‘The Hive Construct’ by Alexander Maskill

hiveMy 2015 is starting to simmer nicely now. After a lucklustre first half, I’ve started to find some books that I am really enjoying. Alexander Maskill’s debut novel, The Hive Construct, continued the trend, by keeping me entertained throughout.

The Hive Construct dropped through my letterbox unannounced but I knew immediately it was a book I wanted to make time for. The premise looked interesting and it won the Terry Pratchett Prize for a first novel. Maskill is a graduate of Leicester University, as am I, and despite a twenty year difference in our graduating years, this lent me an extra affinity for the novel and its author. Maskill wrote The Hive Construct whilst studying for a computer science degree, which tells us he’s both dedicated and talented. The central spine of the novel owes much to his academic pursuits. Its integral components stem from speculation about the evolution of computers.

The Hive Construct is set in the nearish future, though the world is a very different place. Set into a crater in the middle of the Sahara desert is the city of New Cairo. It’s a technological melting pot, filled with just about every cultural reference you can imagine. It is something like a future Constantinople.

Like all cities New Cairo has its haves and have-nots, with the former ruling over the latter. Political unrest is an everyday feature of life in the city, but things have taken an ugly turn. The people of New Cairo have been struck by plague. The mysterious “Soucouyant” virus is causing deaths all across the city, but it is the poor who are worst affected. With tensions bubbling, the city is closed to prevent the escape of the virus into the wider world. Now a sealed system, New Cairo is a pressure cooker waiting to explode.

Enter Zala Ulora. activist, hacker and wanted for multiple murder. She steals into the city to investigate the virus after it killed her friend. In Maskill’s world people have hardware implanted inside them to aid biological processes. Nearly everybody is enhanced in some way. The virus is attacking these enhancements, but is it a biological pathogen or something more synthetic, like rogue code? Zala’s investigations put her in the crossfire between government forces and the anti-government activists who vie for equality.

The novel is neatly split into techno-thriller and political-thriller. Maskill’s New Cairo is well-drawn and highly evocative. It feels very real, and not too far-fetched an extrapolation of what the future might hold. Perhaps not surprising considering his background but Maskill’s vision of how technology might advance feels entirely credible, giving the novel great weight. The politics of the novel are simple but no less powerful for being so. The unwashed masses vs the ivory towered elite is a centuries old tale, and one that has rarely tired in the telling. The pace of the novel is good, and whilst the denouement won’t take your breath away, the journey there will certainly have you gasping. The cast of characters is strong, with likeable and less-likeable people on both sides of the argument. There are some great set-pieces, and with exciting but realistic action; Maskill has thought out his technology well.

The Hive Construct is a very accomplished debut from and author apparently with ideas to burn. Enjoy from first page to last this book is well worth a look.

Manny thanks to the team at Del Rey for sending me a copy of the book.  

A Foxtrot Alpha Bravo read. ‘Whiskey Tango Foxtrot’ by David Shafer

This review first appeared on GeekDad on 14/9/2015

I love to be taken completely by surprise by a book. I’d never heard of WTFUKWhiskey Tango Foxtrot, when its arresting cover caught my eye as I browsed in my local library. It’s a book that, in the UK at least, seems to have been criminally overlooked. I loved every page of it, from first to last. It’s pure geek manna.

At its heart, I found Whiskey Tango Foxtrot to be a less irritating riff on Dave Eggers one-dimensional polemic ‘The Circle‘. I’ve read a few “Pitfalls of Social Media” novels, and I think WTF sits at the top of the pile.

The story draws three disparate characters together, as they become entangled in a web of international corporate espionage. There is a plot to gain a stranglehold on the entire globe’s digital information, and the three are recruited by a shadowy counter-culture group to try to thwart the might of big business.

