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Mark Chitty (North Wales)

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Hive Monkey (Ack-Ack Macaque)
Hive Monkey (Ack-Ack Macaque)
by Gareth L. Powell
Edition: Paperback
Price: £7.99

4.0 out of 5 stars Damned readable, and thoroughly enjoyable, 5 Feb. 2015
Hive Monkey is the second novel in Gareth L Powell’s Ack-Ack Macaque series, a series I was eager to read more of after the impressive – and BSFA award winning – first novel, Ack-Ack Macaque. When I read the first novel last year I was surprised at what I found. Rather than a light-hearted steampunk romp I found an intricate and absorbing sci-fi story with a unique and rather enjoyable anti-hero. There was also much more to the novel than I initially thought, so wondering where Powell would take things with Hive Monkey was high on my list of priorities. And let me say this: I wasn’t left disappointed.

From the publisher:
In order to hide from his unwanted fame as the spitfire-pilot-monkey who emerged from a computer game to defeat the nefarious corporation that engineered him, the charismatic and dangerous Ack-Ack Macaque is working as a pilot on a world-circling nuclear-powered Zeppelin.
But when the cabin of one of his passengers is invaded by the passenger’s own dying doppelganger, our hirsute hero finds himself thrust into another race to save the world – this time from an aggressive hive mind, time-hopping saboteurs, and an army of homicidal Neanderthal assassins!

Now famous all over the world, Ack-Ack Macaque is piloting the airship Tereshkova for its owner and his friend, Victoria Valois. Among others on the ship are K8, a teenage hacker that Ack-Ack has grown close to, and Victoria’s holographic husband, Paul, who has moved past the constraints of his soul catcher to inhabit the ship’s computers. When popular SF writer William Cole escapes an attempt on his life and ends up on the Tereshkova, Ack-Ack, K8, Victoria, and Paul are drawn into a mysterious web of lies and intrigue when Cole’s double from a parallel universe turns up dead on the ship. Add to this the hive-mind cult, the Gestalt, are growing in power and size, and appear more involved in events the deeper Ack-Ack and the crew look.

Now that we’ve got that little bit out of the way I’m not going to talk too much about the plot again. Why, you ask? Simply because it’s one that I think you need to experience yourself, as fresh as possible. What Hive Monkey does is keep things going after the end of Ack-Ack Macaque, adding much that can be appreciated, but also doing so in a fun and informal manner.

The characters are much the same as in the first novel, so having them back is a welcome sight. However, events from the first novel have had an effect and Powell develops them nicely along the way. Ack-Ack is a particularly interesting character once again. Yes, he’s a violent, foul mouthed, and gun-toting monkey, but he’s got some deeper issues that start to come through as events in the novel unfold. The same can be said for all our main protagonists, with Victoria, K8, and Paul showing very real and emotional developments. Cole meanwhile, the new addition to the main cast, has all sorts of issues that the appearance of his doppelganger only exacerbates, as does the discovery of multiple universes.

While I won’t talk about the plot, I can say that things move along quickly, much like its predecessor. It throws some surprises in along the way, but nothing that doesn’t fit the setting and structure that Powell has created. In short, it’s damned readable, and thoroughly enjoyable.

Gareth L Powell has managed once again to deliver a novel that blows expectations out of the water. Hive Monkey is not only an enjoyable novel, it’s one that introduces new elements and opens up the setting for some very interesting future stories. Highly recommended.

A Call to Duty (Manticore Ascendant)
A Call to Duty (Manticore Ascendant)
by David Weber
Edition: Hardcover
Price: £15.90

2 of 2 people found the following review helpful
3.0 out of 5 stars An easy and enjoyable read, 5 Feb. 2015
A Call to Duty (Manticore Ascendant #1) by David Weber & Timothy Zahn is a new book in a new series set in Weber’s expansive Honorverse. Many people will know this setting from the Honor Harrington novels, starting with On Basilisk Station, of which there are now over twenty from differing series. I’ve read the first ten of these, up to War of Honor, but left it there when it all seemed to get a bit, well, confusing. I enjoyed them, but after War of Honor two new series – Wages of Sin and Saganami – were introduced that added backstory and further detail to the universe. Plus there are all of the short stories that take place in the setting. When these novels are added to all of the short stories that take place in the setting, keeping up started to feel like hard work rather than for enjoyment.

A few years back Weber started a YA prequel series, the Star Kingdom novels, with Jane Lindskold that focused on a teenage Stephanie Harrington, an ancestor of Honor, and looked at the first meeting and bonding between human and treecat. I thoroughly enjoyed these books for what they were and once again felt comfortable stepping into the Honorverse. Now Weber is going even further back to the early days of the Manticore system with A Call to Duty, teaming up with Timothy Zahn to tell a story that is a perfect starting point for readers new to this vast, and frankly daunting, series of books.

