Tag Archives: Science Fiction

The Weight of the World by Tom Toner

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Other review
The Promise of the Child

Six Wakes by Mur Lafferty

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Cover reveal (and a review taster) – The End of the Day by Claire North

Claire North is one of the most exciting and original authors writing today – and if you enjoy science fiction thrillers, or thrillers, or just a very good book, then you’ll have no doubt already met The First Fifteen Lives of Harry August, Touch and The Sudden Appearance of Hope. Each time I finish one of these novels, I marvel at Claire North’s imagination, which is vast, and her talent, which is extraordinary, and wonder whatever will come next. This year the answer is The End of the Day, which will be published on 6 April by Orbit. And she’s done it again!

I’m delighted to be involved in the reveal of the cover for The End of the Day. It also gives me an opportunity to tell you something about the book and also do a bit from my review, the rest of which will be posted closer to the publication date. The cover, which is rather fine, as I’m sure you’ll agree, is the excellent work of Duncan Spilling (Little, Brown Book Group).

The End of the Day by Claire North

The blurb
Charlie meets everyone – but only once.
You might meet him in a hospital, in a warzone, or at the scene of traffic accident.
Then again, you might meet him at the North Pole – he gets everywhere, our Charlie.
Would you shake him by the hand, take the gift he offers, or would you pay no attention to the words he says?
Sometimes he is sent as a courtesy, sometimes as a warning. He never knows which.

Review taster
Charlie 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.

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 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.

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.

Preorder The End of the Day

The Fortress at the End of Time by Joe M. McDermott

Tor | Ebook (17 January 2017); Pb (13 February 2017) | 305p | Review copy | Buy the book

The Fortress at the End of Time by Joe M. McDermottFor the newly cloned there is little worse than a posting to the Citadel, a listening outpost located between galaxies, on the very edge of human-inhabited space. So far away is it that time itself has little meaning. There’s no escape. In time, the clone will retire to the desolate desert rock orbited by the Citadel, and there he or she (but mostly he) will farm or contemplate God. If very lucky he will have the comfort of knowing that a piece of his consciousness has transcended, itself cloned to live another, hopefully happier existence far, far away. This seems unlikely for pilot Ensign Ronaldo Aldo II, clone of Aldo I and similarly lacking in empathy and tact. He’s liked by few – his commanding officer hates him – and he is cursed by bad luck. Things always go wrong when Aldo is around and, even though it’s not his fault if his colleagues die, commit suicide or abscond, nobody wants to get too close.

The Fortress at the End of Time follows Aldo through ten years of misery. First Ensign and then Captain, Ronaldo Aldo has much to endure as he learns more and more about the way that the Citadel works. Corruption seeps through the shoddy walls of this stinking rathole. The fact that there are so few women doesn’t help tempers. People remember what life was like before they were cloned and sent out to the Citadel as if they were no more significant than an email attachment. Aldo made mistakes before and it looks like he’s well on the way to repeating them.

The novel moves between the Citadel and the planet below, which is undergoing the slow process of being terraformed. While people on the Citadel live in squalour, the settlers on the planet are barely surviving at all, watched over constantly by a monastery of untrustworthy brothers. Almost everyone fears the return of an alien force that attacked the station lifetimes ago and is for a return of this enemy that the Citadel listens. This gives Aldo purpose but it could also send him mad.

The premise of The Fortress at the End of Time is extremely appealing, as is the title, and parts of the novel deliver on its promise. It is a very compelling read and once you’re immersed it can be hard to extract yourself. The descriptions of the Citadel and the rock below are very well done, contributing to the mood of remoteness, alienation, abandonment and isolation. One way or another not everyone lasts long out here and this adds to the sense of despair that Aldo must endure every day. There is only a small number of characters and they are deployed very well, forming a tight if disjointed circle and intensifying the claustrophobic atmosphere and feel of a small lifeboat hopelessly adrift. Each of the characters stands out well and plays their part in the story, with the possible exception of the monks – they felt comparatively undeveloped and purposeless, even though there was an important place in the novel for them to fill.

There are some interesting issues considered here, mostly to do with sexuality and gender. It is this human element of the story that is developed at the cost of some of the science fiction. I didn’t think that the science and process of cloning were explained clearly enough and almost no time at all was spent on the past war. It’s all left very vague, although it’s quite possible that this was intentional – memory is another theme of the book. How can clones remember the past and what does the past matter when time is meaningless?

