Book Review

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The Furthest Station, by Ben Aaronovitch

DISCLAIMER: This is not a Harry Potter story!* This is a small, and relatively short book; indeed, the final 18 [unnumbered] pages are devoted to an interview with the author by Paul Stark from [the publisher] “Orion’s audio team”, although, to be fair, this is quite instructive within the context of the subject matter, and the author’s views on it; so, at only 118 pages, it could probably more accurately be described as a novella; but whatever, it is self-contained, and perfectly able to stand on its own, as part of the PC Peter Grant series. It is something of a Curate’s Egg for me: I was attracted to it partly by the cover, which is quirkily eye-catching, but also because it includes the London Underground in its locations, and at least one of the characters is an employee of this august workhorse of an organisation.

PC Peter Grant is an officer in the Special Assessment Unit; otherwise known as the Folly; presumably a section of the Metropolitan Police [although that isn’t specified], and his superior is Detective Chief Inspector Nightingale, who appears to be some type of wizard; or else, a normal human who has become adept at magic, whose existence in this alternate reality is a given. Grant is able to perform minor magic, such as non-physical personal defence, and conjuring what is known as a werelight, which appears to have magical properties over & above simple illumination; he has been called in by his friend & colleague Sergeant Jaget Kumar of the London Underground division of the British Transport Police, and technically, the latter works directly for the Chief Constable as a troubleshooter and “go-to problem solver, but really he was there to deal with the weird shit on the Underground.” Kumar had been given a file of complaints handled by Project Guardian, “a joint BTP/Met/Transport for London/City Police initiative to deal with sexual assaults and offensive behaviour on the transport system.”

They had received a cluster of complaints about assaults on Underground trains using the Metropolitan Line by a ‘man who wasn’t there’, but when the complainants were questioned, their memories of the events, if it was immediately following, were sketchy, although that isn’t unusual for such cases, but if some time subsequently had elapsed, they denied all knowledge of the assaults. Hence Kumar & Grant’s involvement. The scenario does involves some acceptance of the fantasy element, but it is not so far removed from many people’s belief in the possibility of the existence of the paranormal, and phenomena such as ghosts, so it is not too fantastical, and there is some humour in it as well, which leavens the drama. *Many readers might see some similarities, in the magical knowledge & experience possessed & demonstrated by Grant & Nightingale, with the almost improbably famous Harry Potter stories, but I don’t think that this story and, presumably, others in the series, are a serious attempt to emulate them, and they should be read as such.

What brought me to the Curate’s Egg assessment was the colloquial language employed by the protagonist; I readily admit that I am pedantic with regard to the use of the English language, especially written, where preselection is not only implied, but expected, and I happily concede that PC Grant is not the most erudite of policemen, notwithstanding his relative youth, and [whatever his ethnicity] he is not going to think or speak the language as correctly as an English professor at one of our revered universities should [verb chosen advisedly], but it goes against the grain to read the prime example of this where he says, more than once in his first-person narration, “… me and [A N Other]” instead of “[A N Other] and I …”. I’m not sure what the reason for this might be: is it to make our hero seem ‘street-smart’, or is it to appeal to what I fear is a predominantly young[er than I], linguistically challenged audience; or both? Either way, and I make no excuses, but I just don’t like it, and its use grated on me. Otherwise, I enjoyed the book as a whole, and the dénouement was satisfying. The paperback I read was published in 2018 [2017] by Gollancz, an imprint of the Orion Publishing Group Ltd., London, ISBN 978-1-4732-2243-4.

Book Review

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Termination Shock, by Neal Stephenson

If this book, and the previous one by the same author which I have read, Cryptonomicon,  [albeit a much later book in his canon] are representative, then they are all [13] very long indeed; this one runs to 697 [!] pages, and the font used for the text is small—possibly 12pt—but I can genuinely say that this was a book I really didn’t want to end. It will probably be classified as SciFi but, given that it has been written within the last couple of years, on recent evidence, I would describe it as prescient, because IMHO one doesn’t have to be a tree-hugging, panicking environmentalist to discern that the scenario presented here is all too plausible; even possible—I hope against hope it is not probable. It is the near future; although the exact year is not specified, but COVID-27 is mentioned [subsequent to COVID-23 and our by-now familiar COVID-19], so it could be in the region of ten years hence, at least, and the climate has significantly worsened. The explanation for the book’s title will follow some further background information.

