Sunday 26 July 2020

Planetside, Planetfall, and The Invisible Library

Three contrasting recent novels, all intended to be the start of series.

Planetside, by Michael Mammay

Planetside was recommended to me as a good example of military SF, so I added it to my reading list. The first thing I noticed on flipping through it is that the author is a former army officer, a veteran of Desert Storm, Somalia, and the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. So, no surprise that the portrayal of the military in general and soldiers in action in particular are very convincing.  Furthermore, the hero and narrator of the story (Colonel Carl Butler) is of retirement age, bald and married, so obviously designed for me to identify with!

The background to the novel is a far future in which humanity is spreading across many star systems. Newly found planets capable of supporting human life are promptly colonised; if they aren't suitable for that, they are mined of any worthwhile minerals. In none of this are the interests of any native life considered important, although in the one case found of humanoids of similar intelligence to mankind, the inhabitants of the planet Cappa, an agreement has been reached for humans to mine the abundant silver reserves. However, a resistance movement among the Cappans is resulting in a continuing low-level conflict.

The plot concerns a missing army officer, the son of an important politician. He was seen to be badly injured in an engagement with the Cappan resistance, was loaded aboard a medical evacuation shuttle for transport to the orbiting Cappa Base, and never seen again. Butler is given the job – and extraordinary powers – to investigate and resolve the mystery.  What he finds is a series of cover-ups which make it almost impossible for him to complete his mission. As he digs further into the mystery, he finds a high-level conspiracy and realises that the situation is very different from what he had believed, and his mission is changing quite radically.

At one level this is a fast-paced and enjoyable thriller, well-written in a laconic, understated military style. At another level are some fundamental issues about the relationships between humanity and other intelligent forms of life. The Cappans had already achieved a degree of technological sophistication, and could be considered unlucky to have been found by humanity before they were able to develop a comparable civilisation. I am sufficiently interested to send off for the sequel, Spaceside, which is now out, with Colonyside to follow.


Planetfall, by Emma Newman

The setting is a recently-established and very idealistic colony on a new world, with social structures designed to ensure that it does not suffer from overpopulation, pollution and war. The key to the colony's success is the use of 3D printing to produce anything that is needed, followed by recycling anything no longer required. Literally overhanging the settlement is an enormous tree, which it was believed contained alien artifacts.

This is a curious sort of book. Not a lot happens for quite a while, then we find that the narrator is suffering from an uncontrollable OCD described in convincing depth and detail, then there's a spectacular final episode with a rather mystical conclusion. I did get rather tired of the terrible secret known only to the narrator and one other, which was hanging around without being explained for almost all of the book. I doubt that I can be bothered with the sequels (which I gather are not direct sequels, just set in the same universe).


The Invisible Library, by Genevieve Cogman

Another recommended by members of the Classic Science Fiction group, which I perhaps would not have considered without that. If so, I would have missed a gem.

Irene is a professional librarian, but not in any ordinary library. She is an investigator of the Invisible Library, a mysterious and secret organisation with a vast collection of books (constantly added to) which seems to exist somewhere in between a multitude of alternative worlds, with access to all of them. Some of these versions of Earth are strictly technological, some entirely magical, but most have elements of both. We first see the resourceful Irene retrieving a very rare and ancient book from a magically-protected library, which she survives only because of her use of "The Language", a kind of magic peculiar to the librarians.

For her next task she is instructed to take with her Kai, a student librarian. The version of London they arrive in has vampires, werewolves and the Fae coexisting with humanity. Then there is, out there somewhere, the evil Alberich. a renegade librarian. There are also dragons, who can take human form and are basically on the side of law and order, but still best avoided. As is Bradamant, a rival investigator and Irene's sworn enemy. Particularly reassuring to Irene is the discovery of Vale, a private investigator who is an exact incarnation of Sherlock Holmes – Irene's favourite fictional character. Finding the book she is looking for is complicated by the intense interest in it from several important people – and other beings – and Irene is tested to her limits and beyond in her attempt to complete her mission.

