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I've been writing reviews of various things for some years now, but it was only in late 2005 that I finally got around to being opinionated over at the 900 lb gorilla of online bookshops. I thought I'd collect the texts of my Amazon reviews on my own website, together with links to the relevant book pages at and Since they're Amazon reviews, they're written in the context of full biblio details and possibly other reviews on the Amazon page -- I'd usually give a bit more detail in standalone reviews.

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Iain Banks -- Excession

4 stars -- Space opera by a master

Another book set in the universe of the Culture, Bank's powerful, hedonistic galactic civilisation devoted to pleasure and doing good works. This one focuses on the machine intelligences of the Culture rather than the people, and makes it clear that the machines are people too, complete with virtues, vices, and erratic behaviour. "Excession" is hard work, but worth it. It's a complex book with multiple plot threads and it's stuffed with dazzling ideas. The Excession itself is an enormously powerful alien artefact/entity that appears and then simply sits there doing nothing; but by doing so it provokes a great many other entities into action they may regret. Banks has the writing skill to pull it off, but you really do have to be paying attention right the way through. It's not perfect -- there are a lot of ship characters in this one, not all of them clearly delineated by personality, and it's very hard to keep track of who's who at times. It does repay the effort, though. It's funny, moving and thought-provoking, and holds a mirror up to ourselves in the same way the Excession does to the people and civilisations that encounter it.

19 May 2006. Discussion thread at LiveJournal. ISBN 0553575376 (US) or 185723457X (UK).

Excession from
Excession at
Excession from Barnes & Noble
Excession from Powell's

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Chaz Brenchley -- Outremer 1: The Devil In The Dust

5 stars -- Unusual and compelling medieval fantasy

Chaz Brenchley's Outremer series is an alternate-Crusades story set in a world where magic is real. As the story opens, the land of Outremer is a place where recent settlers have successfully imposed their religion and way of life upon those who were there before. But Outremer faces challenges from both without and within, and a military religious order grows ever more fanatical in its attempts to enforce the religious law.

The main characters in the novel show the diversity of opinion and culture within Outremer. The major plotline in this book follows two of the men in the Ransomer order. Marron is a young man who joined the Ransomer brothers out of idealism, but has seen the dark side of the order in his journey to the castle of Roq de Rancon where he will undergo training; Marron has true faith but his experience of a religious dictatorship leaves him disillusioned and in pain. He finds something worth believing in with Sieur Anton d'Escrivey, the Knight Ransomer who takes him on as squire, but d'Escrivey has problems of his own.

Julianne de Rance, daughter of the King's Shadow, is a child of the court, a woman used to having status and power but now on her way to a political marriage in a culture where women are expected to go veiled. She's temporarily trapped by circumstance in the Roc, along with Elisande, a young women she has picked up along the way. Elisande has little to say about herself, but it's clear that there's a good deal she could say if she chose to.

Their interactions with each other and those around them make for superb characterisation and worldbuilding, and Brenchley creates a vivid picture of his world without forgetting to tell a story. This is not an easy tale of good and evil, but a world where people have mixed loyalties and may have to make harsh choices as to who they serve.

This is the first part of the US edition of the Outremer series -- I note this because the series was originally published as a trilogy in the UK, but for the American edition it was split into six volumes, with some rewriting. As such, The Devil In The Dust should really be read together with Tower of the King's Daughter (also the title of the original UK volume 1 comprising the material in 1&2 of the US edition).

That said, this volume works well as a standalone segment within a larger story arc. The book introduces characters and sets up several plotlines for the series, but provides a satisfactory resolution for part of the storyline within the book, rather than leaving the reader with a cliffhanger. It pulls off the difficult trick of being a satisfying read in its own right while being an enticement to read the rest of the story. An excellent start to what looks from this sample to be an excellent series.

The US edition of the series is now out of print, although new stock is still available in some shops. The UK edition from Orbit is still in print. The books are also available within the UK direct from the author -- only the UK editions are listed, but if you'd prefer the US editions it's worth asking if there's stock.

19 March 2007. Discussion thread at LiveJournal.

The Tower of the King's Daughter (Outremer) UK edition volume 1 of 3 at Amazon UK
Outremer #1: The Devil in the Dust (Outremer, Book 1) US edition Volume 1 of 6 at Amazon US
Chaz Brenchley's website

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Chaz Brenchley -- Outremer 2: Tower of the King's Daughter

5 stars -- Unusual and compelling fantasy

Note -- this review refers to the second book of six in the US edition, not the first of three in the UK edition (which was split into two books for the US edition).

Chaz Brenchley's Outremer series creates a richly imagined world populated by people who feel real. The pace is slow and unhurried, but it's always clear that the story is going somewhere, and worth following. It's solidly based in the real history of the Crusader kingdoms, but places them in a universe where the magic of that time and place is real, making for a compelling and different take on the fantasy genre.

This book opens where the previous volume left off, with the young squire Marron having to face the consequences of his choice to protect the Ransomers from a stealth invasion. It's clear from the very first scene that this is no fluffy fantasy, where only redshirts die -- Brenchley unflinchingly shows that Marron's choice was between two evils, and that people he cares for would suffer greatly no matter which choice he made. It's close to horror in its intensity, but it's not gratuitous.

The pattern continues through the book, with choices having to be made by most of the characters, some lesser and some greater, but never easy choices. If you're looking for a nice simple Good Versus Evil, look elsewhere. This series has complex characters reacting to complex situations, and actions don't always have the consequences someone intended.