There are several different strands to the narrative, starting in different locations, but the reason for that will soon become clear. I had to put my republican sentiments into suspended animation for the duration of this story but, thankfully, that wasn’t too difficult, despite one of the main characters being the fictitious queen of the Netherlands, Frederika Mathilda Louisa Saskia, although the Dutch ‘royal’ family is famously low-maintenance; Saskia, as she prefers to be known by those close to her, is also a likeable person [but that has no bearing on my principles, as in the British situation]. A Texan billionaire, T.R. Schmidt [aka McHooligan, the publicly marketed persona for his chain of truck stops] has invited a somewhat disparate group of prominent persons to a conference in Houston, to discuss the climate crisis, and Saskia is one of these; although her constitutional inability to act directly & unilaterally is explained in great detail [as is much else: one of the commendable aspects of Stephenson’s narratives]. Unfortunately, her incoming self-piloted jet aeroplane crashes on landing at Waco airport; Houston being unavailable as a result of the intense heat; but she, and her minimal entourage survive, albeit with a few non life-threatening injuries, to continue the journey, and during her rescue from the cause of the crash, feral swine [and, randomly, although not much more, an alligator], she encounters another main character in the story: Rufus [Red] Grant, a self-employed operator trading under the name FERAL SWINE MITIGATION SERVICES.

Another character, who initially also seems like a rather random inclusion, is a young Canadian man by the name of Deep, although he generally goes by the nickname of Laks, which is derived from the salmon he catches for a living; when he can’t do that in his native British Columbia, out of season, he works as a welder. Initially, these aspects of his character, in addition to his high level of fitness and toned physique, and the traditional Indian martial arts he enjoys practising because of his Indian heritage, don’t seem to connect with the rest of the narrative, but slowly & surely, through the literal, as well as emotional journey he undertakes, the author draws these loose strands together, and they later connect very satisfactorily.

Schmidt’s proposal, which is demonstrated after all the scrupulously polite & accommodating preliminaries, is to spread the sulphur which he has available in vast quantities into the upper atmosphere, providing a global reflective blanket to mitigate the greenhouse effect of the sun, which has been exacerbated by human-produced carbon dioxide. He is going to do this unilaterally and, it transpires, has already started doing it [the technical details are quite involved, so better absorbed from the narrative]; he hopes to also encourage other strategically placed nations to do the same, hence the conference, although the invitees are not necessarily the most geographically, or politically, obvious. Hence the jeopardy in the story: a scheme such as this has been proposed in similar forms previously, but a scientific consensus was never reached so, with a nod to his location, Schmidt decided that he must take the metaphorical bull by the horns and use his money for humanity’s benefit. Unfortunately, not all of humanity would be similarly benefited, and nations such as China & India, which were not invited, are significantly concerned, for political as well as geo-climatic reasons.

The title is the name of what is generally reckoned [using the climatic data currently available to the scientists] will happen if climate-mitigating measures, such as that proposed, and already put into action by Schmidt, are precipitately terminated: the climate would go into a sort of shock, from which it might never recover; or, at least, not in a way which would be conducive to long-term survival of the human race. For several different reasons, I cannot recommend this book highly enough: whether it would convince waverers, or hardline climate change sceptics, of the need for rapid & decisive climate mitigating action is debatable, but aside from the politics, it’s a damn good and well-written story—I would also recommend Cryptonomicon, if you have any interest at all in cryptography, but the history aspect of it is also illuminating, and written in a very approachable way. The [large!] paperback I read was published in 2022 [2021] by the Borough Press, an imprint of HarperCollinsPublishers Ltd., London, ISBN 978-0-0084-0440-6.

Book Review

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Over A Torrent Sea, by Christopher L. Bennett

This story is one of the multitudinous episodes in book form in the Star Trek canon, and this particular one is an adventure of the Star Ship Titan; although I wasn’t familiar with this ship, or the events which precede this story, the fact that I know the captain, William Riker, from the Star Trek: The Next Generation television series, means that I felt comfortable reading it, without a steep learning curve required to acquaint myself with a lot of new characters [although there are quite a few]. I’ve never been able to understand how the Stardate system works, but at the beginning of the story, we are given an equivalence between Stardate 58126.3 & 2381 in the current western system: no doubt I could look it up online, if I could be bothered….. There must have been a series of books preceding this one, entitled Star Trek: Destiny, detailing “devastating events”, according to the book’s cover, presumably involving The Federation’s arch-enemies, the Borg, who have, also presumably, been defeated, enabling “Captain William Riker and the crew of the U.S.S. Titan … to resume their deep-space assignment, reaffirming Starfleet’s core principles of peaceful exploration.”

They encounter a very unusual planet, one consisting of a global ocean, with no apparent solid land to be seen anywhere. They [as in, the English-speaking ones] name the planet Droplet and, initially, it appears that it is devoid of any life, sentient or otherwise, but luckily, there is in the crew an aquatic lifeform, Aili Lavena, who is able to explore the oceans freely [and joyfully], unencumbered by the life-support suit she is obliged to wear in gaseous atmospheres; she has also, because her species is unashamedly promiscuous at a specific period in their life-cycles, enjoyed a brief but rewarding liaison with Will Riker, which will become a matter of some embarrassment for him as the story unfolds, especially as he is now in a serious relationship with the ship’s Counsellor, the Betazoid empath Deanna Troi, who must have moved with him from Enterprise, for that very reason: she is in the late stage of pregnancy, having tragically lost a previous baby by miscarriage.