Growing up, Travis Uriah Long yearned for order and discipline in his life . . . the two things his neglectful mother couldn’t or wouldn’t provide. So when Travis enlisted in the Royal Manticoran Navy, he thought he’d finally found the structure he’d always wanted so desperately.
But life in the RMN isn’t exactly what he expected. Boot camp is rough and frustrating; his first ship assignment lax and disorderly; and with the Star Kingdom of Manticore still recovering from a devastating plague, the Navy is possibly on the edge of extinction.
The Star Kingdom is a minor nation among the worlds of the Diaspora, its closest neighbors weeks or months away, with little in the way of resources. With only modest interstellar trade, no foreign contacts to speak of, a plague-ravaged economy to rebuild, and no enemies looming at the hyper limit, there are factions in Parliament who want nothing more than to scrap the Navy and shift its resources and manpower elsewhere.
But those factions are mistaken. The universe is not a safe place.
Travis Long is about to find that out.

Travis is one of our main protagonists in A Call to Duty. He’s got no personal aim, but thrives for discipline and order, which leads him to join up with the Royal Manticoran Navy. Eager to get away from his life and start afresh he opts to go the quicker route rather than officer academy, and from there he puts his skills and out-of-the-box thinking to good use. But he’s a stickler for rules and procedure, causing issues while in training for his superiors. Once he’s assigned things don’t go much better, but his determination proves to be is saving grace, coming to the attention of officers he works with for and being promoted to bigger and better places, not that he’s aware of everything going on above his head. He’s an interesting character, and a good point of view early on in the book, especially as a low-level tech within the Navy.

Other points of view range from those involving his brother, a low level Lord with the Manticoran parliament, to higher ranking military officers, all of which bring something different to the table. With a diverse cast of characters it’s easy to get drawn into the story of military and political intrigue, but without the feeling of being lost.

The story itself is a combination of different aspects, the aforementioned military and political. It’s easy to follow Travis’ role in the larger story, especially with plenty of political discussions and decisions layered throughout the narrative. Ultimately the story rushes along at a fair pace, but it doesn’t feel as urgent or involved as Weber’s previous Honor novels. It sets up this series well and ends on a note that anyone familiar with the Honorverse will know well, and promises that future instalments could be both bigger and better than this first novel.

Having the story set so early in the history of Manticore is a definite plus for A Call to Duty. Those not familiar with any of the Honorverse novels won’t feel lost, while there are plenty of small titbits for long time readers of the setting. Perhaps my main gripe here is the unevenness present within the story. Sometimes we get plenty of detail about events and the time that passes, while at other times many things are glossed over in order to forward the story. This difference in styles is a little frustrating, but ultimately not enough to curb enjoyment.

A Call to Duty is recommended if you’d like a decent start to a military sci-fi series, and can easily be read without any prior knowledge of the setting – a big plus when it extends to so many novels!

Skin Game: 15 (Dresden Files)
Skin Game: 15 (Dresden Files)
by Jim Butcher
Edition: Hardcover
Price: £15.19

5.0 out of 5 stars Like a love letter to fans, 5 Feb. 2015
Let me tell you a little story. Going back a few years, 2009 to be precise, I read what I believe to be my first Urban Fantasy novel: Black Magic Woman by Justin Gustainis. I enjoyed it and it got me interested in the genre, and while looking around I discovered that the Dresden Files by Jim Butcher were highly rated by many. Based on recommendations by those I trust I picked up Storm Front, and I rather enjoyed it. I planned on reading the series at the time, but it just wasn’t meant to be and the series became another one that hovered at the back of mind, never quite making it onto my reading list.

Fast forward to August 2013. While digging around for something a little different to read I stumbled across the Dresden Files again, and decided that the time was about right to give the series a proper go. It had been a few years so I re-read Storm Front, and then planned to alternate the Dresden Files novels with some sci-fi. That quickly got brushed aside and I ended up making my way through the series novel by novel, finishing with Cold Days before the end of that year. Four months, fifteen books, and what a ride!

This year Skin Game was released, the fifteenth book in the series, and one that had so much promise and many unanswered questions to deal with. I read the book the moment it dropped through my letterbox back in May. I loved it, completely and totally. My favourite of the series to date? Quite likely, but then I was eagerly awaiting my next Dresden Files fix. I had planned on writing a nicely detailed and in-depth review back then, but I came away with such a high that I just didn’t think I could write a constructive one. Still, I told anyone who would listen how good it was.