This volume develops the relationships already shown in the first volume, and shows more of two characters who were introduced relatively briefly. One of the plot hooks in the first volume provides much of the plotline for Julianne and Elisande, as they try to obey the djinni's request/order to Julianne that she go where she is sent, and marry where she must. The promise proves both more complicated and more painful to keep than Julianne had imagined. And one of the hints for Marron and Sieur Anton comes to fruition, but Marron finds his own promises, to himself and to others, clashing with each other.

Some of the secrets hinted at in the first volume are unveiled -- including the mystery at the heart of the titular tower, a strange edifice in the heart of the fortress of Roq de Rancon. But it's clear that the characters still have a long journey ahead of them, and lessons to learn.

The series offers a fascinating world and well-developed characters, including strong female characters who feel integral rather than a nod to the female readership. It's all presented in exquisite prose that's a delight to read.

The US edition of the series is now out of print, although new stock is still available in some shops. The UK edition from Orbit is still in print. The books are also available within the UK direct from the author -- only the UK editions are listed, but if you'd prefer the US editions it's worth asking if there's stock.

28 March 2007. Discussion thread at LiveJournal.

The Tower of the King's Daughter (Outremer) UK volume 1 of 3 at Amazon UK
Tower of the King's Daughter (Outremer, No. 2) Volume 2 of 6 at Amazon US
Chaz Brenchley's website

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Chaz Brenchley: Outremer 3/6: A Dark Way to Glory

It's the first half of the trilogy's middle volume, and it's travelogue time. This is the section where many trilogies sag, but Brenchley paints a vivid picture of desert travel and its hardships and occasional delights. There's also another display of how very different this series is from standard fantasy derived from Northern European mythology, with the world of the djinn beautifully evoked.

This volume gets the party from the Roc, where they met, to the place in the desert where they get to meet another major character, with some interesting diversions and scenery along the way. At the outset the party consists of Marron, Julianne and Elisande; Rudel and Redmond, the two Surayonese men; and Jemel, the young Sharai man introduced in volume 1 and briefly encountered in volume 2. The party have conflicting interests, not least because Marron and Elisande were involved in the death of Jemel's lover during the battle in the Roc, but they also have common interests and a common destination. That should be enough to keep the party together, but they aren't the only one with an interest in the supernatural burden Marron carries.

That burden, the almost-living weapon known as the Daughter, showed the first of its secrets at the end of the previous volume; in the trek across the desert we learn more of what it can do and what it does to its host, and a little of what it actually is. Marron isn't the person anyone would have chosen to carry it, but proves equal to the task.

And again there are hints of various romantic interests and entanglements, without it being at all obvious how these will eventually be resolved. This segment of the story concludes with another twist of one of the romantic plotlines initiated in the first volume, enticing the reader to read on.

This volume introduces more characters and adds new plot threads without concluding earlier ones, but it does expand on hints dropped in the earlier volumes, adding more depth to the world and the main characters. With the original book being split into two for the US edition, it should be seen as a segment in a long novel rather than a novel in its own right, and in that context offers enough to make for a satisfying read while still leaving the reader wanting to move on to the next volume.

31 March 2007. Discussion thread at LiveJournal.

Feast of the King's Shadow (Outremer) 2/3 at Amazon UK
Outremer #3: A Dark Way To Glory (Outremer, 3) 3/6 at Amazon US
Chaz Brenchley's website

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Chaz Brenchley -- Outremer 4/6: Feast of the King's Shadow

It's surprisingly tricky to review the later books in the series without giving too much away, in large part because the whole thing should really be regarded as a single long novel. Nevertheless, here's the review of part four.

As the fourth volume opens, the little group of travellers finally reaches the safety of the desert city of Rhabat, and the council of the sheiks. But safety only for a little while, before the 'ifrit make their presence felt. Again, Brenchley draws on the real world to form a solid foundation for his creation, with his depiction of the city carved from living rock.

The are two main plot threads running through this volume; one the growing love and friendship between various characters, the other the shifting balance between war and peace as Hasan tries to unite the Sharai tribes for war against the Outremer states, and the King's Shadow and Ruban of Surayon try to dissuade them from war. But the future war is forgotten for a little while, as both sides make common cause to defend Rhabat from an enemy deadly to all.

Both plot threads come together around Julianne. The King's Shadow is quite willing to use his own daughter in persuit of his cause, recognising the strong mutual attraction between Julianne and Hasan. Julianne finds herself with a second wedding arranged for political purposes -- and a second prospective husband she is in love with, political marriage or no. But that's far less complicated than the emotions swirling around Marron...

As with the previous volumes, much of the appeal of the series lies in the complex characters. They mostly try to do the right thing, at least by their own moral codes, but don't always succeed. They're human and have human failings, and one of the things the series shows is that moral codes can be different and not perfectly compatible, -- and not always perfectly followed even by people who try to do so. It's easy to become attached to these people, wanting to know what happens next and hoping for a good outcome for them all. But there are no guarantees here; characters die, and not just redshirts introduced as cannon fodder. It makes for a reading experience that is sometimes painful, but certainly intense.

2 April 2007. Discussion thread at LiveJournal.

Feast of the King's Shadow (Outremer) 2/3 at Amazon UK
Outremer #4: Feast Of The King's Shadow (Outremer, 4) 4/6 at Amazon US
Chaz Brenchley's website

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Chaz Brenchley -- Outremer 5/6: Hand of the King's Evil

The middle two volumes were focused purely on the desert, but this volume opens in Outremer, showing something of what happened to the people who were left behind. Magister Fulke is still intent on war against Surayon, and when he marches out, Sieur Anton marches with him -- still hoping to find his errant squire Marron.

Those of the desert have a more pressing concern -- finding and rescuing Julianne, who was abducted on her wedding night. They follow the trail to a trade city on the border between Outremer and the lands of the Sharai.

