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. 

Series Review: Dan and the Dead by Thomas Taylor



Thomas Taylor - Dan Dead

This review first appeared on GeekDad on 30th June 2015 

Thomas Taylor is possibly one of the most famous author/illustrators you’ve never heard of. In illustrator mode, Taylor gave the world the original cover of Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone. A book that quite a few people have read. Those of you who follow Mike Carey’s superlative ‘Unwritten’ series will know that its central character is ‘Tommy Taylor.’ I don’t know whether this is a coincidence but considering how Carey’s Potter-channelling graphic novel series drips with literary allusion and reference, I very much doubt it.

But enough of the fan-boy trivia.

I first encountered Taylor’s work in the form of his Young Adult thriller, Haunters. This is a well-executed novel about teenagers who use their dreams to travel through time and space. I very much enjoyed Haunters; it’s a book which showed potential for further instalments and I am rather vexed that a follow-up has yet to appear. At that time, the first of Taylor’s Dan and the Dead series was available but, as it is aimed at the bottom end of my preferred reading age (pre to early teens), I never quite got around to picking it up.


Several years later and having become fond of Taylor’s creativity celebrating Facebook page, I noticed that Dan is now having his third outing. My oldest son is now at the bottom end of the books’ reading age (9), so I dropped Thomas a line and asked nicely whether he’d be prepared to send me a book in exchange for a review. His UK publisher, Bloomsbury was kind enough to send me all three, and so here I am.

“I see dead people.”

As Dan concedes in the opening line of the book, he’s “… like that kid. You know, the one in the film…”

That is the series’ central premise; Dan can see the dead. Restless spirits who have unfinished business. For a small fee Dan acts as a closer, giving peace and rest to troubled ghosts. It’s not a new premise, but it’s an interesting one. With hindsight, it’s easy to say that Dan of the Dead is obviously a first novel. It’s well crafted, readable but it doesn’t particularly stand out from the pack.

Dan is a fairly typical young teen character; a talented outcast. His most common companion, Simon, has been dead for hundreds of years. Together they form a team. A young Sherlock Holmes and late Dr. Watson. The partnership works well, and delivers plenty of light-hearted supernatural sleuthing. The first book focuses around a morally bankrupt gangster and his ring of blackmailed children. It’s set in and around Dan’s school life in London.


The first book may not glow as brightly as later installments but it forms a solid base on which the series is built. The rules and precepts for Dan’s power are established, as is what being a ghost in Dan’s world means. To reveal the finest aspect of the book would be too big a spoiler, but it centers around Dan’s payment for his services. Taylor has set himself up with a powerful device with which he can build a range of stories and character angles.

In the second book of the series, Dan and the Caverns of Bone, Taylor moves up a gear or two. Set in Paris, with much of the action taking below the ground in the city’s catacombs, the book has a more macabre feel to it. Nevertheless the same light tone of the first book pervades, and, if anything, this book would appeal to slightly younger readers. In Caverns of Bone a strong sense of theme starts to develop: standing up for the downtrodden.

To all intents and purposes Dan is a geek. A geek who can see the dead but essentially a boy with his own style and a worldview that differs from the norm. Inevitably he comes under the scrutiny of the school bully. Dan stands up to him, and a less-than-fair teacher, not always successfully, but doggedly. He takes another child under his wing; a paper plane-making math genius.

I like this geeks-together aspect of the books. Since the ghosts in the stories are victims of something, the novels convey a strong sense of the importance of righting injustice. In a world where community seems to be corroding, Dan’s sense of fair play and looking out for the underdog is an important idea. Doubly so, as Dan hardly comes from a position of power himself. There is a strong sense that the individual can make a difference.

The latest installment, Dan and the Shard of Ice, is set almost entirely within in London’s iconic new skyscraper, The Shard. The Shard seems to have captured authors’ and creators’ imaginations; I’ve read some great books set there and then there was the Doctor Whoepisode The Bells of Saint John.

In Shard of Ice, the building is being terrorized by a malevolent poltergeist. In an attempt to find out what is going on, Dan sneaks into the entourage of a famous TV psychic. Again Dan tries to come to the aid of the disadvantaged. The fraudulent “Venn Specter” preys upon the gullible and recently bereaved. In a sub-plot to the novel Dan tries to uncover the TV star’s duplicity and in doing so learns an important lesson about the bulletproof nature of being rich and powerful. The plot here again brings home a message of standing up for what is right, though this time there are less predictable consequences.


