Embers of War by Gareth Powell

I was delighted to read Embers of War.  It has been a drought for a couple of months; not that I have not been reading but I haven’t found a book I wanted to recommend.  And before I embark on my positive rave about this book can I just say that authors who recommend trash, and there seem to be a fair few, plummet to the bottom of the pile with the author recommended.  Adrian Tchaikovsky on the other hand, whose books I really enjoy and also recommend, has come up trumps with his enthusiasm for Gareth L Powell’s novel, Embers of War.


Although Embers of War uses the well-worked ploy of viewing events through the eyes of different characters Gareth Powell has made it fresh and clever.  The diversity of the five characters, the poet, the captain, the neurotic spy, the spider-like engineer and the ship, makes it interesting and effective.

Trouble Dog, the retired warship, has taken on a role as a rescue vessel.  This position puts her into conflict with other Conglomeration warships whereby the novel explores purpose, loyalty, ends and means and decision-making.  The humans, Childe, Konstanz and Sudak, are bedevilled by failures and losses which imperil the rescue of the ‘Dam and its passengers.  The engineer, Nod, is a delightful, quirky creation whose zen grounds the novel, whose work ethic keeps Trouble Dog moving forward and whose links to the long view of space interaction are refreshing.

I liked the scientific assumptions and manipulations which allowed the novel and ships to move forward through space smoothly and feasibly.  The sojourn in the sun as part of Trouble Dog’s battle plan was really impressive.  I will be seeking out more novels by this author; easy as it does turn out to be part of a trilogy but the first book does not suffer from gaps but remains a complete and satisfying story.



Zone 23 by C. J. Hopkins

Zone 23 is a roller coaster ride. Actually, it is the whole fun fair! This is a very clever and gritty novel but beware; there are horrors as well as sardonic humour in Hopkins waterfalls of evocative description so detailed you can taste the stink, feel the despair and shudder at the pressure of the constant noise.

The plot intertwines the desperate lives of Taylor in his slum existence with that of Valentina who is struggling to maintain a connection to a more attractive lifestyle in what passes for normality in this dystopia.  C. J. Hopkins repeatedly mentions the futuristic date in which he has set his story but, as the character, Sarah, tells us, meaning has been so manipulated by corporations any knowledge of days, years, history and even geographical position has become corrupted. Sometimes I think this society in which everything is a commodity is hundreds of years in the future, then I think it could be tomorrow and I very afraid too much of it is today.

Hopkins painstaking conducts us through the struggle of Taylor and Valentina to survive, survival which is threatened by pregnancy. Taylor and his lover Cassandra are in danger because men and women of his degenerate caste A.S.P’s are not meant to have children.  Valentina, whose foetus has been approved and genetically modified (shades of Midwich Cuckoos), is fundamentally revolted by the prospect of this alien baby and runs away from her husband, Kyle. Their attempts to alter the situation though crippled by drugs, surveillance and ignorance is heroic, demented, brutal and often grotesque but Hopkins keeps us edgy and expectant about their prospects.   Zone 23 blasts away any comfortable thinking as to freedom of thought let alone freedom of speech.  The chapter on Normals is brilliant; it is also very unsettling.

The most powerful aspect of this novel is the language.  I was astonished by the length of sentences, all of which are properly structured and sensible, but which grow to such a size (sometimes a whole page) because Hopkins depicts the environment, the characters and the cascade of their thoughts in elaborate and exquisite detail.  The way the author hammers the reader with information echoes the experiences of the people he is describing. It is a style more redolent of nineteenth century. I could not read this book quickly for a variety of reasons: the author is directing attention by entering the book as a narrator, because of the complexity of the social comment, because of the challenging nature of the some of the subject matter, because of the sheer weight of qualified and modified statements and because I just had to stop and think about what was being written.  The element which haunts me the most is KILL CHAIN! and the soulless though avid application of the players, most of whom are Clears – as Valentina’s baby will be, in removing undesirable (not like them) people.

I will definitely read Zone 23 again but I will buy a paper copy so I can do so more easily.

