Category Archives: Sci Fi

The God Game by Danny Tobey

Gollancz | 2020 (9 January) | 452p | Review copy and bought copy | Buy the book

The God Game by Danny TobeyCharlie and Peter receive an invitation they can’t refuse. Messages appear on Charlie’s computer which claim to be the voice of God. He invites them to play the G.O.D. Game. If they succeed at the tasks they are set then all of their dreams will come true. If they fail or deny God, then they will die and if you die in the game then you die for real. This is the catch that Charlie, Peter, and their friends Anhi, Kenny and Alex have yet to learn but, the deeper they get into the game, carrying out the dares set to them by God and reaping the rewards, the more they realise that they are caught in a trap. Shadowy figures, mysterious packages and conflicting messages all serve to trick the friends as they discover that God intends to own them. There is no way out. God sees everything. God knows everything. Only God can end the game.

I immediately fell for the premise of The God Game and it delivers fully. It’s completely irresistible. The game that the teenagers join takes them on a series of loops, of cause and effect. They can never see the full picture and they are helplessly caught in a spiral. And it is all possible because of the society that we live in, where nothing can be hidden from cameras, microphones, hackers, games that can learn from the user’s behaviour. I really enjoyed this satirical take on the networks and programming that tie teenagers, or anyone, to their phones and computers and can manipulate them, which combines with the excitement and tension of a very enjoyable techno thriller.

The novel isn’t as Young Adult as I expected, it’s just as much Old Adult, but it does present an insightful look at the pain of being a teenager in a world controlled by social media, which makes all of the drama of growing up so many times worse. We see the world through the eyes of people who do not know who to trust, who have hopes and dreams, who fear everyone else because they’re a bit different, who are afraid of failure or of being humiliated. The teens have to deal with God but they must also deal with bullies at school, with the emotions of falling in love – usually with the wrong person – and with the expectations of parents and teachers, who are just as flawed as their children and pupils. This affects them all differently and this human drama drives the novel on, making it as emotional as it is thrilling.

The God Game is extremely exciting but there isn’t quite enough reason or explanation in it for me and, towards the end, I did feel that it’s a bit too clever for its own good. Charlie is the main character but I warmed the most to the only girl in the group, Vanhi, who is arguably the bravest of the four, the most loyal and the most self-sacrificing. I also had warm feelings for Kenny and Alex who seem to be manipulated even more than the others – served up as Abraham offered up his son Isaac to God. There are some intriguing glimpses of Old Testament theology through what is otherwise a very secular thriller.

The God Game is a real pageturner, which exceeded my expectations. It’s sharp, witty and tense and provides some real food for thought on the difficulties that teenagers have always faced but which are now arguably amplified by a digital world that never sleeps, that always watches and constantly judges and manipulates.

The Eternity War: Dominion by Jamie Sawyer

Orbit | 2019 (28 November) | 453p | Review copy | Buy the book

The Eternity War: Dominion by Jamie SawyerDominion completes Jamie Sawyer’s trilogy The Eternity War and so you certainly wouldn’t want to read it without having read the earlier books, Pariah and Exodus. This review assumes you’ve had the pleasure.

The Galaxy is at war. The terrorist organisation Black Spiral, led by Warlord, has unleashed its virus across the Maelstrom, infecting the Krell in an act of ethnic cleansing, planets are being cleansed of life. It is time for a last desperate attempt for the Alliance to defeat Warlord and among the forces will be Lieutenant Jenkins and her Jackals, SimOps troops whose deeds have become legendary. They are also envied by other troops, few of whom would let a little thing like a full-out war get in the way of a bit of retribution. There are scores to be settled on both sides now as old enemies confront one another in an arena of war that is itself the stuff of nightmares.

I am a huge fan of Jamie Sawyer’s science fiction and loved his The Lazarus War trilogy, featuring the most famous SimOps troops of them all, and I have enjoyed The Eternity War every bit as much. But all good things must unfortunately come to an end and this second trilogy here concludes in spectacular, explosive fashion. If you enjoy your science fiction with aliens, spaceships, strange worlds, space stations and battles half as much as I do then you will thoroughly enjoy these books and you can rest assured that Jamie Sawyer writes them very well indeed. He is such a good writer and this is clearly seen in these wonderful characters that we’ve got to know and care for (occasionally hate) through the series.