My main issue with The Fortress at the End of Time is with its relentless doom and gloom. Aldo is not a cheery character, which is hardly surprising, but he’s also not very likeable (or even likeable at all) and this adds to the general despair of the novel. There is some lightness – love and families – but conditions are so hard that love doesn’t often fare well. Aldo certainly does his best to do it harm. There is a religious element which isn’t fully explored in the novel and so, when it rears its head later in the book very unexpectedly, it rather felt like I’d been bludgeoned with it. If there are answers here, I can’t agree with them.

This is a short (about 300 pages) and fast read and, as I mentioned, it is an immersive one. The Fortress at the End of Time is full of premise and promise but not all of it delivers, creating issues that are exacerbated by the unremitting gloom and negativity. There were lots of elements that I enjoyed and it is most certainly an intriguing novel but my mood was dark when I put it down for the final time.

Hold Back the Stars by Katie Khan

Doubleday | 2017 (26 January) | 320p | Review copy | Buy the book

Hold Back the Stars by Katie KhanCarys and Max are adrift in space, tethered to one another, and with only ninety minutes of air left. In the short time left to them they try their best to return to their spaceship but ultimately the two of them are all that is left and in these minutes they turn to each other and remember their past and how they dared to do that one thing they shouldn’t – they fell in love.

Living in the near future, Carys and Max are citizens of Europia, a European Utopia bound by rules to further the freedom of the individual. People move every three years to a different region in which they build new friendships, contribute to society in different ways and experience new places and cultures. They are the lucky ones. America and the Middle East have been destroyed by nuclear war and the entire planet is now enclosed within an asteroid belt that has put the stars out of reach. But all is not perfect in Utopia. Marriage is forbidden to the young. It belongs instead to those in their thirties who have matured enough to understand their responsibilities to society and know their place within it. But Carys and Max, both in their twenties, cannot live apart.

Hold Back the Stars is a beautifully elegant yet unsentimental novel about illicit love in a society that in so many ways has so much going for it. In a way, this is a novel about perspective. People are so busy living life they miss the bigger picture. Max and Carys can see it all when they drift through space, the planet far below them, its boundaries lost. But theirs is no rose-petalled romance. And Katie Khan does a wonderful job of making it real, flaws and all, all set within this brilliantly realised future world.

I’m not a reader of romance but I am a huge fan of science fiction and I loved the premise of Hold Back the Stars. It is the story of a love affair but this is much more a novel about two individuals than about a couple. And it is such a fascinating one. Scattered throughout are the moments adrift in space, the minutes of air counting down, and the beautiful horror of their situation stretching out around them into the blackness. It is the definition of compelling. And the story doesn’t quite go where you might expect.

Hold Back the Stars would definitely appeal to teenage readers but it didn’t feel to me like a Young Adult novel especially. Max and Carys are in their twenties. It is society that demands them to act as if they are younger. I really enjoyed the mix of freedom and control, utopia and dystopia, peace and war. But most of all, I loved Carys and Max – and Osric.

This is a book full of surprises, with far more to it than you might think at first when you read the premise. I wasn’t expecting the type of story it became but I loved the direction it took. It’s not a long novel and it’s a fast read, very difficult to put down and utterly bewitching. Hold Back the Stars is Katie Khan’s debut novel but I would never have guessed. I love the way it combined worlds and confounded my expectations while giving me such glorious characters to enjoy. Whatever will be next?!

Invasive by Chuck Wendig

HarperCollins | 2016 | 384p | Bought copy | Buy the book

Invasive by Chuck WendigHannah Stander works for the FBI as a futurist. It’s her job to investigate crimes committed with technology so cutting-edge it can defy belief. And when FBI agent Hollis Cooper calls to let her know that a thousand dead bodies have been found in a cabin in New York State, Hannah finds herself at the centre of the puzzle of her life.

Instead of a thousand dead bodies, Hannah discovers in the cabin the corpse of a man stripped of his skin by thousands of ants that now lie dead around him. Hannah’s entomologist friend Ez Choi friend reveals that these are no ordinary ants, they have been engineered into man-eating monsters and their genetic markers suggest that they have been made by a biotech company in Hawaii owned by the charismatic and ridiculously rich Icelandic philanthropist and environmentalist, Einar Geirsson. Hannah has no option but to take the case to him on his island that might not be quite the tropical paradise it first appears.