That's her second wedding night. She ran away from her first husband on her first wedding night, hating to leave him but following a more urgent promise. Imber hasn't giving up hope of finding her, and joins a march to the trade City in search of the coming war.

Then there's the mysterious preacher and his flock of the not-quite-healed; an army, perhaps, for someone who chooses to use it that way.

And they're all aimed at Surayon, with one tiny and personal battle near the end of this volume paving the way for a much larger battle in the next and final volume of the series.

This is only the first half of what was originally published in the UK as a single volume, but stands well on its own as a prelude to the final twisting together of the various plot strands that have been laid out over the course of the series. Even now it is impossible to predict how events will play out and whether any of the characters will find what they desire. It's beautifully written, as ever, and shows us still more of the characters and their world.

2 April 2007. Discussion thread at LiveJournal.

Hand of the King's Evil (Outremer Series, Book 5) 5/6 at Amazon US
Hand of the King's Evil (Outremer) 3/3 at Amazon US
Chaz Brenchley's website

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Chaz Brenchley -- Outremer 6/6: The End of All Roads

Over the last five volumes, Brenchley has laid out a large number of plot strands. Now he weaves them together in a final volume that sustains the tension almost to the end. The folded land of Surayon is folded no more, and has become a battleground for multiple warring armies, not all of them human. The different human armies are at war with one another, but face a greater enemy -- if they can recognise it in time. The central characters of the series face their own battle to protect the many people and things they love, not all of which are on the same side. Marron's battle is particularly harsh, for he has sworn, with good reason, to never again use the power of the Daughter to kill.

Even in the midst of battle, this is a character-driven story, and there's some beautiful development of character, as each of the surviving main characters is tested to the breaking point. That's "surviving", because right the way through this has not been your fluffy fantasy where only the redshirts die. There's no gratuitous gore, but that's not because the author flinches away from showing the reality of a land at war. As a result, there's genuine suspense right to the last chapter.

At the end of the battle for Surayon, there's one last conflict to resolve. The King of all Outremer has until now been an off-stage figure, shown only through what others say about him, and the effects of the magical power he wields. And the survivors from various sides have questions they would like answered about his failure to intervene in their war at an early stage. They get their answers, but answers that pose more questions.

While Brenchley answers the reader's questions, it's far from a neat and tidy ending. A satisfying one, with Julianne, Elisande and Marron pragmatic enough to be content with what they've got, but certainly not a tidy one.

As a whole then, this is a wonderful and unusual fantasy series, with this volume providing a fitting conclusion. And while romance isn't the be-all and end-all of the plot, the series is definitely one for fans of unconventional romance, so long as they don't insist on all parties getting an unambiguous Happy Ever After.

10 April 2007. Discussion thread at LiveJournal.

Outremer #6: The End of All Roads (Outremer, 6) 6/6 at Amazon US
Hand of the King's Evil (Outremer) 3/3 at Amazon US
Chaz Brenchley's website

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Chaz Brenchley -- The books of Outremer

I've been reviewing the individual books of the Outremer series as I finished each one, but the series could be considered as one long novel, and now I'd like to look at the series as a whole. A quick bit of background from when I asked Chaz about whether I should get the UK or US edition -- the series was originally conceived as a quadrology, but part way through the UK publisher asked for it to be done as a trilogy, which led to the final volume being paced a bit differently to the original intention. When Ace bought the US rights, they chose to split the original three books into two volumes each, and issue the series as six books. Chaz took the chance to tidy up the third book of the trilogy, so apart from the splitting into two, there's also a significant difference in the actual text. If you read the US edition, as I did, it's worth bearing in mind that each pair of volumes is really a single book, and paced as such.

The Outremer series takes place in an alternate-Crusades setting, with a landscape and basic history based on our own, but where magic is real. This is a land where there is direct evidence of supernatural power; evidence that can be, and is, interpreted by people as divine approval for the actions they take.

Add that magic to human nature in a recently conquered land, and you get a range of behaviour, from those seeking to study and understand the mystery, to those who cannot tolerate the existence of any faith other than their own. For Outremer is a collection of small states carved out of another people's territory some forty years earlier by an invading army; each individual state ruled by one of the senior people in that army, but all under the ultimate authority of a king who has withdrawn from public life. In theory there is a degree of official tolerance of the local people and their religion, but actual practice varies widely, as does tolerance of deviation from the most strict interpretation of the conqueror's religion. The most open-minded of the states, the Folded Land, has removed itself entirely from normal space to protect itself from attack by the religious fanatics who call it heretic, and the King has done nothing to intervene on either side.

This, then is the setting -- a land on the brink of war, at conflict with itself and with the surrounding Sharai tribes. But the series is very much character-driven, following a diverse group of characters and showing how they cope with conflicting needs and loyalties. Three core characters are the backbone of the plot, but there are several other major characters whose stories are woven in and out of the plot -- between them they cover the diverse cultures of the setting.

As the series opens, one of the main characters has run head-first into a moral conflict. Marron has joined a military religious order out of a deep faith and idealism; but on the way to the Roc de Rancon, the great castle that is the order's home and training centre, his group of recruits is led to massacre a village caught in heresy. Caught up in blood lust, he participates eagerly, but when the emotions whipped up by his group's leader have drained away, he's left disgusted and horrified by his own behaviour. Disillusioned and hurting, he tries to be a good trainee, but can no longer quite believe in what he's doing. He finds a refuge of sorts when the Knight Ransomer Anton d'Escrivey takes him on as a squire, but still cannot altogether escape the dark side of the Ransomer order. Before the first book is done, he has to face a dreadful choice between evils. By the end of the second book, an innocent desire to protect life makes him the human host to a terrifying supernatural weapon, and his lack of control once again leads to slaughter. He refuses to kill again, but that resolve is sorely tested in the months ahead.