Time moved on, and as we got to the end of September this year I started to look at 2014 releases that I had read, and what I was considering my favourites so far. I started to look at other releases that I had overlooked, planning on reading as many as I could before year end. But the more I thought about it all, the more I kept on coming back to Skin Game, and the Dresden Files as a whole. Sometimes, as a reader you just need to have fun. To let go. To satisfy your needs. And that’s what I did. I re-read the series again, Storm Front to Skin Game – fifteen novels and a short story collection – in five weeks. I was dreaming of Dresden by the time I put down Skin Game again. And do you know what? I enjoyed them more the second time around, and came away with such a great feeling. You know, that feeling when you know you’ve been reading something special. It was bliss.

And then I realised that despite wanting to review Skin Game and all its glorious content – from an arch nemesis and his vault-breaking plans, to an archangel giving up his powers – there was no way I could do so objectively. Skin Game reads like a love letter to his fans, giving them pretty much everything they could want in a Dresden Files novel. And that brings me to here and now.

If you’re already familiar with the Dresden Files then I have little doubt that Skin Game is on your radar or to-be-read pile. If you haven’t read Skin Game, then don’t. Seriously, just don’t. Go out, pick up Storm Front, and enjoy the series from the start, I doubt you’ll be disappointed.

Lock In
Lock In
by John Scalzi
Edition: Paperback
Price: £10.49

5.0 out of 5 stars Smart, interesting, and entertaining, 5 Feb. 2015
This review is from: Lock In (Paperback)
Lock In is John Scalzi’s latest novel, and a change of pace from the man behind the Old Man’s War books. Rather than the military/space opera-esque novels we’re familiar with from Scalzi, Lock In is instead more comparable to Agent to the Stars, though even that is a tenuous comparison. Set in the near future and focusing on a world where almost 2 million people are locked in to their own bodies, this is a novel that tackles some interesting ideas, and does so in typical Scalzi fashion.

From the publisher:
Imagine a plague that incapacitates almost 1.7 million people – and now imagine a cure that is even worse.
Fifteen years from now, a new virus sweeps the globe. 95% of those afflicted experience nothing worse than fever and headaches. 4% suffer acute meningitis, creating the largest medical crisis in history. And 1% find themselves ‘locked in’ – fully awake and aware, but unable to move or respond to stimulus.
1% doesn’t seem like a lot. But in the US that’s 1.7 million people ‘locked in’ – including the President’s wife and daughter.
Spurred by grief and the sheer magnitude of the suffering, America undertakes a massive scientific initiative. Nothing can fully restore the locked in. But then two new technologies emerge. One is a virtual-reality environment, ‘The Agora’, where the locked-in can interact with other humans, whether locked-in or not. The other is the discovery that a few rare individuals have brains that are receptive to being controlled by others, allowing those who are locked in to occasionally ‘ride’ these people and use their bodies as if they were their own.
This skill is quickly regulated, licensed, bonded, and controlled. Nothing can go wrong. Certainly nobody would be tempted to misuse it, for murder, for political power, or worse…

Chris Shane, our protagonist, is a new FBI investigator, the child of a former basketball star turned politician, raised in the public eye, and someone trying to make his way in the world despite his condition. Chris Shane suffers from Haden’s Syndrome and is locked in to his body. He uses a robotic Threep to get around while his body is cared for, so Chris tends to stand out. Many Haden’s sufferers use Threeps, while some use Integrators – those with brain chemistry that allows someone with Haden’s Syndrome to control their body, allowing them to experience things they no longer can in their own.

It’s against this backdrop that a murder is committed, the murder of an integrator. It’s an unusual situation as the person whose body is being used should be able to step in and stop anything illegal from happening. Chris, along with his partner Leslie Vann, are tasked with investigating this murder, but not even they could suspect where their investigations will take them.

Despite its relatively short length, there is so much to Lock In. It’s got ideas coming out of its ears, and Scalzi barely scrapes the surface on what could be done with them all. That’s not to say they’re underdeveloped by any means, but do cry out for further stories. But this story itself is full of twists and turns, subverting expectations just when you think you’ve got your head around it, and doing so without unnecessary diversions or self-gratification.

Lock In is a solid novel. I’d go so far as to say it was great. It’s different from Scalzi’s usual offerings, but in a good way, showing that it isn’t always about similar characters with quick wits and smart mouths. To be honest, I wouldn’t have complained if it was – I like reading Scalzi’s novels, period. But it’s always nice to come to a novel expecting one thing, and finding those expectations exceeded in many ways. Lock In is smart, interesting, entertaining, and highly recommended.

