‘Locke and Key’ by Joe Hill and Gabriel Rodriguez

I’ve been wary of picking up any of Joe Hill’s stuff.  I felt that had he not been Stephen King’s son, I would probably have never heard of him.  But I kept hearing good things about his ‘Locke and Key’ series, so I decided it was time to put prejudice aside and take the plunge.  I’m glad I did.  The hardback is beauty in book form. Gorgeous to hold, with a macabre yet inviting cover, behind which lurk and pages and pages of vibrant and evocative illustrations. The writing is great too; the words and pictures marry perfectly making for a compelling read.

This is an unforced and effortless read of the sort that hides the talent of those behind it. (i.e. The writing is so good, it’s made to looks easy). Like all good horror tales, the book’s premise is a simple one.  The house that takes centre stage contains any number of mysterious doors that have peculiar powers. One turns you into a ghost, another can take you anywhere. Oh yes and there is a mysterious girl who lives down a well, who probably isn’t as nice as she first seems. Each of these doors has a key that opens on them, and herein lies the beauty of the series. As long as the writers can keep thinking of interesting things to do with a doorway, they can produce key after key which open a portals to story after macabre story.

Having waxed so lyrical, I do have a couple of reservations. The story does feel a little light. There’s a lot of pages for what amounts to not that much exploration of the themes and ideas suggested. There is a violent back-story to the family that live in the house, and some of the panels were over-gory for my tastes. This book is far creepier when it goes for psychological thrills rather than visceral spills. But these are small complaints. I thoroughly enjoyed ‘Welcome to Lovecraft’; it reminded me in places of my all time favourite series ‘The Unwritten’ and at times matches it for storytelling brilliance. High praise indeed. This is a fine starting block for what promises to be an excellent series. I look forward to reading volume two.

The Only Way Is Wessex – ‘The Wordmith’s Tale’ by Stephen Edden

‘The Only Way is Wessex’ is such an unworthy review title for a book of the quality of Stephen Edden’s ‘The Wordsmith’s Tale’, I’m almost too embarrassed to use it.  Almost.    Stephen Edden takes one hundred years of English history, and following five generations of the same family, weaves a beguiling tale of life and love in Anglo-Saxon Britain.  In many ways this is a traditional family saga, there are hatches, matches and dispatches, sharp tongues and idle gossip.  The only thing stopping this being a Victorian melodrama, are 900 years of history.

The Wordsmith’s Tale is narrated by Thomas the Piper, who claims to be the great-grandson of Tom Thumb, the diminutive storyteller.  His story opens on the night Tom finally tracked down his true love Fleda, Thomas’s (the Piper’s) great-grandmother, and a former unwilling consort of the Saxon king Edgar.  The family live out a meagre existence as serfs under a kindly but ineffective Thane.  Fleda and Tom’s son, the charismatic ‘Bas the Giant’ decides to take a Viking bride, bringing the family trouble upon trouble.  Troubles that still resonate as Thomas tells his tale, one hundred years later.

This is a novel filled with both tenderness and brutality.  There are deep bonds of love and camaraderie between the novel’s central players, but the harsh reality of life in the year 1000 is unflinchingly realised.  War, plague, starvation, murder, rape, sodomy, and paedophilia all feature many times over.   The women of the novel suffer particularly hard; Anglo-Saxon Britain was certainly a man’s world.  This is not a novel for the faint-hearted, and yet it is packed with likeable characters and many moments of warmth and pleasure.  Most of Tom’s descendants are consummate storytellers, the tall tales they tell are laced with British folklore, giving the novel another, mythical, dimension.

Stephen Edden’s prose is masterly.  The predominant use of words with Anglo-Saxon roots, gives the novel an earthy authenticity, making for a wholly satisfying read.  A good historical novel should be epitomised by a phrase that is often used to describe modern TV shows – ‘scripted reality’.  This phrase fits the  ‘The Wordsmith’s Tale’ perfectly, so perhaps my comparison with TOWIE is not so far from the mark.  From start to finish ‘The Wordsmith’s Tale’ is a colourful and absorbing novel, describing an overlooked period of history.  I am sad to note that the novel’s publisher ‘Beautiful Books’ (who also published the brilliant, but completely different ‘Romeo Spikes’)  has gone out of business, so this book may become hard to get hold of.  Take my advice and do so as soon as you can.

