Category Archives: Books – 2 stars

Neal Asher – Polity Agent

Another Agent Cormac novel. Maybe I was in the wrong mood for reading it, but it didn’t feel nearly as innovative or thrilling as the previous books in the series. In fact, in places it was a bit of a slog to get through.

Stephen Baxter – Timelike Infinity

For a story involving the overthrow of an alien race’s occupation of Earth by means of wormhole-facilitated time travel, this is remarkably flat. Lots of grand cosmological speculation and enough hard-SF tropes to choke a monkey, but I found the characters unsympathetic, and I never felt engaged in their struggles.

Lois McMaster Bujold – The Hallowed Hunt

Although The Hallowed Hunt bears all the hallmarks of Bujold’s tremendous craft, it never really came alive for me. It’s set in the same world as her two previous books (The Curse of Chalion and Paladin of Souls), but in a different country, and there is no overlap of characters. The story concerns the murder of a prince and the possible re-emergence of an ancient power. It’s a tale of romance and purgatory, involving clever use of the (very real) Five Gods theology Bujold has established for this world.

Right from the start, this had two things working against it: a low-tech, feudal fantasy setting, and flowery language. I must be getting crusty as I get older, because my tolerance for lordlings and princesses is really low. Bujold overcame my resistance in the other Chalion books, but it seems like her writing style here has taken a turn for the precious, with lots of old-fashioned turns of phrase and elaborate description.

I don’t mind the romantic side of the book, but it sorely lacks Bujold’s traditional themes of gritty practicality and inner strength. With a few exceptions, very little happens in The Hallowed Hunt that requires the characters to take a stand and turn the story around. Most of the time they just go with the flow, and merely express great concern along the way.

I hate to say this, but I found it dull, and I had to force myself to keep reading.

Michael Marshall – The Lonely Dead

Michael Marshall (Smith) has written some of the most mind-bendingly good science fiction/detective/horror crossover fiction of recent years. Check out his debut novel Only Forward and the excellent collection What You Make It for some superb writing. His last book, The Straw Men was a mainstream thriller with a terrifying psycho killer on the loose and a wide-ranging conspiracy as its backdrop. The Lonely Dead picks up where The Straw Men left off, and for a while it carries on the tone of borderline paranoia. The narrative jumps around between several characters, and the storylines seem promisingly incompatible. How is he going to link them together? What more are we going to find out about the shadowy Straw Men?

And then, about three quarters of the way through, as the threads come together, the whole thing balloons out of control. Edgy horror goes out the window, and we’re into dodgy X-Files knock-off territory. To top it off, we get a happy ending, too. A happy ending? In an MMS novel? Whatever is the world coming to?

Gregory Benford – Eater

A sentient black hole passes through the solar system, and decides that it wants to have a friendly chat with the people of Earth. Or maybe it just wants to eat the planet and suck our brains, instead? Benford specialises in old-skool “scientist as hero” science fiction, and Eater is just that. A group of astronomers studying the Eater get drawn into the politics surrounding its approach. As well as trying to figure out the Eater’s motivations and capabilities, they also have to navigate the hazards of earthy power struggles, and a society on the brink of collapse in the face of a potential apocalypse. Unfortunately, Benford doesn’t catch the balance quite right with this one. It’s too heavy on the science, and the characters’ reactions don’t get much beyond fruitless emotional pleadings. It’s a fast read, but apart from the core idea, a forgettable one.

Emma Lathen – Something in the Air

An old-fashioned whodunnit murder mystery set in the high-pressure world of a budget airline. Althought it is ostensibly a “John Putnam Thatcher mystery”, Thatcher only plays a very small part in the book. In fact, the only reason I can see for him being present is to put his name in the blurb. His presence doesn’t further the plot in any way. Although he and his cronies do eventually figure out who committed the crime, they show up at the denouement just after the killer has made a confession. The rest of the story follows the various suspects while they spin off their own theories and try to backstab each other (politically) in a struggle for control of the airline. Unfortunately neither the characters nor the battle for power are terribly interesting.

Bill Bryson – A Short History of Nearly Everything

Should really have been called, “An Abbreviated History of Western Scientific Thinking, from 1600 to Modern Times”, but that wouldn’t have been nearly so catchy. Nor is the book much more interesting than the expanded title would suggest. If you have any kind of interest in popular science, this book is going to seem like an extensive re-hash of what you already know. Bryson spends a lot of time relating anecdotes involving both key and lesser-known scientific figures from the last few hundred years, but the scope of the book inevitably forces him to omit lots of detail. If you have watched the BBC series Local Heroes with Adam Hart Davies, you’ll be very disappointed. Bryson doesn’t have the same energy or love for the subject matter as Hart Davies. Although his foreword proclaims a burning desire to understand the questions science has answered (or tried to answer), by the end of the book his wit feels forced, and any impression of real enthusiasm has fallen by the wayside. Pity.