The foe they are up against is an unholy marriage of an Internet Goliath with a private military company and the book contains the inevitable ruminations about the power of mercenary outfits and the perils of allowing social media companies unfettered access to your data. Many of the traps outlined are but small extrapolations of existing, much touted features offered by Facebook and Google. Much of the novel’s humour is derived from the arch depiction of Sine, a company that is the conglomeration of just about every huge technology outfit you can name. With their “node” they hope to revolutionise the way we control our lives, and in the process they aim to gain complete control of the way we control our lives.

The book derives its richness from its central characters, three flawed individuals given over to introspection. They pretty much fumble their way through the plot analysing the way the world works as they go along. David Shafer’s distilling of the absurdities of modern life is entertaining and he has a keen eye for detail and a dry turn of phrase that kept me hooked throughout.

There is some carping on the internet that the book is far-fetched (true) and that the ending is ambiguous (also true). Neither of these things mattered for me. The story is in essence a vehicle for carrying ideas and suggesting caution in the way we handle our digital lives. The ending is abrupt, and might have you exclaiming and searching for extra pages, but you could say there’s a clue is in the novel’s title. I liked the ending, and found it in keeping with the rest of the novel. You should be pretty sure how things are going to play out after the novel’s end, but you’re left with a nagging doubt that perhaps it didn’t. That feeling I found refreshing.

With its immersive look at the culture of technology and spy-craft Whiskey Foxtrot Tango should appeal to the geek in us all. There are lots of little hooks of information that require further investigation. I spend an invigorating half hour, trying to understand what a Markov number is on the back of a throwaway observation by a minor character. It’s that sort of book. I thoroughly enjoyed WFT. It’s testament to the power of good storytelling and the importance of the existence of libraries, without which I may never have discovered this entertaining gem of a novel.

If you enjoyed Whiskey Foxtrot Tango, here are a few books in the same vein,

Fishbowl by Matthew Glass. In which Ivy League geek invents the perfect social media program and wrestles with profit over perfection.

No Harm Can Come to a Good Man by James Smythe. The life of a presidential candidate is derailed when a popular social media programme predicts he will hold a gun to his own family.

Glaze by Kim Curran. A YA novel on the perils of giving too much of yourself away.

The Circle by Dave Eggers. Social Media is baaad M’Kay.

The Word Exchange by Aleana Graedon. Over reliance on social media and phones for information threatens to destroy the art of written communication.

‘The Supernatural Enhancements’ by Edgar Cantero

CB-DR-Jul-The-Supernatural-EnhancementsI knew absolutely nothing about The Supernatural Enhancements before it dropped through my letterbox but I was immediately taken with its premise. Unsolicited books rarely work their way to the top of my embarrassingly large to-be-read pile, but Edgar Cantero’s novel was intriguing enough warrant a climb to the summit. I’m so glad I did. This genuinely scary, offbeat mystery is a contender for my book of 2015.

The novel opens with ‘A’ (that’s a much as we ever find out of his name) arriving in small town America to accept his inheritance; a mansion and almost unlimited funds. Axton House is a large country pile recently vacated by a distant cousin. The sting in the tail? Cousin Ambrose died “jumping out of his bedroom window” (“forgetting to open it first”) as did Ambrose’s father before him. Accompanying ‘A’ is Niamh, a young mysterious teenager from Ireland with whom ‘A’ has a complicated and somewhat dubious relationship.

The set up is a classic Scooby Doo haunted mansion. Mysterious noises, strange bumps, shorting light bulbs. There’s a botched break-in with nothing apparently stolen. And where did the butler go?

The story is told through a variety of different media – Letters, diaries and transcripts of audio and video recordings. There are excerpts from textbooks and newspaper clippings, also pages of old code books. The Supernatural Enhancements is a classic horror-noir investigation, all done with a knowing smile. Some might find the arch tone irritating but I enjoyed it.

An untimely thunder comes rumbling along – one that might have fit better at some other key point in the dialogue.”

