Category Archives: Sci Fi

Salvation by Peter F. Hamilton

Macmillan | 2018 (6 September) | 532p | Review copy | Buy the book

Salvation by Peter F HamiltonA crashed alien spaceship, emitting a beacon signal, has been located on the distant planet of Nkya, a world with no life. Nkya might be many light years from Earth but the investigative team should need no more than forty-eight hours to reach it, thanks to portal technology which has made travel to and between stars a reality. Humanity is now settled widely across the Galaxy on planets in various stages of terraforming, helped along by the technology of the Olyix, an alien civilisation whose arkship Salvation of Life is now anchored a lightyear from Earth for a lengthy pause on its journey to the end of the universe.

The Nkya investigative team of five specialists is not a happy one. Some knew others from before and can only wonder why they have been placed together – for there is hatred here, suspicion and fear. But there is more for them to dread than they might think. One of their number is believed to be a hostile alien. It is imperative that they are not allowed to discover the secrets of the crashed spaceship. It is only by getting to know each other that the truth might be revealed and so they tell each other stories about their past, revealing their tangled histories.

On another world, far in the future, a small group of young people are being trained in the art of war. Their ultimate mission, their destiny, is to take on the greatest fight. Their task is to defeat the greatest enemy of humanity. But before they can do that they must grow and learn the skills that they will need if they have any hope of triumph at all. The odds could hardly be worse.

A new novel by the science fiction master Peter F. Hamilton is cause indeed for celebration and when a copy of Salvation arrived there could be no doubt that it would go straight to the top of my reading mountain. I love Hamilton’s books. Pandora’s Star is quite possibly my favourite novel, while his Night’s Dawn trilogy is my favourite series. I couldn’t wait to read Salvation – the start of a new trilogy in a whole new world – and it is nigh on perfect and sets up the next book in the series brilliantly.

The structure of Salvation works so well. Our eyes and ears on the unpleasant planet of Nkya is security officer Feriton Kayne. It’s through him that we observe the histories of our specialists, including those of Yuri Alster and Callum Hepburn, two men whose hatred for one another knows no bounds. So how are they supposed to work together now on this crucial mission? We will learn both sides of their extraordinary story. It’s through these narratives that we learn about this future world set about 200 years from now. The ability to divide and settle new planets has divided humanity. New religions and politics have developed. There are utopian societies, there are militaristic governments, there is secrecy and suspicion everywhere. The differences between genders might have been blurred but the age-old problems of being human are as apparent as ever. And the presence of the Olyix hasn’t helped even if these benign aliens have given people the technology to enhance and improve the lives of humans.

The stories we hear are so intriguing and immersive. I did wonder how I would settle to a long novel that shifts its narrative so often and so entirely but such is the power of Peter F. Hamilton’s storytelling that this didn’t become an issue. It reminded me in such a good way of the Night’s Dawn trilogy where we spend extended periods on one world and then must adjust to another. Likewise, in Pandora’s Star, Hamilton showed himself to be the master of the extended anecdote or aside. The universe we are given is huge and inviting, dangerous and exciting, warm and compassionate, hostile and alien. I love where we are taken. There are some absolutely fascinating ideas presented here, especially concerning portals. Imagine a house in which every room can be on a different continent, a different planet, each with extraordinary views.

I was seduced by the chapters set in the far distant future. There is a scene here that took my breath away and left me in tears. These people are so different from us, their bodies altered, their concerns and aspirations changed, and yet they feel the same fears, the same desolation. The descriptions of their planet are so compelling. It all feels so real and yet so extraordinary. And the mood of foreboding and menace is so intense.

It does take a while to become familiar with the main characters because there are quite a few of them and there is a fair bit of moving backwards and forwards in time and across places. But the reader’s attention is rewarded many times over. I liked these people. The changing perspectives means that our feelings can change as we see the bad and the good in the same person. It makes the story so rich but also extremely exciting as we are given murder mysteries, love stories, mythologies, science fiction – how I loved our tour of the Olyix starship – and the main story, which only slowly emerges, is utterly compelling and mysterious. I am desperate to know how it will be continued.

Salvation might be part one of a trilogy but it is an enormous achievement in its own right. I loved every page. As usual with Peter F. Hamilton, his books can never be long enough for me. I read it slowly, savouring all of its many directions and flavours, always finding myself back on course after following one of its many divergent trails. This is science fiction at its best and knowing that there are more Salvation books to come makes me very happy indeed.

