalises her conflict.

Throughout the novel we’re presented with interludes, passages which give us something of Austral’s past – and therefore revealing more about the magical concept of the ecopoets – and also another fairytale strand. I could have done without the latter – it was too much of a distraction. But I did enjoy the look into the past.

Austral tells a disturbing story – it’s grim, cold and at times very sad. There were bits that I found upsetting. But it is warmed by the characters of Austral and also Kamilah, another memorable personality. And they contrast with the brutes. But, for me, the strength of the novel isn’t in the characters or even in the story – I couldn’t help preserving some detachment from both – but in the astonishing worldbuilding. I loved the mix of Antarctica as it always has been and as it is being made, complete with mammoths.

On a minor point, I read a great many science fiction series and trilogies. It made such a change – and a pleasant one, too – to read a novel that is complete in itself. Even if this is a world to which Paul McAuley returns in the future, Austral is whole. And what a gorgeous cover!

Other review
Something Coming Through

America City by Chris Beckett

Corvus | 2017 (2 November) | 357p | Review copy | Buy the book

America City by Chris BeckettOne hundred years or so from now, the world is suffering the effects of climate change and insular politics. After years of observing crises in other countries, to whom their borders are closed, it’s now the turn of America to suffer. The East coast is bombarded by devastating superstorms while the South and Southwest have been reduced to dustbowls. A mass migration north by so-called dusties and barreduras is underway and the north is hardly opening its arms in welcome. There is no bigger subject for debate in American politics and one man is grabbing the headlines – Senator Steve Slaymaker. The other parties scramble but Slaymaker’s grandiose schemes for resettlement provide the perfect ammunition for his campaign for the White House. And by his side is PR supremo Holly, a woman with principles. How far is she prepared to go to compromise them?

America City presents a realistic and really rather horrifying portrait of the near future – one that can be envisioned very easily from the state of things we face today. We’re told that America has endured several wars over the decades since the Tyranny. It doesn’t take too much imagination to know what that was all about. But, although the focus is on America, we’re given glimpses of elsewhere and they’re just as terrifying. The coast of Britain we learn is guarded by cannon. America is relatively prosperous and isolationist. Its neighbours tremble.

This is science fiction, despite its message, and it is full of very enjoyable futuristic technology – for instance, cars that drive themselves, dirigibles (drigs), and an elaborate ‘internet’ that is transmitted through one’s crystal (perfect for political pollsters). But there have also been big social changes. America has a new class system and its ruling classes are the elite delicados and nobody embodies this more than Holly and her writer-husband, Rick. Delicados are privileged. They don’t have to make the sacrifices that they preach and they can afford to be tolerant and generous. The poor and the homeless can’t. Senator Slaymaker has the valuable ability to straddle these classes. But how much of it is manufactured by Holly?

America City is a beautifully-written novel, as you’d expect from Chris Beckett, the author of that most eloquent and gorgeous novel Dark Eden. Its language is creative, visual and still light. As demonstrated so cleverly in Dark Eden and its successors, Beckett is a master of language and this is put to good use again here. Language and what people say, as opposed to what they mean, is a strong theme in America City. It’s almost a game. But not for the homeless and the landless.

The novel squeezes its focus for much of the time to a small group of people, representing each of the classes that Slaymaker and Holly must aim to persuade. We move between them. But the heart of the novel lies with Holly and Richard and their small group of friends. It’s as if Holly’s internal debate has been externalised. The extraordinary and charismatic figure of Slaymaker shadows over them all.

America City presents such an engrossing portrait of America’s potential future environmental challenges and political debate. There is an element of preaching going on here and, as one of the converted, there was a risk of it going on too much but this is largely prevented by the novel’s clever mix of quiet personal drama and national catastrophe. It’s all so real and so possible. I did find it a little depressing. I can’t imagine how I wouldn’t. But I also found it extremely difficult to put it down and I was hooked by the quality of its language. Above all else, this is a terrifying depiction of a future that may be inevitable if we carry on as we are. It’s not overly dramatic and that’s what makes it all the more frightening – it happens piece by piece until the disasters become another part of life while many of the world’s animal and plant species disappear one by one.

America City certainly made me think – and worry – but it also reminded me what a superb writer Chris Beckett is and how imaginative is his use of language, how vivid his vision.

