Addition to Banks’ wonderful space-opera series (without the middle initial, he also writes impressive mainstream novels) about the far-future galactic Culture (Surface Detail, 2010, etc.), a liberal-anarchic, multispecies civilization guided and sustained, more or less invisibly, by Minds, artificial intelligences that take such physical forms as spaceships and habitats.
Vastly more intelligent than humans, millions of times faster and mostly benevolent, Minds are truly godlike entities. (Asked “Is this what gods would actually be like?” Banks replied: “If we’re lucky.”) Now, the Gzilt civilization, an almost perversely peaceful military society whose precepts arise from the Book of Truth, an ancient tome containing technological and intellectual predictions nearly all of which have proved correct, are preparing to Sublime, or vanish, into a set of higher dimensions where existence is thought to be almost infinitely rich and complex. As the Gzilt make their preparations, several rather primitive scavenger species gather nearby (one ship comes into orbit, as Banks puts it, with the “warp-engine equivalent of loud clanks and clouds of black smoke”), ready to grab whatever goodies the Gzilt leave behind. But then, a sudden, devastating attack destroys the Gzilt Regimental High Command. The reason seems to involve a shattering secret about the Book of Truth and the establishment of the Culture 10,000 years ago. One of the few survivors, reserve Lt. Cmdr. Vyr Cossont, a bewildered four-armed musician with, self-confessedly, no military skills, receives orders to locate and question Ngaroe QiRia, possibly the Culture’s oldest living person and the only one who might have some idea why the Book of Truth is so important and what really happened 10 millennia ago. Problem is, even assisted by Berdle, a powerful Mind avatar, and an erratic battle android who’s convinced everything’s merely a simulation, can she survive long enough to complete her mission? Scotland-resident Banks’ Culture yarns, the science-fiction equivalent of Terry Pratchett’s Discworld novels, brim with wit and wisdom, providing incomparable entertainment, with fascinating and highly original characters, challenging ideas and extrapolations, and dazzling action seamlessly embedded in a satirical-comedy matrix.
Beginning of a new historical-fantasy trilogy, set in the same Mongol Khanate–style universe as the short novel Bone and Jewel Creatures (2010).
Along the Celadon Highway, the empire of the Great Khagan is embroiled in civil war. A grandson, Temur, supported his defeated elder brother in terrible battles against his usurping uncle Qori Buqa. In the country of the Eternal Sky, a moon sails in the heavens for each of Mongke Khagan's sons and grandsons. Once there were over a hundred, now less than a third remain, Temur's Iron Moon among them. Though badly wounded, Temur survives, attaches himself to one of the wandering clans of the steppes and takes Edene as his woman. Meanwhile Qori Buqa allies himself with al-Sepehr, an ambitious renegade blood-sorcerer cultist of the Uthman Caliphate. Al-Sepehr raises an army of ghosts to kill Temur, but fails; instead the sorcerer snatches Edene and brings her to his stronghold of Al-Din. Meanwhile, Samarkar, a wizard of Tsarepheth in the Rasan Empire, where another, less bloody, power struggle is going on, learns of sorcerous doings in the city Qeshqer and travels to investigate. Here she meets Temur, who's searching for Edene. They will be joined by Hrahima, a huge human-tiger Cho-tse, who has traveled from Ctesifon with more bad news. The Khagan Empire is Temur's to claim—if he can survive the plots of Qori Buqa. This lean, sinewy, visceral narrative, set forth in extraordinarily vivid prose full of telling detail, conveys a remarkable sense of time and place, where the characters belong to the landscape and whose personalities derive naturally from it. Though the book is not self-contained, Bear provides this opener with enough of a resolution to satisfy while whetting the appetite for more.
Gripping, perfectly balanced and highly recommended.
A remarkable debut, LA noir with eye-bulging refinements, from a poet and short-story writer who says of himself: "As a writer he strives to be a hack. Hacks get paid. He's not sure if hacks talk about themselves in the third person, though. That might just be a side effect of his meds."