Extinction Game
Extinction Game
by Gary Gibson
Edition: Hardcover
Price: £15.90

1 of 3 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Perhaps Gibson's best yet, 5 Feb. 2015
This review is from: Extinction Game (Hardcover)
Extinction Game is Gary Gibson’s new novel, out this month from Tor UK. Rather than another space opera in his Shoal universe, Extinction Game is a near future novel that explores parallel worlds, all with a common theme: apocalypse.

From the publisher:
When your life is based on lies, how do you hunt down the truth?
Jerry Beche should be dead. Instead, he’s rescued from a desolate Earth where he was the last man alive. He’s then trained for the toughest conditions imaginable and placed with a crack team of specialists on an isolated island. Every one of them is a survivor, as each withstood the violent ending of their own alternate Earth. And their new specialism? To retrieve weapons and data in missions to other apocalyptic versions of our world.
But what is ‘the Authority’, the shadowy organization that rescued Beche and his fellow survivors? How does it access timelines to find other Earths? And why does it need these instruments of death?
As Jerry struggles to obey his new masters, he begins to distrust his new companions. A strange bunch, their motivations are less than clear, and accidents start plaguing their missions. Jerry suspects the Authority is feeding them lies, and team members are spying on him. As a dangerous situation spirals into catastrophe, is there anybody he can trust?

Due to its underlying theme, Extinction Game starts out relatively bleakly. Jerry Beche is surviving alone in the world after a man-made virus wipes out humanity. He’s physically surviving, but it’s clear that his mental state is far from normal, as shown by his increasing hallucinations of – and conversations with – his dead wife. That is until he sees footprints in the snow, a sign that he is no longer alone, and the start of revelations and events that he can scarcely believe. Taken to Easter Island on an alternate Earth, Jerry discovers that the crew manning the island work for the Authority, travelling to different parallel worlds where an event has all but wiped out humanity on each of them. With his fellow survivors – Pathfinders – he begins to accompany them on missions to these desolate Earths, but not all seems right to him. With the truth as his aim, Jerry starts looking into events that some want left well alone…

Firstly, I think that the premise to Extinction Game is fascinating and could be the source for so many scenarios. Having parallel Earths, all of which have faced, or are imminently facing, and apocalypse-type event, allows Gibson to let his imagination run free. However, each time we see something new Gibson makes it believable, as if it could really happen in our future. It’s interesting to see an author have the freedom to stretch their imagination with stories like this, and shows that great sci-fi can take on many forms.

Anyway, I’m getting ahead of myself there. At its heart Extinction Game is a mystery, one that has little hints throughout the story that lead to the resolution. It’s interesting in a way not many books are, mainly because of its premise and settings. With many factors affecting the Pathfinders and the Authority-run base on Easter Island, it’s easy to get carried away with the explorations of other, almost dead, worlds. But Gibson keeps the threads running throughout, offering explanations for some, but not all, questions raised. This factor is, perhaps, one of the more frustrating aspects to Extinction Game – wanting answers that aren’t given. Does this affect the overall story being told? No, not really, but it’s an aspect that begs for further exploration and detail.

Regarding the characters, I found them to be interesting and multi-layered. Jerry is obviously the main protagonist with the story being told exclusively from his point of view. It allows us to get inside his head and see how he changes as the narrative progresses. From the early, rather eerie moments when he’s by himself, losing his sanity, and struggling to adapt, to the later more confident traits, he’s adaptive and inquisitive. His fellow Pathfinders are also interesting, each with their own history from their alternative worlds. Of course, no story would be complete without the source of unrest, here in the form of Greenbrooke, part of an internal agency at the Authority. That’s all that needs to be known, for he makes his presence felt whenever he’s on the page with his arrogance.

Suffice to say, I thoroughly enjoyed Extinction Game. It reminded me more of his Final Days novel more than his Shoal books, and that narrower focus (not that this is particularly narrow by any stretch of the word) seems to work exceptionally well for him. With work on a sequel underway the few niggles I had with Extinction Game – namely the lack of answers to some aspects – can be more or less swept under the carpet.

Ultimately, believable characters, interesting situations, stunning settings, and, above all else, a compulsively readable story makes this a must-read for sci-fi fans. Highly recommended.

Alien - Sea of Sorrows (Book 2) (Alien Trilogy 2)
Alien - Sea of Sorrows (Book 2) (Alien Trilogy 2)
by James A. Moore
Edition: Paperback
Price: £6.39

3 of 3 people found the following review helpful
3.0 out of 5 stars Well written, but nothing spectacular, 5 Feb. 2015
Alien: Sea of Sorrows by James A Moore is the second in a new trilogy of books set in the Alien universe. While set 200 years after the events of Alien: Out of the Shadows by Tim Lebbon, it is very much a direct sequel to that novel, incorporating what happened during those events in more ways than one.