It is discovered that there are, in fact, lifeforms in the ocean, capable of living at great depths, but it isn’t clear whether they are sentient, or simply ‘animal’; because they look like an amalgam of a whale & a squid, they are called squales. The question of sentience is almost resolved when Lavena is rescued from a predator, and it is confirmed when the squales destroy probes which have been submerged to warn them away from an area which would be dangerous for them, as a result of an underwater tsunami; also, Lavena has been able to establish primitive communication with them, as her own language bears some basic similarities, so she learns that technology appears to frighten them. Inevitably, the Federation’s Prime Directive has to be considered when a rogue asteroid appears to be on course for the planet, and Riker has to decide whether they can reveal their extraterrestrial origin, something which has thus far been carefully concealed. Revealing any more would probably spoil the plot which, if you enjoy science fiction in general, and the Star Trek canon specifically, is exemplary of the Star Trek ethos; in particular, how all life, in its great diversity, is precious, and that difference in all forms should be respected, and not feared. The paperback I read should still be available, but it might necessitate some effort in locating: I like to think that effort will be rewarded. It was published in 2009 by Pocket Books, a division of Simon & Schuster, Inc., under exclusive licence from CBS Studios, Inc., ISBN 978-1-4165-9497-0.

Book Review

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The War in the Dark, by Nick Setchfield

This is the author’s first novel, but it is a very accomplished introduction; he is no stranger to writing, as he is a writer & features editor for a “best-selling magazine of genre entertainment in film, TV and books [SFX].” This background shouldn’t automatically suggest an inspiration for the subject matter of this story, but he has evidently embraced it enthusiastically. Christopher Winter thinks he knows how the world works, at the beginning of the narrative, but he is very quickly disabused of that notion. It is October 1963, and he is an MI6 assassin, who can kill spies & traitors, seemingly without compunction, at the behest of his masters. His latest contract, a priest who is suspected of selling state secrets to the Russians, presents him with a worrying development; for a start, he doesn’t just accept his fate, like the majority of Winters’s victims, but when Winters does kill the man, after a fight in which Winters is knifed in the arm, the priest dissolves into something altogether unholy as he dies.

Thereafter, the plot becomes increasingly gothic. According to Christopher’s erstwhile mentor, and now MI6 colleague, Malcolm Hands, the priest was trading not state secrets to the Russians, but esoteric runes: apparently, secrets more powerful than the atomic bomb, and his cutout is a third man in Vienna. Sound familiar? I prefer to interpret this as a reverential ‘borrow’, rather than a lazy ‘steal’: it is a fact that Vienna was a seething hub of espionage in the cold war years, so this is not an implausible plot device. Things take a distinct turn for the weird when Winters’s ‘echo man’ [field backup] is murdered, but then his corpse appears to be still alive, and intent on killing his colleague! To add to this catalogue of calamity, Hands is ritualistically murdered, but as Christopher hopes, he must have anticipated this turn of events, and has left a clue to a dead letter drop for Winters to collect. While he is doing this, he thinks he spots his wife, Joyce, observing him, but there is something about her that also seems wrong; this disquiet is amplified exponentially when Joyce subsequently tries to kill him!

This isn’t a ‘Steampunk’ world per se, but the gothic aspects of the story do suggest some sort of overlap; as mentioned, this is effectively the real world, but the story asks the question: do we really know the world, or is there much that remains just out of sight, but lurking in wait for the unsuspecting? Chris’s world is undoubtedly falling apart, and it is morphing into something demonic. Into this mix is thrown a character known only as Hart, but in a slightly earlier time period: he is a warlock, who seems to be obsessively searching for something, and he is also disturbingly capable of killing to facilitate his quest, using bone and blood magic. There are also, probably unsurprisingly, given the subject matter, references to Elizabeth the first’s spymaster, Walsingham, his alchemist associate Dr John Dee, and Sir Edward Kelly, who was employed for the ability to scry beyond the material curtain, a facility which was, frustratingly, unavailable to Dee. A supernatural being known as the Widow of Kursk is introduced, and she seems to know Christopher, calling him Tobias: how can this be? Winter also encounters an exotic [of course!] female spy by the name of Karina, and this proves to be a fateful connection for him.

Revealing any more would undoubtedly spoil a somewhat convoluted, but nevertheless enjoyable plot, which can be a refreshing alternative to perhaps more mundane spy thrillers & police procedurals; there is also the distinct possibility that this narrative could be continued in a further story, although that is not explicitly stated. If you enjoy a dark read, which might even be ever so slightly frightening, I can recommend this book: with the special effects available to the film industry today, I think it could also make a decent film, given all the appropriate prerequisites: good casting, production, and direction. The paperback I read was published in 2018 by Titan Books, London, ISBN 978-1-785-65709-2.