The concept of the SimOps is brilliant. These are men and women who (and I quote from my review of Exodus) transition into ‘skins’, ‘organic and enhanced bodies that can fight and die as supersoldiers, time after time, while their vulnerable bodies stay safe in their tanks. Each violent death, though, leaves a painful stigmata on their real bodies. Life such as this takes its toll.’ These are suicidal troops who die time after time after time. Just imagine how this affects the soldier – Jamie Sawyer explores this and it’s fascinating. It’s also extremely exciting! Almost every mission ends in disaster and death and, even though these bodies are ‘skins’, the deaths feel meaningful. They’re certainly painful. It takes a certain type of person to be a SimOp and so they are all incredible, especially Jenkins and her Jackals, each of whom has built up quite a back history by now. But Dominion is a little different from the previous two. The fighting now is desperate. It’s not always done on the Jackals’ terms. It could be disastrous for real.

And then there’s the Krell. These aliens feel so real to me after the two trilogies. I can imagine them and I fear them. But we’re also taught to respect them and, if you’ve read the earlier Eternity War novels then you’ll know how this has been brought about. You really need to read these books if only to see the relationship between Jenkins and Pariah.

The action hardly lets up for a moment. When it does, it’s just so Jenkins and the others can rebuild their emotional strength or to understand the political background to the fight. The fight sequences are utterly gripping, tense and engrossing. This isn’t a book to put down lightly. But it’s not all action. The story is a really interesting one and everything is pulled together satisfactorily in this grand conclusion. I’ve loved this trilogy. I can’t wait to follow wherever Jamie Sawyer take us next

Other reviews
The Lazarus War: Legion
The Lazarus War: Origins
The Eternity War: Pariah
The Eternity War: Exodus

Ctrl + S by Andy Briggs

Orion | 2019 (28 November) | 405p | Review copy | Buy the book

CTRL+S by Andy BriggsTheo Wilson’s life is pretty rubbish – he works in a cheap burger joint, he lives with his mum in a house that is a shambles, not particularly surprising considering she’s living on the edge, taking drugs and involved with the wrong people. And now she’s disappeared completely, even leaving her rig behind. Everyone, no matter how poor, has a rig. They enable the user to hook into the alternate or enhanced version of reality that controls so much of everyday life. On her rig, Theo finds messages that don’t just threaten his mother but also him. If she doesn’t give these people what she owes then they will cut Theo into pieces. Theo knows he has to find her before they find him.

Theo discovers that the clues can be found in SPACE, a virtual universe so powerful that nobody is permitted to stay in it for longer than three hours at a time before they’re booted out. It is a universe fueled by intense emotion and sensory experience. People can do anything they like there, including playing elaborate games (in which one can die repeatedly), but Theo and his friends are about to discover that they can do much, much worse. People are being stolen, their emotions harvested and fed into the system, turning it into a playpen for the twisted. And Theo can’t trust anyone, especially the vPolice who patrol this alternate world.

Ctrl + S has a fantastic premise and is a fast and entertaining read that takes us into what seems on the surface to be a gamer’s paradise. This is a near future world in which many of the bad things, like global warming, have been fixed and people have been given a release from drudgery in the heavily controlled but irresistible SPACE. The descriptions of SPACE are the highlight of the novel. It’s all extremely visual. It feels as if we are in a game ourselves. This is the colour while the reality of Theo’s life is the grey. That real world is dark and seedy and increasingly so as we learn more about Theo’s mother.

With the four main characters aged about 20 years old, including the feisty girl that Theo can’t help falling for, and the story involving the hunt for the mother of one of the characters, Ctrl + S does have the feel of a Young Adult science fiction gaming adventure. The young people also seem to spend a fair amount of time throwing up, so there’s also an icky factor! Nevertheless, this is a book I gobbled up in a couple of sittings. There are some dark themes, and we meet evil people (there’s one moment early on that really shocked me), but this is a surprisingly light, sometimes humorous, novel with some interesting ideas about a possible direction in which the world might go, taking the idea of people not being able to cope without their phones to another level. I especially liked the idea of how emojis have developed into more than a language, almost as an emotional force. I think younger readers in particular will really enjoy this.