Other reviews
Pandora’s Star
Judas Unchained
Great North Road
The Reality Dysfunction (Night’s Dawn 1)
The Neutronium Alchemist (Night’s Dawn 2)
The Naked God (Night’s Dawn 3)
The Dreaming Void (Void Trilogy 1)
The Abyss Beyond Dreams (Chronicle of the Fallers 1)
Night Without Stars (Chronicle of the Fallers 2)

I couldn’t be more delighted to post my review as part of the blog tour, and on publication day, too! For other stops on the tour, please take a look at the poster below.

Salvation blog tour

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Head On by John Scalzi

Tor | 2018 (19 April) | 335p | Review copy and bought copy | Buy the book

Head On by John ScalziSome years have passed now since the supervirus that left a small percentage of the population in a waking coma, unable to move and communicate but still aware. These people are known as the Haden, named after the virus’s most famous victim, the First Lady of the United States. With so many people suffering from ‘Lock In’, ways were developed to give them expression. The Agora is a virtual reality society in which Hadens can create their own safe place. An alternative is to transfer their consciousness into a sophisticated robot, a threep (name after C3PO), which can take a place in the physical world.

One of the most famous threeps in the world belongs to FBI agent Chris Shane, who at one time had been a poster boy for Hadens, a source of hope, the son of very wealthy parents who nevertheless prefers to work for a living, investigating crimes against, and committed by, fellow Hadens. Partnering Shane is Leslie Vann, a formidable character with her own Lock In experience. And they have quite a case on their hands. Hilketa is a game taking North America by storm, so much so that the rest of the world is taking an interest. Teams of Hadens take each other on with hammers and swords, their goal is to cut off an opponent’s head and carry it through the goalposts. Violent, gory even, yet with no risk of death. The audience is transfixed. Until the day when a headless Haden falls, killing its Locked In operator in his bed. This is impossible. It certainly can’t be an accident. Big money is at risk. The stakes are high. More will die.

John Scalzi is such a wonderful writer of science fiction. His books are guaranteed to lift the mood as he finds extraordinary, human stories in such fabulous circumstances and settings. Lock In was a top read from 2014 and I’m so pleased to have Head On as its follow up. You don’t need to have read Lock In first but I really recommend that you do. It’s a fine novel and it sets the Haden stage perfectly for what happens here.

The plot is such a good one. On one level this is a sophisticated, intricately plotted and pacey crime novel. It’s an enjoyable mystery in its own right but in almost every single way it stands out. Firstly, for its fantastic start on the Hilketa playing field with a sports report on the match which cost one of the players his life. This is edge of your seat stuff. But the main difference is because of Chris Shane, a unique individual whose body lies in a cradle in his parents’ home, lovingly cared for, while his mind spends its days in a threep working as an FBI agent. It’s all so brilliantly depicted and real. We get all of the fascinating details about how it all works, how Haden can move from threep to threep, how they live and interact with friends and family, how they are discriminated against by the state now that new laws have come in that have removed the state’s obligation to care for them. The fact that our narrator is Shane himself really adds to our understanding of his condition. It’s all deeply involved and compelling. As is the case that Shane and Vann must work to solve.

There are some big and serious themes but Head On is also a book full of lightness, humanity and fun. John Scalzi is such a witty writer and he’s filled Shane and Vann with personality, as he has Shane’s threep housemates. They’re such a funny bunch and that’s even before Donut the cat makes his presence felt. You need to read this book for Donut the cat. We don’t spend too much time in the virtual Agora world but the time that we do is so well spent. I loved these sections.

I loved Lock In so much and Head On is every bit as good. Shane and Bank are such an unusual yet brilliant pair of FBI agents, like none others you’ll meet, and the near future in which they operate is perfectly realised. And it’s all so much fun!

Other reviews
Lock In
The Collapsing Empire

Vox by Christina Dalcher

HQ | 2018 (ebook: 21 August; Hb: 23 August) | 336p | Review copy | Buy the book

Vox by Christina DalcherIt’s one thing knowing that you’re not able to speak more than 100 words in a day without a severe punishing electric shock, but it’s another thing entirely knowing that your young daughter is also not allowed to speak, just at the time when she should be enjoying the discovery of new words every single day and shouting them out loud to her parents and brothers – brothers who are allowed to say just what they like and are growing used to a world in which women have no rights at all. Jean McClellan will do anything to fight for her daughter’s future, to fight against her silence.