From the publisher:
As a deputy commissioner for the ICC, Alan Decker’s job is to make sure the settlements on LV178 follow all the rules, keeping the colonists safe. But the planet known as New Galveston holds secrets, lurking deep beneath the toxic sands dubbed the Sea of Sorrows.
The Weyland-Yutani Corporation has secrets of its own, as Decker discovers when he is forced to join a team of mercenaries sent to investigate an ancient excavation. Somewhere in that long-forgotten dig lies the thing the company wants most in the universe—a living Xenomorph.
Decker doesn’t understand why they need him, until his own past comes back to haunt him. Centuries ago, his ancestor fought the Aliens, launching a bloody vendetta that was never satisfied. That was when the creatures swore revenge on the Destroyer… Ellen Ripley.

The events of Out of the Shadows took place on LV178 many years before the planet was colonised and terraformed. It’s this past that rears its ugly head as mining on the planet comes across the remnants of an ancient civilisation, as well as evidence that this isn’t the first mining operation to take place here. When Ripley escaped the planet over 200 years ago, the Xenomorphs were left to hibernate, waiting until visitors once again returned to their lair.

It’s really difficult to read an Alien novel like this without thinking about the films. It’s even more difficult when these books take those films as a blueprint to follow. Out of the Shadows was easily comparable to Alien with its alien spaceship, ruins, and dark confines. Sea of Sorrows treads a path more than a little reminiscent of Aliens. We’ve got everything you’d expect – a mercenary squad, ruthless company representative, and someone with a history tied to the Xenomorphs. Other than the fact that Alan Decker is mildly empathic, plus the discovery of an ancient city buried beneath the sands of LV178, there’s not much new here. In fact, the only aspect of these that is explored in any depth is Decker’s empathy, and that is more about how he’s affected by the Xenomorphs because of it.

Speaking of Alan Decker, Moore really does do an excellent job at building his character. From the early parts of this novel it’s clear to see that there is more to Decker than a simple company worker. As his empathy is explored further, and his psyche is assaulted by unknown aggression and fury, we discover more about him, and about the Xenomorphs. To be honest, and despite how well written Decker is, the whole ‘blood feud’ against Ripley’s bloodline doesn’t seem to fit right with me, nor does the fact that we get some small sections from the Xenomorphs perspective, limited though it may be. For me, the Xenomorphs represent that pure evil, they do what they do and there is no explanation for them being as they are. By adding anything further about them you take away the unknown, and to me that makes them less terrifying.

Despite there being a ruined city of an alien culture, we don’t get to learn much about it. Yes, we found out something about them in Out of the Shadows, but this could have been ripe for exploration and discovery. The Xenomorphs take away this avenue pretty much immediately, for the danger they pose to the group under the surface are much too great to allow a side plot of this magnitude to be investigated. It’s a shame, but it did add to the history and world building present.

Sea of Sorrows is well paced and enjoyable enough, but there is the constant feeling of déjà vu while reading. It may not be identical to what has come before, but it’s close enough to feel more like reimagining rather than a completely new story. Moore has tried to raise the story above the generic, but he has ultimately failed. Sea of Sorrows is well written with some nice touches, though nothing to write home about.

The Abyss Beyond Dreams (Chronicle of the Fallers)
The Abyss Beyond Dreams (Chronicle of the Fallers)
by Peter F. Hamilton
Edition: Hardcover
Price: £13.60

7 of 7 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Excellent return to the Commonwealth Universe, 5 Feb. 2015
The Abyss Beyond Dreams (Chronicle of the Fallers #1) is Peter F Hamilton’s return to his Commonwealth Universe, a setting that, prior to this novel, stands at six volumes. Not that they’re all a continuous series, but rather a stand-alone (Misspent Youth), a duology known as the Commonwealth Saga (Pandora’s Star and Judas Unchained), and his Void Trilogy (The Dreaming Void, The Temporal Void, and The Evolutionary Void). To date Hamilton has written in excess of 5,000 hardback pages in this universe – his most-used. While a return to this setting is most welcome, the nature of this new duology raises questions. Fitting in snuggly between the Commonwealth Saga and the Void Trilogy, The Abyss Beyond Dreams addresses a revelation from The Evolutionary Void, that Querencia was not the only human planet settled within the Void. Perhaps a throw-away line at the time, this premise is addressed in the Chronicle of the Fallers, and is Hamilton’s return to form following what many considered a bloated stand-alone in Great North Road.