The Pursuit of William Abbey by Claire North

Orbit | 2019 (14 November) | 432p | Review copy | Buy the book

The Pursuit of William Abbey by Claire NorthIn 1884, English medical doctor William Abbey was in Natal in South Africa and stood by while a young boy was beaten and burnt to death by a mob in front of his eyes. He stood by and did nothing. His mother, who held her murdered child Langa in her arms as he died, looked into Abbey’s eyes and cursed him. Forever now, William Abbey will be pursued by the shadow of Langa. Wherever he flees, Langa will always follow him and will find him. Every time he catches Abbey, a person dearly loved by the doctor will die. The first person who dies is Abbey’s dear sister. Abbey must now frantically keep one step ahead of his relentless, terrible shadow to keep alive everyone he loves, while never daring to love again. He embarks on an endless journey that takes him across Africa and back to Europe and beyond, even to India, culminating in the trenches of France in 1917, where the novel begins. It’s as he travels that Abbey discovers another side to the curse. He can see the secrets in the heart of people around him and when Langa gets very close he is unable from shouting them out. It’s terrifying.

Claire North is one of my very favourite writers and has been ever since I read the first novel published under this name back in 2014, The First Fifteen Lives of Harry August, a tremendous novel. One of the top reads I’ve had in 2019 is The Gameshouse, one of the most clever books I’ve ever read, and so it was a joy to discover that we were to have another novel by Claire North this year. William Abbey, like all of these books, has the most fantastic premise, which really appealed to my love of speculative fiction. It’s a mesmerising idea. But, again as with the other books, this premise is explored to throw light on something else, something dark, something significant, and in William Abbey that something else is colonialism

What Abbey witnesses in South Africa, and also in India, is appalling and he cannot escape it because the truth is pursuing him – across oceans, mountains and deserts. We witness cruelty and prejudice, great injustice and terrible anger and sadness. Abbey comes to the attention of the Nineteen, a government agency working across the British Empire who need men such as Abbey to discover the truth about what their targets are thinking. This is dangerous as it means he has to allow Langa to get very close indeed. It’s no way to live if Abbey can be said to be living any kind of life at all.

Abbey himself is an intriguing character. He’s a man caught in his time who sees it at its worst which means he’s hard to warm to, or like, even while we try to understand him. He narrates the novel, we experience his world through his eyes, we feel the terror and the fear, as well as the guilt. One of the most fascinating elements of the book is when Abbey meets other men and women like him and learns some of the reasons behind their curses. This can be troubling but also heartbreaking as Abbey learns why people cannot forget the past, why it must continue to live through them, through their curse. So many lessons to learn, so much to atone for.

This is a disturbing tale and there is a lot of empire to cover. One drawback of this for me is that I found there was an element of repetition, perhaps inevitably due to the structure and endless chase of the novel. This also led to a bit of a lag in the middle. Nevertheless, while William Abbey isn’t my favourite Claire North book, it is still an excellent and significant novel with some extremely powerful sections of prose. Claire North is a fine writer who impresses time after time. What an extraordinary imagination she has and how gifted she is at telling us her stories. I look forward to reading every single one of them.

For another review of William Abbey, please do take a look at David’s excellent review at Blue Book Balloon.

