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The City
The City
by Stella Gemmell
Edition: Hardcover

2 of 5 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars The City is like a dance ..., 30 April 2013
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This review is from: The City (Hardcover)
The City is a fantasy tale of intrigue, deceit, hate and revenge, and yet it cloaks all of that beneath a layer of honour, loyalty and love. The eponymous City is a vast and ancient state. More than merely a single construct it covers many leagues, and it is at war. Beneath the City, where the story starts, live the Dwellers, people who make what life they can living in the sewers, and it is here we meet the first characters in the story that is about to unfold.

I am challenged by stories which have many characters, especially when the story is then spread across them. I prefer a small number of characters on which I can focus and understand in detail. The City has a dozen or so characters of importance, and early on I struggled with my usual challenge, knowing who to like, who to root for, and who to hate. Not because it isn't always obvious what's going on, but because the story has eight or nine people who could be considered the main protagonists. The actual tale however is compelling, and that helped me work through my issue and I'm glad I did. The story moves from character to character, or group to group, each progressing the narrative and revealing a little bit more of the history of The City, or the underlying war and rebellion in which everyone appears to be embroiled. There are some leaps where things I felt were important happened `off page', and I was sad for that, because Stella's words are so graceful that I would have preferred to read them first hand, rather than hear them second hand through another character.

Stella's prose is fluid, interesting and engaging. Her touch is delicate, and her descriptions are vivid and long lasting. I am left with a strong visual image of The City in my mind; it's sprawling landscape and sewer system as much a character in the story as any of the people. The pace throughout the whole story is even and measured, with only a gentle increase towards the end. In some ways, I struggled with that, always expecting the story to explode and be driven forward at pace, and always being pulled back. On reflection, I think it's intentional, playing back the behaviour of some of the characters, and in particular a game in the story referred to as urquat in which great patience is required.

The City is not a riotous novel of warfare and combat. There are certainly moments of action, vividly described, but the story is more subtle than that, a deeper reflection of the motivations of the characters, and a slow reveal of the people who inhabit The City and those who wish them toppled. The characters throughout the story are well rounded, real and solid. There are touching moments between two specific characters that brought tears to my eyes every time.

Although this is a fantasy novel, there is little magic, and the small amount is revealed slowly over time. The magic is sinister, and woven in carefully to make sure we know it is powerful, closely guarded and mostly reviled.

Stella's first solo novel is intelligent, compelling fantasy fiction, with enjoyable characters, and moments of true emotion. If I could have one thing it would be to have spent longer with some of the characters, to have enjoyed more of the emotional moments with them. But it is a small desire amongst an otherwise entertaining and enjoyable read.

I find myself left wanting to know more about world, the people, the magic and the Serafim. The City is like a dance viewed from the outside, where many dancers move in beautiful and unexpected patterns, eventually settling into a final position that is both satisfying and mysterious at the same time.
Comment Comment (1) | Permalink | Most recent comment: May 16, 2013 7:56 PM BST

Halting State
Halting State
by Charles Stross
Edition: Paperback
Price: £9.99

3.0 out of 5 stars Saved by touches of brilliance amid the chaos, 31 July 2011
This review is from: Halting State (Paperback)
Halting State is a book that ticks all my "I'm interested" boxes. Its has lots of technology, virtual reality, augmented reality, on-line gaming, intrigue, mystery, crime, tabletop roleplaying references and a protagonist who's full of self doubt. So I keep having to ask myself why I found it so hard to finish. The story is set in the near future and augmented reality is an essential part of every day life, the best example in the book is a network used by the Police to drive heads-up displays and overlays on their goggles/glasses. The result being they always know who they're talking to, their past history and everything they do is recorded and analysed. The whole thing is so pervasive that the author tells us people can't even find their way around big cities any more without their augmented reality map overlays. Massively Multi-player Online Games are huge business, telephones are insanely powerful and provide all your local computing needs, everything is highly-connected, pervasive computing is the norm, and taxis drive themselves to your destination.

Against this backdrop of near-future technology is the theft of a bunch of digital assets which drags our little band of protagonists into a deadly hunt for what's really going on. Mix in some spy-vs-spy style espionage, some politics and a little bit of big business and we have what seems to be an engaging and complex backdrop for what should be an excellent journey.