Book Review


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The Book of Dust, v2: The Secret Commonwealth, by Philip Pullman

This is another heavy volume, weighing in at 687 pages; although, that said, the hardback version is printed using a decent size font—11.5pt New Baskerville Std [fractions of points seems unnecessary to me, but I’m no typographer]—with a good line spacing, so the pages are very easy on the eye, and easy to read quickly: I was surprised at how quickly I was able to progress through it. Unexpectedly, this trilogy sandwich-filling does not follow chronologically from the previous, first, volume, reviewed here: we have jumped forward in time, leap-frogging over the events of the His Dark Materials trilogy, to a point where Lyra is now using the surname Silvertongue, which was given to her ten years previously by the polar bear king, Iorek Byrnison, instead of her previous name Belacqua, although she also subsequently adopts other pseudonyms as circumstances demand. She is a young woman of twenty, a student at Oxford, where she lived in her childhood, but studying at St Sophia’s college, rather than Jordan, which gave her sanctuary as a baby. The hero of the previous story, Malcolm Polstead, is now a scholar with a Doctorate, who teaches at Durham college, after having matriculated at Jordan college.

Lyra is initially unaware of this history, and her limited encounters with Malcolm, in his teaching capacity, have not hitherto been instinctively comfortable for Lyra; she is also somewhat estranged from her dæmon, Pantaleimon, at the beginning of the story, for what appears to be a variety of reasons, although the primary, and obviously most physically & mentally hurtful of those appears to be “that abominable betrayal … on the shores of the world of the dead, when she had abandoned Pan to go in search of her friend Roger. The guilt and shame would still be as fresh in her heart on the day she died, no matter how far away that was.” At the beginning of the story, on one of his solo nocturnal local expeditions, predominantly to escape the oppressive atmosphere between them, Pan observes a murder which, along with the startling realisation that other human beings are able to voluntarily separate from their dæmons, sets in train a series of events which take Pan, Lyra and Malcolm on separate but almost equally perilous journeys to far-flung locations, trying to avoid not only death, but also capture by the ever-present, and increasingly powerful Magisterium.

The Secret Commonwealth of the book’s title is the liminal world of the imagination; a world which children can perceive or imagine, and which adults tend to forget or disregard as they mature, but the premise of the story is that it can exist if you believe it can: according to one of Lyra’s trusted friends, a Gyptian by the name of Giorgio Brabandt, it is “The world of the fairies, and the ghosts, and the jacky lanterns.” Imagination is one facility which Pan thinks Lyra has lost, mainly as a result of her recent reading of books which praise rationality above what cannot be proved scientifically, so his main purpose in journeying afar is to retrieve Lyra’s lost imagination, as if it is a faculty with a physical manifestation. The history of the Magisterium is also given in the book, and it bears similarities with the Christian religion as we know it, but it is also significantly different: it is as if The Inquisition was able to become permanently institutionalised, and The Magisterium is Pullman’s not-so-subtle allegory of The Inquisition, with all the iniquity it embodied.

As usual, Pullman demonstrates the breadth of his knowledge, but also his compassion for humanity, especially the plight of refugees—no less distressing now than it has ever been—and using Lyra’s inner voice, he says: “Aisha in the company of others like her, moving laboriously westwards in the hope of refuge, hungry, cold, robbed of the little she had. … being turned away from house after house, begging for shelter on a winter night. But people were better than that, surely? Wasn’t the human race better than that?” The acknowledgments at the end include, in addition to the usual thanks to the team members & friends who have helped in the realisation of the book, a touching mention of one of the characters in this story, whose name, Nur Huda el-Wahabi, is that of a real person, and is used as a memorial to his loss in the Grenfell Tower fire. The cliffhanger at the end of this volume is not unduly distressing, thankfully, but it it sufficiently intriguing to retain interest in the overall story arc [for this reader, anyway]; this is not a book for children, however: young adult at the very least. A quote from the dust-jacket of the book [no pun intended] is worth giving here, because I think it is accurate: “It is a powerful adventure and a thought-provoking look at what it is to understand yourself, to grow up and make sense of the world around you.” The hardback I read was published in 2019 by David Fickling Books, London, ISBN 978-0-241-37333-0. A trade paperback is also available: ISBN 978-0-241-37334-7.