The nature of The Abyss Beyond Dreams means that there are inevitable spoilers for the Void Trilogy, many of which are discussed below. Read on for the publisher’s synopsis:

When images of a lost civilization are ‘dreamed’ by a self-proclaimed prophet of the age, Nigel Sheldon, inventor of wormhole technology and creator of the Commonwealth society, is asked to investigate. Especially as the dreams seem to be coming from the Void – a mysterious area of living space monitored and controlled because of its hugely destructive capabilities. With it being the greatest threat to the known universe, Nigel is committed to finding out what really lies within the Void and if there’s any truth to the visions they’ve received. Does human life really exist inside its boundary?
But when Nigel crash lands inside the Void, on a planet he didn’t even know existed, he finds so much more than he expected. Bienvenido: a world populated by the ancestors of survivors from Commonwealth colony ships that disappeared centuries ago. Since then they’ve been fighting an increasingly desperate battle against the Fallers, a space-born predator artificially evolved to conquer worlds. Their sole purpose is to commit genocide against every species they encounter. With their powerful telepathic lure – that tempts any who stray across their path to a slow and painful death – they are by far the greatest threat to humanity’s continued existence on this planet.
But Nigel soon realizes that the Fallers also hold the key to something he’d never hoped to find – the destruction of the Void itself. If only he can survive long enough to work out how to use it . . .

As The Abyss Beyond Dreams begins we are on board one of the Brandt colony ships that were taken into the Void, with members of the crew trying to discover what has happened. With time short, and Skylords approaching, the decision to split the seven-ship fleet is made. Some of these go on to Querencia – and the events of the Void Trilogy – while we follow the others on to what will become known as Bienvenido. It is here that a mysterious orbital ‘forest’ is observed, and the discovery of the Fallers, an ancient menace stuck in the Void, and one that will plague Bienvenido for generations to come.

When Inigo dreams of life within the Void the Raiel are keen to learn more, and enlist Nigel Sheldon for the task. With knowledge of the Void’s abilities, and with the help of the Raiel, Nigel enters the Void in an effort to end its destruction from within. But his plans go awry when, after hoping to land on Querencia, he instead ends up on Bienvenido, and seemingly without hope. That is until he learns more of the Fallers, and a way that they could lead to his goal: destruction of the Void.

Split into six books, The Abyss Beyond Dreams does take a while to really get going. The first couple of books – Twenty-Seven Hours and Forty-Two Minutes, and Dreams From The Void – set the scene and provide information rather than actually telling the story. It’s an interesting format to choose, but one that does ultimately work in its favour. However, the first book, while interesting and important to the story, doesn’t do the rest of the novel justice. It’s procedural, and slightly long, but interesting nonetheless. The second book, however, is where things really start to get going. It’s the only part of the novel that is not set within the Void, and is essentially where Hamilton gives us the information we need to become fully engrossed in the story. And from there on out it’s all about Bienvenido and the Fallers.

As is the case within the Void, advanced technology just doesn’t work. Bienvenido is at a comparable technological level to the late 19th century, having the use of trains as the quickest method of travel. The towns and cities also have a similar feeling, with industry taking a focal point, but with the added bonus of the telepathic and telekinetic properties of the Void. It all adds up to a very impressive society, and one that is surprisingly different to that of Querencia given everything that they have in common. For those that are familiar with Hamilton’s Void Trilogy, this is perhaps one of the most impressive feats in The Abyss Beyond Dreams, being able to portray something so different when it could have been way too similar.

The Fallers are exactly that: eggs that fall from the sky, and ones that can absorb and mimic their prey with very little to give them away. It’s this threat that Bienvenido has suffered since humans landed on the planet, and one that is central to the story, and to the main protagonist, Slvasta. Having lost his hand to a Faller egg, Slvasta moves forward with one main goal: the eradication of the Fallers whenever they touch down on Bienvenido. It is this fanaticism that brings him to the unwanted attentions of his superiors in the military, and ultimately leads him to the capitol where his fights for change.

I must admit that I initially felt a little déjà vu with this story thread. Not only is the story reminiscent of Edeard’s ascension on Querencia, but it seems to have more in common than I would be happy with. However, Hamilton once again shows his storytelling prowess by subverting the expectations that are gained while progressing through the other books within The Abyss Beyond Dreams: Revolution For Beginners, Cell Structure, Those Who Fall, and Those Who Rise. Not only does he create yet another vividly realised world and society, but he populates them with characters that are more than they initially seem. Of course, once Nigel shows up on Bienvenido and crosses paths with Slvasta the story picks up pace yet again, and deliver so much more than is expected.

