Book Review

Chilling out with Pratchett

There are times as a writer when I just need to step back and chill out. Give the creative side something else to do, a sort of re-charge of the writing batteries. pratchett dragon_2I love the quiet discipline of adding colour to someone else’s kick-ass drawings. I have several fantasy-type colouring books, but my favourite by far is the ‘Terry Pratchett’s DiscWorld’. It is packed with Paul Kidby’s amazing illustrations.

“The little dragon turned on Vimes a gaze that would be guaranteed to win it the award for Dragon the Judges would Most Like to Take Home and Use as a Portable Gas Lighter.”

Thank you Paul Kidby, and thank you Gollancz. I just need to decide what to colour next!

 

The Water Knife

The Water Knife by Paolo Bacigalupi (Orbit, 2016)

“Sweat was a body’s history, compressed into jewels, beaded on the brow, staining shirts with salt. It told you everything about how a person had ended up in the right place at the wrong time, and whether they would survive another day.’

the water knifeThis quote from page one of The Water Knife gives the reader a taste of the desperation of people struggling to survive in a world where water is a precious commodity. Those cities with ‘senior water rights’ are building archologies (self-sustaining environments, with clean air, plenty of water and all the amenities the modern world takes for granted), while the majority of the population buy water from Red Cross pumps and wear masks against the constant dust-storms (well, those that can afford to—a dry, hacking cough is the norm outside of the archologies).

Set primarily in the state of Arizona, more specifically Phoenix, the three main protagonists are drawn into the battle over water rights—rights that will give the owner power of life and death over thousands as the water supply to whole cities can be cut by the stroke of a ‘legal’ pen.

Angel—the ‘water knife’ of the title—works for Catherine Case, the leader and ruthless driving force behind the relative prosperity of Las Vegas. Recruited by Case from prison as a young man, he is now a highly trained ‘water knife’ and does whatever it takes to secure the water rights of Las Vegas and the state of Nevada.

In the opening chapter Angel ‘serves papers’ on a water refinery and then escapes as it is blown up. The city it supplies has no other source of water. “It’s the end of times,” he muses as he watches the flames. “Guess that makes me the Devil.” Despite this, Angel (note the name) understands and empathises with the desperation of others. He sees the world for what it is, and harbours no illusions about the future. He does what needs doing. Driving through the desert, he reflects that it is the truest place he’s ever known—“it’s always been a gaunt and feral thing”. Unlike Texas, which had pumped up ice-age water and “thrown on the garments of fertility, pretending to greenery and growth… realising too late that their prosperity was borrowed.”

Lucy is a prize winning reporter, who left the relatively water-rich north (it still rains there) to write about the deprivations suffered by the people of Phoenix—a city struggling to survive the permanent drought—and the Texan refugees who everyone reviles. Texas was the first state to collapse, its population flooding neighbouring states until borders were closed. Lucy is looking for a big story, which she finds when she becomes embroiled in the fight over water rights. After years of bowing to pressure: “All the things you don’t say… All the stories you teach yourself not to tell.” Lucy posts a story that pulls-no-punches, a story that makes her a target for both political and criminal powerbrokers.

Angel feels a powerful connection to Lucy. They had both “seen too much and had given up on pretending the world was anything but a wreck.” Lucy is attracted to Angel, both in his role as a dangerous killer, and in his unguarded moments as “the boy before the water knife.” Betrayal is a key theme, though it’s generally depicted and understood by the parties involved as: nothing personal, just business. Angel is the one person who is steadfastly loyal.

Maria is a teenager struggling to survive alone after the death of her father. She collects water from the Red Cross pumps and sells it on for a small profit to construction workers. Her best friend ‘sells ass’. They are both Texans, the lowest of the low, who are forced to ‘kick up’ part of their earnings to a local crime lord. Despite her best efforts, Maria ends up in the ‘right place at the wrong time’ and her life is forfeit.

Angel is an unlikely saviour. Twice he uses Maria as a foil to save himself, but in both cases she is also ‘saved’. There is one question that she asks several times in the book: “Why do you care?” It points to the harsh reality of her life, and the lessons she learns as the story progresses. She has an impact on Angel: “He had a sudden overwhelming need to balance all the things in the world that couldn’t be balanced.”

This book depicts a world after the devastating impact of climate change. The characters take this fact as a given, and so the only reference is an advert on bottled water: “Your purchase helps us mitigate the impacts of climate change on vulnerable peoples around the world.”

In the struggle between California, Arizona and Nevada for valuable water rights, it seems that there is no ‘right’ thing to do (despite Lucy’s protestations). No matter who wins, there has to be losers. As Angel says: “Someone’s got to bleed, if anybody’s going to drink.”

This is a masterful depiction of a society fighting to survive in a world damaged by greed and wilful blindness—another strong theme in the book. Bacigalupi takes us on a journey where we are confronted by the filters through which we view the world, and brings us face-to-face with difficult truths.

