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May/Jun/Jul 2016
Last year I spent seven weeks travelling in Australasia with only an e-reader for company. Here is what I took with me.

The Hallowed Hunt - Lois McMaster Bujold - Tor, 2005 (Kindle edition)
* * *
This is the third novel set in Bujold's world of Chalion but you would hardly know it. None of the characters or locations from the previous books appear - the only connection is the five-fold religion of Father, Mother, Son, Daughter and Bastard, and even this is subsumed into an older belief system involving animal spirits.

The story is engaging enough - a lady in waiting (Ijada) kills a prince when he tries to rape her, and a lord called Ingrey with a wolf problem is sent to escort her to trial but finds himself trying to murder her instead. The reasons for this are to do with an exceptionally complicated magical plot that I must admit I could not really follow in the jetlagged state in which I read it. The ideas were nice but the characters were very much stock Bujold romantic leads and overall I found the thing unmemorable.
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I have got horribly behind, so here are some capsule reviews of the remaining books from last year.

The Slaves' Story
July 2015
Enemies at Home - Lindsey Davis - Hodder & Stoughton, 2014

* * * *
This is the second of Davis' Flavia Albia series and it maintains the standard of the first. Flavia's female status is put to good use as she investigates a domestic double murder of a newlywed couple. Why didn't their slaves save them? Could one of them have been responsible? Or was a third party involved? The storyline allows Davis to investigate, for the first time, the status of slaves in ancient Rome and their complicated relationships with their masters. Long-time readers will be pleased to see the return of a couple of characters from the Falco series and relationships from the first book are pleasingly developed. It is a shame that the whodunit is somewhat unsatisfying - the perpetrator(s) can't, I think, be worked out in advance - but in all other respects this is a very satisfying novel.

The Second Stringer
Sep 2015
Captain Vorpatril's Alliance - Lois McMaster Bujold - Baen, 2012 (Kindle edition)

* * *
Few authors of long-running series can successfully resist the lure of marriage and children for their protagonist, which is fine but does tend to mark the end of their usefulness as a carrier of story once the obvious "partner/offspring in peril" plot has been done. Bujold, thank goodness, has never descended to that level with Miles Vorkosigan, but as his two most recent outings have shown, family responsibilities have diminished the dramatic range of the stories that can be told. What to do? Well, one well-tested solution is to bring up a second stringer, and Ivan Vorpatril, Miles' laid-back cousin, is a very suitable choice. But sadly, he simply isn't as interesting as Miles and nor is his love interest up to Ekaterin's standard. It’s still a fun romp - Bujold is incapable of writing a dull book - but it does nothing new.

Apples and Yokels
Sep 2015
The Wine of Angels - Phil Rickman - Corvus, 2011 (Kindle edition)

* * * *
Liked this - a thriller/murder investigation set in deepest Herefordshire with main characters Merrily Watkins, an engaging and realistically-written Church of England vicar, her rebellious teenage daughter Jane, and a musician-songwriter called Lol. Cider apples, suspicious yokels and an LGBT-themed historical back-story all feature. I'm surprised that there hasn't been a televisual adaptation.

Delaney's Successor
Nov 2015
The Sorcerer of the Wildeeps - Kai Ashante Wilson - Tor, 2015 (Kindle edition)

* * * *
This short novel reads so much like Dhalgren or Tales of Neveryon that I wondered whether it was written by Samuel Delaney himself under a pseudonym. The story is very simple, concerning a merchant caravan that must travel through a magically dangerous area known as the Wildeeps, the wizard and the captain who protect it, and the relationship between them. What makes it interesting is the variety of writing styles: most strikingly African-American demotic in the speech of the caravan guards, but also the lush descriptive rhythms of epic fantasy and the dry jargon of science fiction. As a package it shouldn’t work, yet somehow it does. Ultimately, it is styles over substance - the main plot is hardly original, and the resolution of the romance is disappointingly predictable - but I enjoyed the ride.