Joe Sunday, bad knees, weary resignation and all, is a leg-breaker for English gangster Simon Patterson when his buddy and partner-in-crime Julio Guerrera starts acting weird in a bar then rips his own throat out with a busted bottle. Seems that Simon sent Julio to steal a McGuffin from Chicago mobster Sandro Giavetti. Soon Joe confronts Giavetti, who strangles him. Joe wakes up to find he's in perfect health—except he's now room temperature and doesn't need to breathe. Giavetti, too, is immortal. "Well, maybe not so much Fountain of Youth as Fountain of Not Staying Dead." The only drawback as far as Joe is concerned is that he falls apart zombie-style every 24 hours and needs to chomp living flesh in order to return to being healthily undead. Oh, and the fact that the McGuffin, an egg-shaped gemstone, has vanished, and lots of folks want it. The basically indescribable plot involves said McGuffin and encounters with, among other beings, a mysteriously well-informed but unforthcoming femme fatale, a lecherous demon who tends bar in his own private universe, a do-gooder Latina bruja who wants to help homeless vampires, a diabolical Nazi wizard and a midget with teeth like a shark.
A head-shakingly perfect blend of zombie schlock, deadpan wit, startling profanity, desperate improvisation and inventive brilliance.
Beginning a sort of spinoff series taking place, chronologically, between Campbell’s last two outings (Beyond the Frontier: Dreadnaught, 2011, and Beyond The Frontier: Invincible, 2012) wherein the influence of "Black Jack" Geary is palpable, though he makes no actual appearance.
The brutal, ruthlessly hypercapitalist rule of the Syndicate is faltering thanks to its inability to defend the people against either Geary or the alien enigmas. The Midway system, with its numerous hypergate passages to other Syndicate systems, is pivotal. Most citizens and even some CEOs are weary of being terrorized by the Gestapo-like political police, or snakes. Exiled CEO Artur Drakon, having long plotted rebellion, now launches an all-out effort to seize control of Midway’s planets and exterminate the snakes. But he doesn’t control what’s left of Midway’s space forces: for that, he needs an alliance with fellow-exile and would-be rebel CEO Gwen Iceni. In a carefully coordinated action, Iceni commandeers some of the warships and attacks those forces who remain loyal to the Syndicate or are dominated by snakes. After initial successes, both Drakon and Iceni declare independence. But their Syndicate heritage isn’t so easily shaken off; neither can afford to trust the other, yet disaster looms if they don’t. Both must maintain this delicate balance while rooting out nests of snakes and traitors and dealing with ambitious underlings. Campbell maintains the military, political and even sexual tension with sure-handed proficiency. In previous volumes, the emphasis leaned toward battles; here, while not neglecting them, Campbell focuses on the human element: two strong, well-developed characters locked in mutual dependence, fumbling their way toward a different and hopefully brighter future. What emerges is a fascinating and vividly rendered character study, fully and expertly contextualized.
All the more impressive for being a significant departure from previous entries.
Part two of the topnotch space opera begun with Leviathan Wakes (2011), from Corey (aka Daniel Abraham and Ty Franck).
Previously, a dangerous alien protomolecule was weaponized by an amoral corporation and field-tested against a habitat in the asteroid belt, bringing Earth, Mars and the Belt to the brink of war. Thanks to whistle-blowing Belter spaceship captain Jim Holden, all-out war was averted and the habitat diverted to Venus. Now, the protomolecule has taken over that planet and appears to be building a gigantic, incomprehensible device, a development viewed with alarm by the great powers. Then, on Ganymede, a creature able to survive unprotected in a vacuum, immune to most weapons and hideously strong, wipes out several platoons of marines. Fighting breaks out and the great powers teeter on the brink of war. Mysteriously, just before the monster's appearance, somebody kidnapped a number of children who all suffered from the same disease of the immune system. Botanist Prax Meng, the father of one of the children, asks for Holden's help in finding his daughter. As Ganymede's fragile ecosystem collapses, Holden flees with Prax. Meanwhile, on Earth, fiery old U.N. bigwig Chrisjen Avasarala realizes she's been outmaneuvered by forces in league with the corporation that thinks to control the protomolecule. The characters, many familiar from before, grow as the story expands; tension mounts, action explodes and pages turn relentlessly.