It’s safe to say that The Abyss Beyond Dreams is an ambitious novel, not only in scope, but also as a pre-sequel. To tackle an issue that the reader already knows has been resolved is initially confusing. After all, the Void Trilogy essentially renders Nigel’s quest redundant – it’s set many centuries after the events here, and the Void is still standing. Given this it’s hard to put into words just how shocked I was come its finale, and how desperate I am to read the conclusion to the Chronicle of the Fallers (The Night Without Stars, expected late 2015).

So what, exactly, can one expect to find within the pages of The Abyss Beyond Dreams to justify its existence? Quite simply, this is a novel whose world-building and story have been masterfully interwoven with previous Commonwealth novels, as well as one that stands alone in delivering a complex and immersive narrative, and shows a master at the top of his game. It’s intelligent and gripping, action-packed and emotional, but most of all it’s a shining example of what science fiction has to offer.

I can’t recommend this novel highly enough.

Yesterday's Kin
Yesterday's Kin
Price: £4.68

4.0 out of 5 stars Thoughtful and interesting, 20 Aug. 2014
This review is from: Yesterday's Kin (Kindle Edition)
Yesterday’s Kin by Nancy Kress is the first book I’ve read by the author, mainly because she is primarily published in the US. While in this day and age of e-readers and the seeming availability of pretty much anything you want, that’s not really an excuse on my part. However, after Yesterday’s Kin came to my attention and I read the blurb I knew it was a book that I needed to move to the top of the stack. And I wasn’t disappointed either, Yesterday’s Kin not only hit the right spots, it also added Nancy Kress to an ever-growing list of authors I need to read more from…

Synopsis from the publisher:
Aliens have landed in New York.
A deadly cloud of spores has already infected and killed the inhabitants of two worlds. Now that plague is heading for Earth, and threatens humans and aliens alike. Can either species be trusted to find the cure?
Geneticist Marianne Jenner is immersed in the desperate race to save humanity, yet her family is tearing itself apart. Siblings Elizabeth and Ryan are strident isolationists who agree only that an alien conspiracy is in play. Marianne’s youngest, Noah, is a loner addicted to a drug that constantly changes his identity. But between the four Jenners, the course of human history will be forever altered.
Earth’s most elite scientists have ten months to prevent human extinction—and not everyone is willing to wait.

Yesterday’s Kin is a relatively short novel, but one packed with plenty of inventiveness, and more than a few surprising revelations. Because of these it’s quite difficult to discuss much of the finer story elements without venturing deeply into spoiler territory. I’ll try and keep it short and sweet, and avoid too much detail wherever I can.

Focusing on the Jenner family and the effect the arrival of aliens has on them as a group and as individuals, Yesterday’s Kin feels comfortable with a fairly narrow viewpoint, but this is far from the case. Marianne Jenner is the main driving force behind the narrative, and while initially she doesn’t seem to be an integral part to the wider picture, events move along to disprove this initial assumption. Much the same could be said for Noah Jenner, though his is a thread that is interesting in so many ways, particularly his use of the designer drug that changes the personality of the user each time, never repeating.

The alien Denebs are interesting in that their arrival is for one specific purpose: to gain humanity’s help in designing a vaccination for the deadly spore cloud that is heading towards both Earth and their homeworld. With two of their colonies already wiped out by these spores they have a heavily invested interest in helping develop a vaccine, but there is clearly more to their motivations than is first observed.

The revelations that come through as the story develops are interesting and not unexpected. Kress handles them well, not dwelling too long on irrelevant details, nor bringing any implausibility to the tale. Her dealings with the characters are also well done, each of them feeling very real with plenty of depth and motivations.

In short, Yesterday’s Kin was a joy to read. Not only was the prose easily digested, but the scientific speculation and facts behind the story really helped in raising enjoyment. A thoroughly recommended novel.

Jani and the Greater Game (Multiplicity)
Jani and the Greater Game (Multiplicity)
by Eric Brown
Edition: Paperback
Price: £7.99

4.0 out of 5 stars Good story, setting, and action, 20 Aug. 2014
Jani and the Greater Game (Multiplicity #1) is Eric Brown’s new novel, a steampunk adventure and departure from his usual sci-fi offerings. As a fan of Brown’s work I approached this novel with some apprehension. Would it be as good as his sci-fi works? Would the change in genre work for me? Would it, ultimately and simply, be a good novel? The answer isn’t quite as simple as a yes or no…