The setting and incidental characters reminded me of Twin Peaks. The book style and subject matter is reminiscent of House of Leaves. At the risk of obviating all my reviewing credentials, I didn’t really like House of Leaves. I think possibly I didn’t get it. The Supernatural Enhancements was what I hoped Danielewski’s much fêted brick of a novel would be. It mixes differing media to construct a beguiling and exciting tale. I also found it scary. I don’t very often become nervous when reading, but Cantero genuinely had me holding my breath as I read on, tiptoeing quietly down Axton House’s darkened halls.

The plot is a fascinating construction that led me to unexpected places. The tone and the ideas in the book are fresh and interesting. I’m not sure it will suit everybody’s tastes, but in a year where I have struggled to enjoy many books, The Supernatural Enhancements stands out as unlooked for and unexpected gem.

Many Thanks to the team at Del Rey UK for sending me a copy of the book. 


The Versions of Us – The new wave of the parallel universe

slidingdoors1This piece first appeared on GeekDad on 16/8/2015 

Parallel universes have long been a mainstay of science fiction. They are an attractive proposition, allowing the exploration of themes and ideas in familiar surroundings, whilst breaking free from the rigidity of the story being set at home. Throw in some time-travel and a bit of alternate history and you have pretty much covered two-thirds of works in the SF genre. (I pluck that figure out of the air; in your universe it may be different).

Worlds with wormholes, where Hitler won, and quantum leaps are abundant across the genre, but recently I’ve noticed the parallel universe has started to make an appearance in more mainstream, literary forms. Sliding Doors’ novels have started to turn up in the front windows of bookshops and on broadsheet bestseller lists. It seems that more traditional authors have suddenly caught up with the storytelling potential of the parallel universe.

I’ve read six sliding doors novels recently, all appearing in differing places along the speculative spectrum.

The least science fictional of the my choices is The Versions of Us by Laura Barnett. The story here forks from a chance meeting between two Oxford students on a dark night in 1938. The narrative splits into three prongs. One where the couple date and get married, one where they split up and another where the initial meeting never happens.

After the initial split, the three narratives don’t really interact with one another. There’s no crossing of the time-streams. What Barnett does though is show how life can take many paths and how all be filled with difficult trials and moments of joy. She cleverly shows how contentment in one aspect in your life can cause you to drop the ball in another and how adversity can spur on endeavor. The novel’s cleverest trick is to build up a three-dimensional picture of its characters. In a conventional narrative we only see characters from one perspective. Here Barnett uses each story like a camera lens aimed at different angles. We get to see how characters might respond to the same situation under different pressures, giving us a more rounded view. The Versions of Us is a story about life, how to live it and how not to regret the bits that you didn’t.

Similar, and my favorite of the novels mentioned here is Jo Walton’s My Real ChildrenWalton gives us two narratives that alternate with each chapter of the book, starting from a marriage proposal and the question, “Now or never?” Her Real Children is more overtly science fiction than The Versions of Us, with two parallel universes that differ subtly from our own. I particularly enjoyed the way Walton handled her alternate histories. They are subtle enough to make you almost miss them, then have to back up a sentence or two to fully take in what just happened. Much like The Versions of Us, this novel shows there is more than one path to happiness. It’s a beautiful meditation on the wonders of family life and a gentle reminder that now matter how progressive each generation thinks it is, their children will always be able to chuck them the occasional curve ball.

Kate Atkinson’s Life After Life is a sprawling novel, that is not so much about parallel universes but stacking ones. Ursula’s life keeps repeating. After she dies, on the next repeat, she is able to avoid it, and continue on, having had a narrow escape. Her lives branch out from dying immediately after being born, into numerous different stories; some happy, some sad, some mundane, and some momentous.

Much of the story occurs during World War II, both in England and Germany. Atkinson paints a vivid portrait of wartime on both sides of the divide. There is a clever feathering of Ursula’s lives throughout, with central characters in some strands turning up as passers-by in others. Atkinson is one of my favorite writers. Her writing style is second to none and her powers of observation are acute and accurate. Life After Life is a novel about potential. If it has a message, it’s that we only have one life and we should try to make the most of it.

slidingdoors2The science fiction elements of Life after Life are small, but Claire North’s, The First Fifteen Lives of Harry August is out and out SF. It’s the first of these books mentioned to have been published by an SFF imprint (Orbit). After death, Harry August returns to the point of his birth still able to remember everything that has gone before. For each of his incarnations, he returns to the start with the sum total of the knowledge he’s acquired. He is living a Groundhog Life.