Ritual Maths
Dec 2015
The Atrocity Archives - Charles Stross - Hachette Digital, 2004 (Kindle edition)

* * * *
This is an early Stross, written when he still worked in IT, and to a certain extent it shows. But it’s also the book of his that I have enjoyed the most. It is based on an engaging idea obviously inspired by a well-known Cthulhu Mythos tale; that newly discovered mathematical algorithms could act as summoning rituals allowing Nameless Horrors into our universe. Which of course means that mathematics professors, physicists and other numerically literate types are particularly dangerous people. Needless to say, a secret government department - the Laundry - has been created for the sole purpose of catching such mavericks and preventing apocalypse. Our hero, Bob Howard, is a geek who has accidentally found himself working for the Laundry, and becomes a reluctant operative facing powerful horrors from beyond space and time and the no less terrifying bureaucracy of a public sector organisation. There are two stories: the first builds to a surprisingly intense climax in an interesting location, and the second, involving a danger from an aspect of modern life, is as amusing as it is ridiculous. I appreciated both the satire and the computer nerd hero, though it's a pity that the women in both stories are sassy but otherwise agentless.

One Hundred Words for Rain
Dec 2015
Landmarks - Robert Macfarlane - Hamish Hamilton, 2015

* *
Eskimoes may or may not have fifty words for snow, but British English definitely has at least one hundred words for rain. I know this because I counted the helpful list of them in this book, one of several glossaries of terms for describing the natural world that have largely fallen out of use. My personal favourites were dimpsey, a Cornish word for low cloud with fine drizzle, and plothering, heavy rain in Leicestershire.

Macfarlane is trying to demonstrate that our restricted vocabulary reflects and perhaps causes the lack of respect for and interest in the natural world that is characteristic of urban dwellers, a point made well in the introduction but sadly not in the rest of the book, which consists of uninteresting portraits of nature writers, most of whom were unknown to me (with one or two exceptions) and are likely to remain so.
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Sep 2010
Iron Sunrise - Charles Stross - Orbit, 2005
* * *
In my previous review of The Family Trade, I expressed the hope that Stross' science fiction books would be better than his rather middle-of-the-road fantasy. Well, this is one such, and yes, his SF ideas are certainly more original and entertaining than his fantasy ones. However the unsophisticated characterisation is still a problem.
Read more... )
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Apr 2009
The Family Trade - Charles Stross - Tor, 2004
* * *
All hail Dave Langford, author of one of the funniest novels I have ever read (The Leaky Establishment) and book reviewer par excellence. His Critical Mass columns in White Dwarf magazine were an important part of my development as a teenage SF reader. It was his favourable review of an obscure paperback called The Colour of Magic that has enabled me to follow the journey of Terry Pratchett from his humble origins in fantasy geekdom to his current eminence as knight of the realm for services to literature, one of the minor pleasures of my adult life.

Sadly, Critical Mass went the way of all flesh when White Dwarf became Games Workshop's house magazine, and in the absence of such authorities, it is hard for even a dedicated reader to identify a good author just as he or she gets going. This means that more often than not, a reader wanting to try an author new to them has to choose where in their existing body of work to start. The obvious place - their most famous or best reviewed book - is like having sex on a first date. You may be more motivated to continue the relationship, but there is nothing to look forward to. Starting with a lesser work, on the other hand, may result in disappointment but at least means that next time it could be better. With my strategist's mind, I generally adopt the latter approach. Reading is after all a lifetime activity; true classics are rare and I don't want to be stuck in old age with only second-rate books to read.

So to Charles Stross. He has a reputation as an energetic ideas man, one of the young(ish) Turks of British SF along with Alastair Reynolds, Peter S. Hamilton, Ian McDonald and China Miéville (depressingly, British women science fiction writers are noticeable by their absence: Justina Robson is the only one that I can think of). His most well-reviewed novels - Iron Sunrise, Singularity Sky and Saturn's Children - are space operas, but his most recent work has been a fantasy sequence called The Merchant Princes. Following Zerothin's Law of Genre-hopping, I reckoned that the latter would be the weaker work and therefore the place to start. I think - I hope - that I was right.
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