Shard of Ice sees a stronger overreaching story arc begin to develop. The first two novels are interesting, but largely stand alone. Shard of Ice suggests there is a bigger picture and a wider supernatural world. This gives the series a greater coherence, making the the third book the most satisfying read of all.

With his Dan and the Dead books, Thomas Taylor has developed a gentle entertaining series, with a strong message. The books are slim, fairly quick reads for 10- to 14-year-olds and are well-presented with lots of illustrations drawn by the author, a few of which are shown here with Taylor’s permission. All three are satisfying reads, each better than the last. With the final installment ending with a number of unanswered questions, I am thoroughly looking forward to reading book 4. And Thomas, whilst you’re there, how about a sequel to Haunters too?!

Many thanks to Thomas and Bloomsbury for sending me copies of the books to review. All artwork Copyright Thomas Taylor 

Burning Bright – The Pyre by David Hair

pyreAbout ten or so years ago I stumbled across Ashok K Banker’s Prince of Ayodhya, the first book of his Ramayana retelling. I found his (originally) six volume series wonderful. I knew very little of the epic on which the series was based, but it had everything a fantasy reader loves. Gods, princes, demons, magic weapons, epic battles and…er…flying monkeys. Paper copies aren’t in great supply these days, after Ashok spat his dummy out over editorial changes made to the UK/US editions, but ebooks appear to be available on Amazon. They are excellent and I whole-heatedly recommend them.

Those six books sparked a love affair with the Ramayana. I have read a couple of different, more traditional translations; there is something so compelling about the story. When I heard about David Hair’s Return of Ravana, Ravana being the ten headed villain at the centre of the Ramayana, my curiosity was piqued.

The action in The Pyre switches between two timelines. One is set in modern times, the other in AD 769. Both narratives take place in the same area of India, Rajasthan. The modern strand opens in the city of Jodhpur and the historical thread centres around nearby Mandore. In 769 Mandore was a thriving city, ruled over by the tyrannical Ravindra-Raj. Ravindra-Raj predicts his own death, and insists that his funeral must take a very particular course. At the heart of his wishes is the rite of sati, in which each of his seven wives will throw themselves on his pyre.

In modern India, three teenagers find themselves drawn together by virtue of sharing disturbing dreams and visions. They are each reincarnations of the players in the events that transpired in ancient Mandore over a thousand years earlier. The three are thrown into a battle that has been fought countless times before. This time, will the outcome be different?

As The Pyre progresses its inspiration from the Ramayana becomes more overt. Initially, it is an intriguing ghost story, spliced with a heroic tale of love and rescue. As the action comes to a head, the Hindu wheel of life starts to turn and the epic battle between Rama and Ravana makes itself felt. David Hair’s writing is sharp; his action sequences exciting. The demonic ghosts are more than a little scary, and the story contains some genuine surprises. Like the Ramyana, The Pyre is a story about love, honour, loyalty and fighting for what you believe. This is the opening salvo in Hair’s Return of Ravana sequence. Whilst satisfying in its own right there a lots of lose threads and many turns of the wheel left before the end of what I hope will be a memorable and enjoyable saga.

The Pyre is an excellent fantasy novel. If you’re familiar with the tales of Rama and Sita, you’ll find much to enjoy, and if not, then David Hair’s introduction to the legends are an excellent place to start.

Many thanks to Andrew at Jo Fletcher Books for sending me a copy of the Pyre. It’s out on June 4th  

‘A God in Ruins’ by Kate Atkinson

a god in ruinsMy proof copy of A God in Ruins says ‘What if the new Kate Atkinson were even better than the last…’. A bold claim since her previous novel was the extremely readable and beautifully constructed Life after Life. It’s hard to imagine anything living up to that, and to suggest that a new book might is rather setting it up for a fall.

I don’t think A God in Ruins is as good as Life After Life. 

It is however still a very good book. If I’d read it in isolation, I’d probably be raving about it. Atkinson is an excellent writer, she could make the back of a cereal packet compelling reading (there’s an internet meme in there somewhere – author’s cereal blurbs), but with Life after Life the structure was so special. Its ‘sliding doors’ narrative gave Life after Life additional depth. The layers of story from different realities, intersected with one another, building up into a glorious three dimensional whole. A God in Ruins is a more conventional single reality narrative. The timeline jumps about but the versions of the main characters stay the same.