It turns out there are a number of these so-called “kalachakrans,” each looking out for one another as part of a parallel universe-spanning secret society. When Harry receives a message handed down from the future that the world is soon to end, he endeavors to find out what’s going on and save not just his current universe, but countless others. Featuring the Cold War, time travel, and quantum physics, The First Fifteen Lives of Harry August is an intricate construction and makes for an invigorating read.

If North’s novel is more overtly SF than my other choices, David Wingrove’s Empire of Time by comparison is a DeLorean on top of a police box, bolted onto a Star Destroyer. This book is as SF as they come. Time travel has been made possible but has led to an eternal conflict between Germany and Russia. Set (mostly) in medieval Europe, World War Two, and the far future, Empire of Time is a bamboozling tale of time-altering plots and counter-plots, with people popping up to mess things up when you least expect them. It’s an absolute riot. If its SF credentials were in any doubt, Empire of Time is the first book of a trilogy.

My final pick for parallel universes is a wonderful multi-threaded novel about science fiction writing and the creation of fictional parallel universes. The central conceit of Jake Arnott’s The House of Rumour is that science fiction writers of the 1940s were tasked with helping out intelligence agencies during World War II. They were asked to propagate rumours in their stories of technological innovations that may or may not have been true.

The House of Rumour flits about time periods like an attention-deficient butterfly, rarely settling anywhere for long. Arnott blends fact, fiction, and facts about fiction in wonderfully inventive manner. His meandering plot and peculiar structure (around a tarot deck) won’t suit all tastes, but the book was unlike anything I’d read before. Arnott is perhaps more famous for writing sparse 1960s gangster novels, and House of Rumour marked a massive departure for him. It is definitely his finest moment. A brilliantly constructed, fiercely intelligent novel, soaked in the golden age of science fiction, with nested parallel universes. What’s not to like?

I enjoyed all these parallel universe novels immensely. “What if?” is an idea that continues to inspire a wide variety of writers into producing some wonderful fiction. I’m sure there are many more universes to be explored. Has anybody else read any great parallel universe stories recently? What are the classics of the genre that should not be missed? Please add your suggestions in the comments.

I received a copies of The Version of Us, Life After Life, My Real Children, and The Empire of Time for review. 

The Book of Slaves – ‘The Hunter’s Kind’ by Rebecca Levene

1603_HuntersKind_PPCRebecca Levene’s The Hunter’s Kind was my most hotly anticipated book of 2015. It’s the direct sequel to 2014’s excellent Smiler’s Fair and the second book in The Hollow Gods series. If you haven’t read Smiler’s Fair you should stop reading this review now.

The problem with hotly anticipated titles is that sometimes there is tendency to over-inflate in your mind just how good they are going to be. It doesn’t help that my memory is not what it used to be. I remembered that the end of Smiler’s Fair is brilliant, and that it has an amazing cliff-hanger leaving me desperate to read more, but one year on, could I remember what that cliff-hanger was? I could not.

The start of The Hunter’s Kind gave no clues either. There appears to be nothing cliff-hanger resolving in the opening hundred pages, and I must confess, I struggled a little to remember what I’d got so excited about.  The summer of 2015 has been tumultuous here in the house of Brooks, and my reading has been fragmented and distracted. I’ve found it very hard to force my way into anything. And so it was with The Hunter’s Kind. 

I felt like I was going through the motions. I couldn’t get on with the characters like I had in Smiler’s Fair, yet they were the same characters. What was going on? It was only on finishing I was able to work it out. Levene has pulled the street-artist trick of drawing a picture that is apparently formless right up until the final few touches are made, at which point all is revealed. The audience can only stand back and say, “Woah! That’s awesome.” Because it is. The novel slow burns to a white hot conclusion.

