Illusory Reality

A blog of speculative fiction

Name:
Location: United Kingdom

Friday, December 22, 2006

The Best of 2006

Now we're coming to the end of the year, it's time to look over the best releases of the year. Most of these are quite predictable - the solid continuations of major series, the hugely publicised new authors etc. But there were a few surprises, and all, whether expected or not, are impressive.

First, of course, The Lies of Locke Lamora has to be mentioned. With a single book, Scott Lynch managed to propel himself into the lofty sphere of epic fantasy alongside Bakker, Erikson and Martin. TLOLL has everything in it - great characters, an unpredictable, twisting plot, a brilliant setting with the city of Camorr, contrasts in tone between dark and brooding and hilarious with ease... And most of all, it lived up to the hype, which was its greatest challenge.

Keeping to epic fantasy, there were numerous other notable releases - Bakker concluded his Prince of Nothing trilogy with the excellent The Thousandfold Thought (with a good ending, though perhaps lacking not as conclusive as some readers may have hoped) while Erikson gave another solid effort with the sixth instalment of his Malazan series, the Bonehunters (disappointing given his brilliance in the past, but nonetheless a good book) and Greg Keyes' The Blood Knight was another competent instalment. There was another notable debut this year, from Joe Abercromie with the Blade Itself, a dark, gritty epic fantasy with a varied cast of characters including a barbarian losing his edge, a crippled torturer and an effete noble.

Outside of epic fantasy, there were also some notable developments - Alan Campbell's Scar Night displayed a huge level of originality, Jeffrey Ford's The Empire of Ice Cream and the anthology Feeling Very Strange showed that the short form was still alive and well, while Vernor Vinge's Rainbows End, Dave Kalstein's Prodigy and Tim Powers' Three Days to Never demonstrated the versatility and strength of science fiction today.

Tuesday, December 12, 2006

A brief discussion of some books I've read recently

Having not written anything for nearly 3 months now, it seems about time to give another overview of books I've read recently. Fortunately, that number isn't too formidable, as during October and November I basically read no books other than those that were necessary (the demands of university), so it's mainly those I've read within the last couple of weeks.

A Shadow in Summer by Daniel Abraham:
An interesting premise and it comes with very high praise from GRRM himself, who compares Abraham to Vance, Harrison and Wolfe. Safe to say this is exaggerated, but it is still undoubtedly one of the better examples of epic fantasy out there. The main idea is in the form of the magic system - the andat, a concept in corporeal form, transcribed by "poets" who control them, have the power of gods. Of course, to become one there is an arduous training programme, etc, etc. But surprisingly, we don't simpy follow someone through a predictable life as they emerge as a poet fighting for noble causes, never making mistakes. Instead, our protagonist, offered a great opportunity, leaves the school to become an anonymous labourer. The culture of the Saraykeht (and the wider world, at least what we see of it) is refreshingly different from that of most other epic fantasies, drawing influence from the east. And the main story is not about saving the world, it is not a tale of good vs evil, it is not about the triumph of righteousness. It is instead the story of the lives of a few ordinary people, who end entangled in far more complex intrigues than they ever intended to be involved in. True, Abraham never approaches the depth of political intrigue or weaves the story with such skill as a pinnacle such as GRRM does, but it is there, and a credit to the novel. His attempts to address ethical questions are perhaps less successful, taking a heavy handed approach on the issue of abortion, but it is better to see the issue raised, even if imperfectly, rather than to have yet another vacant epic fantasy. It isn't perfect, but for a debut it is excellent. It isn't another Lies of Locke Lamora, and it is a shame that it was released in the same year, because it will almost certainly be overshadowed. 8 out of 10.

Prodigy by Dave Kalstein: A very impressive novel. One that I'm surprised I've heard so little about. A SF story set 30 years in the future in a spectacular school for the brilliant doesn't sound like a hugely enticing premise. But one remarkable aspect of the novel that makes this so worthwhile is the atmosphere of it and the author's sheer cynicism - on a level with Kafka and Heller. And it is entirely believable. There are some aspects which he emphasises too much, some implausibilities - but that is only to be expected. The main characters really shine through in this - the brilliantly intelligent, hard working Valedictorian, Goldsmith, the popular, failing, drug dealing Cooley, the cold, emotionless Camilla, the naive, kind headmaster and the Machiavellian President Lang. It is filled with twists with characters you had supported unreservedly throughout suddenly turning traitor. The school is slowly revealed to you, as if you are a visitor, walking through its front doors into the technological marvel, blinded by its great visible attributes, until slowly the mirage is torn away, revealing the darkness of its foundations. This plot itself is not a brilliant, complex, intricate story, the setting is not startlingly original, the
book's insights are not truly remarkable or particularly subtle, but these are mere details. It is both a hugely entertaining SF thriller and a morality tale, based on one key question: What is an acceptable price for progress?