A World Without Tears? – ‘The Killables’ by Gemma Malley

Another week, another Young Adult fiction dystopia.  This is a genre that I have always enjoyed reading, but now it has burst into the mainstream, is quality going to decline?  Will an army of Hunger Games clones be unleashed onto the high street, track down young and impressionable teenagers, before clubbing to death with bad prose and stolen ideas?  Well if Gemma Malley’s ‘The Killables’ is anything to go by, we don’t have anything to worry about just yet.  Malley is the author of ‘The Declaration’, an understated well-realised dystopian vision.  If you enjoyed that, then you’ll love this too.

For the first one hundred pages or so of ‘The Killables’, I wasn’t convinced.  Malley’s premise follows the standard dystopia formula of taking one aspect of society, drastically altering it, and examining what effect that would have on the world.  In this novel, the population of ‘The City’ have had their ability to be evil removed.  Through conditioning and removal of the amygdala (part of the brain that current (real-life) research has shown can be over-active in perpetrators of violent crime), members of The City are programmed only to think ‘good’ thoughts.  This measure is in a drastic response to ‘The Horrors’; an unspecified apocalyptic event that saw the indiscriminate slaughter of millions.  The City is kept isolated by impregnable walls, outside of which live ‘The Evils’.

Unsurprisingly all is not well in paradise.  Clearly some people are less able to shut out evil than others. Everybody is ranked.  Either A,B,C or D, with A being the most pure.  The City is led by ‘The Brother’ a brainwashing villain worthy of the very best authoritarian regimes.  Everything is controlled, jobs and professions are allocated.  Entertainment non-existent and marriages and relationships arranged.  Evie is a ‘C’ but her prospects are on the up, because she is wanted by an ‘A’; the pure but characterless Lucas.  Lucas’ brother is the non-conformist trouble maker Raffy… and you can immediately see where this is going.

It’s your classic dystopian love-triangle under a romantically repressed regime.  So far, so formulaic.  The City feels all too similar to the setting for Lauren Oliver’s Delirium.  Curiously, in one novel hate is removed and in the other it’s love, yet both create the same sterile world.  There is a fitting inevitability about this when you stop to think about it, and one that suggests that both writers have their world-building spot on.   When talk turns to the possibility of life outside the walls, the novel is pointed so heavily in one direction I started to fear that ‘The Killables’ was going to be a dud.  Far from it.

Whilst its storyline never veers too far from conventional, the novel’s strength comes from the quality of Gemma Malley’s writing, and her handle on what makes us human. Malley’s books (or at least the two I’ve read), don’t have the visceral element of many end-of-days novels, but instead offer a calmer examination of abuse of power, and the strength of human character.  Her characterisation is splendid, making for a deeply affecting read.  The novel’s twists revolve around people rather than plot, which is unusual in this type of fiction and it is a difference that pays dividends.  In the novel’s latter stages, the depth of Malley’s vision is laid out, and the true nature of ‘The Evils’ is revealed.  This makes ‘The Killables’ a much more involved read than anticipated.  One that asks a lot more questions than its opening suggested it might.

After being underwhelmed by the opening third, I ultimately found ‘The Killables’ almost impossible to put down.  This is the first book in a trilogy, but is almost complete in itself, whilst remaining tantalisingly open-ended. With two more books to come, I’m pleased to report that in Gemma Malley the genre has found a safe pair of hands.

The Hunger Games – Before the Rise

It seems that it is ‘Hunger Games’ week.  I find the idea of an HG film vaguely exciting, but being a father of small children, probably won’t make it to the cinema any time soon.  It does occasionally happen, but then I just fall asleep. But I have read the books.

Thanks to a review copy from Amazon Vine many moons ago, I have followed Collins’ trilogy since before it became a phenomenon.  So, to allow me to post something new without doing much work, I shall   take you into the past as I dust off my old reviews.  At the time I posted my first review Amazon was showing less than twenty. Now there are close to 600.   Reading through mine, they still seem pretty accurate; the first novel was good, the second better and the third dire. (Ironically, Mockingjay is the only one of the three that I paid money for).  ‘Catching Fire’ is definitely ‘The Empire Strikes Back’.

I have no idea whether I’m right or not, but I stand by my assertion that Collins didn’t originally intend for there to be a trilogy and I think the shambolic final instalment gives this theory some credence.  That said, she has produced a body of work that has swept aside the vampires, and filled bookshops with apocalyptic visions and smouldering unrequited because-we-only-have-fifty-seconds-to-save-the-world relationships, and for that, I thank her.