The Hollow Gods, so faris a genesis story; that of Krish as he wrestles with taking on the mantle of the Moon God, Yron. In truth it’s a rebirth rather than a genesis. Yron was killed a thousand years earlier, by Sun God Mizhara, who, horrified by the destruction she wrought in defeating her brother, subsequently ceased to exist. She left behind her followers, and he his. We now watch as the two sides react to Yron’s return. It’s the same with the novel’s other characters. Unlike most fantasy novels, where the central players are the agents of change, In The Hunter’s Kind we have a rapidly changing world with the characters reacting to those changes.

The book contains a sizeable ensemble cast and the narrative jumps between points of view. No one thread picks up a head of steam until towards the novel’s end when all sorts of interesting things start happening. There are a number of political plotlines, which didn’t engage me quite so much. I had started to question whether they could have been cut from the book entirely, until the very end, when it becomes apparent that all that has gone before has bearing on the characters’ actions as they react to the novel’s epic final scenes.

Once again Levene has created a story that takes place in a fully credible world, a feat rare for fantasy novels. Apart from the obvious differences in technology and magic, Levene’s world is one in which real humans might live. There are no absolutes, merely points of view. Krish has most of the world trying to kill him, but he is not evil. He’s just a young man trying to understand why most of the world wants to kill him. He’s told that he is a god, but what does that mean?

Krish tries to do good, but nothing works out the way he expects it to. Levene captures brilliantly the downfall of many leaders and statesmen – The law of unintended consequences. That’s how the real world works; try to make one thing better, you often make something else worse. Usually, with hindsight, a something that ought to have been obvious. These sorts of consequences are rare in fantasy fiction though. Most novels are simple cause and effect; destroy the ring, save the world. Levene has created something more subtle, complex and, above all, human.

I didn’t quite enjoy The Hunter’s Kind as much as Smiler’s Fair, but I read the closing chapters of both with the same sense of awe. Levene is creating something I’ve not really encountered in fantasy fiction before, a story that is unfolding to create a credible history. The novel works on both the personal level of the characters but also as the unfolding of myth. This volume hasn’t left me hanging quite like the end of book 1, but there are revelations aplenty before the end. Answers are given, but just as many questions are posed. I’m fascinated to find out how the ages-old battle between Yron and Mizhara will unfold, and more, how it’s going to affect the series’ central players. The Hollow Gods is settling down into something very special, and once again I am left hankering for more.

Many Thanks to Anne and the team at Hodderscape for sending me a copy of this book.    

Guest Post: Car-Jacked by Ali Sparkes

carjackedFor one paragraph, I hand over to my son, aged 9, who wanted me to help him tell everybody how good Car-Jacked is. 

Jack Mattingly is 12. He is a genius. He has an IQ of 170. He speaks fluent Mandarin and Latin. When the car is hi-jacked he is as clueless as the rest of of us. But the car-jacker does not know he is inside and it can’t be long before he finds out and then anything could happen. As Jack travels to London he is scared and thrilled and this is surely the most exiting thing in his life. While he is away he has sugar, the thing his mum despises him having. His parents miss him so much that when they see him they will be ecstatic. The book was good because it was exiting all the way through. Each page has something exciting on it.

This book is so good, I made my dad read it.

He’s right he did. And he’s right this is a great book. Particularly, one imagines, if you’re aged 9-14. I suspect my son is a little young to have picked up everything in the book, but he certainly devoured it in record time. Car-Jacked is a fast-paced children’s thriller, that entertains from start to finish. The book’s two central characters, genius Jack and his unwitting carjacker are brilliantly drawn. They take centre stage as an intriguing mystery unfolds. Grown-ups might be forced to swallow their disbelief a few too many times, but I think the twists and turns are pitched perfectly for the target audience.