8.5 out of 10.

Labyrinths by Jorge Luis Borges

A brilliant short story collection. I'm still pretty new to reading short stories, but Borges is the best short story writer I know of - even surpassing Kafka. The stories in Labyrinths are always intelligent, philosophical and most of all entertaining. They generally take on a surreal tone, but it is difficult to generalise about such varied tales. Most take a theme, idea or metaphor and extend and exaggerate it to its limits. For example, the idea that a writer writes what they know, based upon their experiences. So in Pierre Menard, Author of the Quixote, Menard manages to rewrite the Quixote word for word without ever copying, purely by going through similar experiences. Yet his Quixote is immeasurably superior to Cervantes' original, as Borges so eloquently explains to you. Other stories range from the cryptic library of Babel, filled with books of seemingly meaningless gibberish, to the radical premise of society based on a lottery in the Lottery of Babylon. In short, if you want to read short stories, read Borges. Not one of the stories was weak, and several were absolutely brilliant. 9 out of 10.

Feeling Very Strange edited by James Patrick Kelly and John Kessel

This is probably one of those short story collections released this year that you've never heard of, never seen on the shelves in even the largest bookshops, never seen an advert for, and in short, isn't likely to become a bestseller. But it is still remarkable, with stories by some of the most talented writers in speculative fiction, including Jeff Vandermeer, Jeffrey Ford, Theodora Goss, Michael Chabon, Ted Chiang, Kelly Link and Bruce Sterling. There was not a single weak story in the collection, and some were absolutely brilliant. And it does its job admirably - it makes you feel very strange, and in the process, you begin slowly to understand what slipstream is, with a debate on the subgenre interspersed between the stories, ending on the humourous note of rebranding the genre as "infernokrusher" fiction. To conclude, now that you know this exists, go and read it! 9 out of 10.

Tuesday, September 26, 2006

Children of Men


As usual, I've done far less blogging than I intended to, but back to the subject.
Children of Men is (if you haven't guessed) a recently released science fiction film. And one of the very select few films that I actually went to see at the cinema on the day of its release (in the UK). My expectations for the film weren't low, but they weren't particularly high either. But they should have been. Children of Men is a masterpiece, one of the best science fiction films ever made. Every aspect of the film is just as it should be. There' s a very strong cast with Clive Owen, Julianne Moore, Chiwetel Ejiofor and Michael Caine, who all give better performances than I expected and absolutely become the characters. Again, the characters feel very real - in part because of the acting but also because of the writing. They're all three-dimensional and a far cry from the standard Hollywood heroes. The main character, Theo, is a very reluctant hero and, while he seems barely suited to his monotonous day job in London, is even less suited to adventure. He doesn't solve his problems with bullets - in fact, he barely solves his problems. He does little more than stumble through them, dragged into doing what is right. He is not a leader, not an idealist, and crucially, he doesn't suffer from what Joss Whedon calls "Airforce One syndrome". He's not always strong and he's far from perfect. But despite that, you still are rooting for him. The other characters are equally developed, from Michael Caine's Jasper, Theo's old political columnist friend, who often provides some welcome comic relief in an otherwise very dark, depressing atmosphere to Chiwetel Ejiofor's Luke, a leader of the resistance who is much more complex than what he first seems to Peter Mullan's Syd, a slightly mad policeman.

The dark, gritty setting of dystopian London in 2027 is incredibly believable. This is not a bright, sleek version of the future that has become so common in film- it reminds you incredibly of today, though admittedly it seems as if the country is being run along the lines of tabloid editorial policy, with its asylum camps reminscent of Nazi concentration camps. There are hints that the rest of the world is even worse throughout, but for the most part, it seems to be a relatively ordinary world with one major difference - there are no children.