Book Review

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A Remedy in Time, by Jennifer Macaire

I’m a sucker for stories about time travel, but I usually try to be discerning in which ones I give my attention to, rather than just slavishly reading any old time-travel pulp. This is another physically small book filled with small type [10.5pt Bembo Std, for those typophiles among my readers], running to only 179 pages, but it packs plenty in to that page count [I’m not gifted with the ability to visualise word counts, whereas page counts make much more sense]. This is a reasonably prolific author, with fourteen publications to her name, and many of them seem to have a time element in the name, although not necessarily time travel. The synopsis on the back cover, albeit somewhat melodramatic, seems acceptably concise, so I will shamelessly quote it here—the strapline is: “To save the future, she must turn to the past.” [The text is laid out centrally oriented, to simulate sand passing through an hourglass, but I will eschew that, and apologies for the Ands and But, which I normally also eschew]:

San Francisco, Year 3378. A deadly virus has taken the world by storm. Scientists are desperately working to develop a vaccine. And Robin Johnson — genius, high-functioning, and perhaps a little bit single-minded — is delighted. Because, to cure the disease, she’s given the chance to travel back in time.

But when Robin arrives at the last Ice Age, hoping to stop the virus at its source, she finds more there than she bargained for. And just as her own chilly exterior is beginning to thaw, she realises it’s not only sabre-toothed tigers that are in danger of extinction…”

It is difficult to explain much detail from the story without spoiling the plot, but it is possible to make some general observations, in addition to saying that I enjoyed reading it. Very much in its favour, in contrast to most narratives dealing with time travel, which gloss over, or even omit details of what the process involves, is the fact that this book gives some very plausible information to this layman, at least: the travellers are “basically frozen, then unravelled atom by atom, and projected into a vacuum where our atoms are shot into a sort of hadron collider.” This sounds similar to the Star Trek “beaming” process, but that could just be a coincidence, of course. The element which I find difficult to accept [but then again, I’m a layman, so what do I know?] is “…our atoms are immutable so they can be taken apart but they will always snap together in exactly the same order they started out as. That way, we don’t leave as human beings and arrive as pineapples, for example.” Wait a minute: wasn’t that the reason why the ST transporters had pattern buffers? Anyhoo, she [Robin] does say that the process is “incredibly painful”, which I have no difficulty believing!

Mindful of the danger of interfering with the timeline, customarily the travellers are exhorted not to interact with any organic matter, unless it has a specific purpose which, of course, this latest mission does, or leave behind any anachronistic artefacts. It is interesting to speculate, given the currency of the publication date, whether the story is to any extent inspired by the contemporary pandemic: if so, sadly, we don’t have the exotic option employed by this story at our disposal. The travellers have a strictly limited ‘window’ for their missions, and an option of a rescue mission, activated by a message sent via a beam of light similar to that used to send & retrieve the travellers, also exists. The travellers are even injected with a self-destruct capsule which is set to dissolve all organic matter in its vicinity after a set timespan, to avoid the timeline contamination if the mission were to fail disastrously. One general observation I would make [and not unfamiliar to those of my close acquaintance] is that, as usual, money causes all the regular problems in the future as distant as the one described here, even with the sophisticated technology in evidence, and colonisation of Mars, in our own solar system: greed is the primary evil, as ever.

I certainly wouldn’t be comfortable with the option chosen by Robin in the dénouement, to resolve the situation but, thankfully, I know that isn’t remotely likely; having said that, the course she opts for, after overcoming the perils she encounters, is highly commendable, given the circumstances. The paperback I read was published in 2021 by Headline Accent, an imprint of Headline Publishing Group, ISBN 978-1-7861-5790-4.

This will be my last post before the new calendar year, so happy Solstice/Yule to all my subscribers, and compliments of the season to all who celebrate it—here’s to happier times ahead!

Book Review

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The Hollow Ones, by Guillermo del Toro & Chuck Hogan

When I saw the name of “the visionary director of The Shape of Water” [with which I was already familiar, but I suppose not every potential reader is] on the cover, in a prominent position at the top, my attention was drawn to it immediately; I wasn’t aware hitherto that he was also an author, although it is not uncommon for film directors to have authorial input to their films, but his bio at the back only mentions his very successful films*. However, I was prepared to take a risk with this book; I am guessing that Chuck Hogan [whose name suggests he should be a wrestler or stuntman] is the primary writer, given that he is [the usual publishing hyperbole notwithstanding] “a New York Times bestselling novelist”, with GdT supplying the fantasy element of this story. I am normally somewhat selective with my fantasy fiction, but the cover promises, courtesy of The Guardian, that this story is “Like a Jack Reacher crime thriller [of which I have read enough to know what to expect] … with a Van Helsing-style demon hunter”, so to reiterate, I thought it would be worth a risk.

Indeed it was, in my humble estimation anyway. It starts off, to set the scene, with a prelude, describing a mysterious cast iron Edwardian mailbox, situated in the financial district of Manhattan, New York; “a sliver of a property that officially stands as 13½ Stone Street.” Some history is given, and the prelude ends by saying that “Every letter that arrives at The Box is a letter of urgent need—a desperate call for help—and every single envelope carries the same name:

Hugo Blackwood, Esq.

