The Tourist by Robert Dickenson

The Tourist is a fascinating book.  Difficult at times as the reader, like the main protagonist, Sven, struggles from his small person’s perspective to understand the influence of competitive groups from the future and among the natives as he searches for a missing client, Adorna Mond.

Sven is a time travel rep, with a strong sense of honour and duty,  working for one of the cheaper companies that takes clients, in this case to London in the 21st century.  Sven and his clients are from period three hundred years after the NEE which had had drastic effects on the human population and the planet.  The primary interest of the time-travellers Sven conducts through the malls of London is in the acquisition of material goods from the century of excess but in most other respects they and Sven are repulsed by their ancestors.

The differences between the people from the future and the people of the 21st century, referred to ask natives, leak out gradually.  The people of the number cities are taller and stronger; they use augs to enhance function; they live rigid and monitored lives they have castes including Happiness, Awareness, Safety and Millies; they dislike the native’s food and blame them for the NEE.  What is also gradually revealed is there is manipulation of the governance of the 21st century against the protocol Sven observes. The 21st century is being invaded by the future and, via this conceit, Dickenson makes some pertinent comments about colonization.  The interference is is not only exploitative but hostile; and there is evidence that the future governments are not unified but have conflicting ideas about the interactions between the future and its past; reference the Anarchonists.  But time travel is confusing; identifying, stopping and punishing is a slippery business.

Sven looks for his missing client, who may also be Karia Stadt enemy of the numbered cities, and so does Riemann Aldis, agent of the numbered cities.  Through the eyes of these characters Dickinson makes some pithy comment about the priorities of the 21st century.  Sven is a purist who has had, through time travellers’ collections, access to the original productions of classical music and is contemptuous of the natives’ practice of interpretation.  When he has served for long enough he can set his own agenda and he plans to time travel so he too can listen to the first concerts.

The Tourist is a novel to read again and again as it does not give up its plot secrets and its character insights readily.  One certainty in this novel is that violence is still the crude weapon used to try to defeat practitioners of alternative ways of living.  But Robert Dickenson’s allusion to a city destroyed as a response to one enemy agent or the quick glances at the dreadful conditions in the tunnels or the insect farms of the future creates a much more powerful impression than the excessive, gratuitous, voyeuristic descriptions of violence that blights so much of modern sci-fi writing.   Another certainty in the novel is the power and the beauty of an individual life.



Robert the Bruce, King of Scots by R. M. Scott & Bitter Greens by K. Forsyth

I dare to link these two books, Robert the Bruce and Bitter Greens, because, despite using vastly different approaches to their subjects,  Scott and Forsyth have written brilliant historical studies.

Ronald McNair Scott has written a traditional history with clarity in elegant prose.   He has shown me why Robert the Bruce, a King of Scotland from 1306, was, and is, such a revered ruler.  Prior to reading this novel I had a very thin grasp of the circumstances and wars that resulted in an independent Scotland.  Moreover, I realised that I had been inculcated with the English version of events. Robert the Bruce success was not dependent on the inadequacy of Edward II  as a king and general but a result of Robert’s clever and determined leadership.

Robert the Bruce was the consequence of  Edward I’s disregard for the Treaty of Birgham, which he signed in 1290 guaranteeing the laws, liberties and customs of Scotland, and in 1292 used force to try and annex Scotland.  He almost succeeded as in a series of bloody wars, using superior numbers and armour, he imposed military control.  Scottish lords either fled after conquest or made submission with tribute and hostages.  Edward I cruelty, his treatment of William Wallace was one many outrages, was influential in feeding rebellion that crowned Robert King of Scotland in 1306.

Yet Robert the Bruce was king in name only.  It was not until 1328 that he secured his kingdom with the Treaty of Edinburgh with the English.  R.N. Scott carefully and clearly leads us through the complexity of intrigues and furious battles by which Robert the Bruce won back Scottish lands. The author attributes Robert’s success to his character as much as to his brilliant generalship. He inspires his people who give hearts, children and sustenance.  The author, like the king he is studying, does not lose sight of the human cost of wars that raged across Scotland and Ireland.  Robert the Bruce lost four brothers in the war, his wife and child were captives and his sisters suffered demeaning imprisonment.