The plot itself is not particularly original or exciting, or wouldn't have been if it were not for the brilliant writing and directing of Alfonso Cuaron. A pregnant girl, an immigrant, is discovered, and Theo's help is enlisted in delivering her to the Human Project, a mysterious benign organisation that we never learn much about, but we are told is better than letting the government have her. What could have been a very simple plot and could ruin an otherwise excellent film becomes an asset, as it is filled with unexpected twists, Cuaron doing what most directors would never even contemplate. The writing itself expertly switches between humour and poignancy and the pacing is spot on. The big surprise for me though was not the brilliant acting, characters or even the unpredictable plot, but the cinematography. The camerawork is nothing short of virtuoso and the action scenes are some of the most impressive I've seen in any film.

In short, this is one of the best films I've ever seen. Everything comes together perfectly to create a science fiction masterwork which avoids all the traps. If you're in the UK, go and see it now. If you're anywhere else, go and see it as soon as it comes out. 9.5/10

Sunday, August 13, 2006

Overview of books I've recently read

I haven't done many posts recently and I don't feel like spending a lot of time in writing long reviews at the moment, but here are my thoughts on some books I've read recently:

Ringworld by Larry Niven

It's considered a classic, but for me it felt pretty bland. There were some interesting ideas in it, especially to do with the ringworld itself, and there were hints that the characters were more developed than what we saw, but that's all they were. The characters didn't serve much of a function beyond being a vehicle for exploring this ringworld and strangely enough, the puppeteer seemed the most human of all the characters. The central idea of breeding for luck I didn't like that much, as it meant that one of the main characters was pretty much invincible, because she was so lucky. The other thing I had a problem with in this novel was that it felt so directionless - they went to go and explore the ringworld for some barely plausible reasons, and then they wandered about on its surface for the rest of the book. The writing and worldbuilding were quite good, but even for a relatively slim volume, it felt padded out - it would have made a good novella, but I don't think there was enough content to fill out a full novel. I'd give it 6.5/10

To Your Scattered Bodies Go by Philip Jose Farmer

Another classic, and one that I was lucky enough to find in the villa I was staying in on holiday. This had a very original premise - the whole of humanity reborn on the banks of a huge river on a new world, each with nothing but a "grail", an item which when they went near a stone would fill with food enough for the day. The main character is Richard Burton, a 19th century translator, and he joins a group including Alice Hargreaves (inspiration for Alice in Wonderland), a prehistoric human, the alien responsible for destroying almost all of the human race and a 20th century man. And later on, perhaps most interestingly, Hermann Goering keeps meeting Burton. To Your Scattered Bodies Go only gives very brief glimpses of the world around, including the various societies that emerge, but they are more than sufficient and creates a surprisingly complex and realistic world, filled with interesting characters - and Burton is almost an anti-hero at times. There are a lot of good ideas in this, and it's often quite amusing and it deserves its status as a speculative fiction classic. I'd give it 8 out of 10.

The Thousandfold Thought by R Scott Bakker

An excellent conclusion to the best completed epic fantasy series there is. It concludes the Holy War story, and the story about one of the best fantasy creations of recent times, Anasurimbor Kellhus, while it is clear the Second Apocalypse is only just beginning. It also contains a nicely detailed 100 page glossary at the end of the book. I'll come back to this at another time, but meanwhile, I'm very much looking forward to the Aspect Emperor and to Neuropath - R Scott Bakker is one of the most talented living fantasy authors. 9 out of 10.

The Lies of Locke Lamora by Scott Lynch

You've probably already read this. If you haven't, you should go and read it now. The Lies of Locke Lamora is currently my favourite 2006 release - it's intelligent, witty, cunning, but most of all, damn fun. There aren't many good fantasy books about thieves, conmen and deception, but here's one of the best. Sometimes it's hilarious, othertimes it's almost heartbreaking - Scott Lynch can kill off main characters when it's appropriate - and I find it really hard to fault. It's a book that all fantasy fans should enjoy. There've been a lot of reviews about it already, so if you want more detail, look at them (I advise Jay's at http://www.fantasybookspot.com/node/1197 - though keep away from the Strange Horizons review, which seems as if the reviewer was reading a completely different book from everyone else, and managed to anger just about everyone else by claiming that people who said differently were "bribed" to tell such "lies"). Anyway, a rating - 9 out of 10, and if I'm in a generous mood, 9.5 out of 10 (though this latter I hesitate because I reserve it for masterpieces, which this isn't quite).

