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Reading diary 2019, #6

My reading seems to be all over the place of late. Mostly it’s because I’ve been limiting myself to buying ebooks, and only when they’re cheap. I did bring some books with me, and I bought a few at the recent Swecon, but I put a lot of unread books into storage. So with less to choose from, my reading has proven less planned. Ah well.

X, Sue Grafton (2015, USA). I’ve been a fan of Grafton’s Kinsey Millhone novels since discovering them back in the mid-nineties. As well as being good crime novels with an engaging narrator, Grafton’s decision to keep the internal chronology consistent irrespective of how long it took her to produce a novel has meant each book has slipped further and further back into the past. Even now, thirty-seven years after the series began – or rather, thirty-three years from A to X – and X is still set in the 1980s, albeit towards the end of the decade. Millhone is hired by a local rich woman to check up on the son she gave up for adoption decades before, and who has just been released from prison after committing a string of burglaries. She does as asked but then discovers the man was no relation… and that the rich woman is the estranged wife of millionaire, and the two are trying to screw as much money out of each other as possible. Throw in a string of missing women and the man responsible for their deaths, identified by Milhone, and who then begins stalk her. Plus an elderly couple who have moved into Milhone’s neighbourhood but do not prove to be who they claim… It’s a bit busier than most of the Milhone novels, and the millionaire man and wife plot actually has a happy end; but these are good books and definitely worth reading.

Embers of War, Gareth L Powell (2018, UK). This won the BSFA Award earlier this year, although I don’t chose the books I read because they won awards (ha!). I’d sort of gone off space opera in recent years as none of the stuff being published really appealed – and, to be honest, most of it seems to resemble military sf more than it does space opera. But UK space opera is a different beast to US space opera, and closer to my sensibilities. I’d also heard a few good things about Embers of War… But, well, having now read it, I’m not entirely convinced. Powell’s decision to tell his story using a number of different points of view in short chapters, I think, worked against it. It didn’t help that so many of the voices were similar, including that of the ship’s AI whose story the novel ostensibly is (in fact, Embers of War is the first in a series about the ship; the sequel is Fleet of Knives). Anyway, the ship Trouble Dog used to be a warship but is now a de-armed rescue ship with your typical space opera crew of misfits. A spaceliner is attacked by a mysterious enemy while visiting a planetary system whose planets were all reshaped into giant sculptures by a powerful and long-dead alien race. Trouble Dog goes to the rescue. Meanwhile, the target of the spaceliner attack – and why do sf novels think it’s acceptable to murder thousands in pursuit of just one person? It needs to stop – has managed to survive and finds herself on the surface of the planet known as the Brain (because, er, it looks like one). She discovers a labyrinth inside the planet – this part of the novel reminded me a great deal of a favourite sf short story, ‘A Map of the Mines of Barnath’ by Sean Williams – and so discovers its secret. The real identity of the woman was not hard to figure out, and it’s the reason why people want her dead – although given she was following orders at the time, it did seem a bit like they were going after the wrong person. The last Powell novel I read was The Recollection back in 2011 (see here), and I thought that started well but then turned boringly generic. Embers of War suffers from the latter as well. The world-building is all a bit too identikit and the ideas feel somewhat second-hand (cf my mention of the Williams story earlier). The characterisation is either bland or relies on quirks, and the prose is readable without being memorable. Readers who like BDOs and alien puzzles will find something to their taste here, but for me this is just Extruded Space Opera Product, with little or nothing that makes it stand out.

The Paper Men, William Golding (1984, UK). I’m having trouble making up my mind about Golding. Until a couple of years ago, I knew him only as the author of Lord of the Flies – his debut novel and his most famous, which must have really hurt – but then I read Rites of Passage and was very impressed. I picked up several of his books in a charity shop, so I had more to read. But… I’m reminded of John Fowles’s oeuvre: he wrote a couple of novels that were stunning pieces of work, but also a number that were almost emblematic of the output of a British white middle-class middle-brow male writer and so not so good. I think Golding was a better writer than Fowles, although none of his books, other than his debut, were as successful as either The Magus or The French Lieutenant’s Woman (and while the latter is an excellent piece of work, the former is very much the sort of book that’s admired only by people in their early twenties). So too with Golding: a handful of beautifully-written but quite strange novels, and then some that are pretty much emblematic of the output of a British white middle class male writer, although perhaps never middle-brow. And The Paper Men falls into the latter category. It’s a first-person narrative by a famous writer who has managed to build a successful career out of a critically-acclaimed and commercially-successful novel and a series of much less successful follow-on works. But he’s seen as an important man of letters, and a US academic turns up on his doorstep asking to be his official biographer. The writer refuses. Shortly afterwards, the writer’s marriage breaks up and he heads off to foreign parts. There’s then a sort of hallucinatory chase around the world, with the biographer trying, and failing, to gain permission to access the writer’s papers. There’s something more going on there, or at least it feels like there should be, but if it’s a reference to anything it pass me by. There’s some very male-gazey – well, pretty lecherous – depictions of the biographer’s young wife, and a number of situations with border on farce. In fact, at times The Paper Men feels like it’s supposed to be a comic novel, even though it’s not at all humorous for most of its length. I’ll certainly read more Golding, but the last two books by him I’ve read have been somewhat disappointing.

