Category Archives: Sci Fi

From Darkest Skies by Sam Peters

Gollancz | 2017 (20 April) | 328p | Review copy | Buy the book

From Darkest Skies by Sam PetersIt is five years now since the death of Alysha, the wife of agent Keona Rause. Also an agent, Alysha was blown up on a night train as it made its way across their home world of Magenta. Rause doesn’t understand why Alysha was on that train. It wasn’t for passengers. She and a small group of other people had smuggled themselves aboard and they were blown up by a bomber, later caught. He can only assume that Alysha was following leads to a case. But whatever it was, the knowledge died with her and, besides, Rause was forcibly removed from investigations into the bombing, sent to Earth on a secondment for five years. That ended in disgrace when the alien artefact he had been guarding was stolen almost from under his nose. Rause is now back in Magenta, suffering from the terrible increase in gravity, getting used to the endless pummelling of Magenta’s rain, and investigating the death of one of the planet’s very few golden socialites. But Rause has an itch he has to scratch – why was his wife on that train?

Rause is not entirely alone. After his wife’s death, he had her memories and digital presence uploaded into a physical walking, talking ‘shell’. Its intelligence is also incorporated into his ‘Servant’, the AI that everyone carries around inside their brain, easing their way through life. But Liss, as he calls it/her, is completely illegal. And whether Liss is a help or hindrance is another matter entirely as Rause works through his feelings for a wife he mourns and her reconstructed digital presence which he struggles to understand.

The premise of From Darkest Skies is an extremely compelling one, combining some of the familiar ideas of crime fiction with the wonder of its science fiction setting on Magenta, complemented by some intriguing technology. Magenta is an extraordinary planet, named for the violet hue its land and water derives from its ‘organic rock-eating purple alien dust’. It is both beautiful and hostile, as too is its appalling weather which batters the plant with killer winds and painful, stabbing rain for days on end. But the story of how humans reached Magenta is one of the most fascinating things of all about From Darkest Skies. The novel is overshadowed by the enigmatic Masters, the alien race that altered Earth in terrible ways from which it can never recover before disappearing as mysteriously as they arrived. Their intent seemed to be to move humans across the Galaxy, giving them the technology to move freely, while leaving others hopelessly stranded. But why?

From Darkest Skies raises lots of questions, about the Masters, about Alysha, about the murdered socialite and about life as a whole on this unfriendly yet striking planet of Magenta. Sam Peters makes the reader want to know the answers every bit as much as Rause who is barely holding on. I liked Rause very much indeed. I felt for his plight. And I also cared for his fellow agents, some of whom he’d known before and others he hadn’t. They are a colourful bunch, likeable yet crotchety. But who wouldn’t be crotchety on this strange planet?

Sam Peters blends crime and science fiction well. The plotting is excellent and so too is the use of technology. It’s not overplayed but it is intriguing. This is a future society, one shaped by the Masters, apocalypse, the media (social and otherwise) and by a powerful sense of distance from Earth, a distance that is brought home every minute of the day by the unrelenting force of gravity. We’re familiar with walking, talking AIs but I did find Liss pleasingly unusual and unknowable. I really felt for Rause. My only issue would be the difficulty I had remembering some of the unusual names.

From Darkest Skies is a debut novel and it is a fine one. I would definitely welcome another novel set in this enigmatic world of Magenta and the Masters – there is so much more I want to know about both – but I’ll be very happy to go wherever Sam Peters takes us next.

Cold Welcome (Vatta’s Peace I) by Elizabeth Moon

Orbit | 2017 (13 April) | 434p | Review copy | Buy the book

Cold Welcome by Elizabeth MoonAdmiral Ky Vatta is on her way back to her home planet Slotter Key as a hero. The war is over and Ky, more than anyone, was responsible for the victory. It’s a bittersweet moment. Ky left Slotter Key in disgrace as a cadet years before but she’s told things are different now. Her great aunt is Rector of the planet, responsible for its forces, and the Commandant who expelled her is the one to greet her, ready to make peace and welcome home this great war hero. So all goes well until a saboteur crashes Ky’s shuttle, hurling it into the roughest of seas, close to the most hostile of the planet’s continents, abandoned and failed by its terraformers.