My favourite quote:

“If I could put my finger on the moment we genuinely fucked ourselves, it was the moment we decided that data was something you could use words like believe or disbelieve around.”

Saint’s Blood – Sebastien de Castell

Saint’s Blood, Sebastien De Castell, Jo Fletcher Books

The third in the series detailing the life of Falcio val Mond and his constant struggle to save Tristia, his cess-pit of a homeland. Together with his fellow ex-Greatcoats, Kest and Brasti, Falcio fights to restore the ‘King’s Law’, even though said king is dead—betrayed by the Dukes whose greed and corruption is driving Tristia to its knees.

The Greatcoats are magistrates with a difference. Re-envisioned by the late King Paelis, they are duellists trained in all manner of combat. They ride the roads of Tristia, hearing cases in towns and villages and delivering their judgements. Cases are often decided via trial by combat—the Greatcoats overriding mantra is ‘fight hard, ride fast’.

Traitor’s Blade and Knight’s Shadow are set after the death of the King, with the Greatcoats reviled as traitors, scattered around Tristia trying to both survive and follow their last, secret, orders from their King. Falcio rescues a teenage girl, Aline, who turns out to be the King’s daughter. The trio of Greatcoats fight Ducal intrigues, assassins, and a pretender to the throne in their attempts to have Aline recognised as the rightful queen.

Saint’s Blood continues the story, with their greatest adversary ever: an actual God. All three books are packed with fast moving action, as you might expect, with expertly drawn and compelling one-to-one fights and larger group battles. The action is underpinned by believable and engaging characters, which you can’t help but empathise with and root for.

The books are written exclusively from Falcio’s point-of-view, giving the reader an insight into a man who was driven into the role of ‘protector’ by the rape and murder of his wife—a man who inspires others to his cause, despite his many flaws. The relationship between Falcio and his two best friends, Kest and Brasi, is masterly portrayed. The female characters that take a lead role in the story are portrayed as intelligent, determined and a source of impressive strength.

Saint’s Blood opens our heart to fear and then demonstrates by acts of uncommon valour by men and women alike how to overcome those fears.

I’m looking forward to the next book: Traitor’s Throne.

Book Review – Two of a Mind – S M Stuart

I have recently written a review of ‘Two of a Mind’ by S M Stuart for the British Fantasy Society. You can read it here:

http://www.britishfantasysociety.org/reviews-old/two-of-a-mind-by-s-m-stuart-book-review/

Debut novel by Alysha Kaye

1000x1600I recently came across this debut novel by Alysha Kaye that thought I would bring to your attention. The novel, entitled The Waiting Room is a love story with a difference:

“Jude and Nina are the epitome of that whole raw, unflinching love thing that most people are jealous of. That is, until Jude dies and wakes up in The Waiting Room, surrounded by other souls who are all waiting to pass over into their next life. But unlike those souls, Jude’s name is never called by the mysterious “receptionist”. He waits, watching Nina out of giant windows. He’s waiting for her. What is this place? How long will he wait? And what will happen when and if Nina does join him? The Waiting Room is a story of not just love, but of faith, predestination, and philosophy, friendship and self-actualization, of waiting.”

This novel has had some excellent reviews on Goodreads and has an engaging trailer. I rather like the concept of book trailers. I read recently in New Scientist that an App is in development that can send smells over the phone network. If they can do that, then what’s next for the humble book trailer? A full sensory experience with sounds, taste and all those lovely sweaty odours? Perhaps… ah, but I digress.

A little background on the author:

author bio photoAlysha Kaye was born in San Marcos, TX, where she also received her BA in Creative Writing from Texas State University. She worked in marketing for a brief and terrible cubicle-soul-sucking time until she was accepted into Teach for America and promptly moved to Oahu. She taught 7th grade English in Aiea for two years and also received her Masters in Education from University of Hawaii. She now teaches in Austin, TX and tries to squeeze in as much writing as possible between lesson planning. She dreamt about The Waiting Room once, and offhandedly wrote her boyfriend a love poem about waiting for him after death. Somehow, that became a novel.

You can find out more about Alysha in a variety of ways:
https://www.facebook.com/AuthorAlyshaKaye
@alyshakaye7
alyshakaye.wordpress.com
http://alyshakaye.com/
If you would like to avail yourself of a copy of this book you can get hold of it via Amazon:

Kindle version:
http://amzn.to/TupzK9
Print version:
http://amzn.to/1ofMTXn

Half A King – Joe Abercrombie

Half-a-King-Quotes-StaggeredJust received my copy of Half A King by Joe Abercrombie. I’ve been waiting for it to arrive for months and now can’t wait to read it. This is Abercrombie’s first foray into the YA market—a market that I feel will devour his work and hound him for more.

At World Fantasy Con in Brighton last year, I listened with rapt attention as Abercrombie read the opening chapter of Half A King. It contained the now familiar—and much loved—accents of tension and gritty violence.