The Bitter Twins, Jen Williams (2018, UK). I read the first book in this trilogy earlier this year (see here), and only did so because some friends were extremely effusive with their praise of it… I mean, I’m not a fan of heroic fantasy, although I’ve read a lot of it in the past, and I’m pretty sure there’s very little overlap between my taste in genre fiction and that of the one friend who praised these books the most… But I’m happy to read outside my comfort zone because how else would I discover new authors to like and admire? While bits of the first book, The Ninth Rain, didn’t entirely work for me, I do like fantasy worlds that are couched as science-fictional – and vice versa, of course – so there were definitely things to appreciate there. Enough, at least, to read the second book. Which is, I think, better than the first. And middle books of trilogies generally are not that. It’s better because it introduces a mystery in one of its narratives, gives it a satisfying conclusion, and also uses it to reveal some deeper background about the world. On the other hand… there was something about the writing style which didn’t quite click with me. It wasn’t until a chat at a con with the aforementioned friend where she mentioned “cock-blocking” and quoted a particular line from The Bitter Twins that I figured out what it was about the prose that was giving me trouble: it was written like fan fiction. The author was having far too much fun with their characters, to the extent that “having fun with characters” was driving the story rather than the plot. I’m not saying this is a bad thing. That friend? She’s a big fan of fan fiction, so it’s an approach and style of narrative that appeals to her. I don’t have that background – she had to explain what “cock-blocking” was to me – and I prefer my narrative voice distanced (see pretty much every Reading diary post on this blog). Despite that, the world-building in this trilogy remains very good – in many respects, it reminds me of Jemisin’s award-winning Broken Earth trilogy – and while the good guys tend to be a bit too good to be true at times, the villains of the piece are interesting. Worth a go.

Air Force!, Frank Harvey (1959, USA). I think it was the cover art which prompted me to buy this. I do like books about the Space Race, and while a cherry-picker was never used to deliver astronauts to their space capsule – whatever capsule that’s supposed to be on the cover – it all looked close enough to reality to appeal. If you know what I mean. The contents turned out to be somewhat different to what I’d expected. For a start, I’d thought it was non-fiction, a series of essays written for the popular press about the Space Race, or extrapolations of its future. It turned out to be entirely fictional, albeit based on extrapolations of the state of aviation and space technology in the US at the time.  There are eight stories, originally published chiefly in the Saturday Evening Post. One story is about the first X-15 flight to achieve orbit (the X-15 never did), another is about a pilot whose wife is pressurising him to leave USAF and go into business but his successful prevention of a disaster on a flight persuades him to say. Another story has a fighter pilot “demoted” to transport planes but he manages to prevent a fatal crash during a catastrophic failure of his plane’s systems and that persuades his superiors he should be back flying fighters. It’s all very gung-ho and USAF rah rah rah, and while the technical details are spot-on, the extrapolations are closer to the military’s wishful thinking than what actually happened. This is Man In Space Soonest rather than Skylab, if you know what I mean. The prose is not even serviceable, it’s “journalese” and presents each story as a cross between fiction and a personal account. It’s fun, if you’re into mid-twentieth century US aviation fiction, but its appeal these days, ie sixty years later, is going to be limited pretty much to fans of that. Like, er, me.