Other reviews
The First Fifteen Lives of Harry August
The Sudden Appearance of Hope
The End of the Day
The Gameshouse

Body Tourists by Jane Rogers

Sceptre | 2019 (14 November) | 240p | Review copy | Buy the book

Body Tourists by Jane RogersIn the near future, England is divided. The rich live well, as they’ve always done, in the south while the poor are ghettoed in the northern Estates. There is no shortage of poor people. Many if not most jobs have now been replaced by robots. Making a living is nigh on impossible. The only way to live well is to inherit money. But the poor have one thing that the wealthy want more of – time. When the wealthy die they are ‘backed up’, their consciousness digitally stored waiting for a host body in which it can be implanted. And that’s where scientist Luke Butler comes in. He has used his aunt’s wealth to develop technology that will transfer the consciousness of the dead into the healthy young bodies of especially selected poor people. In return for losing two weeks of their lives, the poor are rewarded with £10,000, a mighty sum in these dystopian days. And so now the rich can be resurrected for two glorious weeks which means an opportunity to say a final goodbye, to right a wrong, or to make the same mistakes all over again. What could possibly go wrong?

Body Tourists has an irresistible premise and I couldn’t wait to read it. The structure works well. We follow the stories of Luke and his rich aunt, but we also spend time with a series of people, one at a time, who either make the step of bringing a loved one back to life for two weeks, or who decide to become hosts themselves. And then there are the others, the families and friends of those who become hosts, and have to deal with a kind of loss of their own. This is a fascinating and horrible society. Money is so precious and so scarce. People have to make decisions they shouldn’t and the consequences can be awful for them.

There is some great worldbuilding here. The descriptions of the northern estates are especially compelling. People are effectively sedated by their virtual reality games, turning themselves into zombies, while a few fight back setting up gyms and dance studios, anything to get people to engage with a real world that cares nothing for them. I really enjoyed the chapters that we spend here, especially with Paula whose life is transformed by her experiences as a host. There are other stories that are really moving, that of the teacher accused of a terrible crime whose lover never got the chance to say she was sorry for disbelieving her, or disturbing, such as the man who brings his father back to life so that they can try and reboot their relationship. These are the very real strengths of Blood Tourists.

I did have issues with the novel, mostly involving the character of Luke Butler, who is just too unpleasant. He and other characters are too light, mostly those involved in running the clinic, and the whole idea of bringing people back to life for only two weeks seems flawed. How would they ever be expected to give up life again? How could you get anything from two weeks when there’s a death sentence at the end of it? And then there’s the unsatisfactory idea of the paradise island where they’re all sent. Well, not all, and that raises another issue about why some body tourists are allowed to have contact with loved ones and others aren’t. In other words I loved a lot about the ideas behind this novel but I would have liked them explored with more depth and consistency. This is a short novel, a longish novella really, so perhaps it could have been longer. I would certainly have liked to have read more. There is so much going for Body Tourists and, above all else, it’s a fun read and a fascinating portrayal of a near future dystopian England.

Other review
The Testament of Jessie Lamb

The Grid by Nick Cook

Bantam Press | 2019 (14 November) | 407p | Bought copy | Buy the book

The Grid by Nick CookJosh Cain, ex-military and doctor to Robert Thomsen, President of the United States of America, is summoned to a church tower close to the White House. An ex-Marine stands ready to leap to his death. He seems to know who Cain is and he has something important to tell him. There is a plot against the President’s life and Cain must leave no stone unturned to protect him. Seconds later a sniper’s bullet to the head kills the unknown man instantly. The President receives death threats every day but there is something chilling about this warning and it speaks to Cain personally, reminding him of his own loss, that of his beloved wife. The dead man had asked if Cain believes in God. Cain’s mind is filled with questions about the gap, so small, just an instant away, between death and life. The President has his own death on his mind. He dreams about his own death time after time. It always happens the same way. It feels completely real. Cain must wonder if the President’s dreams and the plot are connected, that they are linked by a new threat, one that can manipulate the human mind.

I love political thrillers and I also can’t get enough of speculative or techno thrillers and when the two combine, as with Nick Cook’s The Grid, I cannot resist. The opening chapter has quite a hook to it as Cain tries to save the life of someone he cannot understand but desperately wants to. We’re immediately plunged into a mystery that’s both intriguing and sinister. At the heart of it is Cain and the novel is told in his words as he endeavours to unravel a complicated plot against the President. As it becomes ever more apparent that the plot might be closer to the President that he might like, Cain also has to navigate the complex structure of security agencies that work in secret to keep the President and the country safe. It is a minefield. And the more he digs the more the personal danger for Cain, and his helper Special Agent Hetta Hart, culminating in one absolutely terrifying moment.