Other reviews
Dark Eden
Mother of Eden
Daughter of Eden

Forbidden Suns by D. Nolan Clark

Orbit | 2017 (19 October) | 593p | Review copy | Buy the book

Forbidden Suns by D Nolan ClarkForbidden Suns completes the Silence trilogy begun with Forsaken Skies and continuing on with Forgotten Worlds. You really don’t want to read Forbidden Suns – or this review – without having read the others. This review assumes you know what has gone on before.

Ashlay Bullam is prepared to follow Aleister Lanoe to the end of the universe in her determination to see this elderly war hero known as the Blue Devil – and her bitter enemy – dead. And when she orders her mad captain to follow Lanoe’s vessel through a wormhole she might as well have done just that. For as the wormhole disintegrates around them they find themselves many thousands of light years from home. But Lanoe has more on his mind that Bullam. He is on the hunt for the alien species that wants to destroy humanity, just as it has killed every other intelligent species it has encountered over the last hundreds of millions of years. There is nothing he won’t do to achieve his goal. There is nothing he won’t demand of his crew to make it happen.

Forbidden Suns follows on directly from Forgotten Worlds but this time the action takes place far from the Galaxy’s human colonies and far from the war between the Navy (fought for by Lanoe) and Centrocor (represented by Bullam). Not that this means that they can’t bring it with them. They are now deep inside the territory of the Blue-Blue-White and its immense alienness and danger menaces them in every direction. But Lanoe wants more than to stop these fearful creatures, he wants revenge and it couldn’t be more personal. With very little chance of ever making it home again, the Navy and Centrocor crews will have to work together to survive but the greatest danger they face may well come, not from the alien enemy, but from one of their own.

This is such a powerful trilogy. I’ve become heavily invested in its characters, most especially the wonderful Valk, an AI unlike any other, Ehta (the pilot afraid of flying) and Ginger, whose sacrifice is unequalled and truly terrifying. We have watched these people’s relationships evolve as they’ve faced the utmost danger head on, time after time. There are others who provoke more ambiguous feelings, notably Bullam and Maggs but even they have redeeming features (although I’m not sure I’d say the same for the wonderful creation of Captain Shulkin). In Forgotten Worlds we were introduced to the extraordinary Chorus aliens and, I’m pleased to say, they continue to play a role here. But at the heart of this novel is Lanoe and Valk as well as the brave pilots whose dogfights in this most hostile and remote expanse of space are both exhilaratingly thrilling and deadly.

Forgotten Worlds is a very hard act to follow. I loved this novel, most especially for its depiction of such strange aliens and worlds. It had the fantastic feel of a First Contact novel while also throwing us into the heart of a war that appears almost impossible to win. It contained so much of the wonder that I love with science fiction. Forbidden Suns is a different kettle of fish and that’s largely due to the transformation in Lanoe’s character. He hasn’t been the easiest man to like at the best of times but in this final novel any liking I did have was fully extinguished. This change in attitude is a major theme of the novel, as is the continued fascinating transformation of Valk, but that does mean that I was distanced from the book in a way that I haven’t experienced before with this trilogy.

There is much here that is grim, tragic and sad. There’s also bitterness, anger, desperation and madness. We see this time after time and what some characters must endure is unbearable. The substantial length of the novel makes the gloom difficult to cope with at times. But I have so much invested time in these characters and the author has brought me so deeply into their inner torment that I had to see it through. The author has room enough to delve deeply into these conflicts and create a universe in which so much is at stake. But for me it was a little too dark and claustrophobic, especially in comparison with the previous novels. I must also mention that I didn’t like the end at all.

So I am a little conflicted. I have loved this trilogy and Forbidden Suns went straight to the top of my reading pile as soon as it arrived. I really enjoy D. Nolan Clark’s writing and his ability to create three-dimensional characters and fully involved relationships between them, even when they are surrounded and consumed by military conflict. These are exciting books, Forbidden Suns is no different, with plenty of dogfights and daring raids. And the alien world is brilliantly frightening and immense. But it’s the characters that stay with you the most. So while I didn’t especially enjoy the directions in which they were led during this final novel, I still had to watch them every step of the way. I can only wonder now where D. Nolan Clark will take us to next.

Other reviews
Forsaken Skies
Forgotten Worlds