I love the premise of Vox – a dystopia set in America during the very near future in which an extreme rightwing president has decided to end the rights of women. The ‘bracelets’ that women wear to limit their words to 100 a day are just the most visible sign of their oppression but it is making itself increasingly known in every area of life. Jean used to be Dr McClellan, a leading linguistic scientist in the fight against aphasia, a brain condition that – rather ironically – leaves the victim speechless. Now Jean is her husband’s chattel. But she is given a way out due to her background and she won’t be going back again.

Vox is told in the first person, present tense by Jean, and this is undoubtedly part of what gives the story its impact – Jean’s fury and frustration, contrasting with her tender love for her children, especially her daughter, make it all seem horrifyingly real, even possible. It also gives us a heroine we can get behind. Jean also tells us about other silenced women she has known, as well as the men, including her own husband, and what they are doing about it – if anything at all.

I became hugely fired up reading Vox! It made me rant! The injustice and indignity of it all. The first half of the book particularly appealed to me as this new fascist America is revealed (so far the rest of the world is safe) and we witness its impact on the daily lives of men and women. It’s fascinating, even without the parallels that one inevitably draws to the anti-Jewish laws of Nazi Germany. I was engrossed.

The second half of the novel was less successful for me because in these chapters we moved into the lab, science takes over, and the scope of the story narrows. I love science in my science fiction but I think that the main strength of Vox is speculative, in the society it portrays and in the voices that have been silenced, a really enjoyable element of the first half of the book. Although one does have to wonder how plausible it is that 50% of the American population were silenced so easily and quickly.

You can read and enjoy Vox as pure entertainment, and it certainly is entertaining, but it also serves as a timely non-preachy reminder that we must stay alert.

Ball Lightning by Cixin Liu

Head of Zeus | 2018 (14 August) | 384p | Review copy | Buy the book

Ball Lightning by Cixin LiuOn Chen’s fourteenth birthday, as he and his parents sat around his birthday cake with its fourteen candles, Chen watches his mother and father transform in a heartbeat into statues of ash, which disintegrate at a touch. Ball lightning has killed Chen’s parents and in that moment Chen’s obsession with this deadly phenomenon begins.

Years later, ball lightning has become Chen’s life’s work as he labours alongside other geniuses to explain its existence, its strangeness and its uses, and to recreate it, even to control it. It is strange indeed. Why was Chen’s tee shirt totally incinerated by the ball lightning that killed his parents but his body and the coat he wore over that shirt were left completely untouched? The more Chen investigates, the more peculiarities he discovers, not only about ball lightning but also about the universe around us. And then there are the people Chen works beside – they are as curious as the phenomenon that they study, especially Lin Yun whose story will rival that of Chen.

Ball Lightning is an extraordinary novel by an author who writes hard science fiction like nobody else I can name. I loved Cixin Liu’s Three-Body Problem trilogy, which tackled first contact in a way that is so original and complex and gobsmacking that I will never forget it. And then I marvelled at his short stories in The Wandering Earth. Here is an author who can write on the macro and micro levels (you’ll see what I mean if you read the books) and, whatever the length of the book or story (Ball Lightning is a stand alone novel), he crams it full of the most breathtaking ambition, wonder and science.

Ball Lightning is a novel about what ball lightning might be but it is also a human story, following a small group of scientists and soldiers at a time when war is imminent between China and America. Each person approaches ball lightning with their own agenda, their own experience of it, all pulled together by Chen, our narrator and our witness. It’s hard for these men and women to form relationships – their thoughts soar beyond the physical world – but here they are formed nonetheless and they are so beautifully drawn. I was particularly struck by the relationship between Lin Yun and her general father.

The science here is very hard indeed and I did struggle with some of it. I’m not much of a quantum physicist, that’s for sure, but while certain sections of analysis washed over me, they did so in a really pleasant way. I read them and appreciated them because it all builds layer by layer, everything leads to the next thing, and I picked up more than enough to feel the wonder of it all. What we discover is incredible!

Ball Lightning was mostly written over ten years ago and there is a suggestion that it’s set in the same universe as The Three-Body Problem. Certainly, there are similarities with some of the discoveries. But I’m not going to give anything away about what Chen finds because you must discover it for yourself and also because, unlike Cixin Liu, I don’t have the words for this. I actually experienced ball lightning myself many years ago, when I was a teenager, about the same age as Chen when the book begins. I’ve often thought about it over the years. There can be no better book than this to give this extraordinary phenomenon life and meaning.

The translator is Joel Martinsen. This hardback is another beautiful book, with a ribbon, by Head of Zeus.

