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wot I red on my hols by alan robson (fartum stupiffimus)

In Which Alan Reads Some Books

Visit any bookshop and you will find the shelves groaning under the weight of far too many depressingly large Big Fat Fantasy Trilogies. I long ago gave up reading them; Big Fat Fantasy Trilogy, BFFT – there's a reason why the initialism sounds like a fart. In The Tough Guide To Fantasy Land, Diana Wynne Jones skewered these abysmal books with a specially sharpened blade of merciless wit. Unfortunately far too many writers failed to realise that they were being mocked and reviled. They seemed to regard Diana Wynne Jones' book as a set of guidelines defining what their farts really ought to smell like, and the number of BFFTs on the bookshelves doubled overnight.

So you can imagine my feelings when New Zealand writer Russell Kirkpatrick produced two BFFTs. I simply pretended that the books didn't exist. However favourable comments by people whose opinions I trust, and the fact that I won one of the books in a competition, made me sit down and read the first two books of the second trilogy. I must admit that, despite my biases, I was very impressed indeed with what I read. The only reason that I haven't read the last book in the series yet is that I felt I needed a rest – the books are very dense and very large and trying to read all three of them in succession is a rather overwhelming experience. I definitely felt that I needed a breathing space between the books in order to let the story settle down in my head. However there is no doubt in my mind that I will be reading the last novel some time soon. I really do want to know what happens to the characters; I want to know how the story ends.

The trilogy has the overall title Husk. That in itself is a hopeful sign; I'm sick of the Chronicles of This, The That Sequence and The Other Codex. A single word title is a breath of fresh air.

The eponymous Husk is a wizard who has been cast down (presumably in the previous trilogy). He has spent seventy years in the dungeons of The Lord of Bhrudwo (a person known as The Undying Man). He has been hideously tortured and broken. Nevertheless he still plots and schemes, looking for his freedom, looking for revenge. How do you kill an immortal man? That is the question that torments him and it is the theme that unifies the books and which lies behind everything that happens.

Husk has managed to plant a spike in the minds of three people. This gives him a degree of telepathic control over them. They are his agents in the outside world; one in each of the three lands that make up the world. These people are a fisherman, a young scholar and a Queen. Through them he begins to implement the plot that will (hopefully) see him rise in triumph to reclaim what he sees as rightfully his. Obviously the trilogy concerns itself with the working out of this Machiavellian scheme. A friend described the story to me as The Lord Of The Rings told from the point of view of Sauron; and there's a lot of truth in that statement.

The world that Russell Kirkpatrick has created feels real and lived in. Far too many fantasy writers pay only lip service to this idea and their worlds are tissue paper thin. Reality keeps breaking through and breaking the spell. Tolkien realised the importance of giving his creations a solid believability and he knew far more about the history of Middle Earth than he ever let on in his magnum opus. For Tolkien, the basis of his world building was linguistic. For Russell Kirkpatrick, the reality of his imagined world is firmly grounded in geography and geology (two of his passions in real life). The resulting solidity adds a verisimilitude to the world, the characters and the story that lesser writers don't even begin to approach.

Husk is a BFFT and it cannot help but conform to many of the tropes of the genre. That is only to be expected. Nevertheless it still manages to exhibit originality and subtlety, and it stands head and shoulders above the competition. In the smelly world of fantasy farts, Russell Kirkpatrick's novels are a refreshing waft of fine French perfume.

John Scalzi also appears to be writing trilogies or greater; but his are firmly science fictional rather than fantastical. He first sprang to prominence with the absolutely superb Old Man's War and many of his books since then have been sequels exploring that universe and the characters. The Last Colony was one of these sequels and it concentrated on the efforts to colonise a new planet. It was rife with political intrigue and complex machinations. Now, in Zoe's Tale, Scalzi re-tells the story of The Last Colony from the point of view of Zoe, the daughter of the protagonists of the earlier novel.