Car-Jacked poses some interesting questions about right and wrong, whilst also questioning whether parents are always right. From first page until last there is something interesting. I love that my son decided to report that Jack has sugar during his escapade, and important part of the book, but perhaps not the most dramatic!  Jack’s genius status allows him the good fortune to be in possession of some fascinating information of interest to kids of all ages. This book came highly recommend by children’s book reviewer Amanda Craig. She rarely puts a foot wrong, and Car-Jacked is another excellent novel to add to an ever-growing list of wonderful children’s fiction.


Klingons on the Starboard Bow… 

armadacover…or something.

Ernest Cline’s Armada is a preposterous, porously plotted, pop-culture checking, piece of protracted nonsense. It’s also good fun in a silly sort of way. I think I last felt like this when reading The Da Vinci Code

I enjoyed Ready Player One, though I found it a bit repetitive, because it simultaneously managed to be fresh and nostalgic. RP1‘s fresh originality would be difficult to mange second time, and whilst Cline almost pulls it off, ultimately he falls short, often mistaking throwing in a quote from a film with character development.

The biggest difference between the two novels is the depth of the geekiness. In RP1 it feels embedded into the fabric of the story (mostly because it is; the book is about hidden secrets in computer games, placed there by a gaming geek), but in Armada they feel sprayed on. Earth is trundling along as normal, when suddenly alien spacecraft appear. Alien spacecraft from a fictional computer game. That in a nutshell might be the problem. The main point of reference is made up and all the geekyness is bolted on to it.

The story itself  is a sort of Ender’s Game, Last Starfighter mash-up. It’s entertaining enough but not very solid. It’s not helped by the fact that similar themes are addressed, with a whole lot more meaning added, in TL Costa’s excellent Playing Tyler. If you only read one of these novels make sure it’s Playing Tyler.

It’s difficult to say much more without giving lots away. Perhaps everything is deliberately kept light, and veneer thin, in keeping with the source material; Space Invaders doesn’t have much of a back-story. It doesn’t help that Cline spends a lot of time explaining how the premises behind computer games rarely make sense. As his book is predicated on a computer game that is meant to be real, the reader spends a lot of time thinking ‘but this doesn’t make sense’, for all the reasons the author lined up.

Ultimately it does just about make sense, but it isn’t terribly convincing. One can’t really help shake the feeling the entire story is a MacGuffin. The story is pacey, the reference spotting good fun, but Armada is destined to be little more than geeky beach read, forgotten before the flight home.

Tracks of Our Lives – ‘The Versions of Us’ By Laura Barnett

VersionsParallel universes are a mainstay of science fiction, but increasingly they seems to be creeping into the mainstream. Jo Walton, Claire North and Kate Atkinson have all produced phenomenal Sliding Doors novels that have (to a greater or lesser) degree have wormed their way into the nation’s consciousnesses. The latest arrival in the literary parallel universe corner is The Versions of Us by Laura Barnett. This has been pushed heavily, being a Waterstones book of the month and has been riding high in the charts.

The Versions of Us is a reality three-way that has very little science and large amounts of human interaction. At first I struggled. I was expecting cleverly dovetailed realities or a little science fictional trickery a la Walton or Atkinson, but there is nothing at all.  The book is pretty much three separate stories with chapters that interleave. The action branches out from a single incident, and we watch as three differing realities unfold.

As this is a story about ‘true-love’, and in two of the realities this love is thwarted, once by chance and the other by painful decision, I found myself settling on one particular narrative as the one I was rooting for. Barnett however is cleverer than that. Borrowing the idea that the “course of true love never did run smooth”, she demonstrates how things might go wrong even when you’ve found the person of your dreams, and how adversity might bring out the best in some, whilst overwhelming others.

Whilst there is little interaction between the narrative strands, as the novel progresses, we build up a deeper picture of its characters. In a conventional novel we tend to only see the players from one angle. We follow them through one story. Here Barnett builds a three dimensional picture by showing how her creations might react to similar situations in differing circumstances. As the novel builds to its conclusion it becomes increasingly satisfying. Upon finishing I was bereft that there as no more to read.