Other reviews
The Three-Body Problem
The Dark Forest
Death’s End
The Wandering Earth

The Psychology of Time Travel by Kate Mascarenhas

Head of Zeus | 2018 (9 August) | 371p | Review copy | Buy the book

The Psychology of Time Travel by Kate MascarenhasIt is 1967 and four very different women are revelling in the glory of having invented a time travel machine. But in this moment of celebration, in full view of the media, one of the scientists, Barbara, suffers a very public mental breakdown and is removed from the programme. Her former colleague and the leader of the group, Margaret, makes sure that she can never return. The programme cannot be stigmatised in any way. Half a century later, in 2018, Odette discovers the dead body of an elderly woman in a locked room in a toy museum. The reason for the woman’s death is uncertain but Odette becomes obsessed and is determined to discover the truth. She isn’t the only one. Psychologist Ruby is Barbara’s granddaughter and, at last, Barbara is ready to talk about what happened just over fifty years before. But when, in 2017, a message arrives from the near future, Ruby becomes very afraid for her Granny Bee. Something terrible is going to happen. It will be extraordinary.

And so begins one of the most incredible novels I’ve read this year – for several years – and it’s all the more remarkable when you think that this wonderful book is Kate Mascarenhas’ debut. It’s an enormous achievement. The Psychology of Time is an immensely rewarding novel that is also very cleverly complex and so you do need to pay close attention. It’s certainly worth it. It is mesmerising.

The narrative jumps and skips backwards and forwards throughout, following the lives of a group of women over fifty years or so, but mostly focusing on events in 2017 and 2018, moving to and fro between the years and between the women during different stages of their lives. And making it even more complex and absolutely riveting is that sometimes we meet a character in the ‘wrong time’, when she is time travelling. There is none of that directive that we’re used to that two versions of the same person can’t co-exist in the same time – here you can have as many of yourselves as you like. You can revisit key times in your life and share those times with a limitless number of yourselves. You can even dance with yourself, if you fancy it. I love this element of the novel, and that’s partly because these are the most fantastic characters you could hope to meet and seeing them in different phases of their lives is enthralling.

There are so many characters to love here but my favourite is Grace, one of the original four scientists and also an intriguing artist. She has such a delightful nature and the relationship she forms in the novel is captivating and brings with it moments of pure poignancy and tenderness. I’m not going to say more about the characters because you must discover them and fall in love with them for yourself. There are several potential favourites for you to choose from. I also loved how they are all women in various stages of their rich lives, and the fact that the vast majority of the novel’s characters are women isn’t laboured. It feels natural and they’re treated with such affection. Although not all of them are good.

The distant future is only glimpsed and it’s worrisome. We hear a little of its draconian laws, and learn that its reintroduction of a kind of medieval trial by combat – except here it’s trial by fate – is brought back into the present day for time travellers who do wrong. The science behind time travel is just touched upon but the main focus of the novel is on how it affects those who do it, as well as their families and those who love them. And here we spend time with people seeking to understand it, especially Ruby and Odette.

The mystery at the heart of The Psychology of Time Travel is such a good one and every bit as quirky and curious as the rest of the novel. But its enormous appeal lies mostly in these wonderful, wonderful people and the wit and warmth with which they’re described as they flit and dance through each other’s lives – and their own. Sometimes they can bring misfortune, even death, but mostly they bring love and such a depth of feeling.

There is so much to love about this glorious, beautifully crafted novel which treats time travel in such an original and enthralling way. It’s not possible to do The Psychology of Time justice, at least for me, and so I urge you to treat yourself and discover its wonders for yourself.

The Break Line by James Brabazon

Michael Joseph | 2018 (26 July) | 374p | Review copy | Buy the book

The Break Line by James BrabazonMax McLean is a man who lives in shadows. Officially he doesn’t exist. He works for British Intelligence but, if he were caught, they would deny him. After a career in the army, Max is now an assassin with a reputation for always being able to take the perfect shot. But years have passed and now Max is discovering something that he thought he’d lost a long time ago – a conscience. And so, one day, in a hotel in Caracas, Max fails to take the shot. Called in by his masters, Max is given one last chance to redeem himself in their eyes.

Max is sent to a secret military research facility to interview one of his former comrades, a man who is about as close to a good friend as Max would allow. This fearless, brave soldier is locked up. He has been driven mad by something that he saw in Sierra Leone – he has been terrified out of his mind. Max must find out why. The hunt will take Max deep into western Africa, a place divided by years of civil war, its people still scarred by what they suffered. But however terrible those years might have been, they are nothing compared to what Max will find in the jungle, what he must face.