A God in Ruins is a companion novel to Life after Life, following Teddy, Ursula’s beloved brother. The story follows Teddy’s life, focusing mainly on his time as a bomber pilot during World War Two and as a declining pensioner; the god in ruins. The first hundred pages had me worried, perhaps it was the lack of artifice in structure, but the story felt pedestrian and uninteresting. It was only once the war began in full, that I started to find my way into the novel. The chapters change time-frame switching from Teddy’s modern life back from the war. We see the young wing commander, a talismanic hero among men, and his more prosaic family life.

Teddy and his wife settle into a sedate country life at odds with life in the war. The many children they hoped for don’t arrive; only one, Viola. Teddy and Viola struggle to bond from the beginning and this sets the course for a troubled relationship. Atkinson sets up an interesting juxtaposition of Teddy’s life of privation and courage during the war and Viola’s essentially selfish quest for inner peace, living on a commune as a hippy. I’d never before considered how children of the sixties and seventies may have looked to the war-scarred generation above them, and Atkinson portrays well the uneasy interaction between them.

Viola produces grandchildren, who get along much better with their grandfather than she ever did. As such, A God in Ruins becomes a generational, family saga, not usually my cup of tea. Gradually however the novel began to exert a grip over me. Whilst the war passages vivdly portray life as bomber pilot and the grinding despair brought by being surrounded by death, it was the modern day chapters that captured me most.

As I grow older, I begin to feel my own sense of the world out-pacing me. I can already see that I may outlive my own usefulness. This is something that never occurs to a thirty-year old, but now the other side of forty, with aching knees, it’s an uncomfortably real proposition. Teddy, a hero long ago, waits out his life in homes and sheltered accommodation. This again is all too close to the bone. As my parents age, how they are going to see out their days? The worst ever friction in their relationship with me, and with each other, has been caused by them railing against the onset of years. My Dad has Parkinson’s and it raises a set of challenges that cannot be conquered by staying at home indefinitely.

A God in Ruins, portrays the terrible shrinking of life that marks old age. Viola, never the most attentive of children, becomes a monster. Yet, I fear there is a little of Viola in all of us. I love my parents very much, but all too often I find them a nuisance; a problem to be dealt with. I know that one day, possibly, (hopefully even – the alternative is an early death), I will be the same situation. A burden to my boys, who love me very much, but struggle with all the things in their life, without their aged P making things even more complicated. Atkinson suggests the salvation may be grandchildren. Teddy’s later life affected me strongly and reminded me to to try to make a little extra time for my family, who one day will no longer be there.

I didn’t unreservedly love A God in Ruins. There was one chapter in particular that bordered on caricature, and felt uncharacteristically clumsy for Atkinson’s usual spot on observation. My wife felt the novel was in danger of slipping into an anti-war polemic. Whilst I rather liked its take on the futility of human warfare, her point is valid. The end of the novel throws a curve-ball, which I hadn’t seen coming. This has the discomfiting effect, of making the reader reappraise everything they’ve read. On the one hand this was frustrating, a literary trick too far, but on the other it’s no mean feat for an author to force a reader to re-evaluate everything they’ve read, and indeed their own lives in just a few short paragraphs.

I didn’t enjoy a God in Ruins like I did Life after Life, but a new Kate Atkinson novel is always something to be savoured and celebrated. The pair make an excellent whole and show why Kate Atkinson is the queen of accessible literary fiction.

Many Thanks to Alison at Transworld for sending me a copy of this book (my wife sends heartfelt gratitude too!) 

Dark Side of the Moons – ‘Seveneves’ by Neal Stephenson

This review first appeared on GeekDad on 22/5/2015. 

seveneves 3Most authors, who are not Neal Stephenson, would have started writing Seveneves at page 565. They would have told an epic hard sci-fi tale about seven races attempting to colonize a planet. There would have been tension and politics, spaceships and gadgets, heroes and villains. Those not tempted to start at page 565 might have written an apocalyptic tale about the destruction of the moon and the resulting disaster for planet Earth. They would have written about the great escape. There would have been spaceships and gadgets, tension and politics, heroes and villains.