There is definitely some small value in seeing the events again filtered through the perception of an adolescent girl. Zoe does have a unique perspective on things and she is (finally) able to explain some events that were glossed over in the earlier book. But nevertheless there is a distinct feeling of chewing second hand gum about the whole thing. The book does have some high spots. Scalzi does a superb job of characterising Zoe and she comes brilliantly to life on the page. It is no small technical achievement for a middle aged man to write so convincingly as a teenage girl. Nevertheless he never manages to get past the fact that essentially this is a twice told tale and ultimately I found it disappointing.

On the other hand, Agent To The Stars is a hilarious riot from woe to go. It was Scalzi's first ever novel and he wrote it more as an exercise to see if he could actually do it than from any hope of having it published. However it took on an eerie life of its own, manifesting itself in various electronic forms on his web site and then as a limited edition book from a small press. Now Tor has made it available in a mass market edition.

Spacefaring aliens have come to Earth. They've learned all about us from our TV broadcasts and they want to make contact with us. However they are hideously ugly, they smell like rotting fish and they communicate with each other in a language largely made up foul odours (cue lots of fart jokes – Scalzi loves fart jokes. This predisposes me to like him straight away).

The aliens feel, quite rightly, that the people of Earth are likely to be biased against them. Feeling the need for a middle man, they choose Thomas Stein to represent their interests on Earth. He is a Hollywood agent who is quite used to making unattractive people seem likeable. The novel details the various schemes that Thomas uses to try and smooth their path.

The novel is an unalloyed delight from start to finish. On more than one occasion, it had me laughing out loud and I was sorry when I reached the end. I wanted more. It is 365 pages of pure, unadulterated fun. There aren't many books you can say that about.

Nalini Singh writes urban fantasy romances, a genre that is new to me. Essentially her books are traditional Harlequin (or Mills and Boon) romance stories integrated with science fictional or fantastical elements. It's an odd mixture of ingredients, but a surprisingly successful one and I thoroughly enjoyed Angel's Blood.

Elena Deveraux is a vampire hunter. She is hired by the archangel Raphael to help him with a crisis that is threatening the very existence of his way of life. A rogue archangel is on a killing spree. Raphael needs the special talents that Elena has honed during a lifetime of vampire hunting.

Naturally, this being the kind of book that it is, Raphael falls in love with Elena. There's lots of raunchy sex, which took me a little by surprise; I didn't know they did that in romance novels. There was rather too much love and romance at the expense of the plot to my mind. But that is purely a matter of taste and another reader might well find it the major interest of the book.

Despite my misgivings about the structure of the story, I had a ball reading the book. Nalini Singh is a talented writer and her world and character building skills are quite superb. I was more than happy to willingly suspend my disbelief for the sake of the story because the story rocked. Go Nalini!

David Gunn is a new writer of military SF and Death's Head is his first novel. Sven Tveskoeg is a vicious killer. His genetic makeup is 98.2% human and 1.8% something else. We meet him first as a soldier in a far future equivalent of the French Foreign Legion. His company is massacred by the local aliens and only Tveskoeg survives. He is recruited by an elite unit known as the Death's Head and is sent to fight a battle against the Uplifted, a race of bizarre, machinelike creatures.

Despite all that, it's actually a quite enjoyable book. Gunn never makes the mistake of treating this preposterous nonsense seriously and the whole thing is enlivened by a nice sense of humour and the sense that Gunn's tongue is stuck firmly in his cheek. I enjoyed it a lot – it's fluff, but it's fun fluff, very good for passing an idle hour.

Star Doc by S. L. Viehl is also a very enjoyable bit of fluff. It is the first novel in an open ended series and I am told that the later novels do not live up to the promise of the earlier ones. Perhaps S. L. Viehl got bored with her characters. But this first novel is fresh and exciting. The story is well told and quite gripping and the world and the aliens are very well realised. I liked it a lot.

Dr Cherijo Veil is a very highly regarded surgeon. All her life she has been under the thumb of her domineering father and as the book opens, she is desperately seeking to escape from his influence. She has been offered a job as a physician at Kevarzangia Two's Free Clinic. Leaving the Earth and her father behind her, she takes a considerable cut in both salary and prestige and embarks on a new career. Humans are a despised minority at the free clinic and she herself is woefully ignorant about the physiology of many of the species she is called upon to treat.