This book is perhaps not good fare for worriers or those not satisfied with their lot. It’s hard not to read The Versions of Us and wonder if it may have been possible to end up somewhere else. You may find yourself pondering missed opportunities and unexpected forks in the road. The flip side to this is that the book can be seen as empowering. You may not be where you want to be, you may have a talent that is being wasted, but it’s still with you. It’s never too late to apply yourself and change things around.

Whilst this is essentially a romantic novel, Barnett has a pragmatic view towards romance. This is not a tale of lovers destined to be together at all costs. It shows that there are many paths to happiness and that human beings desire companionship above all else. Wherever you are, there’s almost certainly somebody nearby waiting for you.

Whilst there was little of the literary trickery I was expecting, The Versions of Us is no less an accomplishment than the other novels I’ve mentioned here. It’s layering and juxtaposition of real-lives builds into a solid rendering of love, loss, happiness and the ability of the human spirit to keep moving forward. It’s a novel that contrives to be more than the sum of its parts. Each of the three stories is interesting enough, but in weaving them together Barnett has created something special and well worth reading.

Many Thanks to Rebecca at Weidenfeld and Nicolson for sending me a copy of this book. 


Dark Matters ‘Way Down Dark’ by James Smythe


This review appeared as part of a larger piece published on Geekdad on 12.7.2015

“There’s One Truth on Australia. You Fight or You Die”

If Katniss Everdeen somehow wandered into Hugh Howey’s Wool, the result might be something like Way Down Dark. The Australia is a ship, meandering through space in search of a home. On the brink of destruction, Earth sent out huge survival spaceships. The last hope of mankind, searching for new homes. The Australia is still looking. Like most sealed systems that contain humans, things have gone badly wrong. Life support is barely functioning, food is scarce, and Australia‘s inhabitants have started cannibalizing their own ship. Stairwells have been ripped out and their precious metal used for defenses or weapons.

Two things the Australia has in abundance are anger and fear. The ship has divided into factions. Some with agendas, some simply trying to eke out an existence until they can finally find a planet to call home. All fear the “Lows,” the gang that holds the bottom sections of the ship, an ever-expanding gang that threatens to plunge the Australia into anarchy.

Way Down Dark is a brutal book. It opens with lead character Chan having to kill her mother. If there is a line where Young Adult fiction becomes merely fiction, this book sits directly on it. It is simply an excellent story with a teenage protagonist.

The Australia is two steps away from anarchy. In this kill-or-be-killed world, superstition and reputation are everything. In order to build hers, Chan must build her own legend–be prepared to carry out the unthinkable. On her own, with few friends, she must do whatever she can to survive. But what good is living if you do nothing with your life? In a riff on the “with great power comes great responsibility” motif, Chan feels obliged to use her relative freedom to try to emancipate other denizens of Australia. She has no real power, but, on Australia, the ability to self-govern is power enough. Almost single-handedly she tries to hold back the tide of Lows. It leads her all over the ship, hunting the missing and rescuing the stolen. She’s a white cowboy wandering the confines of a tin can steeped in darkness.

This being a James Smythe novel, all is not what it seems. The story has unexpected depths. The reader anticipates there’s something more, but the characters have no idea. With each new piece of information she acquires, Chan has to assimilate it into her world view. Chan’s is a dark transition from adolescent to adult, but it mirrors the real world as she gradually learns things she took for granted aren’t quite as simple as she had imagined. Chan’s nemesis throughout the novel is her dark inversion, Rex. Rex too has earned the right to self-govern, but her grip on life is brutal and sadistic. With it she drags the Lows to her bidding. It’s not difficult to imagine that Chan could easily be Rex.

Like most Smythe novels, the book is heavily steeped in faith. Not in a supreme being, although religious faith does feature, but the simple human faith that things will get better. The ship will arrive. The Lows will be stopped. There will be a reprieve from the horror of life on board Australia. Once again, Smythe probes the limits and questions the wisdom of such faith.