The full synopsis from the publisher:
It’s 1910 and the British rule the subcontinent with an iron fist – and with strange technology fuelled by a power source known as Annapurnite – discovered in the foothills of Mount Annapurna. But they rule at the constant cost of their enemies, mainly the Russian and the Chinese, attempting to learn the secret of this technology… This political confrontation is known as The Greater Game.
Into this conflict is pitched eighteen year old Janisha Chatterjee who discovers a strange device which leads her into the foothills of the Himalayas. When Russians spies and the evil priest Durja Das find out about the device, the chase is on to apprehend Janisha before she can reach the Himalayas. There she will learn the secret behind Annapurnite, and what she learns will change the destiny of the world for ever.
Jani and The Greater Game is the first book in a rip-roaring, spice-laden, steampunk action adventure series set in an exotic India and featuring a feisty heroine who subverts all the norms.

Set in the early part of last century, Jani and the Greater Game has a strong focus on India and the British presence there. The political situation is not at its best, and with Annapurnite playing such a motivating factor for all countries and governments involved, it adds an additional pressure to the setting. However, despite this larger political game going on in the background, this is a novel about characters.

Jani is our protagonist, and through whose eyes we see most of the story. She’s strong and independent, despite being the daughter of a powerful-yet-respected man. Her time spent living between England and India show us someone that can think along lines that others, especially those so heavily involved in events, can’t. However, given her age she is also naïve in matters, and often something that appears obvious can pass her by. It makes her interesting and flawed, and Brown once again does a sterling job at created such a deep and layered character.

As for the other people we meet along the journey – they are certainly a varied bunch. We have Alfie, a British military officer who is tasked with tracking down Jani after events early in the novel; Anand, a boy of Jani’s age who has grown up working for her father after being rescued from the street, but has gone on to learn many things; Durga Das, a high priest whose national pride puts him at odds with all who want to rule India, and also a man with an old secret that knows more of Annapurnite than some would be happy about. Add in some spies and assassins that are after Jani, and you’ve got a varied cast. Not all have the depth to them that I would have hoped, but the more prominent ones really do shine and bring much to the story.

The story itself is an all-out adventure romp. Jani and the Greater Game starts as it means to go on and doesn’t let up until the final page is turned. While set in a distinctly steampunk era, there are hints of the sci-fi that Brown is so well known for leaking through. The contraptions and inventions seen throughout are described in stunning detail and fully realised, but there is the feeling that they’re not fully steampunk. It’s difficult to go into more detail without wandering into the realm of spoilers, but suffice to say that it all works within the setting Brown has created.

Personally, I’m not a big fan of steampunk, and it’s this preference that meant Jani and the Greater Game didn’t work for me quite as much as I’d hoped. The characters are solid, the setting vividly described and realised in great detail, and the story roars along at a pace to leave you breathless. But there is that little something that just doesn’t feel right, and my love of Brown’s sci-fi novels plays a large role in this. It’s just one of those things and, as they say, different strokes for different folks

Price: £2.57

5.0 out of 5 stars Great premise, excellent execution, 20 Aug. 2014
This review is from: UR (Kindle Edition)
Ur by Stephen King is a short novella, released in 2009 and coming in at just over 20,000 words. Dealing with a very interesting concept – an e-reader capable of multi-dimensional and precognitive searching – King not only manages to give you a plot device you’d (probably) kill for, but does so in such a way that will leave you breathless and very much wanting more.

When old-school English teacher Wesley Smith decides to finally get with the times and orders a kindle, little does he know that what he receives is not just your run-of-the-mill handy device to read his favourite books on, but one that can search across dimensions for novels that authors haven’t written in ours. It’s a staggering discovery, and one that he quickly investigates. Add in the ability to search news stories in the millions of other realities, with some differing greatly from ours, he starts to think himself crazy…

It’s a simple premise, but one that instantly hooked me and dragged me in. It’s not difficult for any bibliophile to tell you that they wished their favourite author had written another novel with certain characters, or re-used a setting for a different story. Hell, that their favourite author had written something that they hadn’t read. Like I said, simple – but very effective.

Of course, King doesn’t stop at this, and as is his M.O., he has very well defined and realised characters telling us this story. Wesley has more to him than just a teacher stuck in his ways with very specific ideas of how the world should work in dealing with reading. There is the broken relationship that drives him, the friendly conversations that come naturally, and his desire to do what is right. It all adds up to a story that passes by way too quickly than should be allowed.

Written before 11/22/63 (perhaps my favourite King novel), Ur clearly shows some of the early ideas put forth in that novel, and this is perhaps one of the reasons I enjoyed it so much. Definitely recommended for a quick and enjoyable read.

On a final note – fans of King’s Dark Tower books will find a few small aspects of Ur rather familiar…

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