This name is “a tribute to one of our most admired authors and the originator of the occult detective subgenre, Algernon Blackwood”, and the tribute ends with a macabre observation “that grave robbing in New Jersey, for occult purposes, is not at all fiction or a thing of the past. It’s happening. Right now.” So far, so portentous.

The story then gets going in more conventional thriller mode, introducing two FBI agents, the female of whom is a relative newcomer, Odessa Hardwicke, whilst the other is the more experienced Walt Leppo. It was a normal working night, but very quickly, it morphed into X-Files territory, when the first of a series of ‘rampage’ killings occurred, which proves fatal for one of the agents. Two other time periods are included in parallel: 1962, when a black FBI agent named Earl Solomon is sent to the Mississippi Delta to investigate the lynching of a white man, for obviously political reasons; and England in 1582, when the young barrister, Hugo Blackwood, encounters “Queen Elizabeth’s court astrologer, spymaster, and scientist”, John Dee, and Edward Talbot, aka Edward Kelley, one of “various mystics who claimed to be in contact with higher realms”, in Mortlake [but not “Greater London”, as the book states, which is a ceremonial county not established until April 1, 1965!], a village that then was part of the county of Surrey. Both Solomon & Blackwood figure in the present-day action, but of the two, Blackwood is the more helpful, albeit initially grudgingly [and almost psychopathically dispassionately], because Solomon is recovering from a recent age-related stroke; Odessa is not immediately aware of Blackwood’s unusual condition, and understandably, it takes her a while to accommodate it.

Overall, this is a quite well structured narrative, and there is a conclusion of sorts when the culprit of the killings is neutralised, but an element of doubt must remain, because the subtitle at the beginning of the book is “The Blackwood Tapes, vol. 1”, which refers to the audio tapes Solomon made during the course of his career, and would suggest that a sequel is to be expected: this paperback version, ISBN 978-1-529100-96-9, was published in 2021 by Del Rey, London. A search using the ISBN doesn’t show any reference to a sequel, so I can only presume that it is either still in preparation, or the idea has been abandoned, pro tem.

*According to the list at the very front of the book, GdT has in fact written ten books on his own account, both fiction & non-fiction; he has also collaborated with Hogan on three other books; Hogan has written five, all fiction presumably; so they are a web-established and productive team.

Book Review

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The Andromeda Evolution, by Daniel H. Wilson

Aside from the merit of the story itself, it might possibly be a tad cynical of me to feel slightly misled by the cover of the paperback version of this story which I read, but I think I can claim some justification: the story on which this one is based, The Andromeda Strain, must be quite well known by many people, especially those aficionados of fantasy fiction, and the name of the original author, Michael Crichton, is prominent in large capitals occupying the upper half of the front cover, so at a quick glance, one could be forgiven for thinking that this book was also written by this estimable author; not so, because a line of much smaller capitals at the bottom of the cover reveals the name of the actual author of this story.

There are two very obvious reasons for this device: the first being that Michael Crichton died in 2008, and the second that it would have been impossible to produce any sort of sequel that drew on the background of the first, but not with reference to the original author, without the inevitable risk of litigation. As it is, Crichton’s widow, Sherri (but not, interestingly, Wilson) mentions in the acknowledgments that the book is a collaboration with Wilson: “a celebration of Michael’s universe and a way to introduce him to those discovering his worlds for the first time.” As it is, Daniel H. Wilson, “a Cherokee citizen”, is an established author, with a PhD in Robotics from Carnegie Mellon University, as well as master’s degrees in Artificial Intelligence & Robotics, so he knows well of what he writes. It is a sobering thought that The Andromeda Strain was written over fifty years ago, but one of the fundamental principles on which this story is based is that the intelligence, such as it is, at the root of the infection which has developed from the original, which was extraterrestrial in origin, has no concern for time, on the scale with which humanity is familiar, but is content to wait as long as necessary for the appropriate circumstances, conducive to its apparently sinister plan, to occur.

Given that I can’t remember if I have ever read the original story, I can’t say if it conforms to the same artifice by which this one is written: it is written partly as a real-time narrative, and partly as a post-event report, drawing on visual, audio & written evidence (some of which is reproduced graphically to accompany the text), so at the outset, it is safe to assume, at the very least, that the world was not destroyed, which is apparently a very real possibility as the story unfolds. A structural anomaly has appeared in the impenetrable Amazon jungle of Brasil, on an exactly equatorial position. The ultra-secret team which was set up, in the aftermath of the first close shave for humanity, to monitor the globe for possible repetitions, and which has been operating covertly in comfortable, if unexciting regularity ever since, swings into action. A team of highly qualified experts is assembled from a pre-approved shortlist by the commanding officer, Major Rand Stern, who works at an American Air Force base, running Project Eternal Vigilance; there is also an operative aboard the International Space Station (ISS). This is Dr Sophie Kline, for whom space is actually a conducive environment, notwithstanding that her legs are permanently bound together, because from the time she was a toddler, she has suffered from a degenerative muscle disease. To assist her earlier studies, and current duties, she has a “unique” brain-computer interface which links her “mentally to the ISS computer systems – an almost telepathic connection.”