Julianne de Rance, daughter of the King's Shadow, is both an independently minded young woman and a political playing piece, on her way to a political marriage to a man she's never met. En route to Roc de Rancon, she picks up a new friend, and a new destiny. Julianne and Elisande meet a djinn on the road, and are given a new journey to make with a task to complete -- one that proves a good deal more complicated than they first imagined.

Elisande has her own reasons for wanting to get into the Roc, but her new friendship with Julianne is real and solid. She wants to protect her country, but she also wants to help both Julianne and Marron, even though Julianne is the daughter of a potential enemy.

All three find themselves with reason to travel the same road to the Sharai lands, and along the way gradually piece together more information about the magical land of the djinn, and why the djinni race have taken an interest in them. But it's a hard journey with sorrow along the way, and a three-cornered war is brewing. By the end of the series they have answers to most of their questions, if perhaps not always the answers that they wanted. While the ending isn't as neatly tied up as many fantasy readers might like, I found it a satisfying one. There's clearly more story to be told about the characters and what happened next, but there's a resolution to the part of their tale that we've seen.

One of the things I particularly liked about the series is that things aren't cut and dried, and in particular there is no easy way to label one side Good and another Evil. There is a clear moral message against fanaticism, but part of that message is that fanatics aren't just found on the other side, and in the right circumstances most people can be caught up in blood lust. There are no cardboard characters here, but people shown to have their own reasons for behaving in the way that they do. Even the most fanatical of the characters is shown by the end to be capable of recognising where the true danger lies, rather than blindly continuing to fight those he sees as the enemies of his faith -- *without* having a sudden conversion to seeing those enemies as fine people after all.

Another aspect is that the author doesn't flinch from showing the real consequences of people's actions. While there's no gratuitous gore, there's also no glossing over the horror of some of the things that happen when people enforce their power over others. Often there is no easy choice for one of the characters -- whatever he or she does will have horrible results, and the choice is merely which is the lesser evil.

This is all part of a general process of building a world and characters that feel real. This is an excellent series for readers who enjoy good world-building and character-driven stories. What's particularly nice is that it draws on an existing mythology that doesn't get much attention from fantasy writers, with the magical creatures here being djinni and ifrit. And the djinni are shown as being essentially alien, if able to communicate with humans.

I thoroughly enjoyed this series. It's well constructed, with an interesting story and excellent world-building and characterisation. And the prose is superb, with some wonderful use of language. A particular note for romance fans -- while the series is primarily a fantasy, there are strong romance sub-plots, including polyamory and gay romances. It doesn't end with HEAs all round, but I would recommend this series to fans of non-traditional cross-genre romance.

27 April 2007. Discussion thread at LiveJournal.

27 April 2007. Spoiler discussion thread at LiveJournal.

Chaz Brenchley's website

UK edition at Amazon UK
The Tower of the King's Daughter (Outremer) UK volume 1 of 3 at Amazon UK
Feast of the King's Shadow (Outremer) 2/3 at Amazon UK
Hand of the King's Evil (Outremer) 3/3 at Amazon UK

US edition at Amazon US
Outremer #1: The Devil in the Dust (Outremer, Book 1) Volume 1 of 6 at Amazon US
Tower of the King's Daughter (Outremer, No. 2) Volume 2 of 6 at Amazon US
Outremer #3: A Dark Way To Glory (Outremer, 3) 3/6 at Amazon US
Outremer #4: Feast Of The King's Shadow (Outremer, 4) 4/6 at Amazon US
Hand of the King's Evil (Outremer Series, Book 5) 5/6 at Amazon US
Outremer #6: The End of All Roads (Outremer, 6) 6/6 at Amazon US

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W J Burley -- Wycliffe and the Three Toed Pussy

5 stars -- An excellent opener for the series

In the first book of the long-running series, Detective Superintendant Wycliffe has recently moved from the Midlands to Cornwall, and is facing his first case on his new patch. A young woman, Pussy Welles, has been murdered. It becomes clear that the small village she lived in holds a good many people with motive to kill her. It seems that the case is easily solved when the gun used to kill her is found by chance, and a woman comes forward to report a telephone conversation with Pussy on the evening she was killed which implicates the gun's owner.

Wycliffe has to arrest the man, but is not satisfied--something feels wrong to him. He keeps digging, and finds evidence exonerating the man--and a second potential suspect being offered to him. Someone is playing a game with Wycliffe, and there is more death to come before he manages to unravel the workings of a macabre puzzle.

Burley has packed a good many layers of move and counter-move into this short novel, and draws some fascinating characters--not least Wycliffe himself in this first outing for the detective. It's an absorbing read, and I'm glad to see it's being re-released by Orion towards the end of 2006 (ISBN 0752880845).

18 May 2006. Discussion thread at LiveJournal. ISBN 0752880845.

Wycliffe and the Three Toed Pussy at

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Wycliffe and the Guild of NineW J Burley -- Wycliffe and the Guild of Nine

4 stars -- Not the best of the series, but still good.

This is the last completed book in the Wycliffe series (Burley had just started a new book when he died in 2002), and revisits the characters from an earlier book. It's set ten years after the events of "The Quiet Virgin", but can be read as a standalone. Detective Chief Inspector Wycliffe is in even more melancholy mood than usual, for he has to face both a new, and _female_, commanding officer, and the murder of a young woman he knows from an old case. For Wycliffe the case brings both guilt at not having kept in touch with Francine, and pleasure at seeing other figures from the past. Some strands of the plot are obvious, but as a second murder and then a third violent death interrupt the police investigation the possiblities multiply.