With most of her fellow officers murdered, it’s up to Ky to save the remaining shuttle crew and passengers, aware that her enemies may turn up to finish the job, long before rescue can arrive. But the immediate problem is to survive as this unwelcoming planet does its worst. Some of its secrets, though, are about to be revealed.

Cold Welcome is, I’m afraid to say, the first novel by Elizabeth Moon that I’ve read, but the premise of this one instantly appealed to me. I loved the sound of a disaster story set in space, in the same way that I was drawn to Arthur C. Clarke’s A Fall of Moondust and Andy Weir’s The Martian. I’m fascinated by the bravery and resourcefulness of individuals who fight to survive against all odds in the most volatile of environments, and space is as hostile – yet alluring – as it gets.

Much of Cold Welcome deals with Ky’s efforts to bring her fellow survivors together on sea and on land and it’s thrilling stuff, not least because Ky has to be as suspicious and alert as she is capable in a crisis. I really enjoyed these sections. Without giving anything away, what they discover on this planet is extraordinary. But I couldn’t help finding it all a bit of a coincidence because the shuttle could have crash landed anywhere on the planet. The novel becomes something else during its second half, perhaps losing my attention a little bit, but I’d be interesting in discovering more about what they found.

But not all of the action takes place on the planet. We also follow the – extremely drawn out – plans of Ky’s nearest and dearest (especially Rafe Dunbarger) to put together a rescue mission. It’s in these sections that we become aware of the wider troubling political situation as people scramble for control now that the war is over.

Winning the peace looks like it could be even more difficult than winning the war, as testified to by Cold Welcome being just the first novel in a new series, Vatta’s Peace. The book does have a satisfactory conclusion but it’s clear that it’s leading on to more. I think if you’ve read the Vatta’s War books, as I haven’t, then you would get more from Cold Welcome than I did. You may feel more of an attachment to Ky and her family and partner than I felt. You also might have more patience with the author’s style, which I did feel rambled a little. But, as I say, I suspect these issues were mostly because I went in to this as a newbie when there is an awful lot of back history which I couldn’t pick up on, even though it’s not necessary for understanding and enjoying the actual story. Which I did, very much.

I loved the descriptions of Slotter Key and its harsh environments. I am such a fan of adventure stories set in cold wastelands and this certainly fits the bill. I also really enjoyed the hints that there is more to this planet’s development than its history books might suggest. Cold Welcome is packed full of adventure and intrigue and I look forward to seeing how the series will develop.

Survival Game by Gary Gibson

Pan | 2016, Pb 2017 | 343p | Review copy | Buy the book

Survival Game by Gary GibsonSurvival Game completes Gary Gibson’s Apocalypse Duology that began with Extinction Game. This means you definitely need to have read Extinction Game first, although each book could stand alone if you force it to. This review assumes you know what happened in the previous novel.

In a universe of alternate Earths, scientist Katya lives on an Earth dominated by the Russian Empire. It has her in its cruel power, holding her family hostage, while she attempts to uncover the secrets of a mysterious artefact, the Hypersphere. It is believed that the Hypersphere was created by the Stage-Builders, or Syllogikos, an ancient civilisation that built the first transfer stages which opened doorways between the parallel Earths. It is suspected that the Hypersphere could prove to be an even more powerful conduit but there’s a snag – it’s broken. But the authorities have learned of the existence of a second sphere, intact this time, on another Earth, one that is controlled by America. Katya is ordered to travel there in disguise as a scientist from that other Earth’s Soviet Russia. Once there she must use all means to bring the Hypersphere back to her own Earth, where the Tsar has his own plans for it. Katya has no choice.

Survival Game returns us to the alternate American base on Easter Island, the home of the Pathfinders, individuals who each survived, completely alone, their own Earth’s apocalypse. Their mission is to explore the other Earths to search for artefacts that can help explain the reasons for the apocalypses which have plagued most of the parallel Earths, wiping out the Syllogikos. Jerry Beche is once more our guide to these worlds as he is tasked with helping the science team to discover the secrets of the Hypersphere. But what he and Katya learn has devastating consequences, the very worst.

From its explosive and thrilling opening chapter, Survival Game immediately throws us into the heart of the action, into the conflicts of these alternate Earths where everything seems familiar in some ways and yet so different in others. On the Earths that have survived, democracy has suffered the most, both in the alternate Americas and the alternate Russias. But the transfer stages take us to other Earths that are utterly horrifying and plagued with the terrible legacies of apocalypse and it is on these worlds that Katya and Jerry must fight for their lives while also discovering, in the most vivid and immediate ways, the horror of what the Syllogikos faced in their final days.