Thank you Ronald McNair Smith for the bibliography, which is guiding further reading, the maps and the family trees, and especially for Chapter 1 which succinctly outlines the clan and church influences in Scotland and explains the feudal social structure which enabled, encouraged, the wars between Scotland and England.

Bitter Greens is an artful mixture of fairytale, magic realism and historical fiction.  Kate Forsyth braids together a well-researched biography of Charlotte-Rose de Caumont de la Force, writer and historian, and the mythical  histories of two of la Force’s fictional creations, Margherita (Rapunzel) and Selena Leonelli (the witch).  In the process we are shown the workings of the court of the Sun King, Louis XIV in all its glory and horror.  Kate Forsyth provides us with an intense understanding of the cruel etiquette, caprices and vengeance that characterised Louis  XIV rule.

Selena Leonelli not only a witch but in Forsyth’s novel becomes Titian’s mystery model and the novel moves cleverly into Magic Ralism. Through the lens of her vile, voluptuous and voracious experiences we see Venice, the plague, the life of a courtesan and her bloody attempts to remain young and beautiful.  All of the characters experience love and make love but Margherita, the stolen child held captive in the tower who remains faithful and loving,  is the determinedly hopeful and justifiably so.

But it is Charlotte-Rose who most enchants in Bitter Greens as she grapples with the perdition of being exiled to a nunnery and dreary physical trials of that enforced calling by reliving her time in the French King’s court and making stories.

Roanld Scott’s history of Robert the Bruce I chanced upon but Bitter Greens I gave as a gift to Angharad to read during her flight home to Australia.  She has returned the novel to me, a couple of years later, with a salutation from Kate Forsyth.  And so well-written books wend their way around the world.

The Iron Wyrm Affair by Lilith Saintcrow


      The Iron Wyrm Affair is clever and well-told story by Lilith Saintcrow.  Lilith Saintcrow, a brilliant name with its nod at the first Eve, holiness and Odin’s messenger, brilliantly combines in this novel vivid and vile places inhabited by extreme personalities, adept in magic, skill or logic, with aplomb and verve.

The Iron Wyrm Affair (Bannon & Clare, #1)

From the outset the reader is plunged into Victorian London but it differs somewhat from the historical template. Londinium’s environs are not only filthy and vile but populated by machines blended  with flesh so they can toil even harder and longer for the benefit of the nation.  It is a dismal and nasty place for the majority of the population. The privileged, who have greater access to magical abilities, are few and vicious in their actions to protect their status.  Victrix, a distorted version of Victoria, is both a young queen and inhabited by the spirits of the earlier rulers of Britannia. The Iron Wyrm Affair is of the steampunk genre though Saintcrow describes it as ‘alt-history mixed with urban fantasy’.

The main character, Emma Bannon, has been snatched from poverty for intense training once her magic ability manifested itself.  She dresses superbly in the current fashion as she is concerned about appearances, is a stickler for manners and proper service in her elegant house (‘tidiness was one of Emma Bannon’s specialties’) but she is courageous, ruthless and literally wades through filth in her determination to support her queen.  The support cast includes mentath, Archibald Clare, modeled on Sherlock Holmes but with a few extra tics and friends of superb technological ability; the assassin, Ludovico Valentinelli, and her extraordinary bodyguard, the Shield Mikal. Of all of Saintcrow’s creations I found the role of the Shield most interesting; and so does Emma Bannon.

This is quick, riotous novel but it keeps its shape throughout.  The Iron Wyrm threatens the whole fabric of the nation, though at times it is so industrially revolting that I hesitate to support Emma in her mission.  The characters are entertaining but the hints at cruel and problematic personal histories makes the prospect of more novels set in this world  very appealing.  The author says it was fun to write and I found it fun to read.





Tooth and Claw by Jo Walton

Tooth and Claw is a clever and hilarious piece of fantasy fiction.  Jo Walton has created a world of manners and intrigue that Trollope or Austen would have easily recognised.