Battle Royale for the Squeamish – (Posted on Amazon 3rd Feb 2009)

The premise of ‘The Hunger Games’ is almost exactly the same as Koushun Takami’s excellent Battle Royale . i.e. a dystopian future, where the ruling government forces teenage children to fight to the death. Being aimed at a younger market (11+ according to the back cover) ‘The Hunger Games’ is a sanitised version of Takami’s classic; a simpler, less visceral story, with fewer shades of grey (and spatters of blood). The characters in Collins’ story are either ‘good’ or ‘bad’, there is little or no moral ambiguity. I would hesitate to recommend ‘Battle Royale’ to younger readers, but it is the superior of the two novels. That said, ‘The Hunger Games’ is still riveting and extremely readable .

In addition to Hi-Octane chases, breakneck action and bushcraft lessons, ‘The Hunger Games’ contains some calmer, thought provoking moments. The middle section of the novel is a thinly veiled allegory for the gulf in lifestyle between ‘First’ and ‘Developing’ World countries. The novel’s target audience are offered much to think about regarding the excesses of modern life and the vacuousness of conspicuous consumption.

Somewhat disconcertingly, it turns out that ‘The Hunger Games’ is the first novel in a trilogy. Although the story is more or less self-contained, a window is left open for further books. This feels somewhat forced and stinks of a publisher sensing an opportunity, rather than any real need to continue the story. Mind you, if the quality of writing and excitement generated during the course of this book are anything to go by, Collins’ next instalment should still be a cracker. ‘This Hunger Games’ is first rate teenage fiction, and should captivate even the most reluctant of readers.

A Superior Sequel – Posted on Amazon 26 Aug 2009

If the original Hunger Games novel has a fault, it is that the premise on which it is based is not unique. Koushun Takami got there first with the significantly more complex (and violent) Battle Royale. So was ‘Catching Fire’ able to step out of “Royale’s” shadow? For about nine-tenths of this book, I had thought ‘No!’, but in a scintillating final fifty pages, Collins turns her world on its head and shatters her reader’s preconceptions.

The sequel has the same page-turning qualities as its predecessor, but Katniss, having grown through her experiences in the first novel, now sees the world through older eyes. This gives ‘Catching Fire’ a grittier feel. Collins holds a mirror to First World nations, forcing the reader to ask the question, how different am I to the denizen of ‘The Capitol’? The social comment in this volume is stronger and more subtle than the first.

The action scenes are as exhilarating as ever, though for much of the book, I was disappointed that the author hadn’t been a little braver. It seemed she was content to rehash the first book, rather than take her characters in new, more interesting directions. In the end, my disappointment was premature. The climax to ‘Catching Fire’ is tremendous; action fiction at its best. The final pages reveal a masterful handling of plot, as well as action, and ends on the mother of all cliffhangers. After two excellent books the ‘Hunger Games’ saga is poised for a thrilling conclusion.

Third Helping Left Me Sick (Posted on Amazon 6th September 2010)

I had decided not to leave a review for ‘Mockingjay’ – I figured that such was the quality of the first two books, if you had read them, there was no way you were going to miss out on number three, no matter what sort of reviews it had. Since this page seems to have become a bit of a discussion board for the book, I thought I’d add my two-pen’orth.

After reading the first The Hunger Games novel, I felt that perhaps Collins’ publisher had pushed her into turning what should have been one book into three. I didn’t feel there was anywhere else for the series to go. Despite having essentially the same structure as book 1, book 2 allayed my fears. A strong underlying story seemed to be developing, and it ended with an intriguing cliffhanger. Volume 3 however, has confirmed my suspicions. After such a vital beginning, surely Collins could not have originally envisaged such a garbled and unsatisfactory conclusion?

The problem stems from ‘Mockingjay’ being set in a much wider arena. Collins conveyed the claustrophobia of the arena brilliantly, keeping the tension high at all times. Peculiarly, with Katniss in the outside world, the tension now feels artificial. There are long periods of inactivity, lots of navel-gazing and teenage angst (some might say whining) from Katniss. Then suddenly she is called to another zone, where something dramatic happens. Perhaps because she is not fighting for her life, these sequences lack the drama of the previous two novels. We’ve always known that Katniss will somehow survive, but this time, we know she has to make it to the end of the novel for the big showdown. I couldn’t help wishing Collins would get on with it.