The Stormcaller by Tom Lloyd

A few words to describe this book: Mediocre. Bland. Uninspired. It wasn't a bad book and Tom Lloyd is a competent author. But it wasn't a good book either. There was pretty much nothing original in it, nothing remotely surprising, nothing interesting. There were a couple of ideas that, if they were developed well, would have been worthwhile. But they weren't. The worldbuilding had the idea of splitting humanity in various warring tribes. And then they just acted like generic countries, and all united against the elves and trolls. A seemingly interesting anti-hero. Who turns out to be just another adolescent boy who's the heir to the throne and the saviour of prophecy. With almost everything that was good with this book there was a qualifying factor. The good didn't outweigh the bad so much as there was pretty much nothing of either. There was one interesting character, Lesarl. Safe to say that he was actually a pretty minor character who we hear very little about. Any character we saw a lot of became stereotypical and simplistic. There are a lot of good books out there, and a lot of good releases this year. This isn't one of them. It isn't awful in the way Eragon or the Elder Gods or Crossroads of Twilight are - but there's no reason you should waste your time reading it when there are so many superior alternatives. I'd give it 5 out of 10 - absolutely average. If you haven't read much fantasy at all, you might enjoy it. But if you've read pretty much any epic fantasy, you'll be disappointed.





Sunday, August 06, 2006

End of an Era

More sad news greets me as I arrive back from holiday - Emerald City, one of the best speculative fiction e-zines, is ceasing publication. http://www.emcit.com/wordpress/?p=2877

Fortunately, it isn't all bad news. While there will be no more Emerald City, the fantasybookspot E-zine, Heliotrope, has been launched, and it looks very good. It has articles, reviews, poetry and fiction. The line-up for the first issue is very impressive - an article by Jeff Vandermeer, an article by R Scott Bakker and poetry from Catherynne M. Valente - it doesn't get much better than that. http://www.heliotropemag.com/Issue01/index.html

Serenity


I'd heard about this film for a long time, but for some reason, I never got around to watching it. It's been described as a sci-fi western. I don't particularly like westerns, and the director, Joss Whedon, is best known for the television series Buffy the Vampire Slayer, which I've had no intention of watching. But I saw it in the local HMV and decided to see what all the fuss was about. And it was definitely worth it. Serenity is perhaps the best science fiction film ever made - yes, including Star Wars.

Serenity has something that is hugely lacking in most films, especially SFF films - good characterisation. In fact, the characterisation in Serenity is of a level to rival many of the best science fiction novels. That is something I would very rarely say about films. Many of the ideas at first seem cliched - a group of bandits who are generally good on the run from the omnipresent empire and a person who holds a devastating secret. So far, nothing that original. But Joss Whedon takes delight in subverting our expectations. Yes, these bandits do come from the "uncivilised" outer planets and aren't exactly working for the Empire. But unlike Star Wars, they've lost their war of independence - the Alliance has won, not them. There is no clear good and evil - there are all shades of grey. The main character, River Tam, is a mentally unstable girl how can be triggered as a deadly weapon if certain words are spoken. The captain of the ship is unprincipled and amoral - as are most of his crew. The villain, by contrast, is a character with incredible empathy, understanding and kindness - but also an intense belief in the rightness of his cause. He has a very rigid code of honour and his development through the film is brilliant. This characterisation is helped by excellent acting from the entire cast.

The film is a serious one, on the whole, but there are many moments of humour and wit throughout - shown from the very beginning, with such comments as:
"Define interesting."
"Oh God, Oh God, we're all going to die?"
The humour always feels natural and exactly what the characters would say; it's never forced. On the note of humour, the director's commentary on the DVD is very entertaining - I tend not to watch these, but Joss Whedon managed to make it very entertaining, and starting with the line "Hello, I'm Joss Whedon, director of this mess... this film" was enough to convince me it was worth watching.

The plot is not spectacular, but it is effective, though it functions more as a setting - this is a film about the characters and not about the story. There are plenty of excellent fight scenes, there is great music, great special effects and everything else you would expect from a decent science fiction film - but this is also a science fiction film with decent writing, and that is much rarer. Go and watch Serenity if you haven't already. As for me, I'm just waiting until I can get a chance to watch the TV series Firefly that Serenity was based on.

Saturday, August 05, 2006

A lament for heroic fantasy

I discovered today, having just returned from holiday, that David Gemell died at the age of 57 on Friday 28th July. I enjoyed the Drenai books quite a lot - I wasn't his greatest fan, but he was one of the few remaining practitioners of that subgenre known as epic fantasy, and it came as a shock to hear that he had died. I had heard nothing to suggest he was suffering from ill health (though this might have been me not paying attention) and I expected him to keep writing for years to come. Sadly, this won't be the case.