One of the weaker books in the series, in my view, but still no disappointment. As with the series in general, it's an enjoyable read for those times when you'd like something complex enough to be satisfying but short and simple enough to follow when you're tired or distracted. Note that there are major spoilers for earlier book "A Quiet Virgin".

18 May 2006. Discussion thread at LiveJournal. ISBN 0752843842.

Wycliffe and the Guild of Nine at
Wycliffe and the Guild of Nine at
Wycliffe and the Guild of Nine at Barnes&Noble

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3001: The Final Odyssey Arthur C Clarke -- 3001 The Final Odyssey

3 stars - Readable but could have been much better

Clarke returns to the universe of 2001: A Space Odyssey with the fourth and last novel, this time focusing on Frank Poole, the astronaut murdered by Hal in 2001. A thousand years later, Poole's frozen corpse is retrieved and revived by a society that regards him as a hero and a living national treasure. At first he's fully occupied with learning to live in an alien society and providing information to historians. But as boredom sets in, he finds himself drawn back to space and the Jupiter system... and the possibility of a meeting with David Bowman.

As Clarke notes in an afterword, it's not possible to be completely consistent in a series about the near future that was written over a period of thirty years, and this book is better viewed as a variation on a theme rather than a sequel. With that in mind, the within series continuity glitches aren't an issue, although there are a couple of annoying glitches within the book's own timeline. The real problem is that this book is mostly a travelogue of the year 3001, with the section about the monoliths feeling sketchy and tacked on. There's also a problem with some blatant preaching in places, when characters who are supposed to be having a conversation sound more as if they're reading a prepared speech to sway an audience. I found it annoying, and I agree with many of the views being espoused.

It's a readable and often enjoyable book, but I expect better from Clarke. I'd have felt cheated if I'd spent the money to buy this in hardback.

18 May 2006. Discussion thread at LiveJournal. ISBN 0345423496 (US) or 0586066241 (UK).

3001: The Final Odyssey at
3001: The Final Odyssey at
3001: The Final Odyssey
3001: The Final Odyssey from Powell's

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HaraldDavid D Friedman - Harald

Declaration of bias -- I know the author, and I know that this affected how willing I was to keep reading. I greatly enjoyed the book, but it uses a very terse, elliptical style that took some time to get used to, and I think this will cause many readers to bounce off the prose. I would strongly suggest finding excerpts (I think there are some on the Baen website somewhere) and reading to see if you like the style.

That said, this is a solid first novel with an interesting story and some likeable characters. It's an alternative history book that's firmly grounded in reality -- with one minor exception, not obvious to the reader, everything is physically plausible. And I am impressed with the way Friedman has worked some of his libertarian philosophy into the book without hitting the reader over the head with it. Too much political speculative fiction involves blatant sermons--this book uses a much more subtle showing-rather-than-telling approach and is so much better for it. It adds depth to the story rather than turning it into a political tract.

It's not going to be to everyone's taste, but if you can handle the elliptical prose style it's an enjoyable read.

16 May 2006. Discussion thread at LiveJournal. ISBN 1416520562.

Harald at
Harald at
Harald at Barnes and Noble
Harald from Powell's

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Reginald Hill -- A Clubbable Woman

4 stars - Worthwhile, if not as good as Hill's later work

The first of the Dalziel and Pascoe novels is not as complex or thoughtful as some of the later books in the series, but it's still an entertaining mystery that lays the foundations of the relationship between two very different men who together form a formidable detective team. Even this first book displays Hill's witty style and elegant prose, if not to the same high level as later books.

The book is based around the goings-on at a rugby club that may or may not be connected with the murder of the wife of one of the players, but no knowledge of the game is required to enjoy the book -- it's a study of the social interactions in such a venue rather than the sport itself. The main problem readers are likely to face is that the book was first published in 1970, and as such is recent enough not to be immediately obviously a period work, while still being old enough for the culture and mores to feel somewhat odd to the modern reader. It's important to be aware of the period when reading the book, as many of the potential motivations for the characters revolve around sexual jealousy and flouting of mores. Hill draws a detailed picture of life in a relatively small Yorkshire town in the 1970s, with its web of social obligations and friendships that can be exploited by both the police and those they're pursuing.

Not my favourite of the series, and the characters aren't yet fully developed, but well worth reading both in its own right and as an introduction to the series.

A Clubbable Woman at
A Clubbable Woman (Dalziel & Pascoe Novel S.) at

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Reginald Hill -- An Advancement of Learning

4 stars - Excellent early entry in the series

The second Dalziel and Pascoe novel sees the pair at a college of higher education after the discovery of a corpse under a statue's foundation block. Naturally, life gets even more complicated, and not just because they have to wade through both student and staff politics in their pursuit of the truth. Fresh corpses are provided, and it's up to Dalziel and Pascoe to decide which were murder and which were suicide, ideally without becoming corpses themselves.

Dalziel has no time for students, and the feeling's mutual. But Dalziel doesn't let his dislike lead him into underestimating his opponents, while the students make the mistake of thinking that Dalziel's a fascist pig and therefore stupid. Pascoe's feelings are more ambiguous, as he was a graduate recruit to the police force. His former university friends don't approve of his choice of his career, and his liberal sympathies don't always endear him to his colleagues, but this case reassures him that being a copper was the best way for _him_ to change the world for the better. The pair's different experiences and views combine to form a formidable team in this setting, something they'll need to deal with the criminal they're trying to pin down. Even near the end, it seems that it may be a case of knowing who and how without having quite enough evidence to prove it...

This early entry in the series is a relatively simple police procedural, rather than the complex literary game to be found in some of the later novels, but still has Hill's characteristic style and wittiness. It's one for all fans of the series, whether your taste runs to the shorter novels or the long, psychologically complex ones, as it sets up some of the series background. Apart from developing Pascoe's character, it introduces two of the recurring non-police characters. Pascoe is reunited with old university friend Ellie Soper, whom he later marries: and this is the first appearance of Franny Roote, who reappears much later in the series as a major character in a story arc spanning several books. And it is, of course, an entertaining book in its own right.