Way Down Dark is the opening book in a trilogy and it is left wide open after several twisting turns. This is not for the faint of heart. The squalor and brutality of life on the Australia makes for breathless reading. Characterization is excellent, with several strong females taking center stage. Smythe has created an intriguing sealed dystopia, which will definitely appeal to fans of the genre. Like many of these novels, the reader is left wondering why humans can’t just get along and work together to survive. You’d hope the anarchy of the Australia could only be fiction, but it doesn’t take much convincing to see that Smythe has probably called it right.

Smythe has a strong loyal fanbase, of which I am one. I was predisposed to liking this novel, but I think Way Down Dark will bring him to the attention of more readers. Short, punchy, and gripping from first page until last, Way Down Dark makes an excellent entry point into the splendid works of James Smythe.

Over the years I have received review copies of all the books mentioned here. JP Smythe’s Way Down Dark was sent to me by its UK publisher Hodder & Stoughton. James can be found on Twitter as @Jpsmythe and excellent literary-geek fun can be had @hodderscape and also www.hodderscape.co.uk. 

‘The Just City’ by Jo Walton

TheJustCity_coverA new Jo Walton is something to be celebrated. Her last two novels have been very special indeed. Among Others and My Real Children are two of the books I have loved the most since starting this blog.

I had some initial trepidation about Walton’s latest. It’s essentially a thought experiment about Plato, and I don’t know very much about Plato. A bored Apollo and Athena decide to set up a city that is run by the precepts of Plato’s The Republic.  They do so in ancient Greece, inviting several famous philosophers and thinkers from throughout history and even future history (though there a host more who don’t get invited). They are placed on an isolated island, which is significant in a small but entertaining way.

Athena also brings in some robots to help with the menial tasks. Robots. Hmmm, my sense of unease went up another notch. Next they need to populate the island, not just with great brains of ageing thinkers, but also some bright young things that can be brought up in Plato’s enlightened manner. Having done so they unleash their experiment and see how Plato’s Republic might have gone down. Needless to say it turns out to be a total shambles, filled with egos, sexual appetites and slavery. Clearly Plato had never watched When Harry Met Sally.  Thinking about life is not the same as living life.

The society generated is heavily male dominated and Walton picks this apart in the name of womanhood, making many valid points. Despite being poles apart, the female characters here are reminiscent of those in Among Others and My Real Children. There are moments when the book feels like it’s about to burst into life, but much as it pains me to admit it, it never really gets going. Not for me anyway.  The beauty of Others and Children, is that they are other-worldly, yet fresh and real. This feels too much like a contrivance to make a few points.  

This is more a thought experiment than a narrative; a vanity project, even. The central question in the novel turns out to be whether the AI that sits behind the robots means they have Free Will and therefore, whether they are in fact being treated as slaves. There’s some discussion, between the ancient and modern philosophers as to whether slavery is bad (yes it is). This discussion is interesting, as is the wider unposed question as to whether society always relies on indenture in some form to propagate a philosophical, inquiring culture. Unfortunately, the set up with the robots, that allows Walton to hold this discussion, feels very arbitrary.

I suspect that if you know more about history of philosophy than I, particularly about the Greek philosophers and their central tenets you would probably find much greater depths to The Just City. Yet, if compared to the accessibility of Walton’s previous two novels, which can picked up an enjoyed by almost anybody (I know this as I’ve recommended them to all sorts of people with great success), her latest offering would seem to have a narrow scope.

As an avid Jo Walton fan it’s painful to admit that I didn’t particularly enjoy her latest offering. Walton is a great writer but this one for me is little more than Okay. It says in Walton’s author bio that she hopes to write a book a year, so hopefully it won’t be too long before I find another book to fall in love with. A quick bit of searching for an image for this piece revealed that there is already a sequel ‘The Philosopher Kings’ available. Whilst the end of Just City is a little vague, I hadn’t particularly noticed the need for another volume. Indicative perhaps that I wasn’t paying enough attention. 

Many thanks to Grace at Corsair for sending me this book.