The thriller doesn’t just stick to Washington DC and Camp David, it also takes us to Jerusalem and Moscow. The Moscow chapters are among the most fascinating of the book as the leaders of America and Russia try to develop a relationship that might just save the world, or not. I loved the mood of this, the move between offices (including the Oval Office), cars and planes. It’s all so official and yet it’s absolutely deadly.

I did have some issues with the novel, mostly to do with its huge number of characters, each working for different agencies, in America and elsewhere, meaning there is also an awful lot of acronyms. If it weren’t for the dramatis personae at the end of the novel, I would have really struggled, not least because sometimes characters are called by their first name and then later by their surname and it isn’t easy at all to tie the two together. I did find the nature of The Grid itself a little baffling but I don’t mind that in a techno thriller, I find keeping track of a multitude of characters much harder. And there are so many agencies! Fortunately, though, the second half of the book was much clearer and so I’m glad that I decided to stick with it. Because the latter stages are utterly compelling and gripping. They’re also quite haunting and emotional as Cain faces his own past, just as the President must face his.

There are some messages here that I like, especially the importance of being kind. You never know when life will end and perhaps the final judgement will come not from God but from yourself. How would you wish to be judged? The most important thing is love. It might be a complicated thriller but its prime message is a simple one and it’s very effective.

Interference by Sue Burke

Tor | 2019 (22 October) | 320p | Review copy | Buy the book

Interference by Sue BurkeInterference is the second novel in Sue Burke’s Semiosis Duology. Both novels stand well on their own – they’re set a considerable time apart – but I think you do need to read Semiosis first. This review assumes that you’ve had the pleasure.

Two centuries have passed since human colonists landed on the planet Pax, a world that humans had to share with sentient, intelligent animal life and plant life. A kind of utopia was established in which everyone and everything had to work together for the good of one and for the good of all. An animated world, filled with beauty and danger, watched over by Stevland, a bamboo plant who uses humans and indigenous animals as tools for the good of society. Earth seems a long way away and it is soon almost forgotten. Contact with the home world ceases. And that brings new humans to Pax, scientists who want to know why Pax went silent. Harmony is disrupted as the new humans introduce technology that the human colonists have lost. But perhaps more disturbing that that is the knowledge of Earth that these men and women have carried with them. Both Earth and Pax have shown themselves to be vulnerable.

I absolutely loved Semiosis and it’s a joy to return to the wonderful world of Pax. Life is lived in a small settlement. It’s a rural life, with humans working alongside the local population of Glassmakers (which look a little like praying mantises). There is a real sense of wonder about some of the animals and plant life of Pax. Communication, understanding and cooperation are such important themes. It’s all beautifully and lovingly described, although at times there is violence and sadness. The Glassmakers have customs which are hard for humans to accept. But they must do so. Humans and Glassmakers get along, despite the history of mistrust between them, something that is awoken when the new humans arrive with their racist descriptions of the Glassmakers as insects.

Each of the long chapters is told from the perspective of a different individual, whether an Earth human, a Pax human, a Glassmaker or the extraordinary plant, Stevland. Stevland is such a fascinating concept. My favourite characters, though, are the Glassmakers, who reveal their feelings through smell and are incredibly loyal.

The new humans are less appealing and I must admit that I enjoyed far less the sections spent in their company. Some of them are narrow-minded, ignorant (perhaps even stereotypically so) and embarrassing. They also reveal something about the apocalypse that has robbed Earth of almost all human life.

Interference didn’t grip me as much as Semiosis, possibly I think because of the introduction of these new, flawed humans. This all distracted from the wonder of Pax and the incredible way in which the human colonists have changed in two centuries, with the way, for example, that each generation of colonist distinguishes itself from the others. It was all so new and fascinating in Semiosis, all so positive. Interference is darker. It’s also slow in places – I don’t think that the structure helps. Nevertheless, this is beautiful writing and, with no doubt at all, this duology is extremely intelligent science fiction and Pax, gorgeous Pax, is an absolute joy to explore.

Other review