I am a huge fan of Gary Gibson’s novels and have read a fair few over the years – Final Days remains one of my most loved novels of all time. While I don’t think that this Duology is Gary Gibson at his best – it lacks some of the wonder and vision that I find in the others, having more of an action movie feel about it – I can’t fault it as a science fiction thriller. It has some enticing (and some terrifying) ingredients – the ends of worlds, monsters, traitors and spies, mysterious artefacts, villains, intrigue and a splash of romance – and these keep the pages flying through the fingers.

The novels complement each other well. They contain separate stories but the larger picture continues to increase in size and clarity, and new characters work well with the old. It was great to meet Jerry Beche again, although Katya more than stands her own against him. There is some fantastic worldbuilding as we travel to devastated haunted dead worlds. Its ending is thoroughly satisfying while allowing room for Gary Gibson to return to this universe – or universes – in the future. But what I enjoyed most of all about Survival Game is the utterly compelling story of the Syllogikos and the apocalypse that ended them. In these sections in particular Gary Gibson demonstrates wonderfully his brilliant storytelling and extraordinary imagination which will always make me read every novel he writes.

Other reviews
Angel Stations
Stealing Light (Shoal Trilogy I)
Marauder (Shoal Universe but standalone)
Final Days
The Thousand Emperors (Final Days II)
Extinction Game

Waking Gods by Sylvain Neuvel

Michael Joseph (UK); Del Rey (US) | 2017 | 334p | Review copy (US edn) | Buy the book: UK and US

Waking Gods by Sylvain NeuvelWaking Gods is the second novel in Sylvain Neuvel’s science fiction series, the Themis Files, and follows on a few years later from Sleeping Giants. You most definitely need to have read Sleeping Giants first and this review assumes you’ve had the pleasure.

When little Rose Franklin fell into a hole in the ground, right into the palm of an extraordinary, enormous metal hand, of unknown construction and astonishing age, the world changed forever. Humanity now knew that it did not exist alone in the universe. This was the hand of a giant robot of alien origin, buried aeons ago, as were the robot’s other parts, which were scattered across the planet. Over the years Rose, now grown and a scientist, led the project to rebuild the robot – Themis. But not just to rebuild it – to pilot it, to understand it. The question of whether this was the right thing to do continues to haunt Rose. She has suffered for it in the worst of ways and many have died or been irrevocably altered, especially its pilots, Vincent and Kara.

A shock is coming. Another robot, bigger than Themis, appears out of the blue in London. It stands still. Nobody knows what it will do. Some flee while some can’t keep away from it, even picnicking by it. But while the world makes up its mind, the robot does it for them. It begins to move. And all hell breaks loose.

As with Sleeping Giants, the narrative is presented as a series of interviews conducted by the mysterious and enigmatic interrogator, as well as journal extracts, news reports, reflections. This means that we spend time with all of the key protagonists in the most immediate fashion and in the most tense circumstances. It’s a style that definitely works in these novels. We sometimes circle around the same critical event from a range of perspectives. There is conflict between the individuals as well as great affection in some cases. Themis herself feels almost alive although she continues to be enigmatic and unknowable.

Waking Gods US ednI’m so fond of these characters, particularly Vincent and Kara but also the interrogator. We learn a little more about him here and some of what we learn surprises. He’s almost as impossible to know as Themis but there are glimpses of his true nature – and it is ambiguous. Kara and Vincent continue to make me care for them and their relationship is central to the novel. Rose Franklin is an intriguing character but her struggle to identify herself makes us keep our distance. She also embodies some important questions about the nature of the origin of these robots. While others bring the militaristic, strategic or political element to the story, Rose brings the science.

Sylvain Neuvel tells a great story. Waking Gods is thoroughly exciting – aliens, giant robots, intrigue, danger, explosions, mystery. All of the ingredients for an entertaining science fiction thriller are here and they’re mixed to perfection. It’s a fast read, very hard to put down, and this is speeded up even further by the dramatic structure. There are surprises and shocks in this novel, far more than I was expecting and some left me reeling and wondering where on earth the story could go from this. But proceed it did and its fantastic ending left me wanting much, much more and soon.

Other review
Sleeping Giants

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