With the first two novels centring around the games, the reader wasn’t asked to suspend their belief too much. Collins gave us a set of rules, and wrote a terrific story within them. The opening out the setting into the wider world, means it needs to stand up to closer scrutiny. The political and geographical system just don’t survive any sort of examination. There is no way an all powerful government would set things up that way. Once you start thinking about Panem too much, the whole premise becomes absurd.

It’s the same case with the city’s defences – it made for great reading, Katniss stalking her prey through the streets of The Capitol, but an it was entirely unrealistic way for a city to defend itself. As for novel’s conclusion, well I don’t want to give too much away, but although powerful, it is extremely disjointed. It feels like Collins bottled writing the ending the novel needed.

The separation of Peeta and Katniss in Mockingjay is a curious decision. The relationship between the two main characters elevated the original novels from good to great. With Gale thrown into the mixture we had a powerful and ambiguous love triangle. We all had our opinions on who Kantiss should be with, and Collins manipulated them expertly. Mockingjay sadly lacks this interaction, pretty much all the way through. Without Peeta, Katniss is diminished; an accurate assessment by the author, but one that spoils her book a little.

All that said, there is still some great writing in here. There are some excellent and tense set pieces, particularly towards the novel’s climax. The author poses questions about how readily the oppressed become the persecutors, in a subtle mirroring of contemporary world politics. Similarly, there is some great analysis of our media soaked lives, and the power of television. Panem is a thinly veiled metaphor for our own world, and anything that prompt questions about its absurdities, can only be a good thing.

So sadly, I was not impressed by ‘Mockingjay’ and feel it to be a sorry conclusion to what should have been an excellent series. In any case, I urge you not to listen to me. Instead, buy the book, read it yourself and make up your own mind!

Living in the Future – The Great Big Beautiful Tomorrow by Cory Doctorow

This is the first book I have read in the PM Press ‘Outspoken Authors’ series of novellas.  The list of authors contains some greats of science fiction, young and old, including Kim Stanley Robinson, Michael Moorcock, and of course Cory Doctorow.  It is a great testament to the British library system, that I stumbled across this book in my local library.  I have never heard anything about this series before, yet here one was sitting prominently on the shelf in my smallish local library.  One in the eye for the cut-seekers.

So what’s the book like then?  Well, it’s split into three sections.  The first, and by far the biggest, is the title novella.  There then follows a transcript of Doctorow’s speech to the 2010 World SF Convention ‘Copyright Vs Creativity’ and finally an interview with Doctorow in which he discusses writing and his ‘inner nerd’.  I am a huge fan of Doctorow’s ‘Little Brother‘, an incandescent novel that asks important questions about our surveillance society.  The other two Doctorow novels I have read, though masterly in their vision, lacked the punch of his breakthrough.

The strength of Doctorow’s fiction lies in the depth of his knowledge of modern computing and our interconnected world.  This, coupled with his ability to extrapolate how technology might grow, allows him to build plausible and credible visions of the near-future.  Building on some of the (many) ideas he outlined in ‘Makers’, ‘The Great Big Beautiful Tomorrow’ is set after the ‘Mecha Wars’ a post-apocalyptic Earth, where self-replicating computers and nano-technology have helped mankind destroy the planet.  Jimmy, the novel’s narrator, is immortal.  Created by his father, who manipulated his genome, Jimmy never grows old.  In world that is failing this is a curse rather than a blessing.

Because this is a story of only 100 pages, it has none of the flab around it that spoiled ‘Makers‘ and ‘For the Win‘.  It’s all story.  A good story with some food for thought for the future – most notably that just because you can do something doesn’t mean you should.  There are some interesting observations on what might happen when computers become more human, and humans more computerised, and a side story of what the father-son bond might be like, if you are going to live forever.  Disney also makes an appearance; old habits clearly die-hard.

The Speech ‘Copyright Vs Creativity’ is a controversial appraisal of DRM and how it stifles creativity.  I must confess that I’m not familiar enough with the subject matter to fully understand what Doctorow was driving at nor do I feel qualified to give it an objective appraisal, but it was interesting essay and a counter-intuitive argument well explained.  Finally the interview gives us a glimpse of the man behind the legend (for Doctorow is legendary in many circles.) He comes across very well, and a capable defender of our digital rights.  He also offers some great tips on writing, which all budding Doctorows would do well to read and heed.