Independently intelligible but best appreciated after volume one—and with a huge surprise twist in the last sentence.
First English translation of a work written in Russian in 1997, from an award-winning Ukrainian husband-and-wife team now resident in Moscow.
This book is actually the second in a tetralogy that began three years earlier with The Gate-Keeper—so, when bringing translated works to an Anglophone audience, why not begin at the beginning? truly the ways of publishers are strange—which introduced, or, better, created, the enigmatic and powerful mage known as the Wanderer, the key figure in the series. Egert, a supremely skilled, arrogant member of the elite guards, is also a bully and heedless philanderer from a culture that encourages, even extols, such behavior. When a young student, Dinar, and his stunningly beautiful fiancée Toria arrive in town seeking rare books on magic, Egert decides he must have Toria, and torments poor Dinar into a duel. Unskilled, Dinar is easily dispatched, but the mysterious Wanderer, a witness to Dinar's cruel end, challenges Egert in turn. The Wanderer, who could easily have killed Egert, instead contents himself with slashing the guard's face, leaving Egert with a painful scar. Worse, Egert finds that the scar has drained his confidence, leaving him an abject coward, too terrified even to commit suicide. Deserting his regiment, Egert journeys far, eventually arriving in the city where Toria lives with her father, Luayan, a mage and Dean of the University. Taking pity on Egert, Luayan finds him lodging and offers him the chance to attend classes. Somehow, through his shame and degradation, Egert must find a way to face Toria, deal with his own problems, confront the evil designs of a secretive cult of wizards and face the Wanderer's inevitable return. Rich, vivid, tactile prose, with a solid yet unpredictable plot—and an extraordinary depth and intensity of character reminiscent of the finest Russian literature.
A truly spellbinding work even audiences jaded by standard U.S./U.K. fantasy will devour. Kudos to the publishers for taking the plunge—but what took them so long?
Third entry (The Curious Case of the Clockwork Man, 2011, etc.) in Spain-resident Englishman Hodder's time-travel/alternate-reality/steampunk saga; though originally billed as a trilogy, the ending here leaves considerable scope for further augmentation.
In 1840, a time traveler known as Spring Heeled Jack arrived in order to prevent his ancestor, Edward Oxford, from assassinating young Queen Victoria. As a result, reality was wrenched into an alternate steampunk universe. Also arriving in 1840, sent back from a ghastly 1919 wherein a rampant Germany, led by a psychic-powered Friedrich Nietzsche and armed with horrid biological weapons, has all but defeated the British Empire and its black-mesmerism-wielding avatar, Aleister Crowley, is famed explorer and polyglot Sir Richard Burton, whose task is to prevent both the assassination and Spring Heeled Jack's perversion of history. Meanwhile, in the same universe in 1863, British Prime Minister Lord Palmerston—the crown is vacant, since no acceptable heir could be found—instructs Burton, ostensibly to seek the source of the Nile, actually to recover a third set of psychoactive diamonds left by a now-extinct nonhuman race, by which means Palmerston hopes to defeat Germany before the world is engulfed in war. In 1914, Burton arrives in East Africa, where an appalling conflict already rages, again hurled through time, but this time with few memories and little idea of who he is or what he's supposed to do. And, rest assured, all this isn't the half of it. The narrative features a host of other historical characters in unfamiliar roles, such as the engineer Isambard Kingdom Brunel inhabiting a steam-powered robot body, poet Algernon Swinburne as Burton's 1861 sidekick and war correspondent H.G. Wells in 1914. Remarkably enough, the plot hangs together, and Hodder, with an encyclopedic grasp of period detail, tellingly brings these disparate, oddly familiar yet eerily different worlds to fecund life.
Enthralling, dizzying and as impressive as they come.
New ancient Egypt–flavored fantasy from the New York resident author of The Broken Kingdoms (2010, etc.).