Monday, July 17, 2006

The Bonehunters by Steven Erikson


This is the 6th installment of Steven Erikson's A Tale of the Malazan Book of the Fallen, one of the best epic fantasy series being written at the moment, and perhaps when complete it will be one of the best epic fantasy series ever written. Erikson combines a world of unparalleled scope and depth with a great storyline filled with intriguing, complex characters. And he diverges from the traditional epic fantasy influences of Tolkien and his primary influences come from the swords and sorcery subgenre, providing a very entertaining high magic setting. To add to all of this, he brings in some excellent humour that alleviates an otherwise very dark tone. Or at least, he usually manages to achieve all of this, and when he does, he creates a masterpiece. So as you can see, I'm a big fan of the series and if you're reading this, you probably know all of that anyway - so I had high expectations, and I expect many people who have read this far into the series will do as well. Unfortunately, The Bonehunters wasn't one of those books.

My advice to you then, if you haven't already read it, is tone down your expectations. This isn't another Deadhouse Gates or Memories of Ice, or even another Midnight Tides. The closest novel to it in terms of quality and style would be Gardens of the Moon. There are few things you notice about the book initially - its size, and the cover. Normally I don't find these particularly important, so long as what's between the covers is worthwhile. But here I just want to make a brief comment on them. In hardback, it's over 900 pages. That's a pretty substantial book, but not exactly unusual for Erikson or even for epic fantasy. I'm used to the Malazan books making these pages fly by, almost entirely lacking in filler. The Bonehunters is different - the pacing is wrong. It feels like a book of 900 pages. In the last section the plot moves at a breakneck speed, perhaps even too fast, so some major events have to be covered in the space of about 10 pages, while the whole of the middle section felt very drawn out. Now, for the cover - it's not a bad cover by any means, but I'm curious as to why the artist decided to pick a scene right at the end of the book. But more importantly, the title - I'm used to Erikson coming up with some really great titles in the past, that are both intriguing and have depth to them - Memories of Ice being one of the best titles I've ever seen - but this one seems incredibly simplistic. Admittedly you find out about the namesake in the second half of the book, but it really isn't that interesting. Perhaps its reflecting the quality of the rest of the book? Anyway, on to the book itself...

The Bonehunters is a book with great potential. There are some very interesting ideas in it, but the writing seems to have taken a dive since Midnight Tides. Everything about the Bonehunters screams "missed opportunity" to me - there are some major deaths (it's Erikson, after all), some shocking, unpredictable events, a large scale siege and conflagration. This is the first book in which the various plotlines begin to converge - the Tiste Edur are becoming increasingly important as Rhulad expands his empire, Icarium draws closer to unleashing his rage again, the aftermath of the Chain of Dogs and the Whirlwind is the primary setting and the war between the gods begins in earnest. But despite all of these really interesting ideas, Erikson didn't quite manage to pull it off. The writing was competent but uninspired for the most part, the humour was forced rather than genuine and the major deaths lacked emotional impact. Erikson's never disguised the fact that he's writing fantasy - his novels are full of complex, high powered magic, intervening gods and hugely powerful individuals. The Bonehunters is no different. We see the return of some of the best characters of the earlier books (particularly from the Bridgeburners - Quick Ben, Kalam and Fiddler back together again) with a few new ones, and some of these characters reveal themselves to be a lot more powerful than previously thought. But for once, Erikson goes over the top with the power of his characters. There are a few scenes which were preposterous to my mind - characters surviving impossible odds when in previous books they had struggled against much more modest numbers. And that fateful Erikson trait returns - he is unwilling to really let go of his characters - the dead are not really dead, and there is one scene which is utterly awful as it (temporarily) brings back a character who we saw die. In the previous books, I only saw this as at most a minor problem with only one glaring case - but it occurs a lot more in the Bonehunters.

A Conclusion: The Bonehunters is a good book, and certainly a lot better than most fantasy that is published. But it is far from Erikson's best - it seemed as if he had suddenly lost all the experience he had gained since writing Gardens of the Moon, as if he was struggling to bring the threads together and was concentrating more on that than on providing a great story. Part of the problem was of course what it had to follow - it would be difficult to live up to Midnight Tides, let alone Memories of Ice or Deadhouse Gates - and having a brilliant story such as those would be very difficult to achieve at this point in the series, but nonetheless I see it as a novel full of unachieved potential. I find it difficult to rate, but I think I would give it 7.5 out of 10.