All in all this is a small but well put together book.  PM Press have done themselves proud, and right now, I’m off to the library to see if I can find some more from the series… (that’s a lie it’s 22:30 and pouring with rain)

Delicate and Emotive Masterpiece – ‘The Story of Forgetting’ by Stefan Merrill Block

This review first appeared on Amazon in March 2009

Very occasionally, I discover a book that forces me to re-evaluate the power of the written word; to reorder my hierarchy of essential reads. ‘The Story of Forgetting’ is such a book. It recounts the lives of a several generations of the same family, affected by early onset Alzheimer’s, and it is a triumph.

It would have been easy to make a mess of this emotive subject, but Stefan Merrill Block, provides just the right levels of pathos, science and comedy to engineer a compulsive read. Often sad but never maudlin, Block draws on the latest scientific research, yet never bamboozles the layman with hard facts.

There is a lightness of touch to Block’s prose that belies the devastating consequences of its subject matter. His metaphors and use of language are second-to-none, making each page a joy to read. The novel’s characters are all incredibly believable; whether Block is describing the trauma felt at watching a loved one slowly fade away, or the trauma of an adolescent boy, attempting to ask out a girl, who is way out of his league, it is done so perfectly. If that wasn’t enough, interleaved into the family’s story, is the beautiful allegorical tale of Isidora, the perfect land where all the inhabitants are blissfully happy but never remember anything.

From its first page to the last, this novel is just about as good as fiction gets and reaffirms what storytelling is for; to provoke thought and emotion in the reader and to encourage them to view the world in a different way. This book has indeed altered the point from which I see the world, and I cannot recommend it highly enough.

It’s the end of the world as we know it – ‘The Testimony’ by James Smythe

I have read a great deal post-apocalypse dystopian fiction.  It seems to be becoming it’s own sub-genre, but there are far fewer novels that deal with the moment of collapse itself (that don’t involve zombies!).  James Smythe has conceived a believable near-future, and then imagined a way to destroy it.  Whilst not perfect, the result is a scary, credible and thought-provoking read.  He also employs one of the boldest literary devices I have encountered for a while.

The story is told entirely using testimony.  Each of the relatively short chapters is an account of the disaster, told by one of its survivors.  There is no dialogue, no interaction between the characters in the book, just stories about the people they met, the people they loved, the people who have died.  From the outset, you know everybody talking has survived, so one potential source of tension and excitement is lost, yet Smythe’s novel delivers both thrills and emotion.  I should imagine writing the novel in this way was exceptionally hard work, and the results could have been horribly stilted.  Smythe manages to hold it all together, delivering a very effective piece of literature.

The novel’s narrators are from all around the globe, from all walks of life, from US Chief of Staff, to a Chinese online gamer.  Some voices appear more than others; there are core of six or seven narrators that form the spine of the novel, but other voices are brought in to add flavour and authenticity to the mix.  This idea works well, as it allows Smythe to show different viewpoints of the same events, giving the story a global perspective (though most of the narrators are from the UK and the US).

The question at the heart of this novel is ‘What if God spoke to us?’ All of us at once. A mysterious broadcast is heard by everyone  across the globe simultaneously.  The message, only a few lines long, is heard in English.  It’s origin and meaning are ambiguous, but there is a strong implication that it is from a sentient being, who watches over us.  The fallout from this phenomenon is manifold.  Is it Aliens? God? If it is God, which religion is right? Is it telling the truth?  All of the characters have a theory, and so does the rest of the world.  There are huge ramifications for world religion and geo-politics.  Thrown into the mix are some shadowy, probably middle eastern, terrorists, and some shocking attacks against the US.  From there, things fall apart.

Smythe could be accused of taking the all-too-easy route of demonising the US for being responsible for all the world’s ills, but though the White House’s response to events didn’t totally ring true, I think the descent to Armageddon is a plausible one. Yet, as I approached the end of the novel, I still had some reservations.  There seemed to be too many open ends; I could see no chance of a conclusion that wasn’t farcical.  I couldn’t see how Smythe would tie the novel off without it being silly; he author is a cleverer man than me.