But somehow, with a combination of both luck and skill, she makes a success of the position and becomes a well respected and valuable member of the medical staff. But then she is faced with two crises – she discovers that her father has been rather more than just a parent to her and his researches could mean her own death. And a seemingly intractable plague breaks out on Kevarzangia Two.

The aliens and their societies are well realised, the alien diseases (and their cures) are ingeniously presented and the whole story rolls rapidly along to its open ended conclusion. Sequels will obviously follow. It's a rollicking good yarn and there's nothing at all wrong with that. It's good old traditional sense-of-wonder science fiction. I'm glad they still write 'em like that.

Redemption is a near future thriller by Lee Jackson. It is set in an America where the Department of Homeland Security has become so overwhelmingly part of everyday life that America is effectively a police state and individual freedoms have all but vanished, sacrificed on the alters of prejudice, fear and expediency. It's not much of an extrapolation from the present day situation. Indeed, there are those who would argue that it isn't an extrapolation at all and that it simply describes the status quo.

Ben Trinity has been labelled a terrorist. He never had a trial, he was never allowed to defend himself, he was simply spirited away into the terrors of rendition. He was tortured in foreign jails. It becomes clear that he brought much of this on himself – he was very much a political naf who was, in some respects, wearing a 'Kick Me' sign on his back – but that in itself is no excuse for the treatment he has received.

Eventually, somehow, he gets paroled back into society. On his way to a job interview, he is caught in a snow storm and marooned in the town of Redemption in Montana. He manages to get a job as a general handyman at the local diner and his parole officer seems happy to let him take it. But it is hard to hide the truth in small town America (people will gossip so). A local cop starts digging into Trinity's background and uncovers his true identity, and it isn't long before most of the town turns against him. Bigotry and fear are never far beneath the surface, particularly among the reactionary conservatives (if that's not an oxymoron) who seem to make up the majority of the people in the town. The mob mentality puts Ben in considerable danger.

As the story progresses, it becomes clear that the whole situation may well have been a deliberate ploy by the Department of Homeland Security itself. They are after bigger game and Ben is the bait in a trap. The game's afoot!

The thriller genre seems peculiarly suited to examining the political (and often illegal) excesses deriving from current American paranoia. Sara Paretsky did something similar in her novel Blacklist. Perhaps because they are genre fictions, books like these can slip a little under the radar and get away with saying things that that might otherwise cause trouble with the authorities. Something similar happened in the 1950s when a lot of science fiction (that despised genre) was heavily critical of the excesses of Senator Joe McCarthy and his Committee on Un-American Activities. I've not noticed anything much in contemporary SF about the Department of Homeland Security. Modern American SF writers seem to be a particularly conservative and unthinking bunch; much less politically aware than the previous generation of SF writers. Perhaps the mantle of social and political criticism has now passed on to the thriller writers. Take that George Orwell; have at you Aldous Huxley! You've had your day!

Novels such as Redemption are important books. They give us a warning about what can happen if current trends continue and they represent a genuine platform for political debate; debate that might otherwise be silenced by the authorities. When the establishment is all powerful, when it pays only lip service to the legal checks and balances that are supposed to reign in its excesses (but seldom do) it does not take kindly to criticism. I can easily imagine a situation where the writing of a novel such as Redemption, which is so deeply critical of current establishment thinking, could lead to the author being imprisoned as a terrorist sympathiser. After all, if you are not with us, you must be against us. I don't think it would happen at the moment, but nevertheless rendition and book burning (or, at the very least, censorship) are two aspects of exactly the same phenomenon and the writing is on the wall. Lee Jackson understands this very well.