The other members of the team are Dr Nidhi Vedala, 42, team leader; Harold Odhiambo, 68, lead field scientist; Peng Wu, 37, Major in the PLA (People’s Liberation Army) Air Force, field scientist; and a late replacement, James Stone, 58, a roboticist. The last member was a substitute for a field medic, and he was the choice of Major Stern; he also happens to be the son of the scientist who stopped the spread of the Andromeda Strain 50 years earlier, so the team leader suspects favouritism, reason unknown. The team sets out to find the anomaly, but they are entering virgin jungle populated by previously uncontacted tribes, so to protect them from the potential danger, they are accompanied by a tough Brasilian American United States Army Special Forces Sergeant and a dozen indigenous frontiersmen. Naturally, not everything goes to plan, but to tell you any more would spoil the plot, so I will have to draw a veil over the story at this point! The paperback version was published in 2020 by HarperCollinsPublishers ltd., London, ISBN 978-0-00817299-2, and I found it a very engaging read, with a satisfying, if only slightly incredible, ending.

Book Review

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World Engines – Destroyer, by Stephen Baxter

I am very happy to state ‘upfront’ that, except for the ending, I have enjoyed reading this book more than any other I have read, of any genre, for a long time; that might seem like a contradiction, but my enjoyment of the main body of the narrative was not diminished unduly by the short final section, which was something of a disappointment. I can’t reveal any details of the final section, naturally wanting to avoid spoilers, but I felt that, after such a comprehensive narrative, in which Baxter has allowed time for the folds in the story to be revealed & explored, the ending could have been longer and more detailed: it was as if he knew a sequel would have been a better way to wrap the story up, or even develop it some more, but in the end, he couldn’t be bothered, or he ran out of steam, so it was just a question of tying up all the loose ends as cleanly as possible. Enough of that for now, though, because you need to know what the story is about! Ahead of the characters & the plot, what I enjoyed about the story was the elements of alternate universes and time periods, rather than time travel per se, but also the fact that the fantasy was very much rooted in the real world that we know, instead of a fictitious universe full of alien races & technology that is unknown to us and, given our current level of knowledge, impossible.

The story starts hundreds of years into earth’s future, the year 2469, precisely, when earth has suffered the climate catastrophe that is now widely predicted. A man is woken from a cryogenic sleep, and it appears that he is a space shuttle pilot from the early days of the 21st century; so, our own time now, but subtly different in the state of space technology (and the political history that has allowed this to be created). He is conversing with a form of artificial intelligence (AI), and he has been woken earlier than he might otherwise have been, given that he suffered a devastating accident which left him very badly injured, because a message has been received from Phobos, one of the satellites of Mars. The main problem, apart from some significant differences in the sequence of events that led up to the sender’s distress call is that it is impossible, because the sender couldn’t be there in the first place, because she is Emma Stoney, the wife of the pilot, Colonel Reid Malenfant, and her ship was lost when it reached Phobos. In this timeline, Mars was already colonised by 2005, and there was “some kind of puzzle with Phobos”, but it was easier to send a dedicated mission from Earth than to have the Mars base colonists do it from the ground. Unfortunately, the problem with Phobos is inextricably connected with an event known by everybody by the name The Destroyer, which is predicted with some accuracy it would seem, by the AIs, to occur in the year 3397, resulting in the destruction of Earth and very possibly also much of our solar system.

Malenfant is sent back to Earth from the moon, where he had been kept in cold storage, and he is assigned a humanoid AI with medical specialities, to monitor & supervise his recovery, and he befriends a young woman who is also assigned to him as a sort of cultural advisor. The Earth of the twenty-fifth century has a well-established resource based economy (the long-term result of a very surprising innovation by one of the best-known 20th century American politicians: and not who you might think!), as money is no longer necessary, apart from occasional exceptional circumstances; the population doesn’t have to work for a living, because all necessities for a comfortable life are freely available: the fact that the population is much reduced as a result of the foregoing upheavals is a positive contributory factor here. Malenfant is curious as to why the populace seems to accept unquestioningly the impending fate of Earth, albeit in the relatively far distant future, but when he speaks to the Earthbound AI, he discovers that it is distinctly worried (displaying a surprising level of human empathy), so he sets out to find out more about the problem with Phobos, which seems to be the root of the danger. Using by then outdated space technology, but with which he is familiar from his own experience, he manages to get to Phobos, which is where the story becomes distinctly strange……

This is about as much as I can reveal without spoiling the plot, but if you enjoy space fantasy fiction and, especially, if you have read any of Stephen Baxter’s other books, either solo or with Terry Pratchett, I am as sure as I can be that you will enjoy this one. The paperback version I read was published in 2020 by Gollancz, London, ISBN 978-1-473-22319-6. This is a book to really luxuriate in, and revel in the way the plot develops quickly enough to retain your interest, but not so quickly as to leave you gasping for breath. As I said, the ending seemed tantalisingly short, but I don’t think it leaves the way open for a sequel: should that be the case and I am wrong, however, I would be eager to read it!