I love a good action thriller, especially when splashes of techno thriller and horror are thrown in for good measure, and The Break Line hit the spot perfectly. It is thoroughly exciting from its opening tense chapters all the way through to its exhilarating climax, via the page-turning blood and gore fest in the middle. It is a violent book. Some bits are so gory that I had to read them with my eyes closed. But these moments serve their purpose, which is to throw light on this dark world of Max Mclean – it’s only by knowing how bad things can get that we realise how much Max needs to escape it all.

Max is such an intriguing character. He’s not likeable. He’s a killer and most of the time the killing hasn’t bothered him but it’s fascinating watching this man of stone question who he is. Most of the other characters in the novel aren’t particularly developed, although Sonny Boy certainly makes his presence felt in a horribly memorable way, but I think this is largely because the novel is told by Max in his own words. He’s not the best reader of character, although he is surprised to learn that he is becoming attached to people.

I also really enjoyed the Sierra Leone setting. It’s both a frightening and beautiful place and it’s among its people that Max experiences the most kindness. But it’s also here that Max sees the worst and it’s in this place that the elements of horror and science fiction influence the action thriller. The pages flew through my fingers.

The style of writing is a little stilted at time but this all fits with Max’s character. My only complaint would be the number of military acronyms thrown in with no explanation. I had no idea what Max was on about at times. Also, there are some large coincidences to be overcome. Nevertheless, The Break Line ticked most of the boxes for me. I really can’t get enough of thrillers like this one and so, if you don’t mind a bit of gore, I heartily recommend it.

The Tropic of Eternity by Tom Toner

Gollancz | 2018 (26 July) | 421p | Review copy | Buy the book

The Tropic of Eternity by Tom TonerImagine a galaxy of worlds many thousands of years from now, worlds populated by beings that were once human but have now evolved into a multitude of different kinds, whether feathered, glistening with changeable colours or merged with other animals into the most extraordinary beasts. There are also artificial intelligences, machines that have evolved to have great power and influence. And walking amongst them all are the Amaranthine, human beings who once lived in times not that far removed from our own but were given the gift of immortality, a blessing perhaps until the inevitable insanity finally ends their lives all the same. Some worlds are more familiar than most, especially the Old World, with its western island of Ingolland. Other worlds are as different as can be, including Drolgins with its Gulp, a deep blue hole within its sea from which nobody can escape. That’s if they survive the other monstrous surprises that swim its waters. And it’s there that The Tropic of Eternity begins.

The Tropic of Eternity is the third novel in the extraordinary, beautiful and original Amaranthine Spectrum series, which follows the conflict between descendents of mankind – the Lacaille and the Vulgar – as well as the struggle of the Amaranthine to emerge strong again, under a new emperor. First, though, there will be war. Others look for their future in the form of the young queen Arabis who, it is hoped, will unite together the Melius species on Old World. But Arabis, a babe in arms, has been stolen by a beast. Meanwhile, Aaron the Long-Life, the longest lived of them all, is after vengeance. Some have a more desperate fight for survival – Captain Maril, a Vulgar, and his crew, is marooned far from home and he’s caught up in something more dangerous than anyone can imagine.

Tom Toner writes so beautifully, there are moments, places and characters here that are described with such gorgeousness, as well as not a little horror, that the book bewitches. This is stunning prose, exquisitely realised people and places. We’ve met many of the characters before and so I think that you’d definitely benefit from having read The Promise of the Child and The Weight of the World first. Otherwise, I think you could become a little lost. There is a resonance in this book that reaches back to the beginning of the series – the story has grown, the fates are taking their shape.

The novel comprises so many stories on a multitude of worlds. There are threads that tie them all together but for much of the time we move between places, people, worlds and themes. I think that The Tropic of Eternity is the most complex and, for this reader, most difficult of the series, but its gorgeousness – as well as the moments of horror – more than compensates for the moments which left me wondering what in the heavens was going on! There is a very helpful glossary at the back which lists people, places, species and things. I referred to it repeatedly and it definitely added to the experience of reading. I was also grateful for the synopsis of the other two books at the beginning.

I’m in awe of Tom Toner’s genius in creating this extraordinarily rich, warm, frightening, loving and rewarding future universe. There is so much to wonder at, puzzle over, be scared of and enjoy. Everything is so intricately linked and, while at times, the larger picture may be difficult to grasp, its moments are glorious.

Other reviews
The Promise of the Child
The Weight of the World

I’m delighted to post my review as part of the Blog Tour to celebrate The Tropic of Eternity‘s publication. For other stops on the tour, please take a look at the poster below.

Tropic of Eternity Blog Tour poster