Sadly, Charles Stross manages make it hard going. The book is written in the 2nd person, with chapters alternating between the main protagonists. Sometimes there's even some overlap, so the end of one chapter from Elaine's point of view in the second person, is then covered by Jack in the start of the next chapter. This is particularly frustrating when one chapter ends, "You squeeze his hand tightly", and the next starts, "You feel her hand in yours" (those aren't in the book, just my example). The 2nd person structure might work in some circumstances, but here it just adds to the overall confusion. The rest of that confusion is delivered via the plot which is straggly and badly connected, and the technical jargon. In an interview, Stross suggests that when he wrote this in 2008, only one of the technologies mentioned in the book wasn't actually commercially available. That may be true, but the sheer amount of jargon and technology mentioned is overwhelming.

I kept reading because I liked Jack (the burned out games developer), and Elaine (a forensic accountant), I even liked Sue (a Scottish policewoman). However, thanks to the 2nd person delivery and the rest of the structure, the characters don't grow and remain pretty shallow. Sure, they have their moments, and there are some brief flashes of what they could have been, but every time I felt I was getting to know them the 2nd person style threw me back to the real world.

The pace is okay, there's humour, some amusing revelations and some excellent examples of what technology might turn into - but it's all wrapped in such a chaotic and confusing plot that it's too well hidden to fully enjoy. I was not at all surprised when the end turned out to be nothing that we expected and it had to be explained de-briefing style in the last chapter.

The actual conclusion was a real let down after the build up and it felt like Stross just didn't know where to take the whole thing in the end.

Having said all of that, I read the whole thing, and I laughed out loud a few times. I enjoyed the technology when I could get past the jargon and I think Stross has provided an interesting insight into how things could turn out. This book is absolutely not average - but I'm going to give it a squarely average score. It could have been so much better and it's saved only by the touches of brilliance amidst the chaos.

Robopocalypse (Robo 1)
Robopocalypse (Robo 1)
by Daniel H. Wilson
Edition: Paperback
Price: £12.99

1 of 2 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars I thoroughly enjoyed Robopocalypse, and hope you do as well., 31 July 2011
This review is from: Robopocalypse (Robo 1) (Paperback)
The story might sound familiar; sometime in the near future, a super-intelligent AI has co-opted all the machines in the world to wage war against humanity. Humanity, of course, has lined itself up for this disaster by allowing more and more of the machines it takes for granted to be controlled by their own inbuilt computers. It should be no surprise that eventually the machines stand up and rebel, and that premise has driven any number of books and movies in the past. But dig just the tiniest bit deeper and you'll find a far more complex story going on in Robopocalypse.

Along with the more subtle presentation of a familiar theme, this book presents the story in an unusual style. It is presented as a number of reports or incidents viewed retrospectively by a third person, the narrator. So while all books are a fusion of style and content, in this book the style is more than just a container for the words, it's an actual part of the story. Robopocalypse relies on this unusual structure to build a cohesive and moving story from a number of engaging vignettes.

Cormac Wallace narrates the story for us after a brief introduction, which actually starts just after the war is over. In fact the first sentence in the book starts, "Twenty minutes after the war ends ...." so there are no spoilers in revealing this. Cormac takes us back to before the war starts, through reports of a small groups of individuals who turn out to have pivotal roles in the upcoming struggle. They include a US congresswoman, a lonely inventor, an American soldier and a London based hacker to name a few. Each shows up over and over in different chapters focussed on them, and we eventually witness the rise of the artificial intelligence (Archos), and the terrible war which follows.

The vignettes are all excellently written and Wilson manages to present well rounded and engaging characters very quickly. Which is good news, because this format could so easily have failed if the reader couldn't empathise with or join the characters on their journeys. It is the emotional engagement that drives the overall story arc, we mostly already know the end, so the only reason to read is to see how these people get there.

The individual chapters each cover very short periods of time, but together they take us from just before the war, to the moment where Archos takes control, through the actual fighting and right up to the end over three years later. Each chapter has it's own pace, some are frantic and filled with panic while others are more relaxed. While we don't get to see individual characters often or for very much time, the long time scale involved in the main story arc gives Wilson a chance to show us those characters have changed even if we don't watch that process in action.

I did sometimes feel that pieces of the story were missing, or that I would have liked to have seen more of some of the characters, but that's the nature of the format Wilson has chosen. Perhaps less is more, and that desire to find out kept me turning the pages. Either way the end result is an excellent, entertaining and emotional look at what might be if the Robots ever do rebel. If my only complaint about a book is that it's too short, then I think it's a pretty good sign. I thoroughly enjoyed Robopocalypse, and hope you do as well.

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