Only an author with the vision and audacity of Neal Stephenson would have tried to do both. Stephenson has taken two halves of intriguingly premised stories and stuck them together like a literary cut and shut. He stops the action abruptly, with humanity on the brink, before fast-forwarding his story 5,000 years. The characters from the first 565 pages are dust. Nothing remains of them but memories. How could the final 300 pages possibly deliver anything like a coherent overall narrative? It’s a brave move, that, if attempted by lesser authors, would have resulted in an unholy mess. Stephenson pulls the trick off with aplomb.

The novel opens with an ‘Agent’ cleaving through the moon, breaking it into several pieces. The resulting cluster of rocks, still in the same position as the moon, is, at first, little more than an astronomical curiosity. An event everybody will remember but that will have little impact on their daily lives. The mass of the moon has barely changed; its position is the same. Life continues. Until a smart astronomer does some math and realizes this spectacular event is not just a curiosity, but also spells the end of life on Earth.

There follows a desperate scramble to make the International Space Station, ‘Izzy,’ habitable by as many as people as possible, in order to ensure the continued existence of the human race. The plan is to send Earth’s finest and brightest into space, with digital copies of the sum total of human knowledge. It is hoped that this will be enough. It has to be. It is all we’ve got.

Anybody who has read Neal Stephenson novels will know that they are detail-heavy. Seveneves is no exception. The opening three hundred pages detail the infrastructure required to build a space station with the capability of supporting human life for the next few thousand years. The novel is set in the near-future, giving Stephenson the opportunity to utilize some not-quite-in-existence technology. He outlines his vision for this space-faring ark in painstaking detail. I say painstaking, some readers might prefer excruciating.

This is not a book for the sleep-deprived. I read my first Stephenson novel (Cryptonomicon) before being married. The Baroque Cyclesqueezed in just before the arrival of my firstborn. In those days, Stephenson’s rich explanations brought me great joy. I loved to wallow in them. Even then, however, I could appreciate they wouldn’t be to everybody’s taste; you definitely need a certain mind-set to fully engage with a Neal Stephenson novel. Now Seveneves is here and I have three children. Time to wallow is not in great supply, and there were times when I felt myself wishing he’d get to the point. There are some chunks of description you can skim and still pick up the general point, without detracting too much from the story.

A general measure of how much I’m enjoying a book is how often I fall asleep reading it. It is rare these days that I read something so compelling, I don’t wake up at some point with a dead arm and spittle hanging off my chin. It goes with the parenting territory. Seveneves sent me to sleep a lot. Despite this, I did enjoy it. The story moved fast enough to compel me to read on, but sometimes there were a few too many detailed explanations of orbits, apogees and mass ratios.

Although clearly a demigod of technical description, I think the true mark of Stephenson’s stature as a novelist is his characterization. There are a host of characters in this book, and they are all brilliantly drawn. Their interactions and interpersonal relationships are what made this novel fly for me. It’s also why the huge break in the book doesn’t completely break the book. The vividly rendered lives of the pioneers of the first section inform the history and cultural backgrounds of those in the second. It’s a staggering accomplishment and anthropologically fascinating.

The destruction of the planet is deeply affecting. Since becoming a parent my reactions to apocalyptic novels has completely changed. They make me sad in ways they never did before children. The reaction Seveneves produced was almost visceral. I’m not afraid to admit I shed more than a few tears over it. The depth of emotion and insight showed is remarkable. These passages alone are worth the effort of reading the novel.

In both halves of the book, Stephenson presents a depressingly accurate picture of human nature. Even with the very existence of humanity at stake, politics and personal gain ride high in some characters’ minds. It is the novel’s contention, that even when we must be at our most together, humans will still find a way to fight one another. It’s a bleak view to offer, all the more so due to its accuracy.

Seveneves may contain the darker side of human nature, but it also explores our altruistic side too. Our ability to reach out and help others, at great sacrifice to ourselves. Humanity’s ability to work together for the common good. This book has true heroes and definite villains, and a few who are both. I loathed one or two of the characters for their actions. At times I almost forgot they weren’t real people: another testament to the quality of Stephenson’s character writing.

If you haven’t read any Stephenson before, I’m not sure I’d start here. The break in the narrative is quite hard to swallow. If you spend pages and pages detailing the minutiae of your world, it feels like cheating to then leave out 5,000 years’ worth of information. Much of the second section is bewildering, and I felt there was too much ramble for the size of the overall pay-off. This is not a book for those who like ends neatly tied. With an artificial end in the middle and a finale that leaves as much unresolved as completed, Seveneves leaves the reader with lots of unanswered questions. Within the context of the novel this is perfectly fitting. This is not a neat tale, but a future history and testament to the ingenuity of the human race.