Book Review

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Lovecraft Country, by Matt Ruff

This is not an easy book to review; not because I don’t know what to say about it, but because I know virtually nothing about H P Lovecraft’s writing, so I wouldn’t want to jump to any lazy conclusions about the presumed connection between this book and Lovecraft’s own oeuvre. I was attracted to the book because I recently watched (and enjoyed, albeit with some ongoing confusion) the HBO dramatisation, which was shown serially in Britain on Sky (and seems to have taken some considerable liberties with the narrative, but I suppose that is only to be expected, using the mitigating excuse of “dramatic licence”) and, inevitably, two of the drama’s main characters were depicted on the latest edition of the book’s front cover: this paperback was published in 2020 by Picador, London, ISBN 978-1-5290-1903-2. Unfortunately, the book’s Wikipedia page isn’t a great deal of help here:

Lovecraft Country is a 2016 dark fantasy horror novel by Matt Ruff, exploring the conjunction between the horror fiction of H. P. Lovecraft and racism in the United States during the era of Jim Crow laws, as experienced by Black science-fiction fan Atticus Turner and his family.

See above for citation

Lovecraft’s own Wikipedia page is somewhat more helpful, but I will return to that at the conclusion of the review. The book is actually a portmanteau of eight separate, but connected stories, the first of which gives the book its name. The story starts in 1954, with the return of Atticus Turner, who has just been released from military service, having served in the American war in Korea, to his home in Chicago. Although the story starts in an apparently ‘normal’ world, it very quickly becomes clear that this normal world is a very difficult one for black people (or ‘coloured’, as they are often referred to, which is at least polite), and that the events which ensue are going to be seen & interpreted through the lens of this difficult, and very often painful reality.

Before long, magic becomes an inescapable part of the fabric of the story, which makes the journey upon which our protagonists have embarked, even more perilous. Atticus’s father, Montrose, has gone missing, and in New England, where they hope to find him, Atticus, his uncle George, and his childhood friend Letitia encounter thuggish & provocative white police officers (inevitably), but also the white, patrician Braithwhite family: father Samuel and son Caleb will figure in the rest of the story, and become a presence that it is impossible for Atticus & his associates to ignore. The Braithwhites are members of one of a loose confederation of quasi-Masonic Lodges, but this appearance is merely superficial, as their main purpose appears to be the use of magic; and not always a beneficent one, unfortunately. Atticus’s family also appears to have a knowledge of the same esoteric arts practised by the Braithwhites, and George & Montrose are also members of a Chicago Masonic Lodge; one exclusively for Black members, of course.

To give any more plot details would be unfair, but it might be helpful to add a few details about Lovecraft himself here, to support the description of the environment which Atticus & co. encountered as ‘Lovecraft Country’. Lovecraft’s Wikipedia page states, somewhat confusingly, that he began his life as a Tory, which is normally understood as a British political persuasion, but despite apparently becoming a socialist after the Great Depression, it is clear that some of his views were also incontrovertibly right-wing, to the extent being arguably fascist; although the page also states that the form of government advocated by Lovecraft bears little resemblance to that term; I would take issue with that, having researched fascism for the biography of my relative, Wilfred Risdon, because in the early 1930s at least, it was possible for fascism to also embrace socialistic principles. Unfortunately, his racial attitudes were not unusual for the time, although it would seem that his earlier (prior to the 1930s) denigration of non-white races later modified somewhat, to an opinion that different ethnicities should remain in their area of origin and, ideally, not intermingle, unless they, presumably only the white races though, were prepared to assimilate completely.

However, returning to the book, it is an engaging story; and having seen the television dramatisation, notwithstanding the dramatic liberties, does help to a large degree with visualisation of the action (but I appreciate that not all readers would be able to avail themselves of this facility); but the battle of wits between our protagonists and the white antagonists, not least because the Black characters are able to show, with considerable ease, that they are really the match of (and, often, superior to) their white oppressors, both actual & putative, makes the narrative very enjoyable, especially if equality, fairness, and human rights are important to you. This is highly recommended, and you don’t need to be a connoisseur of fantasy fiction to be able to enjoy it; although that undoubtedly helps!