Dragons fulfil the aristocratic role in a rigid, often ruthless, society.  The family of Dignified Bon Agornin are not pleased with the distribution of his wealth among his family which ran counter to his will and deathbed wishes.  In Tiamath wealth is measured in land and gold and industry and in also in dragon flesh.  Avan, whose growth and influence was definitely inhibited by the way in which he was cheated, decides to bring a legal case against the greediest transgressor, Illustrious Daverak.  The results of this affect the health and well-being of the rest of his family, particularly the  prospects of his unmarried sisters.  The resultant twisted path of pink scales, dowries and marriage beds does, however, ultimately reach an imminently satisfactory Victorian conclusion.

Jo Walton dresses the heads of her dragon protagonists, in accordance with situation and status, elegantly and evocatively.  She reveals a world in which some dragons are bound by oaths and some by servitude.  A world where criminality, corruption and non-conformists seethe beneath the self-satisfied social order.  A world which shares an uneasy border with the ancestral enemy, the Yarge.

The naughty escapades of dragonets, Gerin and Wontas, are influential in Selendra finding wealth and love.  Haner embarks upon her fight for the well-being of poor, down-trodden dragons.  Sebeth is rescued from poverty and obscurity by a death bed repentance.

The light-hearted, rollicking plot and the attractive characters in Tooth and Claw are enough to like but the way in which the author plays with Victorian pretensions adds depth and laughter to the novel.  I am certainly going to keep this one on my bookshelf so that I can read it again.


The difficulty finding an engrossing book …..

I read for a variety of reasons: to learn, to keep up-to-date and to be challenged but primarily I read to be entertained and taken out of myself. Sometimes I like the well trodden tales, no surprises and healthy helpings of justice and ‘happy-ever-afters’ though increasingly I have to duck and dive around the stereotypes and social clangers.  Most of all I love being swept up into an imaginary existence by a great writer where I persuaded to know things differently.  Such writers are hard to find!

During the last couple of weeks I have read some competent authors.  I have reread a couple of stories written in the 1950s and found ye olde rip-roaring tales undermined by heroes with no graces who somehow secure love and loyalty.  I have read a R.A Salvatore written in 2013 and wished all over again that he had stopped after the first few terrific novels about Dizzet Do’Urden.  I have read Red Rising by Pierce Brown which is well-written but stuffed with violence.  I found the body metamorphoses of the hero, Darrow, ridiculous but despite this Pierce did manage to make his character credible.  The loyalty to a dead love, which motivated all of his efforts, was stretched to snapping point.  It is a clever use of Roman mythology and history but I have decided that I prefer to read them in their original setting and have no desire to read the rest in the series.  I read Brilliant and Forever by Kevin MacNeil a surreal book about competing writers, one of whom is an alpaca,  which initially thrilled me and then wearied me. I could not like wading through the long periods drab prose, however symbolic, for those flashes of brilliance.  I read The Witches of Eden by Kate Forsyth which is about how jolly nice witches resist the depredations of nasty magic types; a quick read but not engaging enough to make me want to finish this series either.

And then I struck gold – two great books in a row.  But they each deserve their own review.


Fallen Dragon by Peter E. Hamilton


Fallen Dragon was recommended to me as ‘hard’ science fiction which I was not what I expected from the title.  The reason for the title was an edgy mystery for most of the book, which is more than 800 pages long, but revelation of the ‘dragon’ was rather underwhelming.

But back to the hard science fiction component of the novel.  There is indeed a lot of futuristic technology here; acres of detail about such as cyrogenic fuel, gamma soak, landing pods, Skin and  interfacing with personal AI via bracelets or pearls. Sometimes it was as if I was reading a raft of operating manuals though the author was good enough to keep me reading.   The majority of the description hones in on ‘advanced’ weaponry and fighting techniques, whereupon I realised that I was not only reading hard science fiction but a ‘shoot ’em up!