With a spine of politics-technology-colonization, the book is inevitably going to draw comparison with Kim Stanley Robinson’s much-loved Mars Trilogy. Such comparisons would be entirely fair. Seveneves will appeal greatly to fans of the Mars Trilogy; they share the same roots of human endeavor and technical accuracy. They meld politics and technology in very similar ways. Seveneves is a more compelling read, but I think makes a less satisfying whole. For fans of Stephenson, a new release is always a thrilling event. Once again he delivers a behemoth filled with deep science, heavy detail and fascinating characters.

Seveneves is available now and is published by William Morrow in the US and Borough Press in the UK. Disclosure: Many Thanks to Jaime at Harper Collins for sending me a copy of this book. 




‘The Chronicles of Light and Shadow’ by Liesel Schwarz


This piece first appeared on Geekdad.com on 8th May 2015. 

Steampunk. Queen Victoria, airships, and steam. Men who want to be Sherlock Holmes. Feisty women, often in jodhpurs. Fog. I’ve read good steampunk and I’ve read terrible steampunk. Because it’s a heavily stylized genre, some authors seem to think you can throw a few tropes together and make a decent novel. The Chronicles of Light and Shadow by British author Liesel Schwarz, fits firmly into the “good” category. The setting is a fairly typical cogwheels and carriages environment, but the novels have a fresh originality that many of their counterparts lack.

Whilst there’s no Holmes or Queen Victoria, Schwarz does employ steam, airships, and a feisty lead female. She also manages to blend in vampires, fairies, and fortune telling; pirates, warlocks, and clockwork hearts. Better still, rather than being confined to the fog-bound streets of London like most steampunk novels, Schwarz’s characters take in Paris, Vienna, Constantinople, San Francisco, and even Cambodia. It’s these varied settings that set the The Chronicles of Light and Shadow apart from the pack.

The trouble starts with precious cargo. Eleanor (Elle) Chance is asked to smuggle a special package to London. She is attacked, immediately after leaving the Parisian absinthe bar where she picked up her cargo. Elle barely escapes with her life, but her bag is stolen, and, along with it, the precious secret she was meant to deliver. The game is afoot!

The three novels follow Elle in the aftermath of the theft that changed her life. She is a strong central character. As an airship pilot, Elle is a woman in a man’s world. The lack of respectability of her position requires that she often take cargo that is not strictly legitimate. After the theft of her latest consignment she finds herself tangling with the shadowy Council of Warlocks. When Elle starts hearing voices in her head, it is not long before she discovers she’s in possession of a secret that she has even managed to keep from herself.

In Elle’s world magic is open, if mistrusted. Open and accepted but fading. There are two realms, Light and Shadow. The Shadow realm is where the fairies, vampires, and other mythical beings reside. The Light is the real world, and due to increased technology and a transferral of faith towards science, it is gradually squashing the Shadow out of existence. There is an interesting tension between the two sides. Both are at odds with one another, but both need the other to survive.

Villains come in the form of renegade warlocks, and a white witch with a terrifying clockwork army. I liked the way magic works in Schwarz’s world, particularly the interaction with fairies and other denizens of the Shadow. They add an extra dimension to the story, being both playful and sinister. The vampires, or “Nightwalkers” as they are termed here, largely move around in the background, adding further depth, without turning the story into something that sucks.

Although airships always seem to exist in steampunk novels, I’ve yet to read a series that features them so heavily. Steampunk dirigibles usually float around, offering local color but rarely becoming involved in the story unless an explosion is needed. Elle however, lives to fly, and as the series opens owns her own vessel, the Water Lily. I very much enjoyed the sections on board the airships, in particular the battles. Schwarz manages to make dog-fights between what are essentially cumbersome oversized cigars very exciting. By having air travel at the heart of her novels Schwarz is able to take her characters to a wide range of locales. Well-rendered alternative versions of world-famous cities are another draw for the Chronicles of Light and Shadow. If airships weren’t enough, there’s even a trip on the Orient Express from warlock-controlled Venice to an exotic and magically charged Constantinople.