In the city and state of Gujaareh, the Hetawa temple is dedicated to Hananja, goddess of dreams, and its priests harvest the people's dreams to create dream-magic to heal wounds and cure ailments. The Hetawa's elite Gatherers also ease the passage of the dying—and kill those judged corrupt. When Gatherer Ehiru is ordered to kill Charleron, a corrupt outlander, somehow his flawless technique goes awry; Charleron dies in agony but not before hinting that something is gravely amiss in the Hetawa. Shaken, Ehiru finds he can no longer function as a Gatherer and goes into seclusion, watched over by his young apprentice, Nijiri—until Ehiru receives orders to kill Sunandi Jeh Kalawe, the "corrupt" ambassador from neighboring Kisua. Sunandi bravely defends herself and reveals that her predecessor and adoptive father passed to her a dreadful secret involving war, murder and, perhaps, Eninket, Prince of the Sunset Throne—who happens to be Ehiru's brother. Though all the signs point towards the Hetawa—innocent dreamers are being murdered by an insensate, renegade Reaper—Ehiru cannot believe that the priesthood itself is corrupt. Nevertheless he agrees to help Sunandi unravel the conspiracy. Though a little too heavily dependent on the intricate details of Gujaareh's religion, Jemisin's patient worldbuilding and extraordinary attention to detail help frame and propel the complex plot, and she weaves subtle, emotionally complex relationships between the main characters. The text includes a useful glossary but, alas, no maps.
Tends toward the claustrophobic at times, but superior and fulfilling.
This first collaboration from McDevitt (Firebird, 2011, etc.) and Resnick (The Doctor and the Kid, 2011, etc.), developed from a 2010 story by McDevitt (spoiler alert: don’t read the story first), takes the form of a conspiracy involving the moon landings. And no, Stanley Kubrick didn’t fake them.
By 2019, the U.S. economy is still grinding along the fringes of recession. Jerry Culpepper, NASA’s public affairs director, loves his job and still believes in its mission, even though the only foreseeable future is one of continuing slow decline. But then a routine release of background material from the late 1960s turns up an oddity. Before Neil Armstrong landed on the moon, there were two dress-rehearsal moon shots, both of which orbited the moon but did not land. Yet, a recording of a chat between Houston and Sydney Myshko, captain of the first of the test missions, shows Myshko apparently preparing to descend! And Aaron Walker, on the mission after Myshko, wrote in his diary that he landed on the moon. Both men are now dead and cannot be questioned. But was there a coverup? Of what, and for what possible reason? Multibillionaire entrepreneur Morgan “Bucky” Blackstone sees a chance to goose the complacent Washington establishment and, not coincidentally, whip up enthusiasm for his own, strictly private enterprise, planned moon landings. As other evidence, suggestive yet inconclusive, trickles in, Jerry tries to keep a lid on things. Meanwhile, POTUS George Cunningham, an essentially decent man with a strong interest in NASA but hampered by intractable budgetary constraints, finds himself in a bind: If there was a conspiracy and he didn’t know, he’s out of touch and an idiotic dupe; if he did know, he’s a liar and part of the coverup. Against the solid and affectionately rendered NASA backdrop, the authors expertly crank up the tension and maintain it throughout via a suite of thoroughly believable characters.
A top-notch, edge-of-the-seat thriller in which there are no villains, only mysteries.
Fourth in the series (The Fuller Memorandum, 2010, etc.) about the Laundry: a weirdly alluring blend of superspy thriller, deadpan comic fantasy and Lovecraftian horror.