Now I have read my way through a lot of ‘fighting’ novels; I am familiar with Roman and Viking fighting styles, and with that of the Visigoths, the Huns, the Crusaders, the Tudors and the Russian Tzars.  I have a pretty good idea of the weaponry and tactics used to implement Spanish, British and French Imperialism.  I have read one hundred Westerns.  I have read about battles in WWI and  WWII.  I have read about intense battles in imaginary places.  Fallen Dragon ended up being a story in the style of macho WWII/Vietnam type platoon engagement with more whizzy weapons.

What makes a ‘fighting book’ bearable and credible is having an interest in the characters that fight.  Hamilton has expended too many words on things and too few on people.  I found the sexism, thuggery and moral vacuum of the soldiers, the ‘grunts’,  handling superb weapons and asset stripping extra-ordinary planets depressing and uninspiring; they were kept one-dimensional by clunky dialogue, inexplicable ignorance and limited ambition.  I cared not a whit when they were, predictably, killed off.  The main characters are Lawrence, the tough intelligent sergeant with plans to escape (though the words traitor and deserter are never used) from the military life and return to the luxurious life he foolishly abandoned in huff, and Denise, the clever rebel enacting clever plans to overthrow the corrupt and cruel corporations permanently.  They have a history!

Well, I did soldier on to the end of this novel.  Hamilton writes well at times and the carefully plotted sabotages were very good.   He could do with cutting out half of the operating manuals, a few worlds and spend some time on making his particpants more rounded than 1950’s cartoon characters.


The Other Minds / The Octopus and the Evolution of Intelligent Life by P. Godfrey-Smith

I am very enthusiastic about this book, Other Minds.  

Other Minds: The Octopus and the Evolution of Intelligent Life ebook by Peter Godfrey-SmithOther Minds: The Octopus and the Evolution of Intelligent Life ebook by Peter Godfrey-SmithOther Minds: The Octopus and the Evolution of Intelligent Life ebook by Peter Godfrey-SmithOther Minds: The Octopus and the Evolution of Intelligent Life ebook by Peter Godfrey-Smith

I have read  the book a couple of times already and I will read it a couple times more.  The density of the material that Peter Godfrey-Smith is presenting is challenging but in a way that makes me feel like I am being lifted higher in understanding not left bewailing my ignorance.  I do realise that being a scuba diver for thirty years may contribute to my enthusiasm but the careful, joyful descriptions of octopuses and the nature of their intelligence, as compared to ours, is enthralling.

The book begins with a personal encounter with an octopus, ‘I swam down repeatedly’, which piques the curiosity of the author and he leads on his study of the animal that results in this book.  The story of his increasing fascination with the evolutionary development, the physical structure and the capabilities of the octopus is gripping.

There is so much in this book. He explores the link between the structure of the body, the interplay between nerve and brain, and the way in which this informs an organisms perception and interaction with the environment is just mind-boggling.  Then there is the discussion about the awakening of consciousness, a subjective understanding whereby ‘senses do their basic work in real time unconsciously’ but if the ‘sensory streams are brought together there arises a recognition of time and self’.  The application of this definition to an octopus is absorbing.  Peter Godfrey-Smith is persuaded that octopus have a subjective understanding of the world; that they are curious and adaptive though he is cautious about the extent to which the colour changes on the skin could be called a language.  I found the science of the ‘thin magic skin’ which involves muscles deliberately stretching the cell sacs to make a colour visible or relaxing it for the opposite effect difficult but satisfying. I have to reread the section on the ‘reflecting cells in the next level of dermis’.  Perhaps that is Peter Godfrey-Smith’s greatest achievement that he so carefully uses his words that which is hard to comprehend becomes accessible.

Peter Godfrey-Smith is clear that the process of understanding the octopus has been gained, and continues to be gained through the years and layers of scientific observation and expression.  I did find some of the experiments referred to made me feel squeamish.  The author has a nice sense of the dramatic.  The last chapters of the book are about the short life-span of the octopus and an on-going observations of an octopus settlement near scallop fields in shell-lined dens is just amazing.  I am in full sympathy with Godfrey-Smith’s appeal in his final chapter for more careful and considerate use of the finite resources of the sea.

I do recommend  reading this book.