The End of the World Running Club by Adrian J Walker

Finding a really good science fiction book by chance is very, very satisfying.  Reading reviews, listening to recommendations from friends and the obligations of reading groups means new books and authors are continually thrown at me.  It is a different thing entirely to find a gripping book by idly scanning the library shelves or those in a book shop; it is like finding grains of gold dust.

The End of the World Running Club was just such a find.  The hero, Edgar Hill, and his family are lucky to survive the meteor strike but it is the way in which this unprepossessing man tackles what comes after the physical and social destruction of his city makes this a plausible and entertaining story.  The novel is written in the first person and in this case it works extremely well because Edgar is under no illusions he is a deserving or fit hero; he stumbles along trying to make decisions which will provide for his family.  The author does not fall into the trap of allowing his character skills and knowledge beyond his abilities.

From the beginning Edgar has company who inspire, guide and frustrate him.  His wife is a canny woman and, although his love for her and their children is flawed. it has a depth that surprises everyone.  He strives to form bonds with the other unlikely survivors as they scavenge for food and drugs; these bonds are tested when the group return to find Edgar’s family and others have been rescued and taken to Cornwall by helicopter.  The abandoned group have less than one month to make it to that rendezvous from Edinburgh.  Spurred by love, desperation and circumstance the group Bryce, Richard, Grimes, Harvey and Edgar begin to trek across Britain.

This is where the novel comes alive. During the course of the journey the characters are shaped and integrated in a credible way.  They change, and the group dynamics change, as they encounter people and landscape scarred by the meteorite strikes and by sickness and famine which followed after.  I was enthralled by the members of the group and I liked the depiction of Harvey and his role in the group in particular.  Walker has not written a fairy tale or derring-do experience but constructed a gritty clumsy attempt to make a dreadful journey because the alternative is to have no hope at all.

Based on this book I am definitely going to read Adrian J Walker’s second novel and I have high hopes.


The Book of M by Peng Shepherd

There are not many books which polarize my Sci-fi reading Group but The Book of M was definitely on that short list.  I loved the book.

I think it worked so well for me because I was fully prepared to accept the premise that people could lose their shadows.  From the beginning I interpreted the disappearance of shadows as a metaphor for the destructive forces unleashed by loss.  I was not too worried by the argument concerning the how the lack of a shadow is simply impossible, which I think puts one of my feet in the fantasy camp, because I just accepted it was so.  I do have some sympathy with the groan concerning the ‘slog of a journey across inhospitable terrain’ which seems to be the inevitable character in every futuristic novel of the twenty-first century.

The Book of M - Hardback NEW Shepherd, Peng 18/06/2018

I consider Shepherd equated the loss of shadow with a loss of understanding, in particular the loss of the memory of one’s place and relationship, which created a hollow or a space in the afflicted person.  The way in which a person managed, if he or she had time, the loss of the shadow was the exciting aspect.  Max, the main character, constantly refers to resisting the desire to a pull at remaining memories whereby the afflicted person, desperate to fill the gaping hole, drags, grabs, mutilates and consumes other memories and in so doing remakes reality.  Some narcissistic and frightened people without shadows, especially if their fears are massaged, are very very dangerous. They are also infectious; another gripe by some members of the group was the means of infection was never explored which I countered by saying in the real world the reason for many diseases were and are a mystery to sufferers and, when the effort to come up with a reasonable explanation for the disease and its effects fails, people described the event as magic.  I have noticed real sci-fi buffs are really uneasy and repelled by the word magic.

I thought Shepherd played imaginatively with time in this novel.  Humans constantly strive to alter the environment to suit their desires and alleviate their fears but it is usually done over years, over lifetimes or over millenniums; in history we know some individuals have had a catastrophic effect on other people and cultures.  In Peng’s novel the ability of a person to affect reality is concertinaed so it may occur within hours or days.

The characters were complex in role and personality.  Ory I found mostly unlikable but his persistence, his love for Max and his representation of the shadowed life makes him indispensable.  The amnesiac, who suffers physically but not emotionally from the same aliment, is the ‘scientist’ who uncovers the cure, besides execution, for shadowless people is also not endearing.  It was the cameo characters who were the most successful creations in the novel.  I liked the way Shepherd interacted with other cultural and literary references concerning memory in her novel.