One audience member asked wryly: I thought you said this was YA?

Abercrombie replied with his usual humour: What? I can’t say ‘fuck’?

Humour aside, as Abercrombie explained in a recent (June) interview with Locus magazine, this novel is aimed at the ‘top end’ of the YA market. The book is shorter than his previous offerings, a modest 80k, and my only concern is romping to the end and being left panting for more. The sequel is planned for February 2015, and the final part of the trilogy in the autumn of that same year. Looks like he’s going to be VERY busy!

If you haven’t read any of Abercrombie’s work, there is plenty out there for adults:
The First Law Trilogy (The Blade Itself; Before They Are Hanged; Last Argument of Kings).
Plus three stand-alone stories set in the same world (Best Served Cold; Heroes; Red Country)

I started with the stand-alone books, become totally hooked and worked my way back to the First Law Trilogy. ‘Gritty’ is a word that is often used to describe Abercrombie’s work; his writing is also vivid, engaging and intense. Plus, he tells a bloody good story!

NeXus—mankind gets an upgrade

Ramez Naam – Angry Robot

Nexus-144dpiThis book is set in the near future and looks at the impact of nanotechnology, specifically its ability to engender a form of telepathy in humans—the ability to link minds. As with all step-ups in technology, the impact of the drug Nexus has a multiplicity of possible benefits and opportunities for misuse—implications that the author brings to the fore through the struggles of Kaden Lane, the main protagonist.

Kaden is a young researcher who has redesigned Nexus—an illegal drug—to allow the drug’s nanostructures to be pre-programmed. The book opens with Kaden carrying out a field trial of the ‘Don Juan’ protocol. The ‘Don Juan’ protocol analyses his interactions with a young woman and controls his responses, changing a shy and diffident young man into a confident, smooth operator.

‘The Chemistry Between Us—love, sex, and the science of attraction’ Larry Young, PhD and Brian Alexander

ImageThis is an engaging book that addresses questions such as:

  • How does love begin?
  • What drives mothers to care for their babies?
  • What accounts for the gender of the people at whom we aim our affection?
  • What does it mean to say one is male or female?

The book is based on rigorous research using data from both animal and human subjects. It has been written to be accessible to a non-scientific reader. In order to build and develop the theoretical arguments to address the above questions, Young and Alexander describe and explain the significance of the experiments carried out—some readers may find this aspect of the book disturbing.

Young and Alexander manage to convey complex theory in a clear and concise manner. Effective use is made of wry humour to lighten what could be quite dense material. Diagrams are occasionally used to help clarify particular issues, though on a personal note I have to admit that I did occasionally skip over some of the more technical terms.

‘Mindstar Rising’ by Peter F. Hamilton

The cover of the 17th November 2012 edition of New Scientist headlined:

CLIMATE CHANGE

Five years ago we feared the worst. But it’s looking even worse than that.

It seems that the climate models were wrong. The rate-of-loss of arctic ice, the increase in rainfall intensity, and the searing heat waves have already reached the levels that were predicted for the end of this century. As I read the dire warnings of more extreme weather in the northern hemisphere, the current and expected fall in crop yields in the UK due to heavy rainfall, the need to develop heat-tolerant crop varieties, and the likely flooding of many low-lying cities—the world created by Peter F. Hamilton in the Greg Mandel trilogy came to mind.

ImageHamilton’s first novel, Mindstar Rising, is set in England, where global warming has reshaped the physical, social and economic state of the country. Note that I said England; political chaos and industrial collapse have resulted in Wales and Scotland existing as separate political and economic entities. In the novel, massive flooding created a huge refugee problem, necessitating the requisition of buildings (shops, hotels etc.) under the government’s ‘one home policy’ to provide emergency housing. This re-imagined England has spent the past twelve years sweltering under bright hot skies, with high humidity and an annual rainy season. Most of the familiar plants and trees are gone, replaced by more tropical varieties. Low lying areas used for farming have been reduced to mud-clogged marshlands and bogs, and every available green space has been appropriated for raising crops.

Peterborough is the new industrial capital—referred to in the book as the new Hong Kong. ‘If you can’t get it in Peterborough, you can’t get it anywhere.’

Author Reading: Kenneth McCloud – ‘The Incident’

The English Department of Royal Holloway, University of London hosts a number of events during the academic year which feature authors reading from and talking about their most recent novel. These ‘Lunch Time Readings’ are reasonably well attended by both English students and members of staff. Last year Sir Andrew Motion read from his novel ‘Silver’ to a crowded lecture theatre.

In November the guest author was Kenneth McCloud reading from his debut novel ‘The Incident’. This novel is interesting in that it is framed around one day in the life of a young lifeguard in Germany. Within this frame three interlinked stories are told: the lifeguard (present day, in the context of the novel), the grandfather and his World War Two experiences, and Gerd a refugee from the Cold War.

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