Some readers may not like the ending, but I very much did.  If you don’t like thrillers with ambiguous endings, you’re probably not going to like ‘The Testimony’.  Very little is resolved. The What? How? and Why? almost fade into the background, and Smythe even leaves the reader with yet another unanswered question.  What if?  There is a clever change in direction, from apocalypse thriller, to introspective thought-provoker.  The novel becomes about what makes us human, and how we respond to tragedy.  Curiously, my abiding thought at the end of ‘The Testimony’ was the last line of the ‘Cat in The Hat’ – ‘What would you do?’.   This questioning conclusion gives the novel added power over the reader, making it a wholly satisfying read.

No Spandex Required – ‘Empire State’ by Adam Christopher

I so wanted to love ‘Empire State’.  With its vibrant Art-Deco style cover to its promise of super-heroes in prohibition era New York, and a Chandler influenced protagonist, it should have ticked every box.  Unfortunately I rather had the wrong end of the stick.  I had anticipated a light, thrilling read – ‘Spandex and Speakeasys’, if you will.  Instead, at the centre of the novel is a tantalising dual reality, and a tale the true nature of which is elusive and hard to pin down.  There are peculiar and inexplicable goings on that, until the trick was revealed, made my brain hurt.  Unfortunately, the sleight of hand, once performed, was underwhelming.

Christopher is undoubtedly an author to watch, but with ‘Empire State’ I felt he’d tried to be too clever.  There is so much crammed into the novel’s 400 pages, it’s hard to gain a sense of what the novel is really about.  Whilst this is in no way a bad read, had I at some point lost my copy, I could happily have gone through life never knowing how the book finished.

It is almost impossible to review ‘Empire State’ without letting a few things slip, so if you don’t want to know anything about the story and structure of the book, then look away now…

The settings for the novel are great.  New York proper is barely in the book but it is well-drawn nonetheless.  Taking centre stage is the Big Apple’s sinister alter-ego, ‘Empire State’.  A city that coexists with the real New York, Empire State is a police state, overseen by the shadowy ‘Chairman’, who resides on the 101st floor of the Empire State Building.  The novel’s protagonist, Rad Bradley, is a gumshoe, cast from the same mould as Philip Marlowe.  He is hired to investigate the disappearance of a woman.  Very soon a body turns up, but there are inconsistencies.  Rad must work out what is going on; if he doesn’t, the consequences for the Empire State will be traumatic.

The book has two main problems.  Firstly is the sheer number of existing works that Christopher borrows from.  His overlapping cities are very reminiscent of China Miellivile’s ‘The City and The City’, as is the peculiar sense of detachment in the first half of the novel.  The wisecracking PI is obviously straight from Chandler.  If the Empire State is Gotham, then its superheroes are Batman (well one of them is anyway) and one of the villains will be all too recognisable to fans of the Bat.  These are big boots to fill.  All three represent masterworks of the genre, and Christopher just can’t compete.  It’s a shame; inviting comparison to such works show inadequacies in the novel that would have gone unnoticed had the author not attempted to be so ambitious.   When you add in alternate realities, doppelgängers, robots and airships, there are just too many balls to keep in the air.

For me though, where the novel really fails is with its characters.  They are to a man, flat and uninteresting.  My detachment from the novel was, in part, caused by my inability to empathise with any its players.  I found it hard to care whether their world survived or not.  So bland are the ensemble cast, I struggled to remember who was who, making it even more difficult to work out was going on.  This problem was compounded by the fact that most of the characters in the book had similar but not identical doppelgängers, one for each world.  Separating the characters in my mind, was like trying to arrange differing shades of beige without a colour key.

But these rather damning indictments paint too bleak a picture of what is great concept urban sci-fi.  The execution may be clumsy, but at the heart of ‘Empire State’ is an intriguing story about trust, identity and state control.  Despite being over-ambitious, Christopher should be applauded for the depth of his vision.  I’m sorry I didn’t enjoy it more, but having said that I am still excited about Christopher’s next novel ‘Seven Wonders’.

The Geek Shall Inherit… ‘Ready Player One’ by Ernest Cline

This review first appeared on Amazon.co.uk in Aug 2011

…if not the earth, then its biggest computer simulation, containing a multitude of worlds.

‘Ready Player One’ is set in the near-future. The real world is collapsing; climate change and a lack of energy resources have changed the face of the planet. Discontented with their lot, millions of people spend their days plugged into the OASIS, a virtual world, where your identity is a secret, and if you can imagine it, then you can make it happen.