This book is well-written, with something of the flavour of Connie Willis's To Say Nothing of the Dog. Irene is a very likeable character and the book is immensely enjoyable. I found myself reluctant to put the book down, and read until late into the night to finish it. I see that there are several other books in the series so will be bulk-buying them!

Saturday 4 July 2020

The Red Queen's War trilogy, by Mark Lawrence

This trilogy (consisting of Prince of Fools, The Liar's Key and The Wheel of Osheim) was written after The Broken Empire reviewed here on 10th April. One interesting aspect of the story which is only gradually revealed is the connection with The Broken Empire, which it transpires is set in the same world at the same time. In fact, in one scene in Prince of Fools, the principal characters of both series (who are princes of different states) are in the same bar at the same time, but do not know each other. It also gradually becomes clear that that their world is our very own, a thousand years after a catastrophic thermonuclear war ("the Thousand Suns") has changed the landscape of Europe, our civilisation (remnants of which still remain) being known to them as the "Builders".

The Red Queen's War has another first-person narrator, this time Prince Jalan Kendeth of the Red March, but he could hardly form a greater contrast with the ruthless Prince Jorg of The Broken Empire. He is a self-acknowledged coward and liar whose main aim in life is to seduce as many women as possible. His title is useful in helping with these endeavours, even though he is only tenth in line for the throne. However, in Prince of Fools he gets caught up in lethal sorcery and has to flee his home in the company of Snorri ver Snagason, a giant Viking warrior. This ill-matched pair face various trials and tribulations as they travel northwards to try to rescue Snorri's family from renegade Vikings using evil magic, during which Jalan learns more about himself and his world than he really wanted to know.

This is one of the best traditional swords-and-sorcery fantasies I have read. The characterisation and plotting are both excellent, and the principal character is an engaging and often amusing rogue. The author allows himself the odd joke – a wooden viking ship they travel on is called the Ikea – and this is much more fun than Prince of Thorns. I can unreservedly recommend it to anyone who enjoys this kind of fantasy.

The Liar's Key follows straight on from the events in Prince of Fools. Jalan is happily living in a Viking bar, his main problem being trying to keep his three mistresses from knowing about each other.  However, Snorri is driven to search for the key to the door of the afterlife so he can recover his wife and children, murdered by Viking enemies. The key was made by Loki, and will open any lock. Locating it is only a part of the problem, however; many powerful people want it and Jalan and Snorri have many adventures as they try to fight off their enemies and find the right door to open. The book ends with a huge cliff-hanger.

This is well-written and engaging as usual. The main reservation I had is with the length: 650 pages is a lot for the middle of a trilogy and, thinking back over it, I find it hard to remember the sequence of events. A more focused tale with a clearer structure would I think have been better.

The Wheel of Osheim starts, somewhat unusually, with Jalan escaping from Hell and finding himself in a camel goods train in the desert of Liba. From the start, two plot threads run in parallel using alternating chapters: in one thread, we follow Jalan's adventures as he tries to return home; in the other, he recounts what happened to him in Hell. One notable event is the one and only (accidental) meeting between Jalan and King Jorg (from The Broken Empire trilogy), who spend an evening draining a flagon of whisky between them. A meeting which is to have significant consequences later. The tale is laced with the author's sardonic humour, as in: "The Broken Empire never had a big demand for slaves. We have peasants. Much the same thing, and they think they're free so they never run off."

Once back in his home city of Vermillion, Jalan is forced to take on a more important role as the city is besieged by a vast horde of zombies and other supernatural creatures, in a titanic struggle which goes on for nearly 100 pages. Despite his earnest wish to spend his life lazing around and fornicating, Jalan, reunited with Snorri, sets off on a quest to the fabled – and highly dangerous – Wheel of Osheim, a vast Builder machine which has the power to alter reality.  The story finishes with yet another unexpected twist as Jalan finds himself in a situation which he had never imagined.

That concludes the two trilogies set in the Broken Empire, and it is a landmark achievement. At something around 3,000 pages it makes The Lord of the Rings seem like a novella. However, I haven't finished with this author yet: as well as the third volume of the very different Impossible Times series, another trilogy awaits: The Book of the Ancestor.