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A Pinch of SnuffReginald Hill -- A Pinch of Snuff

5 stars - The early books are good, but this is where it really takes off

In the fifth book of the series, Dalziel and Pascoe have been working together long enough to have formed a good partnership. So Peter Pascoe is surprised when Dalziel dismisses a lead Pascoe is given on a porn film that may be more than it seems. Pascoe's dentist is convinced that one scene in the current offering at the local private film club was not achieved by special effects, but showed a genuine beating--one severe enough that the actress might well have died as a result.

Pascoe pursues the matter in spite of Dalziel's disinterest, and won't drop it even when the dentist is accused of molesting an underage patient. When the elderly owner of the film club is found beaten to death, Pascoe suspects a link with his investigation of the possible snuff film. As he digs deeper it becomes clear that there's something very nasty going on. But there are a good many threads to untangle before he uncovers the full story.

As usual with this series, this book is a well-crafted police procedure with stylish writing and a good deal of humour, though Hill never trivializes the crimes he describes. The book is self-contained and can be read without having first read any of the previous books. There's some development of the long term story of the main characters, with the introduction of Sergeant Wield, and a look at the early months of Peter and Ellie's marriage. Ideally the series should be read in order, but this entertaining and thoughtful book makes a good starting point if the earlier books aren't available.

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Reginald Hill -- Pictures of Perfection

5 stars - Witty and charming fun

Hill's Dalziel & Pascoe novels cover the range from light-hearted whimsy to dark and savage psychological studies. This one starts with what appears to be something straight out of the dark end of the range, but is actually one of the gentler books in the series, a true English village cosy -- though with Hill's own unique slant on things. It's a good book for fans of Detective Sargeant Wield, who not only gets to be the lead character for once, but has some interesting developments in his personal life by the end. No previous knowledge of the series is required, although you'll probably enjoy the book even more if you already know these characters.

As always, the beautifully crafted language is a delight, and the sly humour had me laughing out loud much of the time. Jane Austen fans should love this homage to her dissection of English village life. This is a mystery book that is well worth reading for the sheer joy of the story, whether or not you can follow the plot the first time around -- and the plot is sufficiently convoluted that I didn't follow it in places. There's more than enough there to make for satisfying subsequent readings, even when the mystery is solved.

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Reginald Hill -- On Beulah Height

5 stars - Disturbing, moving, and well worth the time

One of the more disturbing books in the Dalziel and Pascoe series, in part because of the theme of serial child killing, but also because it shows that there are no easy answers. It's a complex and thought-provoking story, and one that easily supports re-reading. There is the mystery, yes, but there is also the psychological study of a village traumatised both by a series of unsolved child murders and by its forced relocation after its valley was drowned by a new water reservoir. It's also beautifully written by a master of prose. Hill brings his characters to full and vivid life, and they will linger with you for days.

Ideally the series should be read in order, and I think regular readers already familiar with the characters will get more out of this book, but it can be read as a standalone. For those familiar with the series, Hill continues to develop the story of his ongoing characters, deftly weaving it into the main plot of the book. Note that there are references to events in the previous book (The Wood Beyond) which are slight spoilers for that book.

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Arms and the Women Reginald Hill -- Arms and the Women

4 stars -- Good, but won't be to everyone's taste

Someone tries to abduct Ellie Pascoe, and the obvious assumption is that it's to get at Peter -- but there's more going on than meets the eye. Some of Ellie's activist friends have very interesting connections, and chance brings some of them together in even more interesting patterns. Unfortunately for everyone concerned, one of Dalziel's unwanted connections doesn't believe in coincidences...

This is definitely not one for new readers -- the opening sequence requires a good deal of patience, and trust that it will eventually make sense. In fact, it's an excellent example of the sort of thing new writers are advised not to do. Even long-time fans of the series will be left wondering what is going on for the first three chapters. Things gradually become clear, and in retropect the initial section makes a great deal of sense. Whether you like it or not will depend on what you look for in a Dalziel and Pascoe book. This novel focuses on Ellie Pascoe and her friends, and there's much less of Dalziel and police procedural material than usual. That's partly because much of the Dalziel and Pascoe page count is in the form of a novella Ellie is writing, with the pair cast as Odysseus and Aeneas. Chapters from Ellie's novel are woven into the main storyline, eventually tying in with the "real life" location of the main story. I enjoyed the book, and very much enjoyed the story-within-a-story, but I can see why others wouldn't.

This book is complete in itself, but is strongly tied in to the long term universe development of the series, with references to events in several previous books. There's enough backstory worked in that there's no need to have read the earier books, but you'll probably get more out of this one if you're already familiar with some of the backstory. It also contains significant spoilers for previous books, including the outcome of An Advancement Of Learning. In turn, some of the later books refer back to events in this one, but it's not necessary to read this one first to enjoy the later books.

In summary, worth reading but not for everyone, and ideally should not be read before reading the earlier An Advancement of Learning.

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Reginald Hill - Singing The Sadness (Joe Sixsmith series)

4 stars -- sharply funny without trivialising the crime

This is the fourth of the novels about Joe Sixsmith, a redundant lathe operator turned private eye from Luton. The chapel choir that Joe sings in is on its way to Wales for a choral festival. Things get off to a fine start when the bus first gets lost on the way, and then breaks down in the middle of nowhere.The last incident to mar the journey is a good deal more serious, as they come across a burning cottage with a woman trapped inside. Joe goes to the rescue, saving the woman but putting himself in hospital for a few hours, and putting himself out of the choral competition with the tenporary throat damage from smoke inhalation. That leaves him with plenty of time to investigate the fire, which at first glance looks like an anti-English arson attack that went further than intended. But his digging gradually turns up evidence of other crimes, some petty and others very serious indeed.