But don't go away thinking that Redemption is just a polemic. Such things tend to be worthy but dull. The novel is a thriller after all, and it is chock-a-block with thrills. It tells an exciting story. It's a real page turner because the characters are drawn so well that you easily identify with them and you rejoice in their triumphs and you are cast down by their tragedies. I thoroughly enjoyed this book on so many levels and I recommend it to you whole-heartedly.

Ian Pears' new novel Stone's Fall is a kind of a backwards book. It begins in 1909 and finishes in 1867 with occasional flashes forwards to 1953. Despite this rather unconventional structure, it is not a time travel novel; indeed it is not a science fiction story at all. It's a novel about the social, political and financial systems of the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, blended with a little mystery and a soupcon of spy fiction. It wouldn't be completely inaccurate to describe it as a thriller about accounting practices either. I never thought I'd enjoy a novel about financial manipulations (the single most tedious subject on the planet), but I thoroughly enjoyed this one. Not that I'm anxious to repeat the experience. If any of you know of any other novels about accountancy, please keep the information to yourself.

In 1909, John Stone, multi-millionaire financier and munitions manufacturer, is freshly dead. He fell to his death from a high window at his London home. This immediately raises the intriguing question: did he fall or was he pushed? The novel works backwards through John Stone's life, seeking to resolve the mystery of the man. It makes for a fascinating tale.

By the end of the novel I knew more about the design and manufacture of torpedoes than I ever wanted to know. I had an insight into the reasons why many people blamed the First World War on the greedy profiteering of munitions manufacturers. I learned a little about prostitution in nineteenth century Europe and I knew just how disorganised and chaotic the intelligence services of the major European powers were. I also found out just what propelled John Stone out of that high London window in 1909, and I was absolutely gob-smacked by it. All the various plot threads come together and are tied up with a beautifully elegant bow. This is a cunningly crafted novel of intrigue and manipulation (not least by the author!).

On the other hand, Midnight Fugue by Reginald Hill is neither cunning nor particularly well crafted. It's a new Dalziell and Pascoe novel. There was a time when the phrase "Dalziell and Pascoe novel" was a guarantee of a good read. Many of Hill's novels were superbly imagined stories that verged on high literature; they were a joy and a delight to one and all. The fact that they were also often very funny and deeply moving was an added bonus. But Hill seems to have got tired of his most famous characters. The last few novels from him have been thin fare, seemingly tossed off as casual afterthoughts. They read like contractual obligation novels, distant and uninvolving. Midnight Fugue is merely a continuation of this trend. I wouldn't bother with it if I were you.

The title of Robbie Matthews' collection Johnny Phillips, Werewolf Detective tells you everything you need to know about the book. It's a collection of short stories about a detective who is a werewolf. His name is Johnny Phillips. What the title doesn't tell you is just how extremely good these stories are. They are funny, they are clever and they are playful. And now you really do know everything you need to know about this book. The only way will find out more is to buy it and read it. If you'll take my advice, you'll do that immediately. Trust me, you won't regret it.

Dave Langford's collection of essays Starcombing is the mixture as before; screamingly funny and very erudite essays on all aspects of science fiction. I am very fond of the Langford wit and I grab every book of his as soon as it is available for grabbing. I have never been disappointed.

This collection, Langford claims, is a double sequel. That is, it follows on directly from the essays in his earlier collections Up Through An Empty House Of Stars (2003) and The SEX Column (2005) with a few extra things thrown in for good measure. All Langford completists should buy this book immediately. And so should everyone else as well.

Russell Kirkpatrick Husk Book 1: Path Of Revenge Voyager
Russell Kirkpatrick Husk Book 2: Dark Heart Voyager
John Scalzi Zoe's Tale Tor
John Scalzi Agent To The Stars Tor
Nalini Singh Angel's Blood Berkeley
David Gunn Death's Head Del Rey
S. L. Viehl Star Doc Roc
Lee Jackson Redemption Leisure Fiction
Ian Pears Stone's Fall Jonathan Cape
Reginald Hill Midnight Fugue Harper Collins
Robbie Matthews Johnny Phillips, Werewolf Detective Aust. Speculative Fiction
David Langford Starcombing Cosmos Books
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