A Big Ship at the End of the Universe, Alex White (2018, USA). I should have known from the title… and its sequels’ titles (currently A Bad Deal for the Whole Galaxy and The Worst of All Possible Worlds). This is the Becky Chambers school of titling books, and I’m not a fan of Becky Chambers’s novels. Although to be fair, I was unimpressed with A Big Ship at the End of the Universe for a number of reasons, of which its terrible title was probably the least objectionable. The bad news starts pretty much on the first page. This is a far-future space opera universe… and it has magic. There’s no sense to it, clearly it was added because the author it was a cool idea. Half the stuff magic does in the book is also done by technology. Why would they do that, build a technological solution to a problem already solved by magic? It’s like that throughout the story. But, you know, some people like tech and magic; the fact it makes no sense, that it destroys any rigour the universe might claim to possess, is not a deal-breaker for them. It’s certainly a hurdle more easily scaled by some readers than others. Had that been my only issue with A Big Ship at the End of the Universe, then I’d have simply written it off as “not for me”. But… The novel opens with car race on a space station and it’s clear this is a sport all worlds enjoy and follow, and there’s a lot of money and prestige invested in it, much like Formula 1 in the real world. During the race, one of the drivers, the favourite to win the championship, witnesses the murder of her rival by a strange masked magical figure who seems to have EVEN MOAR magical powers than is known to be possible. The driver is charged with the murder, fears for her life, and does a runner (despite belonging to one of the richest families in the galaxy). Meanwhile, a woman who makes a living selling fake treasure maps to gullible treasure hunters finds herself being hunted by unknown assailants. And she is one of those rare people who have no magical ability whatsoever. Both end up being kidnapped by, and then dragooned into, the crew of the Capricious, an ex-warship from the losing side of an earlier war. The map-seller was once a member of the crew but walked away when the war ended. Bad feelings remain. The plot is all about a super-warship that disappeared during the war, and somehow the super-magic assassin is associated with it. After some internal tensions, the crew of the Capricious track down the ship with authorially imposed ease, but then find themselves the targets of a group of super-powerful magicians, including the aforementioned assassin, who seem to have no trouble razing rich and powerful galactic institutions to the ground. And that is this novel’s biggest problem. The villains are super-powerful, and their strategy of slash and burn is at complete odds with the conspiracy’s previous actions, and it all seems EVEN MOAR implausible than having random magic powers in a technological space opera universe. And if that weren’t enough, the hardy band of adventures otherwise known as the crew of the Capricious still manage to win the day. They are massively outgunned, hugely outgunned… But they win. A battle, not the war – as indicated by the presence of sequels. I mean, there’s suspension of disbelief and there’s suspension of disbelief. The presence of magic is stretching it, but I’m willing to go with it. The rest? No! Dial it back, FFS. It’s nonsense. Super-villains taken down by hardy adventurers with no special powers? There’s no rigour here, no attempt at it. It’s like the author just threw “cool” ideas at the page with no regard for what fitted. It’s not like the plot is super original, because it’s not, in fact it’s a pretty standard one for RPGs (and “ordinary” player-characters overcoming super-powered NPCs is also pretty common in RPGs). Anyway, A Big Ship at the End of the Universe is not a good book. I will not be continuing with the series.

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Reading diary 2019, #1

I seem to be slacking on the reading from this year. My excuse is sorting all my shit out – that’s a few thousand books, for a start – before I move to Sweden… This will be the third time I’ve moved to another country, and it never gets any easier.

The Ways of the World, The Corners of the Globe and The Ends of the Earth, Robert Goddard (2013 – 2015, UK). I’ve been reading Goddard’s novels for years – I think I first came across them when I was living in the UAE – and found them to be light undemanding thrillers, sometimes a little formulaic, sometimes a little too implausible – but quick and easy reads. The Ways of the World, The Corners of the Globe and The Ends of the Earth, collectively known as the James Maxted trilogy, or the Wide World trilogy, are historical thrillers, not contemporary like his usual fare, and take place just before, during and after the peace talks in Paris which resulted in the Treaty of Versaille in 1919. The story opens when the father of James ‘Max’ Maxted, who is part of the British delegation in Paris, is found dead, seemingly by suicide after jumping from a high roof. Max smells foul play, and heads off to France to uncover the truth… which drags him into a mystery stretched over three books, and which initially seems to be about catching the ex-head of Kaiser Wilhelm’s intelligence bureau, now on the loose and with an extensive network of spies for sale to the highest bidder, before abruptly swerving halfway through the trilogy toward a family secret, located in Japan. So it all reads a bit like two stories welded together into a single trilogy. It doesn’t help that the hero is apparently killed off in book two – he isn’t really; I mean, no one writing commercial fiction would do something like that. But the two main plots sit uneasily together, and The Ways of the World has to tie itself in knots to kick off the first plot without hinting at the second. Goddard’s prose is easy to read, and his research is generally pretty good. The characters are perhaps somewhat broad-brush, but that’s hardly unexpected. But at least in this trilogy he’s managed to avoid his usual tendency to wrap up his story a bit too quickly. But if you want to read a book set in Japan in the early twentieth century, read Yukio Mishima. One for Goddard fans.