As always with Reginald Hill's novels, this book is both a gripping mystery and a beautifully written piece of prose. Joe is an entertaining character, and the book is very funny without ever trivialising the crime that lies at the heart of the case. The cast of characters is well developed, and there's a nice exploration of the way middle and upper-class criminals can cover their tracks by exploiting the willingness of others to do a little favour for a friend.

Hill's series books build a continuing universe, with his characters developing as a results of events in previous books, and later books often refer back to early books in the series. This one is no exception, but there's enough backstory worked in that you don't need to have read the earlier books in the series first--at the time of writing this is the only Sixsmith novel I've read, and I had no trouble following the references to the backstory.

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Neutron StarLarry Niven -- Neutron Star

5 stars -- Wonderfully imaginative stories

I much prefer Niven's shorter, earlier, and solo efforts, and his first short story collection demonstrates why. This is a wonderful collection of short stories from Niven's Known Space universe, with stories ranging from the readable to the superb. There is an astonishing breadth of imagination displayed here, with not one but several alien races who are *alien*, in appearance, psychology and culture. And it's not just the aliens; Niven shows how human cultures have diverged during periods of colonial isolation, developing different moral codes.

They're all hard sf, but Niven is one of the authors who can populate his hard sf setting with plausible characters who feel like real people. There's also some thoughtful discussion of moral problems in a couple of the stories.

This collection is nearly forty years old as I write this, and it shows--there have been advances in technology that Niven didn't forsee, making for some oddly backwards technology in the stories. But science fiction isn't about predicting the future; it's speculation about possible futures and the people living in them. Good sf lasts even when it's overtaken by events in real life, and these stories haven't been harmed by the passage of time since they were written.

All in all, a well-rounded collection that shows what can be achieved with the short form in science fiction.

12 June 2006. Discussion thread at Livejournal.

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Andre Norton -- Lore of the Witch World

5 stars - Excellent collection of shorter Witch World stories

Lore of the Witch World is a 1980 collection of short stories and novelettes by Andre Norton, mostly reprints but with one previously unpublished story, "The Changeling" (a sequel to "The Toads of Grimmerdale"). Most of the material in this book, including The Changeling, is available elsewhere, but this is a useful alternative source.

The Witch World is a planet in a parallel universe where magic works. The magic operates according to consistent rules which often drive the plot -- you won't find characters suddenly acquiring new powers just because it would be convenient to the author. The world is the setting for a large cycle of novels and shorter stories, mostly set around the time of an alien invasion that creates great destruction and social upheaval, even though the aliens are ultimately repelled. This collection fills in more of the Witch World during and after the time of the great battle against the alien invaders. It looks at characters and places outside the main story arc of the novels, as detailed by earlier reviews. There are occasional references to the events on the main story arc, but all of these stories will stand alone, and can be enjoyed without prior knowledge of the setting. They're beautifully written, and a must-have for fans of Norton's writing. Fantasy fans in general should read this collection -- it's a nice introduction to the work of one of the greatest writers in the genre.

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Modesty BlaisePeter O'Donnell -- Modesty Blaise

5 stars -- outstanding caper novel

Modesty Blaise started life as a cartoon strip, but O'Donnell then put his creation into novel form, and did a superb job in both formats. This is the first novel in the series, and introduces the setting and most of the main characters.

Modesty Blaise is a former refugee and survivor of the terrible disruptions caused by the war, and as a child drifted across Eastern Europe and the Middle East in the company of an old professor. She had to be tough to survive; but her companion instilled in her a strong moral code. She took over a small criminal gang and built it up into a powerful criminal organisation infused with that moral code--they never touched drugs or vice, and occasionally co-operated with the police and intelligence services to help clean up such crimes. She retired a wealthy woman at the age of 24.

As the novel opens, Modesty and her friend and former second-in-command Willie Garvin are finding that retirement is boring and adrenaline an addiction they cannot shake. Sir Gerald Tarrant, the head of British Intelligence, exploits that addiction to recruit them for an intelligence operation for which they are peculiarly suited. What follows is a thrilling caper novel pitting Modesty and Willie against a bizarre criminal mastermind. Tight plotting and wonderful prose make this a very entertaining read, with a unique pair of heroes. It's wonderful to see Souvenir Press reissuing the novels, making them available again to both a new generation of fans and those with fond memories.

12 June 2006. Discussion thread at Livejournal. ISBN: 0285637282.

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Peter O'Donnell -- Cobra Trap (Modesty Blaise)

5 stars - A fitting conclusion for the series

The final Modesty Blaise book is a collection of five novelettes and novellas covering the full span of Modesty Blaise's career, from the early days of the Network to Modesty and Willie coming out of retirement for one last caper. It's a fine collection for long-term fans, providing both new stories and closure for several long term story threads from the series. I don't think it's the ideal place for a new fan to start, because the references to events in earlier books may act as spoilers for those who haven't read those books yet, and the impact of the title story will be blunted for those who haven't had several books in which to become attached to the characters. It is however possible to enjoy these stories without ever having read any other Modesty Blaise books or the comic strip, and while ideally new readers should start with an earlier book in this series, they shouldn't be put off starting with Cobra Trap if it's the only one readily available to them.