In the universe Stross has conjured up, supernatural nasties are real, so naturally the British government has a department to deal with them. (The U.S. equivalent is known as the Nazgûl.) The Laundry, a department so secret that anybody that stumbles upon its existence is either compulsorily inducted or quietly eliminated, seems quintessentially British: the executive offices, known as Mahogany Row, remain eerily empty; forms must be signed in blood; and there are grandiloquent code names for everything. Applied computational demonologist Bob Howard has been fast tracked into management, having survived a series of dangerous and unpleasant encounters. His boss, James Angleton, an Eater of Souls (Don't ask. Really.), worries about CASE NIGHTMARE GREEN, but there's a more immediate problem: Raymond Schiller, a supernaturally charismatic American televangelist, has grown uncomfortably chummy with the prime minister, but by convention and statute the Laundry may not investigate the office they answer to. So Bob finds himself working with "Externalities" in the shape of Persephone Hazard, an extremely powerful witch, and her sidekick Johnny McTavish, who has particular experience with creepy religious cults. Equipped with an unlimited credit card and a camera that doubles as a basilisk gun, Bob jets off to Denver to investigate and runs into an organization run by parasitic brain-sucking isopods—which turns out to be the least of his worries. Stross' irreverent, provocative, often unsettling and undeniably effective brew seethes with allusions to other works of literature, film, music and what-all—it's integral to the fun.
Readers familiar with Stross' dazzling science fiction should relish this change of pace and direction.
Independently intelligible sequel to the dark fantasy Bitter Seeds (2010), something like a cross between the devious, character-driven spy fiction of early John le Carré and the mad science fantasy of the X-Men.
Previously, during World War II, the Nazis developed warriors with devastating psychic powers. To combat them, British warlocks used their inherited lore to summon the Eidolons, irresistible demons beyond time and space, whose price for cooperation is extracted in the blood of innocents. Now, in 1963, after the Soviet Union defeated the Nazis and took over their horrid experiments, their empire stretches from the Pacific to the Atlantic save only for a narrow coastal strip west from Paris—America never entered the war and is still mired in a four-decades-long depression. Gretel and her younger brother Klaus, Nazi products captured by the Soviets and forced to cooperate with their experiments, escape from a prison camp and make their way to England where they insist on contacting former spy chief Raybould Marsh who, beset by personal tragedy, has turned into a belligerent drunk barely holding on to his job as a gardener. Marsh's erstwhile colleague, the aristocratic Will Beauclerk, wracked with guilt over his part in summoning the Eidolons and subsequent slaughter of innocents, has betrayed the whereabouts of England's warlocks to the Soviets, who are quietly assassinating them. It will be Marsh's task to unmask Will's treachery, learn what greater designs the Soviets have and counteract them, and deal with the seemingly untouchable Gretel, a psychic so formidable that she has foreseen all possible futures and is manipulating everybody toward an end only she knows. Despite the jaw-dropping backdrop and oblique plotting, the narrative is driven by character and personal circumstance, the only possible drawback being certain important developments that annoyingly take place offstage.
Second installment of Wright’s ferociously dense and convoluted far-future space opera involving hyperintelligence, aliens and artificial evolution (Count to a Trillion, 2011). Warning up front: read the first book first.
Thanks to the discovery of an alien storehouse of knowledge and source of energy, former Texas gunslinger Menelaus Montrose transformed himself into a supergenius. Unfortunately, so did his colleagues who, led by Zimen “Blackie” Del Azarchel, desire only to rule the Earth. Menelaus tried but failed to prevent them. However, aliens known as the Domination of Hyades regard themselves as Earth’s overlords, and in 8,000 years, they will arrive to take ownership. Blackie and company, then, intend to force the development of a suitably advanced yet compliantly slave-worthy population. Menelaus’ wife, meanwhile, is heading at near-light speed for a remote globular star cluster in order to confront the Hyades’ bosses’ bosses. She will, of course, arrive back at Earth 50,000 years too late to prevent the Hyades’ occupation, so somehow Menelaus must prevent the slavers from exterminating humanity until she arrives. Menelaus arranges to enter cryonic suspension, with instructions to wake him periodically so he can gauge what Blackie and his co-conspirators have been up to and, hopefully, counteract them. When he wakes, however, Menelaus discovers that the tombs where he and others were preserved have been ripped open and plundered by Blackie’s Blue Men minions—merely the latest example of Blackie’s efforts to create ideal subjects for the Hyades. So: An impressive torrent of information, factual, extrapolative and speculative, explicated via a series of dazzlingly erudite conversations that build weird post-humans into recognizable characters. Oh, and a plot that goes nowhere at all.
Astonishing stuff that leaves readers with plenty of work to do.