I galloped through The Book of M but it is the type of book which will stand up to being read again.


Containment by Christian Cantrell

    Containment is a tightly plotted novel about the colonization of Venus.  The word ‘tight’ is apt for so many other features of the novel: the rigidly controlled birth rate on the colony; the career path options and training; the space which is comprised of linked pods; the air problem; the 110,000 plants which produce oxygen; and the use of limited energy.  We are constantly reminded that Venus is the least hospitable planet in the solar system.

The author revels in writing this novel.  In chapter nine he fluently and convincingly presents the case for colonizing Venus as opposed to Mars.  Cantrell’s use of science and technological research tools makes the habitation on Venus plausible but he is not above, like Cam, using duct tape to patch together disparate scientific genres.

The main character of this novel is Arik.  The way Cantrell develops his genius, this solver of problems, is wonderful.  Although I find some areas of Arik’s ignorance somewhat inexplicable, given the whole childhood and youth he had to ask them, I am right there with him as he struggles to understand the environment and the people he is trying to save. He is so dominant his wife, Cadie, just doesn’t lift of the page with the same power.

In contrast to so many off-world novels the baser instincts do not run riot.  The threat to their existence is much more profound and I was caught up in the tension concerning the ‘dead air’; tenuousness of the continued existence of the colony; the urgency in finding a solution; and the battle with hierarchy of individuals who try and contain and subvert his understanding.

My only complaint, which I offer very diffidently as I blame my comprehension, is that I am still mystified as the to the mystery behind the door.  Yet, even though I stumble at the last hurdle, I am thoroughly sure that I would recommend this book, Containment. Maybe someone might direct me to the paragraph that holds the last key to a full understanding of the connection between Venus and Earth.

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Four Good Titles .. but

The Prefect by Alastair Reynolds, Boneshaker by Cherie Priest, Autonomous by Annalee Newitz and Gridlinked by Neal Asher are all well worth reading.

Autonomous is the best of these novel. I loved the premise that for the several heroic characters the fight was against Pharma, who withheld life-saving treatment from the poor and the dispossessed (and there are a lot of them!) Jack is a terrific character and Threezee is very convincing.  Mel, the AI raised as a human, research scientist is the best of the lot.  The author waltzes us through drugs and supplements which enable humans to function at extra-ordinary levels.  However, then there is the Pharma hitmen, Eliasz and his sub-ordinate AI, Paladin.  The author is interested in exploring the affair between the two but in so doing gives Paladin so much power that the piecemeal process of their hunt for Jack is not credible.  I really really liked this book but the physical hunt, several chase scenes, through he dives seemed a tad unnecessary.

The Prefect most appealing element is the development of the character, number-cruncher, earnest Thalia Ny, the off-sider to the hard-bitten, law-enforcing, sad Dreyfus whom, even after we learn he had a mind wipe so as to cope with overwhelming grief, remains a cardboard cutout personality.  The science-fiction environment is created with loving detail – sometimes excessive detail, this is the real strength of the novel, though the AI seems to be unaccountably thin in defense and the villains, the psychotic mind warping Aurora and the traitor, run rings around a much larger, better equipped opponent.  Whereupon Dreyfus darts about the system, chase scene in space drive, in a variety of vehicles hunting the physical Aurora and trying to understand motive. The predicament of Ammonier, who continues in a role of authority, was ridiculous.  The reference to other problematic groups/individuals including the conjoiners, the Ultras and the clockmaker heavily point to the series.  The best sci-fi concept occurred during Dreyfus’ ethicial conversation with the Beta manifestation of Delphine, the uploaded memories of the alpha (real) being.