The stories are classic Modesty Blaise. Once again O'Donnell demonstrates the appeal of a heroine and hero who are quite willing to go outside the law, but never to step outside their own moral code. For Modesty and Willie the ends do not justify the means. You know that the villains will lose in the end, but there will be no easy solution, and the good guys may well pay a high price for their victory. The stories are often hilarious, sometimes heart wrenching, and always thrilling to read. Some of the stories rely on the most outrageous coincidences, but with this level of writing there is no problem in suspending disbelief. This is a beautifully written and wonderfully entertaining book, and the final story is a bittersweet but emotionally right conclusion to the series.

ISBN 0285633325 Modesty Blaise: Cobra Trap from
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Frederik Pohl and C M Kornbluth -- Gladiator at Law

5 stars - 1950s social satire as relevant today as when it was written

Pohl and Kornbluth's's sharp satire of the consumer society and corporate corruption of government is as relevant today as when it was first published 50 years ago. "Gladiator at law" describes a possible future for the 1950s in which the working and middle classes are kept under control by the threat of losing their job and with it their tied housing--and the unemployed masses are kept quiescent with bread and circuses, Roman style. Reality tv may not have gone quite as far as the entertainment for the proles depicted in this novel, and science fiction is an exploration of possible futures rather than a prediction of an actual future, but Pohl and Kornbluth's depiction of one of those potential futures is uncomfortably close to present day reality.

There are some nicely drawn characters, and a realistic look at the hazards of battling powerful vested interests -- while there is a happy ending, it comes at a price. The novel is short by today's standards, but a good read, and well worth hunting down a copy at a reasonable price.

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James White -- Dark Inferno (also known as Lifeboat)

5 stars

James White is probably best known for his Sector General stories, but his long and varied career included quite a variety of sf, and this is a nice example of the other material. It's hard sf with beautifully drawn characters and social background, a combination which is rarer than I'd like.

The story is set in the relatively near future, during the time of colonisation of the solar system. Mercer reports to his first post as a ship's medical officer, on board a passnger ship bound from Earth to the Jovian colonies. To the passengers he has status as a crew member. In reality the medical officer is considered no more than a glorified steward by the rest of the crew, because that is normally all his job entails on a ship whose passengers are carefully screened for medical problems. But this trip is different, because the unthinkable happens as Mercer puts the passengers through their orientation lectures -- a genuine and very dangerous accident, requiring everyone to take to the lifeboat capsules before the ship's reactor explodes. Now Mercer has to do the part of the job nobody ever expected to be needed -- he has to try to keep the passengers not just alive but sane as they drift in three person plastic bubbles, with no prospect of rescue for several days. Tempers fray as conditions in the pods grow ever more hellish, and Mercer has nothing but a radio channel and a psych manual to help him keep people under control...

The description of the space flight itself is excellent, with some very nice touches such as the scene where Mercer is instructing the passengers how to manually orientate their pods so that they can use the one shot motor to regroup at the designated meeting point. It creates a very believable picture of what might be a real journey. But along with the hard sf there is an interesting plot and superb character building, beginning with Mercer himself, and then gradually introducing the crew and some of the passengers. Most of the book is from Mercer's perspective, but once the main characters are established there are occasional sections from the points of view of other characters, showing the psychological effects of both the unpleasant and worsening physical conditions, and the fear that the rescue ship will not arrive in time. The developing emotional relationship between Mercer and a young widow and her son is particularly nicely done. It's clear at the end of the book that with time they'll probably become romatically involved, but White never pushes the pace of the relationship beyond what's plausible in the situation he describes.

There's some quiet commentary on various social issues of the time this book was published (1972) which are still relevant today. This ability to slip in social commentary without resorting to blatant preaching was one of White's strengths as a writer.

An excellent book, and well worth seeking out.

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From Eroica with Love, Volume 1 Aoike Yasuko -- From Eroica With Love: volume 1

4 stars -- wonderfully loopy and self-aware micky-take of its own genre

I first encountered "From Eroica With Love" in a fan-produced English translation published in fanzine format some years back. I was bowled over by the series, which I can only describe as a wonderfully loopy and self-aware micky-take of its own genre. I was delighted to hear that CMX have taken on the job of providing an official English translation for the series. They've done a very nice job of it, with excellent reproduction of the original artwork, and what I'm told is a faithful translation from the original Japanese text.

This first volume serves mainly to introduce the various characters, but it contains some very entertaining stories. It isn't quite typical of the series as a whole, as it initially appears that three superpowered teenagers are amongst the main characters. In fact, they exist mostly to introduce Dorian Red Gloria, Earl of Gloria. He's a very, very wealthy aristocrat who collects beautiful things, and his hobby is stealing art treasures. He's also very beautiful himself, very, very queer, very, very flamboyant, and has an entourage of equally beautiful and gay young men.

The three teenagers disappear by the end of volume 1 and never return, which is good because they're a lot less interesting than the other primary ongoing character, who doesn't appear until part way through the book. Major Klaus Heinz von dem Eberbach is also a wealthy aristocrat. However, if he's queer, he's so far back in the closet he's in danger of running into a lamppost, he's a top Nato agent, he has no sense of humour, and he has no time for degenerates. Pity his path keeps crossing with Dorian, who is all the things he despises. Unfortunately for Klaus, Dorian is also brave, clever, resourceful, and a number of other things he admires and didn't expect to find in a degenerate. The feeling's mutual - Klaus is a good many things that Dorian despises, but he's brave, clever, resourceful... and decidedly pretty...

However loopy the plots may get, they're believable while you're reading them, and there's some fine and very funny story-telling. The characters are flawed but always sympathetic. The art is utterly gorgeous. The first story in this book is a bit tedious in places, but it's the setup story and worth going through so that you have the background. Even if you're not really into the "pretty young men" genre of manga, this one's worth a look.

20 May 2006. Discussion thread at Livejournal. ISBN 1401205194

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