The novel’s plot revolves around a quest set by the creator of OASIS. In his last will and testament, Richard Halliday revealed that an ‘Easter Egg’ was hidden somewhere in OASIS. The finder of the Easter egg, inherits the company, and gets the keys to OASIS. Halliday was a computer and Role-Playing freak, who liked Monty Python and the band Rush. He played Dungeons and Dragons a lot, as a kid. If you are never been into any of these things, you probably aren’t going to enjoy this book. Similarly, if you are wondering how you hide chocolate ovoid confectionary in a computer game, then this is probably not the book for you.

I imagine that the appeal of ‘Ready Player One’ has a narrow bandwidth, but for those who do like it, the appeal will run deep. It’s geek manna. The novel in essence is a string of 1980’s computer game trivia and RPG references roped together by a decent story line. It’s a nostalgia trip for those who didn’t get out as much as they should have.

The story follows egg hunter Parzival, on his quest to find his own holy grail. He has spent his life opting out of reality, in order to become an expert on the life and loves of Richard Halliday. He has played Halliday’s favourite games countless times, can recite his favourite films from memory, and has read all his favourite books. Like countless others, he has spent five fruitless years trying to solve the riddle and find the prize.

Much of the interaction in the book is in the virtual world. The characters are nearly all Avatars, their owner’s identities hidden for much of the novel. Parzival forms several uneasy friendships with other hunters, tied by their interest and obsession with the hunt, but held apart by the fact that only one of them can win. The true villains of the piece are the megacorp IOI, who have flouted the spirit of the competition, in order to grasp the reins of Halliday’s empire, and bring it under their rapacious control. When Parzival finds the first key to solving the mystery the game is on.

Enjoyable though `Ready Player One’ is it does have some flaws. The storyline doesn’t fully convince. It’s taken five years for anybody to come close to solving the first part of the puzzle, but once it has been solved the next parts are solved very quickly. Some of the ideas used in solving the first section are repeated for parts two and three, and so things become rather repetitive; there is only so much geeking-out over ancient arcade games, this reader can do. As another reviewer has mentioned, the villains are a little underpowered; the idea of an `evil’ corporation being too simplistic.

But these are minor gripes. This is a novel that will appeal to fans of RPG’s, LOTR, WOW and many other acronyms. It reminded me in places of Cory Doctorow’s novels For the Win and Makers (Doctorow even gets a name check somewhere in the middle of the novel). ‘Ready Player One’ is an inventive and entertaining debut; a little far-fetched, but a glorious homage to early geek history. I look forward to seeing what Ernest Cline comes up with next, a multiple of virtual worlds are his oyster.

Don’t Forget To Read It – ‘How to Forget’ by Marius Brill

This review was first posted on Amazon in July 2011

‘How to Forget’ is a preposterous but highly enjoyable novel. It is filled with swindles and confidence tricks, magic and sleight-of-hand. There is also some cracking wordplay (or maybe dreadful puns, depending on how you feel about such things).

I found the start of the novel as little confusing. The opening of the book, tells how Marius Brill has ordered the notes of Dr Tavisligh, a controversial neuroscientist. Tavisligh has disappeared and Brill has taken on the job of ordering the notes of her last experiment into some sort of order. The story follows several points of view, and is interspersed with clippings from various (fictional) scientific publications. This led to a rather broken up beginning. It was interesting but it was hard to see how a narrative might evolve. Part Two of the novel (from page 60) blew my misgivings away.

The two main characters are Peter, an accomplished magician, who, after a particularly putrescent child played a trick on him, is on the sex offenders register, and Kate, a con-artist down on her luck. There is a great ensemble cast, in particular Titus, a smarmy Derren Brown type TV hypnotist and Agent Brown, the dogged FBI agent who has been tracking Kate for most of his career.

The reader is treated some great bluffs and double bluffs, double crosses and sleight-of-hands. It’s all breathtakingly inventive. I’m not sure the plot would stand up to scrutiny, it’s quite a house of cards that Brill has built, and it probably wouldn’t be hard to knock it down. But what sort of curmudgeon would want to do that?

There is also a serious side to the novel. Much of it deals with our memories, and how sometimes life would be so much easier if we could simply forget. Peter works in an old people’s home with sufferers of dementia. There are some touching scenes and thought-provoking commentary on the tragedy of memory loss.

I think there were probably a few too many digressions into the scientific papers, I’m not sure they improved my reading experience, but they dwindle to almost nothing as the novel progresses. They certainly did nothing to spoil what is highly accomplished storytelling. I doubt many better books will be published this year. Highly recommended.