Boneshaker begins with a fabulous scenario of a willful adolescent heading into danger, a heavily polluted quarantined part of the city, in search of his family’s old home.  His mother, the wonderful Briar, sets off after him and has to enlist the assistance of black market traders.  The edgy characters both Briar and Zeke meet are the strength of the novel, Rudy, Aadan Cly,Swakhammer, Miss Angeline and Lucy.  The Blight, the bad air, is a good character too until it is given the additional attributes of not only being the basis of addictive Sap but has the ability to turn humans, only humans, into unstoppable zombies.  And much of the novel is taken up with chase scenes with moments of rest, panting in masks, as the real humans are driven underground.  The end is clever but here again is such an effective enemy one unconvinced by human survival.

Gridlocked likes indulging in description of amazing technology too. The interesting consideration in this novel is how direct association with AI leads to loss of personality, intuition and flexibility. Hero, James Bond like, Ian Cormac must surrender his direct link and rely on an android. While he is coping with his withdrawal he is fighting both the crazed criminal Pelter and his crazier android, Crane, and the old enemy, Dragon, wants help against the Maker.  Lots of running around exchanging fire and surviving the impossible.  The latter part of the novel is definitely not as good as the beginning and the thawing Cormac goes back into frozen personality mode even without the AI link.

My ‘but’ arises because in each of these novels whole populations are dispensed with willy-nilly with neither stain nor a wrench on the characters of those that do and those that witness. Reyonlds says is the most clearly ‘just over a thirtieth of the whole citizenry .. thank our stars we are talking about millions and not tens of millions… the citizenry will get over it and move on with their lives choosing to forget …’  I find this approach to death, violence and torture which is evident in all of these novels risible and not supported by any human experience.  it is video game writing.  Even Jack and Mel in Autonomous give themselves a little shake and get on with their careers.

Non-Stop and Hothouse by Brian Aldiss

Our Science Fiction Book Group elected to read Brian Aldiss in February.  Few of us had read him before although he was, in 2000, made a Grand Master by Science Fiction Writers of America and inducted into the Science Fiction Hall of Fame in 2004.  Looking at his huge out put of writing was daunting and we decided upon Hothouse. The book was enjoyed for its voluptuous description of aggressive plants and the female characters; the latter were, given it was written in 1962, refreshingly positive and active.  Never-the-less the derring-do lay with the male character, Gren, who undergoes a series of experiences which infuse his ambition with knowledge but in the end Gren chooses to live a smaller, immediate life to that of space travel.  The book is structurally really flawed and many characters and plot lines are messily deserted and the finale arrives at a impatient gallop within the last five pages.  It turns out that this book is a compilation of a series of stories which were edited to reduce its length; and thus some of its sense. Non-Stop (S.F. MASTERWORKS)

I personally wanted to give Aldiss another shot and, using a pin, ended up with Non-Stop which was written in 1958.   Another wild vegetable environment though this one is more in the plantation style.  The ponic plants are the food and building material of disparate groups of tribes who war with each other.  They live small brutish lives constrained by rules as restrictive as their diet.  However, the hero (anti-hero) Complain after the kidnapping of his wife, a whipping and colour madness leaves his village in the company of three other disaffected men following the priest, Marapper, in the search for the controls of the ship.  For Complain gradually accepts he is marooned on a vast space ship.

Non-Stop is, as in Hothouse, interested in the awakening of the mind; Complain is violent, impulsive and egotistical but these traits are increasingly moderated by learning and by love.  In this novel as he did in his other he disposes of characters in a cavalier fashion, introduces exotic opposition in the form of telepathic moths and rabbits and intelligent, vicious rats.

As in Hothouse there is an ‘outside’ intelligence which attempts to manipulate and control the ‘dizzy’ tribes which live on the spaceship which is kept orbiting the Earth while the humans on the ground decide what to do with them as they have become ‘degenerate’.  The latter part of the novel is a swipe at anthropology and experimentation which is overcome by the ingeniousness of life. Some of the plot devices are poorly framed but this novel was amusing and the verdant quality of Aldiss’  wild plant environment was particularly engaging.  However, I have been sufficiently exposed to his preoccupations concerning loss of innocence through knowledge, wilderness and wild humans, colonization and the redeeming qualities of love that I am not inclined to read any more.