The Chronicles of Light and Shadow is a solidly entertaining series. The books won’t blow you away. There are some nice extensions of familiar steampunk themes, but nothing mold-breaking. The middle novel A Clockwork Heart is, however, a little bit special. It is set in a trope-embracing fog-bound London, but the creepy menace of the “White Lady” and her army of clockwork zombies is chilling. I found I had to read this one late into the night to make sure I found out what happened. Though not marketed at the Young Adult audience, there is nothing in here that I warn against for older children. The books are written in the tradition steampunk Victorian detective style. There’s no bad language or excessive violence. If you’re looking for a new steampunk series to try and you like strong female leads, you could do a lot worse than Liesel Schwarz’s Chronicles of Light and Shadow.

Disclosure: The publisher sent me copies of all three books for review. The books are published by Del Rey in the US and UK. All three books are available in paperback and as ebooks now. 

Lies, damn lies and natural historians – ‘The Lie Tree’ by Frances Hardinge

the lie treeThe Lie Tree is significantly more straightforward than the last Frances Hardinge book I read.  A Face Like Glass, was a phantasmagoria worthy of Lewis Carroll.  It took me a while to find my way in, but ultimately it’s fresh brilliance won me over. It’s a novel I love to recommend

Hardinge’s latest offering is a period tale with fantasy overtones. It is reminiscent of the early chapters of Elizabeth Gilbert’s recent novel The Signature of All Things. Both novels feature women born out of time, blessed with towering intellect and curiosity about the world in which they live. Both women are cursed to live in a world in which they are subjugate to men. Hardinge gives her tale and additional fantasy facet, in the form of the eponymous plant, The Lie Tree.

As the novel opens Faith and her family are fleeing England in haste. What terrible disasters are they escaping? Those two scoundrels Gossip and Scandal. Piecing together what she can from overheard fragments of conversation (Faith is 14 and a girl; adults talk over her head), Faith works out that her father’s integrity has been called into question. A natural historian of great repute, it seems his greatest discoveries may be fabrications. The first of many untruths revealed in the book.

Before long, Faith’s world is in tatters. The family have fled to an isolated island with a tight-knit community. Soon after the rumours arrive on the island; there is no escaping them. The family’s prestige as London sophisticates is destroyed. The island dwellers turn on the new arrivals and Faith and her family are ostracised from their new community. After a number of slights and insinuations, and with the family reputation in tatters, Faith’s father disappears. He is soon found dead. Has taken his own life in despair or are more sinister forces at work? Faith takes it upon herself to find out.

At the centre of this novel are lies. Whilst the Lie Tree is the root of the more outrageous ones told on the island (for reasons I won’t divulge), nobody it seems is being honest with anybody. These are not all inventive lies spouted through malice or in the hope of bettering one’s position, but also little ones of the type we tell ourselves all the time. The justifications and tales we spin that make our lives bearable.

Nominally a YA a novel The Lie Tree forces the reader analyse the nature of truth. Set in the late 1800s, shortly after the publication of Darwin’s Origin of Species, Faith is very much constrained by the time in which she lived. It was an era where appearances were extremely important, especially in the circles in which Faith and her family operate. Every woman in the novel has some hidden truth that she keeps close. This tissuing of secrets and façade builds up into a beguiling whole. Hardinge uses her construction to reveal the absurdity of gender attitudes at the time.

It is also easy to see that whilst contemporary teenagers’ lives are vastly different to Faith’s, some aspects of them are the same. Society is still built on layers of untruths. It would be impossible to function if we continually told the absolute truth. We would have few friends and many enemies. Appearances are still important today and revealing too much can still lead to ostracism. The lies of the modern world are perhaps more subtle, but advertising, media and politics still all rely on portraying elements of the truth. Gender inequality is less obvious than in Victorian times, but nevertheless is still present in society; women still need to lie about their aspirations or risk being judged by all and sundry (or at the very least Mail Online).

In today’s world, social media allows us to project an image of ourselves different to the one seen by those who know us in real life. Which one is real? Probably neither. Everybody has a façade and normally for the best of reasons. This is a powerful message to the target audience of The Lie Tree and Hardinge delivers it with subtle grace, cocooned in an intriguing story.

This is the third Frances Harding novel I’ve read. I’ve thoroughly enjoyed them all. The Lie Tree doesn’t quite beat the wacky majesty of A Face Like Glass, but it’s vivid setting and range of solid well-wrought characters make it in an excellent read. This is a fine novel well worth picking up by anybody looking for something that deviates a little from the norm.

This book was sent to me as part of the Amazon Vine Programme.