I am huge fan of Michael Crichton’s techno thrillers, such as Jurassic Park, Airframe, Next, Prey and Micro, and as soon as I heard about Invasive I knew I had to read it as soon as possible. The fact that I’ve also recently read and loved Ezekiel Boone’s spidery horror The Hatching didn’t hurt a bit. A novel about engineered skin-eating killer ants on the rampage? Irresistible.

There are elements of Invasive that remind me of Jurassic Park in particular but I soon came to the conclusion that this is no bad thing and I lapped it up. All of it. This is a thrilling novel of survival quite apart from the fascinating science behind these rather unpleasant critters and it becomes increasingly intense as the numbers of survivors dwindle one by one and the ants themselves look set on an escape to the mainland. The chaos and murder they wreak is horrifyingly chilling and lovingly described. A part of me wanted to look away but the rest of me couldn’t.

I loved the character of Hannah. She’s got the weight of the world on her shoulders, thanks to her parents, and this is dealt with brilliantly by Chuck Wendig. She has so much to fight against and she manages it even though it’s so hard. Agent Cooper has his own problems and it’s all the more telling that he has to rely on Hannah who really could do with some care herself. But despite, or because of, her problems, Hannah’s humour is something she relies upon and this is a novel full of witty, sharp dialogue. It really is such a pleasure to read.

If you read a novel about killer ants you want it to make your skin itch, your spine shudder and your pulse beat faster. Invasive achieved this perfectly. The whodunnit element is satisfyingly done and, chillingly, we go from one crisis to another, from one bloody death to another – I couldn’t turned these pages quickly enough. Fast, gory, horrific, clever, witty, disgusting, itchy – Invasive ticks all the techno thriller boxes while also managing to put me off ants quite considerably.

Dark Made Dawn by J.P. Smythe (Australia 3)

Hodder & Stoughton | 2016 | 313p | Review copy | Buy the book

Dark Made Dawn by J.P. SmytheWith Dark Made Dawn, J.P. Smythe’s Young Adult science fiction trilogy Australia comes to an end. You obviously need to have read Way Down Dark and Long Dark Dusk first and this review assumes that you’ve had the pleasure.

It’s a difficult task to review the final book in a trilogy because it’s all too easy to give away something you shouldn’t. But what I can say is that Dark Made Dawn picks up shortly after Long Dark Dusk finished and it takes off at a rocket’s pace. Once more Chan finds herself in a compromised situation, having to do what she must to survive, driven on by her need to protect the people closest to her while continuing her quest to find the child she once cared for aboard Australia. But the time for compromise is drawing to an end. Chan must make a difficult choice and, once made, there can be no turning back. Chan is determined and once she sets off, it’s all we can do to hang on for the ride. And what a dangerous, thrilling ride it is.

Dark Made Dawn does a fine job of completing the story. It’s exciting and it satisfies. It also continues the themes and mood of the other two books and in Chan’s progress she is true to herself. She knows better than anyone how hard it is to trust and in this society few people present a truly honest front to the world. Good and evil aren’t straight forward, people are constantly surprising, but there is one constant – the darkness of this dystopian Earth.

There is no doubt that this is a gloomy portrait of a future Earth but its worldbuilding is fantastic with cities enclosed by great walls or rising seas and outsiders scraping a living in the city-surrounding deserts of this ruined planet. There is futuristic technology but it’s used sparingly and effectively.

The main focus of this book, and the two preceding it, is Chan. Her life has been so hard and it continues to be so here. And we desperately want her to succeed, even though she knows that there are times when she must be the worst she can. But Chan isn’t alone in this novel. There’s someone else with her and they are fascinating to watch, although for me it is still Chan, the girl who fell to Earth, who rules this book.

I’ve been reading and enjoying James Smythe’s novels since the beginning and there is something very special about them. They’re intense and bold, dark and, at times, despairing. But they are always clever and very different, even from each other. I look forward to discovering what he has in store for us next.

Other reviews
The Testimony
The Explorer (The Anomaly Quartet 1)
The Machine
The Echo (The Anomaly Quartet 2)
No Harm Can Come to a Good Man
Way Down Dark (Australia 1)
Long Dark Dusk (Australia 2)

Also reviewed at Curiosity Killed the Bookworm