The Ninth Rain, Jen Williams (2017, UK). I’ve never been a big fan of fantasy (of the secondary world variety), and what few fantasy novels I read after the turn of the century did little to change my opinion. Grimdark is fucking horrible, and while the recent trend toward more inclusive fantasies is an excellent move, and long overdue, many of the resulting novels seem very derivative. But friends of mine are big fans of Jen Williams, so I  thought I might at least give her a go. And the good news is, there’s an interesting world on display here, and a plot that moves from start to finish without excess flab. On the other hand, the characters are all a bit stereotypical: the prettyboy playboy who’s also excellent at combat (and a super-strong vampire to boot); the slightly absent-minded curious one who’s also massively wealthy; and the underdog with special powers, which increase as the novel progresses. Eight times in the past, nasty aliens, sort of a cross between Giger’s xenomorphs and giant insects, have invaded the world, and been beaten off by the Eborans – really long-lived and good-looking and a bit decadent, so sort of like elves, but their tree-god, whose sap they lived off, died after the last invasion, so now they drink blood, so sort of like elf vampires… Anyway, said tree-god would provide a host of magical feasts to fight the invaders – these are the “rains”. It looks like the aliens might be gearing up for another invasion, but there are no Eborans to fight them, and no tree-god to provide magical warbeasts. Which the reader gradually learns as the plot takes the central trio all over the world researching the whys and wherefores of the aliens. To be honest, I really didn’t like the start of the fell-witch character’s narrative, in which women, often young girls, who exhibit the power are abducted and treated worse than slaves by an organisation that forces them to use their power to develop a popular drug. But the rest of the story made up for it. I’m not a fan of fantasy as a genre, as stated above, but I do sort of like ones that feel like science fiction, such as The Fifth Season. And The Ninth Rain. (The ordinal numbers in the titles are obviously just coincidence.) I enjoyed this book, I’ll probably even read the rest of the trilogy.

Put Out More Flags, Evelyn Waugh (1942, UK). This was the first of Waugh’s WWII satires, published in 1942, so during the war, but, unlike Sword of Honour (see here), it’s a sequel of sorts to Decline and Fall and Vile Bodies, and follows some of the characters introduced in those novels. Basil Seal, something of a reprobate, discovers a way to make money by dumping an incorrigible trio of East End kids on rural aristos as part of the evacuation programme. Another character joins the military and finds himself engaged in work of little or no use to the war effort – which, to be fair, Sword of Honour covered much better (admittedly, that book was written post-war). A week or two after finishing Put Out More Flags and I can’t honestly say I remember much of the plot. The characters are very much the same as in the earlier books, the only difference is the war, the run-up to it, and its early years. For all his faults as a human being – he was apparently a nasty piece of work – Waugh can bloody write. His characters are unsympathetic for a number of reasons: they’re the epitome of entitled British upper classes, usually incredibly stupid and thoughtless, and amazingly selfish. It’s only the fact Waugh’s prose is so enjoyable, and his eye for comedy, that make the books enjoyable.

The Girl King, Mimi Yu (2019, USA). This was a review book for Interzone. It’s hardly my first choice of reading material – see above – but the pickings were slim and the plot summary sounded like it might be worth a go. In a fantasy world clearly inspired by Chinese history, the oldest daughter of the emperor, who is very much a martial tomboy type, is passed over for the throne and instead married off to a cousin she hates. Before the ceremony takes place, she tries to change things so she’ll be seen as a better heir than her cousin – but they plan to kill her. She escapes. And hooks up with the last of a race of werewolves, except he’s not sure about his powers. And it’s all to do with a magical city hidden in the magical “Inbetween”, because the cousin wants the city’s powers for himself. And… the two protagonists, the tomboy and her sister, who turns out be a villain, are both teenage, so is this supposed to be YA? I can no longer tell the difference between YA fantasy and fantasy. I am not, I admit, well-read in the former, but those YA fantasies I have read seemed little different to the fantasies I used to read back in the 1980s and 1990s. I mean, while I never bothered with David Eddings’s novels – at least not until trying Pawn of Prophecy this century (see here), and being hugely unimpressed – I could’t help noticing that they’d been rebadged as YA not so long ago. But that may have just been a cynical marketing ploy to reach a bigger audience. The Girl King is published by Gollancz, an imprint with a lot of history in science fiction, but that means nothing as these days it seems to be mostly buying YA-friendly fantasy properties. Anyway, see the next Interzone for the full review.

1001 Books You Must Read Before You Die count: 133